– 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. We are going to try something different this week. I listen to over 30 podcasts and read over 1000 articles a week; limiting stories here to 5 +/- items seemed limited. So, less text and more stories…feedback welcome. This week’s top stories:
This week’s top stories:
Unraveling the causes of the Ice Age megafauna extinctions-
A study, just published online in the journal Nature, reveals that neither climate nor humans alone can account for the Ice Age mass extinctions. Using ancient megafauna DNA, climate data and the archaeological record, the findings indicate dramatically different responses of Ice Age species to climate change and humans.
For example, the study shows that humans played no part in the extinction of the woolly rhino or the musk ox in Eurasia and that their demise can be entirely explained by climate change. On the other hand, humans aren’t off the hook when it comes to the extinction of the wild horse and the bison in Siberia. Our ancestors share responsibility for the megafauna extinctions with climate change. While the reindeer remain relatively unaffected by any of these factors, the causes of the extinction of the mammoths is still a mystery.
Return of the dust bowl -
Haboobs, giant dust storms, walloped Arizona last summer — some close to 2 kilometers high and 160 kilometers wide — knocking out electricity, creating traffic jams and grounding airplanes. Even old-timers say they can’t remember anything quite like this year’s aerial assaults. Meanwhile Texas is experiencing one of the most extreme droughts in recent history, with almost 90 percent of the state in the most extreme level of drought. Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and other states are also experiencing drought conditions. The worry is that this might just be the start of a trend, as EARTH reports in the November issue: Over the next couple of decades, researchers say, the American West will transition to an environment that may make the 1930s Dust Bowl seem mild and brief.
The problem is that rising temperatures will contribute directly and indirectly to there being more dust in the air. Then, persistent droughts, increasingly violent and variable weather patterns, urban and suburban development and even off-road recreational vehicle usage compound the problem. So, is the West doomed? Or is there any reason to believe that this forecast may not come true?
Latex gloves lead to lax hand hygiene in hospitals –
Healthcare workers who wear gloves while treating patients are much less likely to clean their hands before and after patient contact, according to a study published in the December issue of Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology, the journal of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America. This failure of basic hand hygiene could be contributing to the spread of infection in healthcare settings, the researchers say.
Glove use is appropriate for situations when contact with body fluids is anticipated or when patients are to be managed with contact precautions. However, use of gloves should not be considered a substitute for effective hand hygiene practices taking place before and after patient contact. Although gloves can reduce the number of germs transmitted to the hands, germs can sometimes still get through latex. Hands can also be contaminated by “back spray” when gloves are removed after contact with body fluids.
The researchers, led by Dr. Sheldon Stone of the Royal Free Hospital NHS Trust, observed more than 7,000 patient contacts in 56 intensive care and acute care of the elderly wards in 15 United Kingdom hospitals, making this one of the largest and most detailed studies on gloves and their impact on hand hygiene. Overall, the study found that hand hygiene compliance was “disappointingly low,” at just 47.7 percent. Compliance was even lower in instances where gloves were worn, dipping to just over 41 percent.
New Evidence for the Earliest Modern Humans in Europe -
The timing, process and archaeology of the peopling of Europe by early modern humans have been actively debated for more than a century. Reassessment of the anatomy and dating of a fragmentary upper jaw with three teeth from Kent’s Cavern, Devon, in southern England has shed new light on these issues.
The Kent’s Cavern human joins the human skull and lower jaw from the Peştera cu Oase, Romania, in establishing the presence of modern humans at both ends of Europe (northwest and southeast) by at least 40,000 years ago.
March of the Titans reviled in their teeth -
Fossils of dinosaurs often allow us to build reconstructions of what they looked like, but only rarely do we get insight into what they did – their behaviour. For example, while many paleontologists have assumed that some dinosaurs migrated, the evidence for this has been scanty. Now, Dr. Henry Fricke, a geochemist from Colorado College in Colorado Springs, and his colleagues, have found evidence in fossil teeth that 150 million years ago, giant sauropods called Camarasaurs migrated seasonally. They traveled a distance of 300km from lowlands to highlands, probably to ensure a good supply of food to fuel their giant bodies.
‘Saber-Toothed Squirrel’ –
Paleontologist Guillermo Rougier, Ph.D., professor of anatomical sciences and neurobiology at the University of Louisville, and his team have reported their discovery of two skulls from the first known mammal of the early Late Cretaceous period of South America. The fossils break a roughly 60 million-year gap in the currently known mammalian record of the continent and provide new clues on the early evolution of mammals.
The new critter, named Cronopio dentiacutus by the paleontologists, is a dryolestoid, an extinct group distantly related to today’s marsupials and placentals.
Cronopio was shrew-sized, about 4-6 inches in length, and was an insectivore with a diet of the insects, grubs and other bugs of the time. It lived when giant dinosaurs roamed Earth — more than 100 million years ago — and made its home in a vegetated river plain.
The skulls reveal that Cronopio had extremely long canine teeth, a narrow muzzle and a short, rounded skull. “These first fossil remains of dryolestoids … give us a complete picture of the skull for the group,” John R. Wible, Ph.D., curator of mammals at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, said. “The new dryolestoid, Cronopio, is without a doubt one of the most unusual mammals that I have seen, extinct or living, with its elongate, compressed snout and oversized canine teeth. What it did with that unusual morphology perhaps may come to light with additional discoveries… .”
