Sunday, 27 January 2013


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Coolest Science Stories of the Week
Live Science, 27 January 2013.

New discoveries about animal brains, strange events above our heads and new data storage devices tested make up our countdown this week.

Don't miss these!

11. Rat brains predict rewards

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Rats are sporting tiny, sci-fi-esque goggles in the name of science. The result: In addition to providing some pretty cute images, the fashionable rats have revealed that parts of the brain related to vision also help animals predict future rewards.

An animal's ability to predict events is vital for avoiding danger and obtaining basic resources, such as a rewarding drink of water. Though scientists had known rats had the ability to make predictions, they thought only higher cognitive areas were involved. Now a new study, to be published in February in the journal Neuron, reveals how the vision centre of a rat's brain can learn to time when a reward is imminent.

10. Male soldiers growing breasts?

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Like armies everywhere, the German military is filled with macho, chest-thumping rituals. But one battalion has found there's a downside to all that chest-thumping: The male soldiers are growing breasts - and only on their left sides.

The Wachbataillon unit performs precision military drills at official ceremonial functions, the German Herald reports. Many of their drills involve smacking their rifles against the left side of the soldiers' chests. And all that pounding on the same spot has stimulated the production of hormones that cause man boobs to grow.

9. Spinning star puzzles scientists

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Scientists have discovered a puzzling spinning star that is spontaneously switching between two very different personalities, flipping between emitting strong X-rays and emitting intense radio waves.

While radio frequencies are known to vary as the star changes personalities, the newfound star is the first time example of variability in X-rays as well. The star, called a pulsar because it appears to pulse, has astronomers perplexed.

8. Dinosaur's tiny brains

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An advanced member of the largest group of dinosaurs ever to walk the Earth still had a relatively puny brain, researchers say.

The scientists analyzed the skull of 70-million-year-old fossils of the giant dinosaur Ampelosaurus, discovered in 2007 in Cuenca, Spain, in the course of the construction of a high-speed rail track connecting Madrid with Valencia. The reptile was a sauropod, long-necked, long-tailed herbivores that were the largest creatures ever to stride the Earth. More specifically, Ampelosaurus was a kind of sauropod known as a titanosaur, many if not all of which had armour-like scales covering their bodies.

7. Animated Arctic air

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If you live anywhere within the northern two-thirds of the United States, you've probably noticed that it's pretty chilly outside. The plunge in temperatures over the past few days comes courtesy of an invasion of Arctic air that has been captured in a mesmerizing new animation from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The animation, made with weather data from the NOAA/NCEP Real-Time Mesoscale Analysis, begins on Saturday (Jan. 19) with very cold air seen only over the Rockies, Montana, North Dakota, the northern half of Minnesota and the northern portions of New England. Much of the eastern and central parts of the country saw weekend weather that was balmier than usual for mid-January.

6. Does lightning cause migraines?

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Lightning strikes may trigger migraine headaches, according to new research.

The findings, published today (Jan. 24) in the journal Cephalalgia, are correlational, so they can't show that lightning strikes close to a person's house actually cause the headaches. But the changes in the air around a lightning strike could conceivably trigger electrical changes in the brains of migraine sufferers and cause headaches, said Frederick Freitag, the director of the headache centre at Baylor University Medical Centre in Dallas, who was not involved in the study.

5. Storm clouds crawling with bacteria

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The storm clouds in Earth's atmosphere are filled with microbial life, according to a new study.

The research, published today (Jan. 23) in the journal PLoS One, revealed that hailstones drawn from storm clouds harbour several species of bacteria that tend to reside on plants, as well as thousands of organic compounds normally found in soil. Some of the bacterial species can seed the tiny ice crystals that lead to rain, suggesting they play a role in causing rain.

4. Proof of extraterrestrial life?

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A British professor of astrobiology has asserted in breathless tones that a meteorite found in Sri Lanka contains microscopic biological fossils - indisputable proof, he claims, that life exists beyond Earth. Other scientists, however, have cast doubt on his claim.

Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe, director of the Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology at the University of Buckingham in England, states in an article from the Journal of Cosmology that diatoms - a type of microscopic algae - found in the meteorite are extraterrestrial in origin, the Huffington Post reports.

3. Shakespeare stored in DNA

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Floppy disks, jump drives, DNA? Scientists have developed a way to encode music and text files into DNA, the molecules that normally hold the instructions for life.

The new method, described today (Jan. 23) in the journal Nature, is extremely expensive right now, but eventually it could be used to store digital files without electricity for thousands of years. And since DNA is so compact, vast amounts of data could be stored in one test tube, said study author Nick Goldman, a geneticist at the European Bioinformatics Institute in the U.K.

2. Hurricanes make sound waves

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Hurricanes generate sound waves detectable through the air thousands of miles away, which could be a good way to measure the wave conditions near these storms, a new study suggests.

Such findings could help improve models to predict and prepare for dangerous storms, the scientists behind the study said.

1. Apes with iPads

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Orangutans at the Smithsonian's National Zoo are now using iPad apps to keep occupied.

"It's about changing up the day-to-day lives of our animals," Becky Malinsky, a keeper at the zoo, said in a statement. "We already vary their food, toys and social interactions every day, but the iPad offers another way to engage their sight, touch and hearing."

[Source: Live Science. Edited.]

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