Bush works to lower gas prices, birds recognize sentence structure, and black holes prove to be efficient engines.

Bush Lowers Prices, Standards

Last Tuesday, President Bush bowed to political pressures and took two steps toward lowering gasoline prices. He announced a temporary suspension of environmental requirements for gasoline production and a halt on buying crude oil for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the government’s emergency cache. The environmental rules suspended include a required minimum level of clean-burning additives, such as ethanol. Gasoline futures prices dropped immediately after Bush’s remarks.

Lee Raymond, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, castigated critics of the oil industry in a speech at Columbia University, claiming that they didn’t understand the complexities of his business. “We operate in terms of 10-, 20-, 30-, 40-year cycles and, to put that in context, that’s 20 Congresses. A single quarter or a single year, which may mean everything from a political circus point of view, is not really all that significant in the time frame that we operate in,” he said. The talk was Raymond’s first public appearance since the controversy surrounding his nearly $100 million retirement package last year.

Rock of Ages Past Goes to Alberta

The University of Alberta acquired the only “pristine” meteorite—one that is still frozen and uncontaminated—on Earth. The meteorite was discovered in 2000 after it landed on the frozen surface of Tagish Lake in northern British Columbia. Scientists at the University say the Tagish Lake Meteorite will provide an invaluable record of the matter present during the solar system’s formation 4.57 billion years ago.

Biologists say rising sea temperatures are endangering the Virgin Islands’ already fragile coral. Calm seas have allowed more harmful ultraviolet rays to reach the seabed, damaging coral and warming the water. The warmer water further stresses the coral and makes it less resistant to disease. In some reefs around the islands, as much as 40% of the coral died last year, and much of the remaining coral has been weakened.

A fossil study has revealed that the passageway between the Atlantic and the Pacific opened up 41 million years ago, making it twice as old as scientists originally believed. The passageway, called the Drake Passage, appears between the southernmost tip of South America and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica. When the Drake Passage opened, it allowed an Antarctic current to flow between the continents. The current cooled the area down and keeps it cold today.


Black Holes: Alternative Fuel Engines

Astronomers at NASA‘s Chandra X-ray Observatory were surprised to find that older black holes are incredibly energy efficient. “If you could make a car engine that was as efficient as one of these black hole engines you could get about a billion miles per gallon of gas,” said Steve Allen of Stanford University. Scientists measured the efficiency of the black holes based on the mass of hot gas sucked in compared with the total energy of the particle streams black holes routinely spit out.

Congress is debating allotting funds to NASA’s budget for the construction of a new spaceship to be completed by 2011. Although a new ship is slotted to be built in 2014, NASA officials say that is too far away, as the current shuttle will be retired in 2010. They fear a gap when America will be left shuttleless. Senate members will meet on Wednesday to discuss the proposed budget expansion.

The administrator of NASA accepted an invitation from China to visit and begin talks on a possible cooperation between the US and Chinese space programs. The announcement came after Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) asked the administrator for his thoughts on the future of China’s ambitions in space. In 2003, China became the third nation to send a person into orbit and has conducted more complex manned missions since then.


One Strand’s Junk Is Another Strand’s Treasure

Researchers have found patterns from useful parts of DNA in the parts known as “junk” DNA, suggesting that “junk” may be a misnomer. Scientists have long assumed that junk DNA is random and non-coding, unable to translate genetic information to proteins. Since patterns appear across the two types of DNA, however, junk DNA may have some of the same functions as coding DNA.

While linguists have long alleged that only humans can recognize sentences made from distinct phrases, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego recently trained starlings to recognize the difference between a basic birdsong sentence and one with an added clause. The researcher spent a month training his birds to pick out the more complicated pattern. His result contradicts earlier research on tamarin monkeys as well as Noam Chomsky‘s argument that sentence recognition is what differentiates men from beasts.


The World Remembers Chernobyl

Wednesday, April 26 was the 20th anniversary of the disastrous meltdown at the Chernobyl power plant, and Ukrainian mourners gathered in Kiev to commemorate the victims. Bells tolled 20 times starting at 1:23 am, the hour of the explosion at the power station, and President Viktor Yushchenko attended a midnight ceremony with some of the survivors.

A letter appearing in the Lancet this week accuses the World Bank of publishing fake figures to tout its success fighting malaria. The letter, written by 13 international public health experts, also accuses the bank of reneging on a pledged $300-500 million investment in Africa and funding treatments that were known to be ineffective. The Lancet piece also accused the World Bank of inflating the figures for its malaria program in India.

An investigation by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review blamed the University of Pittsburgh‘s role in the Hwang Woo-suk scandal on carelessness and a disregard for federal recommendation. The University had encouraged collaboration between Gerald Schatten and Hwang’s research team in Korea, but it then withheld the study from federal oversight and skipped a thorough review of Schatten’s work. In February, the University’s own investigation concluded that Schatten had acted irresponsibly but did not intentionally falsify or fabricate data.

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Originally published April 28, 2006

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