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Thursday, August 28, 2008

MythBusters Tackle Moon Conspiracies: Behind the Scenes

On the eve of one of their biggest busts yet, PM contributing editors Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage explain how they made their own fake photos, built a moon set in an hour—and even went weightless themselves. No, they didn't build a rocket ship and actually go ... yet.

NASA Images Show Gamma Ray Bursts Across Milky Way


NASA researchers yesterday released images collected by a new telescope studying high-energy gamma rays. A combined image from 95 hours of the telescope's initial observations showed bursts of gamma rays glowing across the plane of the Milky Way.

The Gamma-Ray Large Area Space Telescope, renamed Fermi, was launched in June and is off to a promising start, NASA scientists said.

"I like to call it our extreme machine," said Jon Morse, the director of astrophysics for NASA. "It will help us crack the mysteries of these enormously powerful emissions."

Gamma rays are powerful light rays invisible to the naked eye. Because Earth's atmosphere absorbs gamma rays, they can be studied only from the edges of the visible universe.

Fermi is gathering data on gamma rays that originate near black holes and high-energy stars called pulsars.

Though much remains unknown, bursts of gamma rays are thought to be emitted from particles coming out of black holes and pulsars, said Peter Michelson, a Stanford physicist and a principal investigator for the mission.

"We don't yet understand the mechanism for how the particles that emit the gamma rays are accelerated," Michelson said. "We're not even sure what the nature of the particles are."

The study is a follow-up on work done by the Energetic Gamma-Ray Experiment Telescope, a mission that studied gamma rays from 1991 to 2000.

Fermi's technology allowed scientists to compile in days what took the first mission one year to do, said Steve Ritz, one of the project's scientists.

The telescope was renamed Fermi yesterday, after Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, because he is "today regarded as one of the top scientists of the 20th century," Ritz said.

The scientists hope that in the five to 10 years that it is in orbit, Fermi will be as remarkable as its namesake.

"This powerful space observatory will explore the most extreme of environments for us," Morse said.

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TV's 'Mythbusters' Tackle Moon Landing Hoax Claims

In 2005, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, special effects experts better known by the title of their popular Discovery Channel series, "MythBusters", were asked during an interview about the myth they would most like to test provided an unlimited budget.

"Jamie and I have done the research, and figured that the only way to end the debate about the 'myth' of the Apollo moon landing is to go there," Savage replied to Slashdot, a technology news website, about the belief held by some that the United States faked the lunar landings.

Three years later, the Mythbusters are ready to share the results of their 'trip' as they devote their next show, airing on Wednesday, to the moon landing hoax claims.

"We built a hybrid rocket that was fueled by poo and nitrous oxide — thought we had enough Teflon tape on the seals but the stink got through anyway. Too bad that the footage got lost in transit to the editors," Hyneman told collectSPACE.com, explaining that their limited budget would not cover the cost of regular rocket fuel.

Of course, he was joking.

"Dude, I sooo wished we could have gone there," Savage admitted.

So, with their feet firmly planted on the Earth (at least for most of the time, but more on that later), Hyneman and Savage, along with fellow Mythbusters Tory Belleci, Kari Byron and Grant Imahara, set out to use science to 'bust' or confirm the truth behind the hoaxers' claims.

Low hanging fruit

Hoax believers have had 40 years to devise reasons why the Apollo moon landings must have been filmed in an Earth-based studio. As special effects experts, Hyneman felt they were well suited for the subject.

First however, they needed to choose which parts of the myth to test.

"We looked at the ones that for some reason or other, seemed most prevalent," Savage explained in an e-mail interview.

"We took the low hanging fruit," Hyneman added. "The key idea was that the footage that proved we were there was a special effect. Adam and I are experienced effects artists, so it was natural for us to dig into it."

"We wanted to tackle the ones that actually take some experimentation to prove," Savage said.

To narrow the field however, the Mythbusters sought the assistance of someone very familiar with debunking the moon hoax myth, or they would have if he had not come calling first.

"I was actually first involved with the Mythbusters early on, when I was contacted by one of their producers asking if I had any astronomical myths for them to bust," shared Dr. Phil Plait, a.k.a. "The Bad Astronomer", in an interview with collectSPACE.com. An astronomer who worked with the Hubble Telescope, Plait created a website, Bad Astronomy, aimed at dispelling astronomy and science based myths, including the moon hoax, which expanded into books and his recent appointment as president of the James Randi Educational Foundation.

"I made some suggestions but sadly they didn't use any of them," Plait said. "I guess most of them don't make very good TV."

That early interaction, which was followed by meeting the Mythbusters at conferences, led to Plait establishing a relationship with the show. So he was surprised when a fellow astronomer contacted him about the Mythbusters investigating the moon hoax.

"I hadn't heard anything about [this show] so I fired off an e-mail to Adam Savage and said, 'What gives?' and he e-mailed me back and said, 'Oh oh oh, we're going to ask you about this,'" recalled Plait.

"Over the course of a few days, they were on the phone with me and a lot of other people who knew about, for example, the properties of the lunar surface, to try to figure out not just the best way of debunking the moon hoax but the best aspects of it... so they wanted to know which ones that they had found were the ones that I ran into and what were the best ways to tackle them. It was actually a lot of fun."

