Tuesday, March 31, 2009

5 fundamental things science can't explain

Science can explain a lot, it's still struggling to explain some pretty important, fundamental stuff, reports a Guardian (UK) post, "Five mysteries of the universe."

The most mind blowing? We don't know what makes up 96 percent of the universe. We call the "missing stuff" dark energy and dark matter, "but that doesn't really tell us anything."

The other "mysteries" are a little easier to grasp: life, death, sex and free will. Basically, we don't have a good definition of what it means to be alive, "there's no good explanation" for why we die, sex (compared to asexual cloning) is "highly inefficient" and "neuroscientists are almost convinced that free will is an illusion."

Radioactive material is lost 30 times each year in China

What's going on in China? Every year, "there are around 30 cases of radioactive material being lost." (BBC) Recently, some Caesium-137 was lost when workers demolished a factory and forgot to remove the "extremely dangerous" material from a measuring instrument. The "smallest amount" of Caesium-137 can cause infertility, cancer and death.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Is the media afraid to link Fargo flooding to global warming?

Notice anything missing from news coverage of the unprecedented, biblical flooding in Fargo? "You’ll have to look very hard to find a single story in the mainstream media that even mentions climate change." (Climate Progress) Why should they? The event in Fargo "is precisely what scientists have been expecting from the warming."

You've heard this before. Global warming should cause dry regions to get drier and wet ones to get wetter. But the media is silent.

Could it be the press has been silenced by critics? For years the press has been accused of overdramatizing the climate crisis by science experts like Rush Limbaugh (
here's s 2007 transcript from his show where Rush blames the media for "this hysteria on global warming").

Obama wisely 'inching away from hydrogen'

In the jaws of a global financial melt down, Obama is wisely "inching away from hydrogen." (The Vine) He's still fighting to overthrow internal combustion engines. But instead of a giant leap, he's taking a baby step by shifting government investment toward plug-in electric vehicles.

You may recall the Bush administration planned on sinking $1.2 billion into hydrogen fuel cell R&D. But Pound360 thought it was a gimmick. The amount didn't seem like enough to make a difference (the National Academy of Sciences estimates it would take $55 billion to get hydrogen cars on the road), but it was enough to quiet critics.

Anyway, according to The Vine's post, "hydrogen technology still faces a ton of awe-inspiring pitfalls." For example, Honda isn't sure they can get the price tag on a hydrogen car under $100,000 before 2020, hydrogen production may create more CO2 emissions than burning conventional fossil fuels and so on.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Mysterious rash of whale mass-suicides reported off Tasmania

Over the past six months, 400 whales (and a few dolphins) have beached themselves (and died) around Tasmania. (BBC) In the latest wave, 200 whales turned up on the beaches of King Island, and "scientists still have no definitive explanation."

So far 140 of the creatures have died, but King Islanders are scrambling to keep the whales wet, and trying to get them back in the ocean. But that may not help. Last year, Pound360 blogged
a dolphin mass-suicide in the UK where, even after the dolphins were dragged into the water, they beached themselves again. Bizzare.

In 2007, 152 dolphins beached themselves on the Iranian coast. Iran's fisheries department said "the dolphins were victims of experimental US surveillance techniques." (
Guardian UK) A truly brilliant explanation.

Friday, March 27, 2009

'A week of decidedly good environmental news'

According to The New Republic's enviro blog (The Vine), it's been "a week of decidedly good environmental news. (Here's the post)

What's the news? First, the EPA is finally toughening up on regulating mountaintop removal mining. Second, new legislation "creates the biggest expansion of the nation's wilderness-preservation system since 1994." (By the way, the bill was
backed by 38 Senate republicans.) In all, the bill protects 2.1 million acres of wilderness including parts of the Sierras, Tetons and West Virginia's coast line.

"America gets a little more wild," said The Vine, and Pound360 is pretty happy with that.

(Image of the Tetons via Flickr by
brothergrimm)

Flammable ice could be carbon-neutral fuel

A new approach to mining "natural gas locked up in water crystals" (methane hydrates) may lead to "emissions-free" fuel. (New Scientist) Pound360 isn't smart enough to completely understand this, but basically, if you pump CO2 into a reservoir of methane hydrates, the CO2 gets stuck and forces out pure methane (natural gas). Yes, when you burn natural gas, carbon is released. But "compared to other fossil fuels, methane releases less CO2 per unit of energy released."

Methane hydrate is pretty interesting stuff. If you came across it, you'd probably mistake it for ice. But if you put a match to it, the stuff would start burning. Strange.

Last year,
another New Scientist article noted methane hydrates "could be the world's last great source of carbon-based fuel." But mining the stuff isn't without risks. One long-shot possibility? "Disturbing the hydrates" could unleash a monster tsunami.

