Today on New Scientist: 21 December 2012







Cadaver stem cells offer new hope of life after death

Stem cells can be extracted from bone marrow five days after death to be used in life-saving treatments



Apple's patents under fire at US patent office

The tech firm is skating on thin ice with some of the patents that won it a $1 billion settlement against Samsung



Himalayan dam-building threatens endemic species

The world's highest mountains look set to become home to a huge number of dams - good news for clean energy but bad news for biodiversity



Astrophile: Black hole exposed as a dwarf in disguise

A white dwarf star caught mimicking a black hole's X-ray flashes may be the first in a new class of binary star systems



Blind juggling robot keeps a ball in the air for hours

The robot, which has no visual sensors, can juggle a ball flawlessly by analysing its trajectory



Studio sessions show how Bengalese finch stays in tune

This songbird doesn't need technological aids to stay in tune - and it's smart enough to not worry when it hears notes that are too far off to be true



Giant tooth hints at truly monumental dinosaur

A lone tooth found in Argentina may have belonged to a dinosaur even larger than those we know of, but what to call it?



Avian flu virus learns to fly without wings

A strain of bird flu that hit the Netherlands in 2003 travelled by air, a hitherto suspected by unproven route of transmission



Feedback: Are wind turbines really fans?

A tale of "disease-spreading" wind farms, the trouble with quantifying "don't know", the death of parody in the UK, and more



The link between devaluing animals and discrimination

Our feelings about other animals have important consequences for how we treat humans, say prejudice researchers Gordon Hodson and Kimberly Costello



Best videos of 2012: First motion MRI of unborn twins

Watch twins fight for space in the womb, as we reach number 6 in our countdown of the top videos of the year



2012 Flash Fiction winner: Sleep by Richard Clarke

Congratulations to Richard Clarke, who won the 2012 New Scientist Flash Fiction competition with a clever work of satire



Urban Byzantine monks gave in to temptation

They were supposed to live on an ascetic diet of mainly bread and water, but the monks in 6th-century Jerusalem were tucking into animal products



The pregnant promise of fetal medicine

As prenatal diagnosis and treatment advance, we are entering difficult ethical territory



2013 Smart Guide: Searching for human origins in Asia

Africa is where humanity began, where we took our first steps, but those interested in the latest cool stuff on our origins should now look to Asia instead



The end of the world is an opportunity, not a threat

Don't waste time bemoaning the demise of the old order; get on with building the new one



Victorian counting device gets speedy quantum makeover

A photon-based version of a 19th-century mechanical device could bring quantum computers a step closer



Did learning to fly give bats super-immunity?

When bats first took to the air, something changed in their DNA which may have triggered their incredible immunity to viruses



Van-sized space rock is a cosmic oddball

Fragments from a meteor that exploded over California in April are unusually low in amino acids, putting a twist on one theory of how life on Earth began




Read More..

One dies in Canadian plane crash






MONTREAL: One person was killed Saturday after a plane en route from Winnipeg to Nunavut in northern Canada crashed, CBC News reported.

The Perimeter Aviation plane carrying seven passengers and two crew crashed less than a kilometer (0.6 miles) from the airport in town of Sanikiluaq, a Nunavut official told CBC News.

The eight other people on board have survived, the report said.

Sanikiluaq is an Inuit community of 850 residents situated on the Belcher Islands in southeastern Hudson Bay.

- AFP/ck



Read More..

Some states move to ease gun rules









WASHINGTON — As Congress gears up for a fight over possible new gun restrictions, lawmakers in some states have pushed in the opposite direction — to ease gun rules — since the Dec. 14 massacre of 20 first-graders and six women at a school in Newtown, Conn.

None exactly matched the proposal Friday by Wayne LaPierre, head of the National Rifle Assn., to train and deploy armed volunteers to help guard schools around the country.






Legislation has been proposed, however, to allow teachers or other school workers to carry firearms in schools in at least seven states: Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

"I want a last line of defense," said Jason Villalba, a Republican and newly elected Texas state representative who plans to introduce the Protection of Texas Children Act to allow schools to designate staff members as armed "marshals" provided they undergo special training.

Some lawmakers have gone further, proposing that any teacher with a permit to carry a concealed weapon be allowed to bring it into school.

"It is incredibly irresponsible to leave our schools undefended — to allow mad men to kill dozens of innocents when we have a very simple solution available to us to prevent it," said Oklahoma state Rep. Mark McCullough, a Republican who plans to sponsor legislation to allow teachers and principals to carry firearms in schools after they undergo training.

