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Right Now in Stuff to Blow Your Mind

Do you remember that Suzanne Vega song that went: "My name is Luca. I live on the second floor. I live upstairs from you. Yes, I think you've seen me before." Yeah, not that Luca. Instead, I'm talking about our last universal common ancestor or LUCA. While some people think we can trace our human origins back to one common female ancestor from Africa, LUCA rides on the idea that all life, not just human life, derives from a single microorganism. We're talking plants, animals, bacteria, fungus -- the whole biological spectrum. Think about that for a second. It's pretty amazing. Estimates for the number of species on Earth vary wildly, but let's take birds, for example. According to Britannica, there are about 9,600 species around today. Now throw in reptiles, amphibians, insects and strange things like moss animals -- these tiny matlike filter feeders that look like their namesake -- and you start to realize how crazy it is that all these diverse organisms may have evolved from a single ancestor. See more »

With the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over their heads, governments, companies and even individual families invested in fallout shelters during the 1960s. If worst came to worst, they could descend into their provisioned holes and hope to eventually emerge to reclaim a ravaged world. Yet even the worst scenarios for man-made Armageddon at the time couldn't hold a candle to what Earth endured approximately 3.9 billion years ago, during the Hadean Eon. Due to a little orbital readjustment among our solar system's gas giants, our planet was pelted with a barrage of meteor strikes. The damage was catastrophic, melting the surface to magma. Our oldest rocks formed in these days, and the earliest signs of life emerged in the wake of the destruction -- or so we've long believed. See more »

With all this talk about stem cells and whether it's, in President Obama's words, "dangerous and profoundly wrong" to research human cloning, I can't help but think of the HeLa cell line that has played such a vital role in everything from eradicating polio to to early space shuttle missions. And talk about profoundly wrong -- the cells' owner was never told that her tissue was going to a medical center at Johns Hopkins for special analysis, much less the role she would unwittingly play in the future of medicine. Her name was Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old black mother of five in 1950s Baltimore, Md. When she went in for a routine biopsy, the doctors discovered a tumor with most unusual cell activity: they were essentially immortal. Normally, cellular samples have a limited shelf life in a laboratory. They'll only divide a certain number of times before the chromosomes reach their Hayflick limit. See more »

Somewhere former First Lady Nancy Reagan is dancing a little jig. Reagan, along with legions of scientists and other advocates, lobbied hard to lift the federal ban on embryonic stem cell research. Today, President Obama obliged. According to the accompanying executive order, the president's action will "expand NIH support for the exploration of human stem cell research" among other things. MSNBC writes that reactions to the announcement fell predictably along party lines, with Reagan standing apart from critical Republicans. She might want to bond with Gov. Schwarzenegger, who calls the order a "huge win," according to MSNBC. Or Michael J. Fox, who writes on the Michael J. Fox Foundation Web site, "I could not be more thrilled to see President Obama live up to his commitment to get politics out of science." Other organizations, such as the Family Research Council, called the decision "misguided." And probably a whole lot worse. See more »

As the countdown to the Kepler launch tonight nears its final hours, it's hard not to let your mind run wild with what the planet-seeking satellite will find. But don't. Kepler is just one, albeit awesome, step in a multiphase, multigenerational journey to discover if Earth is the only spot in the universe capable of supporting, well, life like us. See more »

If you have trouble deciding whether your perfect day is spent stalking and slaying wild animals or recycling and reducing your carbon footprint, then there's a weapon you need to get your camo-clad hands on: "green" bullets. Green bullets are made of copper or other less toxic materials -- and they're starting to make in-roads with the lead ammo crowd. Take, for instance, the U.S. Army. According to a Kansas City Star story, the biggest producer of small-arms ammo just sent 600,000 rounds of green bullets for U.S. troops to test in fall 2008. The cartridges in question were made with brass casings and bismuth slugs, as opposed to lead. It's hard not to chuckle at the idea of hunters mingling with the granola crowd, but maybe it's not so crazy. Hunters, after all, tend to support the idea of land conservation. See more »

Do you remember the part in Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video where the two rival gangs square up for battle, only for the situation to escalate into a full-blown dance number? Well, astronomers have long predicted that a vaguely similar relationship emerges when black holes meet in a cosmic standoff, and now they even have compelling evidence. See more »

Why it's a diminutive moon -- a small natural or artificial satellite -- of course. Thanks to NASA's Cassini spacecraft, we know now there's one circling Saturn in its G ring. In the picture, it's that microscopic bright spot that NASA helpfully points out within the square. It truly is tiny, clocking in at about a third of mile across. See more »

In yesterday's blog, I looked into allegations that efforts to toilet train cats were decimating the California sea otter population. A parasite called Toxoplasma gondii frequently shows up in cat feces (this is also the reason you shouldn't mess with litter boxes if you're pregnant) and, if flushed, can infect sea snails that the otters depend on -- with fatal results. Yet, according to a 2007 post on The Daily Green, flushing your cat's litter down the toilet can also save the planet. They argue that more than 4 billion pounds (almost 2 billion kilograms) of litter winds up in landfills every year and that the clay that it's made from originates in environmentally destructive strip mines -- all this on top of the potential stink. See more »

Watch out "Us Weekly." Later camera-slinging, ambulance-chasing, privacy-invading paparazzi. A new robotic camera mount made by GigaPan Systems is allowing regular people and their point-and-shoot-cameras to capture some amazing panoramic shots. Instead of immortalizing one small split-second slice of life, you get the whole scene, whether it's the swearing in of a president, the Oscars or a lazy beach scene curving into the sunset. Photogs set their camera onto the mount, indicate the parameters of the panorama they're bent on snapping and then the unit figures out how many photos it needs to take to capture the gigapixel scene, be it ten or a thousand. The GigaPan Epic mount costs $379 and works with most point-and-shoot cameras. The best part? If you have a secure setup, you don't have to snarl at all the other people jostling to take the same shot you desperately want. See more »