Ultimately, Hyneman, Savage and the others settled on three major areas of the hoax: how light interacted with the lunar surface, how the astronauts appeared to move in the low gravity of the Moon and how items behaved in the airless void of space.

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Strange Clouds at the Edge of Space

August 25, 2008: When in space, keep an eye on the window. You never know what you might see.

Last month, astronauts on board the International Space Station (ISS) witnessed a beautiful display of noctilucent or "night-shining" clouds. The station was located about 340 km over western Mongolia on July 22nd when the crew snapped this picture:

see caption

Above: Noctilucent clouds photographed by the crew of the ISS: more.

Atmospheric scientist Gary Thomas of the University of Colorado has seen thousands of noctilucent cloud (NLC) photos, and he ranks this one among the best. "It's lovely," he says. "And it shows just how high these clouds really are--at the very edge of space."

He estimates the electric-blue band was 83 km above Earth's surface, higher than 99.999% of our planet's atmosphere. The sky at that altitude is space-black. It is the realm of meteors, high-energy auroras and decaying satellites.

What are clouds doing up there? "That's what we're trying to find out," says Thomas.

People first noticed NLCs at the end of the 19th century after the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa. The Indonesian supervolcano hurled plumes of ash more than 50 km high in Earth's atmosphere. This produced spectacular sunsets and, for a while, turned twilight sky watching into a worldwide pastime. One evening in July 1885, Robert Leslie of Southampton, England, saw wispy blue filaments in the darkening sky. He published his observations in the journal Nature and is now credited with the discovery of noctilucent clouds.

Scientists of the 19th century figured the clouds were some curious manifestation of volcanic ash. Yet long after Krakatoa's ash settled, NLCs remained.

"It's a puzzle," says Thomas. "Noctilucent clouds have not only persisted, but also spread." In the beginning, the clouds were confined to latitudes above 50o; you had to go to places like Scandinavia, Siberia and Scotland to see them. In recent years, however, they have been sighted from mid-latitudes such as Washington, Oregon, Turkey and Iran:

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Above: Noctilucent clouds over Mt. Sabalan, a 15,784 ft extinct volcano in northwestern Iran. Photo credit: Siamak Sabet. [more]

"This year's apparition over Iran (pictured above) was splendid," says Thomas. The Persian clouds appeared on July 19th, just a few days before the ISS display, and were photographed from latitude 38o N. "That's pretty far south," he says.

The genesis and spread of these clouds is an ongoing mystery. Could they be signs of climate change? "The first sightings do coincide with the Industrial Revolution," notes Thomas. "But the connection is controversial."

NASA is investigating. The AIM satellite, launched in April 2007, is now in polar orbit where it can monitor the size, shape and icy make-up of NLCs. The mission is still in its early stages, but already some things have been learned. Thomas, an AIM co-Investigator, offers these highlights:

1. Noctilucent clouds appear throughout the polar summer, are widespread, and are highly variable on hourly to daily time scales. A movie made from daily AIM snapshots shows the 2007 NLC season unfolding over the north pole: watch it.

see captionRight: A daily snapshot of noctilucent cloud activity over the North Pole in 2007. Click on the image to set the scene in motion. Credit: AIM/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio.

2. There is a substantial population of invisible noctilucent clouds. Thomas explains: "NLCs are made of tiny ice crystals 40 to 100 nanometers wide—just the right size to scatter blue wavelengths of sunlight. This was known before AIM. The spacecraft has detected another population of much smaller ice crystals (<>

3. Some of the shapes in noctilucent clouds, resolved for the first time by AIM's cameras, resemble shapes in tropospheric clouds near Earth's surface. AIM science team members have described the similarities as "startling." The dynamics of weather at the edge of space may not be as unEarthly as previously supposed.

These findings are new and important, but they don't yet unravel the central mysteries:

Why did NLCs first appear in the 19th century?

Why are they spreading?

What is ice doing in a rarefied layer of Earth's upper atmosphere that is one hundred million times dryer than air from the Sahara desert?

AIM has just received a 3-year extension (from 2009 to 2012) to continue its studies. "We believe that more time in orbit and more data are going to help us answer these questions," says Thomas.

Meanwhile, it's a beautiful mystery. Just ask anyone at the edge of space.

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Yellowstone's Ancient Supervolcano: Only Lukewarm?

Molten plume of material beneath Yellowstone cooler than expected

Photo of a geyser in Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone National Park and its famous geysers are the remnants of an ancient supervolcano.
Credit and Larger Version

The geysers of Yellowstone National Park owe their eistence to the "Yellowstone hotspot"--a region of molten rock buried deep beneath Yellowstone, geologists have found.

But how hot is this "hotspot," and what's causing it?

In an effort to find out, Derek Schutt of Colorado State University and Ken Dueker of the University of Wyoming took the hotspot's temperature.

The scientists published results of their research, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF)'s division of earth sciences, in the August, 2008, issue of the journal Geology.

"Yellowstone is located atop of one of the few large volcanic hotspots on Earth," said Schutt. "But though the hot material is a volcanic plume, it's cooler than others of its kind, such as one in Hawaii."

When a supervolcano last erupted at this spot more than 600,000 years ago, its plume covered half of today's United States with volcanic ash. Details of the cause of the Yellowstone supervolcano's periodic eruptions through history are still unknown.

Thanks to new seismometers in the Yellowstone area, however, scientists are obtaining new data on the hotspot.

