Science & Technology

2 + 2 = 4

Your job is literally 'killing' you

© John Taggart/Bloomberg News
The Empire State Building stands past the silhouette of a construction worker at 10 Hudson Yards in New York this month.
People often like to groan about how their job is "killing" them. Tragically, for some groups of people in the U.S., that statement appears to be true.

A new study by researchers at Harvard and Stanford has quantified just how much a stressful workplace may be shaving off of Americans' life spans. It suggests that the amount of life lost to stress varies significantly for people of different races, educational levels and genders, and ranges up to nearly three years of life lost for some groups.

Comment: Your stressful job may kill you -- especially if you're a woman


Ancient brains turn paleontology on its head

Strongest evidence yet that it's possible for brains to fossilize and, in fact, a set of 520-million-year-old arthropod brains have done just that

© Strausfeld et al. and Current Biology
A: Under a light microscope, the above fossil shows traces of preserved neural tissues in black. B: An elemental scan of this fossil uncovered that carbon (in pink) and iron (in green) do not overlap in the preserved neural tissue.
Science has long dictated that brains don't fossilize, so when Nicholas Strausfeld co-authored the first ever report of a fossilized brain in a 2012 edition of Nature, it was met with "a lot of flack."

"It was questioned by many paleontologists, who thought -- and in fact some claimed in print -- that maybe it was just an artifact or a one-off, implausible fossilization event," said Strausfeld, a Regents' professor in UA's Department of Neuroscience.

His latest paper in Current Biology addresses these doubts head-on, with definitive evidence that, indeed, brains do fossilize.

In the paper, Strausfeld and his collaborators, including Xiaoya Ma of Yunnan Key Laboratory for Palaeobiology at China's Yunnan University and Gregory Edgecombe of the Natural History Museum in London, analyze seven newly discovered fossils of the same species to find, in each, traces of what was undoubtedly a brain.


Complex grammar of the genomic language

© Ulf Sirborn
Researchers Arttu Jolma and Jussi Taipale in the lab at the Department of Biosciences and Nutrition, Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.
A new study from Sweden's Karolinska Institutet shows that the 'grammar' of the human genetic code is more complex than that of even the most intricately constructed spoken languages in the world. The findings, published in the journal Nature, explain why the human genome is so difficult to decipher -- and contribute to the further understanding of how genetic differences affect the risk of developing diseases on an individual level.

"The genome contains all the information needed to build and maintain an organism, but it also holds the details of an individual's risk of developing common diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer," says study lead-author Arttu Jolma, doctoral student at the Department of Biosciences and Nutrition. "If we can improve our ability to read and understand the human genome, we will also be able to make better use of the rapidly accumulating genomic information on a large number of diseases for medical benefits."

The sequencing of the human genome in the year 2000 revealed how the 3 billion letters of A, C, G and T, that the human genome consists of, are ordered. However, knowing just the order of the letters is not sufficient for translating the genomic discoveries into medical benefits; one also needs to understand what the sequences of letters mean. In other words, it is necessary to identify the 'words' and the 'grammar' of the language of the genome.


No surprise: Study shows Corexit dispersant not helpful in degrading Deepwater Horizon oil slick

© Todd Dickey/University of Georgia
Samantha Joye, a professor of marine sciences in the University of Georgia Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, studies the oil plumes generated by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout.
The chemical sprayed on the 2010 BP oil spill may not have helped crucial petroleum-munching microbes get rid of the slick, a new study suggests.

And that leads to more questions about where much of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill went. If the new results are true, up to half the oil can't be accounted for, said the author of a new study on the spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

After the 172 million gallon (650 million liter) spill, the chemical dispersant Corexit 9500 was applied by airplane on the slick to help it go away and help natural microbes in the water eat the oil faster. The oil appeared to dissipate, but scientists and government officials didn't really monitor the microbes and chemicals, said University of Georgia marine scientist Samantha Joye.

