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Touchdown! Curiosity Lands on Mars

“Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on August 5, 2012, the day Curiosity landed and began its exploration mission. About the size of a small car and loaded with scientific equipment, the rover is searching for evidence that life once existed on Mars.

For the next two years, Curiosity will drive around Gale Crater powered by the heat given off by decaying plutonium. As it takes pictures to share with us back on Earth, the rover will also test the rocks at the base of Mount Sharp, a 16,400-foot-high mountain in the center of the crater. If Curiosity finds evidence of water, this will help support the theory that an ocean existed on Mars billions of years ago. And where there was water, there could have been life.

Here on Earth, scientists are following Curiosity’s every move. Flight director David Oh lives on Mars time now, and for the month of August, his wife and kids aged 8, 10, and 13 joined him on the Mars calendar—which sometimes meant going to bed in the morning and getting up at night! Read about what that was like on 13-year-old Braden’s blog:

Two years ago President Obama said, “By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth, and a landing on Mars will follow.” Curiosity’s mission is an important milestone on the path toward achieving this goal.

Follow Curiosity on Twitter: @MarsCuriosity or Facebook: Do you think people will make it to Mars by 2030? Will you be one of them? Send your thoughts to [email protected] or: NEXT STOP MARS, ODYSSEY, 30 Grove Street, Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

These Photos Are Out of This World!

Two cameras looking out to the left and right serve as Curiosity’s eyes, snapping thousands of pictures and taking videos as the rover explores Mars. The right-eye camera, equipped with a telephoto lens, excels at seeing things far away or up close in crisp detail, while the left-eye camera takes wide-angle pictures. Combining image information from the two cameras can produce three-dimensional images. That’s not all, though—Curiosity also has a “ChemCam” that zaps rocks to identify their chemical makeup, and a camera on its arm that the rover can use to take a self-portrait.


Plutonium – A radioactive chemical element, number 94 on the periodic table

Nobel Prize Winners 2011

Each year, the Nobel Prize committee gives out awards for outstanding achievements in science, art, and democracy. Here are this year’s science winners:

Physics: A Universe Flying Apart
Saul Perlmutter (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, California) split the prize with Adam Riess (Johns Hopkins University, Maryland) and Brian Schmidt (Australian National University, Canberra). Working separately, these astrophysicists discovered at the same time that our universe isn’t just expanding at a steady or slowing rate. It’s actually speeding up—galaxies are zooming away from each other at faster and faster speeds.

Chemistry: Strange Crystals
Daniel Schechtman (Israel Institute of Technology) made his discovery in 1982, but it took years for his work to gain acceptance. The rule used to be: Atoms inside crystals always form repeating patterns. Schechtman showed that this rule could be broken.

Medicine: How the Body Fights Disease
This prize went to three scientists who each worked on solving the puzzle of how the human body senses disease and triggers an immune response. Jules A. Hoffmann (formerly of the French National Academy of Sciences) researched the immune system of fruit flies, and Bruce A. Beutler (The Scripps Research Institute, California) expanded this work using mice. Ralph M. Steinman (Rockefeller University, New York) discovered a new type of cell that helps turn on the immune system. Unfortunately, he passed away before learning the news that he won the Nobel Prize, and had been treating his own cancer with experimental therapies based on his research.

Winner of the Million-Dollar X Prize: A Triumph for Disaster Cleanup

Sometimes it takes a titanic disaster, like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, to spur the invention of new and improved technology. In the midst of the 2010 oil leak that lasted 87 days, the X Prize Foundation (a non-profit that designs and manages public competitions to encourage technological development for the benefit of humankind) announced that it would award one million dollars to the team that could improve oil skimming, or the process of removing spilled oil from water.

“The oil cleanup technology has pretty much been the same for the last 20 years,” said X Prize Foundation CEO Peter Diamandis. “Between the Exxon Valdez and the BP oil spill, nothing has really changed.” Before the competition, oil skimmers could remove about 900 gallons of oil per minute. To win the X prize, teams had to reach a rate of 2,500 gallons of oil removed per minute, at an efficiency of 70 percent (meaning that no more than 30 percent of what they removed could be water).

