Saturday, October 18, 2008


Famed Scientist Warns Credit Crisis 'Devastating' to Science

Famed scientist Richard Leakey warned that the worldwide credit crisis will be "just devastating" to scientific research in coming years, as endowment interest income drops and companies cut donations. Leakey, who once served on a government economic team in his native Kenya, said much of the support for science comes from wealthy philanthropists, foundations and companies. All those groups likely will be affected by lowered interest rates and the squeeze of credit not being available to fund their operations, he said.

"With the investment portfolios being hit as hard as they've been hit in the last few weeks, particularly the last few days, I would have thought there would be a very dramatic reduction in available funds for research in all sorts of countries," Leakey said Wednesday. "Unless they bring it under control, I think it's going to spread. I think it's extremely worrying for science."

Leakey became famous after making a number of fossil discoveries in East Africa. His team unearthed the bones of the most complete skeleton of a prehistoric human ever found in the desolate, far northern reaches of Kenya in 1984. The effect of the credit crisis on science likely will begin to be felt as organizations begin planning their budgets for 2009, Leakey said. The paleontologist said donations will be "hugely hit," affecting what research and exploration can be done next year and into the future.

"This has spread right across the world and there's quite a lot of science to be supported," Leakey said. "I think it is just devastating. It's more worryful for people who are losing their homes, it's more worryful for people who are losing investments for their children's futures, but we're also very worried as scientists," he said.

Leakey was in Little Rock to speak at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. In a new book, Leakey offers a stark warning for the planet, saying global warming could wipe out endangered species living in national parks and refuges throughout the world. He said the extinction of a few species could destroy food chains supporting many other animals -- including humans.

"I think the end of the Ice Age was a quite a massive change and I think this will be ... almost as big of a change in the way we live," Leakey said.

Google Offers 'Mail Goggles' for Drunk E-Mailers

Here's the scenario: It's Friday night, and what began as an innocent happy-hour margarita morphed into a few pitchers. After all, those tacos were salty. Bidding friends adieu, you jump in a cab, head home and decide a quick e-mail check is in order. And there it is: a message from your ex. Or your boss. Or that friend you're secretly mad at.

If you're the kind of person who types tipsy and regrets it in the morning, Google's "Mail Goggles," a new test-phase feature in the free Gmail service, might save you some angst.

The Goggles can kick in late at night on weekends. The feature requires you to solve a few easy math problems in short order before hitting "send." If your logical thinking skills are intact, Google is betting you're sober enough to work out the repercussions of sending that screed you just drafted.

And if you can't multiply two times five, you'll probably thank Google in the morning. To activate Goggles, Gmail users should click the "Settings" link at the top of a Gmail page, then go to the "Labs" section. There's no shame in admitting that sometimes you need a little extra help. Gmail engineer Jon Perlow designed Goggles with his own weaknesses in mind.

"Sometimes I send messages I shouldn't send. Like the time I told that girl I had a crush on her over text message. Or the time I sent that late night e-mail to my ex-girlfriend that we should get back together," he wrote when announcing Mail Goggles on a company blog.

The name is derived from the slang term "beer goggles," or the curious effect of alcohol on one's ability to see the true nature of that "cutie" at the other end of the bar. But you can set up Mail Goggles to protect you from yourself at other emotionally vulnerable times -- before your morning coffee, for example, or right after "Grey's Anatomy."

If a Toyota Prius just looks too friendly for your tastes, you're not alone.

People readily see faces and traits in cars, and a new study suggests that they prefer cars that appear dominant, masculine and angry. The finding rests on the propensity we have to actually see faces or human characteristics in everything from cars to clouds, a phenomenon called pareidolia . But now researchers hope to better understand what goes on in the brain when people see faces in objects versus humans faces, as well as help automakers design more appealing cars.

"When investing in a new passenger car, you're talking about billions," said Truls Thorstensen, head of EFS Consulting Vienna. "If you get the wrong styling, you get problems."

However, designing car appearance has not proven an exact science. Style and design experts give their advice, and even CEOs weigh in with their preferences, Thorstensen told LiveScience. He wanted to find a better tool for automakers to assess car styles. For this, Thorstensen enlisted his own group of experts that included Sonja Windhager, an anthropologist at the University of Vienna. They asked 20 males and 20 females to rate 38 passenger car models which came out between 2004 and 2006.

