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Kepler Telescope Studies Superflares

The Kepler space telescope has provided fresh insight on the colossal explosions that can afflict some stars. These enormous releases of magnetic energy--known as superflares--could damage the atmosphere of a nearby orbiting planet, putting at risk any lifeforms that might reside there.

Astronomers are searching for unseen moons around the planets that the Kepler mission's scientists have discovered. Researchers report that in their quest they have unexpectedly detected a hidden planet--and probably two--by using a technique that promises to aid the search for smaller planets much like Earth.

Researchers have now solidified Vesta's reputation as an archetype for understanding planetary evolution. Dawn, which began orbiting Vesta last July and lowered itself to within 200 kilometres of the asteroid over the following months, has gathered strong evidence that Vesta is indeed the source of the 'Vestoid' family of asteroids as well as the howardite-eucrite-diogenite meteorite family, which accounts for 6% of meteorites.

One of the least expected successes in London's West End last week was Stella by the Take the Space theatre company. The show was about female astronomers--notably the tiny, forgotten, angry Caroline Herschel.

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Microbes Surpass Low Energy Limit for Life

Microbes have been discovered on the sea floor that have exceptionally low metabolic rates, using so little oxygen that they barely qualify as life. Researchers think that they may have been living at the absolute minimum energy requirement needed to subsist for 86 million years.

In other news of the ancient past, the earliest direct example of insect pollination has been identified by scientists in 100-million-year-old amber blocks from Spain that include tiny invertebrates whose bodies are coated with pollen grains.

And archaeologists working in a rain forest in Guatemala have stumbled on a remarkable discovery: a room full of wall paintings and numerical calculations. The room, about the size of a walk-in closet, is part of the buried Maya city of Xultun.

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Reif Elected President of MIT

Provost L. Rafael Reif was elected last week as president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He will replace neuroscientist Susan Hockfield, who was the first life scientist to lead MIT, on July 2.

In other technology news, paralyzed patients have been able to control a robotic arm with their minds. The result brings scientists a step closer to restoring mobility for people with spinal cord injuries, lost limbs and other conditions that limit movement.

Japanese researchers have broken the record for wireless data transmission in the terahertz band, an uncharted part of the electromagnetic spectrum. They say the data rate is 20 times higher than the best commonly used wi-fi standard.

With highly advanced milking machines on some dairy farms and a fully automated robot tractor set to hit the market this fall, robots could be coming to a farm near you.

Geophysicists are using computers to simulate the behavior of the world's most studied 25 kilometers of fault, the Parkfield segment of the San Andreas fault in central California. Researchers report that a relatively sophisticated model of the Parkfield segment can produce quakes that bear a striking resemblance to real ones.

Scientists have developed a way to generate electricity using viruses. The researchers built a generator with a postage stamp-sized electrode and based on a small film of specially engineered viruses. When a finger tapped the electrode, the viruses converted the mechanical energy into electricity.

A new wireless system for restoring sight simplifies what needs to be implanted and transmits both visual data and power directly to the implants, eliminating the need for any bulky external power source.

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Finches Learn Even When Practice Isn't Perfect

from Nature News

Birds can master new skills without the gradual improvements that normally occur with training. The improvement is all down to an ancient part of the brain that is present in all vertebrate species. Learning complex motor skills such as speech or dance movements involves imitation and trial and error. Young songbirds, for example, learn to sing by copying an adult tutor, and practising the song thousands of times until they have perfected every syllable.

The underlying brain mechanisms are unknown, but one influential model states that structures called the basal ganglia generate a variety of movement patterns that are tried out by the motor cortex, which executes the movements. The basal ganglia then reinforce the best pattern by transmitting a rewarding dopamine signal after receiving feedback on the result of the movement from the motor cortex.

But research published today [May 20] in Nature challenges this view. Jonathan Charlesworth, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, and his colleagues trained Bengalese finches (Lonchura striata domestica) to modify the pitch of one song syllable in response to white noise.

