Science & Technology


New vote for Pluto's reinstatement as a planet

Planet Pluto
Up for debate...again.
What is a planet? For generations of kids the answer was easy. A big ball of rock or gas that orbited our Sun, and there were nine of them in our solar system. But then astronomers started finding more Pluto-sized objects orbiting beyond Neptune. Then they found Jupiter-sized objects circling distant stars, first by the handful and then by the hundreds. Suddenly the answer wasn't so easy. Were all these newfound things planets?

Since the International Astronomical Union (IAU) is in charge of naming these newly discovered worlds, they tackled the question at their 2006 meeting. They tried to come up with a definition of a planet that everyone could agree on. But the astronomers couldn't agree. In the end, they voted and picked a definition that they thought would work.

The current, official definition says that a planet is a celestial body that:
  1. is in orbit around the Sun,
  2. is round or nearly round, and
  3. has "cleared the neighborhood" around its orbit.
But this definition baffled the public and classrooms around the country. For one thing, it only applied to planets in our solar system. What about all those exoplanets orbiting other stars? Are they planets? And Pluto was booted from the planet club and called a dwarf planet. Is a dwarf planet a small planet? Not according to the IAU. Even though a dwarf fruit tree is still a small fruit tree, and a dwarf hamster is still a small hamster.

Eight years later, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics decided to revisit the question of "what is a planet?" On September 18th, we hosted a debate among three leading experts in planetary science, each of whom presented their case as to what a planet is or isn't. The goal: to find a definition that the eager public audience could agree on!

Comment: After the IAU decision to downgrade Pluto by four percent of its members, most of whom are not planetary scientists, it was immediately opposed in a formal petition by hundreds of professional astronomers. Part of the issue is that the term "minor planet" is a synonym for asteroids and comets, bodies too small to be rounded by gravity. Regardless of its size, Pluto still meets much of the planetary "criteria." The recent feel-good vote was not official nor binding.

As the bumpersticker says: Honk if Pluto is still a planet...

The video of the debate and audience vote can be seen on YouTube at


"Kernel" lexicon of languages remains stable in the long run

© Stock Photo
The frequency with which we use different words changes all the time, new words are invented or fall out of use. Yet little is known about the dynamics of lexical change across languages. Researchers of Kazan Federal University in Russia and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have now studied the lexical evolution of English in comparison to Russian, German, French, Spanish and Italian using the Google Books N-Gram Corpus. They found that major societal transformations such as wars cause faster changes in word frequency distributions, whereas lexical evolution is dampened during times of stability, such as the Victorian Era.

Furthermore, the researchers found British and American English to drift apart during the first half of the 20th century, but then begin to re-converge, likely due to the mass media. Apart from these peculiarities, however, the researchers also find similar rates of change across languages at larger time scales, revealing universal trends governing lexical evolution.

The lexicon of a language reflects the world of its speakers. Accordingly, changes in the lexicon of a language reflect changes in the environment. In their current study Søren Wichmann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and his collaborators of Kazan Federal University studied the dynamics of lexical evolution over time and across languages. To this aim the researchers used the Google Books N-Gram Corpus to monitor word usage during the past five centuries. Wichmann and colleagues focused on single words, so-called 1-grams, from six different languages and looked specifically at how frequently these words were used year by year.

Scientist unveils seismo-ionospheric effects of the 'Chelyabinsk' meteorite fall

Russia meteor
© Unknown
The meteorite that hit the Russian city of Chelyabinsk on Feb. 15, 2013, was the cause of a large number of dynamic ionospheric, atmospheric and seismic phenomena. Oleg Berngardt of the Institute of Solar-Terrestrial Physics in Irkutsk, Russia, presents the properties of ionospheric irregularities elongated with the Earth's magnetic field during the first 25 minutes after the impact. The irregularities were observed by the EKB radar of Russian segment of the Super Dual Auroral Radar Network (SuperDARN), an international radar network for studying the upper atmosphere and ionosphere. "It is shown that 40 minutes before meteor fall, the EKB radar started to observe powerful scattering from irregularities elongated with the Earth magnetic field in the F-layer. Scattering was observed for 80 minutes and stopped 40 minutes after the meteorite fall," Berngardt writes in a paper.

The researcher reveals that during 9-15 minutes after the meteorite fall at ranges 400-1200 km from the explosion site, changes were observed in the spectral and amplitude characteristics of the scattered signal. The features were the sharp increase in the Doppler frequency shift of the scattered signal corresponding to the Doppler velocities of about 600 m/s and the sharp increase of the scattered signal amplitude. "This allows us to conclude that we detected the growth of small-scale ionospheric irregularities elongated with the Earth magnetic field at E-layer heights," Berngardt explains. "Joint analysis with the seismic data and numerical modeling shows that the observed effect is connected with the passage of secondary acoustic front formed by supersonic seismic ground wave from the 'Chelyabinsk' meteorite."

Blood Moon returns: 2nd total lunar eclipse of year coming up Wednesday

Lunar Moon
© AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
On Tuesday, April 15, 2014, the moon turns an orange hue during a total lunar eclipse in the sky above Phoenix.
If you missed April's total eclipse of the moon, now's your chance. But you'll need to get up early.

Wednesday morning, if the skies are clear, North Americans will have prime viewing of a full lunar eclipse, especially in the West. The full moon will be obscured by Earth's shadow in the predawn hours. The total eclipse will last an hour - until sunrise on the East Coast.

It also will be visible across Australia and much of Asia. Only Europe, Africa and the eastern tip of Brazil won't get the show.