Elastec, a small company based in Illinois, blew away the competition and easily took the prize, with a skimmer that slurps up a whopping 4,670 gallons per minute with 89.5 percent efficiency. How did they do it? The new skimmer technology is based on the fact that oil sticks to plastic and water doesn’t. Inside the skimmer, grooved, plastic discs spin through the oil slick, pulling oil upward, where metal rods scrape the oil off and into a trough.

Next time there’s a titanic oil disaster, we’ll be ready!

The Last Space Shuttle

3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . zero . . . liftoff! Engines roaring, the space shuttle Atlantis shot off the launch pad and rocketed toward space, leaving a cloudy tail behind to mark its path.

Only four crewmembers were on board, but on the ground, thousands of people watched and cheered, including sports stars, businessmen, entertainers, and former NASA astronauts. The excitement was bittersweet. This launch was the 135th and final one for the NASA space shuttle program.

President of the United States Barack Obama said that he does not see this as an end, but rather a beginning. “I have tasked the men and women of NASA with an ambitious new mission: to break new boundaries in space exploration, ultimately sending Americans to Mars.”

First the Moon, and now Mars! I hope we’re all around to see it.

Were you watching this historic launch on Friday, July 8, 2011? How did you feel when you saw Atlantis blast off, or when you heard it was the last space shuttle mission?

Tell us at [email protected] or: SPACE SHUTTLE, ODYSSEY, 30 Grove Street, Peterborough, NH 03458.

Alien Life Discovered. . .
on Earth!

You, me, mosquitoes, elephants, dandelions, dolphins, and even bacteria are all made of six essential ingredients: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur. Until now, scientists thought life couldn’t happen without those basic elements. But now one microbe has broken the rule. In a lab, scientists took away all sources of phosphorus and fed the microbe arsenic instead. We humans would die if we ate this deadly poison. But miraculously, one strand of microbes named GFAJ-1 managed to swap phosphorus for arsenic, even using arsenic to hold its DNA together. Biochemistry 101 teaches that this simply isn’t possible: Arsenic is too unstable. The microbe should have died without access to phosphorus.

“This is a microbe that has solved the problem of how to live in a different way,” NASA scientist Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the U.S. Geological Survey in California told the New York Times. She led the study that hand-picked microbes from Mono Lake in California. Its water is three times as salty as the ocean, and naturally contains phosphorus as well as arsenic. The two elements are chemically similar, which is actually why arsenic is poisonous. Your body thinks it’s phosphorus, and lets it into your cells, where it wreaks havoc. However, scientists had already found that microbes in Mono Lake could safely use arsenic (in addition to the usual chemicals) for certain processes, including photosynthesis. Could they live on arsenic alone?

As Wolfe-Simon slowly took away the phosphorus in the microbe colony’s environment, replacing it with arsenic, all logic said that the colony should have died. “Nothing should have grown,” Wolfe-Simon said. But the colony did grow, and this meant the microbes had found a totally new way to survive. “It was amazing. We have a microbe doing something different than life as we know it. We’ve cracked open the door to what’s possible elsewhere in the universe.”

Scientists and citizens around the world stand in awe. “It’s like if you or I morphed into fully functioning cyborgs after being thrown into a room of electronic scrap with nothing to eat,” said Caleb Scharf of Columbia University, who was not a part of the research team.

Of course, some are skeptical. As Alan Schwartz of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands told Science News, “This is an amazing result, a striking, very important and astonishing result — if true.” Something this fantastic calls for a lot more investigation into exactly how GFAJ-1 incorporates arsenic. And of course the discovery opens the imagination to all sorts of possibilities, especially considering the many alien environments that exist on other planets. If life can survive on arsenic, what else could be possible?

Indigenous — Originating and living in an area

“Dung Beetle” Car Powered by Poop

Who needs crude oil from the depths of the Earth? The gas powering the Bio-Bug comes straight from your toilet! In fact, 70 houses’ worth of waste could run the car for a year. But don’t worry — the car doesn’t stink. Before poop can be used as fuel, it needs some special processing.

Sewage treatment plants in Bristol, England, produced the fuel for the Bio-Bug in a project run by GENeco, a company that is currently producing a large and sustainable amount of electricity from biogas. Poop becomes biogas through a process called anaerobic digestion. Basically, “bugs” (tiny bacteria working without oxygen) eat the poop and break it down into methane. (This biomethane gas is currently used to generate all of the electricity for GENeco’s business as well as excess electricity fed to the national grid.) In order to be used as vehicle fuel, the biogas has to go through additional upgrading to remove carbon dioxide.

