Sunday, February 1, 2009

Is there a Planet X?

by Govert Schilling

Artist's conception of a Kuiper Belt Object. These icy bits of debris pepper space from Neptune's orbit at 30 astronomical units out to around 50 AU (Image: T Pyle (SSC) / JPL-Caltech / NASA)

Artist's conception of a Kuiper Belt Object. These icy bits of debris pepper space from Neptune's orbit at 30 astronomical units out to around 50 AU (Image: T Pyle (SSC) / JPL-Caltech / NASA)

If we know enough to say the solar system is a filigree construction, we might reasonably assume we know where all its bits are. But lurking in the solar system's dark recesses, rumour has it, is an unsighted world - Planet X, a frozen body perhaps as large as Mars, or even Earth.

Planet X would be the most significant addition to the solar system since the discovery of Pluto, the now notorious non-planet, in 1930. When the International Astronomical Union voted to downgrade Pluto to dwarf planet status in 2006, they established three criteria for a fully blown planet in our solar system: it must orbit the sun; its gravity must suffice to mould it into a near-spherical shape; and it must be massive enough to have ploughed its orbit clear of other bits and bobs. Pluto falls down on this third point. It is just one of many Kuiper belt objects (KBOs), icy bits of debris that pepper space from Neptune's orbit at 30 astronomical units out to around 50 AU, where 1 AU is the distance between Earth and the sun.

Any new object would have to be well clear of the Kuiper belt to qualify as a planet. Yet intriguingly, it is studies of the belt that have suggested the planet's existence. Some KBOs travel in extremely elongated orbits around the sun. Others have steep orbits almost at right angles to the orbits of all the major planets. "Those could be signs of perturbation from a massive distant object," says Robert Jedicke, a solar system scientist at the University of Hawaii.

That is by no means a general consensus. An early, slow outward migration of the giant planets (see "How was the solar system built?") could also explain some of these strange KBO orbits - although it has difficulty explaining all of the belt's observed properties.

Over the past 20 years, huge swaths of the sky have been searched for slowly moving bodies, and well over 1000 KBOs found. But these wide-area surveys can spot only large, bright objects; longer-exposure surveys that can find smaller, dimmer objects cover only small areas of the sky. A Mars-sized object at a distance of, say, 100 AU would be so faint that it could easily have escaped detection.

That could soon change. In December 2008, the first prototype of the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) was brought into service at the Haleakala observatory on Maui, Hawaii. Soon, four telescopes - equipped with the world's largest digital cameras, at 1.4 billion pixels apiece - will search the skies for anything that blinks or moves. Its main purpose is to look out for potentially hazardous asteroids bound for Earth, but inhabitants of the outer solar system will not escape its all-seeing eyes.

Jedicke and his team are busy developing software to spot objects automatically using Pan-STARRS. The discovery of a further planet would be thrilling, he says. The only explanation for its presence there would be that large bodies coalesced very early in the solar system's history, only to be ejected by the gravity of the giant planets later on. That would firm up our ideas about how the solar system must have developed, and perhaps be a stepping stone towards its even more distant recesses (see "Where do comets come from?").

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Why are the sun and moon the same size in the sky?

by Marcus Chown


The "diamond ring" effect is seen toward the end of a total solar eclipse, as the Moon just begins to reveal the Sun's bright surface (photosphere) at the end of totality. This eclipse was photographed from Bolivia on 3 November 1994 (Image: Reverend Ronald Royer / SPL)

It is one of the most glorious pieces of natural theatre. Assuming you spend your life on the same part of the Earth's surface, you might witness it once - if you are particularly lucky or very long-lived, perhaps twice. But a total solar eclipse is worth the wait. At the height of totality, the fit of sun and moon is so perfect that beads of sunlight can only penetrate to us through the rugged valleys on the lunar surface, creating the stunning "diamond ring" effect.

It is all thanks to a striking coincidence. The sun is about 400 times as wide as the moon, but it is also 400 times further away. The two therefore look the same size in the sky - a unique situation among our solar system's eight planets and 166 known moons. Earth is also the only planet to harbour life. Pure coincidence?

Almost undoubtedly, say most astronomers. But perhaps it is not so much of one as the bare numbers suggest. Our moon is different. The many moons of the large outer planets - Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune - are thought to have originated through one of two processes: from the accretion of a disc of material in the planet's gravity field, in a miniature version of the formation of the solar system's planets, or through the later gravitational capture of passing small bodies. The second possibility is also thought to account for Mars's two small satellites, Deimos and Phobos, the only other moons in the inner solar system.

But our moon is simply too big relative to Earth's own size to have formed easily by either of these processes. Planetary scientists believe there can be only one explanation: in the first 100 million years of the solar system, when unattached debris was still zinging around the inner solar system, a Mars-sized object smashed into Earth. That impact radically remodelled our planet, expelling a huge amount of debris that eventually congealed into our oversized moon.

And here's the best bit. Such a big moon is a big boon for life on Earth. As Earth spins on its own axis, it has a natural tendency to wobble, owing to the varying pull on it from other bodies such as the sun. The unseen hand of the moon's gravity gently damps that wobble, preventing rotational instabilities which would otherwise have caused dramatic changes in Earth's climatic zones over time. Such instabilities would have made it much more tricky for life to get started on our planet.

Earth's position in the "habitable zone" around the sun where liquid water is abundant is undoubtedly the single most important factor in its fecundity. But the presence of a large moon - one large enough to cause total eclipses - might also have been crucial. If so, that has important consequences for the search for life on other planets.

Since the impact that created it, the moon has been moving steadily away from us, currently about 3.8 centimetres per year. The dinosaurs did not see eclipses like we do: the moon was too close 200 million years ago, more than big enough in the sky to block out the entire sun. Equally, any occupants of Earth in a couple of hundred million years' time will not see total eclipses at all, as the moon will appear too small.

Our luck seems the result of two coincident timescales: that of the recession of an impact-formed moon, and that for the evolution of intelligent life. If you should be fortunate enough to experience a total eclipse in your lifetime, consider this intriguing possibility: that large moon might be the reason you are there.

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Mars rising?

Why NASA should give up its ambitions to send men into space

Illustration by Claudio Munoz

AS LONG as people have looked up at the night sky, they have wondered whether humanity is alone in the universe. Of places close enough for people to visit, Mars is the only one that anybody seriously thinks might support life. The recent confirmation of a five-year-old finding that there is methane in the Martian atmosphere has therefore excited the hopes of exobiologists—particularly as the sources of three large plumes of the gas now seem to have been located. These sources are probably geological but they might, just, prove to be biological.

