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MIT Team Plays with Fire to Create Cheap Energy

from the Christian Science Monitor

Cambridge, Mass.—Out on a lawn at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with joggers and traffic passing nearby, Spencer Ahrens is demonstrating what looks like either the future of solar power—or perhaps a death ray.

Thrusting a 12-foot board up into the air in front of a large mirror-covered satellite-type dish, Mr. Ahrens, an MIT graduate student, waves the board, looking for an elusive sweet spot where reflected sun rays converge.

With three student teammates looking on, he steadies the board once its tip begins to glow. Shining white in the reflected solar rays, the wood suddenly bursts into flames. Students laugh as smoke billows in the breeze. This burning-board trick may seem like a YouTube stunt, but it's actually a visceral demonstration of a device with a serious purpose: to make super-cheap solar heat.

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Diabetes, Depression Linked

from the Baltimore Sun

For the first time in a single study, Johns Hopkins scientists have found that diabetes contributes to depression and vice versa, confirming long-held assumptions about the intertwined nature of two diseases that affect millions of Americans.

The research, published [Tuesday] in the Journal of the American Medical Association, provides added proof that diabetes plays a role in depression and depression plays a role in diabetes. Previous studies have looked at only one aspect of the link.

For years, researchers had assumed that diabetes led to depression, said University of Michigan epidemiologist Briana Mezuk. The new research provides evidence.

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Clone Cell Cancer 'Cure' Hailed

from BBC News Online

Scientists claim they have cured advanced skin cancer for the first time using the patient's own cells cloned outside the body.

The 52-year-old man involved was free of melanoma two years after treatment. US researchers, reports the New England Journal of Medicine, took cancer-fighting immune cells, made five billion copies, then put them all back.

Scientists in the UK warned that further trials would need to be done to prove how well the treatment worked.

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FDA Warns About Fraudulent Cancer Treatments

from the Washington Post (Registration Required)

Tumorex, Immune Ace, Ellagic Insurance Formula, PC Hope, Pacific Ocean Shark Cartilage, Breast Cancer Tea Formula. They are all products sold to desperate cancer patients or people worried they might become one.

[On Tuesday], the Food and Drug Administration told the companies selling them to stop asserting that their products will work like drugs or face seizures—and possibly criminal charges as well.

"The claims are unproved and unreliable, and they are unkind to the patient who is seeking health," said David Elder, director of FDA's Office of Enforcement. "Some of the products may also present a direct safety hazard."

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Multi-Touch Screens Could Change How We Interact With Computers

from Scientific American

When Apple's iPhone hit the streets last year, it introduced so-called multi-touch screens to the general public. Images on the screen can be moved around with a fingertip and made bigger or smaller by placing two fingertips on the image's edges and then either spreading those fingers apart or bringing them closer together.

The tactile pleasure the interface provides beyond its utility quickly brought it accolades. The operations felt intuitive, even sensuous.

But in laboratories around the world at the time of the iPhone's launch, multi-touch screens had vastly outgrown two-finger commands. Engineers have developed much larger screens that respond to 10 fingers at once, even to multiple hands from multiple people.

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Healthy Lifestyle Turns Off Genes that Cause Cancer

from New Scientist

It's no secret that a healthy lifestyle can slow the progression of cancer, but how this happens has been a mystery. Now new evidence suggests an answer: dieting and exercise may turn crucial genes on and off.

In a pilot study involving 30 men with early-stage prostate cancer, Dean Ornish and colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, US, tested the effects of a dramatic lifestyle change on gene expression in the prostate.

Biopsies taken before and after 3 months of healthy eating, moderate exercise, stress management and psychotherapy showed a significant change in the expression of hundreds of genes.

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Harsh Climate Scoured Early Earth, Study Says

from National Geographic News

Earth's early atmosphere may have been highly corrosive to rocks, gradually dissolving away all but the toughest of minerals, a new study suggests.

