10 Amazing Discoveries You Missed This Week

The world is full of surprises -- here are 10 from this week. 

1. A honey of a moon

Okay, cue up old-time heroic-type music and get ready for ... SUPERMOON!

It’s not often that we get to write about something in the world of science that’s going to happen. Usually we report on studies that have already taken place or events so deep in the past they don’t need journalists, they need archeologists.

But tonight at 11:35pm EDT, the moon will be full and it will be at its perigee, the closest point in its elliptical orbit around the earth. These simultaneous conditions will make it bigger and brighter -- 16 percent brighter -- than usual, says Space.com via the Christian Science Monitor. (Click on the link for a gorgeous and informative video.) 

Other than causing higher and lower tides than usual, the Supermoon won’t have any unusual effect on events here on Earth.

Well, except for all the skywatchers, campers, lovers and other night owls pointing up and going “Ooooooh!” at roundabout the same time. 

2. The universe’s photo album

If you can’t wait for Supermoon to see wonders from space, thank Amy Rolph from Seattle PI for posting 61 glorious images in Amazing Photos from the Hubble Space Telescope from Hubble’s 22-year history of documenting the universe. Sit back and be spellbound by how much bigger it all is than you.

Some favorites: Ring Nebula (image 40) which looks like the Mood Ring Nebula (or a peacock eye); Supernova 1987A (image 10) because it looks like the God entity from Futurama; and Centaurus A (image 8) which looks like a photo taken from under the ocean looking up to the surface. In real life, though, you have to watch Centaurus A … it’s been called a "cosmic cannibal" due to evidence that it once collided with another galaxy and consumed a large part of it.

And it’s relatively close to the Milky Way! Quick, before it sees us -- hide all the fava beans! We’ll drink all the nice chianti.

3. Smog-eating buildings?

Some people will eat anything. Some buildings might soon be able to eat smog.

Tina Casey at TPM says (via Green Car Reports) that Alcoa has developed a new titanium oxide coating for the aluminum panels it manufactures that will enable those panels to “eat” the smog around the buildings. When sunlight energizes the electrons in the titanium dioxide (also used in toothpaste and skim milk) and reacts with water vapor in the air it forms oxidizers that attack surrounding organic material -- in this case nitrogen oxide (NO2), the main component of smog, “turning it into a harmless nitrate (nitrates are commonly used in fertilizer).”

The main purpose of the material is aesthetic but since it will make the panel slick it will prevent “smog, bird droppings and other schmutz” from collecting, making the building and the air around it cleaner…the latter depending on the building’s size and location. Alcoa says 10,000 square feet of the coating material -- named EcoClean -- has a “smog removal power equivalent to about 80 trees, or enough to offset the airborne pollution emitted by four cars per day.” It’s getting its first commercial try at a “new regional electronics recycling hub in Badin, North Carolina.”

Looking at some of the comments in the TPM story made us wonder whether those nitrates were harmless to the groundwater they would eventually get washed into…and since we know AlterNet readers don’t take “Oh, relax,” for an answer we asked Dr. Nathan Bryan, assistant professor of molecular medicine at the Texas Therapeutics Institute and co-author of Nitrite and Nitrate in Human Health and DiseaseDr. Bryan said he saw no cause for concern and that this amount of nitrate will likely be minimal.

"I would interpret this as a natural fertilizer then if it is indeed converted to inorganic nitrate,” Dr. Bryan writes. “The bacteria in the soil use nitrate and convert it to usable forms for plant growth. Furthermore, nitrate is not the bad guy it used to be. There are now profound health benefits of nitrate by its ability to be converted to nitric oxide in the body.”

Neat! Prediction: If it works, all the other building’s moms are going to say “Look at that buildilng. It’s doing something. Why can’t you be more like that?” and other buildings will either be dunned into spiffing up or go to the basement and play video games.

4. What did I come in here for? 

So why is it that we can remember that Alcoa Can’t Wait! jingle from the 1970s -- 40 effing years ago -- but we can’t remember why we just walked into the kitchen?

Natalie Wolchover has the answer with Top Five Things That Cause Brain Farts (excerpted from her longer version on Life's Little Mysteries). In other words, why our minds go blank, make us think our phones are ringing when they’re not and stop us in our mental tracks every time we hear a very annoying beeping sound. Some of it has to do with evolution, some with our brains trying to filter out extraneous information.

As for the doors…it’s the damn doors themselves that make us forget why we passed through them. Walking through a door triggers an “event boundary” in our mind say researchers at the University of Notre Dame, making us think we are moving from one set of circumstances to another, like when you leave the algebra classroom, file away your algebra thoughts, and prepare to go to English lit. By organizing our thoughts our brain is just trying to help us adapt to the constant flow of new situations in what some musician called “this ever-changing world in which we live in.” We knew his name a second ago…but when we walked back into our office we forgot it. 