The possibility of life on Mars is too thrilling for mankind to ignore. But how should we explore such questions—with men, or machines? Since America is the biggest spender in space, its approach will heavily influence the world’s. George Bush’s administration strongly supported manned exploration, but the new administration is likely to have different priorities—and so it should.

Bug-eyed monsters

Michael Griffin, the boss of American’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a physicist and aerospace engineer who supported Mr Bush’s plan to return to the moon and then push on to Mars, has gone. Mr Obama’s transition team had already been asking difficult questions of NASA, in particular about the cost of scrapping parts of the successor to the ageing and obsolete space shuttles that now form America’s manned space programme. That successor system is also designed to return humans to the moon by 2020, as a stepping stone to visiting Mars. Meanwhile, Mr Obama’s administration is wondering about spending more money on lots of new satellites designed to look down at the Earth, rather than outward into space.

These are sensible priorities. In space travel, as in politics, domestic policy should usually trump grandiose foreign adventures. Moreover, cash is short and space travel costly. Yet it would be a shame if man were to give up exploring celestial bodies, especially if there is a possibility of meeting life forms—even ones as lowly as microbes—as a result.

Luckily, technology means that man can explore both the moon and Mars more fully without going there himself. Robots are better and cheaper than they have ever been. They can work tirelessly for years, beaming back data and images, and returning samples to Earth. They can also be made sterile, which germ-infested humans, who risk spreading disease around the solar system, cannot.

Humanity, some will argue, is driven by a yearning to boldly go to places far beyond its crowded corner of the universe. If so, private efforts will surely carry people into space (though whether they should be allowed to, given the risk of contaminating distant ecosystems, is worth considering). In the meantime, Mr Obama’s promise in his inauguration speech to “restore science to its rightful place” sounds like good news for the sort of curiosity-driven research that will allow us to find out whether those plumes of gas are signs of life.

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Once upon a time, 4.6 billion years ago, something was brewing in an unremarkable backwater of the Milky Way. The ragbag of stuff that suffuses the inconsequential, in-between bits of all galaxies - hydrogen and helium gas with just a sprinkling of solid dust - had begun to condense and form molecules. Unable to resist its own weight, part of this newly formed molecular cloud collapsed in on itself. In the ensuing heat and confusion, a star was born - our sun.

We don't know exactly what kick-started this process. Perhaps, with pleasing symmetry, it was the shock wave from the explosive death throes of a nearby star. It was not, at any rate, a particularly unusual event. It had happened countless times since the Milky Way itself came into existence about 13 billion years ago, and in our telescopes we can see it still going on in distant parts of our galaxy today. As stars go, the sun is nothing out of the ordinary.

And yet, as far as we know, it is unique. From a thin disc of stuff left over from its birth, eight planets formed, trapped in orbit by its gravity. One of those planets settled into a peculiarly tranquil relationship with its star and its fellow planets. Eventually, creatures emerged on it that began to wonder how their neighbourhood came to be as it is - and could formulate the following six enduring mysteries of our familiar, and yet deeply mysterious, solar system.


How was the solar system built?

This artist's concept depicts a distant hypothetical solar system, similar to the one recently discovered with the Spitzer Space Telescope. A narrow asteroid belt, filled with rocks and dusty debris, orbits a star similar to our own Sun when it was approximately 30 million years old (about the time Earth formed). Within the belt, a hypothetical planet also circles the star (Image: T Pyle (SSC) / JPL-Caltech / NASA)

Looking at our neighbouring planets, you could be forgiven for thinking that if they do belong to the same family, it is by adoption rather than kinship. Not so: they are blood siblings


Why are the sun and moon the same size in the sky?

The sun is about 400 times as wide as the moon, but it is also 400 times further away. The two therefore look the same size in the sky – is it more than a coincidence?


Is there a Planet X?

Lurking in the solar system's dark recesses, rumour has it, is an unsighted world – Planet X, a frozen body perhaps as large as Mars, or even Earth


Where do comets come from?

Hale-Bopp, seen here from Joshua Tree National Park, California, was one of the brightest comets of the 20th century. Its gas or "ion" tail (blue) consists of ionized glowing gas blown away from the comet's head by the solar wind. The dust tail (white) consists of grains of dust pushed away from the comet head by the radiation of sunlight (Image: Walter Pacholka, Astropics / SPL)

These cosmic apparitions have had humans pondering their nature for millennia, yet theories of where they originate still don't stand up


Is the solar system unique?

In this artist's conception, a possible planet spins through a clearing in a nearby star's dusty, planet-forming disc. This clearing was detected around the star CoKu Tau 4 by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Astronomers believe that an orbiting massive body, like a planet, may have swept away the star's disc material, leaving a central hole. The possible planet is theorized to be at least as massive as Jupiter (Image: R Hurt (SSC) / JPL-Caltech / NASA)

Since the first discovery of a planet orbiting another star in 1992, some 280 alien solar systems have been identified – but most look quite unlike ours


How will the solar system end?

MyCn18 is a young planetary nebula, located about 8,000 light-years away. Planetary nebulae are shells of gas and dust, which stars eject when they run out of fuel. This Hubble image reveals the true shape of MyCn18 to be an hourglass with an intricate pattern of "etchings" in its walls (Image: Raghvendra Sahai and John Trauger (JPL) / WFPC2 science team / NASA)

Since the ructions that created the planets in the first 100 million years, nothing much has been happening. But something unpleasant is bound to shatter this comfortable calm

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Why We Shouldn’t End Our Manned Space Program

By Chris Jones

spaceship taking off

Courtesy of NASA

The sky was clear. The weather was perfect. A few stars twinkled through the glow. Three miles away, over the Florida creeks and swamps, Endeavour was bathed in white light from all angles, and with a spray of beams pointed nearly vertical, like paths for it to follow. Then the moon came over the horizon to the left of the shuttle, low and yellow at first, rising slowly and fully until it acted as a spotlight and as a dream, seen the way sailors in storms see the lighthouse. Nobody in the bleachers talked about the price of gas, or the crisis on Wall Street, or war, or politics, or race, or impossibility. Everybody talked about how far we might go. Everybody watched the giant countdown clock and the little TVs that had been set up on tables. Everybody watched Don Pettit being strapped into his seat, and they talked about his magic powers and his six-year-old’s heart, about how he had never stopped believing in the things we used to believe in.

