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Firefighting Beetles, Polite Phones and Even More Polite Primates

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Every roving bachelor has the fear that he's got a son out there. But hey, it could be worse. Just look at Genghis Khan, who spawned enough children that he is now related to 16 million men in Central Asia. The great warrior was legendary for having his way with women, but the scope of his exploits was never fully realized until now. A team of geneticists studying Asian men found that a number of them had similar DNA, which they managed to pin on Khan. From this they realized that 1 in every 200 Asian men is related to him. Just imagine that family reunion.

I'm floating on air

ulevitate.jpgLevitation has long been the stuff of magic shows and wild imaginations, but a group of scientists at the University of St. Andrews says it may soon be reality. They've managed to reverse the Casimir force, which normally attracts objects on one another on an atomic level. For now, the scientists say the discovery can be used on a small scale to create machines with frictionless moving parts, but could, in effect, be strong enough to lift large objects, even a person.

Sobering statistic of the week

Second Life is a virtual world, where people can spend (and lose) real money and make real friends. Unfortunately, network also uses real power, and a lot of it. Blogger Nicholas Carr crunched the numbers supplied by Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, and figured out that a Second Life avatar burns as much power as the average Brazilian. And people wonder why we're having conservation problems.

The phone that says 'excuse me'

Isn't it embarrassing when you're on the phone with your boss when an incoming call from a bored friend interrupts you? Well, scientists at Intel are working to make sure that doesn't happen by studying speech patterns to detect important conversations. They've tracked conversations for tone and length only to figure out what styles indicate importance. For example, a talk that's largely one-sided and serious likely indicates a professional discussion, while one that's casual and punctuated by laughter would be a friendly one. They say that this technology could be adapted to direct a phone to not interrupt during important calls, but for now we'll just have to stick with the stone-age method of screening our own calls.

Firefighting Beetles, Chivalrous Chimps and more after the jump!

Chivalry in Chimpanzees

chimpanzee-picture.jpgNext time you're in a pickle, you could count on a chimp to help you out. A study at a chimpanzee reserve in Uganda showed that chimps are inherently nice to each other and to other humans. They were willing to pick up a stick for a human who struggled to reach it, even when the chimp had to go as far as eight feet to pick it up and hand it over. This finding casts kindness in a whole new light- it's genetic rather than a culturally-learned custom. I guess that means chivalry never died; maybe it just skipped a generation.

Mission to sleep on Mars

Instead of counting sheep when you can't sleep, why not try going to Mars? Researchers in Boston successfully synced up the sleep cycles of some Earthlings to the 24.65-hour day of Mars, resulting in long-term changes in the biological clock. This proves for the first time that our sleep cycles are actually flexible and could spark some breakthroughs in curing some sleep disorders. At the very least, that's one less thing to worry about when we decide to colonize Mars.

Meet the Beetle

beetle.jpgWe may be the only ones who can prevent forest fires, but a plexiglass beetle may soon be able to help fight them once they start. The OLE is a device that looks like it came from some Star Wars/Harry Potter hybrid and can extinguish fires. Plans are for an army of 30 of the heat-resistant bugs to patrol the Black Forest, finding and putting out fires before they get out of control. Besides shooting flame retardant, the devices also move like real beetles and can even roll into a ball, if the need ever arose for them to stop, drop and roll.

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15 Subatomic Word Origins
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In July 2017, researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) found evidence for a new fundamental particle of the universe: Ξcc++, a special kind of Xi baryon that may help scientists better understand how quarks are held together. Is that Greek to you? Well, it should be. The names for many of the particles that make up the universe—as well as a few that are still purely theoretical—come from ancient Greek. Here’s a look at 15 subatomic etymologies.

1. ION

An ion is any atom or molecule with an overall electric charge. English polymath William Whewell suggested the name in an 1834 letter to Michael Faraday, who made major discoveries in electromagnetism. Whewell based ion on the ancient Greek verb for “go” (ienai), as ions move towards opposite charges. Faraday and Whewell had previously considered zetode and stechion.


George Stoney, an Anglo-Irish physicist, introduced the term electron in 1891 as a word for the fundamental unit of charge carried by an ion. It was later applied to the negative, nucleus-orbiting particle discovered by J. J. Thomson in 1897. Electron nabs the -on from ion, kicking off the convention of using -on as an ending for all particles, and fuses it with electric. Electric, in turn, comes from the Greek for “amber,” in which the property was first observed. Earlier in the 19th century, electron was the name for an alloy of gold and silver.


The electron’s counterpart, the positively charged proton in the nuclei of all atoms, was named by its discoverer, Ernest Rutherford. He suggested either prouton or proton in honor of William Prout, a 19th-century chemist. Prout speculated that hydrogen was a part of all other elements and called its atom protyle, a Greek coinage joining protos ("first") and hule ("timber" or "material") [PDF]. Though the word had been previously used in biology and astronomy, the scientific community went with proton.