“We decided to power a vehicle on the gas, offering a sustainable alternative to using fossil fuels, which we so heavily rely on in the UK,” said Mohammed Saddiq, general manager of GENeco. The choice of a Volkswagen Beetle for the prototype car actually came from a group of students in a workshop. Saddiq explains: “They thought it would be appropriate that the poo-powered car should be the classic VW Beetle Bug, because bugs naturally break down waste at sewage works to start the treatment process, which goes on to produce energy.”

But does the Bio-Bug actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions? A regular car produces about three and a half tons of carbon dioxide per year. The Bio-Bug produces three tons. That’s not a huge difference. The real kicker is that the methane going into the Bio-Bug would have been released into the atmosphere anyway, when waste from your toilet was treated at a sewage treatment plant. The carbon dioxide trapped beneath the Earth in fossil fuels would not be released into the atmosphere unless we burned them.

The Bio-Bug is not the first vehicle to run off poo. According to GENeco, Sweden has a fleet of biomethane-run vehicles. However, the “dung beetle” is the first to show no change in performance from traditionally fueled vehicles; it can reach 114 miles per hour. The car still requires some regular gasoline to start the engine, though. Then the processed poop takes over!

Oil Munchers Work Overtime

Plants and animals in the Gulf of Mexico faced an uncertain future when the Deepwater Horizon oil spill spread throughout their habitat. But for a few tiny creatures, the disaster called for a celebration. The hydrocarbons that make up crude oil are a sweet treat to some varieties of bacteria. Although much of the oil from the broken deep-sea well floated to the top of the sea, one large cloud, or plume, of oil remained as much as 4,000 feet below the surface, stretching 10 miles from the source. Recent research shows that a newly discovered oil-munching microbe may have gobbled up much of the plume in record time.

“Microbes are a lot like teenagers. They work on their own time and their own scale; they do what they want when they want,” said Chris Reddy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. In order to get a handle on what, exactly, these unpredictable microbes were doing deep down in the oil plume, Terry Hazen of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in California led a team to collect water samples and analyze them with brand new technology developed at LBNL. The PhyloChip, a credit-card-sized microarray, can quickly test for more than 8,000 bacteria species.

Hazen and his team discovered a huge population of a new, rod-shaped bacterium that hasn’t been given a name yet. In normal water, this microbe made up a measly 5 percent of the bacteria population. But in several spots in the plume, it rocketed up to 90 percent. This new species thrives at the freezing temperature and high pressure of the deep ocean, aspects that would slow down most bacteria. One reason the Gulf bacteria are doing such a stellar job cleaning up is that they’re used to it. The sea floor in the Gulf of Mexico leaks oil constantly, and microbes have had millions of years to evolve and take advantage of this food source. Also, dispersants dumped at the well head helped break oil into particles that are easier for bacteria to handle. However, “There will always be residual oil that the microbes can’t deal with. It’s going to be a long time before this system fully recovers,” geochemist David Valentine of the University of California warned in an article in Chemical and Engineering News.

It may seem like great news that microbes are chowing down on oil, helping to clean up our mess. But like us, these guys also need oxygen. Blooms of bacteria fueled by oil can suck up oxygen from the water, creating so-called “dead zones” where marine life can’t survive. Thankfully, the area of the plume isn’t close to being a dead zone, although it does have less oxygen than surrounding water. In August, Hazen’s team estimated a half-life for the remaining oil plume of 1.2 to 6.1 days. That meant, in less than a week, only half of the plume would be left, then after another few days, only a quarter. This doesn’t mean the oil just disappeared, though, only that it’s not gathered in one cloud. Some of it has spread out in tiny, separated droplets in the sea and some of it has been eaten by those hungry, overworked bacteria.

dispersants — Chemicals that break up oil, letting it mix into water

Stuck in Traffic. . .for 10 Days!

If you think a traffic jam that makes you late for soccer practice is bad, you’ve never been stuck on the Beijing-Zhangjiakou freeway in China. For ten full days, the main road to China’s capital city became a 60-mile-long parking lot. Cars and trucks inched along, not knowing when they’d make it to their destinations.