(Image via
WeatherUndergroud.com)

So Cal quake swarm raises seismologist's blood pressure

A recent swarm of small earthquakes beneath Southern California's Salton Sea "has scientists wondering if faults there are transferring energy to the larger San Andreas, where a major temblor could occur." (LA Times) In 1987, a 6.2 quake near the Salton Sea "appeared to trigger" a 6.6 tremor on an adjacent fault. While the chances of a major quake are low, the quake swarm "raises your blood pressure as a seismologist," said one expert. (Another LA Times article)

A "creep meter" detected a .002 inch slip along the San Andreas fault following the largest quake in the Salton Sea swarm (a magnitude 4.8 that hit Tuesday).

Earlier this year,
the LA Times reported a "troubling pattern of Southern California quakes." According to the report, "the San Andreas fault has had a major temblor about every 137 years, according to new research. The latest looks to be overdue."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Impact of rising sea levels will be severe on California

If global sea levels rise five feet by 2100, California stands to loose $100 billion worth of property (including luxury homes). (Bloomberg) Pound360 can hear you scoffing now. Who cares! Let the rich lose their precious seaside mansions. Well, there's more. The rising sea levels will flood 330 hazardous waste sites, too.

What can we do? We could build sea walls and levees for an initial investment of $14 billion and $1.4 billion in annual maintenance. Pound360 says let's use that money to clean up the hazardous waste sites and let the rich lose their precious seaside mansions.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Glaciers, poles melting but sea levels drop in some places

You'd think with all the news of melting glaciers and polar ice caps that sea levels would be rising, yes? Well, maybe, but not everywhere. In Bangladesh, their shorelines are expanding as river's carry sediment from the eroding Himalayas. (NY Times) And in Alaska, relieved from the weight of ice-age glaciers, "the land there is rebounding," leading to conflict of whether or not protected wetlands should be protected anymore.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Fossil of weird, ancient predator found in museum basement

A 500-million-year-old fossil of a seemingly hooded little predator (about the size of a shrimp) was discovered "lurking in the depths of the Royal Ontario Museum's fossil collection." (Globe and Mail) The little monster has a couple of claws, eyes (they had those half-a-billion years ago!?) several layers of teeth and a "hard carapace that jutted out from its head." What's it for? The hard carapace? Scientists have no idea.

The fossil was originally pulled from a pit full of fossils in Yoho National Park (British Columbia) in 1909. Over the last century, it's been misidentified a few times. For example, the mouth fossil was thought to be a jellyfish. And it was only recently that they put the whole thing together.

But give researchers some credit. The fossil, what one expert described as "roadkill," was almost completely flattened by hundreds of millions of years of geologic activity. And when a mangled specimen like that comes in, "it takes imagination and patience" to see what they truly are.

Summer, fall getting longer. Spring, winter shrinking.

No, it's not global warming. The seasons change in length every year as the Earth very, very slowly -- very naturally -- wobbles on its axis. (Bakersfield Now) Due to the wobble, spring loses a minute, winter loses 30 seconds, each year. While the first day of Spring (that is, the vernal equinox, when the sun's most direct rays shift north of the equator) was on March 21st back in 1963, it's more like March 20th or the 19th now.

Does that mean there will be a time in the future of endless summer? Sorry, no. And for what it's worth, Pound360 is based in Southern California, where we basically have an endless summer, and it kind of sucks.

Anyway, the Earth is wobbling on a 25,765-year cycle. So the first day of spring will eventually make its way back to March 21 around 2203.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Daylight increases fastest in March

Notice the days lasting longer all the sudden? It's not just the daylight savings time-change. During the month of March, we gain more daylight than any other time of year, 3 minutes per day. (Rockford 13)

Come to think of it, isn't that amazing that every day has a different amount of daylight than the last?

Mud on Mars? May improve chances of life.

NASA researchers analyzing photos from the Mars Odyssey probe have come across "dozens of mounds at a site in the northern plains of Mars that bear a striking resemblance to mud volcanoes on Earth." (New Scientist) Not only to the mounds look the part, infrared images show they cool more quickly than rock at night, "suggesting they are made of a fine-grained sediment."

Who cares? This suggests three things favorable to the prospects of life. Geologic activity, warmth and of course, liquid water.

Mars has gotten pretty interesting this year. In January,
scientists detected methane gas plumes (before you yawn, know that 90 percent of the methane on Earth comes from living things). This month, a picture was released showing what appear to be water droplets on one of the Phoenix Mars rover's landing struts.

Also this month scientists collected
evidence suggesting life may exist beneath Olympus Mons, a Martian volcano that also happens to be the largest volcano in the Solar System. And there's a connection to the mud volcano story here. The way Olympus Mons is leaning, it seems to have a water-logged, clay (muddy) base.