The moon will appear orange or red, the result of sunlight scattering off Earth's atmosphere. That's why it's called a blood moon.

There'll be two full lunar eclipses again next year.

New studies point out dangers of 'talking' to car

Test Driver
© AP Photo/ via AAA Foundation
This March 6, 2014 image provided by AAA Foundation via shows a driver during the Cognitive Distraction Phase II testing in Salt Lake City.
Just because you can talk to your car doesn't mean you should. Two new studies have found that voice-activated smartphones and dashboard infotainment systems may be making the distracted-driving problem worse instead of better.

The systems let drivers do things like tune the radio, send a text message or make a phone call while keeping their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel, but many of these systems are so error-prone or complex that they require more concentration from drivers rather than less, according to studies released Tuesday by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the University of Utah.

One study examined infotainment systems in some of the most common auto brands on the road: Chevrolet, Chrysler, Ford, Hyundai and Mercedes. The second study tested the Apple iPhone's Siri voice system to navigate, send texts, make Facebook and Twitter posts and use the calendar without handling or looking at the phone. Apple and Google are working with automakers to mesh smartphones with infotainment systems so drivers can bring their apps, navigation and music files into their cars.

The voice-activated systems were graded on a distraction scale of 1 to 5, with 1 representing no distraction and 5 comparable to doing complex math problems and word memorization.

Definitive data on the global warming climate change scam

Bookmark this.

There is only one piece of US climate data which correlates with CO2 - the amount of data tampering NCDC is applying to US temperature.

  • Top scientist resigns from post - admits Global Warming is a scam

Cloud Grey

Angry, rolling cloud is first new type in 60 years

Undulatus asperatus
© Agathman, via Wikimedia Commons
Undulatus asperatus, photographed in Pocahontas, Mo., in 2008.
Undulatus asperatus isn't some obscure anatomical structure next to your peritoneum, nor is it a minor character from the movie Gladiator.

No, it's actually a type of cloud formation that weather fanciers have proposed for inclusion in the next edition of the World Meteorological Organization's "International Cloud Atlas," the ultimate reference source on the varieties of clouds.

Undulatus asperatus is Latin for "agitated waves," and it basically resembles an enormous, rumpled blanket stretched out across the sky. If accepted into the atlas, it would be the first newly designated cloud formation since 1951. Below is a strikingly beautiful video of an Undulatus asperatus formation, recorded by cloud watcher Alex Schueth over Lincoln, Neb., on July 9.

Viruses convert their DNA into liquid form to facilitate cell infection

Alex Evilevitch

Alex Evilevitch
Viruses can convert their DNA from solid to fluid form, which explains how viruses manage to eject DNA into the cells of their victims. This has been shown in two new studies carried out by Lund University in Sweden.

Both research studies are about the same discovery made for two different viruses, namely that viruses can convert their DNA to liquid form at the moment of infection. Thanks to this conversion, the virus can more easily transfer its DNA into the cells of its victim, which thus become infected. One of the studies investigated the herpes virus, which infects humans.

"Our results explain the mechanism behind herpes infection by showing how the DNA of the virus enters the cell", said Alex Evilevitch, a researcher in biochemistry and biophysics at Lund University and Carnegie Mellon University.

Arctic bacteria show long evolution in toxic mercury resistance

Arctic Bacter
© Niels Kroer
The researchers dig holes in the snowpack over sea ice to establish vertical snow profiles used for sampling of the snow at different depths.
With Mars and Europa out of reach, many scientists have turned to studying some of the Arctic and Antarctic microbes that have adapted to similarly harsh conditions on Earth.

One recent study has traced the evolutionary branches of Arctic bacterial resistance to toxic mercury - an adaptation that appears to have an ancient lineage. The results of a previous expedition to the Arctic found that up to 31 percent of bacteria retrieved from various locations and grown in lab cultures contain the mercuric reductase gene(merA), a genetic sequence that encodes an enzyme that is capable of breaking down toxic mercury into a more harmless chemical form. That's a crucial survival trait, as growing mercury emissions from human sources add to natural sources to dump more than 300 tons of the toxic contaminant in the Arctic every year. The latest research finds evidence of merA having both recent and ancient evolutionary lineages among the samples of Arctic bacteria.

"This suggests that merA has been present in the High Arctic for an extended time period, and that mercury contamination of the Arctic is not a new phenomenon," said Niels Kroer, a microbiologist and head of the Department of Environmental Science at Aarhus University in Denmark. "In other words, transport of mercury to the high Arctic by the atmosphere is a natural process predating the Industrial Revolution."

Enzymes are doing it for themselves - without water!

© Credit: University of Bristol
Optical microscopy images showing a mixture of the liquid enzyme (yellow material) with the solid substrate (black crystals) immediately after contact (left), and after incubation for 30 min at 50°C (right). The development of the yellow colouration arises from the lipase-catalysed formation the yellow product.
New research by scientists at the University of Bristol has challenged one of the key axioms in biology - that enzymes need water to function. The breakthrough could eventually lead to the development of new industrial catalysts for processing biodiesel.

Enzymes are large biological molecules that catalyse thousands of different chemical reactions that are essential for all life, from converting food into energy, to controlling how our cells replicate DNA.

Throughout this diverse range of biological environments in which enzymes perform their various roles, the only constant is an abundance of water.

However, new findings published today [6 October] in Nature Communications, show that water is not essential for enzymes to fulfil their biological role.

This discovery could pave the way for the development of new thermally robust industrial enzymes that could be utilised in harsh processing conditions, with applications ranging from detergent technologies to alternative energies via biofuel production