Study participants assessed cars based on a system known as geometric morphometrics (GM), which allowed the men and women to rate certain traits on a sliding scale (such as "infancy" to "adulthood"). The traits represented maturity, sex, attitudes, emotions and personality -- all things that people infer from human faces at a single glance. After rating car traits, participants then answered the question of whether they saw a human face, animal face or no face at all on the cars. They drew facial features such as eyes, nose and mouth on the car images whenever they did see faces.

Lastly, the study participants answered whether they liked a car or not. The study restricted car choices to passenger cars because including hulking SUVs would have skewed the results. People overwhelmingly preferred cars that rated highest on "power" traits." High "power" cars like the BMW 5 Series tended to be lower or wider , and have slit-like or angled headlights with a wider air intake. The participants also largely agreed on which cars had which traits, such as arrogant, afraid and agreeable. A few traits such as disgusted, extroverted and sad caused more disagreement.

Such results spurred interest even several years ago, when a head designer with a leading car manufacturer wanted to buy the study outright. But Thorstensen and Windhager are already looking to another study that adds eye-tracking and brain activity monitoring.

"These questionnaires are limited in the things you can infer from them," Windhager noted. "You have to ask people, and they have to reflect on them. We wanted to go to more subconscious level."

They also want to conduct research using people in Ethiopia, who don't have familiarity with modern car models, and eventually extend their research across other countries. Thorstensen pointed out that some automakers such as Toyota already tailor certain car model appearances to different countries and cultures .

"I don't think this is something that will change the industry or make the designers jobless," Thorstensen said, adding that the work was just one more step toward a better standardized design tool.

Top Geneticist: Human Evolution Is Over

Human evolution is grinding to a halt because of a shortage of older fathers in the West, according to a leading genetics expert. Fathers over the age of 35 are more likely to pass on mutations, according to Professor Steve Jones of University College London. Speaking at a UCL lecture entitled "Human Evolution Is Over," Professor Jones will argue that there were three components to evolution -- natural selection, mutation and random change.

"Quite unexpectedly, we have dropped the human mutation rate because of a change in reproductive patterns. Human social change often changes our genetic future," he said, citing marriage patterns and contraception as examples.

Although chemicals and radioactive pollution could alter genetics, one of the most important mutation triggers is advanced age in men. This is because cell divisions in males increase with age.

"Every time there is a cell division, there is a chance of a mistake, a mutation, an error," he said. "For a 29-year old father [the mean age of reproduction in the West] there are around 300 divisions between the sperm that made him and the one he passes on -- each one with an opportunity to make mistakes.

"For a 50-year-old father, the figure is well over a thousand. A drop in the number of older fathers will thus have a major effect on the rate of mutation."

Professor Jones added: "In the old days, you would find one powerful man having hundreds of children." He cites the fecund Moulay Ismail of Morocco, who died in the 18th century, and is reputed to have fathered 888 children. To achieve this feat, Ismail is thought to have copulated with an average of about 1.2 women a day over 60 years.

Strange Fish Found Thriving Five Miles Deep in Pacific

Swarms of fish have been filmed swimming in one of the world's deepest ocean trenches, nearly five miles (nearly eight kilometers) below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. The fish were caught on film in the Japan trench in the Northwest Pacific. The film also marks the first time that video cameras have been sent this deep in the ocean.

"We got some absolutely amazing footage," said project leader Alan Jamieson of the University of Aberdeen's Oceanlab, on board the Japanese research ship the Hakuho Maru, "more fish than we or anyone in the world would ever have thought possible at these depths." The video also showed a spunkier fish than expected.

"We thought the deepest fishes would be motionless, solitary, fragile individuals eking out an existence in a food-sparse environment," said Monty Priede, director of Oceanlab.