(photo of possible mud volcanoes by NASA)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

'No living thing left' after violent South Pacific eruption

A volcano with dual vents is raising a lot of hell in the Tonga Island chain near New Zealand. It's erupting violently (one vent underwater, the other on the uninhabited islet of Hunga Ha'apai), spewing poisonous gas and hurtling rocks into the air, possibly sparking earthquakes which prompted tsunami warnings in the region.

Though one of the big quakes registered a brutal 7.9 on the Richter, it only generated a 4-centimeter wave. (
New Zealand News 3)

On the island of Hunga Ha'apai, the volcano has pretty much wiped out anything that was there. Said one science observer, "there are only black stumps where the coconut trees were… we saw dead birds and fish in the water… there is no living thing left there." (
Straits Times)

Rancher 'thinks aliens abducted cow'

A Colorado rancher found one of his cows dead and mutilated a couple weeks back, and thinks "aliens abducted the cow." (MSNBC) The cow's udders and reproductive organs were cleanly removed, no blood. And the rancher didn't see any tracks from predators. What's more, the cow was left in the field where the rancher found it (about 20 miles west of the city of Trinidad in Colorado), but "no predators have come to feast on it."

A list of failed revolutionaries

The Telegraph (UK) has compiled an entertaining list of innovations that "should have changed the world, but didn't." For example, the microwave was supposed to replace ovens. But didn’t. The Concorde and Mini Cooper were supposed to usher an era of smaller, faster transportation, but planes and cars have gotten more bloated and slower. What about moon landings and domestic robots? Man hasn't ventured past low-Earth orbit in decades let alone gone back to the moon. And instead of using robots to sweep the floor or wash the windows, we pretty much just use them for spying, bombing terrorists and bomb disposal.

How fast is the earth moving?

Pretty damn fast. But it's almost impossible to tell. We're moving in so many directions (Space Daily)…
  • The Earth spins on its axis at 1,037 miles per hour
  • It moves around the sun at 19 miles per second
  • The Solar System rotates around the Milky Way at 137 miles per second
  • The Local Group (the cluster of galaxies the Milky Way belongs to) moves at 391 miles per second
Can you just add this all up? Nah, that would be way too easy. "The speeds listed here cannot simply be added up to arrive at an overall speed due to the fact that they refer to movements in different directions."

    Wednesday, March 18, 2009

    After centuries of slaughter, 'things are looking up for the right whale'

    Whalers nearly wiped out the right whale during the 1800s before the League of Nations outlawed their hunting in 1935. But astonishingly, their numbers hardly recovered. Today, after more than 80 years of protection, there are just 325 right whales left. But "for the first time in centuries things are looking up for the right whale." (New York Times).

    Lowering the speed limits for boats in coastal waters, new rules regulating fishing lines and other maritime policy changes have led to the first year since the 1600s that "not one North Atlantic right whale died at human hands."

    It's refreshing to see that efforts to save a species can pay off.

    Why is it easy to remember a song, but not a joke?

    Ever noticed how it's easy to remember a song, but not a joke? That's because "the brain has a strong propensity to organize information and perception in patterns." (The NY Times) This is why "you may forget your spouse’s birthday but will go to your deathbed remembering every word of the 'Gilligan’s Island' theme song."

    While music is based on patterns, "jokes work because they deal with the unexpected."

    Tuesday, March 17, 2009

    Extremely rare find: Octopus fossils

    European scientists digging in Lebanon uncovered five fossilized octopi in a chunk of limestone. (Eurekalert) Yeah, so what? Well, prior to this discover there was only a handful of octopi fossils in existence. In fact, of the 200-300 known species of octopi, just one species has a fossil record. Crazy.

    Typically, an octopus (composed mostly of muscle and skin) decomposes or is devoured by scavengers within a few days after death.

    Fascinating, "one of the fossils is almost indistinguishable from living species." Barely evolving over ninety five million years? Remarkable.

    That image of the fossil almost looks like a cave drawing, yeah?

    Meet Predator X, evil king of the Jurassic seas

    Paleontologists have been excavating the fossil remains of "a gigantic new species" of 150 million-year-old monsters that roamed Earth's ancient oceans. (NY Times) Researchers have been digging out the fossils since 2006, but due to their location (a mere 800 miles from the North Pole), they can only work three weeks out of the year. And only now are test results suggesting how the temporarily dubbed Predator X killed.

    First, Predator X was big: fifty feet long and 45 tons. The head and its four flippers were 10 feet long. Studies of the brain case show it was "similar in many respects" to modern great white sharks, suggesting a "comparable" hunting strategy. When Predator X got a hold of its prey, the results weren't pretty. The monster's jaws were capable of driving 33,000 pounds of bite-force. That's two-to-four times that of a T. rex and 10-times that of any modern creature.

    Set yer Tivos, the History Channel is showing a documentary on Predator X March 29 (2009).

