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Scrawny Wonderpus Puts Stranglehold on Mightier Mimic Octopus

Scientific American News - Fri, 07/25/2014 - 07:47
Earlier this week, we learned that female octopuses sometimes strangle—and then possibly eat—their male mates. For a cannibalistic animal with long arms, perhaps we—and the...

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Lucy Film Hinges on Brain Capacity Myth

Scientific American News - Fri, 07/25/2014 - 07:28
On July 25, French film writer/director Luc Besson's action thriller Lucy opens in theaters nationwide. The premise is that the title character, played by Scarlett Johansson, is exposed to a drug...

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Leonardo da Vinci, Neuroscientist

Scientific American News - Fri, 07/25/2014 - 06:00
Creativity may be defined as productivity marked by originality. Leonardo's studies of the brain were as creative as his art

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Prescription Refill Appearance Change Puts Patients off Meds

Scientific American News - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 19:10
When refilled prescriptions for post–heart attack care resulted in the same medication looking different in shape or color, patients were significantly more likely to stop taking their meds....

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Heparin Does Not Reduce Pregnancy Complications, and May Create Some

Scientific American News - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 17:30
A commonly used blood thinner does not appear to lower the risk of blood clots or miscarriage during pregnancy

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Most Dinosaurs May Have Sported Birdlike Feathers

Scientific American News - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 16:33
Evidence of featherlike structures have been found for the first time in the fossil of a plant-eating dinosaur rather than the dinosaur lineage closely related to birds

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Somali Ostrich and 360 Other Newly Discovered Birds Added to List of Threatened Species

Scientific American News - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 16:29
Did you know there are two species of ostrich? Don’t worry if this is news to you—scientists didn’t know that for sure either until this year, when the Somali ostrich (Struthio...

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Game of Drones

Popular Science News - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 16:02

Illustrations by Studio MUTI

Most pilots enjoy keeping their drones airborne. Marque Cornblatt, who studied digital art before turning to robotics, has different pleasure centers in his brain. “Crash your drone,” he says. “Get your hands dirty fixing that thing. Come up with solutions to keep it flying.”

This crash-and-rebuild philosophy came out of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) battles between Cornblatt and his friends. The duels were so much fun that they launched a group called Flight Club and the YouTube series Game of Drones. The show chronicles UAV dogfights, the building of unique battle drones—such as a paintball-shooting hexacopter—and abusive tests of a supersturdy airframe designed by Cornblatt and a buddy. (So far, it has survived flights through water, fire, and glass windows, drops from hundreds of feet, and even shotgun blasts.)

Cornblatt and his crew of daredevil drone pilots hope to grow their back-lot battles into a safe and watchable sport. To that end, they formed the Aerial Action Sports League, which borrows from the following Flight Club rules. Heed them if you dare.

The Rules

“If it flies, it fights.” Anyone who brings a UAV to Flight Club must enter it in combat. There are no rules for what a pilot can attach to it. 
“Knock the other guy to the ground.” After a crash, the grounded drone’s operator has some time—at least until the crowd gets antsy—to patch it up and get it working. 
“Two drones enter, one drone leaves.” The battle ends when one combatant has sustained too much damage to be revived. 

This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Popular Science.

A Call for Easy Access to More Contraception

Scientific American News - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 16:00
Innovative and existing methods are needed to tackle global overpopulation, experts say

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A Call for Easy Access to More Contraception and Choices

Scientific American News - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 16:00
Innovative and existing methods are needed to tackle global overpopulation, experts say

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Alternative Fusion Technologies Heat Up

Scientific American News - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 15:23
Start-ups in fusion-energy research are fueled by venture capital and a lot of hope

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"Unacceptably Low" Number of Teens Receives HPV Vaccine

Scientific American News - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 15:05
CDC officials say doctors clearly miss opportunities to vaccinate teens at the same time that other standard immunizations are administered

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Instant Genius after Head Trauma [Video]

