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Evening Star Goes Black in Rare Celestial Event

from Science News

On June 5, skywatchers will have their last chance to glimpse a rare celestial spectacle, a "transit of Venus," in which the planet passes directly between Earth and the sun. Venus will take six hours to march across the star's face, appearing as an inky black dot in silhouette against the looming solar disk.

After that, the sun-shadowed Venusian outline will disappear until 2117. Because the planet's orbit is slightly off-kilter, its solar transits come in pairs spaced eight years apart, with more than 100 years between pairs.

During the most recent transit pair of 1874 and 1882, observers around the world focused on triangulating the Earth-sun distance. They tried to time precisely when Venus entered and exited the sun's disk, so they could calculate the size of the sun (a complicated endeavour, it turns out, since an optical effect that blurred the boundary between planet and sun muddied the timing measurements). The most recent transit happened in 2004--only the sixth such performance seen through telescopes--and it revealed that large portions of the Venusian atmosphere are visible to Earthly observers.

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Gran Sasso: Chamber of Physics

from Nature News

The drive along Italy's highway A24 from the central Adriatic coast towards Rome begins with a winding climb into the snow-covered Apennine Mountains, followed by a plunge into the 10-kilometre-long tunnel under Gran Sasso, the highest peak in the region. About half way through the tunnel, a detour leads off to the right. It reaches a dead end almost immediately at a heavy iron gate. But press the intercom button and utter the words 'particle physicist' into the microphone, and the gate slides open like something from a James Bond movie.

Not far beyond the gate is a car park. From there one continues on foot, and begins to get some idea of the scale of the infrastructure hidden beneath the mountain. Opening off a long corridor are three huge halls, each about 20 metres wide, 18 metres high and 100 metres long. This vast area is the home of the Gran Sasso National Laboratory, part of the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics (INFN).

In fact, the laboratory's 180,000 cubic metres of space is not its most valuable attribute. Lying under 1,400 metres of rock, it offers silence--not an absence of sound, but of cosmic-ray noise, the rain of particles constantly bombarding Earth's surface from space. This lack of cosmic interference has attracted a generation of physicists to these halls, where they can study some of the rarest and most elusive phenomena in the Universe.

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Fossil Ink Sacs Yield Jurassic Pigment--A First

from National Geographic News

The ink's been dry for 160 million years--but scientists have for the first time confirmed pigment in two fossilized ink sacs from cuttlefish-like animals, a new study says.

The ancient ink's similarity to modern squid ink suggests this defensive weapon hasn't evolved much since the Jurassic period (prehistoric time line). The brownish-black fossil pigment--a type of melanin called eumelanin--is widespread in the animal kingdom, for example in bird feathers, squid ink, and human hair and skin. The substance has various functions, including protection from the sun and camouflage.

Scientists have previously found hints of eumelanin in fossils, but they've done it through indirect, less reliable means--such as by analyzing images of presumed granules, which is problematic in part because melanin granules resemble bacteria, said study co-author John Simon.

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'Impossible' Material Would Stretch When Compressed

from New Scientist

Imagine cushions that lift up instead of sinking when you sit on them. Impossible? Not according to a blueprint for new materials with "negative compressibility": the materials compress when they are pulled and expand when they are pushed.

Metamaterials that do this have been built before. For example, vibrating aluminium bars with tiny cavities inside them create waves that oppose the push or pull applied (Nature Materials, DOI: 10.1038/nmat1644). But the designs must be vibrated at just the right frequency to see the effect.

Zachary Nicolaou and Adilson Motter of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, have now designed a metamaterial that stretches when compressed, and vice versa, under any circumstances. "What is interesting is that they study systems that are not responding to a vibration but to a steady applied force," says John Pendry of Imperial College London.