    Liquid water on mars? Odd pic shows 'overwhelming' evidence

    A photo from NASA's Phoenix Mars rover shows "a material splashed up" on one of is landing struts forming small "blobs." (NY Times) Could these little blobs be water? "Some of the scientists working on the mission are asserting that that is exactly what they were." But there is controversy.

    Phoenix mission scientists were
    pretty sure they had discovered frozen water on Mars when the rover happened to uncover an unknown white substance that mysteriously disappeared (water may have vaporized).

    But how could there be liquid water? One possibility: salt. "Scientists believe that salts may have lowered the freezing temperature of the Martian water droplets to perhaps minus 90 degrees.

    So did the lander go ripping through a puddle that "splashed" the water onto it? No. The lander's dizzying
    top speed is a mere .1 MPH

    (By the way, Pound360 would like to mention how cool it is that you can enter "convert 2 inches per second into miles per hour" into a Google search box and get the answer. Did you just yawn? Come on! We expect it to convert, say, "meters to yards" or "kilometers into miles", but "inches per second into miles per hour"? That's cool. And sure, the fact that we're so fascinated by this shows you A) how serious a batch of nerds we are and B) why we blog about science and not the latest Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan stuff… which would probably earn us money. Anyway…)

    A second reasonable possibility for those blobs on the rover: heat from the rover's landing. It could be "Phoenix’s thrusters splashed a pocket of brine from just below the surface to the landing strut."

    A third possibility: the scientists who think the pic shows water are nuts.

    "There are simpler explanations," said one NASA/JPL scientist. Thought the Times pieced didn't explain those. Furthermore, the theories proposed for how those blobs could be water are "flat-out wrong for these materials" said the dissenting scientist.

    Friday, March 13, 2009

    Emergency forces space station crew into escape pod

    The International Space Station crew scurried aboard "their lifeboat" Wednesday when a disaster loomed. (NY Times) The evil villain? A five-inch chunk of "an old rocket motor." That's it! Did anyone else think the Space Station was built to withstand a shot from (at least) a 10-foot asteroid? Pound360 is amazed the station hasn't been obliterated yet. However, crews have "prepared to enter the Soyuz five times since the station’s construction began in 1998."

    Things have gotten pretty exciting in low earth orbit during the last year. There were
    two near-disasters for Soyuz capsules re-entering the atmosphere last summer. In February, the first serious collision occurred between two massive satellites. And just a few weeks back, an asteroid passed within 50,000 miles (the moon is 230,000 miles away).

    (Image of Space Shuttle Challenger waiting on the launch pad earlier this week by
    NASA)

    Time to kill the Shuttle program? Launch pushed again.


    Earlier this week, a scheduled Space Shuttle Discovery launch was postponed due to a fuel leak. And it's been postponed again. (NY Times) If shuttle Discovery doesn't lift off by next Tuesday, it may have to wait until April.

    NASA has to be super-cautious with the shuttle. Former NASA chief administrator Michael Griffin told NBC News (
    video here) there's a one-in-eighty chance of disaster every time the shuttle is wheeled to the launch pad. Why? The shuttles are old. Discovery, the oldest, has been around since 1994. Atlantis, 1985. Endeavor, 1982. And all of them are based on 30-year-old technology. "It's like using an 8-track player in the age of iTunes," said an NBC reporter.

    Pound360 is over the shuttle. (In fact, we never really liked it. And, by the way,
    that's Richard Nixon's fault.) Let's ground the shuttles and spend the money on something else. ow about another Saturn probe? We love the Cassini mission.

    (Image of the Space Station over Miami by
    NASA)

    Thursday, March 12, 2009

    New battery may charge in 10 sec, but there's a trade off

    MIT researchers have found a way to create batteries that can recharge in a matter of seconds (your cell phone could charge in 10 seconds). (Wired) How? "By applying a special surface coating" to battery innards. What's the catch? The super-fast charging could shorten the life of batteries. However, initial MIT studies found batteries maintained their charge after 50 charge/recharge cycles.

    Wednesday, March 11, 2009

    Shuttle program slips into the danger zone

    The Space Shuttle program is getting old, and dangerous. A launch scheduled for today was scrubbed due to a fuel leak. But Pound360 is surprised the Shuttle is making it to the launch pad at all. Two of the three remaining shuttles were built in the eighties. Using these creaky old buckets to soar into space is "like using an 8-track player in the age of iTunes," said an NBC Nightly News report. The Shuttles are so old and worn out it's "very doubtfulthat NASA can complete the 10 missions it has scheduled before the shuttles are retired in less than two years"…


    'Remarkable' story behind unlikely discovery of oldest brain

    The oldest known fossilized brain was found in the skull of a 300-million-year-old fish (Sibyrhynchus denisoni) recently. (Science Friday) It was a fish fossil originally discovered in Kansas (that was covered by an ancient ocean), but the brain discovery was made (by accident) in Paris by a grad student at the national museum of natural history.

