Right Now in Stuff to Blow Your Mind

After stewing quietly for years, an undersea volcano off the coast of Tonga in the South Pacific Ocean burst angrily onto the scene, according to AP. A truly impressive eruption plume shot through the sea's surface, and another rocketed 15,000 to 25,000 feet straight up to mingle with meteorological clouds on Wednesday.

NASA is currently formulating a plan to send several missions to Earth's other sister world, Venus, according to an article today in New Scientist. Numerous U.S. and Soviet spacecraft have made the journey in the past, including both unmanned satellites and unmanned surface probes. What sets this proposed Venus mission apart is the use of high-altitude balloons to study the planet's upper atmosphere.

Not to alarm any readers out there in the U.K., but according to a recent Telegraph article, there's a chance Satan may have walked through your backyard earlier this month. On March 5, 2009, a woman in Devon woke to find the bipedal cloven hoof marks in the snow. Check out the video from CFZTV to see actual footage. According to local legend, a very similar set of tracks appeared in the snow 150 years ago, in an incident known as "the devil's footprints." The February 1855 incident reportedly involved a 100-mile (160-kilometer) stretch of tracks, which even crossed 14-foot (4-meter) walls. While the devil explanation certainly captured the popular imagination, skeptics aplenty attributed the tracks to everything from electrical disturbances to runaway kangaroos and a rope-trailing hot air balloon. The cloven appearance, in turn, could have been due to a freeze-thaw action.

In fall 2008, the Minnesota Department of Health began reaching out to the sizable Somali community about the number of preschool children diagnosed with autism in the state's public school system. The numbers seemed a little high -- high enough to warrant calling in federal epidemiologists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate whether the numbers represented a bona fide outbreak or a weird anomaly. What are those numbers? They're not in yet. A summary report analyzing available data on young Somali children in the Minneapolis Autism Program is due by April 1, 2009, according to the Minnesota public health Web site dealing with autism in the Somali community, which numbers about 30,000 people. But that didn't stop the New York Times from sounding the alarm this morning in the related story.

Get psyched International Space Station. Here comes the Discovery shuttle, ready or not. Once it's done executing the necessary acrobatics, namely a back flip and some tricky backing in, it will start closing the gap between the shuttle and the station. Right now, docking is expected at 5:12:46 p.m. EDT, according to NASA. Watch the live feed at MSNBC. Right now it's a bunch of boring desk folks (sorry mission control) waiting for the action, but things are bound to get interesting in minutes. Actually, who am I kidding? It's really exciting right now.

A Norwegian expedition recently discovered fossils from a previously undiscovered Jurassic-era sea monster, according to the University of Oslo's Natural History Museum. As if attempting to test the very limits of awesomeness, researchers from the expedition have dubbed the 49-foot (15-meter) beast "Predator X."

Yes, according to BBC News, not only are monkeys in Thailand flossing their teeth, they seem to be passing this knowledge onto their children. What really impresses biologists about this behavior is that teaching proper tool use to a third party tends to be a humans-only affair. But the females appear to spend twice as much time cleaning their teeth when the little ones are watching. Is this dental hygiene boom a sign of evolution at work? A team of Japanese researchers intends to get to the bottom of this. Meanwhile, what are the chimps in America up to? They're calmly arming their zoo enclosures with stones to later throw against humans. Far from running in terror from the possibilities of a chimpanzee uprising, biologists have moved in for a closer look. The chimp's' actions indicate that the animals may have a far more complicated understanding of the future than previously thought.

With NASA's self-described "picture-perfect" launch of the Discovery shuttle last night, space just got infinitesimally more crowded. I don't know about you, but when I think about interplanetary space, I don't think of premium real estate or routes being issues. It's not like we're fighting over an affordably priced studio apartment in New York City. As it turns out, that's a pretty simple view of space traffic. Think about it. Thursday afternoon, astronauts on the International Space Station hit the deck as space debris zoomed close. In case you missed it, here's my fellow science blogger Robert Lamb's post about it. Now NASA is reporting that another piece of junk is heading toward the station and may alter the course of the inbound Discovery shuttle. These collisions or close calls aren't even counting satellites crashing into one another, as a Russian and U.S. satellite did back in February, or the threat (albeit remote) that near-Earth objects present.

