Barn Owl Wings Adapted for Silent Flight

1:37:23 AM, Friday, August 10, 2012

"(BBC, 19 January 2012) Their screech is one of nature's eeriest sounds, but barn owls hunt in almost total silence.

Now researchers in Germany have revealed how the predators' wings are specially adapted to allow noiseless flight.

Their supreme stealth is thanks, largely, to their ability to fly so slowly - with relatively little beating of their wings.

And the shape and size of the owls' wings enables this very slow flight.

Dr Thomas Bachmann from the Technical University Darmstadt in Germany recently presented his study of barn owl wings at the Society for Integrative and Comparitive Biology's annual meeting in Charleston, South Carolina.

He explained to BBC Nature that barn owls were highly specialised nocturnal hunters..."

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First Detailed Report Defines Limits of Methane-Exhaling Microbial Life in an Undersea Volcano

1:21:55 AM, Friday, August 10, 2012

"(Phys.org, August 6, 2012) By some estimates, a third of the Earth's organisms by mass live in our planet's rocks and sediments, yet their lives and ecology are almost a complete mystery. This week, microbiologist James Holden at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and others report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the first detailed data about a group of methane-exhaling microbes that live deep in the cracks of hot undersea volcanoes.

Holden says, "Evidence has built over the past 20 years that there's an incredible amount of biomass in the Earth's subsurface, in the crust and marine sediments, perhaps as much as all the plants and animals on the surface. We're interested in the microbes in the deep rock, and the best place to study them is at hydrothermal vents at undersea volcanoes. Warm water flows bring the nutrient and energy sources they need."

"Just as biologists studied the different habitats and life requirements for giraffes and penguins when they were new to science, for the first time we're studying these subsurface microorganisms, defining their habitat requirements and determining how those differ among species. It's very exciting, and will advance our understanding of biogeochemical cycles in the deep ocean...""

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Touchdown confirmed and we have images!!!

2:01:34 AM, Monday, August 06, 2012
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Curiosity's Seven Minutes of Terror

10:14:58 PM, Sunday, August 05, 2012

-- Team members share the challenges of Curiosity's final minutes to landing on the surface of Mars. Super excited about this. Hopefully all goes well. May the "force" be with you Curiosity!

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'Earliest' Evidence of Modern Human Culture Found

10:51:54 PM, Tuesday, July 31, 2012

"(BBC July 31, 2012) The earliest unambiguous evidence for modern human behaviour has been discovered by an international team of researchers in a South African cave.

The finds provide early evidence for the origin of modern human behaviour 44,000 years ago, over 20,000 years before other findings.

The artefacts are near identical to modern-day tools of the indigenous African San bush people.

The research was published yesterday in PNAS.

Modern Living

Although 75,000-year-old evidence for human innovation has previously been found in southern Africa, the meaning of these artefacts has been difficult to interpret.

"These were things that seem symbolic, but there's no direct link to those people. We don't know what they were thinking," explained co-author Dr Lucinda Backwell of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa..."

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Caffeinated Seas Found off U.S. Pacific Northwest

10:21:53 PM, Tuesday, July 31, 2012

"(Nat. Geo. July 30, 2012) The Pacific Northwest may be the epicenter of U.S. coffee culture, and now a new study shows the region's elevated caffeine levels don't stop at the shoreline.

The discovery of caffeine pollution in the Pacific Ocean off Oregon is further evidence that contaminants in human waste are entering natural water systems, with unknown consequences for wildlife and humans alike, experts say.

Scientists sampled both "potentially polluted" sites—near sewage-treatment plants, larger communities, and river mouths—and more remote waters, for example near a state park.

Surprisingly, caffeine levels off the potentially polluted areas were below the detectable limit, about 9 nanograms per liter. The wilder coastlines were comparatively highly caffeinated, at about 45 nanograms per liter.

"Our hypothesis from these results is that the bigger source of contamination here is probably on-site waste disposal systems like septic systems," said study co-author Elise Granek.

The difference may be due to more stringent monitoring in more developed areas..."

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Giant Icy Avalanches Seen on Saturn Moon

10:07:40 PM, Tuesday, July 31, 2012

"(Nat. Geo. July 30, 2012) Thirty giant icy avalanches on Saturn's moon Iapetus have been spied by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, a new study says. The events, likely triggered by large meteors, may offer a unique insight into the mechanics of landslides on Earth.

With steep crater walls and a 12-mile-high (19-kilometer-high) mountain ridge more than twice the height of Mount Everest, Iapetus has nearly a perfect setup for avalanches, according to study leader Kelsi Singer, a Ph.D. candidate in geology and geophysics at Washington University in St. Louis.

"When you look at Iapetus from space, you can clearly see the equatorial ridge sticking out, and it makes the icy moon look somewhat like a walnut."

The moon "has some of highest topography for its size of any major body in the solar system, and has the most landslides other than Mars," Singer said.

