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Past Episodes: January 2011 Archives

Saturday January 29, 2011

* The Earliest Galaxy * The Red Fox's Magnetic Attraction * Man Bites Dog * Spring-loaded Seeds * Craving Constants *
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The Earliest Galaxy


earliest_galaxy.jpg NASA, ESA, Garth Illingworth (UC Santa Cruz), Rychard Bouwens (UC Santa Cruz and Leiden University) and the HUDF09 Team.
The Hubble telescope's latest upgrade has led to the detection of the earliest and most distant galaxy yet seen.  It existed just 480 million years after the Big Bang, and its light has been travelling towards us for 13.2 billion years.  Dr. Rychard Bouwens, an astronomer at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, led the team that was able to tease out the faint light from this galaxy from an image taken by Hubble over an exposure of 87 hours.  Only one galaxy this early was detected in the image, which suggests the epoch of galaxy formation in the early universe might have started a little more slowly than had been thought. 

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The Red Fox's Magnetic Attraction



Mousing_fox.jpg Mousing fox, courtesy Jaroslav Vogeltanz
We know the fox to be sly and cunning, but new research by Dr. Sabine Begall, the Associate Head of the Department of Zoology at the University of Duisberg-Essen in Germany, has found another remarkable trait.  Foxes have the ability to find prey in either tall grass or under cover of snow, using the Earth's magnetic field.  For this reason, the fox has a preference for facing magnetic north, within ten degrees, when hunting.   The research showed a much higher success rate when the fox aligned itself in this way than in any other direction.  The research suggests that the fox sees a shadow on its retina that is darkest toward magnetic north.  Like a normal shadow, this 'image' appears to be a constant distance ahead of the fox.  When the shadow lines up with where the fox perceives the sound of a mouse, for example, it launches itself into the air, coming straight down on its prey. 

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Man Bites Dog

Inca_Hairless_Dog.jpg An Inca Hairless Dog, copyright cc-by-3.0, Thom Quine

A discovery of a bone in a sample of ancient feces suggests that, for early North Americans, Old Blue was, on occasion, the Blue Plate Special.  Samuel Belknap, a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology and the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, was studying ancient human feces to get insight into the diet of the people who deposited it.  At first he didn't recognize the small fragment of bone he found in one sample; but working with colleagues, he identified it as part of a dog's skull.  DNA analysis later proved that this dog's ancestors were probably brought over from Asia when humans migrated into North America.  Just why ancient North Americans ate this particular dog is not known, but dog was often on the menu in later Aboriginal societies.

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  • News from the University of Maine
  • Discovery News
  • National Geographic News

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Spring-loaded Seeds



clockface_seed.jpg Time-lapse photo of awn coiling in the seed of Erodium cicutarium, courtesy Jacques Dumais
The Filaree plant (Erodium cicutarium), also known as Stork's Bill, is a small flowering plant in the geranium family. It is found in dry areas around the Mediterranean and in the southern United States - and possesses two amazing qualities.  First, the mother plant can fling its seed up to half-a-metre away. This happens after the seed's tail-like structure, called an awn, has dried, then coiled, then finally released in an explosive display of kinetic energy. Second, once on the ground, the seed can drill itself into the soil by repeatedly curling and unwinding the awn in response to levels of humidity.  Canadian scientist Dr. Jacques Dumais, an Associate Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, says the plant's seed dispersal and self-drilling mechanisms are designed to increase chances of germination.

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Craving Constants

Albert_Einstein.jpgDr Einstein might have been surprised...
The laws of physics that explain why atoms hold together, why stars burn, and why electricity flows in a wire, all depend on a range of special numbers - the constants of nature.  These include things like the speed of light, the charge on an electron and the gravitational constant to name a few.  The fact that these numbers don't change, no matter where or when you are in the universe, is one of the things that allows us to understand the universe and predict its future evolution.  However, a small group of scientists, bolstered by a few tantalizing fragments of evidence, are considering a radical idea: what if the constants of nature aren't so constant?  Quirks producer Jim Lebans takes a look at this cosmological conundrum, by talking with these scientists:

Dr. John Webb, an astrophysicist from the University of New South Wales in Australia, has looked into this idea by probing the chemistry of the distant universe - seeing how quasar light shines on distant gas and dust.  He's found evidence that an important constant, the Fine Structure Constant, may be different in different parts of our universe. 

The implications of changing constants are huge for physics, and would mean much of physics would have to be re-thought, according to Dr. João Magueijo, a cosmologist from Imperial College, London.   Dr. Magueijo, however, thinks that if constants vary, it might also open physics to new ideas, including his own theory that a faster speed of light early in the Big Bang might explain the rapid expansion of the universe. 

