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Science in the News

Beetles Are His Ticket to Ride

from the Chicago Tribune (Registration Required)

TUNJA, Colombia - Cooing softly in baby talk, German Viasus gently uses a toothbrush to bathe the little animal he has raised since infancy and then pampers it with a fresh meal of mango, bananas and melon. The object of his affection? A beetle the size of a hamster with a hard, shiny shell and 2-inch-long horns.

Viasus, 36, is a Colombian entrepreneur who is exploiting the beetle-mania sweeping Japan by raising and exporting hundreds of the creepy-crawlies every month.

He has become a fearless (in more ways than one) pioneer of Colombia's somewhat belated effort to promote the legal exploitation of its biodiversity, a stunning variety of plant and animal species that is second only to Brazil's.

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Detractors Say Anti-Pollution Bill Before Senate Could Lead to $8 Gas

from the Dallas Morning News (Registration Required)

WASHINGTON - From higher electric bills to more expensive gasoline, the possible economic cost of tackling global warming will take center stage in the Senate today.

Legislation requiring a reduction in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from power plants, refineries, factories and transportation is set for debate. The goal is to cut heat-trapping pollution by two-thirds by midcentury.

Depending on who's talking, the bill could either help save the planet or help bankrupt the country. Texas could be one of the hardest-hit states, pro-business groups said.

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Vaccine Doubles Brain Cancer Survival Time

from the Guardian (UK)

A vaccine that more than doubles the survival time of patients with the most common and aggressive form of brain cancer has been developed by scientists.

Early results from clinical trials suggest patients who received the vaccine lived for nearly three years after being diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme.

Patients given traditional anti-cancer treatment, including a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, typically survived for a little more than a year following diagnosis. John Sampson, a neurosurgeon at Duke University's brain tumour centre in North Carolina, who led the trial, said: "We're more than doubling the survival time in this group, and we have some patients who are four, five or six years out from diagnosis, which is virtually unheard of in these people."

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Human Arrival in New Zealand Later Than Thought?

from the Los Angeles Times (Registration Required)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (Associated Press) -- Radiocarbon dating of rat bones and rat-gnawed seeds reinforces a theory that human settlers did not arrive in New Zealand until 1300 A.D. -- about 1,000 years later than some scientists believe, according to a study released Tuesday.

The first settlement date "has been highly debated for decades," said Dr. Janet Wilmshurst, a New Zealander who led the international team of researchers in the four-year study. The team carbon dated rat bones and native seeds, and concluded that the earliest evidence of human colonization in the South Pacific country was from 1280 A.D. to 1300 A.D.

Retired Maori Studies professor Ranganui Walker said the findings supported the oral history of the Maoris who claim they were the first Polynesians to arrive in New Zealand around that time. The Morioris, non-Maori Polynesians, have claimed they arrived earlier.

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The Science of Sarcasm (Not That You Care)

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

There was nothing very interesting in Katherine P. Rankin's study of sarcasm -- at least, nothing worth your important time. All she did was use an M.R.I. to find the place in the brain where the ability to detect sarcasm resides. But then, you probably already knew it was in the right parahippocampal gyrus.

What you may not have realized is that perceiving sarcasm, the smirking put-down that buries its barb by stating the opposite, requires a nifty mental trick that lies at the heart of social relations: figuring out what others are thinking.

Those who lose the ability, whether through a head injury or the frontotemporal dementias afflicting the patients in Dr. Rankin's study, just do not get it when someone says during a hurricane, "Nice weather we're having."

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GPS Gadgets Can Reveal More Than Your Location

from New Scientist

We know GPS gadgets can tell where you are. But researchers at Microsoft are developing ways for them to know what you are doing too -- even down to which mode of transport you use to get to work.

The researchers say such new uses of the technology could help people analyse and improve their own lifestyles, and share useful data with others.

Phones and other gadgets with GPS capabilities built in are becoming ubiquitous. But they are typically used for little more than revealing a person's current whereabouts on a map.

Location data is beginning to find other applications -- for example to "geotag" photos with a location. But the Microsoft researchers think the power of GPS technology could be put to more intelligent and subtle uses.