Analyzing the Cassini landslide images, Singer and her team noticed that icy debris falling down the crater walls and mountain ridges would travel surprisingly long distances horizontally across the terrain—sometimes 50 miles (80 kilometers), which is 20 to 30 times the height from which they fell.

"The scale is just enormous—if you were standing on the ground, you wouldn't be able to see" all of the cliff..."

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Researchers Produce First Complete Computer Model of an Organism

1:12:08 AM, Sunday, July 22, 2012

"(ScienceDaily July 21, 2012) In a breakthrough effort for computational biology, the world's first complete computer model of an organism has been completed, Stanford researchers reported last week in the journal Cell.

A team led by Markus Covert, assistant professor of bioengineering, used data from more than 900 scientific papers to account for every molecular interaction that takes place in the life cycle of Mycoplasma genitalium, the world's smallest free-living bacterium.

By encompassing the entirety of an organism in silico, the paper fulfills a longstanding goal for the field. Not only does the model allow researchers to address questions that aren't practical to examine otherwise, it represents a stepping-stone toward the use of computer-aided design in bioengineering and medicine.

"This achievement demonstrates a transforming approach to answering questions about fundamental biological processes," said James M. Anderson, director of the National Institutes of Health Division of Program Coordination, Planning and Strategic Initiatives. "Comprehensive computer models of entire cells have the potential to advance our understanding of cellular function and, ultimately, to inform new approaches for the diagnosis and treatment of disease."

The research was partially funded by an NIH Director's Pioneer Award from the National Institutes of Health Common Fund..."

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This Is Your Brain on Altruism

3:28:58 AM, Saturday, July 21, 2012

(freakonomics.com 7/13/2012) "We’ve had a lot to say about altruism, and how economists and others have tried to study it. A group of economists at the University of Zurich now claims to have found a spot in the brain associated with altruistic behavior. From Pacific Standard:

It’s called the right temporoparietal junction (or TPJ for short). Along with many other crucial functions, this neural crossroads gives us the ability to understand the perspectives of others—a prerequisite for empathy.

Swiss scholars report they have found a strong connection between the TPJ and a person’s willingness to engage in selfless acts.

“The structure of the TPJ strongly predicts an individual’s set point for altruistic behavior, while activity in this brain region predicts an individual’s acceptable cost for altruistic actions,” reports lead author Yosuke Morishima of the Laboratory for Social and Neural Systems Research at the University of Zurich’s Department of Economics..."

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Hubble's Panoramic View of a Turbulent Star-making Region

12:00:38 AM, Saturday, July 21, 2012

"(spacetelescope.org, April 17, 2012) Several million stars are vying for attention in this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of a raucous stellar breeding ground in 30 Doradus, located in the heart of the Tarantula nebula.

30 Doradus is the brightest star-forming region in our galactic neighbourhood and home to the most massive stars ever seen. The nebula resides 170 000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small, satellite galaxy of our Milky Way. No known star-forming region in our galaxy is as large or as prolific as 30 Doradus.

The image comprises one of the largest mosaics ever assembled from Hubble photos and consists of observations taken by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 and Advanced Camera for Surveys, combined with observations from the European Southern Observatory’s MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope that trace the location of glowing hydrogen and oxygen.

The image is being released to celebrate Hubble’s 22nd anniversary.

The stars in this image add up to a total mass millions of times bigger than that of our Sun. The image is roughly 650 light-years across and contains some rambunctious stars, from one of the fastest rotating stars to the speediest and most massive runaway star.

The nebula is close enough to Earth that Hubble can resolve individual stars, giving astronomers important information about the stars’ birth and evolution. Many small galaxies have more spectacular starbursts, but the Large Magellanic Cloud’s 30 Doradus is one of the only star-forming regions that astronomers can study in detail. The star-birthing frenzy in 30 Doradus may be partly fueled by its close proximity to its companion galaxy, the Small Magellanic Cloud..."

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RAF Leader Sought Evidence of Highland Sputnik Crash

11:44:46 PM, Friday, July 20, 2012

"(BBC July 18, 2012) A former RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team leader has told how he sought evidence that a Russian satellite crashed in the Highlands 50 years ago.

David "Heavy" Whalley was intrigued by a story from the 1960s that a shepherd found the remains of a Sputnik on a moor above Ardgay in Sutherland.

An RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team member sent to the scene later told Mr Whalley of finding unusual debris.

Team members involved were allegedly told to "keep quiet" about it.

After becoming Kinloss's rescue team leader in the late 1980s, Mr Whalley tried to find a record of the search in the team's logs. He believes the information was deliberately suppressed.

Sputniks were a series of satellites built and launched by the former Soviet Union..."