This past summer, my toddler developed an MRSA boil on the back of her chubby leg. The pediatrician explained that Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infections were common in schools and daycare facilities. She was remarkably blase about it. I, on the other hand, wasn't -- and neither was my husband a few months later when he developed (and recovered from) an MRSA infection in the lining of his eye. It was pretty scary. Bacteria are wily, as a host of big-time bacterial diseases like tuberculosis increasingly demonstrate. Multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR TB) or extensively drug-resistant TB (XDR TB), anyone? But here's the good news. Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York are developing a new line of antibiotic compounds that don't spark bacterial resistance, according to a related press release. Instead of using antibiotics to kill the microbes that cause cholera and E. coli-related illnesses, these trial compounds permanently disable the nasty microorganisms.

Before you get busy tracking down the McDonald's Shamrock Shake or drinking green beer on Tuesday, St. Patrick's Day, take a moment tomorrow to celebrate Pi (?) Day. It's the only Greek letter that gets it very own annual celebration -- by math enthusiasts.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station briefly evacuated to their Russian Soyuz escape pod today when NASA spotted space debris in the vicinity. Luckily for all concerned, 11 minutes and numerous panicky headlines later, everything was fine. The space junk passed within three miles of the station. Given the amount of damage that an orbital collision could inflict on the station, evacuations of this sort are standard operating procedure in space. In this case, the potential shrapnel was reportedly a small piece of an old spacecraft motor, but the amount of space garbage surrounding our planet is a growing problem. Some of these pieces travel at speeds as high as 17,500 miles per hour (28,164 kilometers per hour), and experts predict that there are as many as 40 million of them zooming around up there -- several thousand metric tons of cosmic litter. These bits range from abandoned launch vehicle stages to tiny flecks of paint.

Lots of us have nicknames. My fellow science blogger apparently goes by Rob, although at work, he's strictly Robert. Some of you may even have a pet name for your partner that you'd rather not cop to. But do you have a private name for yourself? According to an interview with historian Bill Newman, Isaac Newton did, and it was awesome -- Jehovah Sanctus Unus, or Jehovah, the Great One. It turns out the man better known for his universal law of gravitation, three laws of motion and mind-blowing intellect was a bit of an oddity. Aren't we all, Newton? In his spare time, and he didn't have much because the guy worked way too hard, he pursued alchemy and Arianism. (I'm going to have to save the Arianism stuff for another post). Alchemy is the idea that you can transform something ordinary into something special, like lead into gold, say.

This was a big week for aficionados of vampirism and medieval corpse defilement, as archaeologists in Venice discovered the bones of a suspected vampire in a 16th century mass grave for plague victims. No, fangs weren't the giveaway -- it was actually the huge brick shoved into its mouth. The archaeologists suspect that the brick was inserted as a kind of exorcism for the corpse. Medieval Europe wasn't exactly a hotbed of medical science, and human decomposition was poorly understood. Superstition ran rampant. What might a denizen of such a demon-haunted world think upon discovering that a corpse had bloated, chewed through its grave shroud and dribbled bloody purge fluid down its chin? Exactly. You plug the corpse with a brick and move on. At the time, a little local panic was enough to see an entire graveyard exhumed in the hunt for bloodsuckers.

Last week I looked into the fascinating conflict between toilet-trained cats and sea otters, as well as the role cat litter choices may make in saving the planet. Whether you're flushing or trashing your used kitty litter, it's important to note that many varieties are 90 percent non-biodegradable clay, which we get through strip mining.

Every day, another story hits the wire detailing some newfound robotic ability. Today, scientists at Brown University happily reported that they trained a robot to obey nonverbal commands in environments previously thought to be difficult for our exceedingly competent robotic friends. Whether they're tending our tomatoes, as a bunch of MIT students turned farmers programmed them to do, zooming around your floor and picking up idle crumbs -- yes, I really want a Roomba! -- or patrolling borders in South Korea or Israel, robots are developing freakishly fast. And that scares philosopher A.C. Grayling, who's calling for robot regulation in New Scientist. Grayling isn't stressing so much about the domestically inclined robots so much as the surveillance, military or police robots. He's arguing for regulation that covers all robotic devices before it's too late. Maybe, as my fellow science blogger Robert pointed out, he recently rented "Runaway" or "The Terminator?"

Let's tread into controversial territory, shall we? If you believe a recent study from the National Institutes of Health, then your belief in God isn't all that special -- at least from a neurological standpoint. Researchers recently hooked 40 test subjects up to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) equipment and quizzed them about their beliefs, doubts and quandaries over the existence of a higher power, according to a story from NPR. This is the same technology that allows us to see what sections of the brain light up when we, say, contemplate the idea of beauty.

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.

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.

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.

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.