Several states have pushed for stiffer regulations. In California, lawmakers have proposed strengthening already tough state gun laws, including requiring a permit and background checks for anyone who wants to buy bullets.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, vetoed a bill last week that would have allowed gun owners with concealed weapon permits to carry their firearms into schools and other public places. Snyder objected that it didn't let institutions opt out and prohibit weapons on their grounds.

The different legislative responses underscore the difficulty of reaching a political consensus on guns, an issue that often divides lawmakers by geography as much as party affiliation.

Support for gun control measures is much higher in Democratic strongholds in the Northeast and West than in Republican bastions in the Midwest and South, according to polls. But sometimes the divisions are much closer.

Gov. Martin O'Malley of Maryland, a Democrat, complains about "too many guns" and plans to seek gun control legislation.

In neighboring Virginia, Gov. Robert McDonnell, a Republican, said the idea of arming school personnel was worth a discussion.

"If people were armed, not just a police officer but other school officials who were trained and chose to have a weapon, certainly there would have been an opportunity to stop aggressors coming into the school," McDonnell told WTOP radio in Washington.

The idea of arming teachers or administrators has drawn plenty of criticism.

"I've not heard from a single teacher or administrator who said that they want to go to school armed with a gun," said Meg Gruber, president of the Virginia Education Assn.

"Why in the world would you even think of doing this?" added Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Assn. He said Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown "did everything right. … But you can't stop somebody with an automatic assault rifle from shooting out a window and coming through."

Betty Olson, a Republican state representative in South Dakota who proposes allowing teachers with concealed weapon permits to bring their firearms into schools, said she had gotten a favorable response.

"We've got a few anti-gun liberals who think that that's crazy, allowing anybody with a gun into the school," she said. "Never mind those lunatics."

South Carolina state Rep. Phillip D. Lowe, a Republican who proposes to allow concealed weapon permit holders who undergo rigorous training to bring guns into school, agreed.

"There's always some people who are opposed to anything with the letters G-U-N," he said.

ALSO:

Boehner's 'fiscal cliff' plan fails

Obama nominates Sen. John Kerry as secretary of State

Obama criticized over Chuck Hagel candidacy for Defense secretary 

richard.simon@latimes.com



Read More..

Pictures: Fungi Get Into the Holiday Spirit


Photograph courtesy Stephanie Mounaud, J. Craig Venter Institute

Mounaud combined different fungi to create a Santa hat and spell out a holiday message.

Different fungal grow at different rates, so Mounaud's artwork rarely lasts for long. There's only a short window of time when they actually look like what they're suppose to.

"You do have to keep that in perspective when you're making these creations," she said.

For example, the A. flavus fungi that she used to write this message from Santa grows very quickly. "The next day, after looking at this plate, it didn't say 'Ho Ho Ho.' It said 'blah blah blah,'" Mounaud said.

The message also eventually turned green, which was the color she was initially after. "It was a really nice green, which is what I was hoping for. But yellow will do," she said.

The hat was particularly challenging. The fungus used to create it "was troubling because at different temperatures it grows differently. The pigment in this one forms at room temperature but this type of growth needed higher temperatures," Mounaud said.

Not all fungus will grow nicely together. For example, in the hat, "N. fischeri [the brim and ball] did not want to play nice with the P. marneffei [red part of hat] ... so they remained slightly separated."

Published December 21, 2012

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Obama, Congress Waving Bye-Bye Lower Taxes?













The first family arrived in the president's idyllic home state of Hawaii early today to celebrate the holidays, but President Obama, who along with Michelle will pay tribute Sunday to the late Sen. Daniel Inouye at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, could be returning home to Washington sooner than he expected.


That's because the President didn't get his Christmas wish: a deal with Congress on the looming fiscal cliff.


Members of Congress streamed out of the Capitol Friday night with no agreement to avert the fiscal cliff -- a massive package of mandatory tax increases and federal spending cuts triggered if no deal is worked out to cut the deficit. Congress is expected to be back in session by Thursday.


It's unclear when President Obama may return from Hawaii. His limited vacation time will not be without updates on continuing talks. Staff members for both sides are expected to exchange emails and phone calls over the next couple of days.


Meanwhile, Speaker of the House John Boehner is home in Ohio. He recorded the weekly GOP address before leaving Washington, stressing the president's role in the failure to reach an agreement on the cliff.