Joining the proton in the nucleus is the neutron, which is neither positive nor negative: It’s neutral, from the Latin neuter, “neither.” Rutherford used neutron in 1921 when he hypothesized the particle, which James Chadwick didn’t confirm until 1932. American chemist William Harkins independently used neutron in 1921 for a hydrogen atom and a proton-electron pair. Harkins’s latter application calls up the oldest instance of neutron, William Sutherland’s 1899 name for a hypothetical combination of a hydrogen nucleus and an electron.


Protons and neutrons are composed of yet tinier particles called quarks. For their distinctive name, American physicist Murray Gell-Mann was inspired in 1963 by a line from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: “Three quarks for Muster Mark.” Originally, Gell-Mann thought there were three types of quarks. We now know, though, there are six, which go by names that are just as colorful: up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom.


Made up of a quark and an antiquark, which has identical mass but opposite charge, the meson is a short-lived particle whose mass is between that of a proton and an electron. Due to this intermediate size, the meson is named for the ancient Greek mesos, “middle.” Indian physicist Homi Bhabha suggested meson in 1939 instead of its original name, mesotron: “It is felt that the ‘tr’ in this word is redundant, since it does not belong to the Greek root ‘meso’ for middle; the ‘tr’ in neutron and electron belong, of course, to the roots ‘neutr’ and ‘electra’.”


Mesons are a kind of boson, named by English physicist Paul Dirac in 1947 for another Indian physicist, Satyendra Nath Bose, who first theorized them. Bosons demonstrate a particular type of spin, or intrinsic angular momentum, and carry fundamental forces. The photon (1926, from the ancient Greek for “light”) carries the electromagnetic force, for instance, while the gluon carries the so-called strong force. The strong force holds quarks together, acting like a glue, hence gluon.


In 2012, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) discovered a very important kind of boson: the Higgs boson, which generates mass. The hadrons the LHC smashes together at super-high speeds refer to a class of particles, including mesons, that are held together by the strong force. Russian physicist Lev Okun alluded to this strength by naming the particles after the ancient Greek hadros, “large” or “bulky,” in 1962.


Hadrons are opposite, in both makeup and etymology, to leptons. These have extremely tiny masses and don’t interact via the strong force, hence their root in the ancient Greek leptos, “small” or “slender.” The name was first suggested by the Danish chemist Christian Møller and Dutch-American physicist Abraham Pais in the late 1940s. Electrons are classified as leptons.


Another subtype of hadron is the baryon, which also bears the stamp of Abraham Pais. Baryons, which include the more familiar protons and neutrons, are far more massive, relatively speaking, than the likes of leptons. On account of their mass, Pais put forth the name baryon in 1953, based on the ancient Greek barys, “heavy” [PDF].


Quirky Murray Gell-Mann isn't the only brain with a sense of humor. In his 2004 Nobel Prize lecture, American physicist Frank Wilczek said he named a “very light, very weakly interacting” hypothetical particle the axion back in 1978 “after a laundry detergent [brand], since they clean up a problem with an axial current” [PDF].


In ancient Greek, takhys meant “swift,” a fitting name for the tachyon, which American physicist Gerald Feinberg concocted in 1967 for a hypothetical particle that can travel faster than the speed of light. Not so fast, though, say most physicists, as the tachyon would break the fundamental laws of physics as we know them.


In 2003, the American physicist Justin Khoury and South African-American theoretical physicist Amanda Weltman hypothesized that the elusive dark energy may come in the form of a particle, which they cleverly called the chameleon. Just as chameleons can change color to suit their surroundings, so the physical characteristics of the chameleon particle change “depending on its environment,” explains Symmetry, the online magazine dedicated to particle physics. Chameleon itself derives from the ancient Greek khamaileon, literally “on-the-ground lion.”

For more particle names, see Symmetry’s “A Brief Etymology of Particle Physics,” which helped provide some of the information in this list.

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Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Look Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
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Ethan Miller/Getty Images

October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. It should be an especially stunning show this year, as the Moon will offer virtually no interference. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

All the stars are lining up (so to speak) for this show. First, it's on the weekend, which means you can stay up late without feeling the burn at work the next day. Tonight, October 20, you'll be able to spot many meteors, and the shower peaks just after midnight tomorrow, October 21, leading into Sunday morning. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

Second, the Moon, which was new only yesterday, is but a sliver in the evening sky, lacking the wattage to wash out the sky or conceal the faintest of meteors. If your skies are clear and light pollution low, this year you should be able to catch about 20 meteors an hour, which isn't a bad way to spend a date night.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be two more meteor showers in November and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.


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