Geckos, Chameleons Preserved in Amber

amber fossils photoA dozen geckos and chameleons have been discovered perfectly preserved in amber from the Cretaceous period:

The lizards, discovered in private amber collections on loan to the American Museum of Natural History and Harvard University, are immaculate and unusually diverse. As such they suggest that major lizard groups were already established at that time. The specimens will now go on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Photo by Ervins Strauhmanis

Soccer Star Brandi Chastain to Donate Brain to Science

Hoping to help scientists better understand the effects of repeated head trauma, US soccer star Brandi Chastain has stated she will donate her brain to science.

“Hopefully, what can be learned is, can doctors and scientists and neuroscientists look at the brain of someone like me, who has been playing soccer a majority of my life, and really dissect the brain and say, ‘Here’s where we see it beginning?’ Could we then use that information to help say that before the age of 14, it’s not a good idea to head the ball?'” Chastain told USA Today.


Volcanic Explosion Tilted Mars

Billions of years ago, a volcanic explosion occurred on Mars which was so massive it actually tilted the planet:

That volcano—the Tharsis volcanic dome—is 96.3 miles by 77.7 miles. When it exploded all those years ago, it disrupted the mantle and crust of the planet (though not the rest of the interior), shifting the whole outside crust up 25 degrees. When the volcano exploded, it did so with a mass of a “billion billion” metric tons of matter, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 metric tons.

This explosion may have also lead ultimately to the liquid water which is now evidenced on the planet’s surface.

A Possible Fourth Neutrino

To understand this potential discovery, we must first look at the basics of neutrinos as we currently understand them. There are currently 3 known neutrinos: ve, vµ, and vτ. These neutrinos each relate to a charged particle: electron (e), muon (µ), and tau (τ) respectively.

IceTop Tanks sit on the Antarctic surface (IceTop) to detect cosmic ray showers and other atmospheric phenomena.
Photo by: D. Hubert/NSF

Neutrinos are the smallest bits of matter we currently know. They are bits of matter which only react to gravity and the weak nuclear force. Because of this, they travel extreme distances and through pretty much all matter with very little interaction.

Very recently, we have had experimental anomolies which hint of a 4th type of neutrino:

In tunnels deep inside a granite mountain at Daya Bay, a nuclear reactor facility some 55 kilometers from Hong Kong, sensitive detectors are hinting at the existence of a new form of neutrino, one of nature’s most ghostly and abundant elementary particles.

This serendipitous discovery (well, not technically a discovery, due to the probabilities involved although other experiments have seen similar results) came about when scientists saw fewer antineutrinos than expected in the output of a nuclear reactor. Along with this, there is potentially new physics to be worked out to explain the excess of electron antineutrinos at an energy of around 5 million electron volts.

Exciting times!

On the Skill of Balancing while Riding a Bicycle

For something a little more light-hearted and fun, we will take time to look at the skill of riding a bicycle. Or rather, we will look at research done by others who have looked at the skill of balancing while riding a bicycle:

Humans have ridden bicycles for over 200 years, yet there are no continuous measures of how skill differs between novice and expert. To address this knowledge gap, we measured the dynamics of human bicycle riding in 14 subjects, half of whom were skilled and half were novice. Each subject rode an instrumented bicycle on training rollers at speeds ranging from 1 to 7 m/s. Steer angle and rate, steer torque, bicycle speed, and bicycle roll angle and rate were measured and steering power calculated.

This article discusses the methodology behind the study, the protocol and instruments used, and provides the math involved in the process of riding and balancing. Steering, leaning, and the differences between riders and non-riders are all examined.

More on Scott Kelly

Scott Kelly is two inches taller than when he left earth a year ago. That is all.

NASA scientists already knew that Kelly would walk a little taller when he emerged from the Soyuz capsule. But he’ll have changed in other, less obvious ways, too, and that’s the whole point of his record-breaking mission. Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko spent 342 days on the space station to help scientists measure the effects of long-term spaceflight on the human body.

