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Past Episodes: March 2010 Archives

Saturday March 27, 2010

Homo Who-izzit? Picky Pipefish Papas, Dung Beetles Test of Strength, Who'll Fly Humans to Space?

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Homo Who-izzit?

human_evolution.jpg copyright M. Garde, cc-by-sa-3.0

A startling new discovery of what may be a new type of ancient human was announced this week, and it's a discovery that could set the world of anthropology on its ear. Dr. Johannes Krause, an ancient DNA researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, and his colleagues, analyzed genetic material from a fragment of a finger bone found in a cave in Siberia, dating back 30 to 40 thousand years ago. They expected it to be a match to DNA from either the modern humans or Neanderthals, but it matched neither. In fact, the difference suggested that this individual came from a lineage that separated from the human/Neanderthal line about a million years ago in Africa. This leaves an anthropological mystery, as it's not clear this represents any hominim species yet described. This marks the first time a new human lineage has been discovered based only on its genes, not its bones.

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Picky Pipefish Papas

pipefish1.jpg Pipefish, copyright Steve Childs, cc-by-2.0

Pipefish, like their close relatives the seahorses, are one of the few animal species in which the male gets pregnant. Female pipefish court males, and deposit their eggs in the male's brood pouch, where he will fertilize them and then care for the developing embryos until they hatch. This makes the pipefish papa sound like a devoted parent. But Kimberley Paczolt, a PhD candidate in biology at Texas A&M University, has found that the male pipefish likes some of his offspring more than others. The male apparently invests more care and devotes more resources to eggs from the large females he prefers than he does to eggs from the small females he's sometimes forced to settle for.

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Dung Beetles Test of Strength

dung-beetles.jpg Dung beetles fighting, copyright Alex Wild

Dr Robert Knell, a lecturer in the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary University of London, has been studying a dung beetle that he's discovered may be the strongest insect ever described. The strongest of these beetles can pull with force that, in a human, would be the equivalent of lifting 80 tonnes. Dr. Knell's interest, however, was not in why some of the beetles were so strong, but why any of them are weak. Strength is important for breeding success in these insects and thus evolution should have selected weaker ones out. But the results of his experiments on these beetles seems to reveal the secret of how the weak survive.

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Who'll Fly Humans to Space?

astronaut.jpg "How much is a ticket to Houston?"

The Falcon 9 rocket, currently sitting on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral, may take off any day now. If it's successful, it may inaugurate a new era in space travel, as a private company develops a rocket that could soon carry humans into space. This would be a very hopeful sign for human space exploration, which is at a low ebb today. NASA's space shuttles will soon cease flying and the Constellation program that was to replace them has been cancelled. The Russian space program reliably puts humans on the space station using 1960's-vintage space technology, but Russia seems to have little interest in doing anything new. Will the future of space travel be in entirely private hands? We discuss the future directions of human space exploration with two avid observers: Miles O'Brien was space and science correspondent with CNN for many years, and now hosts the video podcast This Week In Space. Michael Belfiore is the author of Rocketeers, a look at private space entrepreneurs, and more recently, The Department of Mad Scientists - a look at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein.
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Saturday March 20, 2010

Second Opinion in Second Life, Clockless Caribou, Train the Brain, Dining on Dwarves

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Second Opinion in Second Life

second_life.jpg Virtual Hallucinations in Second Life

Avatars are all the rage these days, with the James Cameron movie breaking all box-office records. But before this movie made avatars famous, there was Second Life, the virtual online world where you can create your own avatar, and live vicariously through your virtual self. Your avatar can visit bars, go on dates, or buy clothes. But more and more people are using this online world to seek health and medical advice from health professionals. Freelance science journalist Alison Motluk takes us on a tour of this strange alternate reality.

Among the virtual places we visit are the Serenity Forest Treehouse, where one branch of Alcoholics Anonymous meets; the Path of Support, where you can find signs advertising various health support groups; and the Virtual Hallucinations Sim, where you can experience the hellish reality of what goes on in a schizophrenic's brain.

  • Dr. Jennifer Keelan is an assistant professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. She wonders if people visiting Second Life might benefit from the "Proteus Effect" - whether activities in the virtual world translate into improved health behaviour in the real world. But she also worries that the anonymity of Second Life might also be emotionally harmful to some.
  • Dr. Douglas Danforth teaches reproductive medicine at Ohio State University in Columbus. He uses Second Life as a teaching tool for his medical students. He finds that they are less shy about asking embarrassing questions when they are anonymous.
  • Dr. Peter Yellowlees is a professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of California, Davis. He was the creator of the Virtual Hallucinations site, and says it helps people understand what a schizophrenic is experiencing. He also sees potential to use the technology for children with autism or obesity.

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Clockless Caribou

caribou.jpg Nathan Denette/Canadian Press

Over the last decade, we've learned a lot about our internal timepiece - the circadian clock. Many plants and animals have internal clocks, anchored in our genes, that program us in a twenty-four hour rhythm and govern our sleep cycles, our eating, our metabolism, and even our immune systems. Disrupt the clock - say, by switching time zones on a jet - and you feel disoriented, sleep badly and even become sick more easily. That's why Professor Andrew Loudon, of the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester, was so surprised to discover that caribou have gone off the clock. In response to the wildly variable day length of their northern habitat, they seem to have disabled their internal clock and found a way to compensate for the services it normally provides.