Rather than loners, the fish that the researchers found, called hadal snailfish, were sociable and active, feeding on little shrimp and showing signs of possible family groups in this extreme environment. Hadal snailfish reside exclusively in deep trenches in the Pacific Ocean, at depths below four miles (nearly seven km). There, they contend with total darkness, near freezing temperatures and water pressures equivalent to 1,600 elephants standing on the roof of a small car. The fish feed on the thousands of tiny shrimp-like creatures that scavenge the carcasses of dead fish and other debris reaching the ocean floor.

These snailfish are found in trenches off of western South America, in the Kermadec and Tonga trenches between Samoa and New Zealand in the South Pacific, and in trenches of the Northwest Pacific, including the Japan trench, which Priede's team is currently studying. These deep trenches are created when the heavier oceanic tectonic plate collides with and plunges beneath the lighter continental plates. In these subduction zones, the depth can plummet very steeply to about six miles (nearly 10 km).

The snailfish video and related research are part of Oceanlab's HADEEP project, a collaborative research program with the University of Tokyo devised to investigate life in the ocean's deepest trenches or hadal regions. These are regions that are at least 3.7 miles (six km) deep. The current expedition, which was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and the Nippon Foundation in Japan, started on Sept. 24 and ended on Monday.

In a separate discovery announced this week, scientists found 274 species of fish, corals, crustaceans and other creatures in very deep waters off the coast of Australia. The newly identified species were found in water more than a mile deep in regions rife with underground volcanoes and dramatic canyons.

Creation Museum Draws Half a Million Visitors

The museum exhibits are taken from the Old Testament, but the special effects are pure Hollywood: a state-of-the-art planetarium, animatronics and a massive model of Noah's Ark, all intended to explain the origins of the universe from a biblical viewpoint. The Creation Museum, which teaches life's beginnings through a literal interpretation of the Bible, is claiming attendance figures that would make it an unexpectedly strong draw less than a year and a half after it debuted. More than a half-million people have toured the Kentucky attraction since its May 2007 opening, museum officials said.

For creationists - Christians who believe the Bible's first chapter of Genesis is the literal telling of the universe's start -- the museum is a godsend. Many have returned with family and friends, some from faraway states arguing it's one of the few with a Christian worldview.

Many scientists say they fear damaging effects on science education when young people tour the museum and fail to square its lessons with what they're learning in school. One display shows humans coexisting with dinosaurs - despite the two species being separated by 65 million years in most science texts.

"We're depressed, I think," said Dan Phelps, head of the Kentucky Paleontology Society, who toured the museum shortly after its opening. "There's been such a push in recent years to improve science education, but stuff like this still hangs around." Phelps said he fears some teachers, shying away from the origins controversy, may choose to omit mentioning evolution studies in the classroom.

State education officials said they have seen no sign of students challenging science teachers in their classrooms based on conclusions drawn from visits to the Creation Museum.

"It's not been a huge issue. In fact it's almost a nonissue for public schools," said Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education. "Teachers have been dealing with these things long before the Creation Museum came into being."

The Creation Museum doesn't draw nearly as many visitors as the nation's top science museums, which boast larger facilities and government funding. The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington attracted 5.8 million visitors in 2006; the Children's Museum in Indianapolis brought in 1.2 million that year, according to a list compiled by Forbes magazine. But for its size and budget - it took $27 million in private donations to build - the museum has been an overwhelming success, founder Ken Ham said.

The museum in rural northern Kentucky, a 30-minute drive south of Cincinnati, has drawn more than 550,000 visitors in 15 1/2 months, by its own count. Regular visitors pay $20 for admission, but about 10 percent were admitted for free over the last 15 months, museum officials said. Ham said it draws families, home-schooled children, Christian school groups and even many skeptics.

Inside, evolution is replaced with the Old Testament stories of Adam and Eve as the first humans and Noah rescuing the human race from a worldwide flood. Ham feels the sleek presentation puts it on par with well-funded science museums. Patrick Marsh, who helped create exhibits at Universal Studios in Orlando, was brought in as the museum's director of design.

"We made a decision quite a few years ago, that we wanted to do it first-class ... as good as you would see at museums or Disney World or Universal Studios," Ham said. "It's become an attraction in its own right, regardless of the message that we have here."