    The student (Alan Pradel) was studying routine CT scans of the old fish skull, when he noticed a "very odd looking blob." As it turns out, Pradel was looking at the oldest fossilized brain ever discovered. This is a very unlikely find. "Brain tissue is mostly water, so to preserve anything is a pretty remarkable situation."

    After studying the brain, researchers found "the overall structure is remarkably similar to a modern shark." The brain has large optic lobes, and the skull had large orbits for eyes. "vision was an important aspect to this animals way of life… to get its prey, to see where it was going… perhaps it was even nocturnal."

    Another interesting aspect of this find, we may be looking at a bigger fish's lunch. The fossil is "preserved in little round phosphate nodules," said a researcher. "And one possibility is that these nodules came from the intestines of something bigger."

    (Image from American Museum of Natural History
    press release)

    Tuesday, March 10, 2009

    Bleak 'tipping point' looming for parts of Amazon

    The most heavily deforested regions of the Amazon rainforest may have are close to the point of no return, "and may soon be on a one-way route to becoming a dry and relatively barren savannah." (New Scientist) This according to a computer model developed by University of Oxford researchers.

    When you wipe out forests, soil quality is diminished (due to a lack of decaying vegetation) and you reduce the region's rainfall. Yeah, really. A 20 percent deforested region loses 7 inches of rainfall per year. Forty percent costs 14 inches.

    Right now, the most heavily deforested region of the Amazon rainforest, Mago Grosso (an area double the size of California) has lost 17 percent of its trees. If you were to stop deforestation now, the Oxford model shows the forest recovering. But if you hit 20 percent deforestation, the model shows "northern Mato Grosso was not able to recover its forested state even after 50 years. Instead, it became a dry, bare savannah.

    Monday, March 09, 2009

    Studies show daylight savings doesn't save energy

    The daylight savings ritual of turning clocks back in the fall, forward in the spring was conjured during World War I to save energy. Seems reasonable. Maybe it worked back then. But a recent study shows it doesn't seem to work these days. A study in Indiana found, "the reduced cost of lighting in afternoons during daylight-saving time is more than offset by the higher air-conditioning costs on hot afternoons and increased heating costs on cool mornings." (Climate Progress)

    The Indiana study confirms what an Australian study found last year. (via Climate Progress)

    Combine that with news last week that the Spring daylight savings change
    causes a spike in heart attacks, Pound360 wonder if it isn't time to call an end to the ritual.

    (Image of 'medieval clock' by
    stock.xchng)

    Ancient grave site shows evidence of vampire exorcism

    Archaeologists sifting through a Black Plague-era grave site in Venice found a skull with a brick planted squarely in the jaw. (New Scientist) During the plague (late 1500s), "many people believed that the plague was spread by 'vampires' which, rather than drinking people's blood, spread disease by chewing on their shrouds after dying." To keep the Plague from spreading, suspected vampires had a brick stuffed in their mouths after death.

    This find reminds me of the importance of science. Thanks to science, we spend less time fighting disease by stuffing objects in dead people's mouths and more time
    studying the genomes of disease viruses and looking for weaknesses in their structure to find vaccines, cures.

    Studies conflict on whether or not we're sleeping less

    The National Sleep Foundation announced this week that mean hours of sleep have slipped from 7 hours in 2001 to 6.7 this year. (CNN) But the Bureau of Labor Statistics and US Census Bureau, which also track sleep, report we're getting 8.6 hours of sleep. And we've been getting 8.6 hours of sleep since 1965.

    What's going on here? The Sleep Foundation's poll is based on telephone interviews. The government report is based on diary entries (time use surveys). So which one is right? According to one expert, "the time use surveys may overestimate sleep, because sleeplessness such as insomnia, tossing and turning and lying awake are categorized as sleep."

    Pound360 is inclined to believe the Sleep Foundation's report. But that's just because we're chronically sleep-deprived, and we don't know anyone who claims to be getting enough sleep. But are we or the people we hang out with representative of the country as a whole? Pound360 is a bunch of pretty weird people, and the company we keep is even stranger.

    Sunday, March 08, 2009

    Star Trek movie trailers keep getting better

    Whether you're a total SciFi outcast (like the entire Pound360 family), the latest Star Trek trailer is probably going to get you all, well, energized …



    Pound360 admits the first couple of trailers were a little tepid (sorry), but there are some pretty killer visuals in the latest preview, and the story is starting to come together a bit (looks like a classic Star Trek "the bad guy is back, he's pissed and he's commanding a fully armed battleship).