11/11/11: Maya Scholar Debunks Doomsday Myths -
In a paper presented in January at the Oxford IX International Symposium on Archaeoastronomy in Lima, Peru, University of Kansas anthropologist and Maya scholar John Hoopes tracks the 2012 Maya myth origins through various revivals into the 21st century. The myth is rooted in an early 16th-century European combination of astrological and biblical prophecies to explain the new millennium. Columbus believed that his discovery of the world’s “most remote land” would lead to Spain’s re-conquest of Jerusalem and fulfill world-end events described in the Book of Revelations.
To validate his convictions, Columbus wrote his own Book of Prophecies that included an account of his interview with a “Maia” leader in 1502. The reference inspired early speculation by explorers and missionaries, indirectly influencing crackpots as well as scholars to link ancient Maya — before any contact with Europeans — with the astrological and religious beliefs popular in Europe in the 1500s.
Misinterpretations and distortions flowed with each revival of interest in Maya culture. In the 1960s, the myth re-flowered as the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, enjoyed a resurgence in Y2K and thrives today. Hoopes adds that the Occupy Wall Street movement clearly reflects a nostalgia for the progressive culture of the 1960s.
Brains Come Wired for Cooperation -
The brain was built for cooperative activity, whether it be dancing on a reality television show, constructing a skyscraper or working in an office, according to a study led by Johns Hopkins behavioral neuroscientist Eric Fortune and published in the November 4 issue of the journal Science.
The research used the plain-tailed wrens. These chubby-breasted rust-and-gray birds, who don’t fly so much as hop and flit through the area’s bamboo thickets, are famous for their unusual duets. Their songs — sung by one male and one female — take an ABCD form, with the male singing the A and C phrases and the female (who seems to be the song leader) singing B and D.
“In both males and females, we found that neurons reacted more strongly to the duet song — with both the male and female birds singing — over singing their own parts alone. In fact, the brain’s responses to duet songs were stronger than were responses to any other sound,” he said. “It looked like the brains of wrens are wired to cooperate.”
“Brains among vertebrate animals — frogs, cats, fish, bears and even humans — are more similar than most people realize,” Fortune said. “The neurotransmitter systems that control brain activity at the molecular level are nearly identical among all vertebrates and the layout of the brain structures is the same. Thus, the kinds of phenomena that we have described in these wrens is very relevant to the brains of most, if not all, vertebrate species, including us humans.”
Volunteers End Simulated Mission to Mars –
The record-breaking simulated mission to Mars has ended with smiling faces after 17 months. Mars500’s six brave volunteers stepped out of their ‘spacecraft’ Nov. 4, 2011 to be welcomed by the waiting scientists — happy that the venture had worked even better than expected.
The international crew were isolated in their interplanetary spacecraft mock-up, faithfully following the phases of a real mission: a long flight to Mars, insertion into orbit around the planet, landing, surface exploration, return to orbit, a monotonous return flight and arrival at Earth.
To boldly go where no man-made object has gone before…and keep it going -
NASA’s Deep Space Network personnel sent commands to the Voyager 2 spacecraft Nov. 4 to switch to the backup set of thrusters that controls the roll of the spacecraft. Confirmation was received today that the spacecraft accepted the commands. The change will allow the 34-year-old spacecraft to reduce the amount of power it requires to operate and use previously unused thrusters as it continues its journey toward interstellar space, beyond our solar system.
Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are each equipped with six sets, or pairs, of thrusters to control their movement. These include three pairs of primary thrusters and three backup, or redundant, pairs. Voyager 2 is currently using the two pairs of backup thrusters that control the pitch and yaw motion of the spacecraft. Switching to the backup thruster pair that controls roll motion will allow engineers to turn off the heater that keeps the fuel line to the primary thruster warm. This will save about 12 watts of power. The spacecraft’s power supply now provides about 270 watts of electricity. By reducing its power usage, the spacecraft can continue to operate for another decade even as its available power continues to decline.
Nature’s laws may vary across the Universe -
One of the laws of nature may vary across the Universe, according to a study published today in the journal Physical Review Letters.
The study found that one of the four known fundamental forces, electromagnetism – measured by the so-called fine-structure constant and denoted by the symbol ‘alpha’ – seems to vary across the Universe.
First Quantum Cloning Machine to Produce Four Copies –
Xi-Jun Ren and Yang Xiang from Henan Universities in China, in collaboration with Heng Fan at the Institute of Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, have produced a theory for a quantum cloning machine able to produce several copies of the state of a particle at atomic or sub-atomic scale, or quantum state, in an article about to be published in The European Physical Journal D. The advance could have implications for quantum information processing methods used, for example, in message encryption systems.
Quantum cloning is difficult because quantum mechanics laws only allow for an approximate copy—not an exact copy—of an original quantum state to be made, as measuring such a state prior to its cloning would alter it.
In this study, researchers have demonstrated that it is theoretically possible to create four approximate copies of an initial quantum state, in a process called asymmetric cloning.