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Fresh Water Demand Driving Sea-level Rise Faster than Glacier Melt

from the Guardian (UK)

Humanity's unquenchable thirst for fresh water is driving up sea levels even faster than melting glaciers, according to new research. The massive impact of the global population's growing need for water on rising sea levels is revealed in a comprehensive assessment of all the ways in which people use water.

Trillions of tonnes of water have been pumped up from deep underground reservoirs in every part of the world and then channelled into fields and pipes to keep communities fed and watered. The water then flows into the oceans, but far more quickly than the ancient aquifers are replenished by rains. The global tide would be rising even more quickly but for the fact that man-made reservoirs have, until now, held back the flow by storing huge amounts of water on land.

"The water being taken from deep wells is geologically old--there is no replenishment and so it is a one way transfer into the ocean," said sea level expert Prof Robert Nicholls, at the University of Southampton. "In the long run, I would still be more concerned about the impact of climate change, but this work shows that even if we stabilise the climate, we might still get sea level rise due to how we use water." He said the sea level would rise 10 metres or more if all the world's groundwater was pumped out, though he said removing every drop was unlikely because some aquifers contain salt water. The sea level is predicted to rise by 30-100cm by 2100, putting many coasts at risk, by increasing the number of storm surges that swamp cities.

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Arctic Melt Releasing Ancient Methane

from BBC News Online

Scientists have identified thousands of sites in the Arctic where methane that has been stored for many millennia is bubbling into the atmosphere. The methane has been trapped by ice, but is able to escape as the ice melts.

Writing in the journal Nature Geoscience, the researchers say this ancient gas could have a significant impact on climate change. Methane is the second most important greenhouse gas after CO2 and levels are rising after a few years of stability.

There are many sources of the gas around the world, some natural and some man-made, such as landfill waste disposal sites and farm animals. Tracking methane to these various sources is not easy.

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Blazing "Ring of Fire" Eclipse Makes Millions Look toward Sky from Eastern Asia to Western U.S.

from CBS News

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (Associated Press) -- From a park near Albuquerque, to the top of Japan's Mount Fuji, to the California coast the effect was dramatic: The moon nearly blotting out the sun creating a blazing "ring of fire" eclipse.

Millions of people across a narrow strip of eastern Asia and the Western U.S. turned their sights skyward for the annular eclipse, in which the moon passes in front of the sun leaving only a golden ring around its edges.

The rare lunar-solar alignment was visible in Asia early Monday before it moved across the Pacific--and the international dateline--where it was seen in parts of the western United States late Sunday afternoon.

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CDC Urges Boomers to Get Tested for Hepatitis C

from USA Today

ATLANTA (Associated Press) -- For the first time, the government is proposing that all baby boomers get tested for hepatitis C. Anyone born from 1945 to 1965 should get a one-time blood test to see if they have the liver-destroying virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in draft recommendations issued Friday.

Baby boomers account for more than 2 million of the 3.2 million Americans infected with the blood-borne virus. It can take decades to cause liver damage, and many people don't know they're infected.

CDC officials believe the new measure could lead 800,000 more baby boomers to get treatment and could save more than 120,000 lives. "The CDC views hepatitis C as an unrecognized health crisis for the country, and we believe the time is now for a bold response," said Dr. John W. Ward, the CDC's hepatitis chief.

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Golden Gate Celebrates 75th with Help of Engineers

from the Boston Globe (Registration Required)

SAN FRANCISCO (Associated Press) -- The Golden Gate Bridge was heralded as an engineering marvel when it opened in 1937. It was the world's longest suspension span and had been built across a strait that critics said was too treacherous to be bridged.

But as the iconic span approaches its 75th anniversary over Memorial Day weekend, the generations of engineers who have overseen it all these years say keeping it up and open has been something of a marvel unto itself.

Crews had to install a bracing system after high winds lashed and twisted the span in the 1950s, raising fears it would collapse. Years later, they had to replace vertical cables when they were found to have corroded in the bridge's damp, foggy climate, potentially destabilizing the span.