The nerves had begun setting in on Don’s family and friends the night before, when there was a spread served on Cocoa Beach. It was mostly dark; the lights were kept out to protect the spawning sea turtles. But then up came the moon. Maybe a hundred people gathered there in the silver light, eating pulled pork, talking over the sound of the wind and waves about Don, who was watching the same moon through his window in quarantine. He had been in space once before, for six months in 2002 and 2003, bedded down on the International Space Station when Columbia blew up. He had seen his tears float in front of his face. Now he’d been picked to go back into space, back to the station, and the trembles began rising like the moon in the guts of the people who loved him.

His wife, Micki, was there, smiling and happy, her nerves surfacing in a frantic kind of energy, like a mother at her daughter’s wedding. Don’s eight-year-old twin boys, Evan and Garrett, were there, too, bored and distracted. They wanted to fast-forward to the next night, when the big clock would count down their last minutes and seconds of waiting, and they would watch their dad ride the rocket into the night. They wanted to see the fire they believed would one day take their dad to the moon.

After dinner, a bus collected Don’s audience for a sneak preview. It carried people within gasping distance of the shuttle on the pad, assembled and strapped to the still-empty tank. They climbed off the bus and stood in the long grass, the ants biting their feet, behind a single strand of yellow rope and a chain-link fence, these ordinary human constructions surrounding what seemed an impossible cathedral. The shuttle was radiant in the moonlight, backdropped by an elaborate scaffold, an architecture so intricate and vast that it made people wonder out loud where you would begin if you had to do it all over again.

Which, of course, we do. The shuttle’s last flight is scheduled for 2010. (This flight could be the last night launch in the program’s history.) Two new rockets, the Ares I and the Ares V, are in development, set to fly to the station in 2015, and later to the moon, and finally to Mars. But those plans were made by a different administration in a different time. Now the scope and scale of life felt more limited. Back on the bus, there were fears expressed that Americans risked becoming strangers to weightlessness — that for the first time in our nation’s history, we might be so overwhelmed by our earthbound concerns that we’d forget to fight gravity. Space demands sack. In a country that couldn’t figure out how to mortgage a suburban family home, Mars suddenly seemed a long way off.

A sleepless night was spent listening to the air-conditioning. In the morning, the shuttle’s tank was filled with gas and it groaned under the pressure, singing like a whale. People followed the sound back to the Kennedy Space Center, back on the bus. The bleachers filled, alive and buzzing, hours before launch. From the top row, the viewfinders of digital cameras and cell phones formed constellations. The chatter between the cockpit and the launch technicians was broadcast on loudspeakers. There were anxious hugs and kisses of comfort exchanged when the sound of a familiar voice crackled through the static. There was nothing to worry about, except for everything.

And then there was a problem. Twenty-four minutes before the precisely scheduled launch — Friday, November 14, at 7:55:39 p.m. — the routine lurched to a halt. From inside their cockpit, the astronauts had noticed that the door to the White Room — at the end of the bridge they walked across to reach their hatch — was loose. The door should have been secured by technicians to keep it from swinging in Endeavour’s wake. But in their retreat, the technicians had forgotten, and there was the door, on the little TVs, swinging back and forth in the wind. It was such a simple thing; it would have taken two seconds to run up to the door and slide the pins into place. But that close to liftoff, only the astronauts were within striking distance, and they were strapped in their seats.

The cockpit communications were switched to a private channel, and the loudspeakers went silent. The bleachers were quiet then, too. So much planning, so much money and nerve, and it all might be scrubbed because of two pins in a door. That’s just the way things had been going.

But with only a few minutes to spare, the loudspeakers fired back up, and the crowd heard that the engineers had looked at the door through their cameras, and they had decided it wasn’t a danger to the seven men and women in the shuttle or to their families waiting and watching from the swamps. They heard technicians say, “Go for launch in this configuration.” They heard those same words a few times in rapid succession, until the only word that mattered anymore was Go. It gained momentum like a chant. Go for launch, go for launch, go for launch.


Everybody stood then, as though a conductor had waved his baton, and they sang the national anthem, the words “rockets’ red glare” catching in their throats.

Two minutes and twenty-four seconds before launch, the lights at the bleachers were put out. Everybody stood together in the dark, arm in arm, holding hands, watching the twin white lights in the distance, the moon and the shuttle, side by side.

The countdown continued, minutes to seconds to half breaths.

The clock was all zeros. The light that was the shuttle expanded and grew incredibly bright, this great blinding flare, white as tracer beams. The ground shock arrived, carried across the miles and up through our feet and legs and into our balls. And then came that sound, a low, loud, guttural rumble punctuated by claps and crackles, and up lifted the shuttle, first clear of the tower, and then twisting and turning out into the black space over the ocean.

It was golden and there was an exhaust trail, curling down into the clouds of mist that billowed out from the pad, the torrents of water that had been dumped to lessen the fire and shock having turned instantly into steam. The shuttle kept climbing, so fast, faster than the ordinary mind could imagine, and the fire kept burning. Endeavour climbed higher and higher, until it broke the sound barrier, and these enormous concentric circles crossed the orange sky, like the ripples when a rock hits the water, only these bounced off the clouds and the people in the bleachers made noises when they saw them, not words, just sounds. Don was somewhere in the middle of all that light. The solid rocket boosters came off, and three minutes after launch the shuttle was seventy-three miles away. Not long after, someone at mission control said, “Endeavour, negative return,” and the sound of applause rose up from the bleachers like rain. That meant that no matter what, Don was going into space. There were still points beyond which there was no turning back.

For more than six minutes the light could be followed, the sound giving way to the wind, our balls no longer jangling, but always the light, growing smaller and smaller until it finally disappeared behind the settling vapor. The shuttle was gone, and Don was gone with it.

Back on the bus, everything else was gone, too, and it stayed gone. People settled into their seats, and they wiped away their tears, and they felt their hearts slip back into their customary positions on the left side of their chests. They were quiet for a time, but when the bus began rocking down the road in the dark, they began talking, in whispers at first, and then louder, when they knew everybody felt the same way and there was no need to feel embarrassed: Everything was possible again. That night had made the best case yet for hope, for dreams, for belief, for defiance. It demonstrated the power of the irrational. There would always be explosions in the sky, and there would always be doors left unsecured, miscalculations and heartbreak. There would always be foreclosures. But all this time there had been miracles, too. There had been these beautiful and glorious moments, however brief, when everything had worked, when the gas had been sparked and the engines had roared to life and there was so much light beating back the darkness.