Locals living along the route took advantage of the situation and set up impromptu food and drink stands to serve overpriced food and water. A bottle of water cost up to 10 yuan ($1.50) — that’s ten times the normal cost! Going to the bathroom (after drinking that pricey water) typically meant finding a spot in the fields by the highway. Bored drivers played cards or worried about unrefrigerated cargo, such as fruits or vegetables, which would probably rot before making it to the city. One driver got out to take a sponge bath after being stuck in his truck for two days.

Traffic jams in the United States last up to a few hours at most, unless a natural disaster is involved. Usually, travelers can get off the highway and take back roads. Many people use technology to check ahead for traffic jams or hear about them on the news, which helps keep bottlenecks from getting worse.

China has been building new roads over the last few years, but it can’t keep up with the number of new cars and drivers. Construction on the highway into Beijing was the primary cause of the 10-day jam, and unfortunately there were almost no alternate routes into the city to help drivers avoid the mess. Some areas of China have taken an interesting measure to try to control traffic issues: Cars are allowed to drive every other day only, based on whether the license plate number is odd or even. The problem isn’t going to go away, though, if China’s economy keeps growing faster than its roads.

What would you do if you were stuck in a 10-day traffic jam? Maybe you’d dream up an idea of how to solve traffic problems! Send your ideas for traffic jam solutions to [email protected] or mail it to: JAM PLAN ODYSSEY, 30 Grove Street, Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

The President Says, “Clean Up That Oil!”

When the President of the United States issues an executive order, people pay attention. President Barack Obama ordered the creation of a Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force on October 5, 2010. He’s hoping to make sure that the Gulf of Mexico recovers from the biggest oil spill in history: the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, which spilled millions of barrels of crude oil into the sea. The oil billowed in plumes beneath the surface and slicked across the surface of the water, coming ashore in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. In addition to endangering wildlife, the oil spill impacted tourism and commercial fishing in the area.

“As someone who grew up here, I know the ecosystem is the key to our future,” says Lisa P. Jackson, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator and chair of the new Task Force. “Our economy, our health, and our culture are built on the coastline and the gulf waters. I know this, the President knows this, and we are going to stand with you.”

“The gulf coast is a national treasure,” stated President Obama. The goal of the Task Force is to coordinate and watch over clean-up efforts and make regular reports on how well the work is going. Restoring the ecosystem means strengthening the Gulf Coast area so it can once again fully support the wildlife, people, and businesses that depend on it. The President said, “The United States needs a vibrant Gulf Coast, and the Federal Government is committed to helping Gulf Coast residents conserve and restore.”

Watch Out, Pancake Batfishes! New Species Threatened by Oil Spill

The Louisiana pancake batfish looks like a small, pinkish pancake that got left out on the table too long and started to grow all sorts of spiky and blobby bumps. Where you’d expect a nose to be, a dangling lure spits out fluid that invites prey into the fish’s mouth. Instead of swimming, this odd fish hops along the sea floor, pushing itself with elbow-like fins. The awkward motion looks a bit like a walking bat.

Although its official scientific name has yet to be published, this strange fish is already in danger. Its entire known range — including shallow waters along the coast of Louisiana — is directly in the path of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill. Oil at the surface could kill the fish’s eggs and larvae, which float on the waves, and could also harm plankton populations, cutting off the fish’s food supply. Chemical dispersants — sprays that break down surface oil into small droplets that can sink — could be toxic to the fish too.

The Louisiana pancake batfish species is one of three that used to be grouped together. A review of specimens showing significant physical differences prompted Prosanta Chakrabarty of Louisiana State University to propose the division in a paper to be published by the Journal of Fish Biology. It’s too soon now to know exactly how the oil is affecting this species or the two related ones that have larger ranges. “All we can say is that [their] habitat is threatened,” Chakrabarty told Science News. Chakrabarty’s co-author of the paper, John Sparks of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, said, “If we are still finding new species of fishes in the Gulf, imagine how much diversity is out there that we do not know about.”

Pancake batfishes are related to anglerfish, the deep-sea hunters that use glowing lures to attract prey. Studying these new species could help scientists understand the transition of anglerfish from the shallow waters, where pancake batfish still live, into the deep ocean. Save the Pancake Batfish! Create a colorful poster prompting people to clean up this fish’s habitat. Email your work to [email protected] or mail it to: OIL SPILL ODYSSEY, 30 Grove Street, Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

Is This Hole for Real?

