10 Cool Discoveries You Should Know About

From asteroid mining to HIV prevention, here are 10 things you should know about from the week.

On Science Friday last week, Ira Flatow reported on a grassroots group of scientists and science advocates calling for a presidential science debate. After all, what do politicians actually know about scientific issues they want to be able to influence?

Good question, and one that makes us think about the importance of the sciences in our lives.

Science represents hope. It’s scientists -- not lawyers or talking heads -- who are providing preventive healthcare research, advances in communication and will work in the jobs that not only make people excited about the future but make them feel like there is a future. This week we touch on all those things as well as a couple of finds that are just beautiful or bizarre, that advance only our sense of wonder and “WTF?” because those are important, too. What influences action if not imagination…and appreciation? Here are 10 interesting and important discoveries made this week.

1. A Sunday Eclipse and Io Full

Our Amazing Planet gave us the full skinny on this Sunday’s solar eclipse, an event where the moon will block the sun, not fully, but just enough to leave what’s called  “a ring of fire” around the edges. The East Coast will miss out because the sun will have set by the time it occurs (boo!), but OAP offers the scoop on the numerous national parks out west from which you can best see the the event, some of which are offering special celebrations to go along with it.

But it’s not just our planet, amazing though it is, that boasts spectacular scenery: check out this stunning series of photos of how the orbit of Jupiter looks from one of it’s moons, Io. Hard to believe this is real and not the creation of some filmmaker’s CGI department...makes you proud to live in the same galaxy (plus, the volcano eruption gives it a little zhuzh).

Thanks to io9’s Ron Miller for these interstellar Kodak moments.

2. Clicka Boom

Speaking of Kodak…

Everyone has had junk in their basement they don’t exactly advertise…a broken trampoline…old home movies...that nuclear reactor….

Not in even in a novel did I ever think I’d read the words “why did Kodak have a hidden nuclear reactor loaded with weapons-grade uranium?” but that’s precisely what Jesus Diaz in Gizmodo wrote about the 3.5 pounds of uranium the company acquired in 1974. Private companies generally don’t have this kind of stuff. An in-depth story by Steve Orr of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle (which has a picture of it) says, “It had been mentioned many years ago in research papers, and was referred to obliquely in a half-dozen public documents on a federal website, though none hinted where it was located,” which was in Rochester, Orr, notes “didn’t have a clue.” It wasn’t made public, Diaz reports, until a former employee leaked it.

Glad the employee was the only thing that leaked. 

Orr writes Kodak decided to dismantle the reactor six years ago and the uranium was “spirited away” in 2007, moved to a federal facility in South Carolina. 

The amount of uranium in the reactors wasn’t enough to make a bomb, but Diaz writes “illegal arm merchants are seeking small amounts like this to put them for sale in the black market.”

The reactor was used to check for impurities in materials and for neutron radiography testing, an imaging technique that’s kind of like an X-ray but illuminates material other than metal (here’s a helpful illustration of how neutron radiography differs in imaging from an X-ray; check out the cigarette lighter for the best comparison). 

Okay…but unless Ming the Merciless is on the board of directors, it still seems like a weird thing to have in the basement.

Exciting, eh? We have a nostalgic soft spot for Kodak and if anyone had to have a snifter full of uranium it could have been someone far worse. Still…can’t wait to read about Nabisco’s secret monkey army and the Doomsday Devices Milton Bradley keeps in uncharted warehouses in boxes marked “Candyland.” 

3. Skull-diggery

Kodak wasn’t the only place discovered to be harboring underground secrets worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. A Florida backyard coughed up two skulls that couldn’t present a more juicy mystery if they belonged to McMillan and Wife and had been unearthed by Agatha Christie.

Back in January workmen digging in a Winter Garden, Florida backyard unearthed two skulls along with some pottery shards and textiles (a sling, carrying bag and woven purse), reports Bianca Prieto from the Orlando Sentinel. Orange-Osceola medical examiner Jan Garavaglia and John Schultz, a University of Central Florida anthropologist, determined the bones to be those of an older man and a 10-year-old boy…from another era. 

