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Science Sunday #5

Posted by Don McLenaghen on July 17, 2011

– 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:

Words of the Week:

Ichnology – the branch of geology that deals with traces of organismal behavior, such as burrows and footprints.

Paracancerous – (Could not find this outside medical journals, but from the context and prefix I reconstruct this defintion) – located near or adjacent to cancerous cells.


New Mexico ‘spaceport’ in the works –

Under the authority of the newly created New Mexico Spaceport Authority and Spaceport America, plans for the new space are set for a site outside Truth or Consequences, a tiny desert town.

The U.S.’s manned shuttle missions have been put to an end, and the hope is that the private sector will pick up, and a new tourism industry will be born. Virgin Galactic, the first space tourism company, has already been created, and Boeing also reportedly plans to get in on the action. The project has already cost the state of New Mexico $200 million.

NPR – Space Port

RawStory – Space Port

NASA spacecraft to enter orbit of large asteroid –
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is about to be captured into orbit around the giant asteroid Vesta. Meanwhile, a new paper argues that Vesta and Ceres, another huge asteroid set to be visited by Dawn, are the main stumbling blocks to predicting the long-term fate of the solar system.

At 530 kilometres across, Vesta is one of the biggest denizens of the asteroid belt, the junkyard of leftover planetary building blocks found between Mars and Jupiter. Vesta, thought to have finished growing long before Earth and the other planets, could reveal clues about the era of early planet formation. After a year in orbit, Dawn will head to Ceres, the solar system’s biggest asteroid.

New Scientist – Probe’s targets cloud ‘crystal ball’

RawStory – NASA orbits asteroid


Fossil Forensics: Wasps setup home in Dino eggs – 

The approximately 70 million year old eggs, from gigantic titanosaur sauropod dinosaurs were discovered in 1989 in the Patagonia region of Argentina, well known for yielding fossils of sauropod dinosaur eggs and even embryonic dinosaurs. Only recently it was discovered that one of the broken eggs contained tiny sausage-shaped structures, 2-3cm long and 1cm wide. The structures closely resembled fossilised insect cocoons, and were most similar in size and shape to the cocoons of some species of modern wasp.

There are many records of fossilised dinosaur eggs, and even several records of fossil cocoons, but, as author Dr Jorge Genise of the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales states “this is the first time that these cocoons are found closely associated with an egg.”

ScienceDaily – How Wasps Populated Rotting Dinosaur Eggs


Early Talking Doll Recording Discovered  –

Scientists managed to recover the sound from what is thought to be the earliest ever talking doll – 123 years old, singing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’. It was recorded by Thomas Edison himself, and probably has not been heard since his lifetime. We find out how this recording was made.

The artifact is a ring-shaped cylinder phonograph record made of solid metal. The metal record is significantly bent out of its original round, cylindrical shape.  At the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Senior Scientist Carl Haber and Computer Systems Engineer Earl Cornell used a three-dimensional optical scanning technology to create a digital model of the surface of the record. With this digital model, they used modern image analysis methods to reproduce the audio stored on the record, saving it as a WAV-format digital audio file.

NPS – Early Talking Doll Recording Discovered

Science in Action


Tough at the top – 

These days, the expression “it’s tough at the top” is usually used ironically. But it turns out that being a top ranking, or alpha male could be a lot more stressful than we realised, particularly if you are a monkey. Researchers have just published work involving a nine year study of baboon populations in Africa. They found that alpha males have higher levels of stress hormones and lower levels of testosterone than males ranked below them. So could the same hold true for humans?

In social hierarchies, dominant individuals experience reproductive and health benefits, but the costs of social dominance remain a topic of debate. Prevailing hypotheses predict that higher-ranking males experience higher testosterone and stress hormone levels than lower-ranking males when hierarchies are unstable but not otherwise. In this long-term study of rank-related stress in a natural population of savannah baboons, high-ranking males had higher testosterone and lower glucocorticoid levels than other males, regardless of hierarchy stability. The singular exception was for the highest-ranking (alpha) males, who exhibited both high testosterone and high glucocorticoid levels. In particular, alpha males exhibited much higher stress hormone levels than second-ranking (beta) males, suggesting that being at the very top may be more costly than previously thought.

Science – Life at the Top

Science in Action



The Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster, giant sea serpents – these are all examples of creatures rumoured to exist but never proven. Dr Charles Paxten of St Andrews University discussed the science of cryptozoology at a meeting at the Zoological Society of London this week. But is it a valid science? Can anecdotal reports tell us about real monsters, rare species or just human psychology?