The bus was really thrumming now, on through the electric night, and somewhere up there, Don was unstrapping himself from his seat while he rocketed through space. He floated up to the windows, and he looked down on all of us at once, thinking what we were thinking, thinking about everything we had done and everything we had left to do, and how we would cross every wish off our list, so long as there were pockets where we kept the fire lit.

Go, you fucker. Go.

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Extinct ibex is resurrected by cloning

By Richard Gray and Roger Dobson

Extinct ibex is resurrected by cloning
Young Spanish ibex (Capra pyrenaica), Sierra de Gredos, Spain Photo: Jose Luis GOMEZ de FRANCISCO/

The Pyrenean ibex, a form of wild mountain goat, was officially declared extinct in 2000 when the last-known animal of its kind was found dead in northern Spain.

Shortly before its death, scientists preserved skin samples of the goat, a subspecies of the Spanish ibex that live in mountain ranges across the country, in liquid nitrogen.

Using DNA taken from these skin samples, the scientists were able to replace the genetic material in eggs from domestic goats, to clone a female Pyrenean ibex, or bucardo as they are known. It is the first time an extinct animal has been cloned.

Sadly, the newborn ibex kid died shortly after birth due to physical defects in its lungs. Other cloned animals, including sheep, have been born with similar lung defects.

But the breakthrough has raised hopes that it will be possible to save endangered and newly extinct species by resurrecting them from frozen tissue.

It has also increased the possibility that it will one day be possible to reproduce long-dead species such as woolly mammoths and even dinosaurs.

Dr Jose Folch, from the Centre of Food Technology and Research of Aragon, in Zaragoza, northern Spain, led the research along with colleagues from the National Research Institute of Agriculture and Food in Madrid.

He said: "The delivered kid was genetically identical to the bucardo. In species such as bucardo, cloning is the only possibility to avoid its complete disappearance."

Pyrenean ibex, which have distinctive curved horns, were once common in northern Spain and in the French Pyrenees, but extensive hunting during the 19th century reduced their numbers to fewer than 100 individuals.

They were eventually declared protected in 1973, but by 1981 just 30 remained in their last foothold in the Ordesa National Park in the Aragon District of the Pyrenees.

The last bucardo, a 13-year-old female known as Celia, was found dead in January 2000 by park rangers near the French border with her skull crushed.

Dr Folch and his colleagues, who were funded by the Aragon regional government, had, however, captured the bucardo the previous year and had taken a tissue sample from her ear for cryopreservation.

Using techniques similar to those used to clone Dolly the sheep, known as nuclear transfer, the researchers were able to transplant DNA from the tissue into eggs taken from domestic goats to create 439 embryos, of which 57 were implanted into surrogate females.

Just seven of the embryos resulted in pregnancies and only one of the goats finally gave birth to a female bucardo, which died a seven minutes later due to breathing difficulties, perhaps due to flaws in the DNA used to create the clone.

Despite the highly inefficient cloning process and death of the cloned bucardo, many scientists believe similar approaches may be the only way to save critically endangered species from disappearing.

Research carried out by Japanese geneticist Teruhiko Wakayama raised hopes that even species that died out long ago could be resurrected after he used cells taken from mice frozen 16 years ago to produce healthy clones.

But attempts to bring back species such as woolly mammoths and even the Dodo are fraught with difficulties. Even when preserved in ice, DNA degrades over time and this leaves gaps in the genetic information required to produce a healthy animal.

Scientists, however, last year published a near-complete genome of the woolly mammoth, which died out around 10,000 years ago, sparking speculation it will be possible to synthesise the mammoth DNA.

Professor Robert Miller, director the Medical Research Council's Reproductive Sciences Unit at Edinburgh University, is working with the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland on a project to use cloning on rare African mammals including the northern white rhino.

They have set up the Institute for Breeding Rare and Endangered African Mammals in the hope of using breeding technologies to conserve species including the Ethiopian wolf, the African wild dog and the pygmy hippo.

Professor Millar said: "I think this is an exciting advance as it does show the potential of being able to regenerate extinct species.

"Clearly there is some way to go before it can be used effectively, but the advances in this field are such that we will see more and more solutions to the problems faced."

A number of projects around the world are now attempting to store tissue and DNA from endangered species. The Zoological Society of London and the Natural History Museum have set up the Frozen Ark project in a bid to preserve DNA from thousands of animals before they disappear entirely.

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Poll reveals public doubts over Charles Darwin's theory of evolution

By Jonathan Wynne-Jones, Religious Affairs Correspondent

Charles Darwin - this year marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species
This year marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species Photo: PA

More than half of the public believe that the theory of evolution cannot explain the full complexity of life on Earth, and a "designer" must have lent a hand, the findings suggest.

And one in three believe that God created the world within the past 10,000 years.

The survey, by respected polling firm ComRes, will fuel the debate around evolution and creationism ahead of next week's 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin.

Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and author of The God Delusion, said the findings revealed a worrying level of scientific ignorance among Britons.

In the survey, 51 per cent of those questioned agreed with the statement that "evolution alone is not enough to explain the complex structures of some living things, so the intervention of a designer is needed at key stages"

A further 40 per cent disagreed, while the rest said they did not know.

The suggestion that a designer's input is needed reflects the "intelligent design" theory, promoted by American creationists as an alternative to Darwinian evolution.

Asked whether it was true that "God created the world sometime in the last 10,000 years", 32 per cent agreed, 60 per cent disagreed and eight per cent did not know.

The findings – to be published tomorrow in a report by Theos, a theology think-tank – follow a row over the place of creationism in education.

A recent poll of science teachers found that one in three believe creationism should be taught in science classes alongside evolution and the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe.

However, Michael Reiss, a biologist and Anglican cleric, was forced to resign as the Royal Society's director of education after suggesting that creationism should be discussed in lessons "not as a misconception but as a world view".

Speaking at the British Association Festival of Science at the University of Liverpool last year, Professor Reiss estimated that about one in 10 children was from a family which supported a creationist rather than evolutionary viewpoint.

He said his experience had led him to believe it was more effective to include discussion about creationism alongside scientific theories, rather than simply giving the impression that such children were wrong.

The research for Theos shows that the level of support for creationism is much higher than Professor Reiss's estimation, but also indicates that many people who believe in God also consider evolution to be the most realistic explanation for the origins of living things.

Paul Woolley, the director of Theos said: "Darwin is being used by certain atheists today to promote their cause.