"What the president has offered so far simply won't do anything to solve our spending problem and begin to address our nation's crippling debt," he said in the recorded address, "The House has done its part to avert this entire fiscal cliff. ... The events of the past week make it clearer than ever that these measures reflect the will of the House."








Fiscal Cliff Negotiations Halted for Christmas Watch Video









Cliffhanger: Congress Heads Home after 'Plan B' Vote Pulled from House Floor Watch Video









Fiscal Cliff: Boehner Doesn't Have Votes for Plan B Watch Video





Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell echoed the sentiment while lamenting the failure to reach a compromise.


"I'm stuck here in Washington trying to prevent my fellow Kentuckians having to shell out more money to Uncle Sam next year," he said.


McConnell is also traveling to Hawaii to attend the Inouye service Sunday.


If the White House and Congress cannot reach a deficit-cutting budget agreement by year's end, by law the across-the-board tax hikes and spending cuts -- the so called fiscal cliff -- will go into effect. Many economists say that will likely send the economy into a new recession.


Reports today shed light on how negotiations fell apart behind closed doors. The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed sources, reported that when Boehner expressed his opposition to tax rate increases, the president allegedly responded, "You are asking me to accept Mitt Romney's tax plan. Why would I do that?"


The icy exchange continued when, in reference to Boehner's offer to secure $800 billion in revenue by limiting deductions, the speaker reportedly implored the president, "What do I get?"


The president's alleged response: "You get nothing. I get that for free."


The account is perhaps the most thorough and hostile released about the series of unsuccessful talks Obama and Boehner have had in an effort to reach an agreement about the cliff.


Unable to agree to a "big deal" on taxes and entitlements, the president is now reportedly hoping to reach a "small deal" with Republicans to avoid the fiscal cliff.


Such a deal would extend unemployment benefits and set the tone for a bigger deal with Republicans down the line.


In his own weekly address, Obama called this smaller deal "an achievable goal ... that can get done in 10 days."


But though there is no definitive way to say one way or the other whether it really is an achievable goal, one thing is for certain: Republican leadership does not agree with the president on this question.


Of reaching an agreement on the fiscal cliff by the deadline, Boehner said, "How we get there, God only knows."



Read More..

Today on New Scientist: 21 December 2012







Cadaver stem cells offer new hope of life after death

Stem cells can be extracted from bone marrow five days after death to be used in life-saving treatments



Apple's patents under fire at US patent office

The tech firm is skating on thin ice with some of the patents that won it a $1 billion settlement against Samsung



Himalayan dam-building threatens endemic species

The world's highest mountains look set to become home to a huge number of dams - good news for clean energy but bad news for biodiversity



Astrophile: Black hole exposed as a dwarf in disguise

A white dwarf star caught mimicking a black hole's X-ray flashes may be the first in a new class of binary star systems



Blind juggling robot keeps a ball in the air for hours

The robot, which has no visual sensors, can juggle a ball flawlessly by analysing its trajectory



Studio sessions show how Bengalese finch stays in tune

This songbird doesn't need technological aids to stay in tune - and it's smart enough to not worry when it hears notes that are too far off to be true



Giant tooth hints at truly monumental dinosaur

A lone tooth found in Argentina may have belonged to a dinosaur even larger than those we know of, but what to call it?



Avian flu virus learns to fly without wings

A strain of bird flu that hit the Netherlands in 2003 travelled by air, a hitherto suspected by unproven route of transmission



Feedback: Are wind turbines really fans?

A tale of "disease-spreading" wind farms, the trouble with quantifying "don't know", the death of parody in the UK, and more



The link between devaluing animals and discrimination

Our feelings about other animals have important consequences for how we treat humans, say prejudice researchers Gordon Hodson and Kimberly Costello



Best videos of 2012: First motion MRI of unborn twins

Watch twins fight for space in the womb, as we reach number 6 in our countdown of the top videos of the year



2012 Flash Fiction winner: Sleep by Richard Clarke

Congratulations to Richard Clarke, who won the 2012 New Scientist Flash Fiction competition with a clever work of satire



Urban Byzantine monks gave in to temptation

They were supposed to live on an ascetic diet of mainly bread and water, but the monks in 6th-century Jerusalem were tucking into animal products



The pregnant promise of fetal medicine

As prenatal diagnosis and treatment advance, we are entering difficult ethical territory



2013 Smart Guide: Searching for human origins in Asia

Africa is where humanity began, where we took our first steps, but those interested in the latest cool stuff on our origins should now look to Asia instead



The end of the world is an opportunity, not a threat

Don't waste time bemoaning the demise of the old order; get on with building the new one



Victorian counting device gets speedy quantum makeover

A photon-based version of a 19th-century mechanical device could bring quantum computers a step closer



Did learning to fly give bats super-immunity?