The findings could explain a gap in Earth's geologic record that has puzzled scientists.

"It's possible that [the new study] answers the riddle," said Takayuki Ushikubo, a geologist at the University of Wisconsin, who led the study published online in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

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Space Cameras to Monitor Forests

from BBC News Online

Plans to use a state-of-the-art camera onboard a satellite to monitor deforestation levels in Africa's Congo Basin have been unveiled.

The high resolution RALCam3 camera, designed and built by UK scientists, will provide the first detailed view of the area's rate of forest cover loss. The project is part of the Congo Basin Forest Fund, a 108-million [British pound] joint-initiative by the UK and Norwegian governments.

The fund aims to curb climate change by preventing deforestation in the region. Speaking at the launch of the scheme, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: "We are pledging to work together to secure the future of one of the world's last remaining ancient forests."

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'Brain Fitness' Market Booming with Aging Boomers

from the Miami Herald (Registration Required)

NEW YORK (Associated Press) - Chester Santos has been training his brain for seven years. At 32, he's not worried about losing his memory. He's taking advantage of a growing market in "brain fitness" spurred by aging baby boomers.

Teenagers cramming for tests and people worried about "senior moments" can now turn to an explosion of brain-assisting video games, such as Nintendo's Brain Age; puzzles that are said to ward off dementia, such as Sudoku and crosswords; and online tips that claim to train the brain.

..."People are worried," says Dr. John Hart Jr., medical science director of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas. "You have a large group of the population getting to the age where they are sort of vulnerable to degenerative neurological diseases that seem to be prevalent."

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Global Warming Book Wins Science Prize

from the Times (London)

An investigation of how global warming could change the planet over the next century has won the world’s leading award for science writing.

"Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet," by the journalist Mark Lynas, was named as this year's winner of the 10,000 [British pounds] Royal Society Science Books Prize.

Mr Lynas's book describes what science suggests could happen with each degree Celsius by which global temperatures could warm by 2100, to highlight the urgency of tackling climate change now.

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Hunt for Source of Salmonella-Tainted Tomatoes Continues

from the Los Angeles Times (Registration Required)

As the search for the source of salmonella-tainted tomatoes dragged on, federal officials announced several more cases of infection Monday.

The rare Salmonella Saintpaul strain has now caused 277 reported infections in 28 states and Washington, D.C., since mid-April and has led to at least 43 hospitalizations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The Food and Drug Administration eliminated New Mexico, Indiana and Baja California as the origin of the outbreak Saturday and cleared Connecticut and Washington, D.C., late Monday. So far, the FDA has excluded 38 states, including California, and declared tomatoes grown in those regions to be safe to eat.

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Bridging the African Digital Divide—with a 'Toaster'

from the Christian Science Monitor

Johannesburg, South Africa—The interior of the massive Chamber of Mines Building, on the west end of the University of Witwatersrand's main campus, is like a dark, concrete maze.

... So, when you get to the reception area for the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, it's hard not to do a double take at the shiny orange, vending machine-sized box with the cheerful cartoon logo—the one that proclaims "Burn free, as free as the source flows!" It seems gleefully out of place.

... So far, to the uninitiated, the words connected with this man-sized box make little sense. But this is Mr. [Brett] Simpson's new quest in life, as the head of Breadbin Interactive, the company now charged with producing Toasters: to explain why this machine is a bright spot in the sometimes drab, often challenging, world of African technology; why it can knock down some of the computing obstacles in the global digital divide.

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Helpful Bacteria May Hide in Appendix

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

Everyone is born with one, but no one knows what it's for. The human appendix is a small dead-end tube connected to the cecum, or ascending colon, one section of the large intestine. Everyone lives happily with it until it becomes painfully inflamed, when the only treatment is to remove it surgically. Then everyone lives happily without it. So why is it there in the first place?

