Nobels 2009, Saturn's New Ring, Termite Termination, Sheep - Shy and Showy, Between XX and XY

 

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Nobels 2009

boyle.jpg Dr Willard Boyle, copyright National Academy of Engineering

It was quite a week for Canadian scientists. For the first time ever, 2 Canadian scientists were awarded Nobel prizes in the same year. Well, if not technically Canadian, at least with a strong Canadian connection. First up was Dr. Jack Szostak from the Harvard Medical School, who shared this year's Nobel Prize for Medicine with 2 American women. Although born in England, and now an American citizen, Dr. Szostak grew up in Montreal's West Island, and received his BSc. from McGill University. He won the Nobel for his work on telomeres. One of the scientists he shared the Prize with was Dr. Carol Greider, from the Johns Hopkins University Medical School, who was a guest on Quirks several years ago.

Next up was another McGill graduate, Dr. Willard Boyle, who shared this year's Nobel Prize for Physics. Dr. Boyle was honoured for his invention of the charge-coupled device, which is a semiconductor circuit that transforms light into electric signals. His invention led to digital cameras, medical imaging, and even the optics on the Hubble Space Telescope. As the Nobel committee said, it revolutionized photography. Dr. Boyle was born in Nova Scotia, and lives there today, retired at the age of 85. In between, he grew up in a small logging community in northern Quebec, where he was home-schooled by his mother. He flew Spitfires in the Second World War, and afterwards, earned 3 science degrees at McGill. He then spent his career at Bell Labs in the US, where he made his discovery back in 1969.

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Saturn's New Ring

saturn_ring.jpg Illustration of the newly discovered ring, courtesy NASA

The largest ring in the Solar System has been discovered by astronomers. The ring, although practically invisible, is located around Saturn and is 30 million kilometres across. Dr. Michael Skrutskie, at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, one of the astronomers who made the discovery, believes the particles that comprise the ring are the result of micrometeor impacts to one of Saturn's many moons, Phoebe. The discovery may also help solve a puzzle about one of Saturn's other moons, Iapetus. That moon's leading hemisphere is darker than the rest of the surface. They believe the dark shade is the result of Iapetus picking up some of the same particles that make up the newly discovered ring.

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Termite Termination

termites.jpg Termites consuming a queen killed moments earlier. Courtesy of Nancy L. Breisch, Thorne Lab, University of Maryland.

When Dr. Barbara Thorne, a professor of Entomology in the College of Chemical and Life Sciences at the University of Maryland, pit two colonies of the termites she was studying against each other, she thought she might see a war. Instead, she saw something more like a targeted assassination, as the kings and queens of the rival colonies attacked each other, and most of the other termites simply stood aside to watch. When the dust settled, often as not, the two colonies then peacefully merged, often under new royalty recruited from the worker population. This, thinks Dr. Thorne, might help explain why younger termites stay in the colony. Fast turnover of the royals means their turn for the throne, and the reproductive benefits it brings - make it worth waiting for your chance.



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Sheep - Shy and Showy

sheep.jpg Bighorn Sheep, copyright Wing-Chi Poon

Take one 130 kg Bighorn Sheep with the potential to use its huge horns to butt you into next week, and lock it into a large plywood box. Now climb in with it. No, this isn't a new challenge for a really ill-conceived reality TV show. It's actually what scientists involved in a long-term study of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep do on a regular basis, to evaluate the condition of the sheep. One of the things they observed was that while some of the sheep are as docile as, well, sheep, others are more like laying down with a lion than with a lamb. This led to a study of the variations of sheep personality that Dr. David Coltman, a biologist at the University of Alberta, thinks might help with conservation.

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Between XX and XY

xxxy.jpg

South African runner Caster Semenya won the gold medal in the women's 800-metre race at the World Track and Field Championship in Berlin back in August. But many of the 18-year-old's competitors complained that Semenya must be a man; she looked like a man, had a flat chest and a deep voice and her time was just too fast. The International Association of Athletics Federations ordered a gender test. It was revealed that Semenya, like approximately sixty-five thousand children born every year, has both male and female sexual characteristics. In her case, no uterus or ovaries and undescended testes. What we used to call hermaphrodites, are now referred to as intersex. Dr. Gerald Callahan is a professor in the Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology Department at Colorado State University. He recently wrote a book about this subject called Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the Myth of Two Sexes. He says we all might be intersex to a certain extent.

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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein.
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