    Daylight savings change causes spike in heart attacks

    Not only does the daylight savings time change in the Spring (when we loose an hour of sleep) kick up the number of heart attacks five percent, the change in the Fall (when we gain an hour) causes heart attacks to drop by five percent. One expert suggests this shows how dangerously sleep-deprived we are…


    Kepler launch successful, 'Let's go find planets!'

    Pound360's fingers were crossed on Friday night as NASA's Kepler probe, set to hunt for another Earth, was set for liftoff. Just a few weeks ago, another NASA mission (Orbiting Carbon Observatory) went awry and crashed off the coast of Antarctica. But Kepler's launch was "all sunshine and sparkles." (Wired Science)

    And yes, the probe is functioning. Kepler checked in with mission control "right on time," prompting one NASA exec to tweet, "She lives! Lets go find planets!"

    Not as excited as that guy about Kepler?
    Read this.


    (Image:
    NASA)

    Friday, March 06, 2009

    NASA's 'most exciting mission', the hunt for another Earth

    Tonight at 10:50, NASA's Kepler prope lifts off on the shoulders of a Delta 2 rocket in search of another Earth. (NY Times) Not necessarily life, but a rocky planet hovering around a star like our Sun in the habitable, "Goldilocks" zone where water can exist.

    Kepler project manager James Fanson called this, "the most exciting mission I've worked on." Really? He put it in perspective elegantly. "Are there other worlds like ours? The question has come down to us from 100 generations. We get to answer it. I find that tremendously exciting.”

    Pound360 does to.

    The Kepler probe is armed with a 55-inch telescope and 95-million-pixel camera. For three years at a time, it will stare at the same 10-degrees of space (equivalent to 20 full moons) looking for "telltale blips when a planet crosses in front." The patch of space Kepler will be focused on includes the constellation Cygnus and Lyra. For the first year, Kepler will track about 170,000 stars, and then narrow it down to 100,000.

    Since 1995, 340 exoplanets have been discovered. But due to the limitations of current equipment and detection methods, most are massive, hot-Jupiters or big rocky planets (the smallest one is three-times the size of Earth). But Kepler's gear and deep-space perch should change all that.


    (Image of Kepler probe being prepared for mission by NASA)

    Solar system's biggest volcano may harbor life

    Mars' Olympus Mons, the solar system's tallest volcano (it's about 17 miles tall, three-times the height of Mount Everest here on Earth), may harbor two ingredients (we believe are) essential for life: warmth and moisture. (80beats)

    Due Olymus Mons' (Latin for Mount Olympus) lopsided stance, a new study speculates it may have a water-logged clay base. And since the monster may have been active as recently as 10 million years ago, there may still be some warmth down there.

    It's a long shot, but "the environment inside the volcano could give rise to lifeforms like those extremophiles found around geothermal vents in the Earth’s ocean floor, where organisms developed despite the dark and the heat."

    Meet Olympus Mons and some of sister volcanoes…


    (Image courtesy NASA)

    Thursday, March 05, 2009

    Wow. It's a fish with a transparent head.

    Meet the pacific barreleye fish, with a "head like a fighter-plane cockpit" (National Geographic)...



    This bizarre species first turned up in fishing nets around 1939, but was not observed alive until 2004. Get this. The green bulbs in its head are its eyes. The dark spots above its moth that look like eyes are actually nostrils.

    Extremely rare binary black hole galaxy discovered

    Binary star systems, a solar system like ours with two stars circling each other at the center, are pretty common. But a binary black hole galaxy, a galaxy with two black holes circling at the center, are pretty rare. So rare in fact that, "every one we find gives us precious insight into the clockwork process of the cosmos itself." (Bad Astronomy)

    Recently a binary astronomer (Todd Boroson and Tod Lauer) came up with "the best candidate seen for a tightly bound binary black hole" at the heart of galaxy four billion light years from Earth.

    The black holes are 1/3 of light year apart (3 trillion kilometers), but moving so fast (6,000 kilometers per second) that they circle each other every 100 years. Wow. And they're big. The black holes are at least 20 million-times the mass of our own sun, possibly 1 billion-times. For comparison, the black hole at the center of our galaxy is just 4 million solar masses.

    How did these guys end up where they are? Probably when two galaxies collided billions of years ago. Eventually, the two will merge themselves as black holes like this would typically do.

    (Image NOAO/AURA/NSF)

    Wednesday, March 04, 2009

    Earthquakes not to blame for mysterious California rattling

    Something happened in Orange County, California causing houses to shake, windows to rattle on Tuesday. One resident said, "the house shook quickly, like a truck hit it." Another said, "it sounded like a dynamite blast almost." (San Jose Mercury News)

    Earthquake? Nope. According to the USGS, "We did not record any earthquake tonight that could have caused this kind of shaking around Orange County." (
    UPI)

    Well, it happened again today. This time, hundreds of miles to the North, off the Monterey Bay coast.

    Still, experts don't know what's causing the disturbance.