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Revenge of the Weeds

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Carbon Capture and Storage: A Shiny New Pipe Dream

from the Economist

As Helene Boksle, one of Norway's favourite singers, hit the high notes at the Mongstad oil refinery on May 7th, the wall behind her slid open. It revealed, to the prime minister and other dignitaries present, an enormous tangle of shiny metal pipes. These are part of the world's largest and newest experimental facility for capturing carbon dioxide.

Such capture is the first part of a three-stage process known as carbon capture and storage (CCS) that many people hope will help deal with the problem of man-made climate change. The other two are piping the captured gas towards a place underground where the rocks will trap it, and then actually trapping it there. If the world is to continue burning fossil fuels while avoiding the consequences, then it will need a lot of CCS.

There is no other good way to keep the CO2 emitted by power stations, and also by processes such as iron- and cement-making, out of the atmosphere. To stop global warming of more than 2°C--a widely agreed safe limit--carbon-dioxide emissions must be halved by 2050. According to the International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental body that monitors these matters, CCS would be the cheapest way to manage about a fifth of that reduction.

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Deeper Digging Needed to Decode a Best Friend's Genetic Roots

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

As scientific puzzles go, the origin of dogs may not be as important as the origin of the universe. But it strikes closer to home, and it almost seems harder to answer.

Cosmologists seem to have settled on the idea that 13.7 billion years ago the universe appeared with a bang (the big one) from nothing--albeit a kind of nothing that included the laws of physics.

With dogs, the consensus is that they came from wolves. Beyond that, there are varying claims. It seems dogs appeared sometime between 15,000 and 100,000 years ago, in Asia or Africa or multiple times in multiple places. There is a reason for this confusion, according to Greger Larson at the University of Durham in England. In a new research paper, he argues that the DNA of modern dogs is so mixed up that it is useless in figuring out when and where dogs originated.

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Has Blazing a Trail in Solar Energy Cost California Too Much?

from the Los Angeles Times (Registration Required)

That ray of light you see peeking through all the clouds darkening California's future? That's the sun. More specifically, solar power, in which California is the hands-down national leader.

The state's installed solar generating capacity of about 1.2 gigawatts--the equivalent of two big conventional power plants and enough to fill the electrical demand from nearly 200,000 homes for a year--easily outstrips the next 10 highest-ranked states. It's also the fastest-growing solar market in the country.

So you may not be surprised to learn that California's big utilities are fighting like mad to keep a lid on that growth. The most important battle in that war is scheduled for this week, with California's continued primacy as a solar state hanging in the balance. More than bragging rights are at stake: California's solar industry has created 26,000 jobs, or 1 in 4 solar jobs nationwide, according to a recent study by the UC Berkeley law school. And California's solar generation will have to keep growing if the state is to meet Gov. Jerry Brown's goal of generating 12 gigawatts from clean sources such as solar, wind and fuel cells by 2020.

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American Physics Dreams Deferred

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

When three American astronomers won the Nobel Prize in Physics last year, for discovering that the expansion of the universe was speeding up in defiance of cosmic gravity--as if change fell out of your pockets onto the ceiling--it reaffirmed dark energy, the glibly named culprit behind this behavior, as the great cosmic surprise and mystery of our time.

And it underscored the case, long urged by American astronomers, for a NASA mission to measure dark energy--to determine, for example, whether the cosmos would expand forever or whether, perhaps, there might be something wrong with our understanding of gravity.

In 2019, a spacecraft known as Euclid will begin such a mission to study dark energy. But it is being launched by the European Space Agency, not NASA, with American astronomers serving only as very junior partners, contributing $20 million and some infrared sensors. For some scientists, this represents an ingenious solution, allowing American astronomers access to the kind of data they will not be able to obtain on their own until NASA can mount its own, more ambitious mission in 2024.

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PSA Test for Prostate Cancer Should be Dropped, Task Force Says

from the Los Angeles Times (Registration Required)

The PSA test should be abandoned as a prostate cancer screening tool, a government advisory panel has concluded after determining that the side effects from needless biopsies and treatments hurt many more men than are potentially helped by early detection of cancers.