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Hyraxes Found to Sing with Varying Syntax

from the San Francisco Chronicle

First things first: The hyrax is not the Lorax. And it does not speak for the trees. It sings, on its own behalf. The hyrax is a bit Seussian, however. It looks something like a rabbit, something like a woodchuck. Its closest living relatives are elephants, manatees and dugongs. And male rock hyraxes have complex songs like those of birds, in the sense that males will go on for five or 10 minutes at a stretch, apparently advertising themselves.

One might have expected that the hyrax would have some unusual qualities--the animals' feet, if you know how to look at them, resemble elephants' toes, the experts say. And their visible front teeth are actually very small tusks. But Arik Kershenbaum and colleagues at the University of Haifa and Tel Aviv University have found something more surprising.

Hyraxes' songs have something rarely found in mammals: syntax that varies according to where the hyraxes live, geographical dialects in how they put their songs together. The research was published online Wednesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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Recent Dinosaur Extinction Study Doesn't Settle Debate

from the San Francisco Chronicle

For some 30 years, scientists have debated what sealed the fate of the dinosaurs. Was an asteroid impact more or less solely responsible for the catastrophic mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous geological period, 65 million years ago? Or were the dinosaurs already undergoing a long-term decline, and the asteroid was merely the coup de grace?

Three young researchers, led by Stephen L. Brusatte, a graduate student at Columbia University who is affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History, decided to test this hypothesis with a close examination of the fossil record over the 12 million years leading up to the extinction.

For the study, the researchers departed from the practice of focusing almost exclusively on raw counts of the number of species over time. Instead, they analyzed changes in the anatomies and body plans of seven large groups of late Cretaceous dinosaurs for insights into their evolutionary trajectory.

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From Cubicles, Cry for Quiet Pierces Office Buzz

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

The walls have come tumbling down in offices everywhere, but the cubicle dwellers keep putting up new ones. They barricade themselves behind file cabinets. They fortify their partitions with towers of books and papers. Or they follow an "evolving law of technology etiquette," as articulated by Raj Udeshi at the open office he shares with fellow software entrepreneurs in downtown Manhattan. "Headphones are the new wall," he said, pointing to the covered ears of his neighbors.

Cubicle culture is already something of a punch line--how many ways can we find to annoy one another all day?--but lately the complaints are being heard by the right people, including managers and social scientists. Companies are redesigning offices, piping in special background noise to improve the acoustics and bringing in engineers to solve volume issues. "Sound masking" has become a buzz phrase.

Scientists, for their part, are measuring the unhappiness and the lower productivity of distracted workers. After surveying 65,000 people over the past decade in North America, Europe, Africa and Australia, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, report that more than half of office workers are dissatisfied with the level of "speech privacy," making it the leading complaint in offices everywhere.

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Diabetes on the Rise Among Teenagers

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

Nearly one in four American adolescents may be on the verge of developing Type 2 diabetes or could already be diabetic, representing a sharp increase in the disease's prevalence among children ages 12 to 19 since a decade ago, when it was estimated that fewer than one in 10 were at risk for or had diabetes, according to a new study.

This worsening of the problem is worrying in light of recently published findings that the disease progresses more rapidly in children than in adults and is harder to treat, experts said.

The study, published online on Monday in the journal Pediatrics, analyzes data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which has a nationally representative sample. While it confirmed that teenage obesity and overweight rates had leveled off in recent years and that teenage rates of high blood pressure and high cholesterol had not changed greatly, it found that the percentage of teenagers testing positive for diabetes and prediabetes had nearly tripled to 23 percent in 2007-8 from 9 percent in 1999-2000.

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A Mathematical Challenge to Obesity

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

Carson C. Chow deploys mathematics to solve the everyday problems of real life. As an investigator at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, he tries to figure out why 1 in 3 Americans are obese.

