Journeying to a "lost world," whistle-blowing at NASA and budgeting Bush's new emphasis on science.

Newest, Oldest, Longest, First

A team of scientists from the US, Indonesia and Australia wandered into a remote area of the Indonesian jungle and discovered a “lost world,” previously untouched by humans. The researchers classified dozens of new plant and animal species, including more than 20 new types of frogs, a new variation of the honeyeater bird and four new butterfly species. They also found the long-unknown breeding grounds of the six-wired bird of paradise.

Two skeletons found this week in China were identified as a Late Jurassic ancestor of Tyrannosaurus Rex and, at 160 million years old, are the oldest tyrannosaur fossils ever found. The fossils, one from a 12-year-old adult and a six-year-old juvenile, were relatively intact, with unexpectedly large crests protruding from their foreheads. The dinosaur itself would have been much smaller than its tyrannosaur descendents and the researchers believe the crests may have been brightly colored.

Steve Fossett, famous for being the first person to fly around the world without stopping or refueling as well as setting the world record for flying solo around the globe in a balloon, embarked from Cape Canaveral this week on a bid to make the longest non-stop flight ever. If he succeeds he will circle the globe one and a half times in three days, ending his trip in Kent, England. Fossett plans to take five-minute “power naps” intermittently during the 80 hours in the air and subsist on nutritional milkshakes. As of Thursday, Fossett was doing well after a “scary” take-off, during which he collided with two birds.

Isabelle Dinoire, the 38-year-old French woman who received the world’s first face transplant after being mauled by her pet lab, appeared on camera for the first time this week after her operation. She had difficulty speaking and closing her mouth, but said she was able to eat normally and go out in public without attracting much attention. Last month, her surgeon told a French newspaper that five more face transplants were scheduled for the near future.

It Happened at NASA

The Inspector General of NASA, Robert W. Cobb, is under investigation for failing to examine safety violations and for penalizing whistle blowers. The Integrity Committee of the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency is conducting the investigation in response to complaints by at least 16 people, including one that alleges that Cobb hindered investigations into safety issues like a malfunctioning self-destruct procedure during a space shuttle launch and the theft of data about rocket engines.

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope may have spotted two mega solar systems rotating around new stars that are 30 to 79 times bigger than our sun. The solar systems consist of huge disks of planet-forming dust, like that in the Kuiper Belt, which rotates around the sun in our solar system. Astronomers are surprised by the massive size of the stars, which normally would be thought to inhibit the formation of planets.

NASA researchers broke open a chunk of Martian meteorite that originally fell to Earth in 1911 after millions of years floating in space. They discovered a carbon-rich substance filling tiny veins in the rock similar to veins cut by microbes in volcanic glass found on Earth’s ocean floor. The discovery could suggest that carbon-based life forms once inhabited Mars.

Bush, the Science President

This week President Bush announced a spending plan to increase NASA’s budget while cutting most other non-military programs. The new funds will help NASA focus on sending a manned spacecraft to the moon sometime in the next decade. While programs searching for life-supporting planets are being shelved indefinitely, the Mars rovers will continue to be funded as will the Cassini mission to Saturn and the orbiting observatories Hubble, Chandra and Spitzer. 

President Bush also announced a proposal to freeze the budget of the National Institutes of Health in 2007, inciting dismay among biomedical research advocacy groups. According to the President’s plan, biodefense research funding and a couple of other programs are to be expanded, while most of the NIH’s 27 institutes and centers will get a slight cut. The advocacy groups want Congress to give NIH a 5% budget increase instead of the freeze.

George Deutsch, a presidential appointee at NASA, resigned this week following allegations that he lied about having graduated from Texas A&M University. In fact, Deutsch never completed his undergraduate degree and has been accused of working to obfuscate scientific findings on climate change for political reasons. He also instructed web designers to write the word “theory” after every mention of the Big Bang. Deutsch was hired by NASA’s public affairs office after working on President Bush’s re-election campaign.

Sweden, Canada, Uganda, Oh My!

Sweden announced this week its plans to end its dependency on oil altogether by 2020 without diverting power harnessed from oil to more nuclear power. A committee, made up of industrialists, academics, car manufacturers and farmers, has been formed to come up with a plan that will most likely rely on renewable biofuels. Currently, Sweden runs mostly on nuclear and hydroelectric power, with 26% of its energy derived from renewables, compared to the 6% EU average.

The Canadian province of British Columbia announced a collaborative agreement with indigenous inhabitants, loggers and environmentalists to preserve a huge area of Pacific coast rainforest that’s twice the size of Belgium. According to the deal, much of the forest will be a wildlife conservation area, while some of it will be used for sustainable logging and mining. Canadian environmental groups expressed hope that the multi-group compromise would provide a model for the rest of the world.

Uganda has been illegally siphoning extra water out of Lake Victoria to generate hydroelectric power and blaming the drop in water levels on drought. A colonial-era treaty between several eastern African nations sets out the limits on water use for each nation and, according to a UN hydrologist, Uganda has been exceeding its limit by 55%. Uganda’s actions may have serious environmental consequences, as well as political ones, if the other countries strongly object to its actions.

At the Alaska Forum on the Environment on Monday, a group of scientists presented their concerns over the effects of global warming in the Arctic, arguing that the phenomenon is occurring more dramatically than anyone expected. Scientists at the forum predicted that the Arctic could be ice-free in summertime by the end of the century, a shift that would have a huge impact on local wildlife as well as on the boundaries of Earth’s landmasses. Warming could also endanger forests, making them more susceptible to fire and insect infestations, the scientists said.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service said on Thursday that polar bears might be eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The agency began a 60-day review process to evaluate whether or not the bears should receive the designation. The impetus for the decision came from a petition filed last year by the Center for Biological Diversity in Joshua Tree, CA, which claimed that polar bears could become extinct by the end of the century because their habitat is melting.

Low-fat lies

An eight-year, 49,000-subject study of older women examining the connection between health and low-fat diets concluded that the regimens might not prevent cancer and heart disease. Questions remain about the study’s results since many subjects had difficulty maintaining their diets, and the study may have been too short to examine certain slow-growing cancers. Also, nutritionists nowadays focus more on the type of fat than the amount of fat, something the researchers didn’t take into account.

The World Trade Organization ruled that the EU’s block on genetically modified organisms from the US, Canada and Argentina is illegal. The ruling supports the US’s claim that Europe’s 1998 to 2004 moratorium on GM food was an unfair protectionist barrier instead of a scientific principle. In general, Europe has been much more reluctant to accept GM foods than the US, where they are common.

Finally, Hwang-gate looks to be wrapping up as Seoul University decided to suspend Hwang Woo-Suk and six other professors on his team for fabricating results in their stem cell research. The scientists will not be able to teach or conduct research, but will keep their positions pending the final decision of the university’s disciplinary committee.

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Originally published February 10, 2006


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