OK, so I lied. That’s not all. One of the purposes of the trip was, as noted above, to study the effect of long-term spaceflight. Kelly’s twin brother submitted himself to the same battery of tests to help us better understand what happens to a person in space versus staying on earth.

The hope is that scientists can come up with a plan for protecting the men and women who might eventually journey to Mars. It’s likely that the flight to our closest neighboring world will take about nine months each way. Once a crew touches down on the sandy surface, NASA will want them to stay awhile. After all, it would be a shame to spend 18 months in a tin can for a day or two on the surface of a new planet. So it seems likely that the first Mars mission will be a multi-year commitment.

Hubble Discovers Most Distant Galaxy Yet

Galaxy gn-z11 photo
Galaxy GN-z11

First launched on April 24, 1990, the Hubble Telescope has been a boon to astronomers for decades now.

hubble photoAnd still today, we are learning new things about our universe thanks to Hubble. hubble photoNews today published on reveals that Hubble has now seen a galaxy that formed around 400 million years after the Big Bang. This is remarkable for showing us the distance Hubble is capable of resolving:

“Our spectroscopic observations reveal the galaxy to be even further away than we had originally thought, right at the distance limit of what Hubble can observe,” explains Gabriel Brammer of the Space Telescope Science Institute and second author of the study.

This puts GN-z11 at a distance that was once thought only to be reachable with the upcoming NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

The galaxy, as we can see it now in the Hubble’s photographs, is tiny compared to the size of our own Milky Way. However, it is also forming stars at a rate about 20 times what our galaxy currently does. What we’re learning from GN-z11 will likely further change our understanding of the universe’s early life:

Marijn Franx, a member of the team from the University of Leiden highlights: “The discovery of GN-z11 was a great surprise to us, as our earlier work had suggested that such bright galaxies should not exist so early in the Universe.” His colleague Ivo Labbe adds: “The discovery of GN-z11 showed us that our knowledge about the early Universe is still very restricted. How GN-z11 was created remains somewhat of a mystery for now. Probably we are seeing the first generations of stars forming around black holes?”

Photo by NASA on The Commons

Photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Mysterious Fast Radio Bursts

Arecibo photoRecently, scientists have seen fast radio bursts coming from the same direction as one spotted in 2012. Initially announced in 2007, fast radio bursts are “millisecond chirps of radio waves pinging through the heavens” which were never seen in the same place before.

While some published research says we’ve solved the mystery of these fast radio bursts, others are not so sure:

Ultimately, astronomers need to make more measurements of these fleeting signals to figure out the puzzle. Arecibo is the most sensitive radio telescope in the world, which could be why it is the only one to have picked up repeated FRBs.

Whatever these mysterious bursts are, we have at least identified a patch of sky where they have repeated a fair number of times, and this tells us that the cause of the bursts isn’t destroyed in the process of making them.

“The fact it repeats rules out—for this object anyway—any of the models that are just one-offs, whether they involve mergers or evaporating black holes or something else,” says study co-author James Cordes, an astronomer at Cornell University. Instead, Cordes says, the more probable culprit is some sort of powerful outburst from a rotating neutron star.

The trouble is, no neutron stars have ever been seen behaving quite as strangely as the one Cordes guesses might be behind these FRBs

Photo by matt.terich

Science Books in Six Words

From American Scientist magazine comes coverage of the Twitter hashtag #SciBooksIn6. A couple of highlights:

“Investigating extraterrestrial geology, many meteorites needed.” —Nicole Lunning

35 Seasons of U.S. Antarctic Meteorites (1976-2010): A Pictorial Guide to the Collection, eds. Kevin Righter, Catherine Corrigan, Timothy McCoy, and Ralph Harvey

“Chemistry plus recipes: Explore savory taste.”—Sandra J. Ackerman

Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste, by Ole G. Mouritsen and Klavs Styrbæk