I wish I could tell you this picture was just an illusion, but it’s real. The earth opened up and swallowed a three-story building in Guatemala City on May 30, 2010 after tropical storm Agatha roared through the country. The hole is about 100 feet deep and 66 feet wide — that’s about two school buses across, and so deep that you can’t see the bottom. Thankfully, no one was killed or injured, but this wasn’t the first time a hole devoured part of the city; in 2007 the same thing happened only a few blocks away.

The problem is that Guatemala City is built on top of pumice fill, bits of gravel left over from past volcanic eruptions. This material doesn’t stand up well to the rain and flooding brought by storms like Agatha. “When you have water flowing from storm water runoff, a sewage pipe, or any kind of strong flow, it eats away at the loose material,” geologist Sam Bonis of Guatemala explained to Discovery News. In this case, a burst or leaking pipe had probably been weakening the ground for a while before the storm hit. According to Bonis, the hole is technically a “piping feature,” not a sinkhole, since sinkholes form when water eats away at solid bedrock.

For now, officials will have to fill in the hole. But in the future, they’ll need a more permanent solution, like a whole new system for wastewater. “There is an excellent potential for this to happen again. It could happen almost anywhere in the city,” Bonis said.

Contest Winner: Best Illusion of 2010!

Can wooden balls roll uphill? It sure seems like it in a video by Kokichi Sugihara, a mathematical engineering professor at Meiji University in Japan. His clever 3-D contraption of four intersecting ramps seems to contain magnets that attract wooden balls toward the top. But there is no magnet that can attract wood! What’s going on here?

Sugihara’s video, called “Impossible Motion: Magnet-Like Slopes,” won first place in the 2010 Best Illusion of the Year contest. The system of ramps was actually a clever visual trick. From most angles, it’s easy to see that all four ramps go downhill toward the center at odd angles. But from one direction, it seems like the ramps go uphill! “The effect is so powerful that your brain would rather believe the wooden balls magnetically attract each other and defy gravity, than the reality that the architecture is playing tricks with perspective,” says Stephen Macknik of Barrow Neurological Institute in Arizona, one of the organizers of the contest. Watch the illusion yourself at

Runners-up included research that proves that faces look skinnier upside down, and a photograph of a bathtub that seems to stretch and shrink as you walk past. Also, a man in a gorilla suit revisited an illusion he made famous ten years before. In 1999, Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris of the University of Illinois made a video of students passing basketballs, and asked viewers to count passes. They were so busy counting passes that they didn’t notice a person wearing a gorilla suit walk right through the middle of the video! Simons knew everyone would be looking for the gorilla this time, so in his new video a pirate walked in, too. And no one noticed. The point is that people only pay attention to what’s most important. And our brains aren’t wired to see what’s really there, but what makes the most sense — like ramps that are parallel rather than at odd angles, even if it means the ball rolls uphill. That’s the magic of illusions!

The Chameleon Shawl

Have you or someone you know been arrested by the fashion police? Well, Akira Wakita and his colleagues at Keio University in Tokyo, Japan, have devised a way to help fashion-challenged people stay in style.

You see, last October, Wakita walked the talk at the International Symposium on Wearable Computing in Osaka, Japan, where he introduced his amazing color-shifting scarf! That’s right, anyone wearing Wakita’s garment, which will be available this winter, won’t have to worry about clashing colors. That’s because Wakita’s magic scarf automatically changes color to suit an outfit.

Norway has a Blast!

Last month, a meteorite struck Troms County in northern Norway. According to local news reports, residents first spotted a large ball of fire in the sky at about 2:05 a.m., local time. Apparently, the space rock struck a mountainside.

According to a Sky & Telescope news release, Knut Jørgen Røed Ødegaard (Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics, Norway) had initially estimated that the energy of the event was comparable to the Hiroshima bomb! But that figure has since been downgraded to about 1/100th as much energy as the Hiroshima blast.

As of this writing, no fragments of the meteorite have been found. Wayne Edwards and Peter Brown, both of the Western Meteor Physics Group at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, estimate the rock’s mass between 2,000 and 4,400 to 22,000 pounds (10,000 kilograms). Most of this would burn up in the atmosphere, so only about 20 to 1000 kg might actually reach the ground.