Past research found that in rocks far beneath southern Idaho and northwestern Wyoming, seismic energy from distant earthquakes slows down considerably.

Using the recently deployed seismometers, Schutt and Dueker modeled the effects of temperature and other processes that affect the speed at which seismic energy travels. They then used these models to make an estimate of the Yellowstone hotspot's temperature.

They found that the hotspot is "only" 50 to 200 degrees Celsius hotter than its surroundings.

"Although Yellowstone sits above a plume of hot material coming up from deep with the Earth, it's a remarkably 'lukewarm' plume," said Schutt, comparing Yellowstone to other plumes.

Although the Yellowstone volcano's continued existence is likely due to the upwelling of this hot plume, the plume may have become disconnected from its heat source in Earth's core.

"Disconnected, however, does not mean extinct," said Schutt. "It would be a mistake to write off Yellowstone as a 'dead' volcano. A hot plume, even a slightly cooler one, is still hot."

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Why Are 'Mama' and 'Dada' a Baby's First Words?

A baby's first words are often "mama" and "dada," much to the delight of parents. Now scientists think they know why.

Beyond the obvious — Mommy and Daddy are around a lot and babies are drawn to them — languages in many cultures have apparently made the task easy by creating words for mothers and fathers that feature patterns of repeating sounds, a new study suggests.

To arrive at this finding, brain scans were made of 22 newborns (age 2 days to 3 days) while they listened to recordings of made-up words. They heard words that end in repeating syllables, such as "mubaba" and "penana," as well as words without them, such as "mubage" and "penaku."

Brain activity increased in the babies' temporal and left frontal areas whenever the repetitious words were played. Words with non-adjacent repetitions ("bamuba" or "napena") elicited no distinctive responses from the brain.

This suggests "mama" and "dada" (or "papa") are well-chosen words to teach a baby, and it also indicates that the ability to more easily recognize these sorts of repetitive sounds is hard-wired in the human brain.

The research, led by University of British Columbia post-doctoral fellow Judit Gervain, was published online this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"It's probably no coincidence that many languages around the world have repetitious syllables in their 'child words,'" Gervain said, citing "papa" in Italian and "tata" (grandpa) in Hungarian as examples.

"The language center of most right-handed adults is located on the left side of the brain," Gervain said. "This is consistent with our finding with newborn babies and supports our belief humans are born with abilities that allow us to perceive and learn our mother tongue systematically and efficiently."

"The brain areas that are responsible for language in an adult do not 'learn' how to process language during development, but rather, they are specialized — at least in part — to process language from the start."

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Japanese physicists aim to unlock universe's mysteries

A worker shows the facilties of the worlds largest scale synchrotron 500m in diameter which produces neutrons and neutrino and can be used for research materials and life science at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) Tokai Research and development ...
A worker shows the facilties of the world's largest scale synchrotron 500m in diameter which produces neutrons and neutrino and can be used for research materials and life science at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) Tokai Research and development center at Tokai village in Ibaraki prefecture, in July.

As the world's scientists try to unzip mysteries about the universe, Japan is set to open its largest atomic science park to study the world at its smallest level.

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The Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex (J-PARC Center) -- a 150 billion yen (1.36 billion dollar) project almost entirely funded by the government -- will open in December as one of the world's three hubs of atomic science.

The gigantic complex in the nuclear research hub in Tokai, 100 kilometres (60 miles) northeast of Tokyo, is designed to help researchers study any object on Earth beneath the level of the atom.

By better understanding the world in such minute detail, researchers hope to bring benefits to a variety of fields including pharmaceuticals, food processing and ion batteries.

"As far as research results are made public, researchers can use these facilities for free," said Shoji Nagamiya, director of J-PARC Center.

As many as 57 companies, largely in pharmaceuticals as well as universities and other institutes, are considering research at the science park, where up to 23 studies can take place simultaneously.

"Researchers will be able to study some lighter atoms that X-rays cannot analyse, most notably those of water," said Kunihiro Suzuki, chief spokesman at the J-PARC Center.

"This means they could unzip the mechanism of any living organism -- whose main part consists of water -- and this will hopefully lead to further development of, for example, cosmetics and frozen food products," he said.

The research could also help in developing more advanced lithium ion batteries, Suzuki said. Such rechargeable batteries are widely used in electronics, but automakers are hoping to eventually use them to power eco-friendly cars.

The plant will also conduct experiments to track down neutrinos -- the elusive and miniscule elementary particles discharged in nuclear reactions.

Neutrinos are considered key to understanding the universe. The Sun and supernovas, or star explosions, send into the universe a mass of neutrinos, which do not appear to interact with mass and lack an electrical charge.

Trillions of neutrinos pass through every person's body each day without changing course, but scientists are not clear what their function is.

Tracking them down is no easy task. European physicists made history last year when they managed to take a snapshot of the very instant that a neutrino slammed into a laboratory detector.

In a project to start in April next year, about 400 scientists at the J-PARC Center will send trillions of neutrinos on a 295-kilometre (183-mile) trip through the Earth's crust to another lab in western Japan.

Invisible to the naked eye, each neutrino will make the entire journey in a mere 1,000th of one second.

Scientists only hope to be able to detect 10 or 20 neutrinos a day from the J-PARC Center. But the experiment is still seen as significant as it could help explain one of the universe's biggest mysteries -- its infinite nature.