When bats first took to the air, something changed in their DNA which may have triggered their incredible immunity to viruses



Van-sized space rock is a cosmic oddball

Fragments from a meteor that exploded over California in April are unusually low in amino acids, putting a twist on one theory of how life on Earth began




Read More..

Banquets "off the menu" for China military






BEIJING: China's high-ranking military officers will no longer be treated to receptions featuring liquor and luxury banquets, state media reported on Saturday, as the country's new leaders stress austerity to fight corruption.

The state-run China Daily newspaper, quoting a dispatch from the official Xinhua news agency, said the Central Military Commission announced the new regulations on Friday.

Similar rules were passed down earlier this month aimed at Communist Party officials, as China's new leadership tries to send a clear signal that it is serious about reigning in corruption.

The report said that "receptions for high-ranking officers will no longer feature liquor or luxury banquets", with "welcome banners, red carpets, floral arrangements, formations of soldiers, performances and souvenirs" also to be abandoned.

The Central Military Commission is chaired by new Communist Party chief Xi Jinping, who took over the party and the commission at a key party meeting last month.

"Commission officials are also required to discipline their spouses, children and subordinates and make sure they do not take bribes," the report said, adding that commission officials were banned from staying in civilian or luxury military hotels while on inspection tours.

Xi, who is slated to become China's president in March, has repeatedly pledged to fight graft amid rising social discontent over government corruption and political scandals that have engulfed the Communist Party.

China's political transition this year was tarnished by the case of disgraced politician Bo Xilai, whose wife was convicted of murdering a British businessman.

Bo is awaiting trial for corruption and abuse of power after allegedly using police in Chongqing city where he ruled to remove political opponents and dissidents, practices that are routine in China.

The scandal unveiled rampant graft and lawlessness at the pinnacle of Chinese political power.

- AFP/al



Read More..

Bulls hand Knicks 2nd home loss

Noah ejected in Friday's win after getting into a fight with Chandler.









NEW YORK — Bodies were flying. Profane chants descended from the Madison Square Garden nosebleeds. Three players and a coach grabbed early showers, courtesy of ejections.

Tom Thibodeau must have felt right at home, as if he were back serving as Jeff Van Gundy's right-hand man as a Knicks assistant during the rough-and-tumble '90s.






For good measure, Thibodeau drew a technical foul — one of the game's nine — during the Bulls' 110-106 victory over the Eastern Conference-leading Knicks on Friday night.

The Bulls were up 17 at the time — in the fourth quarter.

It was that kind of wild night at the so-called World's Most Famous Arena, where the Bulls bullied and bothered the Knicks until a ridiculous 45-point fourth quarter trimmed their 25-point, fourth-quarter deficit to the final margin. Still, the Bulls held the Knicks to 41.8 percent shooting and eight 3-pointers — four below their average — to hand them just their second home loss in 13 games.

"You get a 25-point lead on the road against a team like this and you're obviously doing a lot of good things," Thibodeau said. "I'm disappointed with our poise and discipline in the fourth quarter, starting with me. That's not the way we want to close."

The victory came at a cost.

Luol Deng and Taj Gibson both said they're unsure if they will play Saturday night at Atlanta. Gibson's sore right ankle limited him to 3 minutes, 38 seconds. Deng hurt his left shoulder midway through the third when Jason Kidd stripped him as he rose for a shot. Trainers attended to him on the bench for 2:28 before he returned to finish, tying Carmelo Anthony for game-high honors with 29 points.

"I felt it right away in my shoulder," Deng said. "My arm was numb. I was worried my shoulder might be out of place. After a few minutes, it started to feel better. It's sore now, but it's not dislocated. We'll look at it (Saturday)."

Noah, who had 15 points and 12 rebounds, watched Deng's grit in street clothes from the locker room.

He and Tyson Chandler became entangled during a fourth-quarter scramble for rebounding positioning, trading elbows and attempted head-butts. Both drew their second technical fouls and subsequent ejections with 4:39 remaining.

"Things were definitely escalating," Noah said. "I don't think they're used to being down that much and were frustrated. We'll be playing this team a lot. They're very good."

Officials already had ejected Anthony and coach Mike Woodson.

