* Homo Mysterious * The Space Chronicles * Mercurial Mercury * It's a Bird, it's a Plane, it's ... Plankton??? * Fact or Fiction - Falling Penny *

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Homo Mysterious
red_deer_cave_man.jpg Artist's reconstruction of Red Deer Cave person.  Illustration courtesy Peter Schouten

There have been a lot of branches on the human family tree, including Neanderthals, Homo erectus, and many more.  Today, however, only one remains.  So, the discovery of what may be a new relative - and one that lived fairly recently - could have a significant impact on our understanding of human history and evolution.  Dr. Darren Curnoe, an anthropologist from the University of New South Wales, and his colleagues have reconstructed this human relative, based on fossils found in two caves in Southwestern China.  The creature they described is, in many ways, similar to modern humans, but with a more robust skull, a wider face, and large chewing muscles.  Dr. Curnoe suspects it may be a new human species, or a hybrid between modern humans and a more primitive form.
          
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The Space Chronicles

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Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is, perhaps, the best known astrophysicist in the world, and has become the face of space.  Dr. Tyson's day job is the director of the Hayden Planetarium, but he's also a frequent guest on TV talk shows, on PBS science programs, and will present a new version of the famous Cosmos program, originally hosted by Carl Sagan, in 2013.  Dr. Tyson is also a prolific writer, and in his latest book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, he makes the case for a new age of space exploration.  He's convinced that doubling NASA's budget and reviving the dream of human space exploration will stimulate brilliant minds, drive innovation, and lead us to an ambitious new future.                

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Mercurial Mercury

mercury_colour.jpgImage: NASA/JHUAPL/CIW-DTM/GSFC/MIT/Brown Univ/; Rendering by James Dickson
Mercury, the samllest and most sunburned of the planets, has not really attracted all that much detailed study from planetary scientists.  For one thing, it's been hard to study.  Missions to Mercury have to cope with the same burning heat and radiation that scorch the surface of the planet.  But more than that, many scientists had assumed that Mercury was simply uninteresting - geologically dead for billions of years.  Well, now that we're getting a close look at Mercury with NASA's Messenger mission, that seems not to be the case.  Dr. Maria Zuber, a geophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a co-investigator on the Messenger mission, and her colleagues reported this week at the Lunar and Planetary Conference in Texas, that Mercury shows signs of geological life, including massive uplifts of the surface that conventional geology can't easily explain.  

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It's a Bird, it's a Plane, it's ... Plankton???


The upper layer of ocean, just millimetres below the surface, is known as the neuston.  It is home to many different types of plankton, including bacteria, algae, and one of the most common, copepods.  Unlike their transparent relatives who live at greater depths, these 3mm long copepods are slightly larger and are blue or green in colour.  The colour protects them from harmful UV, but it also makes them visible to predator fish.  A new study by Canadian scientist Dr. Brad Gemmell, from the Marine Science Institution at the University of Texas in Austin, has found that these copepods have adapted an amazing survival strategy.    By moving their 5 pairs of appendages sequentially, they generate enough power and speed to break through the surface tension of the water and launch themselves into the air.  With a single jump, the copepod can travel 30 times its body length through the air, compared to an escape route of only 2 or 3 body lengths in the much more viscous water.  This enables the copepod to jump to the safety of an area clear of its predator's field of vision.   

Related Links
  • Paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B
  • Not Exactly Rocket Science blog
  • Science Now story
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Science Fact or Science Fiction: Falling Penny

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 statement:  When a penny is dropped from a tall building, it can kill a pedestrian below.  To get to the truth, we contacted Dr. Peter Sutherland, a Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at McMaster University in Hamilton. He says it is science fiction.

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