5. Dolphins working the net

Most of us have seen dolphins do flips and tricks, but some dolphins in Brazil seem to have figured out how do do the neatest trick of all: helping people get by. 

Jennifer Welsh of Live Science writes that a group of about 20 dolphins in Laguna are helping about 200 fisherman make their annual catch. The dolphins herd yummy mullet toward fishermen in boats or wading in the water, and signal with head or tail slaps when the fishermen should throw in their nets. The fishermen know the individual dolphins by their markings and they don’t fish without them, though not all the dolphins engage in the mutually beneficial enterprise. Welsh writes, “The cooperation is helpful to both parties, researchers said. The two wouldn’t survive without each other.” 

Dolphins are very social and researchers have identified several social networks within the group with one group being made up entirely of these fishermen-helping dolphins. Researchers think the helping behavior in the dolphins is inherited or learned, but don’t know why some dolphins help and others don’t (we think the ones who don’t are probably rich). 

Researcher Fábio Daura-Jorge of the Federal University of Santa Catarina, in Brazil, says specialized foraging behavior might develop in groups where there’s a lot of social interaction between animals. "We are talking about a small subgroup of dolphins (about 20) supporting over 200 families with no other income," Daura-Jorge said. He added, "The fish provided from the cooperation with dolphins has an important economic and social value that has to be considered, and should be conserved.”

6. Al Queda plans hidden in porn film

Oh now we remember who that musician was! It was Paul McCartney, in “Live and Let Die.” And if the following story isn’t worthy of James Bond we don’t know what is. 

Ars Technica’s Sean Gallagher gave us a riveting tale this week of how German computer forensic experts have uncovered the contents of hidden files in a password-protected folder on the memory card of a suspected Al-Queda member arrested in Berlin (more details here on CNN). The contents: 141 text files “containing what officials claim are documents detailing al-Qaeda operations and plans for future operations” -- hidden inside a porn video.

Holy schnikes, right? We are amazed both by its content and the primer Gallagher offers on steganography, the age-old technique of embedding information in plain view but in a way others can’t see it, the modern version being to hide it within computer files. One example is “least significant bit substitution,” in which very tiny changes are made to binary bits within a file. Gallagher shows a changed byte sequence and two images, one of which has a message (non-Al-Queda or porn) using this process, one of which is notably grainier.

You know, some people believe in parallel universesbut this story brings home the fact that alternate worlds, whether they exist or not, are hardly necessary when there are so many going on all around us. With the exception of hiding porn, all of the stuff in this story is so remarkably unlike our world, yet occurring in our world, it’s mind-blowing. Deciphering “needle-in-a-haystack” code of a terrorist network? We can’t even get the wrapper off a pack of gum half the time. The mind reels.

(Oh, the name of the porn film? KickAss.)

7. You’re my heroine

There are a lot of people who kick ass and never get the recognition for it. Thanks to Our Amazing Planet for giving us an inspiring picture of 8 Unsung Women Explorersa must-read for girls of all ages who might sometimes need to see that their hip-to-waist ratio is not as important as the size of their hearts, minds and guts. 

These women -- aviators, sailors, mountaineers, war correspondents and others -- braved some wild territory some during periods in history when women didn't get to do much of anything. Every story will make you feel a little braver. You’ll meet:

  • Helen Thayer, a 20th-century explorer who lived for a year with a wolf pack at the Arctic Circle;
  • Gertrude Bell, a 19th-century writer, archeologist and explorer of the Middle East who was “one of the few representatives of His Majesty’s Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection”;
  • Alison Hargreaves, a British mountaineer who climbed Mount Everest in 1995 with no oxygen or Sherpas and who sent a message to her two children at the summit: "I’m on top of the world and I love you dearly."

Next time you feel like that, send that message to someone. The top of the world will get higher.

8. A little trouble with the Pygmy study

One of those explorers, Deilia Akely, was a Wisconsin girl who explored Africa with her husband and led her own expeditions “concentrating more on ethnography of the more reclusive tribes such as the Forest People pygmies of the 1930s.” She also lived with the pygmies of Zaire. Frankly if we get one more spam text we’ll be right behind her. 

“…it is not easy to collect DNA samples from Pygmies…” Boy, if we had a dollar for every time we’ve said that. Erika Check Hayden said it in her detailed story in Nature about a recent study on Pygmy genetics and the difficulty in researching whether the group’s unusually short stature has a genetic basis or is an environmental adaptation. Jennifer Welsh at LiveScience reports the average Pygmy is about 4’11” compared to their Bantu neighbors at 5’6.