Sure, the idea of cats using the toilet may sound efficient, but California sea otters and other marine animals could be paying the price for your scoop-free lifestyle. The parasite Toxoplasma gondii shows up in cat feces and, sadly enough, an alarming number of sea otter corpses as well. See more »

Science is a subject that, for all its awesomeness, often turns off students. That's tragic because pretty much everything in life that's worth obsessing about has some science at its core. So it's always encouraging to see someone reaching out to students with new and exciting methods of fostering scientific zeal. As she recounts in a recent LiveScience article, Nalini M. Nadkarni happened on the notion of combining science with hip-hop while teaching a forest ecology class at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. During a field trip through the state's temperate rain forests, she overheard a student's eco-inspired freestyle rap and decided music might be a great way of connecting with urban schoolchildren. See more »

Like many of my fellow obsessive-compulsive types, I routinely rifle through drawers and closets for unwelcome hangers-on. Once the offending garments have been found, it's off to the Salvation Army -- where it's hard not to do a little browsing. However, the selection at your local thrift store just got a whole lot slimmer, thanks to a new U.S. lead law that went into effect in February. Called the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, the federal law aims to limit the amount of lead and other harmful chemicals, like phthalates, in products geared at children under 12. But the law has been generated an angry uproar and landed lead in the headlines yet again. You don't need me to tell you that the U.S. economy is in the toilet. The Dow just dipped below 7,000 today for the first time in more than 10 years, and the global economy isn't far behind. See more »

Among the many, many things your snazzy iPhone can accomplish, add one more: It can sniff out ghosts. Or pretend to. A company called Moderati Inc. released a simulated paranormal state EMF meter that you can download free on iTunes. It turns out the app is more of a promo for the A&E show "Paranormal State" than anything that will help you detect beings suspended between our world and the hereafter. It did get me curious about EMF meters and if I could buy one if were so inclined. Yeah, yeah, I'm the science editor, but I will admit to being fascinated by ghosts. Berate me if you will. An EMF meter or reader measures the electromagnetic fields in your immediate surroundings, be they haunted house or humdrum household. Ghosts supposedly have strong electromagnetic fields that will register on your handheld meter and confirm or deny your paranormal suspicions. See more »

Might ancient microbes have traveled to Earth aboard meteorites? Russian scientists plan to put this theory to the test by sending a canister of Earth life on a round trip to the Martian moon of Phobos. Will these life forms come back alive or potentially contaminate other worlds? See more »

Human sexuality tends to provide us with enough complexity on its own, but the occasional glance at the rest of the animal kingdom helps put everything in perspective. Yep, according to a new study, the beetles with the "longest and spiniest genitalia" experience the most success in passing on their genes. National Geographic even provides a photo gallery of "bizarre beetle genitalia" if your boss isn't watching over your shoulder. Scientists believe these spines help to anchor the male in place for the duration of the coupling, internally injuring the female in the process. Don't drag all your anthropomorphic baggage into this, though. I think doomed mad scientist Seth Brundle put it best in "The Fly." "Have you ever heard of insect politics?" he asks. "Neither have I. Insects don't have politics. They're very brutal. No compassion, no compromise." See more »

If our TV-watching habits are any indication, people love forensic science. I'm not sure how many "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" shows have been spawned, but people undoubtedly dig a diet of grisly crime-scene dramas and cheesy David Caruso one-liners. Nothing like a fortuitously obtained DNA sample to right the miscarriage of justice and send a show straight to successful syndication. See more »

I hope someone over at the National Security Agency is slacking off and reading the MIT International Review because several geography professors have developed some interesting ideas on how to find one of the most-hunted men on the planet. Yup. Osama bin Laden. Typically, the study's main authors, Thomas Gillespie and John Agnew, are more preoccupied with "theories that predict how plants and animals distribute themselves over space and over time." But combine those theories with some intelligence gathered by trusty spy satellites and you may be on to something. The professors think that their work represents the first scientific approach to establishing bin Laden's current location. Really? Given the time and money the U.S. intelligence community has devoted to the manhunt, that seems a bold claim. But why not give the authors' methods a shot? It's not like anything else has worked. To see a map of one of bin Laden's proposed locations, read this New Yorker article. See more »

Our bodies possess remarkable natural healing capabilities. Throw in a little modern medical science and our ability to bounce back from an injury looks even better. Broken bones fuse back together. Ageing eyes return to 20/20 vision. With a few snips, a doctor can even re-string a major-league pitcher's throwing arm. When it comes to our teeth, however, our options are far more limited. Lose an adult tooth and there's no growing it back. But is there another way? According to a BBC science article, a team of U.S. scientists at Oregon State University may have discovered the key to growing new teeth in a laboratory. They successfully pinpointed a gene in mice responsible for the production of the hard, enamel coating that give our chompers their bite. In addition to playing a role in nerve and skin development, the Ctip2 gene plays a key role in the production of ameloblasts, the cells that secrete enamel. See more »

Ah geez. After all that, NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory failed to launch this morning after its scheduled 4:55 a.m. liftoff. Instead of tracking your carbon footprint from on high as we wrote about here last week, it's probably watching fish swim by somewhere on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, according to NASA official John Brunschwyler. See more »