Some experts have guessed that it is a vestige of the evolutionary development of some other organ, but there is little evidence for an appendix in our evolutionary ancestors. Few mammals have any appendix at all, and the appendices of those that do bears little resemblance to the human one.

Last December, researchers published a novel explanation in The Journal of Theoretical Biology. The appendix, they suggest, is a "safe house" for commensal bacteria, the symbiotic germs that aid digestion and help protect against disease-causing germs.

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Maryland Joins Sprint to Lead in Biotechnology

from the Baltimore Sun

Gov. Martin O'Malley Monday unveiled a proposal to invest $1.1 billion over the next decade to cement Maryland's status as a pre-eminent hub for biotechnology research, including stem-cell studies aimed at finding breakthrough medical advances.

The funding, which would build on existing tax credits and grant programs, would be used to create a biotechnology center, finance capital projects and make equity investments in start-up companies.

O'Malley, a Democrat, said the money could transform Maryland—where the human genome was mapped in 2001—into a global leader in personalized medicine, or the use of genetics to tailor treatments.

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First Farmers Cultivated an Interest in Green Stone Beads

from Science News

Fledgling farmers in the Middle East treasured ornamentation as much as irrigation. These ancient villagers traveled great distances to obtain green stone for making beads and pendants that held special meaning for them in a brave new agricultural world, a new study finds.

Bead-making began by 110,000 years ago in what's now Israel. But an emphasis on green beads emerged only about 11,000 years ago in concert with the agricultural revolution, say archaeologist Daniella Bar-Yosef Mayer of the University of Haifa in Israel and geologist Naomi Porat of the Geological Survey of Israel in Jerusalem.

"Because beads in white, red, yellow, brown and black colors had been used earlier, we suggest that the occurrence of green beads is directly related to the onset of agriculture," Bar-Yosef Mayer says.

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PET Scans Reveal Your Brain's Inner Choreography

from Scientific American

So natural is our capacity for rhythm that most of us take it for granted: when we hear music, we tap our feet to the beat or rock and sway, often unaware that we are even moving. But this instinct is, for all intents and purposes, an evolutionary novelty among humans.

Nothing comparable occurs in other mammals nor probably elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Our talent for unconscious entrainment lies at the core of dance, a confluence of movement, rhythm and gestural representation. By far the most synchronized group practice, dance demands a type of interpersonal coordination in space and time that is almost nonexistent in other social contexts.

Even though dance is a fundamental form of human expression, neuroscientists have given it relatively little consideration. Recently, however, researchers have conducted the first brain-imaging studies of both amateur and professional dancers.

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No Signs of Water Yet from Mars Lander

from the Los Angeles Times (Registration Required)

In its first chemical analysis of soil from Mars' northern plains, NASA's Phoenix lander has turned up no evidence of water, scientists said Monday.

Still, researchers remained confident that the craft is in the right place to uncover veins of ice believed to lie only inches beneath the surface.

A soil sample was cooked twice in one of Phoenix's eight ovens over the last few days, according to William Boynton, lead scientist for the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer, or TEGA. ... "Had there been any ice, it would have melted," Boynton said. "We saw no water in the soil whatsoever."

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Like Us, Chimps Calm Each Other with Hugs, Kisses

from the San Diego Union-Tribune (Registration Required)

WASHINGTON (Associated Press)—For most folks, a nice hug and some sympathy can help a bit after we get pushed around. Turns out, chimpanzees use hugs and kisses the same way.

And it works. Researchers studying people's closest genetic relatives found that stress was reduced in chimps that were victims of aggression if a third chimp stepped in to offer consolation.

"Consolation usually took the form of a kiss or embrace," said Dr. Orlaith N. Fraser of the Research Center in Evolutionary Anthropology and Paleoecology at Liverpool John Moores University in England.