"You can't put it in the officials' hands," Thibodeau said. "We all should have recognized that. They had enough. They weren't taking anybody talking to them. Jo played great but tried to make a point and got thrown. That hurt us."

Marco Belinelli's 22 points and a near triple-double from Kirk Hinrich, who got the Bulls off to a good start with two first-quarter 3-pointers, helped.

When the Bulls downed the Knicks at the United Center on Dec. 8, it came with the caveat that Anthony sat with an injury. This game, particularly the way the Bulls defended through the first three quarters as they piled up a staggering 51-30 rebounding edge, seemed to make a statement.

But not to Noah, who grew up a Knicks fan and wore a cheeky smile throughout his postgame interview.

"This doesn't say anything," he said. "It just says Bulls, W. Knickerbockers, L."

kcjohnson@tribune.com

Twitter @kcjhoop



Read More..

Pictures: Fungi Get Into the Holiday Spirit


Photograph courtesy Stephanie Mounaud, J. Craig Venter Institute

Mounaud combined different fungi to create a Santa hat and spell out a holiday message.

Different fungal grow at different rates, so Mounaud's artwork rarely lasts for long. There's only a short window of time when they actually look like what they're suppose to.

"You do have to keep that in perspective when you're making these creations," she said.

For example, the A. flavus fungi that she used to write this message from Santa grows very quickly. "The next day, after looking at this plate, it didn't say 'Ho Ho Ho.' It said 'blah blah blah,'" Mounaud said.

The message also eventually turned green, which was the color she was initially after. "It was a really nice green, which is what I was hoping for. But yellow will do," she said.

The hat was particularly challenging. The fungus used to create it "was troubling because at different temperatures it grows differently. The pigment in this one forms at room temperature but this type of growth needed higher temperatures," Mounaud said.

Not all fungus will grow nicely together. For example, in the hat, "N. fischeri [the brim and ball] did not want to play nice with the P. marneffei [red part of hat] ... so they remained slightly separated."

Published December 21, 2012

Read More..

Obama Still an 'Optimist' on Cliff Deal


gty barack obama ll 121221 wblog With Washington on Holiday, President Obama Still Optimist on Cliff Deal

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images


WASHINGTON D.C. – Ten days remain before the mandatory spending cuts and tax increases known as the “fiscal cliff” take effect, but President Obama said he is still a “hopeless optimist” that a federal budget deal can be reached before the year-end deadline that economists agree might plunge the country back into recession.


“Even though Democrats and Republicans are arguing about whether those rates should go up for the wealthiest individuals, all of us – every single one of us -agrees that tax rates shouldn’t go up for the other 98 percent of Americans, which includes 97 percent of small businesses,” he said.


He added that there was “no reason” not to move forward on that aspect, and that it was “within our capacity” to resolve.


The question of whether to raise taxes on incomes over $250,000 remains at an impasse, but is only one element of nuanced legislative wrangling that has left the parties at odds.


For ABC News’ breakdown of the rhetoric versus the reality, click here.


At the White House news conference this evening, the president confirmed he had spoken today to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, although no details of the conversations were disclosed.


The talks came the same day Speaker Boehner admitted “God only knows” the solution to the gridlock, and a day after mounting pressure from within his own Republican Party forced him to pull his alternative proposal from a prospective House vote. That proposal, ”Plan B,” called for extending current tax rates for Americans making up to $1 million a year, a far wealthier threshold than Democrats have advocated.


Boehner acknowledged that even the conservative-leaning “Plan B” did not have the support necessary to pass in the Republican-dominated House, leaving a resolution to the fiscal cliff in doubt.


“In the next few days, I’ve asked leaders of Congress to work towards a package that prevents a tax hike on middle-class Americans, protects unemployment insurance for 2 million Americans, and lays the groundwork for further work on both growth and deficit reduction,” Obama said. ”That’s an achievable goal.  That can get done in 10 days.”


Complicating matters: The halls of Congress are silent tonight. The House of Representatives began its holiday recess Thursday and Senate followed this evening.


Meanwhile, the president has his own vacation to contend with. Tonight, he was embarking for Hawaii and what is typically several weeks of Christmas vacation.


However, during the press conference the president said he would see his congressional colleagues “next week” to continue negotiations, leaving uncertain how long Obama plans to remain in the Aloha State.


The president said he hoped the time off would give leaders “some perspective.”


