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Spacesuits Go Spandex, Harry Potter Goes Green and Checkers Gets Solved!

Who'll Stop the Rain?

beijing-2008-logo.gifCountries go to great lengths of make sure the Olympics are perfect- Athens officials took unconventional steps to clear away stray dogs and prostitutes. But Beijing's preparations may take the cake- they've designed a rocket to blast away rain clouds and guarantee sun. History shows that there's a 50 percent chance of rain during the opening and closing ceremonies, but Chinese scientists have created a method to disperse precipitation clouds and prevent rain over the city. The rocket is still being tested and while some meteorologists say it won't work, Chinese officials expect nothing but sunny days ahead.

NASA gets sexy
Current spacesuits have layers upon layers of fabric and pressurized gas to keep a safe amount of air pressure on the body. But they're so bulky and unflattering. Luckily, astronauts can now show off their svelte figures with the spacesuit1.jpgnew BioSuit, a spandex-like alternative in space fashion. This new suit provides pressure by tightly wrapping the fabric around the body, but also allows for flexible movement. The redesign wasn't just done for vanity- the current suits weigh almost 300 pounds and make movement difficult when astronauts aren't floating in space; the new suits will make those football games on the moon a little less awkward.
Harry Potter and the Environmental Conscience
061021_HarryPotter_Vl.widec.jpgAdmit it, the only thought you had when you were reading the new Harry Potter book wasn't "˜Will Harry defeat Voldemort?' or "˜I wonder who's going to die.' No, you were too busy thinking "˜This behemoth of a book probably single-handedly destroyed an acre of the Amazon and now the Earth is going to die because I wanted to know what happened to Snape.' Well, worry no longer; Deathly Hallows was actually the greenest book in publishing history. Scholastic got 65 percent of their paper from forests maintained in an environmentally- and socially-responsible way and also contained 30 percent post-consumer waste fiber. The printing is expected to inspire other publishers to use environmentally responsible methods for choosing their paper.

Liquid TV, Why You'll Never Be Able to Beat Your Computer in Checkers (if it's really playing) and Bee Deaths Solved all after the jump!

The Chameleon Liquid
Scientists say a new liquid that changes color with exposure to magnetic fields could do for LCD monitors what ethanol is doing to oil. The liquid, which contains oxide particles covered in plastic, is cheaper and easier to make and control. Besides replacing LCD technology, the liquids could also revolutionize paper; The ability to make the liquid as thin and flexible as necessary means that scientists could use it to make rewritable paper. As far as I'm concerned, if they can make a TV that makes Planet Earth look even better for less money, I'm on board.

No Words, Just Emotions
Chinese researchers have created a video player that doesn't just measure volume or time, but also the emotions of the video. The EmoPlayer will eventually be adapted to use emotion-detecting technology, but for now it just lets users edit the emotional timeline. Experiments show that people found it easier to navigate the videos. It'll probably be a while before the EmoPlayer gets fully integrated onto YouTube, so for now here's a quick tip: kittens, puppies and babies always signal happy.

King me!
If neither player makes a mistake, checkers will always end in a draw. That's the result of a study at University of Alberta, Canada, which used computer simulations and plenty of complex math to "solve" checkers. This shows how a computer was able to defeat checkers champ Marion Tinsley in the 1990's and why you'll never be able to beat your computer at work.

Bee Deaths: Case Closed
Weeks I ago I wrote about a condition that was killing the world's bees. Now a Spanish scientist says an Asian parasite called nosema ceranae is to blame. After studying the deaths for several years and testing various theories, he settled on the parasite as the culprit. Asian bees aren't as susceptible to it, but it kills Western honeybees in a matter of days. Among the other ideas that were tested were drought and some odd theory about the electromagnetic waves from cell phones throwing off bee navigation.

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Feeling Anxious? Just a Few Minutes of Meditation Might Help
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iStock

Some say mindfulness meditation can cure anything. It might make you more compassionate. It can fix your procrastination habit. It could ward off germs and improve health. And it may boost your mental health and reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and pain.

New research suggests that for people with anxiety, mindfulness meditation programs could be beneficial after just one session. According to Michigan Technological University physiologist John Durocher, who presented his work during the annual Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California on April 23, meditation may be able to reduce the toll anxiety takes on the heart in just one session.

As part of the study, Durocher and his colleagues asked 14 adults with mild to moderate anxiety to participate in an hour-long guided meditation session that encouraged them to focus on their breathing and awareness of their thoughts.