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Giant Tornadoes Seen Erupting From the Sun

from National Geographic News

The sun produces giant tornado-like jets that stretch thousands of miles into space, new satellite data shows. The solar tornadoes typically last about ten minutes and occur near the sun's poles.

"These solar tornadoes are almost a thousand times faster than a terrestrial tornado and are very big," said Spiros Patsourakos, a researcher at George Mason University.

Scientists have known since the 1990s that jets of gas wider than North America were erupting from the sun's poles, but it is only now that they discovered these jets are rotating. That's because a new pair of NASA satellites called STEREO allowed the features to be observed from two directions at once, revealing their three-dimensional structures.

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NASA Robot Scoops Martian Soil for First Time

from the San Diego Union-Tribune (Registration Required)

LOS ANGELES (Associated Press) - NASA's newest spacecraft got down and dirty on Mars, taking its first practice scoop of Martian soil ahead of the actual dig expected later this week, scientists said Monday.

The test dig made Sunday by the Phoenix Mars Lander's 8-foot-long robotic arm uncovered bits of bright specks in the soil believed to be ice or salt.

"We see this nice streak of white material," said Pat Woida, senior engineer at the University of Arizona, Tucson, which is directing the mission. "We don't know what this material is yet."

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Climate Findings Were Distorted, Probe Finds

from the Washington Post (Registration Required)

An investigation by the NASA inspector general found that political appointees in the space agency's public affairs office worked to control and distort public accounts of its researchers' findings about climate change for at least two years, the inspector general's office said yesterday.

The probe came at the request of 14 senators after The Washington Post and other news outlets reported in 2006 that Bush administration officials had monitored and impeded communications between NASA climate scientists and reporters.

James E. Hansen ... told The Post and the New York Times in September 2006 that he had been censored by NASA press officers, and several other agency climate scientists reported similar experiences.

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Giant Fortress's Remains Found in Egypt

from National Geographic News

Archaeologists have uncovered more remnants from Tharu, the largest known fortified city in ancient Egypt, which sits near the modern-day border town of Rafah.

The fortress, also known as Tjaru or Tharo, covered about 31 acres, Egyptian authorities say. Its discovery near the Suez Canal was announced in July 2007.

Tharu helped guard the empire's eastern front in the Sinai Peninsula and served as a military cornerstone for Egypt's ancient leaders. "It was built [more than] 3,000 years ago, and it was an important and strategic point," said Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities.

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Digital Forensics: How Experts Uncover Doctored Images

from Scientific American

History is riddled with the remnants of photographic tampering. Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Mussolini, Castro and Brezhnev each had photographs manipulated—from creating more heroic-looking poses to erasing enemies or bottles of beer.

In Stalin's day, such phony images required long hours of cumbersome work in a darkroom, but today anyone with a computer can readily produce fakes that can be very hard to detect.

Barely a month goes by without some newly uncovered fraudulent image making it into the news. In February, for instance, an award-winning photograph depicting a herd of endangered Tibetan antelope apparently undisturbed by a new high-speed train racing nearby was uncovered to be a fake.

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Newfound Planet Has Just Three Times Earth's Mass

from New Scientist

The goal of finding an Earth-like planet around another star has just come closer. Astronomers announced today they have discovered a planet of about three Earth masses orbiting a star smaller than our sun.

The planet has the closest mass to Earth of all the known extrasolar planets, and is the lightest planet ever found orbiting a normal-size star.

"Our discovery indicates that even the lowest mass stars can host planets," David Bennett of the University of Notre Dame, who led an international team of astronomers to the discovery, said on Monday at the American Astronomical Society meeting in St Louis, Missouri, US.

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Of Greenhouse Gases and Greenbacks

from the Los Angeles Times (Registration Required)

WASHINGTON—A major climate-change measure goes before the Senate this week for the first time since Democrats declared it a priority after taking control of Congress, but the long-awaited debate is ranging beyond the effects of global warming. It also is focusing on Washington's most primal issue, money.

The bill would impose new pollution regulations on industries while significantly expanding another business, carbon "offsetting." Billions of dollars would potentially be available for farmers who offered polluters a way to make amends for excess emissions—a provision that could attract crucial support from farm-state lawmakers.