At best, one life will be saved for every 1,000 men screened over a 10-year period, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. But 100 to 120 men will have suspicious results when there is no cancer, triggering biopsies that can carry complications such as pain, fever, bleeding, infection and hospitalization. And if cancer is detected, 90% of men will be treated with surgery or radiation even though most tumors are not life-threatening.

Of 1,000 screened men, as many as 40 will suffer impotence or urinary incontinence as a side effect of treatment, two will have heart attacks or strokes and one will develop a dangerous blood clot in the legs or lungs, the task force concluded after a review of the scientific literature. As many as five of 1,000 men who undergo surgery will die within a month.

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Injury-Related Deaths Highest in New Mexico, Says Study

from CBS News

New Mexico residents, be warned: New statistics show that the state has the highest rate of injury-related deaths in the country at 97.8 fatalities per 100,000 people.

A new report by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation called "The Facts Hurt: A State-By-State Injury Prevention Policy" ranks states on injury safety by the number of injury-related deaths and the number of laws put in place that can prevent these catastrophes from happening. Which states aren't doing their utmost to protect their residents from injuries? According to the report, the states that scored the lowest on injury prevention goes to Ohio and Montana.

Researchers determined if states met criteria for 10 laws and regulations that can prevent common injuries, including legislation on seat belts, drunk driving, motorcycle or bicycle helmets, booster seats, intimate partner violence, teen dating violence, concussions, prescription drug monitoring programs and "ecodes" (injury codes that help track emergency room trends to guide prevention strategies). Montana and Ohio only had two of the 10 on the books.

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Manufacturing Woes Haunt High-Tech Battery Maker

from Nature News

A leading manufacturer of high-performance lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles is struggling to make ends meet. Last week, A123 Systems of Waltham, Massachusetts, announced net losses of US$125 million in the first quarter of the year. Its woes are symptomatic of larger problems facing the battery industry.

"The market for electric vehicles hasn't ramped up as quickly as projected," says Yet-Ming Chiang, a materials scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, who co-founded the company in 2001.

The market's sluggishness is in large part because the batteries are still very expensive. Chiang would not disclose the price of A123's batteries, but he says that the industry average is US$500-650 per kilowatt-hour of energy stored. The Nissan LEAF electric car uses a 24-kilowatt-hour battery pack, which would cost $12,000 on the low end--about one-third of the car's selling price, and a lot for consumers to swallow.

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Drugs Help Tailor Alcoholism Treatment

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

If alcoholism is a disease, is there hope of finding the cure in a pill?

Yes and no. Having mapped the physical changes the brain undergoes with years of habitual drinking, researchers in recent years have discovered a handful of promising--and some say underused--drugs that, combined with therapy, help alcoholics break the cycle of addiction.

To those for whom such remedies work, they certainly can feel like a cure. "I felt like I had found something that finally helped me through the cravings," said Patty Hendricks, 49, who used one such drug, naltrexone, to help control her drinking habit after four failed rehab attempts. "I don't think I could have gotten sober without it."

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Rewritable DNA Memory Shown Off

from BBC News Online

Researchers in the US have demonstrated a means to use short sections of DNA as rewritable data "bits" in living cells. The technique uses two proteins adapted from viruses to "flip" the DNA bits. Though it is at an early stage, the advance could help pave the way for computing and memory storage within biological systems.

A team reporting in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says the tiny information storehouses may also be used to study cancer and aging. The team, from Stanford University's bioengineering department, has been trying for three years to fine-tune the biological recipe they use to change the bits' value.

The bits comprise short sections of DNA that can, under the influence of two different proteins, be made to point in one of two directions within the chromosomes of the bacterium E. coli. The data are then "read out" as the sections were designed to glow green or red when under illumination, depending on their orientation.