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The Web Time Forgot

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

MONS, Belgium—On a fog-drizzled Monday afternoon, this fading medieval city feels like a forgotten place. Apart from the obligatory Gothic cathedral, there is not much to see here except for a tiny storefront museum called the Mundaneum, tucked down a narrow street in the northeast corner of town. It feels like a fittingly secluded home for the legacy of one of technology’s lost pioneers: Paul Otlet.

In 1934, Otlet sketched out plans for a global network of computers (or "electric telescopes," as he called them) that would allow people to search and browse through millions of interlinked documents, images, audio and video files.

He described how people would use the devices to send messages to one another, share files and even congregate in online social networks. He called the whole thing a "réseau," which might be translated as "network"—or arguably, "web."

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Research Illuminates How Stem Cells May Work

from the San Francisco Chronicle

UC Berkeley scientists are a step closer to understanding how a series of molecular switches can turn on or off the regenerative power of stem cells that normally build new muscle tissue after it has been damaged.

The research, conducted on laboratory mice, is years away from practical therapies for human beings. Nevertheless, this latest work, published online Sunday by the journal Nature, provides insight into how scientists are dissecting, step-by-step, the processes that govern how stem cells work.

A goal of such research is to find ways to intervene and control these molecular switches—to improve healing and perhaps slow the effects of aging.

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Food Revolution That Starts With Rice

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

ITHACA, N.Y. - Many a professor dreams of revolution. But Norman T. Uphoff, working in a leafy corner of the Cornell University campus, is leading an inconspicuous one centered on solving the global food crisis. The secret, he says, is a new way of growing rice.

Rejecting old customs as well as the modern reliance on genetic engineering, Dr. Uphoff, 67, an emeritus professor of government and international agriculture with a trim white beard and a tidy office, advocates a management revolt.

Harvests typically double, he says, if farmers plant early, give seedlings more room to grow and stop flooding fields. That cuts water and seed costs while promoting root and leaf growth.

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Gay Men and Straight Women Have Similar Brains, Study Says

from the Los Angeles Times (Registration Required)

The brains of gay men resemble those of straight women, according to research published today that provides more evidence of the role of biology in sexual orientation.

Using brain-scanning equipment, researchers said they discovered similarities in the brain circuits that deal with language, perhaps explaining why homosexual men tend to outperform straight men on verbal skills tests—as do heterosexual women.

The area of the brain that processes emotions also looked much the same in gay men and straight women—and both groups have higher rates of depressive disorders than heterosexual men, researchers said.

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Tower Cranes: Efficient, Versatile -- but How Safe?

from the Washington Post (Registration Required)

Tower cranes are the ubiquitous one-legged dinosaurs of the urban landscape—gigantic, powerful, small-headed and not a little scary.

Over the past two decades, they have proliferated in the construction industry. It is possible to stand on many a city street and see more than one at work, their booms rotating on turntables as they reach over rooftops to lift loads hundreds of feet in the air and carry them equally far.

Developed in Europe (and in most cases built there), the cranes are the perfect solution to working in crowded spaces. ... They also represent the application by engineering of the "just in time" strategy that has transformed manufacturing. When the job is done, they are taken apart like an Erector Set, the parts destined for another project in a different place.

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Animals Have Different Patterns of Rest

from the Boston Globe (Registration Required)

We spend a third of our lives doing it. We build special rooms for it, and we agonize over not getting enough of it. Yet despite all the time humans invest in sleep, scientists have still not been able to explain why we need it.

While an array of lab studies show that slumber-deprived people remember less, react more slowly, and even develop higher risks of heart disease and diabetes, the reasons sleep developed in the first place have remained murky—and some even argue that it may not be as useful as we think.

Several scientists are now trying an innovative approach: comparing the snoozing habits of different animals to better understand how sleep evolved over time.

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Lack of Vitamin D Rampant in Infants, Teens

from USA Today

Giving your children all they need to grow big and strong may not be as simple as a gummy vitamin and three square meals. They still may be susceptible to an epidemic that's starting to gain the notice of pediatricians and bone doctors across the country: vitamin D deficiency.