The neutrinos are being sent to a lab called Super Kamiokande, which was constructed by 2002 Nobel Prize physicist Masatoshi Koshiba.

Koshiba and his team have detected neutrinos set off by a supernova in an effort to understand the birth of the universe.

The world's two other hubs for atom physics are in the United States, which has government-run laboratories in Illinois and Tennessee, and Western Europe, with laboratories in Britain, Germany and on the French-Swiss border.

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Arctic Sea Ice Drops to 2nd Lowest Level on Record

By The Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - Arctic Ocean sea ice has melted to the second lowest minimum since satellite observations began, according to scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Sea ice melt recorded on Monday exceeded the low recorded in 2005, which had held second place.

With several weeks left in the melt season, ice in summer 2008 has a chance to diminish below the record low set last year, according to scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Environmental groups said the ice melt was another alarm bell warning of global warming.

"It's an unfortunate sign that climate change is coming rapidly to the Arctic and that we really need to address the issue of global warming on a national level," said Christopher Krenz, Arctic project manager for Oceana.

"This is not surprising but it is alarming," said Deborah Williams, a former Interior Department special assistant for Alaska. "This was a relatively cool summer, and to have ice decrease to the second lowest minimum on record demonstrates that global warming's ongoing impact is profound."

The National Snow and Ice Data Center, based at the University of Colorado, reported the ice Monday melted below the 2005 minimum of 2.05 million square miles set on Sept. 21 that year. Exact figures will be released Wednesday.

Through the beginning of the melt season in May until early August, daily ice extent for 2008 closely tracked the values for 2005, the center said.

In early August 2005, the decline began to slow. In August 2008, however, the decline has remained steadily downward at a brisk pace.

The most recent ice retreat primarily reflects melt in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast and the East Siberian Seas off the coast of eastern Russia, according to the center.

The Chukchi Sea is home to one of two populations of Alaska polar bears.

Federal observers flying for a whale survey on Aug. 16 spotted nine polar bears swimming in open ocean in the Chukchi Sea. The bears were 15 to 65 miles off the Alaska shore. Some were swimming north, apparently trying to reach the polar ice edge, which on that day was 400 miles away.

Polar bears are powerful swimmers and have been recorded on swims of 100 miles but the ordeal can leave them exhausted and susceptible to drowning in high seas.

Sea ice is the primary habitat of polar bears. They depend on it to hunt their primary prey, ringed seals, which create lairs on ice for breeding maintain breathing holes with powerful claws.

Summer sea ice last year shrunk to about 1.65 million square miles, nearly 40 percent less than the long-term average between 1979 and 2000. Most climate modelers predict a continued downward spiral, possibly with an Arctic Ocean that's ice free during summer months by 2030 or sooner.

Krenz said the announcement Tuesday showed that last year's record low sea ice was not an anomaly. As ice covers fewer square miles of ocean, he said, warming will accelerate.

"It's going to accelerate climate change through changes in the reflectance of the Arctic," he said. "It's going from bright ice to a much darker ocean."

More square miles of dark ocean will absorb more heat. More warmth will accelerate melting of Arctic permafrost, allowing organic matter now frozen to melt and add to the greenhouse gas problem, he said.

"That allows for the breakdown of that by bacteria and other organisms that release CO2 or methane, depending on how the breakdown occurs," he said.

The effects faced by people in the Arctic eventually will reach the rest of the nation and the world, he warned.

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Why do We Sleep? -Scientists Search for the Answer

Sleeplearning For many of us, sleep is a precious gift, akin to coffee, that was gifted to us early on in our evolution. But scientists have long been completely baffled as to just why we sleep, and just what constitutes sleep anyway. A new study attempts to address just why we sleep.

"We don't understand the purpose of sleep, but it must be important because all animals do it," Chiara Cirelli and Giulio Tononi, the study authors say, who describes the search for sleep as like the search for the mythological phoenix.

Some scientists believe that sleep is not important by itself in mammals and birds, and is just a way to impose a quiet and immobile state. Cirelli and Tononi reject this opinion, pointing to the fact that, so far, there has been no evidence of any animal not sleeping.

Even the dolphin, which is often used as an example of an animal that does not sleep because it keeps moving, has developed its own method of sleeping. The dolphin shuts down one half of its brain, swimming with one eye closed, and exhibiting the slow waves characteristic of deep sleep.

"The very fact that dolphins have developed the remarkable specialization . . ., rather than merely getting rid of sleep altogether, should count as evidence that sleep must serve some essential function and cannot be eliminated," Cirelli says.

Cirelli also points to sleep deprivation, and the after-effect of having gone a long time without sleep, as examples of the necessity of it. Sleep deprivation has been shown to kill animals like rats, flies and cockroaches, as well as humans who suffer from genetic insomnia. And when a human rebounds from lack of sleep, they sleep for a long time to recuperate.

Their hypothesis suggests that sleep acts as a way for the brain to regroup after a hard day. Sleep theoretically gives the synapses – which have been escalating in strength during the day – a chance to slow down again, and return to a base level. Given that the brain uses 80% of its energy in order to keep the synaptic activity happening, there is an obvious need for the brain to rest.