    It could be a sonic boom. And while the FAA is looking into it, a spokesman said, "we haven't found anything yet." (Mercury News)

    USGS sensors did pick up something shaking, so it's not mass-hysteria. Still, whatever was shaking, it wasn't the earth. "The energy travelled across our seismic sensor network at the velocity of a compressional wave in air rather than the velocity of a similar wave through the ground, which is much faster," said a representative of the USGS.

    That asteroid that almost hit Earth? It's coming back.

    Why is the asteroid (named 2009 DD45) that just sailed past earth making headlines? For starters, it came pretty close. The moon is about 230,000 miles away from us. 2009 DD45 came within 50,000 miles, passing over the Pacific Ocean near Tahiti. (USA Today) It was pretty big, too. 2009 DD45 was about 50-yards long, which is about the size of "the one that exploded over Siberia in 1908," says USA Today, which leveled 800 square miles of forest.

    For the record, Pound360 would like to remind you all that
    we don't actually know is was a meteor that ravaged the Tunguska region a century ago.

    Back to 2009 DD45, here's video of it passing through the night sky (focus on the right of the frame)…



    Oh, and 2009 DD45 is coming back. The asteroid orbits the sun every 18 months, but we don't need to worry anytime soon, "it's path will not threaten this planet at least for the next century." (
    CNN) Right, by then we'll have flying cars so we can evacuate major cities in a snap and we'll have lasers so we can just vaporize the asteroid if we want, right? Anyway, here's video of 2009 DD45's orbit…

    Chimps use tools in nine ways, including as weapons

    Pound360 is always fascinated to learn how animals use tools. And we were surprised to learn chimpanzees use tools (stems, sticks, leaves, rocks) "in at least nine different ways" (MSNBC) to eat, drink, bathe, find stuff and even kill. Last year, a chimp was observed skewering a lemur.

    More recently, scientists found some chimps had "upgraded" termite-fishing sticks with brushed tips. What next, baiting the sticks with honey?

    Astronomers snap pic of giant eye floating through space

    You know what they (Nietzsche) say about staring into a void; stare long enough and it will stare back.  Well, scientists staring into the constellation Aquarius from the Wide Field Imager at the European Space Organization's La Silla Observatory (Chile) found this great, lidless eye staring back at them…



    Pretty spectacular.
      It's known as the "Helix planetary nebula." And it's huge.  This thing is 700 light years away, but it occupies a space in the sky a quarter the size of the full moon.  (ESO)  The structure has been expanding at 62,000 miles per hour for about 12,000 years, with a star buring around 216,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Pretty spectacular.

    (image ESO)

    Tuesday, March 03, 2009

    Can evolution explain God?

    A couple years ago, Pound360 asked, "what came first, our brains or God?" The headline of a recent New Scientist report, "How your brain creates God," suggests the former.

    Let's say your brain can "create God." Does this mean God is dead? Certainly not. Just because science finds "our minds are finely tuned to believe in gods," doesn't mean the gods, or God, do not exist. "Whether or not a belief is true is independent of why people believe it," points out New Scientist.

    How can the brain "create" God? There are lots of ways, but a couple of notable, fundamental points from the New Scientist article involve the concept of "common-sense dualism" and our mind's "overdeveloped sense of cause and effect

    "Common-sense dualism" is our distinction between the mind and body. "There is plenty of evidence that thinking about disembodied minds comes naturally," this "primes the brain for supernatural concepts such as life after death."

    Why would "common-sense dualism" be hard wired in our minds? One expert told New Scientist, "This is an evolutionarily useful skill. Without it we would be unable to maintain large social hierarchies and alliances or anticipate what an unseen enemy might be planning."

    The notion of "an overdeveloped sense of cause and effect" stems from a less complex idea. First, what is an overdeveloped sense of cause and effect? Consider this simple example by Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, "you see bushes rustle, you assume there's somebody or something there."

    "This over-attribution of cause and effect probably evolved for survival. If there are predators around, it is no good spotting them 9 times out of 10. Running away when you don't have to is a small price to pay for avoiding danger when the threat is real."

    What does that have to do with God? "An overdeveloped sense of cause and effect primes us to see purpose and design everywhere, even where there is none."

    A galaxy that isn't supposed to be there

    Conventional wisdom suggests dark matter is a pre-requisite for galaxy formation, but a set of dwarf galaxies detected in the constellation Leo appear to be without dark matter. (Cosmos) From what we understand, matter is supposed to coalesce around 

    dark matter forming galaxies, like dew drops on a spider web.  From there, dark matter represents the missing mass that holds galaxies together (from what we can tell, galaxies aren't heavy enough to hold themselves together… they should spin apart). 