So Joye and colleagues recreated the application in a lab, with the dispersant, BP oil and water from the gulf, and found that it didn't help the microbes at all and even hurt one key oil-munching bug, according to a study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Comment: The government's consent to BP's use of Corexit has caused long-term human and ecological tragedies that may be worse than the original spill. Millions of gallons of the dispersant were used to 'disappear' the gushing oil in the Macondo Prospect. Disappearing the oil actually meant sinking it, after micronizing it, so that both BP and the US Federal Government could be 'applauded' for a successful response. However, the known health risks/dangers and environmental damage caused by Corexit became so well publicized that it has now been banned in those countries which have learned from the BP fiasco.


Most powerful explosion since Big Bang detected

© NASA/CXC/Univ. of Waterloo/A.Vantyghem/STScI/NRAO/VLA
This combined X-ray, radio and visible light image of galaxy cluster MS 0735.6+7421 shows the continuing eruption of the most powerful explosion since the big bang.
Bathed in bright blue and fluorescent pink light, the galaxy cluster in this image is home to the most powerful explosion since the big bang. What's more, the explosion is ongoing and has been continuing for the last 100 million years, releasing as much energy as hundreds of millions of gamma ray bursts.

The blast is generated by the largest black hole in the known universe, a gravitational monster over 10 billion times the mass of our sun. Astronomers calculate this behemoth has consumed almost 600 million times the mass of the sun in order to generate such a powerful explosion.

To create the image, X-ray and radio wave data was combined with optical images from the Hubble Space Telescope. The X-rays are shown in blue and were detected by NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory. They indicate the hot gas that makes up most of the mass of this enormous galaxy cluster.

Shown in pink are vast cavities each over 600,000 light-years in diameter, blasted out by powerful supersonic jets from the gargantuan galaxy at the very heart of this image. These cavities have displaced a trillion suns' worth of mass and have been filled with magnetized, extremely high-energy electrons emitting radio waves, which were detected by the Very Large Array radio telescope.

Most, if not all, galaxies are thought to contain supermassive black holes at their centers. Astronomers are still trying to determine which forms first — the black hole, or the galaxy around it.

Galaxy cluster MS 0735.6+7421 is located 2.6 billion light-years away in the constellation Camelopardalis, the Giraffe.


Pluto's surprises continue

OUT-OF-THIS-WORLD LANDSCAPE The latest data from the New Horizons mission has helped create topographical maps of Pluto (blue shows lower elevations, brown, higher elevations) that have revealed surprises such as these two possible ice volcanoes, the first of their kind in the outer solar system.
Spinning moons, possible ice volcanoes detected on dwarf planet

At this point, the only thing unsurprising about Pluto is that it continues to offer up surprises. A wide variety of landscapes, ongoing surface transformations and a family of wildly spinning moons are among the riddles reported by the New Horizons mission team November 9 at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences.

Terrains both new and old sit side-by-side on Pluto's surface. Some heavily cratered regions are roughly 4 billion years old, about as old as Pluto itself. Others, like the now famous heart, appear to have been laid down within the last 10 million years, judging by the total lack of craters.

Two mountains look strangely similar to shield volcanoes back on Earth. On Pluto, though, the volcanoes would spew ice, not rock. "There's nothing like this seen in the outer solar system," says Oliver White, a planetary scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. The mountains aren't definitely volcanoes, but researchers aren't sure what else to call them. "Whatever they are, they're definitely weird," says White.

Whirling far above Pluto, four tiny satellites — Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx — are also behaving unexpectedly (SN Online: 11/2/15). Pluto's gravity should have slammed on the brakes and slowed down their spins. But the rapidly twirling moons seem to be unfazed. Hydra, the outermost moon, whips around its axis about 89 times during each loop around Pluto and Charon. Nix, meanwhile, appears to be flipped nearly upside down while the other three tiny moons might be spinning on their sides. "This is unprecedented," says planetary scientist Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., who discovered Kerberos and Styx several years after New Horizons launched. "We've never seen anything like this before, and we still don't know what to make of it."

