Vol. 1 / No. 13 – Big Bangs, Contagious Cancer, And A Disease Called Facebook

M82 Supernova - Photo Credit: NASA/Swift/P. Brown, TAMU
M82 Supernova – Photo Credit: NASA/Swift/P. Brown, TAMU

(A) Big Bang

Astronomers received a cosmic gift this week, with the arrival of the light from a 12-million-year-old supernova. Maybe “new” isn’t the right word for it, but since the light just got here (meaning we can now detect and study it) it will hopefully present a host of opportunities for scientists who study the phenomenon. The supernova can be found in the galaxy known as M82, though its current name (PSN J09554214+6940260) is a bit of a mouthful. There’s a great layman explanation of what this means by Phil Plait over at Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog, and Joe Rao over at Space.com has a piece on how to view it. It’s currently got an apparent magnitude of 11, but may continue to brighten over the next two weeks.

And if you want to see something else explode closer to home (and without binoculars), Gizmodo’s Spolid blog has a collection of videos of warships getting blown up, in many varying and entertaining ways.

Facebook as a Disease? Not so much.

In keeping with the scientific principle “correlation equals causation,” our research unequivocally demonstrated that Princeton may be in danger of disappearing entirely. 

There was a lot of buzz this week about a new study out of Princeton, where a math model was used to predict the future decline of Facebook by comparing it to a disease. The response from the social networking site was prompt:  if Facebook’s demise is near, so is Princeton’s. The problem is that the study used internet searches for “facebook” as an indicator of the site’s well-being, without showing how the two are causally linked. This isn’t to say that Facebook won’t decline by 2017 — just that if it does, it’ll be because something killed it (and that something won’t be our immune systems).

Just Add Heat

A new article making the rounds this week suggests another explanation for life on Earth: the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In his paper “Statistical Physics of Self-Replication,” published in August in the Journal of Chemical Physics (139), MIT assistant professor Jeremy England lays out another possible cause for abiogenesis. Unlike evolution, which is a scientific fact, the process for the spontaneous formation of life from non-living matter known as abiogenesis is still largely a mystery. For an explanation that starts to make sense to a layperson, check out the article by Natalie Wolchover in Quanta Magazine. The full Journal of Chemical Physics article is also downloadable here.

No Black Holes?

Stephen Hawking upset a number of scientists around the world this week by announcing that he has major issues with the current model of black holes, because the two major models we have for understanding the universe (the classical model and the quantum model) disagree about what should happen at the edge of one. Classical physics holds that nothing should be able to escape from a black hole, but quantum physics says that information should be able to escape (hence his previous idea, now known as Hawking Radiation). Hawking has now proposed that instead of an event horizon, there’s something called an apparent horizon. Unfortunately, he’s not too sure how it should work, because to do so would require integrating gravity with the other fundamental forces of nature — something scientists have been trying to do for the better part of a century. For a more involved explanation, check out Zeeya Merali’s article in Nature News, or if you’re feeling especially intelligent, check out Hawking’s article, “Information Preservation and Weather Forecasting for Black Holes” at arXiv.org.

Beijing, We Have a Problem

Earlier this week, the Xinhua News Agency reported that China’s moon rover Yutu (or Jade Rabbit) was having problems, and that teams were working on trying to diagnose and fix it. Now the state media are reporting that the problems may be quite severe. The PR machine has swung into overtime stating that the mission has completed most of its objectives, although it is still short of the intended three months of exploration that had been planned. Time will tell if the little lander makes it through the lunar night.

In other rover news, NASA scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how a “jelly-doughnut-sized” rock appeared in the path of the Mars rover Opportunity. Called Pinnacle Island, the rock was found when scientists compared two images of the same area, revealing the unexpected change in topography. More on the story at Ars Technica.

And, of course, after a few tries, Rosetta started up this week. Can’t wait to hear more out of her.

Coburn Language Gone

Last year, Republican Senator Tom Coburn introduced and had passed a rider to a bill prohibiting the NSF from funding political science research unless it promoted “national security or the economic interests of the United States.” Now, like all riders, it has expired with the new fiscal year, and Congress has neglected to include the language in the 2014 budgetary requirements. This is a win for the scientific process, and for the freedom of research in the United States. Jeffrey Mervis over at Science Insider has the full story.

Contagious Cancer

From the “you can’t make this stuff up” files: this week UK scientists at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute revealed that they have calculated the age of a transmissable canine cancer: 11,000 years old. That’s how long this cancer has been spreading from one dog to another, according to the report. An STD causing genital tumors, known simply as dog-transmissable cancer, the disease is one of only two transmissable cancers known (the other being the transmissable face cancer in the Tasmanian Devil population).  io9 has more on the story, including an explanation of how a cancer can outlive its hosts.

Dust, Cold, and “Vog”

A few stories this week focused on dust in the atmosphere: over at phys.org, there’s a story about research into dust levels during the last ice age that suggests that atmospheric dust and ice ages have a lot in common; over at io9 there’s a story on the possible causes of a ten-year cold snap that occurred in the 6th century CE; and at Gizmodo they explain a new term — “vog” — for smog caused by volcanoes, and show how pretty it can be from space.

Rest of the Best

Lastly, the other cool things going around this week: better, more accurate RFID tags that work over dozens of feet; more hopes in the ongoing fight against breast cancer; a US company that (probably) just got ripped off buying the plans to a cold fusion device; a unicycle-based competitor for the Segway; and a gorgeous “sky whale” that may be the jumbo jet of the future.

Have a great week.