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Bovine TB Disguised by Liver Fluke

from Nature News

Bovine tuberculosis (bTB) could be spreading across Britain because the most widely used test for the disease is ineffective when cattle are infected with a common liver parasite.

The liver fluke Fasciola hepatica was already known to affect the standard skin test for bTB, but it was unclear whether the fluke stopped the disease developing or merely hid the symptoms. A study published today in Nature Communications suggests that the latter is more likely, and that the effect is significant. It estimates that around a third of bTB cases in England and Wales are undiagnosed because the test is less sensitive in cattle infected with the fluke.

Researchers tested milk from dairy herds across England and Wales for antibodies against F. hepatica, an indication of infection, and added the data to an existing model of bTB transmission. If they assumed that a fluke infection inhibited bTB detection, they achieved a closer match between the model and actual bTB detection rates. The authors suggest that the fluke may alter the production by T lymphocytes--key cells in the immune system--of the protein interferon-?, which is crucial to a genuine result in both the skin test and the second most common test for bTB, the interferon-? release assay (IGRA) blood test.

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Why Is That Undulating Blob Of Flesh Inspecting My Oil Rig?

from NPR

Every so often, the Internet astonishes. Things I wouldn't, couldn't, shouldn't expect, sometimes happen. On April 25, somewhere in the ocean off Great Britain, a remotely operated video camera near a deep sea oil rig caught a glimpse--at first it was just a glimpse--of an astonishing looking sea creature. It was a green-gray blob of gelatinous muscle, covered with a finely mesh-like textured skin, no eyes, no tentacles, no front, no back. It moved constantly, floating up to the camera, then it backed off and disappeared. The camera operator tried to find it, and then, suddenly, out of the darkness, back it came.

What was this thing? It had no mouth. It seemed to be undulating, or at least moving with intention. It looked like it was coming back to the drill to ... to do what? Or maybe it was dead. Just a floating bit of tissue, a whale placenta, perhaps?

You'd figure a video like this, once it went on the Internet (which it did last month) would produce the usual wild explanations from people who know little but post madly, rumors masquerading as knowledge, a great riot of misinformation and silliness. But not this time.

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When Continental Drift Was Considered Pseudoscience

from Smithsonian

In a courtroom in Italy, six seismologists and a civil servant are facing charges of manslaughter after failing to predict a 2009 earthquake that killed 308 people in the Apennine Mountain city of L'Aquila. The charge is remarkable partly because it assumes that scientists can now see not merely beneath the surface of the earth, but also into the future. What's even more extraordinary, though, is that the prosecutors based their case on a scientific insight that was, not long ago, the object of open ridicule.

It was a century ago this spring that a little-known German meteorologist named Alfred Wegener proposed that the continents had once been massed together in a single supercontinent and then gradually drifted apart. He was, of course, right. Continental drift and the more recent science of plate tectonics are now the bedrock of modern geology, helping to answer vital questions like where to find precious oil and mineral deposits, and how to keep San Francisco upright. But in Wegener's day, geological thinking stood firmly on a solid earth where continents and oceans were permanent features.

We like to imagine that knowledge advances fact upon dispassionate fact to reveal precise and irrefutable truths. But there is hardly a better example of just how messy and emotional science can be than Wegener's discovery of the vast, turbulent forces moving within the earth's crust. As often happens when confronted with difficult new ideas, the establishment joined ranks and tore holes in his theories, mocked his evidence and maligned his character. It might have been the end of a lesser man, but as with the vicious battles over topics ranging from Darwinian evolution to climate change, the conflict ultimately worked to the benefit of scientific truth.

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Robotic Fish Shoal Sniffs Out Pollution in Harbours

from New Scientist

There is something unnatural lurking in the waters of the port of Gijon, Spain, and researchers are tracking its every move. It is not some bizarre new form of marine life, but an autonomous robotic fish designed to sense marine pollution, taking to the open waves for the first time.