They also suggest that sleep allows for the consolidation of new memories, and the trashing of older, random and unimportant memories from the day passed. This theoretically allows for more learning the following day. "While there may still be no consensus on why animals need to sleep, it would seem that searching for a core function of sleep, particularly at the cellular level, is still a worthwhile exercise," Cirelli concludes.

Posted by Josh Hill.

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Babies can recognise emotion in faces

By Roger Highfield, Science Editor

Babies as young as four months are able to recognise emotions in people's faces, according to a new study.
Scientists found that even before they start talking babies are able to pick up on "non-verbal" signals we use to communicate, such as the eyebrows being raised by a smile to indicate friendship.

By using near infrared light to take an image of brains of infants, researchers in London found that they use the same brain regions that adults do when they look at the gaze of another, a foundation for social interactions that appears critical for social development and might go wrong in conditions such as autism.

Dr Tobias Grossman, Prof Gergely Csibra, Prof Mark Johnson and colleagues at The Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, Birkbeck, University of London, working with Prof Clare Ewell of University College London. report the study today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences.

Four-month-old infants took part in two scenarios in which a face either established mutual gaze or averted its gaze, both of which were followed by an eyebrow raise with an accompanying smile.

The team studied the blood oxygenation of the infant brain, as measured by near infra red light and also by a net of electrical sensors in a method called EEG that picks up brain waves.

They show that a gaze activates parts of the cortex, the rind of the brain, where the equivalent job of monitoring gazes is done by adults (the temporal and prefrontal cortex).

Babies can pick up on gaze, even when looking at a face sideways on. "In four -month-old babies we demonstrate very early specialisation, and indeed, an adult-like pattern of activation of the brain regions that process face-to-face social interaction," said Dr Grossman.

Studies in other labs already show that toddlers with autism have difficulty making eye contact. Dr Grossman says that future work will focus on how important this aspect of development is for social skills.

"The main goal of my work is to understand the brain mechanisms that underlie typical (healthy) social development. But I still hope that once we better understand healthy development that we can use this knowledge to look into what might go awry in neurodevelopmental disorders."

"We are not claiming it could diagnose autism - merely that it may prove a useful early warning signal," added Prof Johnson, whos work is backed by the MRC and Wellcome Trust.

Pioneering work by Prof Johnson at Birkbeck, which has one of the world's leading baby labs, has shown that infants are interested in faces and that newborn babies not only prefer to look at faces that have open eyes but also exhibit a strong tendency to attend to faces that engage them in mutual gaze as compared to averted gaze.

It has been argued that an early sensitivity to eye gaze serves as a major foundation for later development of social skills and that insensitivity to where another is looking could be an early sign of disorders such as autism.

"What we did not know before is which brain systems young infants use to process face-to-face communication and whether these brain systems and processes are similar to those employed by adults (i.e. whether they specialise early in development)," said Dr Grossman.

By comparison, the so-called fusiform face area, which enables us to recognise another person's face, takes up to a decade to develop this level of specialisation. This dovetails with a study that came out a few weeks ago in PLoS ONE where Dr Roberto Caldara at the University of Glasgow found that cultural differences cause us to look at faces differently.

Another brain scan study by Dr Jack Nitschke at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, published in the journal NeuroImage, found that when a new mother gazes at her baby, it's not just her mood that lights up - it's also a brain region called the orbitofrontal cortex associated with emotion processing, confirming what all mothers know: just looking at baby makes them happy.

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Goblin shark caught on video

Japan seems to have a knack for turning up weird deep-sea sharks. Last year, we wrote about a frilled shark that had wandered into shallow Japanese waters, offering us astonishing footage. Someone just sent me this video, which was also filmed in Japan last year:



The creature featured is a Mitsukurina owstoni, or goblin shark, which lives between 100 metres and 1000 metres beneath the waves. It gets its common name from the Japanese, who nicknamed it after their long-nosed supernatural creatures, the tengu.

The coolest thing about it is its Alien-like retractable jaw, which seems to leap out of its mouth to catch its prey - mostly teleost fish and squid, according to one of the few studies of the species published in Ichthyological Research in 2007.

Goblin sharks aren't only found in Japan - they've been seen in New Zealand, the North Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico, Surinam, France, Portugal and more. Sightings are rare, sometimes the consequence of a shark getting caught in a gillnet, but the World Conservation Union does not deem them in danger of extinction.

Sadly, the specimen in the video died shortly after it was caught and placed in a pressure chamber.

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Scientists say hydrogen could be “easily” produced from water and sunlight

Chicago (IL) – Hydrogen shapes up to become one of the most important fuels for the future, but scientists need to overcome substantial hurdles to enable an efficient production of hydrogen. We increasingly hear about ideas that suggest that future engines in fact may be able to run on water, breaking down water into oxygen and hydrogen right where it is needed. This process requires significant input energy, which, according to scientist could be provided by sunlight.

The production of hydrogen and implications of the amount of energy that is required to create it has been met with lots of skepticism, especially if the burning of fossil fuels is involved. Scientists from Monash University in Australia, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia and Princeton University in the U.S., however, believe they can completely circumvent fossil fuels by applying photolysis, a method to split water using the energy contained in light.

According to an article published in the German journal Angewandte Chemie, the research group claims that has developed a catalyst that “effectively catalyzes” one of the necessary half reactions required by this process, the photooxidation of water representing an anodic half-cell. The catalyst is a manganese-containing complex modeled after those found in photosynthetic organisms, the scientists said.