”An extra bone present in the back of one of the craniums is known as the "Inca bone," Prieto writes, and “The smaller cranium had bits of mummified tissue affixed to it. Both pieces of evidence pointed to South America,” as do the textiles, which appear to be from the Chancay culture of Peru and date between 1200 and 1470 A.D.

The icing on the mystery cake: these artifacts that traveled 3,000 miles and 800 or so years only to be found a few months ago, had a newspaper alongside them dated 1978. 

A very comfortable guess is that they’re all souvenirs. Trafficking in human remains and artifacts was outlawed in 1970 but before that, Prieto writes, tourists purchased such things from other countries as vacation mementos. Say what you want, I’d much rather be given a finger bone than another T-shirt that says “I Got Crabs At…” followed by the name of some beach bar. 

Garavaglia said in an ABC news story by Collen Curry that it could have been a migrant worker who transported the skull as a relic from his culture. She called in archeology researchers from UCF and Yale to determine the skulls' origins but said there is no way of finding out how they got here. "It was certainly a departure from the norm," Garavaglia told ABC. "When you hold something in your hand that is that old, from 1200, it's amazing. To think about the connection back in time, that you hold in your hand what that they held in their hand. Amazing."

4. Quantum Leap

To some it’s obvious how ancient Peruvian remains traveled over space time. Teleportation.

See, the ancient aliens who grafittied Peru imparted super high technology on the human inhabitants, so they could probably have beamed things wherever they wanted!

Okay, the  teleportation of objects and people, a la Star Trek, is quite seriously a long way off, but quantum teleportation just advanced big-time thanks to Chinese physicists who shattered previous records by teleporting qubits (quantum bits or units of quantum information) over 60 miles, across a lake, meaning the data went somewhere without occupying any of the intervening space. 

You’ll be as glad as I was to know that even Einstein had trouble getting the gist of quantum theory, according to Mark Brown, who reported the teleportation story for Wired UK. The basic idea is this: quantum entanglement is a phenomenon wherein two particles are so intimately connected that whatever happens to one will happen to the other…like twins who feel each other’s feelings even across great distances. If you separate the particles and cause one to represent an alphabet letter, for example, the other, distant particle would take on those same characteristics, says Bob Yirka of Now that would be instant messaging.

It has, however, been difficult to get qubits far apart without their becoming unentangled. Juan Yin at the University of Science and Technology of China “used a 1.3 watt laser, and a clever optic steering technique to keep the beam precisely on target” and was able to send photons between the two stations 97 km apart, breaking the previous record of 16 km. 

Why this matters is for encryption: information that can be imparted without being transmitted through physical space is information that cannot be intercepted. You can’t get what isn’t there.

5. An Enterprising Plan

But you might be able to get it in 20 years.

That seems to be the thinking of BTE Dan whose Web site, Build The Enterprise, outlines in precise detail, plans for doing just that -- building a full-sized, real-life version of Star Trek’s USS Enterprise, a fleet of them, in fact, one built every generation (33 years) to be used as spacecrafts, space stations and spaceports, powered by an ion-propulsion engine which itself would be powered by a nuclear reactor. Nancy Atkinson of Universe Today shows and tells of some of BTE Dan’s detailed plans -- he says it could get to Mars in 90 days and even has suggestions for how to fund it with small, unnoticeable tax increases and cuts to various programs from defense to education. The massive ship would be built entirely in space and have a gravity wheel in the saucer (that’s the big oval-shaped part up front…c’mon, you know the ship) that would create 1G of gravity. 

BTE Dan says he’s worked as an electrical and systems engineer at a Fortune 500 company for 30 years and say if anyone can prove him wrong he’ll publicly acknowledge it and would be willing to wait…for maybe another 50 years.

Not having worked as an electrical or systems engineer for a single day it sounds dreamy, fanciful and out-of-reach, but I would be the first one to start jockeying for a press ticket if there was even the slightest muttering that it could really happen.  

