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Posts Tagged ‘Theme: In the Headlines’

Post by Ruthanna Gordon

Humans have often speculated about the possibility of extraterrestrial life.  As our ability to detect conditions on other worlds has improved, we have both narrowed and expanded the set of possibilities for what’s out there.

In the early years of the twentieth century, many believed that intelligences not too different from our own existed within the solar system.  These hopes, and fears, have long since been laid to rest: Martian canals turn out to have been the product of an overenthusiastic imagination, and Venus harbors no dinosaurs.  However, recent research suggests that relatively primitive life forms may be more abundant than we thought.

Life on earth depends on a few basic requirements.  Carbon is needed as a building block for organic molecules.  And liquid water is its necessary complement.  Even in the most extreme conditions, terrestrial life flourishes wherever these two things can be found.  And they seem to be surprisingly common elsewhere.

One way to get liquid water is to have your planet orbit in the “Goldilocks Zone”—the temperate band not so far from a star that water freezes, and not so close that it boils.  But other factors can have the same effect.  Molten rock or radioactivity can melt ice.  The presence of salt or ammonia can prevent freezing, just as they do on a highway or in your car.  We’ve found evidence for liquid water in the clouds of Venus, in the asteroid belt, and on moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn.  We may even have taken pictures of it on Mars.

The next step is a more direct search.  The Curiosity Rover is scheduled to land on Mars in 2012, where it will analyze the rocks for chemicals characteristic of life.

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New research shows that people prone to depression have less specific memories.  What else might our memories tell us about our personalities and predispositions?

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Post by Minna Krejci

100 years after Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work with radioactivity, the world is still benefiting from her knowledge and wisdom — and that of “Zombie Marie Curie,” as depicted yesterday by the webcomic xkcd:

She does deliver a solid universal piece of advice here: “You become great by wanting to do something, and then doing it so hard that you become great in the process.”  Thanks, Zombie Marie Curie!

Ok, enough zombies – let’s look back at the real person.  She surely knew a thing or two about becoming great, as the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the only woman to win in two fields, and the first person to win or share two prizes.  She is credited with developing the theory of radioactivity (and coining the term), as well as techniques for isolating radioisotopes and the discovery of the elements polonium and radium.

Curie had been known to deliver a few one-liner gems herself back in her day.  When frustrated by endless attention from reporters who reported scandal every time she initiated a new relationship, she quipped, “In science we must be interested in things, not people.”  (I imagine that she was referring to the media, since she certainly had been interested in people and had been devastated by the sudden death of her husband and scientific collaborator Pierre.)

She delivered another zinger directed at members of the scientific community who insisted on being involved in quarrels and feuds: “There are sadistic scientists who hurry to hunt down errors instead of establishing the truth.”

The work of Madame Curie and her husband had a lasting impact across nearly all areas of science: it forced a reconsideration of the foundations of physics, provided sources of radioactivity (radium) for others such as Ernest Rutherford to go on and probe the structure of the atom, and presented a new way to attack cancer using radiation.  She managed to accomplish all of this while constantly facing barriers placed in her path for being a woman.  She also made the unusual decision to not patent her process for radium isolation, to allow other researchers to use this knowledge freely to progress their own research.

The International Year of Chemistry 2011 coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize awarded to Madame Marie Curie, providing an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women in science in addition to generating worldwide enthusiasm about chemistry and its creative future.

Alan Alda is doing his part to spread this enthusiasm.  On June 1, at the opening of the World Science Festival in New York, an all-star cast (including such names as Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Allison Janney, Liev Schreiber, David Morse and Bill Camp) will read a new play written by Alda about Madame Curie.  Alda apparently loves the story of Marie Curie, which “is so important and dramatic, I wanted to explore it and write a play about it.”

The New York Public Library just finished an exhibit called Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and FalloutThe exhibit focused on the story of Marie Curie and her husband as told by the artist and writer Lauren Redniss, who recently published a book of images and narrative nonfiction by the same name.  Redniss explored the use of cyanotype images to capture the essence of the Curie’s work:

“Cyanotype is a camera-less photographic technique. You expose chemically coated paper to the sun’s UV rays and the prints come out in shades of blue. The brighter the sunlight, the deeper the shade of blue–and the faster the print develops. I chose to make the book’s images as cyanotypes because I thought it added other layers of meaning: concentrated radium–one of the radioactive elements discovered by the Curies–glows a light blue color. In addition, Marie Curie described radium as having ‘spontaneous luminosity,’ and I think cyanotypes capture this feeling of internal glow. Finally, photographic imaging was critical to both the discovery of X-rays and of radioactivity, so it made sense to me that the book’s images would be made with a process based on the idea of exposure.” (via www.nypl.org)

Unfortunately, that blue-green glow that so fascinated Madame Curie led to her death from leukemia contracted from exposure to radiation — the health effects of radiation just weren’t known at the time.  Yet another important discovery given to us by Marie Curie (and a reminder by Zombie Marie Curie):

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Post by Henderson

With the narrow escape of a government shutdown, the death of Osama Bin Laden, and the news that giant ants once roamed Wyoming, stem cells may have seemed a little less-sexy of a topic.

On April 29, a three-member panel of the U. S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. ruled that the government can continue to fund embryonic stem cell research.

Mouse embryonic stem cells. Photograph courtesy of the National Science Foundation

The panel “ruled that opponents are not likely to succeed in their lawsuit to stop federal financing of stem cell research and overturned a district judge’s order that would have blocked the funding. The panel reversed an opinion issued last August by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, who said the research likely violates the law against federal funding of embryo destruction.

In other news, stem cell therapy may get a boost, however indirectly, with a new method created by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers.

Disease in a dish, anyone?

