Category: science

Exoplanet hunters rethink search for alien life

By Alexandra Witze

Steve Desch can see the future of exoplanet research, and it’s not pretty. Imagine, he says, that astronomers use NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope to scour the atmosphere of an Earth-mass world for signs of life. Then imagine that they chase hints of atmospheric oxygen for years — before realizing that those were false positives produced by geological activity instead of living things.

Desch, an astrophysicist at Arizona State University in Tempe, and other planet hunters met from 13-17 November in Laramie, Wyoming, to plot better ways to scout for life beyond Earth. Many are starting to argue that habitability — having liquid water on a planet’s surface — is not the factor that should guide exoplanet exploration. Instead, the scientists say, the field should focus on the chances of detecting alien life, should it exist.

“Planets can be habitable and not have life with any impact,” Desch told researchers at the meeting.

It turns out that water worlds are some of the worst places to look for living things. One study presented at the meeting shows how a planet covered in oceans could be starved of phosphorus, a nutrient without which earthly life cannot thrive. Other work concludes that a planet swamped in even deeper water would be geologically dead, lacking any of the planetary processes that nurture life on Earth.

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Immortality in Space for “Johnny B. Goode”


When Chuck Berry sang “Go, go Johnny go!” in 1958, could he have ever imagined how far his rock and roll hit would really go? “Johnny B. Goode” is now some 13 billion miles from Earth, traveling at 38,000 mph aboard NASA’s Voyager 1 space probe. The guitar anthem shares space on a Golden Record alongside Mozart and Louis Armstrong, part of a cultural snapshot intended for any extraterrestrials who might someday find the spacecraft. Anderson Cooper reports on the Voyager space probes as they continue beaming back data 40 years after their launch. The story will be broadcast on 60 Minutes Sunday, Nov. 19 7:30 p.m., ET/7:00 p.m. PT.

Why send “Johnny B. Goode” into space? Ann Druyan, the creative director of the team astronomer Carl Sagan assembled to make the Golden Record in the 1970s, tells Cooper the music embodied the mission. “To me, ‘Johnny B. Goode,’ rock and roll, was the music of motion, of moving, getting to someplace you’ve never been before and the odds are against you,” says Druyan. “But you want to go. That was Voyager.”

The Voyagers were launched 40 years ago, and they’re still going. No man-made objects have ever traveled so long and so far while continuing to function. The twin crafts were launched separately in 1977. Their mission was only supposed to last four years. The images the Voyagers captured of Jupiter in 1979 were the sharpest scientists had ever seen. The probes continued on, collecting data and images from the farthest planets in our solar system — Saturn, Uranus and Neptune — and their distinctive moons. The data gave scientists a new perspective on the workings and diversity of far-away worlds they had only seen through telescopes. The Voyagers are still beaming scientific data back to Earth.

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Biology’s beloved amphibian — the axolotl — is racing towards extinction

By Erik Vance

When biologist Luis Zambrano began his career in the late 1990s, he pictured himself working miles from civilization, maybe discovering new species in some hidden corner of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Instead, in 2003, he found himself counting amphibians in the polluted, murky canals of Mexico City’s Xochimilco district. The job had its advantages: he was working minutes from his home and studying the axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum), a national icon in Mexico and arguably the world’s most recognizable salamander. But in that first year, Zambrano couldn’t wait for it to be over.

“Let me tell you, I hated the project at the beginning,” he says. For one thing, “I couldn’t catch anything”.

Over time, however, he did catch some axolotls. What he found surprised him — and changed the course of his career. In 1998, the first robust study to count axolotls estimated that there were about 6,000 of them per square kilometre in Xochimilco1. Zambrano — who now is a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City — discovered in 2000 that the number had dropped to about 1,000 animals per square kilometre. By 2008, it was down to 100; today, thanks to pollution and invasive predators, there are fewer than 35 animals per square kilometre1

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Puppy Love: Owning a Dog Linked to Better Heart Health

By Samantha Mathewson

Good news for dog owners: Man’s best friend may help lower a person’s risk of heart disease, a new study from Sweden finds.

In the study, the researchers looked at the relationship between dog ownership and cardiovascular health. The results suggest that dog owners have a lower risk of heart disease because the four-legged friends provide social support and boost their owners’ physical activity.

Owning a pet dog may be particularly beneficial for people who live alone, the study found.

“A very interesting finding in our study was that dog ownership was especially prominent as a protective factor in persons living alone, which is a group reported previously to be at higher risk of cardiovascular disease and death than those living in a multi-person household,” lead study author Mwenya Mubanga, a doctoral student in the Department of Medical Sciences at Uppsala University in Sweden, said in a statement.

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Donald Trump lifts ban on importing elephant hunt trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia

By Chris Baynes

Donald Trump‘s administration is to allow the remains of endangered elephants legally hunted in two African countries to be imported to the US, reversing a ban introduced by Barack Obama.

The US government has scrapped regulations which forbid elephant trophies being brought into the country from Zimbabweand Zambia, arguing hunting could help conservation efforts.

The Obama administration banned imports of trophies from Zimbabwe in 2014 after finding the nation’s management of legal hunting did not “enhance the survival of the African elephant the wild”.

The species is listed as “threatened” under the US Endangered Species Act and importing African elephant ivory to America is banned unless certain conditions are met.