... In 2004, while on the faculty of the math department at the University of Pittsburgh, mathematician and physicist Carson Chow married. His wife, a Johns Hopkins ophthalmologist, would not move. So he began looking for work in the Beltway area. Through the grapevine, Chow heard that the N.I.D.D.K., a branch of the National Institutes of Health, was building up its mathematics laboratory to study obesity. At the time, I knew almost nothing of obesity. "I didn't even know what a calorie was. I quickly read every scientific paper I could get my hands on."

He could see the facts on the epidemic were quite astounding. Between 1975 and 2005, the average weight of Americans had increased by about 20 pounds. Since the 1970s, the national obesity rate had jumped from around 20 percent to over 30 percent. Why was this happening?

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Citizen Scientists Get to Grips with Moth Survey

from BBC News Online

About 13,000 moths have been captured and recorded by citizen scientists 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. During the month-long survey, 87 different species were recorded.

The survey is one of the Earthwatch projects being highlighted at the organisation's annual lecture on Thursday evening in central London. ...During the course of a month in the summer of 2009, volunteers from the charity helped a team of researchers from the University of Oxford mark the wings of more than 13,000 moths.

The survey, known as a mark-release-recapture (MRR) experiment, was conducted in a well-researched woodland habitat in Wytham Woods, Oxfordshire. More than 650 moths, from 41 species, were recaptured.

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"Good" HDL Cholesterol May Not Protect Heart After All, Study Suggests

from CBS News

We've heard it all before: There's "good" cholesterol, called high-density lipoprotein (HDL), that provides protective benefits against heart attacks and then there's "bad" LDL cholesterol, which raises risk for heart problems in high levels.

A new study finds that HDL 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--called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs)--in the participants, the researchers discovered none of these variations actually reduced their risks for having a heart attack, compared with people who didn't have the variations.

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Slo-Mo Microbes Extend the Frontiers of Life

from Nature News

Most humans would struggle to last for much more than a minute under water without coming up for air, whereas some seals can manage more than an hour--but a microbial community living tens of metres beneath the Pacific Ocean floor can do even better.

Using so little oxygen that they barely qualify as life, the microbes, discovered by Hans Røy and his colleagues of the Centre for Geomicrobiology at Aarhus University in Denmark, have exceptionally low metabolic rates. And biomass turnover--the replacement of the building blocks essential to life--occurs only once every few hundred or even every few thousand years.

Microbes require oxygen to generate the energy to maintain an electric potential across their membrane and to keep their enzymes and DNA ticking over, so the researchers think that the sea-floor critters may be living at the absolute minimum energy requirement needed to subsist. And they must be doing something right: the community of microbial couch potatoes, described today in Science, is 86 million years old.

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Kepler Telescope Studies Star Superflares

from BBC News Online

Nasa's Kepler space telescope has provided fresh insight on the colossal explosions that can afflict some stars. These enormous releases of magnetic energy--known as superflares--could damage the atmosphere of a nearby orbiting planet, putting at risk any lifeforms that might reside there.

Fortunately, Kepler shows superflares to be much less frequent on slow-rotating stars like our Sun. The new observations are reported in the journal Nature.

The biggest recorded flare on the Sun was probably the "Carrington event" of 1 September 1859. Described by the English astronomer Richard Carrington, this outburst sent a surge of electromagnetic radiation and charged particles towards the Earth.

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Humans Riddled with Rare Genetic Variants

from Nature 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.

Two studies published today in Science find that most human genetic variants are rare, and that rare variants are more likely than common ones to affect the structure or function of proteins, and therefore to have biological or medical consequences. The papers, along with another study published last week in Science, all conclude that humans carry such a high load of rare variants because the species experienced a population growth spurt that began a few millenia after the adoption of agriculture, which occurred about 10,000 years ago.

The three studies add to a growing body of knowledge that has profound implications for researchers investigating the genetic roots of disease.

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Melanoma Drug Combo Packs a One-Two Punch

from ScienceNOW Daily News

Drug resistance is the bane of cancer researchers and patients. But early results from a new clinical trial suggest a way to get around a tumor's defenses. 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.