Bigfoot 'Body' Sells for $250,000 on eBay

Someone's just paid a lot of money for a smelly rubber Bigfoot costume. As reported here during the summer, it's not just any Bigfoot costume -- it's the one that Clayton County, Ga., hoaxers Rick Dyer and Matt Whitton filled with animal parts and froze over the summer in an effort to convince the world they had an actual dead Sasquatch.

"Neither of them are going to make a penny off of this auction," explains Joshua P. Warren of Asheville, N.C., the paranormal entrepreneur who put the "body" up for sale on eBay. The winning bidder put up $250,203 by the end of the auction, which closed about 12:30 a.m. EDT Friday.

"My arrangement is with the people who control the body," Warren told "Money from this auction is going to hopefully resolve the legal conflicts." Warren wouldn't go into detail, but confirmed that there was at least one civil lawsuit related to the hoax, "and criminal charges being pursued as well."

Texas Farmers Wage War on Armyworms

Texas farmers are once again waging war on armyworms, renewing the fight against the tiny but destructive pests that march across fields and pastures during the fall planting season. And this year the battle appears tougher than usual, as agricultural officials say the voracious creatures are out in bigger numbers.

"There are probably more armyworms this year than in previous years," Allen Knutson, a professor and entomologist for Texas A&M University System's Texas AgriLife Extension Service, said Thursday. There are more calls to country agricultural officials from farmers concerned about their crops, he said.

The armyworm, which is actually the caterpillar or larva of the night-flying moth, do the most damage in the fall, when they're at their peak, nearly fully grown at about an inch-and-a-half long. They'll chomp on any plant, but prefer grasses, especially the lush and well-fertilized hay meadows and pastures in North, East and Central Texas.

"Unless the farmer is looking very closely, he won't realize he has a problem" until it's too late, Knutson said. "Almost overnight a field can be consumed by armyworms. A farmer drives by and says 'Oh my goodness, I've lost my crop.' "

The armyworm gets its name from its method of operation. The larvae occur in large army-like numbers and when they eat all the food in one area they "march" en masse, across roads and fence lines, to the next field for feeding, unseen in the darkness and cool of the night.

"When small, they eat very little," Knutson said. "But after 10 days to two weeks, they turn into eating machines."

He said armyworms consume about 80 percent of all the food they will eat in the last two to three days of their 30-day life cycle as a caterpillar. The cool temperatures in the fall and generally higher rainfall are favorable for armyworm outbreaks. Some farms have already been plagued with two generations of armyworms this year and fear a third infestation.

Pesticides are an effective counterattack, extension agents say, though its possible to spend more on chemical controls then the pasture or harvest of hay is worth.

The moths hibernate or winter in South Texas, then fly north in the spring and summer by the millions, looking for the perfect field to lay their eggs. One moth can lay 2,000 eggs.

Vast 'City of the Dead' Found Underneath Rome

Workers renovating a rugby stadium have uncovered a vast complex of tombs beneath Rome that mimic the houses, blocks and streets of a real city, officials said Thursday as they unveiled a series of new finds there.

Culture Ministry officials said that medieval pottery shards in the city of the dead, or necropolis, show the area may have been inhabited by the living during the Dark Ages after being used for centuries for burials during the Roman period. It is not yet clear who was buried in the ancient cemetery, but archaeologists at the still partially excavated site believe at least some of the dead were freed slaves of Greek origin.

A separate dig in the north of the city has turned up the tomb of a nobleman who led Rome's legions in the second century A.D. The mausoleum was covered in mud during a flood of the river Tiber, which collapsed most of the monument but helped preserve exquisite decorations, marble columns and inscriptions from plunderers and the ravages of time.

Writings at the site led experts to identify the tomb as belonging to Marcus Nonius Macrinus, one of the closest aides and generals of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius during his campaigns against Germanic tribes in Northern Europe. Marcus Nonius Macrinus, born in Brescia in northern Italy, was a general and consul who led military campaigns for Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor from 161 AD to 180 AD. He became part of the Emperor's inner circle and one of his favorites, serving as proconsul in Asia.