Published on Nov 9, 2015 Most inner moons in the solar system keep one face pointed toward their central planet; this animation shows that certainly isn't the case with the small moons of Pluto, which behave like spinning tops. Pluto is shown at center with, in order, from smaller to wider orbit: Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos, Hydra.

Comment: See also:
'New Horizon' sends back stunning images of Pluto's atmosphere, giant ice mountains
NASA probe New Horizons sends puzzling, unexpected photos from Pluto


Generate electric to power your house with a daily workout

Just imagine that you can workout for one hour at home, and that workout will generate enough power to supply your house of electricity for 24 hours. Now that is what I call great.

Comment: We have been unconscious users and wasters of electricity and water for the total period of late-modern man, with perhaps the exception of the late 1800's. A big reality check is coming.

Apple Green

Environment: A greener way to die

Are We Doing Our Worst Environmental Damage From the Grave?

Back in the early '60's Jessica Mitford wrote a shocking book — The American Way of Death — that exposed how the funeral industry took advantage of the aggrieved with expensive and unnecessary burial practices. Now we are learning that this $15 billion-a-year business is also unsustainable — and highly destructive to the environment.
Consider this: the millions of gallons of toxic embalming fluid used to pretty up and "preserve" corpses eventually find their way into the ground, contaminating soil and water resources. And the iron, lead, copper, zinc, and cobalt used in caskets and vaults also contaminate the soil. Even cremation isn't nearly as clean as you might think. Crematories release by-products from embalming fluid, dental fillings, surgical devices, etc.
Eco cemetery offers natural burials.
Enter the "Green Burial" movement that advocates burying a body, without embalming, in a biodegradable container that allows direct immersion into the earth — and the body returns to the land and to the cycle of life.

Suzanne Kelly, PhD — author of Greening Death: Reclaiming Burial Practices and Restoring Our Tie to the Earth, (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, September 2015) — has been a chief advocate for this practice. Kelly's work, which she discusses in this podcast with Jeff Schechtman, is beginning to have an impact. She says that today families are starting to push back on non-sustainable practices.

"Death is understood to be a path to environmental protection," says Kelly. "The Green burial offers us the possibility of restoring our lost relationship to the land."

Comment: When ya gotta go...go green! "Dust to dust"...what kind matters!


Data from surveyor Rover Spirit indicates acid 'fog" eroding Martian rocks

© Greg Shirah / Reuters
The planet Mars showing showing Terra Meridiani is seen in an undated NASA image.
Scientists believe they have figured out why rocks on Mars are eroding. They say an acidic fog created by volcanic eruptions on the red planet is the probable culprit.

Planetary scientist Shoshanna Cole came up with the theory after studying a 100-acre area on Husband Hill in the Columbia Hills of the Gusev Crater on Mars using data gathered by a number of instruments on the 2003 Mars Exploration Rover Spirit.

She found that acidic vapors released by eruptions may have been responsible for eating away rocks on the Watchtower Class outcrops on the Cumberland Ridge and Husband Hill summit.

"The special thing about Watchtower Class is that it's very widespread and we see it in different locations. As far as we can tell, it is part of the ground there," which means that these rocks record environments that existed on Mars billions of years ago, Cole said in a press release submitted by the Geological Society of America.


Climatologists create atlas showing a millennium of droughts and downpours

© Wikimedia commons
Queen Mary's Psalter shows men harvesting in 14th century Europe.
The new Old World Drought Atlas of droughts and wet weather in the Old World gives climate scientists greater perspective on current weather phenomenon.

Climate scientists have produced an atlas reconstructing weather conditions over the last millennium, in an effort to understand more about current changes to the weather.

They hope their Old World Drought Atlas (OWDA) will allow for a greater understanding of climate forecasts.

"Climate model projections suggest widespread drying in the Mediterranean Basin and wetting in Fennoscandia in the coming decades largely as a consequence of greenhouse gas forcing of climate," write the scientists in their paper, published in Science Advances on Friday.