But the US Fish and Wildlife Service, announcing the lifting of the ban in Zimbabwe and Zambia, said money raised through hunting permits could boost conservation efforts. “Legal, well-regulated sport hunting as part of a sound management programme can benefit the conservation of certain species by providing incentives to local communities to conserve the species and by putting much-needed revenue back into conservation,” a spokesman said.

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We just sent a message to try to talk to aliens on another world

By Dan Falk

Are you there, aliens? It’s us, Earth. Astronomers have sent a radio message to a neighbouring star system – one of the closest known to contain a potentially habitable planet – and it’s nearby enough that we could receive a reply in less than 25 years.

“I think that’s an unlikely outcome, but it would be a welcome outcome,” said Douglas Vakoch, president of Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) International. METI is an offshoot of the more familiar SETI – the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.

The target star is GJ 273, also known as Luyten’s star, a red dwarf in the northern constellation of Canis Minor, just 12 light years away. In March of this year it was discovered to have two planets. One of them, known as GJ 273b, orbits within the star’s “habitable zone” and could potentially harbor liquid water, and perhaps life.

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First Digital Pill Approved to Worries About Biomedical ‘Big Brother’

By Pam Belluck

For the first time, the Food and Drug Administration has approved a digital pill — a medication embedded with a sensor that can tell doctors whether, and when, patients take their medicine.

The approval, announced late on Monday, marks a significant advance in the growing field of digital devices designed to monitor medicine-taking and to address the expensive, longstanding problem that millions of patients do not take drugs as prescribed.

Experts estimate that so-called nonadherence or noncompliance to medication costs about $100 billion a year, much of it because patients get sicker and need additional treatment or hospitalization.

“When patients don’t adhere to lifestyle or medications that are prescribed for them, there are really substantive consequences that are bad for the patient and very costly,” said Dr. William Shrank, chief medical officer of the health plan division at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

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Scientists Unearth Revealing Details about the World’s Biggest Mud Volcano

By Annie Sneed

In May 2006 boiling mud, gas, water and rock started gushing out of the ground in northeastern Java, one of the islands in the Indonesian archipelago. The massive mud volcano—nicknamed “Lusi”—has continued to spew its hot contents even today, more than 11 years later. Experts say Lusi is the largest mud volcano in the world, now covering seven square kilometers of land. Since 2006 Lusi has dislocated some 60,000 people and caused more than $4 billion in economic damages.

Mud volcanoes are not actual volcanoes—their temperatures are much cooler, and they erupt a mix of rock, clay and mud rather than lava. Some say Lusi is a combination of these two systems, although others debate this. In fact, Lusi remains a mystery to scientists in many ways. One of the biggest and most contentious questions about Lusi concerns what triggered the eruptions: an earthquake or natural gas drilling? Now, in a new study, researchers have imaged the subsurface plumbing system of Lusi. Their work reveals that—regardless of what triggered the eruption—Lusi likely connects at deep depths to a nearby volcanic system.

Several studies had already analyzed the geochemistry of the materials bursting from Lusi. They showed its innards had a volcanic origin, says Adriano Mazzini, a geoscientist at the Center for Earth Evolution and Dynamics at the University of Oslo in Norway. “We could already infer that somehow Lusi and a neighboring volcanic complex are connected at depth,” he says. “What we were missing was a real image of the subsurface that could visually prove this connection between the two.” For the new study, published in October in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, Mazzini and his team installed a large network of seismometers in three areas: Lusi; the volcanic system; and a tectonic fault zone spanning the two. The group then collected 10 months of data from the seismometers and used that information to piece together a picture of the subsurface across these locations.

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280-Million-Year-Old Fossil Forest Discovered in … Antarctica

By Stephanie Pappas

Antarctica wasn’t always a land of ice. Millions of years ago, when the continent was still part of a huge Southern Hemisphere landmass called Gondwana, trees flourished near the South Pole.

Now, newfound, intricate fossils of some of these trees are revealing how the plants thrived — and what forests might look like as they march northward in today’s warming world.

“Antarctica preserves an ecologic history of polar biomes that ranges for about 400 million years, which is basically the entirety of plant evolution,” said Erik Gulbranson, a paleoecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

It’s hard to look at Antarctica’s frigid landscape today and imagine lush forests. To find their fossil specimens, Gulbranson and his colleagues have to disembark from planes landed on snowfields, then traverse glaciers and brave bone-chilling winds. But from about 400 million to 14 million years ago, the southern continent was a very different, and much greener place. The climate was warmer, though the plants that survived at the low southern latitudes had to cope with winters of 24-hour-per-day darkness and summers during which the sun never set, just as today.

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Porpoises twist laws of physics to aim their focused sonar beams

By Sam Wong

PORPOISES have the combination of acoustic controls built into their heads to thank for their ability to focus a directed beam of sonar on prey. The bone, air and tissues in their skulls behave like a metamaterial, a material designed to defy the normal laws of physics. These sea mammals can convert non-directional sound waves into a narrow laser of sound.

Like dolphins, porpoises use echolocation to detect prey under water up to 30 metres away. To do this, they emit high frequency clicks in a focused beam in front of their faces, controlling the direction of the beam without moving their heads. They can also widen the beam as they approach their target, helping them catch fish that try to escape.

How they focus the beam is something of a mystery, particularly as the structures that produce the sound – called phonic lips – are smaller than the wavelength of the clicks they produce. This should result in the waveform being spread out instead of targeted. A large fatty organ in the front of the head, called the melon, appears to be important, but the details of the role it plays have been unclear.

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