The view from Saturn (NASA, Discover)
On July 23rd, conditions near Saturn were just right and the Cassini probe was able to take a picture of a dim little blue dot visible under the rings – the Earth.
“But it was Earth he was seeing – even, perhaps, England, though the picture shook a little and his eyes were quickly getting tired, and he could not be certain that he was not imagining it. It was all there in that little disk – London, Athens, Jerusalem, Shakespeare. There everyone had lived and everything had happened; and there, presumably, his pack was still lying in the porch of an empty house near Sterk.”
– Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis
Star Dust (Discover, New Scientist)
We’re pretty sure that new star systems form out of clouds of dust, but the details are hazy. One theory was that, within the giant vortex that is the infant star system, smaller vortices formed, helping concentrate the dust into planets. Now, such a cosmic dust trap has actually been spotted by telescope.
Are we there yet? (Nature)
Voyager 1 has almost left the Solar System. Again. Or still. Real soon now. Not only is the edge of the Solar System not sharply marked, not only are there several different ways of marking it (which don’t line up), but the signs are fluctuating. In particular, scientists were watching ion counts, to see when Voyager left the solar wind behind. The ions were falling off properly, but now there’s been a spike.
No sex please, we’re bdelloid (Discover, ScienceNOW)
Bdelloid rotifers are microscopic animals that never have sex. The all-female species reproduce by parthenogenesis. And they’re very old. That’s the puzzle. Sexless animal species don’t usually last long, it’s thought because they don’t have enough genetic variety from constantly reshuffling their genes. It now appears the bdelloids have their own system of shuffling, involving turning genes on and off, and borrowing them from other species. I hope it’s more fun than it sounds.
Dogs can not only copy what they see humans do (a rare ability among animals), they can do it as much as ten minutes after they see it.
Mini Monkey (ScienceNOW)
We started out small. Paleontologists have found one of the oldest primates discovered so far, and it is also one of the smallest — 55 million years old (almost all the way back to the dinosaurs) and weighing less than an ounce.
New MS Treatment (Discover)
Multiple sclerosis is a terrible disease in which the immune system attacks the protective sheathing around the nerves. Treatments have centered on inhibiting the immune system, which of course leads to bad side effects involving infection
A new treatment involves re-training the immune system to tolerate the myelin protein that forms the sheathing, analogous to some forms of allergy treatment.
First grave flowers (Discover, ScienceNOW)
A 14,000-year-old burial in Israel may be the oldest discovered grave with flowers in it. There was a famous Neanderthal burial where pollen was found in the grave, but archeologists now suspect it was brought in later, by burrowing animals. The burial in Israel features stems and such, not just pollen, and is more clear-cut.
Giant virus (National Geographic)
Most viruses are too small to be seen even with a microscope; you need an electron microscope. The newly discovered pandoravirus is “huge,” a whole micron (one millionth of a meter). It’s also chock full of DNA, with the biggest genome of any known virus, and full of very odd genes, implying some strange evolutionary history.
The dinosaur’s nose (Discover)
Paleontologists have discovered a relative of Triceratops that is even more flamboyant. Horns longer! And more forward! Beaky nose bigger! Just as dead, though.
Old quarrels (New Scientist)
One question that comes round and round in anthropology is whether warfare is built into our species or a cultural invention. Trying to settle the matter, a team of anthropologists did a systematic survey of the primitive groups remaining in the world who are likeliest to resemble early human societies. They found that, indeed, group-on-group violence is rare. Homicide, however, though mercifully rare everywhere on a per capita basis, occurs in all societies.