Sarah Tishkoff, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania led the study and the result both supports a genetic basis for Pygmy height and also shows how tricky untangling our genetic underpinnings can be. 

Pygmies and Bantus have been interbreeding for about 4,000 to 5,000 years so researchers first looked at what part of the genome of their subjects (57 from Pygmy groups and 39 from Bantu) reflected Pygmy or Bantu ancestry: “They confirmed that the more Bantu ancestry someone had the taller he or she was likely to be, supporting the idea that Pygmy stature has genetic roots,” Hayden writes.  

Researchers then looked for variations in the genes that would give Pygmies an edge in natural selection; some “occurred in a region of chromosome 3 that differed between Bantus and Pygmies and were linked to height,” but none could be absolutely linked to Pygmy height. Even studies of Europeans “only explained about 10% of the genetic contribution to height in people with European ancestry.” But part of the problem was the limited number of Pygmies in the study, a study which, Tishkoff said, shows the challenges in studying “the genetics of limited, ancient populations.”

So….seriously…it sounds like part of the difficulty was that the Pygmy study was too small.

9. Brains vs. prawns

Not that there’s anything wrong with small. We’re forever trying to get our debts and our phone bills to shrink. Bigger isn’t always better… take the invasive giant Asian cannibal tiger shrimp which has been turning up with increasing frequency in the Gulf of Mexico and the Southeast coast. Claudine Zap at Yahoo reports that the almost-lobster-sized prawns are capable of outsizing and eating their shrimpy shrimp cousins of other species who are also cannibals but unlikely to be able to take the big guys. 

At first we didn’t see why the US Geologic Survey is asking anyone who spots one, to contact them with the location of the interloping prawn immediately, like they were the shellfish Mickey and Mallory. We thought they might not be that bad, especially with a little lemon and garlic

We were blinded by visions of dinner.

“Researchers worry that the Asian cannibal species is preying on the smaller, native sea life, competing for resources and carrying disease.” Plus, says marine ecologist James Morris, they’ll throw off delicately balanced marine ecosystems. Pam Fuller, USGS biologist, says there are probably more of them than anyone thinks, since fishermen get used to seeing them and don’t report them.

Moreover, check out this video from the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation about the effect of farmed tiger prawns on the environment. For more info and less of a desire to order tiger prawns check out The Ecologist's story and video here.

Ah, well. Wouldn’t be the first time something we thought looked good turned out not to be good.

10. Wind farms and hot air

It’s always weird when something turns out to be just the opposite of what you thought it was. A story came and went this week that had some feeling like the last days of April were really the first day of April. 

Headlines like Fox’s “Wind farms are warming the earth, experts say” started popping up at the end of the month. As Trevor Quirk at the Christian Science Monitor points out, such headlines misconstrued the actual story which is this: SUNY researchers found that surface temperatures around Texas wind farms (and Texas has a lot of wind farms) “rose an average of 0.72 degrees Celsius between 2003 and 2011. The effect was most prominent at night. Some of the team has speculated that this localized warming trend could be an effect of the turbines pulling down warm air from higher altitudes at night, when the air above the land would otherwise be cooler.”

Study leader Liming Zhou was quoted in a press release as saying, "The estimated warming trends only apply to the study region and to the study period, and thus should not be interpolated linearly into other regions (e.g., globally) or over longer periods (e.g., for another 20 years),” so it’s a local and regional effect, which is still being studied.

Eric Niller of Discovery News writes “Zhou cautioned that his study used satellite data, which can have errors from clouds, for example, rather than temperature readings taken at the surface.” Also, making smaller turbines could help though they would produce less power. 

So the story is that Texas surface temperatures have risen with the advent of wind farming; it’s being studied; and there are some potential answers. But the low-hanging fruit of potential irony proved irresistible to some as Quirk points out, like Forbes’ “Wind farms cause global warming!”

We’ve noticed since that the headlines on the subject have been more like "Night Warming Effect Found Over Large Wind Farms in Texas" (from Kansas City InfoZine), but still, Quirk says the exaggerated headlines help justify scientists’ distrust of journalists. 

We get that. Science is about evidence, after all, and if the evidence is that people misconstrue your work it’s fair to be skittish. 

We at Ten Amazing Things want to point out, though, that while we try to put a little panache in our work, we don’t really need verbal photoshop. Why would we? Photos of supernovas from 163,000 light years away? Dolphins that are better coworkers than lots of people we know? To exaggerate these things wouldn’t just be gilding the lily, it would be giving it Botox and implants. When you have the universe, illuminated by scientists, you’ve got plenty. 

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