Dr. John Barrow, a cosmologist and mathematician from Cambridge University, suggests that constants might change, depending on how far we travel through space.  This idea comes from the notion that the Big Bang created multi-verses, or "bubble universes," each with its own physical properties.  

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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein, Creative Commons License by-nc-nd-2.0


Saturday January 22, 2011

* Pterosaur Lays an Egg * Deer oh Deer * New Wines in Old Genes * Busting Galactic Dust * The Science of Kissing *
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Pterosaur Lays an Egg


pterosaur_egg.jpg A female pterosaur preserved together with her egg. Lu Junchang, Institute of Geology, Beijing
A fossil of an adult pterosaur (Darwinopterus), preserved with an egg, was recently found in Northeast China. Dr. David Unwin from the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester in England says the rare fossil has provided a wealth of new information.  The position of the egg, relative to the hips of the adult, allows researchers to say with confidence that this adult is a female.  It is unusual for a fossil to provide such information about gender.  However, this find also allows scientists to determine the gender of other pterosaur fossils.  Because this female did not have a crest on its head, they conclude that fossils of crested pterosaurs must be male.  The egg is also very significant.  Its mass is relatively small when compared to the mass of its mother.  This reveals that pterosaur reproductive strategy was more like reptiles than birds. 

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Deer oh Deer

Female_Blacktail_Deer.jpg Female Blacktail deer, copyright cc-by-2.0, Noël Zia Lee

The deer population on some of British Columbia's Gulf Islands has grown to the point where it is having a detrimental effect on plants and birds. Dr. Peter Arcese is a Professor of Forest Science in the Centre for Applied Conservation Research at the University of British Columbia.  He says the population of black tail and fallow deer has grown mostly because of a ban on hunting decades ago.  There is also a lot for them to eat; plus, they have few predators, as cougars are now rare on the Gulf Islands.  He says it is as much a social problem as it is one of conservation, but if action is not taken soon, several species of lily and other meadow flowers may become extinct.  But birds are disappearing too: as some plants and shrubs that deer feast on are already endangered, hummingbirds, sparrows and warblers have disappeared from some places already.

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New Wines in Old Genes



grapes.jpg courtesy US Agricultural Research Service
Dr. Sean Myles is as interested in the pedigree of grapes as any oenophile, but he's got some rather revolutionary ideas about the grapes of the future. Dr Myles is a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University and an adjunct professor at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S.  He's been working on a US Department of Agriculture project to map the genetic diversity of cultivated and wild grapes, to determine their relationships and understand just how much diversity there is in the grape world.  Many grapes, including famous cultivars used in wine-making, are threatened by diseases and pests, and require large amounts of chemical treatment.  Dr. Myles says he's found that there's a lot of diversity to work with, which is not always the case in agricultural crops.  That means that by doing some genetically informed breeding to generate new, more robust and disease-resistant grapes, we may be able to cut the chemicals and maybe even generate new fine wines.

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Busting Galactic Dust



Planck_dust.jpg Map of excess dust in the Milky Way, ESA/Planck Collaboration
Dr. Peter Martin is an astronomical janitor of sorts.  His job is to clean up the dust in the universe. Dr. Martin is a professor of astronomy at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Toronto.  He's part of the science team for the European Space Agency's Planck Space Telescope, which is designed to get our most detailed picture yet of the Cosmic Microwave Background, the oldest radiation in the universe, sometimes known as the echo of the Big Bang. However, there is a microwave foreground in front of the CMB - radiation from tiny particles of interstellar dust that prevents astronomers from getting a clear picture. Dr. Martin has been studying the dust, partly to remove it from the CMB picture, but also to understand it better, because it has an important role in the birth and death of planets and stars..

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The Science of Kissing

science_kissing.jpg
Who doesn't remember their first kiss? For many, it is a memory they will carry with them for life. And from our first moment in our mother's arms, to our final moment as we exit this world, to the defining moment of our wedding, a kiss is often the act that accompanies our most significant events in life. But why do humans kiss? Is it a cultural artifact, or in our genes? And why do some cultures avoid it, while others embrace it? In her new book, The Science of Kissing, Sheril Kirshenbaum, a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, explores the neuroscience, anthropology, and biology of osculation - and even gives some practical tips for the perfect smooch.  