Image

The basic idea behind creating hydrogen is electrolysis, which is described as the reverse of the process that can be seen in a battery – electrical energy is converted in chemical energy and the goal, of course, is to do this in the most efficient way possible. Electrolysis consists of two half reactions: At the cathode, protons (positively charged hydrogen ions) are reduced to hydrogen, whereas the oxidation of water produces oxygen at the anode. Sunlight and photocatalysts are believed to hold one key to jumpstart this process.

The scientists said they used a manganese oxo complex with a cubic core made of four manganese and four oxygen atoms capped by ancillary phosphinate molecules as a catalyst. The catalytically active species is formed when energy from light causes the release of one the capping molecules from the cube. However, the manganese complex is not soluble in water. The researchers claim to have overcome this problem by coating one electrode with a thin Nafion membrane. Housed within the aqueous channels of this membrane, the catalytic species is stabilized and apparently has good access to the water molecules, completing the anodic half cell.

The scientists said that their development “could be easily paired with a catalytic hydrogen-producing cathode cell” in order to create an entire photoelectrochemical cell that “produces pure hydrogen and oxygen from water and sunlight”.

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Killing bacteria with cannabis

By Yun Xie

Pharmacists and chemists have found another use for the multipurpose cannabis as a source of antibacterial chemicals for multidrug resistant bacteria. Ironically, inhaling cannabis is known to damage the lung's ability to fend off invading pathogens, but the ingredients in cannabis, particularly the cannabinoids, have antiseptic properties. Although scattered research has been conducted since the 1950s, no comprehensive study existed that relates the structure of cannabinoids with antibacterial activity. Giovanni Appendino, Simon Gibbons, and coworkers attempted to remedy that problem by examining the activity of five common cannabinoids and their synthetic derivatives.


Five of the most common cannabinoids.

All five cannabinoids (THC, CBD, CBG, CBC, and CBN) were potent against bacteria. Notably, they performed well against bacteria that were known to be multidrug resistant, like the strains of MRSA that plagued U.K. hospitals. CBD and CBG have the most potential for consumer use because they are nonpsychotropic.

Besides identifying antibacterial capability, the researchers wanted to figure out why these cannabinoids are so good at killing bacteria. They obviously are very effective at specifically targeting some vital process in the bacteria. Unfortunately, even after extensive work at modifying the cannabinoids and comparing their activities, that targeting mechanism remains a mystery. The scientists were able to figure out that the position of the n-pentyl chain (orange) relative to the terpenoid moiety (blue) serves to control lipid affinity.

These cannabinoids are promising enough to warrant rigorous clinical trials. They are applicable as topical antiseptics, biodegradable antibacterial compounds for cosmetics, and systematic antibacterial agents.

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Israel to Display the Dead Sea Scrolls on the Internet

By ETHAN BRONNER

JERUSALEM — In a crowded laboratory painted in gray and cooled like a cave, half a dozen specialists embarked this week on a historic undertaking: digitally photographing every one of the thousands of fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls with the aim of making the entire file — among the most sought-after and examined documents on earth — available to all on the Internet.


Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times

From left, three views of a fragment of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls: a plain digital image, a color scan and an infrared scan.

Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times

Simon Tanner is leading a team at Israel's museum who are digitalizing the Dead sea scrolls.

Equipped with high-powered cameras with resolution and clarity many times greater than those of conventional models, and with lights that emit neither heat nor ultraviolet rays, the scientists and technicians are uncovering previously illegible sections and letters of the scrolls, discoveries that could have significant scholarly impact.

The 2,000-year-old scrolls, found in the late 1940s in caves near the Dead Sea east of Jerusalem, contain the earliest known copies of every book of the Hebrew Bible (missing only the Book of Esther), as well as apocryphal texts and descriptions of rituals of a Jewish sect at the time of Jesus. The texts, most of them on parchment but some on papyrus, date from the third century B.C. to the first century A.D.

Only a handful of the scrolls exist in large pieces, with several on permanent exhibit at the Israel Museum here in its dimly lighted Shrine of the Book. Most of what was found is separated into 15,000 fragments that make up about 900 documents, fueling a longstanding debate on how to order the fragments as well as the origin and meaning of what is written on them.

The scrolls’ contemporary history has been something of a tortured one because they are among the most important sources of information on Jewish and early Christian life. After their initial discovery they were tightly held by a small circle of scholars. In the last 20 years access has improved significantly, and in 2001 they were published in their entirety. But debate over them seems only to grow.

Scholars continually ask the Israel Antiquities Authority, the custodian of the scrolls, for access to them, and museums around the world seek to display them. Next month, the Jewish Museum of New York will begin an exhibition of six of the scrolls.

The keepers of the scrolls, people like Pnina Shor, head of the conservation department of the antiquities authority, are delighted by the intense interest but say that each time a scroll is exposed to light, humidity and heat, it deteriorates. She says even without such exposure there is deterioration because of the ink used on some of the scrolls as well as the residue from the Scotch tape used by the 1950s scholars in piecing together fragments.

The entire collection was photographed only once before — in the 1950s using infrared — and those photographs are stored in a climate-controlled room because they show things already lost from some of the scrolls. The old infrared pictures will also be scanned in the new digital effort.