"The result is that, given the false choice of evolution or God, people are rejecting evolution."

While many fundamentalist Christians believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible's account of the earth's creation, the Church of England last year issued a statement conceding it had been over-defensive in dismissing Darwin's ideas in the past.

The Church launched a website promoting the naturalist's evolutionary views on which it said: "Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still."

Prof Dawkins expressed dismay at the findings of the ComRes survey, of 2,060 adults, which he claimed were confirmation that much of the population is "pig-ignorant" about science.

"Obviously life, which was Darwin's own subject, is not the result of chance," he said.

"Any fool can see that. Natural selection is the very antithesis of chance.

"The error is to think that God is the only alternative to chance, and Darwin surely didn't think that because he himself discovered the most important non-theistic alternative to chance, namely natural selection."

Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, accused Dawkins of evolving into a "very simple kind of thinker".

He said: "His argument for atheism goes like this: either God is the explanation for the wide diversity of biological life, or evolution is. We know that evolution is true. Therefore, God doesn't exist.

"I'm an evangelical Christian, but I have no difficulties in believing that evolution is the best scientific account we have for the diversity of life on our planet."

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High Hormone Levels In Women May Lead To Infidelity, Study Shows

The researchers found that a woman's oestradiol level (sex hormone level) was positively associated with self-perceived physical attractiveness. Women with a higher oestradiol level also reported a greater likelihood of flirting, kissing and having a serious affair (but not a one-night stand) with a new partner. (Credit: iStockphoto/Valentin Casarsa)

Women with high levels of the sex hormone oestradiol may engage in opportunistic mating, according to a new study by psychology researchers at The University of Texas at Austin.

Doctoral candidate Kristina Durante and Assistant Professor of Psychology Norm Li published their findings in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London: Biology Letters.

"The study offers further evidence that physiological mechanisms continue to play a major role in guiding women's sexual motivations and behavior," Durante said.

Durante and Li investigated the relationship between oestradiol, an ovarian hormone linked to fertility, and sexual motivation in a study of 52 female undergraduates not using contraception. Participants' ages ranged from 17 to 30 years old.

The researchers measured the participants' hormone levels at two points during each woman's ovulatory cycle and then asked them to rate their own physical attractiveness. Independent observers also rated the participants' physical attractiveness.

Participants also answered survey questions that measured their propensity to cheat on a partner.

The researchers found that a woman's oestradiol level was positively associated with self-perceived physical attractiveness. Women with a higher oestradiol level also reported a greater likelihood of flirting, kissing and having a serious affair (but not a one-night stand) with a new partner.

Oestradiol levels were negatively associated with a woman's satisfaction with her primary partner.

"Our findings show that highly fertile women are not easily satisfied by their long-term partners and are motivated to seek out more desirable partners," Durante explained. "However, that doesn't mean they're more likely to engage in casual sex. Instead, they adopt a strategy of serial monogamy."

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Shape-shifting fish fools scientists

Dad (bignose) at bottom, mum (whalefish) middle, and baby (tapetail) at top: so different they look like separate species (Image: G.David Johnson/Donal Hughes/Bruce Robinson)

Dad (bignose) at bottom, mum (whalefish) middle, and baby (tapetail) at top: so different they look like separate species (Image: G.David Johnson/Donal Hughes/Bruce Robinson)

IT IS the very opposite of family resemblance: three groups of strikingly different-looking fish that turn out to be males, females and young of the same family.

Tapetails (pictured, top) live in shallow waters and are named for the long streamers that trail behind them. Whalefish and bignoses are both deep-sea fish, but while whalefish (middle) lack scales and have huge jaws, bignoses (bottom) have long nasal organs and immobile jaws, and live off energy stored in their gigantic livers.

Nobody thought these groups were related. "The differences were so extreme," says marine biologist David Johnson of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.

Then a study found that whalefish and tapetail mitochondrial DNA is virtually identical, prompting Johnson to re-examine museum specimens. This revealed one in the process of changing from a tapetail into a whalefish. Specimens intermediate between tapetails and bignoses were collected in 2007, and together with more DNA analysis this proved that the three families are really one (Biology Letters, DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2008.0722).

A "tapetail" larva grows up to be a "whalefish" female or "bignose" male. Johnson claims this is the most extreme metamorphosis ever seen in a vertebrate.

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Can a person be scared to death?

By Coco Ballantyne

SCARED TO DEATH: A terrifying situation can lead to fatal heart rhythms.

A Charlotte, N.C., man was charged with first-degree murder of a 79-year-old woman whom police said he scared to death. In an attempt to elude cops after a botched bank robbery, the Associated Press reports that 20-year-old Larry Whitfield broke into and hid out in the home of Mary Parnell. Police say he didn't touch Parnell but that she died after suffering a heart attack that was triggered by terror. Can the fugitive be held responsible for the woman's death? Prosecutors said that he can under the state's so-called felony murder rule, which allows someone to be charged with murder if he or she causes another person's death while committing or fleeing from a felony crime such as robbery—even if it's unintentional.

But, medically speaking, can someone actually be frightened to death? We asked Martin A. Samuels, chairman of the neurology department at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows. Thanks to AHCJ_Pia for the story suggestion.]

Is it possible to literally be scared to death?
Absolutely, no question about it.

Really? How does that happen?
The body has a natural protective mechanism called the fight-or-flight response, which was originally described by Walter Cannon [chairman of Harvard University's physiology department from 1906 to 1942]. If, in the wild, an animal is faced with a life-threatening situation, the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system responds by increasing heart rate, increasing blood flow to the muscles, dilating the pupils, and slowing digestion, among other things. All of this increases the chances of succeeding in a fight or running away from, say, an aggressive jaguar. This process certainly would be of help to primitive humans, but the problem, of course, is that in the modern world there is very limited advantage of the fight-or-flight response. There is a downside to revving up your nervous system like this.

How can the fight-or-flight response lead to death?
The autonomic nervous system uses the hormone adrenaline, a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, to send signals to various parts of the body to activate the fight-or-flight response. This chemical is toxic in large amounts; it damages the visceral (internal) organs such as the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys. It is believed that almost all sudden deaths are caused by damage to the heart. There is almost no other organ that would fail so fast as to cause sudden death. Kidney failure, liver failure, those things don't kill you suddenly.

What exactly happens in the heart when it's flooded with too much adrenaline?