“That’s still substantial,” Brown told Sky & Telescope. “It’s unusual that it would impact someplace where there’s a population of any sort.” But don’t hold your breath. It’s unlikely that any fragments will be recovered from this area, which, Brown says, is very rugged and mostly bush and tundra.

California Teen Wins Science Competition

Michael Viscardi, a 16-year-old from San Diego, CA, won a $100,000 college scholarship, the top individual prize in the 2005–2006 Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science, and Technology. Competition winners were announced last December.

Viscardi has been dubbed the “Westinghouse Wunderkind.” He tackled a 19th-century challenge known as the Dirichlet Problem, formulated by the mathematician Lejeune Dirichlet. Viscardi, who has been home-schooled since fifth grade, says that he had worked on the problem for about six months with a professor at the University of California, San Diego, where he takes math classes three days a week.

“Mr. Viscardi dazzled us with his creative use of the mathematical language,” says judge Dr. Steven Krantz, professor of mathematics at Washington University in St. Louis. “His research is profound, substantial, and complete, with potentially important practical applications in heat flow, magnetism, electrodynamics, and other branches of physics. One important and exciting potential application of his work is in designing the shape of airplane wings.”

Nineteen students competed in the national finals — six individuals and six teams. Anne Lee, a senior at Phoenix Country Day School in Paradise Valley, AZ, and Albert Shieh, a junior at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, AZ, won and will equally share the $100,000 prize in the team category for developing new software that more accurately analyzes genetic data.

“These students have done magnificent work that any researcher would be proud of,” says Thomas N. McCausland, chairman of the board of the Siemens Foundation. “The fact that they are still in high school makes their achievements all the more remarkable. Imagine what these young scholars will accomplish as adults. . .”

Power Plague

If a tree falls in Switzerland, will Italy go without power? Well, that’s just what happened when a falling tree limb disabled a Swiss power transmission line during a storm last September. That power break caused another Swiss power line to overload, which then knocked out a transmission line in neighboring France, which, in turn, cut the supply of power to Italy. At least, that’s the working model at the moment.

As a result, Italy’s 58 million people were left in the dark for hours. It was the world’s largest power outage since August 14, 2003, when 50 million people were plunged into darkness in Canada and the United States. It also was the worst power outage in Italy since World War II.

Actually, last August and September were extremely "dark" months for many countries. Just a week before the lights went out in Italy, nearly 4 million people in eastern Denmark and southern Sweden went without electricity for more than three hours. And on August 28, power briefly went out in parts of London and southeast England, shutting off traffic lights in the British capital and stranding hundreds of thousands of people on subways and trains.

After the great Italian blackout, local politicians complained that their country is too reliant on imported power. Italy imports up to 17 percent of its energy, compared with a European average of about 2 percent.

. . .Speaking of "Lights Out"

This just in from the news desk in Bhubaneswar, India:

Last September 27, five people were injured and two houses burned when either a meteorite or a large chunk of space debris apparently crashed to Earth in eastern India. One resident in that remote village near the Bay of Bengal said that the falling object lit up the sky, causing a widespread panic. As the burning object passed overhead, a sonic boom — an explosive sound caused by the shock wave preceding an aircraft traveling at or above the speed of sound — rattled windows, sending hundreds of people rushing out of their homes and into the night to see what was happening.

Looking up, they saw a meteor so bright that it lit up the night like daytime for a few seconds. Fragments of the shattered object then pummeled the village, and fires gutted two houses. Five people were rushed to a hospital with injuries. Two other villagers apparently fainted. Jaydev Kar, a scientist at the Pathani Samant Planetarium in Bhubaneswar, called the event "a rare phenomenon in this region."

Bioterror Alert!

Now, don’t get too excited. This alert is to inform you that right now, the job market is wide open for anyone wanting to help combat bioterrorism. And although you obviously have a few years to go before you can grab such an opportunity, you might want to pocket the idea as a career option.

You see, demand for biologists and physicians who can help the government prepare for bioterror threats is expected to rise in the near future. That’s one conclusion from a report recently published by the Partnership for Public Service (PPS), a group that promotes civil service careers. The other conclusion is that while the demand for these jobs is expected to rise, the number of students graduating prepared to enter this field is not.