“The project began as a conservation necessity,” Ms. Shor explained. “We wanted to monitor the deterioration of the scrolls and realized we needed to take precise photographs to watch the process. That’s when we decided to do a comprehensive set of photos, both in color and infrared, to monitor selectively what is happening. We realized then that we could make the entire set of pictures available online to everyone, meaning that anyone will be able to see the scrolls in the kind of detail that no one has until now.”

The process will probably take one to two years — more before it is available online — and is being led by Greg Bearman, who retired from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Data collection is directed by Simon Tanner of Kings College London.

Jonathan Ben-Dov, a professor of biblical studies at the University of Haifa, is taking part in the digitalization project. Watching the technicians gingerly move a fragment into place for a photograph, he said that it had long been very difficult for senior scholars to get access.

Once this project is completed, he said with wonder, “every undergraduate will be able to have a detailed look at them from numerous angles.”

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Fortune favours the brave; but the brave are motivated by favours of another kind

From the heroic 300 Spartans of Thermopylae to the Charge of the Light Brigade, history is littered with tales of the bravery of men who knew that death was as likely an outcome as glory.

Such courage has always been recognised as a supreme asset by military strategists — Carl von Clausewitz, the 19th-century Prussian theorist, described it as “above all things . . . the first quality of a warrior”. For biologists, however, it poses a problem: humans simply should not have evolved to be heroic: the dangers to life and limb are too great.

Now, it appears, the solution to this evolutionary puzzle may lie in sex. New research suggests that braver soldiers may ultimately win more sexual partners as well as more battles, and that the extra chances to spread their genes can outweigh the risk of dying in combat.

Natural selection deals brutally with qualities that hurt organisms’ chances of survival and reproduction, and few ways of harming these prospects are quite as blatant as a heroic charge on enemy lines. American scientists have now shown how such courage could have evolved in the small tribal societies of human prehistory.

The study, by Laurent Lehmann and Marcus Feldman, of Stanford University in California, suggests that great bravery can have evolutionary benefits under certain circumstances, despite its obvious dangers.

If courage makes it significantly more likely that small bands of tribes-men will win military confrontations with their neighbours, its overall advantages can easily outweigh its risks, a mathematical model has shown.

Some men who carry genetic variants that promote bravery might perish because of them, but the ones who survive may win more battles through their greater daring. The resulting opportunities for rape and pillage can create a net evolutionary benefit.

By having sex with their vanquished enemies’ wives and children, and by taking land on which their own womenfolk could grow or gather more food, particularly courageous and successful warriors would have more offspring who share their genes. “This has consequences for our understanding of the evolution of intertribal interactions, as hunter-gatherer societies are well known to have frequently raided neighbouring groups from whom they appropriated territory, goods and women,” the scientists said.

In the research, details of which are published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society, Dr Lehmann and Dr Feldman concentrated on two traits that they imagined might affect societies’ capacity and aptitude for war: bravery and belligerence.

They assumed that tribes with a high proportion of belligerent men would be more likely to attack rival groups, while those with a high proportion of brave men were more likely to win such battles. Both traits, however, also increased the chances of death.

While neither of these qualities is controlled by a single gene, the scientists imagined the emergence of single genetic variants that promoted one trait or the other. The multiple genes that influence bravery or belligerence can be assumed to have evolved in a similar way.

The scientists concentrated on the likely effects among small bands of hunter-gatherers, living in an environment in which rival groups competed intensely for food and shelter.

It is thought that people have lived in such groups for most of our evolutionary history, and that these conditions are thus the main ones that have influenced the development of the human brain and temperament.

The model demonstrated that belligerence or bravery genes could spread quite rapidly, despite the increased risk of death, if the conquest of neighbouring tribes brought a group one of two significant advantages. The first was increased opportunities for men to have sex and father offspring, in this case through capturing the women of a defeated tribe. The second was the capture of extra territory, or other material resources.

While the findings do not explain the emergence of belligerence or bravery, or shed any light on what the genes that might affect these traits might be, they do show a mechanism by which they could have evolved.

“We show that the selective pressure on these two traits can be substantial even in groups of large size, and that they may be driven by two independent, reproduction-enhancing resources: additional mates for males and additional territory (or resources) for females,” the scientists said.

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Tequila endangered by switch to biofuels

Tequila could become a thing of the past as Mexico appears to be turning its back on the cactus-like plant from which the country's national tipple is made, in favour of more profitable crops.

America's increasing demand for ethanol has caused global commodity prices to spiral upwards and encouraged farmers of blue agave, the origin of tequila, to switch to more profitable cash crops, such as wheat and corn.

Mexican farmer  harvests agave for making tequila
Mexican farmer harvests agave for making tequila

Mexican farmer harvesting agave which is used to make tequila

Corn currently sells for a record 18 cents a pound as US motorists turn towards biofuels in an attempt to avoid the soaring cost of petrol - now $2 a gallon.

In contrast, agave, which was worth approximately 80 cents a pound six years ago, now sells for less than two cents.

As a result, farmers have taken the difficult decision to let their agave crops burn to clear the way for more lucrative crops.

One farmer, Miguel Ramirez, told USA Today: "I'm going to get out of agave completely. Corn is where the money is now."

Mexican officials say farmers planted up to 35 per cent less agave in 2007 and expect the trend to continue this year.

Agave takes six years to grow and therefore any shortage in supply cannot be properly filled when the realisation takes hold.