Adrenaline from the nervous system lands on receptors of cardiac myocytes (heart-muscle cells), and this causes calcium channels in the membranes of those cells to open. Calcium ions rush into the heart cells and this causes the heart muscle to contract. If it's a massive overwhelming storm of adrenaline, calcium keeps pouring into the cells and the muscle just can't relax.

There is this specially adapted system of muscle and nerve tissue in the heart—the sinoatrial (SA) node, the atrioventricular node, and the Purkinje fibers—which sets the rhythm of the heart. If this system is overwhelmed with adrenaline, the heart can go into abnormal rhythms that are not compatible with life. If one of those is triggered, you will drop dead.

What is an example of one of these deadly heart rhythms?
In most cases, it's probably ventricular fibrillation that causes these sudden deaths from fear. Ventricular fibrillation basically causes the ventricles (lower chambers of the heart) to vibrate in a way that hampers their ability to deliver blood to the body.

What other emotional states besides fear could lead to these fatal heart rhythms?
Any strong positive or negative emotions such as happiness or sadness. There are people who have died in intercourse or in religious passion. There was a case of a golfer who hit a hole in one, turned to his partner and said, "I can die now"—and then he dropped dead. A study in Germany found an increase of sudden cardiac deaths on the days that the German soccer team was playing in the World Cup. For about seven days after the 9/11 terrorists attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon there was an increase of sudden cardiac death among New Yorkers.

Who is most likely to suffer from sudden death?
A predisposition to heart disease would probably increase your risk of sudden death, but it happens at all ages and can happen to otherwise healthy people.

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Women's Brains Respond to Manly Men

By Sally Law

Stand Down: Black Holes Won't Destroy Earth

By Jeanna Bryner

The world's largest, most powerful particle smasher probably won't generate any planet-gobbling black holes, according to a new analysis.

That's contrary to suggestions in a news article Wednesday that invoked a possible doomsday scenario and said black holes created by the collider could stick around longer than predicted.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a 17-mile (27-kilometer) circular tunnel running 300 feet (91 meters) underground at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) near Geneva, is expected to recreate the conditions that occurred a fraction of a second after the Big Bang, the theoretical instant in which the universe was born from an incredibly small point.

By smashing protons together at nearly the speed of light, the LHC could help to solve mysteries about the origin of mass and the reasons for more matter than antimatter in the universe.

(The LHC was shut down last year after a helium leak was discovered within days of its initial powering up. The machine is scheduled to re-start again some time this year, according to CERN.)

Scientists have speculated the proton-to-proton collisions could possibly generate microscopic black holes. These black holes would be orders of magnitude smaller and less massive than the gravity wells produced by the collapse of stars and known to exist in the universe, said Howard Gordon of Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, who also works at the LHC.

Even still, fears arose in the past few years that the LHC could churn out a black hole that would gobble up everything in sight, including our planet.

Why the fears? "I think it's the confusion between the massive black holes in the universe and these microscopic black holes that possibly could get created," Gordon told LiveScience. "It's a difference in scale."

Black-hole model

The new analysis, detailed online at, a repository for new research papers, suggests again that the LHC probably can't generate a catastrophic black hole.

Gordon said the analysis is based on a theoretical model and that further research is needed to confirm the results.

Roberto Casadio of the University of Bologna in Italy and his University of Alabama colleagues Benjamin Harms and Sergio Fabi based their theoretical model on the so-called Randall-Sundrum brane-world scenario, in which the four-dimensional universe is embedded within a five-dimensional space.

"All we're doing is taking a model of our space-time, where we live, and exploring the consequences," Harms said during a telephone interview. "And our exploration shows that black holes could not grow large enough to become catastrophic in the sense that they could do damage to the Earth or anything in the Earth."

He added, "What we found was that if black holes are created at the LHC, they would not be able to grow to catastrophic size because the accretion rate is simply not great enough to offset the evaporation rate."

In fact, the model showed that once a black hole is created by the LHC (if that were to happen), the only way to get the black hole to grow would be "to extend the size of one of the parameters in our model beyond a physically accepted value," so beyond what is physically possible.

And then, such a black hole would evaporate, and essentially vanish, within one-trillionth to one-millionth of a second, the model showed. While the black holes might not truly vanish, their masses would become so small they would have no effect on Earth.

One small caveat is that the results only apply to Earth because they depend partly on the density of material through which the black holes are traveling.

Creating black holes

"Large Hadron Collider had a tremendous amount of publicity last year because of the black hole speculations," Gordon said, adding, "We don't know for sure we're even going to see black holes in the Large Hadron Collider."

Here's the logic behind the LHC generating microscopic black holes:

Various models of the universe suggest extra dimensions (other than those of space and time) exist and are folded up into sizes ranging from that of a proton to as big as a fraction of a millimeter. The models go on to suggest that at distances comparable to such sizes, gravity becomes far stronger. If this is true, the collider could smash enough energy together to generate gravitational collapses that produce black holes.

Researchers have calculated that under such scenarios, the accelerator could create a microscopic black hole anywhere from every second to every day.

Harmless black holes

Physicists have repeatedly said that fears about these artificial black holes are "groundless."

For instance, microscopic black holes would probably lose more mass than they absorb and so would evaporate immediately.

Say a black hole was created and that black hole was stable. "Then their interactions would be very weak. They would pass harmlessly into space. They would vanish," Gordon said, referring to stable black holes with no electrical charge.

In addition, as CERN scientists have pointed out, Earth is bathed with cosmic rays powerful enough to create black holes, and the planet hasn't been destroyed yet.

At the end of the day, Gordon said, the LHC is safe and so are we.

"We're expecting the discoveries at the Large Hadron Collider to be significant and exciting, but we are pretty sure that the collider is safe and will not be causing any trouble to people living on Earth," Gordon said.

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U.S. Beekeepers Have More Bees Than Anytime in 3 Years

by Kim Flottum

I've made the comment that beekeeping has changed more in the last two years than in the last 20, and every day that comment becomes more and more clear. Beekeepers that suffered extreme losses from Colony Collapse Disorder did one of three things:

  • They quit
  • They didn't do anything, and then they quit.
  • They changed what they were doing, and are still around today.

More changed than didn't, and that means they are still around today.


But beekeepers that didn't suffer from Colony Collapse Disorder, or had only a touch of the plague, made changes too, and they are still around and in fact are doing well and growing. Those changes have been huge in terms of what they have managed to do with the number of colonies they have, and even more so in terms of the paradigm shift in colony management techniques.