"With these fish we can find exactly what is causing the pollution and put a stop to it right away," explains Luke Speller, a scientist at the British technology firm BMT and the leader of SHOAL, a European project involving universities, businesses and the port of Gijon, which have joined forces to create the fish.

Currently the port relies on divers to monitor water quality, which is a lengthy process costing €100,000 per year. The divers take water samples from hundreds of points in the port, then send them off for analysis, with the results taking weeks to return. By contrast, the SHOAL robots would continuously monitor the water, letting the port respond immediately to the causes of pollution, such as a leaking boat or industrial spillage, and work to mitigate its effects.

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Private Cargo Rocket Heads to Space Station

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- A private cargo rocket headed to the International Space Station blasted off early Tuesday morning. Built by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, Calif.--commonly known as SpaceX--this rocket is carrying only about 1,000 pounds of cargo, and nothing of great value. The importance is instead technical and symbolic.

If the cargo capsule makes it all the way to the space station, it would be the first commercial, rather than government-operated, spacecraft to dock at the space station, and it would mark an important step in NASA's efforts to turn over basic transportation to low-Earth orbit to the private sector.

With success of this flight, SpaceX would begin a $1.6 billion contract to fly 12 cargo missions to the space station. This SpaceX launching followed the same pattern of two earlier ones where a last-minute glitch halted the countdown on the first try and then the rocket went off without a hitch on the second try. In an aborted liftoff on Saturday morning, the nine engines of the 157-foot tall Falcon 9 rocket had already ignited before computers shut them down because of high pressure in the combustion chamber of the center engine.

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Scientists Help Discover Fossil of Prehistoric Turtle in Colombia

from the (Raleigh, N.C.) News and Observer

RALEIGH -- A team of paleontologists including scientists from N.C. State University has discovered the fossil remains of a new species of dining table-size freshwater turtle that apparently lived side-by-side with the 50-foot snakes and super-size crocodiles that they had found earlier in the same Colombian coal mine.

Carbonemys cofrinii, or "coal turtle," was well over six feet long from nose to tail. It represents a rapid increase in size from the largest known to have lived just before it, which were about two feet long. That makes it an intriguing piece of the evolutionary puzzle.

In part, said the scientists, that growth spurt may have been a Darwinian strategy to fight off the giant crocs by making the turtle simply too big for dinner.

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Troves of Personal Data, Forbidden to Researchers

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- When scientists publish their research, they also make the underlying data available so the results can be verified by other scientists.

At least that is how the system is supposed to work. But lately social scientists have come up against an exception that is, true to its name, huge.

It is "big data," the vast sets of information gathered by researchers at companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft from patterns of cellphone calls, text messages and Internet clicks by millions of users around the world. Companies often refuse to make such information public, sometimes for competitive reasons and sometimes to protect customers' privacy. But to many scientists, the practice is an invitation to bad science, secrecy and even potential fraud.

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Disputed Dinosaur Fossil Auctioned for $1M in NYC

from the Seattle Times

NEW YORK (Associated Press) -- A dinosaur dispute is brewing between the Mongolian government and an American auction house, which sold a fossil of a fearsome T. Rex relative despite a court order not to.

The 8-foot-tall, 24-foot-long skeleton of a Tyannosaurus bataar--or tarbosaurus, a name that means "alarming lizard"--went for $1,052,500 Sunday at a New York auction, says Heritage Auctions, which hasn't identified the buyer or seller. But the sale is contingent on the outcome of the Dallas-based auction house's court fight with Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia, the auction house said.

Elbegdorj says the fossil--a nearly complete skeleton of a two-legged, fanged beast that stalked Central Asia about 80 million years ago--may belong to his country. Heritage says that it was assured the specimen was obtained legally, and that Mongolia hasn't established the fossil's origins lie there.