Other spectacular discoveries were also unveiled at the news conference at the Culture Ministry. Archaeologists restoring the imperial residences on the Palatine Hill, in the heart of ancient Rome, believe they have discovered the underground passageway in which the despotic Emperor Caligula was murdered by his own guards. The hill, which his honeycombed with ruins of palaces and villas, has also yielded frescoes and black-and-white mosaics in the first century B.C. home of a patrician, the ministry said in a statement.

Separately, experts working in Castel di Guido on the outskirts of Rome have enlarged their dig at a previously known complex of country villas owned by Rome's rich and powerful, uncovering fountains, baths and a cistern, the statement said. Archaeologists will keep working at the digs to make them accessible to visitors. Officials plan to build a museum next to Macrinus' tomb, which will also offer a virtual reconstruction of the site.

Oldest Full-Body Insect Fossil Found

Scientists have uncovered what they are calling the oldest full-body impression of a flying insect, possibly an ancient mayfly.

"[The fossil] captures a moment in time over 300 million years ago when a flying insect just happened to land on a damp, muddy surface leaving almost a perfect impression of its body behind," said researcher Jake Benner, a paleontologist at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

Benner and Tufts geologist Richard Knecht discovered the insect imprint in a shale and sandstone outcropping hidden in a wooded field behind a strip mall in North Attleboro, Mass. Knecht had learned of the site while reading a master's thesis written in 1929.

With a length of about three inches (eight centimeters), the 310 million-year-old impression did not include wings. But Knecht and Benner said the insect's body structure was similar to that of primitive flying insects.

In addition, "there are no walking tracks leading up to the body impression, indicating that it came from above," Benner said. The insect may have been a mayfly.

"We can tell from the imprint that it has a very squat position when it lands," said researcher Michael Engel, an entomologist at the University of Kansas. "Its legs are sprawled and its belly is pressed down. The only group that does that today is the mayfly."

The specimen will help scientists figure out how the insect moved once it landed on a surface, as well as its stance, the position of its legs and details about its body structure.

Typically, scientists have only the remains of wings for their study of insect anatomy . The insect imprint also could provide clues about the ecosystem during the Carboniferous Period, which extended from 354 million to 290 million years ago. The researchers also hope to glean information about the evolution of insect flight .

"Once we pin down what type of insect it is, we can begin to think about the conditions, the climate and life that must have existed in the environment to support its life," Knecht said. "One focus is the insect itself. Another is the broader big picture of the world it lived in."

Knecht and Benner presented the fossil discovery last month at the Second International Congress on Ichnology, in Krakow, Poland.

Unexplained Rash Linked to Cell Phones

Here's yet another reason not to spend too much time on your cell phone. The British Association of Dermatologists said an unexplained rash on people's ears may be caused by too much mobile phone use, Reuters reported.

The group, citing published studies, said the rash affected people who develop an allergic reaction to the nickel surface on mobile phones after spending too much time on the devices.

"It is worth doctors bearing this condition in mind if they see a patient with a rash on the cheek or ear that cannot otherwise be explained," the group said in a news release. "In theory it could even occur on the fingers if you spend a lot of time texting on metal menu buttons."

The red, itchy rash, also known as mobile phone dermatitis typically appears on the cheek or ear, depending on where the metal part of the phone comes in contact with the skin, the group said.

North Korea Steps Up Disablement of Nuclear Reactor

North Korea has reversed steps to restart its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, the U.S. State Department reported Friday, making good on a pledge to resume disabling its major nuclear facilities after the United States removed the nation from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in his daily briefing that the seals are back on the reactor, and that the North Koreans have removed 60 percent of the reactor rods from the facility.

He told reporters that puts them "beyond where they were prior to their reversing the disablement." U.S. and International Atomic Energy Agency officials are already on the ground, with scientists and engineers to arrive later, officials say.

"There is still work to be done" at reprocessing and fuel fabrication factories, McCormack said. But he added that he expected nuclear talks among China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia and the United States to resume "in the coming period of time." He would not discuss specifics because host China has announced the meeting.

The progress at the Yongbyon plutonium reprocessing plant came after North Korea ended a two-month boycott of a six-nation nuclear disarmament deal following the United States' removal of the country from a terrorism blacklist as an incentive. On Tuesday, the North let U.N. monitors back into the nuclear site. A diplomat in Vienna familiar with the International Atomic Energy Agency's work in the North said the agency's three-member team had resumed monitoring Tuesday.