What's different, you ask? We've mentioned this before but it really bears repeating because it has made such a difference. Probably the major shift has been in how beekeepers monitor for, and control varroa mites in their colonies. Better techniques are being used to find and count mite populations, and safer and kinder techniques are being used to control those mites. This is good because mite populations don't build up to lethal numbers, lots of mites aren't able to pass along destructive viruses, and the control agents previously used are no longer building up inside the colony.

Beekeepers are feeding their bees more food when food is scarce, feeding them at a more appropriate time in the season, and feeding them better food. All have contributed to better wintering, better buildup, and healthier colonies.

Generally, beekeepers are more attuned to the routines of keeping their bees healthy from all of the problems bees are prone to. Individually these pests and predators have been a bane, generally, on our bees, and combined they have contributed far more than the sum of their parts.

So, we have more bees this spring. More bees than for the last 3 years it seems. It's still a bit early to sound the trumpets, but I'd suggest warming them up to declare a holiday from trouble ... so far, anyway. And it could turn again. That's how it started ... bees looked good in late January, then crashed and burned and burned and burned in February that first year. But right now, as one big beekeeper says, "most beekeepers are pretty well pleased with their bees this year. You hear of an occasional beekeeper who's having problems but nothing like last year." And losses of 2% (compared to 35% last year) aren't uncommon. One contact close to the situation was quoted as saying there were as many as 100,000 extra colonies in California right now ... but that is expected to drop as weak colonies (and there are always weak colonies) are culled. So with more beekeepers having more bees ... California almonds right now are, and you read this here first ... "over-beed."

But wait, there's more! What with the water shortage going on in parts of the state heavily populated with almond trees, growers are either abandoning trees altogether, maintaining them just enough to keep them alive until water is hopefully more abundant next season, or hedging their bets and putting the minimum number of colonies on them, just in case they don't get enough water later and have to abandon them then ... but they have to have some bees to make crop insurance claims. So flat out there are fewer almond trees getting pollinated this spring. California is, and you read this here first too ... "under-treed." More bees, fewer trees equals an early-season glut of bees and a crazy quilt of pricing and haggling and struggling just to make enough to ship those extra bees home.

In two weeks this will all be settled. I think those extra bees will get used because there's more water, or maybe there isn't even any extra bees because the weak went away and CCD returned, again. Two weeks ... a blink in beekeeper time, but an eternity in a honey bee's life.

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Scars Reveal How Triceratops Fought

By Michael Wall

It's the iconic dinosaur battle, seared into every kid's imagination from picture books and cartoons: Tyrannosaurus rex lunges, mouth agape, and Triceratops parries with its horns and bony neck frill. This scene probably did unfold in North American forests 65 million years ago, but new research suggests Triceratops also used its headgear in fights against its own species.

Paleontologists have proposed this idea before. It makes sense, given that other animals with horns or antlers, such as deer, use them against their own kind in battles for dominance or mating rights. The new study, published Wednesday in the journal PLoS ONE, documented wounds on Triceratops fossils, backing the idea up with hard data for the first time.

"Most previous studies have looked at one or two individual specimens," said lead author Andrew Farke of the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, California. "Our study is the first one to look into this in depth. The purpose is to move beyond the speculation and put some hard numbers on the biology."

Piecing together the behavior of extinct species is one of the trickier aspects of paleontology. Drawing on behavior of living animals, deducing capabilities from bone structure and biomechanical computer simulations, studying the paleoenvironment, inferring behavior from the poses of fossilized skeletons and extrapolating relationships from the proximity of fossils to one another still leaves a lot to the imagination. But in some cases, as with the Triceratops skulls, an animal's behavior leaves a discernible trace behind on the fossils.

The researchers examined skull specimens of two dinosaurs, Triceratops and Centrosaurus. Triceratops lived between 68 million and 65 million years ago, and Centrosaurus last walked the earth 75 million years ago. They're relatives, but their heads differed greatly. Triceratops had one big horn above each eye and one small one on its nose. Centrosaurus had a big nasal horn and one small bump over each eye.

Analysis of more than 400 data points revealed that Triceratops had many more wounds on one part of its frill than Centrosaurus did. Predatory attacks cannot explain the difference, the scientists argue, as both dinosaurs lived in similar habitats and faced similar predators (mainly T. rex and its cousins). And if disease were to blame, the damage would not have been so localized.

The most likely explanation, they say: Triceratops was banging heads with its own species in a way that Centrosaurus was not.

"The overall pattern says these injuries were caused by the horns of other animals," Farke said. Further, according to the authors, the frill damage is consistent with models of combat in Triceratops.

The researchers are not arguing that combat was the only purpose of Triceratops' horns and frill, however.

"I like to use the analogy of a Swiss Army knife," Farke said. "They could have been used for a variety of purposes, such as defense, combat, and display."

The ancestors of Triceratops had thin, enlarged frills and no oversized horns. This suggests the frill originally had a signaling function, say the authors, as well as a role in the attachment of jaw muscles. After big brow horns evolved, combat likely followed, spurring the frill to evolve to be thicker and tougher.

The new study shows how much scientists can learn by scrutinizing fossils for evidence of old wounds and illnesses.

"Studies like these really open the door to using paleopathology as an interpretive tool," said co-author Ewan Wolff of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Veterinary Medicine. "You can learn a lot about the biology and behavior of ancient animals."

And it's a reminder that big stories are often hidden in tiny details. The frill wounds didn't exactly jump off the bone — identifying them was painstaking work.

"They're little ridges in the bone, where the bone has healed," Wolff said. "Usually things that are fairly dramatic get studied. And the things that are a bit more subtle get missed."

Elizabeth Rega, associate professor of anatomy at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California, hailed the study for its large data set and proper use of statistical inference.

"There's less arm-waving in this paper than in many other paleopathology studies," said Rega, who was not involved in the research. "The authors have done a good piece of work. It's an important paper for Triceratops studies. It's an important paper for paleopathology."

Rega said the study also generated further questions. "Why do the cheekbones show the same injury rates? And why are their featured horn injuries oriented up and down, not front to back?"

Mark Goodwin, assistant director of the Museum of Paleontology at the University of California, Berkeley, was not entirely convinced by the authors' arguments.

"What they showed in their paper is evidence of differential pathologies, not evidence of combat," he said. "As far as I can tell, there's no correlative evidence between combat and lesions on the dinosaur skulls."

Goodwin suggested that the difference in size and shape of the frill bones of Triceratops and Centrosaurus could also explain the lack of similar lesions.