“Everybody can cool off; everybody can drink some eggnog, have some Christmas cookies, sing some Christmas carols, enjoy the company of loved ones,” he said. “And then I’d ask every member of Congress, while they’re back home, to think about that.  Think about the obligations we have to the people who sent us here.


“This is not simply a contest between parties in terms of who looks good and who doesn’t,” he added later. “There are real-world consequences to what we do here.”


Obama concluded by reiterating that neither side could walk away with “100 percent” of its demands, and that it negotiations couldn’t remain “a contest between parties in terms of who looks good and who doesn’t.”


Boehner’s office reacted quickly to the remarks, continuing recent Republican statements that presidential leadership was at fault for the ongoing gridlock.


“Though the president has failed to offer any solution that passes the test of balance, we remain hopeful he is finally ready to get serious about averting the fiscal cliff,” Boehner said. “The House has already acted to stop all of the looming tax hikes and replace the automatic defense cuts. It is time for the Democratic-run Senate to act, and that is what the speaker told the president tonight.”


The speaker’s office said Boehner “will return to Washington following the holiday, ready to find a solution that can pass both houses of Congress.”


Read More..

Van-sized space rock is a cosmic oddball








































The shattered remains of a high-profile space rock are oddly low in organic materials, the raw ingredients for life. The discovery adds a slight wrinkle to the theory that early Earth was seeded with organics by meteorite impacts.












In April a van-sized meteor was seen streaking over northern California and Nevada in broad daylight. The fireball exploded with a sonic boom and sprayed the region with fragments. Videos, photographs and weather radar data allowed the meteor's trajectory to be reconstructed, and teams quickly mobilised to search for pieces in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in northern California.













Researchers readily identified the meteorites as rare CM chondrites, thought to be one of the oldest types of rock in the universe. "Because the meteorites were discovered so freshly, for the first time we had a chance to study this type of meteorite in a pristine form," says Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, who led the search effort and the subsequent study of the space rocks.












Jenniskens personally found a fragment in a parking lot, where it remained relatively free of soil contaminants. "That's the best you could hope for, other than landing in a freezer," says Daniel Glavin of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.











Battered past












CM chondrites make up only about 1 per cent of known meteorites. Most of them contain plenty of organic materials, including amino acids, the building blocks of life on Earth.













Jenniskens and colleagues found that the California fragments also have amino acids, including some not found naturally on Earth. But in three rocks collected before a heavy rainstorm, which bathed the other pieces in earthly contaminants, organics are less abundant by a factor of 1000 than in previously studied CM chondrites.












These three rocks could not have lost organics due to space "weathering": analysis of the meteorites' exposure to cosmic rays suggests the original meteor was flying through space for only about 50,000 years before hitting Earth.












Based on its trajectory and its relatively short flight time, Jenniskens thinks the meteor can be traced back to a family of asteroids dominated by 495 Eulalia, a group known as a possible source of CM chondrites. It is probably a piece that broke off during an impact, revealing the relatively pristine material inside.












So what happened to its organics? Jenniskens' team found that the meteorites are breccia – smaller rocks cemented together – which suggests that the asteroid from which they came took a series of beatings. Those impacts, or possibly other processes inside the asteroid, could have heated it enough to destroy most organic material.











Limited delivery













The result might have implications for the organics delivery theory, says Bill Bottke of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.












"It shows that not all asteroids can deliver sufficient quantities. One of the disappointments is that, from a prebiotic organic chemistry perspective, it was very limited," says Bottke. "But this is an unusual case. Most [CM chondrites] are loaded with organic compounds."











Still, studying the space rocks will help us prepare future missions to asteroids such as OSIRIS-Rex, scheduled to take off for asteroid 1999 RQ36 in 2016 and bring a sample back in 2023.













"In some ways, we've had a sample, a very fresh one, come to us," says Bottke. "This is a test bed for the techniques we'll use in that mission."












Journal reference: Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1227163


















































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Read More..

Madoff's brother sentenced to 10 years for fraud






NEW YORK: Peter Madoff, brother of shamed US financier Bernard Madoff, was sentenced on Thursday to 10 years in prison for cooking the books at the family investment firm.

Peter Madoff, 67, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit securities fraud during his role as book keeper for Bernard Madoff's once widely heralded but in fact fraudulent Wall Street firm.

The brother has also been slapped with stringent penalties that strip him of virtually everything he owns. Bernard Madoff is serving a 150-year sentence after pleading guilty to the multi-billion-dollar pyramid scheme.

