A shark walks on its fins, Richard Branson gives billions to fight climate change, and an Iranian newspaper doesn't want a space tourist to be a role model.

Discoveries Galore

American marine scientists in Indonesia found 52 new species of fish, including shrimp, coral, and two kinds of “walking” sharks. The researchers are currently trying to convince the Indonesian government to protect the area from the many fishermen who catch the fish using explosives and poison.

Montana State University paleontologist Jack Horner, in collaboration with Mongolia’s Science and Technology University, unearthed 67 Psittacosaurus dinosaur skeletons in one week of digging in the Gobi Desert. Also known as a “parrot lizard,” the Psittacosaurus is believed by paleontologists to have been an herbivore that lived about 120 million years ago in the Early Cretaceous Period. Horner will use the fossils for developmental biology studies, and his university is encouraging Mongolia to build its own museum to house them.

Raising Money and Concern for Warming

At the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York, Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson pledged $3 billion to help curb global warming. Specifically, Branson hopes to develop fuels, including aviation fuel, not derived from coal or oil. He credited the idea to Al Gore, who visited him in London a few months ago.

Satellite images released by the European Space Agency show huge holes in 5 to 10 percent of the Arctic’s sea ice pack, which usually stays frozen all year. Climate scientists say the holes—as big as the British Isles—provide yet another link between global warming and extreme weather.

James Hansen, a leading climatologist and head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has issued a 10-year deadline for the world to stop using carbon dioxide-producing fossil fuels. At a recent climate change conference he re-iterated that failing to curb the increase in global temperatures to 1.8° F would lead to a significant rise in sea levels, more prolonged droughts and heat waves, increased flooding, more powerful hurricanes, and the likely extinction of half the world’s species. A report by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the U.K. similarly warns that Britain must reduce carbon dioxide emissions within four years in order to avoid near-catastrophic consequences. Using energy-efficient and low to no-carbon renewable resources will play a big role in reducing global warming, the report said.

The state of California has filed suit against America’s six biggest carmakers for their role in global warming. Under federal and state common law, the state claims General Motors, Ford, the Chrysler division of DaimlerChrysler, Toyota, Honda, and Nissan have created a “public nuisance” by producing millions of carbon-dioxide spewing vehicles.


A Safe Return

The space shuttle Atlantis and its six-member crew landed safely in Cape Canaveral on Thursday, after a somewhat tumultuous 12-day trip to the International Space Station. Atlantis, which delivered two huge solar arrays to the ISS, was the first of 15 missions needed in order for the U.S. to keep its promise of completing the station by 2010.

Fifteen members of the National Academy of Sciences have officially endorsed the Bush Administration’s plan to focus most of NASA’s funding on a manned mission to the Moon. Many NASA scientists had criticized the plan, saying it diverts money already promised to non-lunar science projects, notably the Terrestrial Planet Finder. The new report, released Sept. 19, argues that the Moon is “priceless to planetary scientists.

Anousheh Ansari, 40, an Iranian-born U.S. citizen, became the first female space tourist, traveling to the International Space Station on a Soyuz rocket from the Russian base in Baikonur. The multi-millionaire Ansari, who reportedly paid $25 million for the trip, immigrated to the U.S. with her parents when she was 16. Following media coverage of her trip, an Iranian newspaper criticized state-run television for giving her flight undue attention, fearing that the coverage of her U.S. citizenship and wealth would create an inappropriate role model for Iran’s youth.

NASA scientists discovered the first brown dwarf star orbiting a star like our Sun, along with a companion planet. The brown dwarf is 50 times larger than Jupiter but too small to have nuclear fusion at its core. Though this is the first time astronomers have actually seen a brown dwarf, they say they’re probably common in extrasolar planetary systems. 


Health Woes and Biological Clues

Popeye’s favorite food was on everyone’s mind last week, after an E. coli outbreak was traced to bags of organic spinach. Health authorities have since focused on California’s greater Salinas Valley, where three quarters of U.S. spinach is grown. As of Thursday, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 157 people in 23 states had been infected, 83 had been hospitalized, and 27 had developed kidney failure.

On Tuesday, two French executives from Dutch-based company Trafigura Beheer BV—which has been dumping toxic waste in Ivory Coast—were charged with poisoning citizens of the African nation. Inhaled toxic fumes sent thousands of Ivorians to hospitals, killing seven. The company denies fault, claiming it had paid Ivorian firms and officials to dispose of the waste safely.

An international team of geneticists, led by scientists at University of California, Davis, has found that Europeans can be divided into two distinct genetic groups: northern and southern. Until now, not much was known about the geographic genetic variation among Europeans. The new findings will allow this ancestry to be taken into account when studying the inheritance of disease.

Scientists at the University of Tennessee have reconstructed a 220-year history of hurricane activity in southern Georgia by analyzing the oxygen in tree rings, which are most commonly used to determine a tree’s age. During hurricanes, the structure of the oxygen in rainwater changes slightly. When trees absorb the water through their roots, they take up this particular oxygen isotope and store it. It later appears as a kind of “hurricane marker” in the tree ring coinciding with the year of the hurricane.


Second Chance For Iran

After failing to comply with an Aug. 31 U.N. Security Council deadline to stop enriching uranium, Iran has been given a new deadline of early October to suspend its nuclear program and engage in international negotiations. France, Britain, Germany, Russia, and China have reservations about the hard line the U.S. has taken in calling for immediate sanctions against Iran for not meeting the earlier deadline. An alternative to new nuclear enrichment programs, supported by some world leaders, would be to make nuclear reactor fuel available through U.N.-controlled supply centers under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) are worried that the new energy economy will cause unfair discrimination against oil. This despite the fact that crude oil consumption shows few signs of decreasing over the coming decades. High oil prices, new investments in alternative energy, such as biofuels made from agricultural crops, and renewable sources like solar and wind power are continuously making alternatives more economically competitive.

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Originally published September 25, 2006

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