"This can play a role in the kinds of pathologies that occur and affect their cause, whether from injury or infection or close encounters," he said. "The hard skin or keratin covering these bones may have been different, too."

Goodwin agreed that Triceratops headgear could have been used in combat, but in his view the evidence points more strongly to a display and visual-communication function.

For one thing, he said, the horns and other ornaments were on the face, where other Triceratops could see them easily. Also, Triceratops horns and frills changed substantially as the animals aged. The horns of juveniles, for example, curved backward, while those of adults curved toward the snout. In a previous study, Goodwin suggested this switch in horn orientation likely advertised the attainment of sexual maturity.

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Cheap, super-efficient LED lights on the horizon

A red LED chip, which can be used in the manufacture of lamps (Image: Lehtikuva OY / Rex)

A red LED chip, which can be used in the manufacture of lamps (Image: Lehtikuva OY / Rex)

by Colin Barras

Incandescent tungsten-filament light bulbs face a global switch-off as governments push for energy efficient fluorescent lamps to become the standard. But the light could soon go out on those lamps too, now that UK materials scientists have discovered a cheaper way to produce LED bulbs, which are three times as efficient as fluorescent lamps.

Although the ultimate dominance of LED lights has long been predicted, the expense of the super-efficient technology has made the timescale uncertain. The researchers now say LED bulbs based on their new process could be commercially available within five years.

Gallium nitride (GaN) LEDs have many advantages over compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and incandescent bulbs. They switch on instantly, with no gradual warm-up, and can burn for an average of 100,000 hours before they need replacing - 10 times as long as fluorescent lamps and some 130 times as long as an incandescent bulb. CFLs also contain small levels of mercury, which makes environmentally-friendly disposal of spent bulbs difficult.

Cracking up

The cost of production has kept the LEDs far from homes and offices, however. Gallium nitride cannot be grown on silicon like other solid-state electronic components because it shrinks at twice the rate of silicon as it cools. Crystals of GaN must be grown at 1000°C, so by the time a new LED made on silicon has cooled, it has already cracked, rendering the devices unusable.

One solution is to grow the LEDs on sapphire, which shrinks and cools at much the same rate as GaN. But the expense is too great to be commercially competitive.

Now Colin Humphreys's team at the University of Cambridge has discovered a simple solution to the shrinkage problem.

They included layers of aluminium gallium nitride in their LED design. These layers shrink at a much slower rate during cooling and help to counteract the fast-shrinkage of pure gallium nitride. These LEDs can be grown on silicon as so many other electronics components are. "They still work well as LEDs even with those extra layers inside," says Humphreys.

Early switch-over

A 15-centimetre silicon wafer costs just $15 and can accommodate 150,000 LEDs making the cost per unit tiny. That levels the playing field with CFLs, which many people only ever saw as a stopgap solution to the lighting problem.

Humphreys reckons that the UK government encouraged consumers to drop tungsten bulbs too soon. "We should have stayed with tungsten for another five years and then switched to LEDs," he says.

Humphreys's team was funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The UK government's Technology Strategy Board will now provide the funding to turn the new technology into a commercial process.

If you would like to reuse any content from New Scientist, either in print or online, please contact the syndication department first for permission. New Scientist does not own rights to photos, but there are a variety of licensing options available for use of articles and graphics we own the copyright to.

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Boys With Unpopular Names More Likely to Break Law

Boys in the United States with common names like Michael and David are less likely to commit crimes than those named Ernest or Ivan.

David E. Kalist and Daniel Y. Lee of Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania compared the first names of male juvenile delinquents to the first names of male juveniles in the population. The researchers constructed a popularity-name index (PNI) for each name. For example, the PNI for Michael is 100, the most frequently given name during the period. The PNI for David is 50, a name given half as frequently as Michael. The PNI is approximately 1 for names such as Alec, Ernest, Ivan, Kareem, and Malcolm.

Results show that, regardless of race, juveniles with unpopular names are more likely to engage in criminal activity. The least popular names were associated with juvenile delinquency among both blacks and whites.

The findings, announced today, are detailed in the journal Social Science Quarterly.

While the names are likely not the cause of crime, the researchers argue that "they are connected to factors that increase the tendency to commit crime, such as a disadvantaged home environment, residence in a county with low socioeconomic status, and households run by one parent."

"Also, adolescents with unpopular names may be more prone to crime because they are treated differently by their peers, making it more difficult for them to form relationships," according to a statement released by the journal's publisher. "Juveniles with unpopular names may also act out because they consciously or unconsciously dislike their names."

The findings could help officials " identify individuals at high risk of committing or recommitting crime, leading to more effective and targeted intervention programs," the authors conclude.

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Dolphins prepare food like chefs before eating

Bottlenose dolphins: Dolphins prepare food like chefs before eating
A wild female Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin was observed going through a series of complicated steps to prepare cuttlefish for eating in the Spencer Gulf, in South Australia

A wild female Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin was observed going through a series of complicated steps to prepare cuttlefish for eating in the Spencer Gulf, in South Australia.

Study co-author Tom Tregenza, from the University of Exeter, said the behaviour exhibited between 2003 and 2007 was unlikely to be a rarity.

"In addition to our observations, individual bottlenose dolphins feeding at these cuttlefish spawning grounds have been observed by divers in the area to perform the same behavioural sequence," they said in the study.

"The feeding behaviour reported here is specifically adapted to a single prey type and represents impressive behavioural flexibility for a non-primate animal."

The research team, writing in the science journal PLoS One, said they repeatedly observed a female dolphin herding cuttlefish out of algal weed and onto a clear, sandy patch of seafloor.

The dolphin, then pinned the cuttlefish with its snout while standing on its head, before killing it instantly with a rapid downward thrust and "loud click" audible to divers as the hard cuttlebone broke.

The dolphin then lifted the body up and beat it with her nose to drain the toxic black ink that cuttlefish squirt into the water to defend themselves when attacked.

Next the prey was taken back to the seafloor, where the dolphin scraped it along the sand to strip out the cuttlebone, making the cuttlefish soft for eating.

"It's a sign of how well their brains are developed. It's a pretty clever way to get pure calamari without all the horrible bits," Mark Norman, the curator of molluscs at Museum Victoria.

A separate 2005 study provided the first sign dolphins may be capable of group learning and using tools, with a mother seen teaching her daughters to break off sea sponges and wear them as protection while scouring the seafloor in Western Australia.

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Air Pollution Now Melting Snowpack Quicker, Study Shows