Mike Stone joined a growing legion of children diagnosed with the condition when an X-ray of his 14-year-old bones revealed a skeleton so thin it appeared clear on film.

... Stone was seriously vitamin D deficient, and though he had felt a "snap" in his back—the impetus for the doctor's visit—he had no fractures. But his bones had become perilously thin, 50 percent less dense than they should have been. His doctor immediately put him on vitamin D supplements to correct the problem, Stone says.

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Three 'Super-Earths' Found Orbiting Sun-Like Star

from National Geographic News

A trio of "super-Earths" have been found near a sun-like star, a team of European astronomers announced [yesterday].

The planets orbiting the star HD 40307—which is 42 light-years away—were found using an advanced "planet searcher" instrument at the European Southern Observatory in La Silla, Chile, the French and Swiss astronomers said. The part of the sky being studied contains 45 potential planets that are smaller than 30 times the mass of Earth, the astronomers said. Most of them orbit HD 40307 quickly—every 50 days or less.

"We are convinced that there are plenty of planets everywhere," said Didier Queloz, a member of the research team from the Observatoire de Genève in Switzerland. The discovery is creating a buzz throughout the astronomy community.

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Utah Announces 'Major Dinosaur Fossil Discovery'

from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Registration Required)

SALT LAKE CITY (Associated Press) - A newly discovered batch of well-preserved dinosaur bones, petrified trees and even freshwater clams in southeastern Utah could provide new clues about life in the region some 150 million years ago.

The Bureau of Land Management announced the find Monday, calling the quarry near Hanksville "a major dinosaur fossil discovery." An excavation revealed at least four sauropods, which are long-necked, long-tailed plant-eating dinosaurs, and two carnivorous ones, according to the bureau. It may have also uncovered an herbivorous stegosaurus.

Animal burrows and petrified tree trunks 6 feet in diameter were found nearby. The site doesn't contain any new species but offers scientists the chance to learn more about the ecology of that time, said Scott Foss, a BLM paleontologist.

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Leapin' Lizards

from the Scientist (Registration Required)

Darting lizards swing from four-legged to two-legged locomotion like a road bike popping a wheelie, a study published [Friday] in Journal of Experimental Biology suggests.

"It's a very interesting paper," said Duncan Irschick, a functional morphologist at the University of Massachusetts who did not participate in the research. "People have never understood why lizards run bipedally."

... [Christofer] Clemente and colleagues [at the University of Cambridge] filmed lizards running on a treadmill. "We showed that there tends to be this acceleration threshold -- there's this one acceleration where once the lizard hits it, it really has no choice but to go bipedal because the torque starts to move its head up," he said.

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Nature-Inspired Robots Swim, Crawl and Scuttle Like Animals

from the Christian Science Monitor

When it comes to designing a new robot, some scientists are finding a visit to the zoo more helpful than hours spent at the drawing board. Rather than invent new ways for a robot to navigate a forest or crowded city street, they are copying how animals already do it.

If the goal is to make robots capable of surviving any environment, then nature almost always provides a template, says Joseph Ayers, a professor of biology at Northeastern University in Boston. "Animals have evolved to operate in every environment," he says.

The movement is part of an emerging field known as biomimetics, which takes designs from the natural world and applies them to everything from architecture to textiles.

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New Take on a Prostate Drug, and a New Debate

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

For the first time, leading prostate cancer specialists say, they have a drug that can significantly cut men's risk of developing the disease, dropping the incidence by 30 percent.

But the discovery, arising from a new analysis of a large federal study, comes with a debate: Should men take the drug?

Prostate cancer is unlike any other because it is relatively slow-growing, and while it can kill, it often is not lethal. In fact, most leading specialists say, a major problem is that men are getting screened, discovering they have cancers that may or may not be dangerous, and opting for treatments that can leave them impotent or incontinent.

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