Raudel Lopez Sandoval, a Mexican farmer, said the boom-and-bust nature of the tequila industry was a problem.

Speaking to USA Today, he said: "You tend agave for six years, and then the price drops on you or you get hit with a freeze or something.

It's a lot of investment to lose whereas beans grow fast."

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Arctic Sea Ice Nears Record Low

A chunk of ice drifts
A chunk of ice drifts after it separated from the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf off the north coast of Ellesmere Island in Canada.

By AP/DAN JOLING

Arctic Ocean sea ice has melted to the second lowest minimum since satellite observations began, according to scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Sea ice melt recorded on Monday exceeded the low recorded in 2005, which had held second place.

With several weeks left in the melt season, ice in summer 2008 has a chance to diminish below the record low set last year, according to scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Environmental groups said the ice melt was another alarm bell warning of global warming.

"It's an unfortunate sign that climate change is coming rapidly to the Arctic and that we really need to address the issue of global warming on a national level," said Christopher Krenz, Arctic project manager for Oceana.

"This is not surprising but it is alarming," said Deborah Williams, a former Interior Department special assistant for Alaska. "This was a relatively cool summer, and to have ice decrease to the second lowest minimum on record demonstrates that global warming's ongoing impact is profound."

The National Snow and Ice Data Center, based at the University of Colorado, reported the ice Monday melted below the 2005 minimum of 2.05 million square miles set on Sept. 21 that year. Exact figures will be released Wednesday.

Through the beginning of the melt season in May until early August, daily ice extent for 2008 closely tracked the values for 2005, the center said.

In early August 2005, the decline began to slow. In August 2008, however, the decline has remained steadily downward at a brisk pace.

The most recent ice retreat primarily reflects melt in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast and the East Siberian Seas off the coast of eastern Russia, according to the center.

The Chukchi Sea is home to one of two populations of Alaska polar bears.

Federal observers flying for a whale survey on Aug. 16 spotted nine polar bears swimming in open ocean in the Chukchi Sea. The bears were 15 to 65 miles off the Alaska shore. Some were swimming north, apparently trying to reach the polar ice edge, which on that day was 400 miles away.

Polar bears are powerful swimmers and have been recorded on swims of 100 miles but the ordeal can leave them exhausted and susceptible to drowning in high seas.

Sea ice is the primary habitat of polar bears. They depend on it to hunt their primary prey, ringed seals, which create lairs on ice for breeding maintain breathing holes with powerful claws.

Summer sea ice last year shrunk to about 1.65 million square miles, nearly 40 percent less than the long-term average between 1979 and 2000. Most climate modelers predict a continued downward spiral, possibly with an Arctic Ocean that's ice free during summer months by 2030 or sooner.

Krenz said the announcement Tuesday showed that last year's record low sea ice was not an anomaly. As ice covers fewer square miles of ocean, he said, warming will accelerate.

"It's going to accelerate climate change through changes in the reflectance of the Arctic," he said. "It's going from bright ice to a much darker ocean."

More square miles of dark ocean will absorb more heat. More warmth will accelerate melting of Arctic permafrost, allowing organic matter now frozen to melt and add to the greenhouse gas problem, he said.

"That allows for the breakdown of that by bacteria and other organisms that release CO2 or methane, depending on how the breakdown occurs," he said.

The effects faced by people in the Arctic eventually will reach the rest of the nation and the world, he warned.

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U.S. Could Cut Fuel Use 50% by 2035

Almost half of Australia untouched by humans: study

By Rob Taylor

CANBERRA (Reuters) - More than 40 percent of Australia, an area the size of India, remains untouched by humans, making the country as critical to the world's environment as the Amazon rainforests, a study said on Wednesday.

Australia has some of the last great wilderness, with three million square kilometers (1.1 million square miles) largely unchanged by industrial civilization, a report for international conservation watchdogs the Pew Environment Group and Nature Conservancy said.

"It's rare on earth in this century," Australian wildlife ecologist and report author Barry Traill told local radio. "We need to hold onto this country. It's just so precious," he said.

Australia was one of five great remaining wilderness zones, along with Antarctica, the Amazon, the Sahara Desert and Canada's northern Boreal, the report said.

Most of the untouched areas were in the country's vast interior and northern savanna, including largely Aboriginal Arnhem Land, northern Cape York Peninsula, the vast southwest Nullarbor plain and the central Gibson desert.

Pristine areas faced their biggest threat from introduced feral animal and plant species including pigs, rabbits, foxes, buffaloes and noxious weeds, the report said.

"Around that core of wild lands, hundreds of millions more acres are healthy enough that they can still support the maintenance of resilient ecosystems," Pew said on its website.

In addition to its wilderness treasures, Australia had some of the world's most protected marine areas, with the Great Barrier Reef the largest living organism, it said.

Australia, the world's oldest continent, ranked first globally for the total number of unique native mammal and reptile species, and among the top five countries in total numbers of endemic plants, birds and amphibians.

Traill said Australia's government should be recruiting up to 5,000 extra Aboriginal rangers to act as guardians of untouched areas, with only 10 percent of the country currently protected as parklands and reserve.

"If you drive through and see these vast areas of bushland, it looks in pretty good shape, but there are subtle changes happening, and we need to get people back out there managing it," he said.

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Cyanobacteria: The Next Big Biofuel?