"I definitely think this debate will be primarily about economics, because there are very few voices left who want to argue about whether or not global warming is really a problem," said Dan Lashof, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council climate center, a bill supporter.

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Brain Surgery: What Kennedy Experienced

from ABC News

Surgeons at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., report that Sen. Ted Kennedy is doing well after nearly four hours of surgery [yesterday] to remove a cancerous brain tumor.

For part of the surgery, the 76-year-old Massachusetts senator was awake and conscious, according to an Associated Press report. This relatively new and dramatic approach is being used by surgeons in cases when a malignant tumor isn't readily accessible on the surface of the brain.

So after cutting into Kennedy's skull, Dr. Allan Friedman—the surgeon wielding the scalpel—had to find a pathway through the brain to get at the tumor. For this he needed the patient's conscious help to avoid damaging brain cells essential for speech, movement and other important functions.

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Violent Video Games -- the Myths and the Facts

from the Christian Science Monitor

True or false: Violent video games cause children to become more aggressive. Sorry, that was a trick question.

Despite much bandying of statistics and loud talking by critics on both sides of the argument, the real answer is that there is no real answer—at least not one that's been proved scientifically.

So say Cheryl Olson and Lawrence Kutner in their new book, "Grand Theft Childhood." "In fact, much of the information in the popular press about the effects of violent video games is wrong," write the husband and wife team, who direct the Center for Mental Health and Media at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

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Study Suggests Drug Can Cut Risk of Cancer's Return

from the Baltimore Sun

CHICAGO (Associated Press) - A drug to prevent bone loss during breast cancer treatment also substantially cut the risk that the cancer would return, results that left doctors excited about a possible new way to fight the disease.

It is the first large study to affirm wider anti-cancer hopes for Zometa and other bone-building drugs called bisphosphonates. Zometa, made by Novartis AG, is used now for cancers that have already spread to the bone.

The new study involved 1,800 premenopausal women taking hormone treatments for early-stage breast cancer. Zometa cut by one-third the chances that cancer would recur—in their bones or anywhere else.

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The Future Is Now? Pretty Soon, at Least

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

Before we get to Ray Kurzweil's plan for upgrading the "suboptimal software" in your brain, let me pass on some of the cheery news he brought to the World Science Festival last week in New York.

Do you have trouble sticking to a diet? Have patience. Within 10 years, Dr. Kurzweil explained, there will be a drug that lets you eat whatever you want without gaining weight.

Worried about greenhouse gas emissions? Have faith. Solar power may look terribly uneconomical at the moment, but with the exponential progress being made in nanoengineering, Dr. Kurzweil calculates that it'll be cost-competitive with fossil fuels in just five years, and that within 20 years all our energy will come from clean sources.

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Biomedicine: A Plateau in Childhood Obesity?

Federal officials say childhood obesity may have leveled off in the United States. A new analysis of the most recent data found the first sign since the 1980s that the number of 2-to-19-year-olds who are overweight may have stopped rising.

Another study found that lead exposure early in life could be linked to higher arrest rates later on. Experts say the first study to follow lead-exposed children from before birth into adulthood could provide the strongest evidence yet that lead exposure plays a major role in crime.

Meanwhile, researchers in Maryland are trying to determine why flu vaccines aren't as effective for older people. Flu vaccines reportedly work in only 30 percent to 40 percent of those over age 65 - compared with 80 percent to 90 percent of younger adults.

And, finally, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute is expanding its flagship investigators program through a $600 million initiative. By endowing scientists' research over many years, the institute hopes they will make major discoveries in a variety of fields, including genetics and biology.

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Arctic Warming Brings 'Very Dramatic Changes'

The BBC reported that a Canadian military expedition has uncovered dramatic evidence of the breakup of giant Arctic ice shelves in Canada's far north. The team found a network of cracks stretching for more than 10 miles on Ward Hunt, the area's largest shelf. Scientists with the troops said it could be another indicator of climate change.

In other environment news, marine scientists in Seattle said at a congressional field hearing last week that increasing acidity in coastal waters along the Pacific Northwest could threaten food chains and, ultimately, the shellfish industry there.

