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Science Sunday #3

Posted by Don McLenaghen on July 3, 2011

Science Sunday
– and on the seventh day we learn.
Each week I hope to give a synopsis of the interesting science stories I have heard on my plethora of science podcasts I listen to each week plus anything I pick up scanning the inter-web. This week’s top stories:

‘Monster’ driving cosmic beacon –
Astronomers have discovered the most distant quasar ever seen. Quasars are very bright galaxies powered by a super-massive black hole. This one, discovered during a survey by the UK InfraRed Telescope in Hawaii and reported in Nature, is so distant that we are seeing it as it was 12.9 billion years ago, a mere 770 million years after the Big Bang. Though not the most distant galaxy ever seen, it’s the first that’s bright enough to, quite literally, throw light on conditions in the very early universe. It raises questions about how such a monster black hole could form so quickly. Professor Steve Warren of Imperial College London discusses the implications.

‘Monster’ driving cosmic beacon
Universe’s Most Distant Quasar Found, Powered by Massive Black Hole
Science In Action
Material World

The start of the armed race; 800 million years ago –
Yukon fossils reveal oldest armoured organism showing first defence 250 million years earlier than previously seen. 800 million-year-old fossilized evidence that organisms were trying to protect themselves by forming their own shield-like plates. It is the oldest evidence ever of biomineralization, the use of minerals by a living thing to form a hard shell, similar to the way clams or lobsters form their own protection. The tiny fossils date back between 717 and 812 million years.

Yukon fossils reveal oldest armoured organism

55 million years of climate change – 
Climate models are already predicting significant change as the world gets warmer, but evidence from the geological past suggests that there have been sudden changes even more severe than the models are able to predict. State-of-the-art climate models, as used in the assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, could be giving a false sense of security in terms of upcoming abrupt change. In a commentary in Nature Geoscience, Professor Paul Valdes of Bristol University concludes that even the best climate models we have today may be systematically underestimating the potential for sudden climate change.

55 million years of climate change
Material World

Tasmanian devil genome holds secret to survival –
Scientists are increasingly worried over a highly endangered marsupial, which lives on the Australian Island. Two Tasmanian devils complete genomes have just been sequenced in an attempt to figure out why these wonderful animals are being killed by a highly contagious facial cancer. This cancer has reduced the Devil’s population in some parts of Tasmania by more than 90%.
The current belief is that the degree of inbreeding in the Tasmanian Devil population is very high and it believe that this inbreeding has allowed the contagious cancel to spread so effectively. The current thinking amongst conservationist is to attempt to find as diverse genetic individuals that remain in the population and remove them from the wild; then allow the pathogen to burn itself out in the natural population (likely to result in the near extinction of the wild devil) and then reintroduce the devil from the captive breeding stock.

Genetic diversity and population structure of the endangered marsupial
Tasmanian devil genomes offer some hope, few answers
Tasmanian devil genome holds secret to survival
Science In Action

Is Settling Mars Inevitable, Or An Impossibility? – 
In The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must, Robert Zubrin argues that America is more prepared to send astronauts to Mars today than we were to send astronauts to the Moon in 1961. And he thinks we should, despite considerable risk to potential colonists

To replace the shuttle: A mission to Mars
The Case Against the Moon: Why We Shouldn’t Go Straight Back
Science Friday

How Social Pressure Can Affect What We Remember – 
How easy is it to falsify memory? New research at the Weizmann Institute shows that a bit of social pressure may be all that is needed. The study, which appears in the journal Science, reveals a unique pattern of brain activity when false memories are formed — one that hints at a surprising connection between our social selves and memory.

Thanks for the Memories
Science Daily

Ancient Symbiosis Between Animals and Bacteria Discovered – 
Marine shallow water sandy bottoms on the surface appear desert-like and empty, but in the interstitial space between the sand grains a diverse fauna flourishes. In addition to bacteria and protozoa numerous animal phyla have been found here, some only here. One of the strangest members of this interstitial fauna is Paracatenula, a several millimeters long, mouth and gut-less flatworm, which is found from tropical oceans to the Mediterranean.
In the early 1970s, at the time of the discovery of Paracatenula, it was already a mystery how the worms acquire their food without a mouth and gut. The solution to this question came unexpectedly: At deep ocean hot vents, giant mouth-less tubeworms were found. These — like Paracatenula — live in symbiosis with intracellular bacteria that oxidize reduced sulfur compounds.

Science Daily

Laureate Urges Next Generation to Address Population Control as Central Issue – 
Christian de Duve,A 93-year-old Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine, received a standing ovation from hundreds of scientists June 30 at the end of a speech in which he urged the world’s young people to take measures to control runaway population growth in order to resolve related ills that have resulted from humans’ remarkable evolutionary success as a species.
He outlined the population growth that has occurred in the past 8 million years, with the well-known dramatic acceleration that has occurred in the past 100 years predicted to bring us to a world population of 9 billion or so in 2050.
Rather than blaming humanity for all this, he pointed the finger at natural selection, saying that this principle which drives us to reproduce and advance our genes operates “on the here and now level” and pays no heed to imminent food, energy and resource crises. Our ancestors evolved to embrace intra-group selfishness and inter-group hostility as a matter of survival. Today, however, these tendencies do more harm than good.
Humans are the only species that have the ability to act against natural selection, he said, and that is now what must be undertaken.

Scientific American

France Becomes First Country to Ban Extraction of Natural Gas by Fracking – 
The French parliament voted on June 30 to ban the controversial technique for extracting natural gas from shale rock deposits known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Gaz de schiste : le Parlement interdit l’utilisation de la fracturation hydraulique
Scientific American

Next solar cycle could be a no-show – 
Already sluggish, the sun may be slipping into several decades of hibernation that could exert a cooling effect on Earth’s climate, several new studies suggest.


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