The trial is testing a so-called BRAF inhibitor, a widely heralded new type of melanoma drug. It targets a growth-spurring protein, BRAF, encoded by a mutation in the BRAF gene that occurs in about half of melanoma patients. Although the drug extends patients' lives--on average they live 14 to 15 months, versus 8 months on conventional therapy--their tumors eventually develop resistance and begin growing again. Often the tumors restore the BRAF growth pathway by turning on a downstream protein called MEK, suggesting that combining a MEK inhibitor and a BRAF inhibitor could stave off cancer growth longer.

That strategy now shows signs of working, according to data released today in advance of the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) in Chicago, Illinois, from 1-5 June. In 77 patients who took a BRAF inhibitor and a MEK inhibitor made by GlaxoSmithKline, the drugs shrank tumors or delayed growth by 7.4 months on average--no longer than has been reported for the BRAF inhibitor alone. But the results were more encouraging for 24 patients who received the highest doses of the two drugs. Their tumors became stable or shrank and did not resume growing for 10.8 months on average.

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The Essence of Science Explained in 63 Seconds

from NPR

Here it is, in a nutshell: The logic of science boiled down to one, essential idea. It comes from Richard Feynman, one of the great scientists of the 20th century, who wrote it on the blackboard during a class at Cornell in 1964.

Think about what he's saying. Science is our way of describing--as best we can--how the world works. The world, it is presumed, works perfectly well without us. Our thinking about it makes no important difference. It is out there, being the world. We are locked in, busy in our minds. And when our minds make a guess about what's happening out there, if we put our guess to the test, and we don't get the results we expect, as Feynman says, there can be only one conclusion: we're wrong.

The world knows. Our minds guess. In any contest between the two, The World Out There wins. It doesn't matter, Feynman tells the class, "how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is, if it disagrees with the experiment, it is wrong."

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Electrical Engineer to Head Massachusetts Institute of Technology

from ScienceNOW Daily News

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's board of trustees has elected Provost L. Rafael Reif as president of the top-tier research university. He will replace neuroscientist Susan Hockfield, who was the first life scientist to lead MIT, on 2 July.

Reif, who has been an MIT faculty member since 1980, became the institute's chief academic officer in 2005. During his tenure, Reif presided over the development of Web projects that offer MIT and Harvard University courses online for free and led faculty efforts to recruit and retain minorities and women.

Faculty, staff, and students got a chance to welcome the president-elect and his family at a campus reception.

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Dancing Droplets Reveal Physics at Work

from Science News

Throw water into a hot pan, and it will sizzle so fast that the drops actually levitate across the surface. Physicists have now taken this phenomenon, called the Leidenfrost effect, a step further: Using magnets, the scientists directed droplets of liquid oxygen to speed up, slow down and change course as they scoot across a sheet of glass.

Magnetic fields force the tiny blobs to travel in a mesmerizing dance, says David Quéré, a physicist at ESPCI Paris Institute of Technology in France. He and his colleagues describe the work in an upcoming Physical Review E.

Leidenfrost drops form when a drop hits a surface much hotter than the liquid's boiling temperature. The liquid evaporates so quickly that the droplet starts to float on its own vapor, cushioned from below. This insulating layer also reduces friction between the droplet and the surface. Given a push, a droplet 1 millimeter across can slide for several meters before finally slowing down and stopping.

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Gas Leak at Elgin Platform in North Sea 'Has Been Stopped'

from BBC News Online

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

Total said the operation had stopped the well leak within 12 hours and described the development as a "major turning point."

Yves-Louis Darricarrère, Total's president of exploration and production, said: "Our absolute priority was to stop the gas leak safely and as quickly as possible. We shall now fully complete the ongoing task and take into account the lessons learnt from this incident."

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Replication Studies: Bad Copy

from Nature News

For many psychologists, the clearest sign that their field was in trouble came, ironically, from a study about premonition. Daryl Bem, a social psychologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, showed student volunteers 48 words and then abruptly asked them to write down as many as they could remember. Next came a practice session: students were given a random subset of the test words and were asked to type them out. Bem found that some students were more likely to remember words in the test if they had later practised them. Effect preceded cause.