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Hot Trend in Computing: Chips that Sometimes Get It Wrong

from the Houston Chronicle

At first blush it appears a daft notion: increasing the speed and efficiency of computer processors at the cost of a few computational errors. Nevertheless, as a Houston computer scientist has developed his ideas over nearly a decade, he has found increasing acclaim for his "inexact" computer chips.

This week, at a major computing conference in Italy, Rice University's Krishna Palem unveiled his newest chips that trade a bit of accuracy for better efficiency. "When we first started working on this there was a large part of the world that was skeptical about what we were doing," said Palem, who holds a joint appointment at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

"But I can very confidently say that we are past that now." That does not seem to be an idle boast. After Palem and his colleagues demonstrated their prototype chips at the ACM International Conference on Computing Frontiers in Cagliari, Italy, this week it earned "best paper" honors from attendees.

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Simple Scope Exam Cuts Colon Cancer Deaths

from the Seattle Times

(Associated Press) -- A simple, cheaper exam of just the lower part of the bowel can cut the risk of developing colon cancer or dying of the disease, a large federal study finds.

Many doctors recommend a more complete test--colonoscopy--but many people refuse that costly, unpleasant exam. The new study shows that the simpler test, flexible sigmoidoscopy, can be a good option. Although it may seem similar to having a mammogram on just one breast, experts say that even a partial bowel exam is better than none.

As one put it, "the best test is the one that gets done." The study was published online Monday by the New England Journal of Medicine and was to be presented at a digestive diseases conference in San Diego.

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Life at the Top Can Be Good for Your Health

from ScienceNOW Daily News

Many studies in humans and animals suggest that chronic stress is bad for one's health, in part because it suppresses the immune system. But nearly 30 years of data on wild baboons shows that top-ranking males, despite showing signs of increased stress, recover more quickly than low-ranking baboons from wounds and illness. The results may help explain why some people escape from the negative effects of stress while others do not.

Most studies in humans have shown a clear correlation between higher socioeconomic status and lower risk of death or illness from stress-related diseases such as heart attacks and diabetes. Some of the most famous of these are the so-called Whitehall studies of the British Civil Service, which showed that death and illness rates decreased in a step-wise fashion the higher an employee was on the service's 6-grade pay and responsibility scale. These and other studies also have found that being at the bottom of the totem pole leads to greater stress as a result of increased work loads and time pressures, as well as more job insecurity.

But studies of animals, especially other primates, have shown that the relationship between stress and status largely depends on the social organization of the species in question. For example, in species such as baboons that have rigid social rankings and hierarchies, with so-called alpha males dominating other males and females over extended periods of time, it can apparently be more stressful at the top. In a study reported last year in Science, a team that included ecologist Jeanne Altmann of Princeton University revealed that baboon alpha males had the highest levels of glucocorticoid hormones, such as cortisol, as well as testosterone in their feces, indicators that they were under greater stress than lower-ranking individuals.

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Global Council Aims to Coordinate Science

from Nature News

International research collaborations are multiplying fast, with one-quarter of the world's science and engineering publications now featuring authors from more than one country. But not all national funding agencies manage their science in the same way--researchers in China win grant funding through very different processes from their European peers, for example--which can hamper projects that span borders.

To tackle the problem, a voluntary forum, the Global Research Council (GRC), has been formed to share best practice and encourage common principles.

Last week, the leaders of about 50 national research-funding agencies met at the headquarters of the US National Science Foundation (NSF) in Arlington, Virginia, to discuss the GRC's agenda: issues such as peer review, data sharing, research integrity, open access, career development and ethical conduct in research on humans. As the largest-ever gathering of research agencies, it was a "historic moment", says Suzanne Fortier, president of Canada's Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

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Clarence Birdseye and His Fantastic Frozen Food Machine

from NPR

There's a particular pleasure in being reminded that the most ordinary things can still be full of magic. Frogs may turn into princes. Lumps of dirt can hide sparkling gems. And having just read Mark Kurlansky's new biography of Clarence Birdseye, I now see the humble fish fillet in a whole new light.