Speculation as to the nature of large unknown aquatic animals has generally occurred in the absence of quantitative data and relied almost solely on eyewitness testimonial. This need not be the case. I estimated the number of unknown large open water marine animals awaiting discovery by science based on an assumption that the scientific description rate for unknown large aquatic animals from 1830 could be extrapolated into the future. If this is true then the cumulative species description rate can be modelled as a rectangular hyperbola and an estimate of the number of large unknown open water marine animals could be made.

Material World
Predicting Aquatic Monsters


Piece of Mind: Is the Internet Replacing Our Ability to Remember – 

Has the Internet dumbed down society or simply become an external storage unit that enhances the human brain’s memory capacity? With Google, Internet Movie Database and Wikipedia at our beck and call via smart phones, tablets and laptops, the once essential function of committing facts to memory has become little more than a flashback to flash cards.

The results of four studies suggest that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it. The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.

Scientific American – Piece of Mind

Science – Google Effects on Memory


Funding For James Webb Space Telescope In Jeopardy – 

A bill approved by the House Committee on Appropriations cuts funding for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope in 2012. (The bill has not yet been approved by the full House and Senate). Ira Flatow and guests discuss the status of the telescope and what happens if funding is cut.

Science Friday

James Webb Space Telescope


Rise in Risk Inequality – 

A new study of political polarization in the United States suggests that changes in the labor market since the 1970s has helped create more Republican and Democratic partisans and fewer independents..

In a study published recently in the British Journal of Political Science, Philipp Rehm estimated that slightly more than half of Americans could be counted as natural partisans in 1968, based on their income and job security. But by 2008, the number of natural partisans had climbed to include nearly two-thirds of all Americans.

Rehm said that, traditionally, many political scientists have thought that Americans’ income played a large role in which political party they supported. Rehm argues that Americans’ political preferences are shaped not just by their current income, but also by the risk they perceive that they could lose their current income level.

ScienceDaily – Polarized US Voters


A field guide to bullshit – 

How do people defend their beliefs in bizarre conspiracy theories or the power of crystals? Philosopher Stephen Law has tips for spotting their strategies.

“Intellectual black holes are belief systems that draw people in and hold them captive so they become willing slaves of claptrap. Belief in homeopathy, psychic powers, alien abductions – these are examples of intellectual black holes. As you approach them, you need to be on your guard because if you get sucked in, it can be extremely difficult to think your way clear again.

You identify some strategies people use to defend black hole beliefs. Tell me about one of them – “playing the mystery card“?

This involves appealing to mystery to get out of intellectual hot water when someone is, say, propounding paranormal beliefs. They might say something like: “Ah, but this is beyond the ability of science and reason to decide. You, Mr Clever Dick Scientist, are guilty of scientism, of assuming science can answer every question.” This is often followed by that quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. When you hear that, alarm bells should go off.

How can science test these mysteries?

Psychologist Christopher French at Goldsmiths, University of London, ran an experiment into the effects of crystals to explore claims that holding “real” crystals from a New Age shop while meditating has a powerful effect on the psyche, more so than just holding “fake” ones. But French found no difference in participants using real and fake crystals. This was good evidence that the effect people report is down to the power of suggestion, not the crystals.

Of course, this study provoked comments such as: “Not being able to prove the existence of something does not disprove its existence. Much is yet to be discovered.” This is just a smokescreen. But because the mantra “it’s-beyond-the-ability-of-science-to-establish…” gets repeated so often, it is effective at lulling people back to sleep – even if they have been stung into entertaining a doubt for a moment or two.”

New Scientist

Stephen Law


Why the universe wasn’t fine-tuned for life – 

In recent years many such examples of how the laws of physics have been “fine-tuned” for us to be here have been reported. Some religious people claim these “cosmic coincidences” are evidence of a grand design by a Supreme Being. In The Fallacy of Fine-tuning, physicist Victor Stenger makes a devastating demolition of such arguments.

A general mistake made in search of fine-tuning, he points out, is to vary just one physical parameter while keeping all the others constant. Yet a “theory of everything” – which alas we do not yet have – is bound to reveal intimate links between physical parameters. A change in one may be compensated by a change in another, says Stenger.

In addition to general mistakes, Stenger deals with specifics. For instance, British astronomer Fred Hoyle discovered that vital heavy elements can be built inside stars only because a carbon-12 nucleus can be made from the fusion of three helium nuclei. For the reaction to proceed, carbon-12 must have an energy level equal to the combined energy of the three helium nuclei, at the typical temperature inside a red giant. This has been touted as an example of fine-tuning. But, as Stenger points out, in 1989, astrophysicist Mario Livio showed that the carbon-12 energy level could actually have been significantly different and still resulted in a universe with the heavy elements needed for life.

New Scientist


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