Scientific American News - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 13:00
Savantism can be acquired after a stroke or a blow to the head. A leading expert explains the various forms of the condition

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Happy Birthday, Chandra X-Ray Observatory

Popular Science News - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 12:45

Supernova Remnant G292.0+1.8 One of four new images from Chandra. NASA/CXC/SAO

The Space Shuttle Columbia carried the Chandra X-ray Observatory into space on July 23, 1999. To commemorate the telescope's quinceañera, NASA has released four beautiful new images of supernova remnants, processed from Chandra's readings, that showcase the observatory's capabilities.

One of the agency's "Great Observatories" along with the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, Chandra does not take photographs, but rather makes detects X-ray emissions from "hot and energetic" areas of the universe, which can be rendered into images. The rig is named in honor of Nobel laureate astrophysicist Subrahmanyan "Chandra" Chandrasekhar (1910-1995). Since "chandra" also means both "moon" and "shining" in Sanskrit, the name seems especially appropriate.

NASA held an online hangout-birthday party on July 22 – which you can watch here – with Chandra scientists Steve O'Dell, Harvey Tananbaum, Julie Hlavacek-Larrondo and Scott Wolk. They chatted with the public about highlights of the mission and showed off amazing Chandra images.

View the gallery here.

Concerns Grow over Damage to Wheat Crop Quality

Scientific American News - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 12:31
Europe is heading toward a large wheat harvest this year but concerns are mounting that much of it could only be fit to feed animals after heavy rain earlier this month. Damage levels are unclear for...

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Leishmania Parasite: Deadly For Humans, But Good For Flies?

Popular Science News - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 11:22

This is a sand fly, an insect which spreads leishmaniasis. Rod Dillon

No human would be inclined to think favorably of leishmaniasis, caused by a parasite spread by sand flies, which infects about 12 million people worldwide and kills 20,000 to 30,000 per year

Leishmaniasis comes in two basic forms, cutaneous and visceral. The second is more serious, attacking the internal organs, and can lead to death if it's not treated. But cutaneous leishmaniasis is more visible, causing large (and egregious, unsightly) skin sores and lesion that can leave behind nasty scars. The cutaneous variety can also spread to the body's mucous membranes, creating sores in the sinuses and mouth--which can end up destroying them. Leishmaniasis is found in 90 countries, mostly in the tropics, from Latin America to Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. "Collectively the leishmaniases present a major global health problem, and are the second biggest parasitic killers worldwide after Malaria," Owens said. 

But it turns out that this "parasite" may actually be beneficial for the flies that carry it, by helping them to fight off infection from a different type of pathogen, new research shows.

It was previously known that various species of the Leishmania protozoa can shorten the lifespan of sand flies, especially if they are stressed (hey, flies get stressed too)--but according to the new study, published in the journal Parasites and Vectors, nobody had looked to see if the microbe might have beneficial effects for the insect. But that's just what a team of Brazilian and British researchers has done. When they exposed sand flies to a form of Leishmania protozoa found throughout Latin America, then exposed the insects to pathogenic bacteria, many more of the protozoa-carrying flies survived. In fact, at least five times more of the Leishmania-carrying flies lived after exposure to the bacterium (known as Serratia marcescens), compared to flies free of the protozoa.

The Leishmania parasite "works as a kind of probiotic and reduces the mortality of the fly," said study co-author Rod Dillon, a researcher at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. 

"This is very interesting, as it is suggestive that similar mechanisms are operating here in the sandfly, as occurs in humans--i.e. that the ['good'] bacteria that inhabit your gut can protect you from pathogenic bacteria," said Ben Owens, an immunologist at the University of Oxford, who wasn't involved in the study. But in this case the Leishmania "is acting as a 'good' bug.'"

There are other instances of "parasites" having some beneficial effects for their hosts. For example, some helminths, or worms, can help regulate the immune system of animals that carry them, Owens told Popular Science. In fact, various helminths have potential to treat human autoimmune and gastrointestinal disorders like ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease.