The PPS based its results on 30 interviews with officials at five major federal agencies that deal with bioterrorism. The five agencies examined were the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the Food and Drug Administration, the Animal and Plant Inspection Service, and the Food Safety and Inspection Services.

The report states that in coming years, our federal government will face numerous difficulties in preparing to handle the threat of a biological attack. One problem is that many crucial workers currently in the field will retire soon. For example, the report says that nearly half the physicians and biologists at the CDC will be eligible to retire within the next five years. At the same time, it says, there is no government-wide recruitment plan to fill the coming gaps.

So, in the future, if you find yourself pondering what you want to do with your future, remember this scoop!

The Fall of Amazon Rain Forests

What’s the state of the Amazon’s rain forest in Brazil? Not good. Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research (INPE) has just released some new satellite imaging data that might make some tree lovers topple over with despair.

The data reveals that forest clearing is, well, clearly on the rise. From August 2000 to August 2001, just over 6,950 square miles (18,000 sq. km) of forest had been cleared. In contrast, from August 2001 to August 2002, almost 9,845 square miles (25,500 sq. km) had been cleared — that’s a 40 percent jump in deforestation!

As reported in a recent issue of New Scientist magazine, the massive leap is the worst acceleration in the loss of the tropical jungle since 1995. It is in sharp contrast to the drive to preserve the world’s largest area of continuous rain forest. The forest harbors diverse forms of life and plays a significant role in the world’s climate.

The loss of forest in the single year preceding August 2002 makes up 5 per cent of the area lost over the past 500 years. In response, the World Wildlife Foundation is launching a large rain forest protection program that aims to designate 12 percent of Brazil’s rain forests as protected land over the next 10 years. But the fact is, unless the Brazilian government takes immediate action to tackle the problem (which it has promised to do), the rate of deforestation will not fall. . .the trees will.

Has "Big Brother" Arrived?

In the 1984 novel Animal Farm, written by British author George Orwell, citizens of a grim city in a terrified country are kept under constant surveillance by a supreme ruler known as "Big Brother." Now it seems that Big Brother is more than a fictitious character in a novel — or a popular television show by the same name.

You see, police in Virginia Beach, VA, are operating video surveillance cameras with face-recognition technology. Although Virginia Beach has had 13 video surveillance cameras monitoring its beachfronts since 1993, three of these cameras are now linked full-time to a face recognition system. The other 10 cameras can also be linked as needed.

The cameras are used for two purposes only: to catch some any of the 1,500 people wanted by the city on outstanding felony warrants, and to find runaway children or missing persons. The database of wanted people is updated every day. The technology works by analyzing faces based on a series of measurements, such as the distance from the tip of the nose to the chin or the space between the eyes, and then comparing them to those in the database.

City officials assure citizens that Big Brother really isn’t interested in non-felons. In fact, all the images picked up by the cameras are immediately deleted from the system if there is no match. According to police, a citizens’ auditing committee has the right to perform unannounced spot checks on police headquarters to make sure the technology is not being misused.

The technology has its critics, who point out that so far, the system has failed to produce a single arrest, though it has generated a few false alarms.

Well, until the system is perfected, citizens can take consolation in the fact that if they have nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear. Right?

And Now for Something Equally En"gross"ing

Leave it to London. In a move to educate children about the "impolite" science of the human body, the London Science Museum created a temporary exhibit, running from May to September 2002, based on the book Grossology by teacher and microbiologist Sylvia Branzei.

Among the many displays were a wall of human skin and giant neon-colored cartoon characters who explained why we vomit, fart, and sneeze. Dan Wolfe, who coordinated the exhibition, says that visitors had a chance to pump soda into the stomach of a huge "burp-man" and see how the liquid inside his stomach becomes agitated. There were also big noses with globs of snot to explore, plus a 10-meter-long tunnel, modeling the digestive system from the mouth to the large intestine. Although many adults were embarrassed by the exhibit, Wolfe says, it nonetheless explained grossities "in a matter-of-fact way" that the children understood.

Bald Birds

Researcher Avigdor Cahaner (Hebrew University, Israel) is breeding featherless chickens. Cahaner says these funny-looking creatures with pink wrinkled skin will be less fatty and will fare better in warm tropical climates (where expensive cooling systems are needed to raise poultry). The new birds are also better for the environment because without a feathery coat no water or machinery is needed to process them.