"Peter Madoff was a gatekeeper, who was supposed to guard against fraud, but instead enabled it, facilitating his brother Bernie's breath-taking scheme by falsifying compliance records and lying to both regulators and clients," US Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement.

"The decade he will spend in prison and the disgorgement of his assets are a just result."

Prosecutors say Peter Madoff did incredibly well through his brother's scheme, in which investors' capital was robbed to pay fake dividends, giving the appearance of an unusually successful Wall Street investment advisory firm.

Peter Madoff insists he had no idea that the whole firm was a fiction. However, he clearly did little to question where the money was coming from -- including his.

The judge ordered Madoff to pay back $143 billion, which represents everything he and his family own, and an enormous, symbolic additional amount.

This includes assets belonging to his wife Marion and daughter Shana. The surrendered items include several homes and a Ferrari sports car.

Bernard Madoff was the toast of Wall Street for years and remained advisor to a multitude of stars and well-connected members of the American-Jewish community, right up until his arrest in December 2008 and the collapse of his scheme.

Two years after that arrest, on December 11, 2010, Bernard Madoff's eldest son Mark was found hanged in his Manhattan apartment.

- AFP/al



Read More..

Chicago's first snow snarls airports, sparks outages









After a record 290-day snowless stretch, flakes hit the Chicago region late Thursday as the temperature dipped and winds whipped, creating a flurry of power outages and airline cancellations.


At least 500 flights were canceled at O'Hare and Midway as of 8:30 p.m. Meanwhile, meteorologists and transportation and city officials warned motorists to drive slowly and stay off the roads, if possible, as snow swooped into the city and the suburbs.


"We're advising folks ... to drive with extreme caution" on Friday morning, said Mike Claffey, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation, which had crews on the roads since Thursday afternoon. "We think there could be icy patches in the morning, despite our best efforts tonight."





ComEd officials scrambled to fix snapped lines and restore power to at least 28,000 customers, most of whom live in the western part of the state. Several vehicle crashes were also reported toward the end of the afternoon rush hour on various roads.


Meteorologists said as much as four inches of snow could be dumped Thursday, with the northwest and western suburbs likely to be hit the hardest. High winds were also making their way into Chicago on Thursday evening and could grow stronger, according to the National Weather Service.


Thursday's snowfall would pave the way for temperatures in the mid-20s on Friday, with strong gusts and wind chills in the single digits, meteorologists said.


"It's going to feel more like winter as everybody wakes up" on Friday, said David Beachler, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.


Light snow showers are expected throughout Friday, but they should taper off for the rest of the weekend, meteorologists said.


Thursday's flurries rank as the latest first snowfall of the season since records began in 1884.


Before the snow set in, Thursday saw mostly rain that switched from a light drizzle to a heavy pour. Under a light gray sky, shoppers in downtown Chicago juggled large bags and umbrellas while commuters huddled under bus shelters to stay dry.


Metra planned to have staff on hand, including mechanical workers, to make sure emergency repairs could be done promptly. The CTA said it was monitoring traffic and weather conditions to determine if it needed to reroute buses.


The storm had ComEd adding more crews and equipment as wind, snow and ice damaged the company's power system. It also asked other utilities to respond quickly to potential power outages.


Despite the weather warnings, not everyone understood what the fuss was about.


"There is nothing, hardly anything," said Nicole Diliberto, who drove from Chicago to her home in Algonquin. "I'm not sure why everyone is so freaked out."


At O'Hare International Airport, where travelers faced delays of up to 90 minutes, those with canceled flights stood in long lines to reschedule their travel plans.


Passengers with delayed flights slept, some taking shoes off or lying across rows of seats at the United Airlines terminal. Many stood crowded around the flight departure screen, anxiously waiting to see if their flight would eventually be canceled like the hundreds of others earlier in the day.


The cancellations at O'Hare and Midway are likely to ripple into Friday, when the Chicago Department of Aviation expects 200,000 passengers to pass through O'Hare and about 66,000 passengers through Midway.


The Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation said more than 200 of its salt trucks are on the streets, and 150 others could be dispatched if necessary. The city has 285,000 tons of road salt on hand, but it will wait until temperatures drop to lay it down, said Anne Sheahan, the department's spokeswoman.


IDOT mobilized more than 550 snowplows responsible for roads in northern Illinois, while the Illinois Tollway prepared its full fleet of 182 snowplows to try to clear the 286-mile network of toll roads in 12 northern Illinois counties.


Both transportation agencies said they had stockpiled salt and de-icing materials. Also, the tollway canceled all temporary lane closings.