But not everybody is convinced. “I think it is really a stretch to say that the parasite has evolved to provide this protection,” George Dimopoulos, a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore told The Scientist. “It’s more likely that Leishmania, as with all parasites that are transmitted by vectors, will turn on the sand fly’s immune system, which in turn is going to provide some level of protection against any other type of microorganism.” He added: “It’s not something that is necessarily specific to [Leishmania]."

The team had originally been looking to see whether they might be able to halt the spread of leishmaniasis by exposing sand flies to bacteria (to kill the flies, but perhaps also make the flies less likely to carry the protozoa). But exposing the flies to this bacterium, could ironically do quite the opposite. "Sand flies not carrying Leishmania may succumb more rapidly to the biological control agent and this would lead to the development of a wild sand fly population containing an increased proportion of the surviving flies carrying the human disease", the authors wrote. A scary thought.

There is no vaccine for leishmaniasis, and it can be difficult to treat--the standard therapy to date usually involves injecting patients with an antimony-containing compound that can have bad side effects. But for sand flies, Leishmania is not the horror it is for humans. 

An Animated Avatar Could Screen Humans For National Security

Popular Science News - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 10:45

The Avatar Tested for National Security Interviews NCAA

When the paperwork at your doctor's office asks you how much alcohol you drink, do you write down the truth? Would you be more likely to tell the truth if an animated head interviewed you instead? One team of U.S. military psychologists is betting you would.

In a new study, researchers from the U.S. National Center for Credibility Assessment have determined folks are more likely to say more about their alcohol use and mental health history to an avatar on a computer screen than on a questionnaire, Vice's Motherboard reports. People's responses to questions about drug use and criminal history were about the same on questionnaires as to the avatar.

The NCCA software works with a decision tree that tells it what to say in response to people's answers, Motherboard explains. Its success with getting people to tell the truth has prompted the center to recommend avatars replace human interviewers during a preliminary step in earning national security clearance. The avatars would save the U.S. government time and money, the study authors write.

This isn't the first time scientists have thought of using computer-graphic heads to interview people, although it's the first I've heard of such interviews in connection with national security. Other researchers have focused on making software that screens people for depression. The software uses avatars to ask people questions and algorithms to analyze people's verbal and non-verbal cues while they're answering. From Motherboard's report, it's not clear to what extent the National Center for Credibility Assessment's software is able to analyze interviewees' non-verbal reactions… if it can't yet, that would surely be a powerful thing to add.

[Vice Motherboard]

Why DARPA Wants An Experimental Spaceplane

Popular Science News - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 09:59

Artist's Concept for an Experimental Spaceplane DARPA

So DARPA wants a reusable spaceplane. I mean, who doesn't? For decades, space experts have tried to design quick-turnover, reusable launch systems. So far, however, no one has made one that works. "There really isn't any kind of vehicle today that does exactly what they're asking people to do," Micah Walter-Range, director of research and analysis at the Space Foundation, tells Popular Science. "You can certainly compare it to existing vehicles, but it seems to be a new class." 

Here's how the dream goes: Our fictional rocket would blast off at hypersonic speeds. Once it reached the right altitude, it would release any upper stages (and payload) it might have. Then it would turn back toward the Earth and land gently someplace where engineers would be able to fetch it, polish it up, and stick it back on the launch pad. Theoretically, reusable rockets should cut the costs of launches enough to open up space to more groups, such as students and startups, and ease NASA's financial burdens.

It'd be like having a jumbo jet for getting to space. Just load, unload, and repeat.

A few different groups have been working toward this goal recently. Last week, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced it awarded three teams contracts to make initial designs for just such a reusable small-satellite shuttle. One team is led by the Boeing Company, working with Blue Origin; Masten Space Systems, working with XCOR Aerospace, leads another; and Northrop Grumman Corporation, working with Virgin Galactic, make up the last. Meanwhile, SpaceX announced yesterday it completed a successful test on its way to making a reusable Falcon 9 rocket.