A massive coal-burning power plant under construction in Germany will be one of the biggest in the world, underscoring that however much Europe may be moving toward renewable energy, coal is still a big part of the energy equation there.

And the Associated Press profiled a scientist whose main mission is to protect the $17 billion U.S. wheat crop from such threats as the destructive fungus that has infected fields in Africa and the Middle East. But Congress has reportedly cut his research budget.

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On Mars, Ice and Salt

An electrical short in the Phoenix Lander's mechanical arm delayed its exploration of the Martian north pole last week, but new photos on Saturday revealed that the spacecraft's thrusters had uncovered a large patch of ice, which is exactly what scientists hope to sample and analyze.

But the planet may be too salty to support life as we know it. At least that is the conclusion of a study of minerals near the Martian surface in the Meridiani plain. The rover Opportunity discovered ancient deposits of magnesium sulphate there that appear to have been left behind by salty water.

Even beyond our system, there may be many Earth-like planets in the cosmos. A four-year study of 400 stars found that as many as 30 percent possess close-in, relatively small planets with some Earthly characteristics.

And an amateur stargazer has been credited with discovering the fastest rotating natural object in our solar system. The space rock, as big as a house, spins once every minute. It zoomed past earth in April.

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A Step Toward Thought-Controlled Machines

In last week's issue of Nature, researchers reported a dramatic advance in brain-machine interface. Two monkeys with tiny sensors implanted in their brains were able to control a mechanical arm with their thoughts. It suggests that brain-controlled prosthetics, if not yet practical, are at least technically feasible.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is planning to begin sending drone airplanes into hurricanes this season as part of a program to monitor the atmosphere. The data sent back should help forecasters predict the intensity of the storms.

Robot submarines turned up several artifacts on the sea floor off the coast of Rhode Island last week, including objects associated with the wreck of the HMS Cerberus, which was scuttled by its British captain during the American Revolution. The robots were designed to hunt for underwater mines.

At a science summit in New York, leading American scientists criticized the decline in federal support for science and lamented the nation's diminished role as a leader in research and technology. It was the opening event for the first World Science Festival.

And, finally, it was also announced last week at the science festival that seven men are the first winners of new science prizes established by philanthropist, businessman and physicist Fred Kavli. The Kavli Prizes are worth $1 million in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience. They will be awarded every other year.

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Ancient Past: A New Meaning for Stonehenge?

British archaeologists said last week that Stonehenge, the prehistoric stone monument, appears to have served as a cemetery for as long as 500 years and may have been a burial site for a single important family, perhaps a royal dynasty.

In other news, researchers said a massive release of methane 635 million year ago may have caused a jump in temperature that triggered rapid melting of global glaciation on earth. The sudden burst of methane may have occurred when ice sheets that stretched all the way to the equator broke apart.

Scientists say a 380-million-year-old fossil fish with an embryo still attached to its umbilical cord has provided the oldest example of a live birth. The specimen was found in Australia. Until now, scientists thought creatures from that time period reproduced by laying eggs.

And speaking of fossils, New Jersey sediment known as glauconite has yielded some curious specimens of late. One in particular, of a sabertooth salmon, suggests that the dinosaur-era fish may have survived longer than anyone thought, based on the geologic record.

And, finally, divers reported finding the ruins of an ancient temple in the Nile River that was built in honor of the Egyptian fertility god Khnum. Because the river has shifted course over the centuries, archaeologists said they expect to make other such finds through underwater excavations.

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Giant 'Kitchen Towel' Could Be Used to Mop Up Oil Spills

from the Times (London)

Giant "kitchen towels" could replace booms, bombs and detergents as the best remedy for a catastrophic oil spill, researchers said after inventing a super-absorbent membrane.

The wafer-thin sheet, made from nanowires, acts like blotting paper on oil and has the capacity to absorb 20 times its own weight. It is impervious to water, remaining dry even when left under water for a month, but soaks up oil and other contaminants, which can then be removed and disposed of safely.

Researchers believe that it will lead to the development of huge "towels" that could be dropped into the seas or dragged through the water to soak up oil spills like those caused by the Torrey Canyon, Exxon Valdez and Amoco Cadiz.