While we’re waiting for that here’s another little piece of sci-fi-ish tech in real life -- a wearable phone which, as TechEBlog points out, looks like Iron Man’s glove. There’s a video demo on the blog of how it’s used…the numbers are on the inside of the fingers, and to talk to someone you hold your hand up to the side of your face in the universal gesture for “Call me,” and literally talk to the hand.

We’ve only ever seen one other glove that was more than a glove (nice!). This is certainly a unique design, but I’d worry that I’d forget I had it on and a) palm-dial people at mortifyingly inopportune moments or b) stick my hand in a bucket of buttery movie popcorn or otherwise gooey food and accidentally doom my new toy to grease-o-licious death. However cool the technology there’s always the risk of Bio-Dumb.

6. Monster Spit

If you would imperil a superhero phone to grab whatever sauce-dripping, frosting-slathered, orange-salt-coated treats was tempting you, there are a few things you need to know. The first is that researchers have found something to stem your -- our -- food cravings: monster spit.

“A drug made from the saliva of the Gila monster lizard is effective in reducing the craving for food,” including chocolate, reports Science Daily. An increasing number of type-2 diabetes patients are being offered a drug called Exenatide for blood sugar control; a synthetic, pharmaceutical version of exendin-4, a natural substance found in Gila monster saliva. Researchers at the University of Gothenberg tested the drug on rats whose cravings decreased after being treated with the drug.

Karolina Skibicka, one of the researchers of the study which was published in the Journal of Neuroscience, says that "Our decision to eat is linked to the same mechanisms in the brain which control addictive behaviours. We have shown that exendin-4 affects the reward and motivation regions of the brain." Exendin-4 research offers possible ways to treat disorders like compulsive overreating.

Those sugary, fatty foods we find difficult to fend off also would have been a survival strategy 10,000 years ago. Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa says in this talk on the Big Think that we are still operating with the same brain we used as hunter-gatherers when food was scarce and calorie-dense food was the best thing we could hope for. Now food is always available, “but our brain doesn’t know that. There was no such thing as abundant food 10,000 years ago and our brain still cannot comprehend ‘supermarket.’ If our brain comprehended ‘supermarket’ there’s no need to crave sweet and fatty food.”  

Here’s the three-fer: a recent Oxford study reported on in Red Orbit by Michael Harper says that the fat we ingest goes to our midsections a lot faster than we used to think -- within four hours of eating. 

Bottom line, in the battle to be svelte we’re sabotaged by our own brains, our fast-fat-processing bodies and the temptation of cheap, available scrumptious food. If a little synthesized lizard slobber will help arm us against that, I’m ready to give Reptilicus a great big at-a-pharmaceutical-distance kiss.

7. FDA Takes Two Steps in HIV Prevention and Testing

A very different advance in preventive medicine happened recently when an FDA panel recommended the approval of Truvada, the first drug for the prevention of  HIV, CBS News reports. Truvada works by inhibiting the ability of the virus to multiply and is already used as part of a treatment regimen for HIV-positive patients but it would be the first drug used to prevent the disease in at-risk patients, “including gay and bisexual men and heterosexual couples with one HIV-positive partner.” Taken every day in conjunction with condom use, Truvada reduces the risk of acquiring HIV.

There are some controversies over the drug, its cost-effectiveness, whether people will take it faithfully and whether it will dissuade people from using condoms. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation opposes approval of Truvada.

Right on the heels of the FDA panel’s recommendation for Truvada, another advisory panel, this one the FDA's, recommended the approval of the OraQuick In-Home HIV Test from Orasure Technologies, ABC News reports. A quick swab along the gum line and a 20-minute wait and thousands of people who might not otherwise go to a clinic can test themselves privately, at home, potentially preventing the spread of HIV. Twenty percent of Americans infected with HIV don’t know it; the FDA estimates that 2.8 million people might pick up the test in its first year, diagnose 45,000 positive cases while missing 3,800 (based on its 93% effectiveness rating) and prevent transmission to 4,000 people. 