Six-nation nuclear talks took on new urgency after North Korea set off a test nuclear blast in 2006. It then agreed to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for energy aid and other concessions, though negotiations have since been beset by deadlock and acrimony.

North Korea halted its nuclear disablement in mid-August in anger over what it called U.S. delays in removing it from the terror list and began moves toward restarting its plutonium-producing facility. The U.S. said over the weekend that it took the country off the terrorism blacklist because it had agreed to all U.S. nuclear inspection demands.

3 Win Nobel Prize for Subatomic Physics Discoveries

Two Japanese citizens and an American won the 2008 Nobel Prize in physics for discoveries in the world of subatomic physics, according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. American Yoichiro Nambu, 87, of the University of Chicago, won half of the prize for the discovery of a mechanism called spontaneous broken symmetry.

Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa of Japan shared the other half of the prize for discovering the origin of the broken symmetry that predicts the existence of at least three families of quarks in nature.

In its citation, the academy said that this "year's Nobel laureates in physics have presented theoretical insights that give us a deeper understanding of what happens far inside the tiniest building blocks of matter."

Turning to Nambu, it said that his work in "Spontaneous broken symmetry conceals nature's order under an apparently jumbled surface," the academy said in its citation. "Nambu's theories permeate the Standard Model of elementary particle physics. The model unifies the smallest building blocks of all matter and three of nature's four forces in one single theory."

The so-called Standard Model is the theory that governs physics at the microscopic scale. It accounts for the behavior of three out of nature's four fundamental forces -- electromagnetism, the strong force and the weak force. Gravity, the fourth force, has not yet been incorporated into the model.

The prize is "recognizing one of the most basic and fundamental aspects of existence," said Phil Schewe, a physicist and spokesman for the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Md. "Nature works in strange ways, and these three physicists helped to explain that strangeness in an ingenious way."

The Japanese-born Nambu moved to the United States in 1952 and is a professor at the University of Chicago, where he has worked for 40 years. He became a U.S. citizen in 1970.

"As early as 1960, Yoichiro Nambu formulated his mathematical description of spontaneous broken symmetry in elementary particle physics," the citation said.

"Spontaneous broken symmetry conceals nature's order under an apparently jumbled surface. It has proved to be extremely useful, and Nambu's theories permeate the Standard Model of elementary particle physics."

Kobayashi and Maskawa "explained broken symmetry within the framework of the Standard Model but required that the model be extended to three families of quarks."

"The spontaneous broken symmetries that Nambu studied, differ from the broken symmetries described by Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa," the academy said. "These spontaneous occurrences seem to have existed in nature since the very beginning of the universe and came as a complete surprise when they first appeared in particle experiments in 1964."

The academy added that it was only in recent years that scientists have been able to confirm the explanations that Kobayashi and Maskawa proffered in 1972.

"These predicted, hypothetical new quarks have recently appeared in physics experiments. As late as 2001, the two particle detectors BaBar at Stanford ... and Belle at Tsukuba, Japan, both detected broken symmetries independently of each other. The results were exactly as Kobayashi and Maskawa had predicted almost three decades earlier," the citation said.

Kobayashi, 64, works for the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization, or KEK, in Tsukuba, Japan. Maskawa, 68, is a physics professor at Kyoto Sangyo University in Japan's ancient capital of Kyoto, who also teaches at Nagoya University in his hometown in central Japan.

Maskawa told a news conference, "I'm extremely happy that Professor Yoichiro Nambu won, but for me, not really. It's just a superficial carnival," Kyodo News agency reported. Kobayashi, speaking by telephone from Japan to a news conference in Stockholm, said he had not expected to win the prize.

The trio will share the 10 million kronor (US$1.4 million) purse, a diploma and an invitation to the prize ceremonies in Stockholm on Dec. 10. Congrats!


Sources: IAEA, Reuters, Science News, Texas A&M, University of Arkansas, British Association of Dermatologists, Tufts University, University College London, University of Aberdeen, OceanLab, various author sources.

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