"There really isn't any kind of vehicle today that does exactly what they're asking people to do."

DARPA calls its version of this project Experimental Spaceplane 1, or XS-1. What the agency wants for XS-1 is unique. The craft should launch 3,000-pound to 5,000-pound unmanned payloads to low-Earth orbit for less than $5 million per flight. The whole launch process needs to be streamlined, too: DARPA wants to see 10 flights in 10 days.

For one thing, humans have never made launch vehicles with reusable rockets. Reusable passenger spaceships, like the vehicles Virgin Galactic is developing, are supposed to reach suborbital altitudes, not low-Earth orbit. NASA's Space Shuttles were reusable, but required days of refurbishing in between flights. Even among the one-time-use satellite launchers available today, none have quite the carrying capacity or price of Experimental Spaceplane 1. For example, Orbital Sciences' Pegasus XL carries just 1,000 pounds and costs an estimated $30 million to $40 million for a low-Earth-orbit flight. SpaceX's (current, non-reusable) Falcon 9 carries about 20,000 pounds, at a cost of $54 million per flight.

Cheaper launches would mean more people could send more stuff to space. DARPA hopes the XS-1, once launched, will serve the students and startups that build small, affordable cubesats, says Alan Wilhite, an aerospace engineering professor at Georgia Tech who previously worked on reusable shuttles at NASA.

"This is a DARPA-hard kind of problem."

In addition, a vehicle that could launch quickly could be helpful for military objectives. "Let's say you're planning a raid to find the next Osama bin Laden, something like that, and due to the timing of it, you don't have a satellite in the right place," Walter-Range says. "You have a small satellite on the ground and you just need to get it up tomorrow."

Right now, you would need to schedule a flight like that years in advance. With the XS-1's more frequent flying schedule, however, "you would just bump the next payload, put your satellite on there, and off you go," Wilhite says.

So why has nobody been able to make an XS-1 before? Different experts cited different reasons. Wilhite, who headed the Vehicle Analysis Branch at NASA Langley in the 1980s, points to technologies, such as hypersonic vehicles, that didn't previously exist. Getting an aircraft that's just rocketed up to the edge of space to come back down again—Gently! No crashes that would render the rocket unusable—is another tough problem.

Mitchell Walker, also an aerospace engineer at Georgia Tech, thinks XS-1's toughest hurdles would happen between its back-to-back flights. Once its reusable first stage reaches the ground, engineers would have make sure it's good to go again within 24 hours. "Anybody can get the engine back," Walker says. "The question is, can you convince yourself that it's okay to put your next multi-million-dollar asset on top of it?"

Extensive between-flights safety testing and refurbishing is why the Space Shuttle wouldn't fulfill DARPA's 10-flights-in-10-days requirement. Testing also added significantly to the Space Shuttle's costs.

Of course, the Space Shuttles carried astronauts, a load more precious than any multi-million-dollar NASA project. XS-1 would not only carry unmanned satellites, its 5,000-pound limit means those satellites would be small and likely not too expensive. No James Webb Space Telescopes here. So XS-1's customers might be satisfied with fewer, shorter safety checks, if that meant cheaper, more frequent flights.

Engineering-wise, there are a lot of variables to balance in the XS-1. "It's a really neat problem because it's got a lot of dynamics. Where are you hauling? What are you hauling?" Walker says. "This is a DARPA-hard kind of problem."

12 delightful resources for word nerds everywhere

Scientific American News - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 09:00
My recent post about specialized dictionaries got me thinking about the fun books and sites I have encountered about words and language. I thought I would share a slightly off-topic post about my...

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What Makes Ice Melt Fastest?

Scientific American News - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 09:00
A chemistry challenge from Science Buddies

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