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Astronomers Using the Hubble Space Telescope Report the Earliest Spiral Galaxy Ever Seen

11:32:29 PM, Friday, July 20, 2012

"(ScienceDaily July 18, 2012) Astronomers have witnessed for the first time a spiral galaxy in the early universe, billions of years before many other spiral galaxies formed. In findings reported July 19 in the journal Nature, the astronomers said they discovered it while using the Hubble Space Telescope to take pictures of about 300 very distant galaxies in the early universe and to study their properties. This distant spiral galaxy is being observed as it existed roughly three billion years after the Big Bang, and light from this part of the universe has been traveling to Earth for about 10.7 billion years.

"As you go back in time to the early universe, galaxies look really strange, clumpy and irregular, not symmetric," said Alice Shapley, a UCLA associate professor of physics and astronomy, and co-author of the study. "The vast majority of old galaxies look like train wrecks. Our first thought was, why is this one so different, and so beautiful?"

Galaxies in today's universe divide into various types, including spiral galaxies like our own Milky Way, which are rotating disks of stars and gas in which new stars form, and elliptical galaxies, which include older, redder stars moving in random directions. The mix of galaxy structures in the early universe is quite different, with a much greater diversity and larger fraction of irregular galaxies, Shapley said.

"The fact that this galaxy exists is astounding," said David Law, lead author of the study and Dunlap Institute postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto's Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics. "Current wisdom holds that such 'grand-design' spiral galaxies simply didn't exist at such an early time in the history of the universe." A 'grand design' galaxy has prominent, well-formed spiral arms..."

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In Neutrino-Less Double-Beta Decay Search, Physicists Excel

11:20:54 PM, Friday, July 20, 2012

"(Phys.org, July 19, 2012) Physicists Andrea Pocar and Krishna Kumar of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, part of an international research team, recently reported results of an experiment conducted at the Enriched Xenon Observatory (EXO), located in a salt mine one-half mile under Carlsbad, New Mexico, part of a decades-long search for evidence of the elusive neutrino-less double-beta decay of Xenon-136.

Pocar, Kumar and the team of 60 scientists using an instrument called the EXO-200 detector, succeeded in setting a new lower limit for the half-life of this ephemeral nuclear decay. Though no one has yet seen it, important progress was made.

Pocar explains, "This result is particularly interesting because it very nearly excludes a 10-year old claim for observing such a decay in germanium-76. One of the physics community's goals for all this time has been to test that claim. We now have a detector that is able to probe half-lives which are 10^15 times the age of the universe. This alone is a remarkable achievement."

If observed someday, the existence of neutrinoless double-beta decay would require a new theoretical explanation of particle physics, he adds. Many theorists believe that it should exist. "A number of factors make this seem possible. It could tell us something about the asymmetry between matter and anti-matter that we observe in the universe," Pocar notes. Latest findings are reported in the current issue of Physical Review Letters..."

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Parts of Mars Interior as Wet as Earth's

2:07:08 AM, Friday, July 20, 2012

"(Space.com, June 23, 2012) The interior of Mars holds vast reservoirs of water, with some spots apparently as wet as Earth's innards, scientists say.

The finding upends previous studies, which had estimated that the Red Planet's internal water stores were scanty at best — something of a surprise, given that liquid water apparently flowed on the Martian surface long ago.

"It’s been puzzling why previous estimates for the planet’s interior have been so dry," co-author Erik Hauri, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, said in a statement. "This new research makes sense and suggests that volcanoes may have been the primary vehicle for getting water to the surface."

The scientists examined two Martian meteorites that formed in the planet's mantle, the layer under the crust. These rocks landed on Earth about 2.5 million years ago, after being blasted off the Red Planet by a violent impact.

Using a technique called secondary ion mass spectrometry, the team determined that the mantle from which the meteorites derived contained between 70 and 300 parts per million (ppm) of water. Earth's mantle, for comparison, holds roughly 50-300 ppm water, researchers said.

"The results suggest that water was incorporated during the formation of Mars and that the planet was able to store water in its interior during the planet’s differentiation," Hauri said..."

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Slowest Greenland Sharks Hunts Sleeping Prey

2:00:10 AM, Friday, July 20, 2012

"(BBC 22 June 2012) Researchers have measured the swimming speed of the ocean's slowest shark.

Data-logging tags revealed that Greenland sharks "cruise" at 0.34m per second - less than 1mph.

The study showed that, even when the languid fish embarks on a burst of speed in order to hunt, it is far too slow to catch a swimming seal.

Since the species is known to eat seals, the scientists think it probably "sneaks up on them" as they sleep under the water.

The Greenland shark was already known to be the world's slowest swimming shark, but its sluggishness surprised the scientists.

Yuuki Watanabe from the National Institute of Polar Research in Tokyo, who took part in the study, said that, when you account for the size of its body, it is the slowest fish in the ocean.

Previous research had revealed seal remains in the stomachs of the sharks.

"It was hard to understand," he told BBC Nature, "because [it would seem] impossible for them to catch fast-swimming seals."

The researcher joined Dr Kit Kovacs and Dr Christian Lydersen from the Norwegian Polar Institute, to tag Greenland sharks in the waters off Svarlbard..."

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