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There’s certainly no shortage of interesting news these days… it can be hard to keep up, and a lot of cool stories can get buried!  Help us out — what are some good science/technology/art/etc. stories that you’ve seen in the news recently?

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Post by Minna Krejci

In January, we learned that Fermilab‘s Tevatron — once the most powerful particle accelerator in the world, before the Large Hadron Collider — will be shut down for good by September of this year.

Then March brought a lightning storm that damaged one of the magnets that guide particles on their 4-mile circular path around the accelerator, taking away more than a week of the machine’s precious remaining operating time.

Come April, and the (narrowly avoided) government shutdown threatened to interfere even further.

Fermilab's Tevatron, the most powerful particle accelerator in the US. (http://www.fnal.gov/pub/science/accelerator/)

So how has the Tevatron responded to all of this negativity that’s come about in 2011?  Certainly not by rolling over and playing dead: in the past few weeks, we’ve heard two reports of results from the Tevatron that may suggest the emergence of new physics.  The most recent findings are hinting at the existence of a new elementary particle, or even a new force in nature.

How big of a deal is this?  From the New York Times:

“Nobody knows what this is,” said Christopher Hill, a theorist at Fermilab who was not part of the team. “If it is real, it would be the most significant discovery in physics in half a century.”

Sounds like a big deal, although it does look like there’s still some work to be done to verify these results.  Unfortunately, time is ticking away for the Tevatron.

From the same New York Times story:

Joe Lykken, a Fermilab particle theorist, said Dr. Punzi’s group would have four times as much data in an analysis later this year. “This would be enough to claim a definitive major discovery,” he wrote in an e-mail, “just as the Tevatron — and perhaps Fermilab itself — is being shut down for budget savings.”

Crazy timing, right?

The co-spokesman of the project, Rob Roser, addresses this (as reported on Nature’s blog):

Roser says he’s aware that, because of the Tevatron program is going to be shutdown this year, there will be some skeptics outside the 700-strong collaboration but that those inside have given the analysis a careful check before releasing it. “You always run the risk that people think you’re grandstanding when funding is at risk but we’re not. We’re trying to put this out in a responsible way. It’s hard to convince 700 people.”

But that’s not all Roser said (from ScienceNOW):

“I’m kind of surprised that [The New York Times] wrote about it; it must have been a slow news day,” says Robert Roser, co-spokesperson for the 500-member team working with the CDF particle detector at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, which made the observation. Still, he says, it’s possible that the scientists have seen a new particle.

So what do the results really mean, and how significant are they actually?  (And is anyone else wondering what happened to 200 members of the research team?) Maybe this will all become a bit more clear as the buzz dies down and more data is (hopefully) acquired. 

I suggest exercising some degree of caution before jumping to any conclusions at this point — rumors about monumental discoveries in particle physics (such as the Higgs boson, the ‘God particle’) have a tendency to get blown out of proportion before they can be confirmed.

Simulated decay pattern of the much sought-after Higgs boson. (http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2007/06/higgsboson#)

As for the science, Ian O’Neill at Discovery News does a good job of breaking down what happens when protons and antiprotons collide in the Tevatron, and what the new results are saying:

A rough analogy could be two freight trains colliding head-on. Out of the resulting fire and carnage, dozens of cars spontaneously form, spraying out from the wreckage.

In this fantasy collision, the trains are the protons and antiprotons, and the cars could represent post-collision particles detected in the Tevatron, most of which are common and expected to be created (Fords, Chevvys, Hondas). However, a very small number are not predicted and are considered “exotic” (a Ferrari here, a Lamborghini there). Suddenly, we’re very interested in the exotic cars.

Ferrari particles – I like it.

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Post by Henderson

Whew!

There is so much science and technology news out there, it is literally making my head spin.

In recent news, AT&T is buying T-Mobile USA (good news for iPhone devotees, bad news for relatively cheap service), the NRDC found 42 disease clusters in 13 states, and the Tennessee House of Representatives passed a bill to teach creationism alongside evolution.

While each of these stories is monumental in its own right, the two biggest stories may have been buried with all the coverage of the impending government shutdown.  FYI, it didn’t shut down — but the next two stories were major reasons why there was so much contention about the budget in the first place.


#1:

On Thursday, in a 255 to 172 vote, the House of Representatives decided that the E.P.A. does not have the right to regulate emissions coming from industrial facilities.  A slap in the faces of the Supreme Court and the Obama Administration in one vote.

Background:

2007: In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court found that carbon dioxide and other emissions are “air pollutants” as defined by the Clean Air Act.  Therefore, the regulation of these emissions falls under the jurisdiction of the E.P.A.
2009
: Congress passed the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill.
2010
: The E.P.A. released new rules requiring that new or upgraded facilities use the best technologies for controlling the release of CO2 into the environment.

Central to the Obama Administration’s environmental policy is the curbing of greenhouse gas emissions and moving the US in a more “green friendly” direction.

Sources have said that the legislation won’t pass.  Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) has done his best to block this in the Senate, and President Obama has stated that he would veto any such legislation that passed his desk.

What is most important is the rhetoric coming from opponents of greenhouse gas regulation.  Texas Republican Ted Poe defended the bill by saying that the “E.P.A. is on a mission to destroy American industry.”  Really?


#2:

On Friday, the House of Representatives voted to overturn the F.C.C.’s net neutrality rules passed last year.

The rules prohibit phone and cable companies from favoring or discriminating against Internet content and services, including online calling services such as Skype and Web video services such as Netflix that could compete with their core operations. They require broadband providers to let subscribers access all legal online content.”

At issue is one question: who has the right to regulate the internet?

Furthermore, with regulation, what does it mean to sustain an open and free internet?

Check out FCC Chairman’s Julius Genachowski’s discussion of a free and open internet:

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