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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein, Creative Commons License by-nc-nd-2.0


Saturday January 15, 2011

* Hot Rocks Planet * Climate 3000 * Musical Brains * The Price Tag for Penguins * IceCube Neutrino Observatory * Fact or Fiction - Tea and Tooth Stains *
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Hot Rocks Planet

The Kepler Space Telescope was launched in 2009 to survey hundreds of thousands of stars, in order to find planets - ideally, ones similar to Earth.  This week, Dr. Natalie Batalha, Deputy Science Team lead for the Kepler mission, announced they'd found their first small, rocky planet.  In size, it's just a bit bigger than Earth, but there the similarities end.  It orbits more than 20 times closer to its star than Mercury does, circling the star in a "year" that lasts only about 20 hours.  And it's likely that the day-side of the planet is partially molten.  Nevertheless, finding this new planet proves that Kepler can find small planets, and they have great hopes that something a little milder will be detected soon.

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Climate 3000

saharan_dunes.jpg Sahara Desert Dunes in Algeria, copyright cc-by-sa-3.0, Bertrand Devouard ou Florence Devouard

Climate change is with us, and will be for a very long time to come, according to research led by Dr. Nathan Gillett at the Canadian Centre for Climate Modeling and Analysis of Environment Canada in Victoria.  He and his team have run their model out to the year 3000 to try to understand, under different greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, just how long higher temperatures will persist.  What they found surprised even them.  Largely because of the slow absorption and release of heat in the ocean, even after we cease emissions entirely, the new, higher temperatures persist for at least a thousand years, without showing any sign of returning to their pre-industrial norms.  They also found that, in the long term, warming tends to concentrate in the south, parching Africa and threatening the Antarctic Ice shelves.

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Musical Brains



salimpoor.jpg Part of the reward circuitry in the brain in blue and red. Courtesy Peter Finnie
Many of us have experienced getting a chill of pleasure when listening to music.  Now, research "orchestrated" by Valorie Salimpoor, a Ph.D candidate at the Montreal Neurological Institute and McGill University, has shown that this chill is, in fact, due to music directly affecting our brain chemistry.  The researchers looked at dopamine production and uptake while subjects listened to chill-inducing music.  What they saw was that there was a burst of dopamine in response to the music.  Since dopamine is the same neurotransmitter that activates the brain's reward circuitry when we eat or have sex, this suggests that the enjoyment of music might well be a deeply evolved behaviour in humans.

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The Price Tag for Penguins



penguin_bands.jpg Penguin wearing a metal armband on its flipper. Credit: Benoît Gineste
A ten-year study, led by researchers at the University of Strasbourg, has concluded that banding penguins for the purpose of identification and monitoring is not good for their health and survival.  They found that banded king penguins living on Possession Island produced fewer chicks and had a much lower survival rate than those not banded.  Dr. Rory Wilson, Head of the Institute of Environmental Sustainability and a Professor of Aquatic Biology at Swansea University in Wales, wrote the commentary that accompanied the study in Nature. He says even though the bands do not appear to be intrusive, they have a negative effect of the penguin's hydrodynamic ability; there is a greater energy cost due to the extra drag in the water.  These findings mean that the era of banding penguins for research purposes has likely come to an end.  It also means previous studies involving banded penguins need to be re-evaluated.

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IceCube Neutrino Observatory

icehole.jpgSensor descends down a hole in the ice, Credit: NSF/B. Gudbjartsson
After a decade of planning, testing and construction, the world's largest neutrino detector is now complete.  It is called the IceCube Neutrino Observatory and it comprises a one-cubic-kilometre section of ice on the Antarctic plateau at the South Pole.  In a total of 86 holes drilled deep into the ice, IceCube's more than 5,000 sensors record the rare collisions of neutrinos - high-energy sub-atomic particles - with water molecules.  IceCube began collecting data before it was complete and, in less than a year, has already observed nearly 20-thousand such collisions.  One of many international scientists working on IceCube is Dr. Darren Grant from the Department of Physics at the University of Alberta.  He's hoping to find evidence of dark matter in the observatory as well.  

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Fact or Fiction - Tea and Teeth Stains

This is another episode of our occasional feature, Science Fact or Science Fiction. From time to time, we present a commonly held idea or popular saying - and ask a Canadian scientist to set us straight on whether we should believe it or not. 

Today's popular belief comes from listener Carol Witt in Scarborough, Ontario, who says: "Tea will stain your teeth, but adding milk will help reduce staining".  To help us clear up this matter, we contacted Dr. Ava Chow, an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. She says it is science fact - in theory.

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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein, Creative Commons License by-nc-nd-2.0