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Train the Brain

trained_brain.jpg Brain waves of imagined movements before (top) and after (bottom) ten minutes of training the brain, courtesy University of Washington.

Just as a bodybuilder gets larger than normal muscles by lifting weights, the brain can also generate larger than normal activity by interacting with a computer. Dr. Kai Miller, a physicist and doctoral student in neurobiology and medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle, experimented by attaching electrodes directly to the surface of 8 subjects' brains. The brain waves of imagined movements were recorded and compared to those of actual movements, such as sticking out a tongue or clenching a fist. The imagined movement brain waves were much weaker at first, but after ten minutes of 'training the brain', they became much stronger than the signals from the actual movements. The finding holds promise for rehabilitating patients after stroke or other neurological damage. It also suggests that a human brain could quickly become adept at manipulating an external device such as a computer interface or a prosthetic limb.

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Dining on Dwarves

gcluster.jpg Globular cluster, courtesy NASA

Dwarf galaxies are not exactly tiny. They contain millions of stars. And yet, new evidence suggests that our Milky Way galaxy has been gobbling dwarf galaxies like popcorn for much of its history. Dr. Terry Bridges, an astronomer from Queen's University in Kingston, has been studying globular clusters - large balls of many stars - in the halo of our galaxy. The stars in these clusters look a little strange, like they're not from around here. Their age and composition suggest that many of these huge clusters of stars are, in fact, the remnants of as many as six dwarf galaxies that have been swallowed up by the Milky Way.

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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein.
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Saturday March 13, 2010

Dinosaur's Oldest Relative, Motivation by Anticipation, Grasping the Gribble's Gobble, Cold War Invasions, A Brilliant Darkness

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Dinosaur's Oldest Ancestor

asilisaurus.jpg Reconstruction of Asililsaurus, M.H. Donnelly

The oldest known relative of the dinosaur has been found in Tanzania. It is called Asilisaurus kongwe and it lived 245 million years ago, more than 10 million years before the oldest dinosaur. A nearly complete skeleton was assembled using fossils from 14 different animals found at the same site. Dr. Randall Irmis, the paleontology curator at the Utah Museum of Natural History and an Assistant Professor of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Utah, and one of a group of scientists who helped describe the fossils, says Asilisaurus is not what they were expecting. Paleontologists thought the relatives of dinosaurs would be two-legged carnivores. But Asilisaurus kongwe, which stood about a metre tall and three metres long, walked on four legs and was both a plant and meat eater.

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Motivation by Anticipation

desks.jpg Ready for your final exam?

Just knowing when you will receive the results of a test or job interview can influence your performance. That's the finding of a new study by PhD student Keri Kettle at the University of Alberta's School of Business. Of 271 students who took part in the study, those who were told to expect the results from a class presentation within hours, scored in the top 40 percent. The theory here is that when the possibility of disappointment is close, you do what it takes to avoid it. Those told they'd have to wait more than two weeks to hear how they performed, scored in the lower 40 percent.

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Grasping the Gribble's Gobble

gribbles.jpg Gribbles, Dr. Simon Cragg/Graham Malyon Institute of Marine Sciences, School of Biological Sciences, University of Portsmouth, UK

The gribble is a small marine invertebrate with a ravenous appetite for wood. This is bad news if you're the owner of a wooden ship, but intriguing if you're interested in producing biofuels. Like termites and some cockroaches, the gribble can break down wood into sugars for food, which is the first step to producing biofuels. Gribbles, however, don't depend on a gut full of micro-organisms, working in a complex ecosystem, to break down wood. They do it themselves, using biochemistry encoded in their own genes. Professor Simon McQueen-Mason, a biologist in the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products at the University of York, in England, has been working to understand the gribble's digestion. He hopes it will lead to novel and perhaps simpler ways to produce biofuels.



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Cold War Invasions

rose-ringed-parakeet.jpg Rose-ringed parakeet in mid-blitzkrieg - courtesy Oregon State U.

During the Cold War, the armies of the East and West faced each other in Europe, separated by the metaphorical "Iron Curtain", and each prepared to invade and strike deep into enemy territories. The Cold War in Europe never developed into a hot war, but Dr. Susan Shirley has discovered that there were many invasions of Western Europe that Eastern Europe managed to resist. Not invasions of troops, but of destructive alien species. Dr. Shirley, a Canadian research associate in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University, found in a study of invasive birds that, during the Cold War, dozens of invasive bird species arrived in Western Europe, largely brought in by the pet trade, while Eastern Europe actually saw a decrease in alien invaders.

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A Brilliant Darkness

brilliant_darkness.jpg

In 1938 a brilliant young Sicilian physicist named Ettore Majorana vanished from the face of the Earth. Majorana was a colleague and collaborator with some of the greatest minds in physics - Fermi, Heisenberg, Pauli and Bohr. His brilliant insights into the structure of matter are still being tested today. But Majorana was also a strange and disturbed young man who struggled with loneliness and depression. There has been much speculation on what happened to Majorana with theories ranging from suicide to fleeing to a new identity to kidnapping by sinister forces. In a new book, A Brilliant Darkness, theoretical physicist Dr. João Magueijo, who has been fascinated by the story for decades, explores the mystery of Majorana's life and disappearance.

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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein.
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