How do you create a featherless chicken? Simple. Just crossbreed a normal chicken with one already balding because of a naturally occurring "naked neck" gene. The bald birds could be especially popular in poor or developing countries where, without proper ventilation, up to 20 percent of chickens die because of heat exposure.

A featherless chicken also means no plucking, which can leave the bird with blistered legs and wings. Israel’s new bird breed promises to be leaner and more nutritious. But we’ll have to wait about two years before they show their naked skins on the market. Cahaner admits that the birds won’t be popular everywhere, especially in colder climates, unless someone comes up with a a biodegradable sweater for these naked birds. Game? (pun intended!)

IT’s No Longer a Secret

"IT," the mysterious invention that kept the high-tech world waiting for its debut for nearly a year, has now gone public. Also known as "Ginger," but officially known as Segway, "IT" is a two-wheeled, motorized scooter that uses a complex array of gyroscopes and computers to mimic the human body’s sense of balance – so it cannot tip over. What’s more, "IT" costs less than 5 cents a day to operate (transport its owner around town), and causes no harm to the environment.

The inventor of "IT," 50-year-old Dean Kamen, says to think of "IT" as an extension of your body. For instance, to use "IT," the driver simply has to lean forward to move forward, or lean backward to back up. Turning is accomplished by twisting a handle. But don’t plan on any long-distance trips with "IT." The scooter can travel only about 17 miles per hour . . . tops. But "IT" conceivably could replace cars in crowded downtown areas. The U.S. Postal Service already has plans to test the device for its letter carriers.

You can expect to purchase "IT" within a year. The cost? A measly $3,000. A factory near "IT" headquarters in Manchester, NH, will be able to make 40,000 Segways per month. Well, that’s about "IT" . . . for now.

Pop Star in Space?

If things go well, Lance Bass, a member of the pop-music sensation In Sync, will become the first rock and roller to be launched into orbit. Although the final selection process is not over, things are "looking up" for the 23-year-old star, who expects to fly to the International Space Station in October. So far, he’s passed the physical; in May, Bass got a thumbs up from Russian doctors to fly, saying he appears to be physically fit for the mission. Still, Bass has yet to receive official approval from the Russian space agency.

Bass says it has been a life-long dream to fly into orbit. If he does, he will beat out Cosmonaut German Titov for the title of the youngest person in space. Titov was 25 years old when he blasted off in 1961. If given the stamp of approval, Bass will be the third person to pay his way into space aboard a Russian craft. Millionaire Dennis Tito became the first space tourist last year, followed in April by South African Internet magnate Mark Shuttleworth. Both were widely reported to have paid $20 million, enough to cover the entire cost of a manned space launch.

What will Bass do in space? He said he would probably follow the example of Shuttleworth, who used his time in space to perform research on AIDS. Bass said his focus might be "education, physics studies, that kind of thing."
Shocking News

The world was shocked when news arrived that the Russian submarine Kursk had sunk with all its crew on August 12th, 2000. Now, scientists who listen for earthquakes under the sea have discovered some more shocking news: Their instruments had recorded the shock waves of some fantastic events on that fateful day – and the events had nothing to do with earthquakes. Keith D. Koper and Terry C. Wallace (University of Arizona) and Steven R. Taylor and Hans E. Hartse (Los Alamos National Laboratory) believe that their data show seismic signatures unique to underwater explosions. The signatures imply that the Kursk did not sink because of a collision or other impact, but rather from internal explosions!

As reported in a recent issue of Science News, the scientists’ instruments recorded two explosions, corresponding in time and place to the Kursk disaster. The first explosion was 250 times smaller than the second one, which occurred 135 seconds later. The first explosion occurred with the Kursk near the surface and had an energy equivalent to that of an explosion of a modern torpedo. The second explosion released enough energy to equal five tons of TNT – that blast was recorded up to 5,000 kilometers away.

The scientists conclude that the first recorded event was from a torpedo on the sub that misfired or exploded prematurely, causing the submarine to absorb a large fraction of the energy released. The second recorded event is consistent with the explosion of four to eight ship-to-ship missiles, which the Kursk carried, or one cruise missile tipped with conventional high explosive warheads, which it also carried. The second signal also correlates to the Kursk hitting the sea floor, which probably triggered the final explosion.

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