    Alas, the dark matter-less galaxies were there, detected by NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer spacecraft (GALEX). So how did they get there?  One theory, the "gravitational influence" of a nearby galaxy.  Another theory, we're looking at a "previously-undiscovered method of galaxy formation." 

    According to Cal Tech press release, the strange dwarves may have "formed out of nothing more than pristine gas likely leftover from the early universe." Here's an image of the galaxies from the release… 

    (image NASA/JPL)

    Monday, March 02, 2009

    During disastrous national speech, Jindal takes a cheap shot at science

    Pound360 already feels bad for Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana senator that delivered a disastrous Republican response to President Obama's Congressional address last week.  But he took a shot at science. He criticized Obama for wasting millions on volcano research.  Wasting?  Yes, he actually used "volcano monitoring" as an example of "wasteful spending." (Scientific American) And Pound360 won't let that slide.

    How much of a disaster was Jindal's response?  Liberal, conservative and mainstream press were equally critical as a Washington Post roundup demonstrates. At best, the response was "childish" (Fox News) and "very off-putting" (conservative radio host Laura Ingraham).  Others were more critical. Conservative NY Times columnist David Brooks referred to Jindal's response as "the worst response to a speech ever… an unmitigated disaster."

    In the middle of this train wreck, Jindal scoffed at "$140 million for something called 'volcano monitoring.'" Um, something called volcano monitoring?  Does he not understand what that is?  Does he not understand what volcanoes are, that they can be dangerous, and it's important for the US Geological survey to monitor these things so they can tell people to get out of the way before they blow? Seriously? 

    Pound360 gets pretty irritated when politicians twist science spending to throw cheap shots at their opponents…

    Palin's fruit fly research attack 'the most ignorant comment so far
    McCain wrong to bash Obama's $3 mil. 'overhead projector 

    Knock it off.

    Doodling (not paying attention) seems to aid memory

    Study shows people who doodle when listening to, say, someone talking, helps them remember what's being said about 29 percent better, according to a Plymouth University study (BBC).  This doesn't seem to make sense unless you're a person that chronically doodles when people are saying important things to you (like most of us here at Pound360), but always remember what's being said (um, wait, we actually don't remember anything).

    Still, it's hard to argue with the numbers.

    How could this be?  One researcher suggests it keeps your mind from wandering, you know, day dreaming.  "A simple task, like doodling," however, "may be sufficient to stop daydreaming without affecting performance on the main task."

    (image by nuance via flickr)

    Sunday, March 01, 2009

    Can the environment survive this recession?


    A recent Pew research study shows the environment is the biggest loser among top national priorities. It's slipped 15 points compared to a 21 point bump in increasing jobs. "Improving the moral situation" also gained...


    Pound360 isn't sure what we're more surprised about. How much of a drop the environment took (it's down to number 17 from 11) or how low it was ranked to start with.

    Look, we like money (a strong economy, jobs, Social Security checks) as much as the next blogger, but without clean, abundant natural resources, what are we left with?

    (Image from glacier national park by
    Stuck in Customs via Flickr)

    'Double dumb ass award' winning piece gives good reality check

    The raging hell-storm over super-pundit George Will's column denying global warming has a positive side, folks. Yes, some people reading Will's column may think, "oh, global warming is a hoax." Some will read the article, call it "embarrassingly inept" and award him a "double dumb ass award." (One Blue Marble)

    Hopefully, everyone will read the piece and use it as a reality check; take the opportunity to do some research. Remember, there are two sides to this debate. And if we're going to make good choices, we need to be hearing both sides, and then understanding why one is more compelling than the other.

    After reading Will's commentary with a very open mind, Pound360 (did a lot more research than we typically do before posting and) found a thorough
    dismantling of Will's arguments at Climate Progress (a blog Time Magazine selected as one of the 15 top environmental websites).

    Where did Will stray? On almost every point, but there are two main ones. First, global warming is just the latest climate fad. Just 30 years ago, global cooling was "widely considered inevitable" according to the NY Times (they printed that in 1975).

    Well, the Times was wrong. Global cooling in the 70s was a myth. According to Climate Progress, "there was no scientific consensus in the 1970s that the Earth was headed into an imminent ice age." However, in 2009, 90 percent of 3,146 surveyed scientists believe the globe is warming and 82 percent believe human activity is "a significant factor." (
    CNN)

    The second main issue in Will's piece is arctic sea ice. A couple points here. One, ice at the poles has been gaining dramatically since September. Two, the level of sea ice today is equal to that in 1979. Well, he's right about the first, but that's only because sea ice is gaining some of the losses after "a dramatic retreat" in 2007. (
    Climate Progress) Regarding the second, he's just wrong.

    Sea ice levels in 1979 were 16.79 million square kilometers. In 2009, estimates put global sea ice at 15.45 million square kilometers. (also from
    Climate Progress)

    Pound360 Archive

    About Me

    My photo
    I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.