ABC News’ Richard Besser, former acting director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that “it’s important that anyone who gets tested, whether at home or in a doctor’s office, “is connected to support services.”

8. Research With Teeth

Some aspects of your health, like taking a daily pill, practicing safe sex or watching your diet are things you can do on your own. Then there are times you have to turn to a puffer fish. 

Puffer fish are, of course, those hypnotically cool fish that inflate in their own defense, sometimes employing sticky spines and being incredibly toxic to their enemies -- NatGeo says one puffer contains enough tetradotoxin to kill 30 humans. 

They also have an interesting dental feature in that once they shed their first set of teeth they grow a sort-of beak, the structure made up of just four continually replacing teeth, which could be very helpful to us one day. Science Daily reports that Gareth Fraser of the University of Sheffield´s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences led the first-ever study of the unique beak, potentially enabling us to understand why humans don’t replace teeth throughout life “and furthermore how can we use knowledge of the genetic underpinnings of tooth replacement in fishes to facilitate advances in dental therapies."

Could this mean engineering humans to regenerate teeth? MetroCanada that “tooth regeneration is becoming a fast-moving area of research,” and quotes Fraser as saying, “The main thing is we can use (the puffer fish beak) to identify the gene network for tooth replacement. We can see how nature makes new teeth and about the genes that govern that process.” Fraser’s team, the story says, has “spent years experimenting with sharks, zebra fish and now pufferfish toward genetically engineering human stem cells to behave the same way.” 

Having once broken a tooth and forced to walk around looking like the world’s saddest jack-o-lantern until it got fixed, I think the ability to ditch dentures and put hockey smiles in the distant past can’t happen soon enough. 

9. Sometimes the Death Knell Is Just a Tinkle

Fish are our friends. Okay, some of them want to eat us, but that’s just a tit-for-tat thing. Mostly they’re a bonus. They make for great tourist attractions, soothing home decor, thrillingly scary YouTube videosexquisite animated films and admittedly delicious entres. They’re beautiful and good for us. And what do we do? Pee on ‘em til they die.

At least that’s one theory about what might have happened at a lake in Germany. Time’s Melissa Locker reports that researchers think human urine -- a lot of it -- might be responsible for an algae bloom that has killed 500 fish in Eichbaum Lake. 

“We’re calculating half a litre of urine per swimmer per day,” said a spokesperson for the Hamburger Angling Association in the Bild newspaper. That’s a lot of whizz. And it contains a lot of phosphate that promotes algae growth. The lake is closed while the issue is being studied but a local university has joined the Urban Development and Environment Authority in solving the mystery. Locker writes that the Angling Association has a feud with the swimmers so those liter numbers might be a little high and the Authority has a different idea of the culprit: natural causes and ice skating. The noise skaters make wake the fish from hibernation, they can’t breathe and they freeze to death.

Whether it turns out to be hot or cold weather recreation that’s responsible, one thing is certain. Summer is here. You will go swimming soon. And having read this you will think twice before being responsible for that weird warm spot in the water. Ew. 

10. Mining Their Own Business

If, instead of recreation, you were thinking about a summer job doing a little asteroid mining, think again.

Less than a month ago, a company called Planetary Resources made a splash by announcing it would be the first commercial company to mine asteroids with big shots like James Cameron among their investors. The company has already gotten 2,000 responses to its ad seeking asteroid mining employees and due to the overwhelming response it's stopped taking applications.

And the appeal is thoroughly understandable. First of all, the ad mentions that they have a grill. Second, it’s in Seattle. Third it’s asteroid mining. That doesn’t mean going in there with a pickaxe, reports HuffPo’s Mike Wall, but speaks of a need for engineers to design and build the robot probe work fleet. Between the number of people out of work, and the sci-fi glamour, we totally get it. Not only is it work,  t’s the perfect blend of entrepreneurial practicality and romantic escapism. 

Suddenly, even in this economic climate, it doesn’t seem overly optimistic to want a job that’s out of this world. 


Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, FL.
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