The week before the meditation session, the researchers had measured the participants' cardiovascular health (through data like heart rate and the blood pressure in the aorta). They evaluated those same markers immediately after the session ended, and again an hour later. They also asked the participants how anxious they felt afterward.

Other studies have looked at the benefits of mindfulness after extended periods, but this one suggests that the effects are immediate. The participants showed significant reduction in anxiety after the single session, an effect that lasted up to a week afterward. The session also reduced stress on their arteries. Mindfulness meditation "could help to reduce stress on organs like the brain and kidneys and help prevent conditions such as high blood pressure," Durocher said in a press statement, helping protect the heart against the negative effects of chronic anxiety.

But other researchers have had a more cautious outlook on mindfulness research in general, and especially on studies as small as this one. In a 2017 article in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, a group of 15 different experts warned that mindfulness studies aren't always trustworthy. "Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed," they wrote.

But one of the reasons that mindfulness can be so easy to hype is that it is such a low-investment, low-risk treatment. Much like dentists still recommend flossing even though there are few studies demonstrating its effectiveness against gum disease, it’s easy to tell people to meditate. It might work, but if it doesn't, it probably won't hurt you. (It should be said that in rare cases, some people do report having very negative experiences with meditation.) Even if studies have yet to show that it can definitively cure whatever ails you, sitting down and clearing your head for a few minutes probably won't hurt.

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Scientists Use a CT Scanner to Give Whales a Hearing Test
Ted Cranford
Ted Cranford

It's hard to study how whales hear. You can't just give the largest animals in the world a standard hearing test. But it's important to know, because noise pollution is a huge problem underwater. Loud sounds generated by human activity like shipping and drilling now permeate the ocean, subjecting animals like whales and dolphins to an unnatural din that interferes with their ability to sense and communicate.

New research presented at the 2018 Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California suggests that the answer lies in a CT scanner designed to image rockets. Scientists in San Diego recently used a CT scanner to scan an entire minke whale, allowing them to model how it and other whales hear.

Many whales rely on their hearing more than any other sense. Whales use sonar to detect the environment around them. Sound travels fast underwater and can carry across long distances, and it allows whales to sense both predators and potential prey over the vast territories these animals inhabit. It’s key to communicating with other whales, too.

A CT scan of two halves of a dead whale
Ted Cranford, San Diego State University

Human technology, meanwhile, has made the ocean a noisy place. The propellers and engines of commercial ships create chronic, low-frequency noise that’s within the hearing range of many marine species, including baleen whales like the minke. The oil and gas industry is a major contributor, not only because of offshore drilling, but due to seismic testing for potential drilling sites, which involves blasting air at the ocean floor and measuring the (loud) sound that comes back. Military sonar operations can also have a profound impact; so much so that several years ago, environmental groups filed lawsuits against the U.S. Navy over its sonar testing off the coasts of California and Hawaii. (The environmentalists won, but the new rules may not be much better.)

Using the CT scans and computer modeling, San Diego State University biologist Ted Cranford predicted the ranges of audible sounds for the fin whale and the minke. To do so, he and his team scanned the body of an 11-foot-long minke whale calf (euthanized after being stranded on a Maryland beach in 2012 and preserved) with a CT scanner built to detect flaws in solid-fuel rocket engines. Cranford and his colleague Peter Krysl had previously used the same technique to scan the heads of a Cuvier’s beaked whale and a sperm whale to generate computer simulations of their auditory systems [PDF].

To save time scanning the minke calf, Cranford and the team ended up cutting the whale in half and scanning both parts. Then they digitally reconstructed it for the purposes of the model.

The scans, which assessed tissue density and elasticity, helped them visualize how sound waves vibrate through the skull and soft tissue of a whale’s head. According to models created with that data, minke whales’ hearing is sensitive to a larger range of sound frequencies than previously thought. The whales are sensitive to higher frequencies beyond those of each other’s vocalizations, leading the researchers to believe that they may be trying to hear the higher-frequency sounds of orcas, one of their main predators. (Toothed whales and dolphins communicate at higher frequencies than baleen whales do.)

Knowing the exact frequencies whales can hear is an important part of figuring out just how much human-created noise pollution affects them. By some estimates, according to Cranford, the low-frequency noise underwater created by human activity has doubled every 10 years for the past half-century. "Understanding how various marine vertebrates receive and process low-frequency sound is crucial for assessing the potential impacts" of that noise, he said in a press statement.

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