Bem published his findings in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology along with eight other experiments providing evidence for what he refers to as "psi," or psychic effects. There is, needless to say, no shortage of scientists sceptical about his claims. Three research teams independently tried to replicate the effect Bem had reported and, when they could not, they faced serious obstacles to publishing their results.

The episode served as a wake-up call. "The realization that some proportion of the findings in the literature simply might not replicate was brought home by the fact that there are more and more of these counterintuitive findings in the literature," says Eric-Jan Wagenmakers, a mathematical psychologist from the University of Amsterdam.

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In Choosing a Sperm Donor, a Roll of the Genetic Dice

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

Sharine and Brian Kretchmar of Yukon, Okla., tried a number of medical treatments to conceive a second child. After a depressing series of failures, a doctor finally advised them to find a sperm donor.

For more than a year, the Kretchmars carefully researched sperm banks and donors. The donor they chose was a family man, a Christian like them, they were told. Most important, he had a clean bill of health. His sperm was stored at the New England Cryogenic Center in Boston, and according to the laboratory's Web site, all donors there were tested for various genetic conditions.

So the Kretchmars took a deep breath and jumped in. After artificial insemination, Mrs. Kretchmar became pregnant, and in April 2010 she gave birth to a boy they named Jaxon. But the baby failed to have a bowel movement in the first day or so after birth, a sign to doctors that something was wrong. Eventually Jaxon was rushed to surgery. Doctors returned with terrible news for the Kretchmars: Their baby appeared to have cystic fibrosis.

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A New Frontier for Space Travel

from the Los Angeles Times (Registration Required)

For the last half-century, space flight has been the domain of the world's superpowers. All that is set to change as soon as Saturday when SpaceX, the private rocket company in Hawthorne, will attempt to launch a spaceship with cargo into orbit and three days later dock it with the International Space Station.

If successful, the mission could mean a major shift in the way the U.S. government handles space exploration. Instead of keeping space travel a closely guarded government function, NASA has already begun hiring privately funded start-up companies for spacecraft development and is moving toward eventually outsourcing NASA space missions.

The upcoming launch is "the first step in the handoff" to private industry, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. "Everybody realizes the importance of this mission," he said. "Nobody will be rooting against SpaceX."

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Paralyzed Patients Control Robotic Arm With Their Minds

from ScienceNOW Daily News

A thought-powered robotic arm could put independence within reach for disabled patients, researchers report. In a new study, two people with almost-complete body paralysis were able to reach and grasp small foam balls and a thermos of coffee with a robotic arm using only their brain signals to direct the motion. The result, a first for human subjects, brings scientists a step closer to restoring mobility for people with spinal cord injuries, lost limbs, and other conditions that limit movement.

Mind-melding between animals and machines isn't new; researchers have been attempting it since the 1970s. Past studies in brain-machine interfaces have enabled monkeys to control robotic arms and paralyzed people to control cursors on a screen.

But researchers didn't know if humans could control robotic arms to perform finer, more complex tasks, such as maneuvering in three dimensions and grasping a small object without moving it or knocking it over.

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Microscopic Neighbors, Evolving Together

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

It seems obvious that how different living things in a community or ecological system bump up against one another would affect how they evolve. That would include everything from the mix of fish in a lake to the bacteria, fungi and insects that coexist in rainwater that pools in the roots at the base of a beech tree.

But, says Diane Lawrence, a graduate student in biology at Imperial College London, what actually happens when a number of species grow together over generations has rarely been examined in the laboratory, since most studies of adaptation involve one species alone, or perhaps two species.

She and Timothy G. Barraclough, a professor of evolutionary biology at the college, and colleagues collected five species of bacteria from beech tree water pools. They ended up using only four species, because one didn't grow well in the lab. They grew each strain in isolation and all four strains together, feeding the bacteria tea made with autumn beech leaves.

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