For as Kurlansky tells it, when Clarence Birdseye figured out how to pack and freeze haddock, using what he called "a marvelous new process which seals in every bit of just-from-the-ocean flavor," he essentially changed the way we produce, preserve and distribute food forever.

Today, tiger shrimp from Thailand, Japanese edamame and blueberry cheesecake outshine the plain white fillets in the freezer case, but those packs of haddock launched the freezer revolution: They embody the magic combination of size, shape, and packaging. Unlike Kurlansky's book on cod, here he focuses on the man behind the fillet. And Birdseye's remarkable life uniquely prepared him to lead the world into its frozen future.

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Just a Spoonful of Castor Oil

from ScienceNOW Daily News

Castor oil may have a bad rap among people who were force-fed spoonfuls as children, but it's no myth that the tonic has health effects. Now, scientists have elucidated the molecular mechanism of the active ingredient in castor oil, which has been used for thousands of years as a laxative and labor-inducer. Ricinoleic acid, the fatty acid that makes up about 90% of the oil, binds to one particular receptor in the intestines and uterus, the researchers discovered. The discovery explains how castor oil works and could lead to the development of less unpleasant drugs.

Although taking a daily spoonful of diluted castor oil as a general health aid is no longer in vogue, alternative health stores still sell the foul-tasting liquid as a laxative. The Food and Drug Administration has categorized castor oil as "generally recognized as safe and effective," but researchers don't understand its mechanism.

"When you study classic, old drugs, you almost always learn something from them," says first author of the new study Stefan Offermanns, a biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Heart and Lung Research in Germany. "The major surprise here was how specifically castor oil worked."

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Benefits of 'Good' Cholesterol Questioned

A new study finds that "good" cholesterol might not boost your heart health as doctors once thought. The study looked at the genes of about 170,000 individuals, looking for variations in DNA that earlier research shows naturally raise HDL levels in those who possess them. After looking for these 15 genetic variations, the researchers discovered that none of these variations actually reduced the risks for having a heart attack.

In other biomedical news, by sequencing more people more thoroughly than ever before, researchers have affirmed that rare genetic variants--those carried by fewer than five people in a thousand--are widespread and likely to have an important role in human health.

By combining high doses of two new drugs against advanced melanoma, scientists were able to delay for months the cancer's ability to evade the therapy aimed at a tumor's molecular weak spot.

An FDA panel on Tuesday recommended approval of the first rapid, over-the-counter HIV test. It could gain final approval later this year.

In a clinical trial, people who are genetically guaranteed to suffer from Alzheimer's disease years from now--but who do not yet have any symptoms--will for the first time be given a drug intended to stop them from developing it, federal officials announced.

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Luring Back the Swallows to San Juan Capistrano

A last-ditch effort is under way to lure back the cliff swallow, which put San Juan Capistrano on the map but has snubbed the mission in recent years. The mission has tried drawing them back with food. It has tried shelter. Now, it's trying seduction.

In other environmental news, citizen scientists have captured about 13,000 moths in southern England in a project described as the largest of its kind. Researchers hope the data will help them understand how species will migrate in response to climate change.

According to oil firm Total, the gas leak from the Elgin platform in the North Sea has been stopped. The company's platform was evacuated when the gas began leaking on March 25. An attempt to stop the leak by pumping heavy mud into the well got under way on Tuesday.

The proposed 2,200-megawatt Pakitzapango hydroelectric dam, which would flood much of the Ene River valley in Peru, would displace thousands of people and species in the process.

At the Millennium Seed Bank in West Sussex, an hour or so from London, scientists are racing against time: 100,000 species of flora are threatened with extinction. "Even if we know that plants are being lost in the wild," says Paul Smith, head of seed conservation, "if we can get them into the seed bank, we can regenerate them in the future."

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