Science & Technology


Uncovering The Truth Behind The Largest Marsupial To Walk The Earth

University of Queensland research is uncovering the truth behind the largest marsupial ever to walk the earth - the 2.5 tonne wombat-like Diprotodon.

©University of Queensland
Dr Price.

Standing 1.8 metres tall and reaching up to 3.5 metres in length, this huge beast lived more than 100,000 years ago, and despite being one of the most celebrated examples of Australia's Pleistocene "megafauna", there is very little known about them.

That is about to change thanks to work by Dr Gilbert Price, from UQ's Centre for Microscopy & Microanalysis, who has turned conventional wisdom on its head by discovering there was only one species of the massive animal.


Sea's Ebb And Flow Drive World's Big Extinction Events

If you are curious about Earth's periodic mass extinction events such as the sudden demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, you might consider crashing asteroids and sky-darkening super volcanoes as culprits.

But a new study, published online June 15, 2008 in the journal Nature, suggests that it is the ocean, and in particular the epic ebbs and flows of sea level and sediment over the course of geologic time, that is the primary cause of the world's periodic mass extinctions during the past 500[sc1] million years.

©Michele Hogan
New research suggests that it is the ocean, and in particular the epic ebbs and flows of sea level and sediment over the course of geologic time, that is the primary cause of the world's periodic mass extinctions during the past 500 million years.

"The expansions and contractions of those environments have pretty profound effects on life on Earth," says Shanan Peters, a University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant professor of geology and geophysics and the author of the new Nature report.


Trio Of Super-Earths: Harvest Of Low-mass Exoplanets Discovered With HARPS

European astronomers have announced a remarkable breakthrough in the field of extra-solar planets. Using the HARPS instrument at the ESO La Silla Observatory, they have found a triple system of super-Earths around the star HD 40307. Moreover, looking at their entire sample studied with HARPS, the astronomers count a total of 45 candidate planets with a mass below 30 Earth masses and an orbital period shorter than 50 days. This implies that one solar-like star out of three harbours such planets.

Artist's impression of the trio of super-Earths discovered by an European team using the HARPS spectrograph on ESO's 3.6-m telescope at La Silla, Chile, after 5 years of monitoring. The three planets, having 4.2, 6.7, and 9.4 times the mass of the Earth, orbit the star HD 40307 with periods of 4.3, 9.6, and 20.4 days, respectively.


UK: Stephen Hawking warns Government over 'disastrous' science funding cuts

The "disastrous errors" that have led to £80 million of cuts in Government funding for research budgets threatens Britain's standing in the international scientific community, Stephen Hawking has warned.

Professor Hawking, Britain's highest profile scientist, has taken the unusual step of releasing correspondence accusing ministers of errors in their calculations on spending and warning that several university physics departments may be forced to close.


Children Learn Smart Behaviors Without Knowing What They Know

Young children show evidence of smart and flexible behavior early in life - even though they don't really know what they're doing, new research suggests.

In a series of experiments, scientists tested how well 4- and 5-year-olds were able to rely on different types of information to choose objects in a group. In some situations, they were asked to choose objects based on color and in some cases based on shape.


Gay brains structured like those of the opposite sex

Brain scans have provided the most compelling evidence yet that being gay or straight is a biologically fixed trait.

The scans reveal that in gay people, key structures of the brain governing emotion, mood, anxiety and aggressiveness resemble those in straight people of the opposite sex.

The differences are likely to have been forged in the womb or in early infancy, says Ivanka Savic, who conducted the study at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.

"This is the most robust measure so far of cerebral differences between homosexual and heterosexual subjects," she says.

©National Academy of Sciences, PNAS
Some physical attributes of the homosexual brain resemble those found in the opposite sex. These images show the amygdala in heterosexual men and women (labeled HeM and HeW) and homosexual and women (labeled HoM and HoW)


Coffee's Aroma Kick-starts Genes In The Brain

Drink coffee to send a wake-up call to the brain? Or just smell its rich, warm aroma? An international group of scientists is reporting some of the first evidence that simply inhaling coffee aroma alters the activity of genes in the brain.

In experiments with laboratory rats, they found that coffee aroma orchestrates the expression of more than a dozen genes and some changes in protein expressions, in ways that help reduce the stress of sleep deprivation.

Han-Seok Seo and colleagues point out that hundreds of studies have been done on the ingredients in coffee, including substances linked to beneficial health effects. "There are few studies that deal with the beneficial effects of coffee aroma," they note. "This study is the first effort to elucidate the effects of coffee bean aroma on the sleep deprivation-induced stress in the rat brain."


Oz scientists on verge of getting human cloning licences

Melbourne - Two separate researcher groups in Australia may be on the verge of obtaining the first licences to clone human embryos.

An nine-member committee set up by the National Health and Medical Research Council met in Canberra on Friday to consider applications from the two groups, the decision on which may be taken as early as this week.

The two groups-one from Monash University and the other from the Australian Stem Cell Centre-are seeking permission to create cloned human embryos using spare eggs left over from fertility treatment.


For the first time, scientists view a star's final moments

It was a dream come true for astronomers at the University of Oxford, as they witnessed for the first time the final moments of death of a massive star a blast of ultraviolet light signals.

"Astronomers have been dreaming about seeing the first light from the violent death of a star for over 30 years," Kevin Schawinksi, lead researcher of the University of Oxford, was quoted by Space.Com as saying.

"Our observations open up an entirely new avenue for studying the final stages in the lives of massive stars and the physics of supernovae." Schawinksi and his colleagues detected the ultraviolet signal of a hefty star on the verge of explosion which they detail in the June 13 issue of the journal 'Science'.

Usually when astronomers see a supernova, the star has already been destroyed. "It's very hard to tell much about precisely the kind of star that actually died there," Schawinski told SPACE.Com.


DARPA pilot-ware unflappable in wing-fling damage test

Robot aeroplanes are rapidly learning how to do pretty much anything that a human pilot can. The droid flyboys can take off, land, follow people about and even do in-flight refuelling. Plans are afoot to teach them how to do a catapult launch and arrested deck landings on aircraft carriers, too, and to fly entire strike missions on their own.

But the news today is perhaps even more remarkable. The latest ace-in-a-box tech can happily cope with large parts of its aircraft breaking off (or getting shot away by enemy forces) and yet still fly home to a safe landing.