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Erbitux OK for Colorectal Cancer Patients with Genetic Marker

from USA Today

A new study shows which colorectal cancer patients may benefit from a drug - and which would be better off without it.

The drug Erbitux doesn't work in patients whose tumor has a certain genetic mutation, according to a study of nearly 600 patients, presented Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago.

About 36 percent of patients in the study have the mutation, in a gene called KRAS, says co-author Eric Van Cutsem, of University Hospital Gasthuisberg in Belgium. All of the patients in the study had colorectal cancer that had spread to other organs.

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Oyster-Saving Efforts a Wash in Chesapeake

from the Washington Post

A vast government effort to bring oysters back to the Chesapeake Bay has turned out so dismally that it has the ring of a math-class riddle. How do you spend $58 million to get more of something and wind up with less of it?

Since 1994, state and federal authorities have poured these millions into rejuvenating the famous bivalves and the centuries-old industry that relies on them. They have succeeded at neither.

Instead, official estimates show there are fewer oysters in the bay and fewer oystermen trying to catch them. If those estimates are accurate, the effort would be a failure of environmental policy that stands out for its scale, even on a bay where policymakers frequently promise big and deliver small.

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Shaky Start for New Quake Alert System in Japan

from National Geographic News

After late or missed warnings, operators are struggling to figure out why a recently launched earthquake early-alert system in Japan isn't working as planned.

The system, run by the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA), is designed to give people in the quake-prone country up to two minutes' warning of approaching shock waves.

"If the system works properly, then it will contribute significantly to reducing the impact of disasters," said Masahiko Murata, deputy director of the projects department at the Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution in Kobe.

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Girls Are Becoming as Good as Boys at Mathematics

from the Economist

Tradition has it that boys are good at counting and girls are good at reading. So much so that Mattel once produced a talking Barbie doll whose stock of phrases included "Math class is tough!"

... Luigi Guiso of the European University Institute in Florence and his colleagues have just published the results of a study which suggests that culture explains most of the difference in math, at least.

In [last] week's Science, they show that the gap in mathematics scores between boys and girls virtually disappears in countries with high levels of sexual equality, though the reading gap remains.

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DNA Computer Puts Microbes to Work as Number Crunchers

from Scientific American

It's not your normal, electronic silicon-based machine, but scientists have made a computer from a small, circular piece of DNA, then inserted it into a living bacterial cell and unleashed the microbe to solve a mathematical sorting problem.

"A computer is any system that can read some input and give some readable output," says Karmella Haynes, a biologist at Davidson College in North Carolina and co-author of a new study appearing in the Journal of Biological Engineering.

Haynes and her team looked to harness the power of DNA recombination to solve the so-called "burnt pancake problem": a puzzle about how to stack different-size flapjacks that are burned on one side and perfectly cooked on the other using the fewest number of flips to arrange them so the largest are on the bottom and all are golden side up.

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The Media Monitor

from the Scientist

Timothy Caulfield has spent years listening to scientists complain that the media does a poor job of explaining science. ... Finally, he decided to find out for himself.

Caulfield pored over the print media's coverage of genetic discoveries from around the English-speaking world and compiled a list of 627 newspaper articles reporting on 111 different scientific journal articles.

Together with a team of coders, all of whom had scientific backgrounds, he compared the newspaper articles with the original journal studies for signs of technical errors or exaggerated claims of the research findings. Contrary to perceived opinions, he found that only 11 percent of the media stories could be categorized as inaccurate or exaggerated.

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A SETI Radio Telescope in Northern California

from the Los Angeles Times

HAT CREEK, CALIF. - In this remote volcanic valley near Mt. Shasta, 42 telescope dishes have sprouted amid the soaring ponderosa pines, listening for a voice from space.

Every few seconds the 20-foot-wide dishes, scattered over dozens of acres, pirouette in perfect synchronicity, like dancers practicing their pas de deux before opening night.

... The Hat Creek Radio Observatory will be the biggest radio telescope in the world specifically designed to search for extraterrestrial intelligence when the full 350-dish array is completed in the next few years.

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