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Science in the News Weekly

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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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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Science at the Top of the News for May 14-18

The essence of science explained in 63 seconds by Richard Feynman was most-viewed item last week by subscribers to Science in the News. Other popular stories included a New York Times Magazine piece on whether children as young as 9 can be classified as psychopaths and a new font for digits, called Fatfonts, that could become all the rage in infographics. Subscribe for free daily updates.

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Data Pile-Up at the Large Hadron Collider

The world's largest particle accelerator is delivering torrents of data to physicists. But the hundreds of millions of collisions happening inside the machine every second are now growing into a thick fog that, paradoxically, threatens to obscure a fabled quarry: the Higgs boson.

In other technology news, scientists say microbes that eat iron create tiny magnets inside themselves, similar to those in PC hard drives. The research may lead to the creation of much faster hard drives.

Japan is switching off its last working nuclear reactor, as part of the safety drive since the March 2011 tsunami triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima plant. The third reactor at the Tomari plant, in Hokkaido prefecture, is shutting down for routine maintenance. It leaves Japan without energy from atomic power for the first time in more than 40 years.

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Space Station Enters Research Phase Under Criticism

After more than a dozen years and at least $100 billion in construction costs, NASA says the International Space Station finally is ready to become the orbiting laboratory that the agency envisioned more than two decades ago.

In other space news, one of Europe's main contributions to the James Webb Space Telescope has been completed and is ready to ship to the U.S. The Mid-Infrared Instrument will gather key data as the $9 billion observatory seeks to identify the first starlight in the universe.

There is a new wrinkle in the search for life elsewhere in the universe. Scientists say a previously little-considered heating effect called tidal heating could shrink estimates of the habitable zone of the Milky Way's most numerous class of stars--'M' or red dwarfs--by up to one half.

The Fermi space telescope has recorded hundreds of gamma-ray bursts, flashes of light that, for just a few seconds or minutes, are the brightest objects in the universe. And now the telescope is yielding data that is starting to explain the mechanisms that unleash these beam-like jets of light.

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A 'More Nuanced Picture' of the Dinosaurs' End

Three young scientists examined the fossil record over the 12 million years leading up to the mass extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous geological period and concluded that a huge asteroid is still the central villain in the dinosaurs' extinction.

In other news of the ancient past, the smallest mammoth ever known roamed the island of Crete millions of years ago, researchers say. Adults were roughly the size of a modern baby elephant.

A newfound crocodile species may have been the largest to ever roam the Earth. Some 25 feet long, it trolled East African waters between 4 million and 2 million years ago and may have snacked on human ancestors, researchers said.

For centuries, scientists trying to describe the earliest life have relied on evidence provided by biology, studying what features modern life-forms have in common to deduce the most primitive components of cells. By working backward, biologists have developed proposals describing when and where such simple forms of life could have arisen.

Putting a place and date on the domestication of horses has been a challenge for archaeologists. Now a team of geneticists studying modern breeds of the animal has assembled an evolutionary picture of its storied past. Horses, the scientists conclude, were first domesticated 6000 years ago in the western part of the Eurasian Steppe, modern-day Ukraine and West Kazakhstan.

Dinosaurs may well have been tortured by large, flealike bloodsucking insects. Scientists in China have discovered Pseudopulex jurassicus and its cousin, Pseudopulex magnus--magnus as in "great."

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