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Hollies Get Prickly for a Reason



With shiny evergreen leaves and bright red berries, holly trees are a naturally festive decoration seen throughout the Christmas season.


They're famously sharp. But not all holly leaves are prickly, even on the same tree. And scientists now think they know how the plants are able to make sharper leaves, seemingly at will. (Watch a video about how Christmas trees are made.)


A new study published in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society suggests leaf variations on a single tree are the combined result of animals browsing on them and the trees' swift molecular response to that sort of environmental pressure.


Carlos Herrera of the National Research Council of Spain led the study in southeastern Spain. He and his team investigated the European holly tree, Ilex aquifolium. Hollies, like other plants, can make different types of leaves at the same time. This is called heterophylly. Out of the 40 holly trees they studied, 39 trees displayed different kinds of leaves, both prickly and smooth.



Five holly leaves from the same tree.

Five holly leaves from the same tree.


Photographs by Emmanuel Lattes, Alamy




Some trees looked like they had been browsed upon by wild goats and deer. On those trees, the lower 8 feet (2.5 meters) had more prickly leaves, while higher up the leaves tended to be smooth. Scientists wanted to figure out how the holly trees could make the change in leaf shape so quickly.


All of the leaves on a tree are genetic twins and share exactly the same DNA sequence. By looking in the DNA for traces of a chemical process called methylation, which modifies DNA but doesn't alter the organism's genetic sequence, the team could determine whether leaf variation was a response to environmental or genetic changes. They found a relationship between recent browsing by animals, the growth of prickly leaves, and methylation.


"In holly, what we found is that the DNA of prickly leaves was significantly less methylated than prickless leaves, and from this we inferred that methylation changes are ultimately responsible for leaf shape changes," Herrera said. "The novelty of our study is that we show that these well-known changes in leaf type are associated with differences in DNA methylation patterns, that is, epigenetic changes that do not depend on variation in the sequence of DNA."


"Heterophylly is an obvious feature of a well-known species, and this has been ascribed to browsing. However, until now, no one has been able to come up with a mechanism for how this occurs," said Mike Fay, chief editor of the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society and head of genetics at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens. "With this new study, we are now one major step forward towards understanding how."


Epigenetic changes take place independently of variation in the genetic DNA sequence. (Read more about epigenetics in National Geographic magazine's "A Thing or Two About Twins.")


"This has clear and important implications for plant conservation," Herrera said. In natural populations that have their genetic variation depleted by habitat loss, the ability to respond quickly, without waiting for slower DNA changes, could help organisms survive accelerated environmental change. The plants' adaptability, he says, is an "optimistic note" amidst so many conservation concerns. (Related: "Wild Holly, Mistletoe, Spread With Warmer Winters.")


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Fiscal Cliff 'Plan B' Is Dead: Now What?


Dec 20, 2012 11:00pm







The defeat of his Plan B — Republicans pulled it when it became clear it would be voted down — is a big defeat for Speaker of the House John Boehner.  It demonstrates definitively that there is no fiscal cliff deal that can pass the House on Republican votes alone.


Boehner could not even muster the votes to pass something that would only allow tax rates on those making more than $1 million to go up.


Boehner’s Plan B ran into opposition from conservative and tea party groups -including Heritage Action, Freedom Works and the Club for Growth – but it became impossible to pass it after Senate Democrats vowed not to take up the bill and the president threatened to veto it.  Conservative Republicans saw no reason to vote for a bill conservative activists opposed – especially if it had no hopes of going anywhere anyway.


Plan B is dead.


Now what?


House Republicans say it is now up to the Senate to act.  Senate Democrats say it is now up to Boehner to reach an agreement with President Obama.


Each side is saying the other must move.


The bottom line:  The only plausible solution is for President Obama and Speaker Boehner to do what they have failed repeatedly to do:  come up with a truly bi-partisan deal.


The prospects look grimmer than ever. It will be interesting to see if the markets react.



SHOWS: This Week







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Human hands evolved so we could punch each other









































Forget toolmaking, think fisticuffs. Did evolution shape our hands not for dexterity but to form fists so we could punch other people? That idea emerges from a new study, although it runs counter to conventional wisdom.











About the same time as we stopped hanging from trees and started walking upright, our hands become short and square, with opposable thumbs. These anatomical changes are thought to have evolved for tool manipulation, but David Carrier at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City has an alternative explanation.













He says there are several possible hand shapes that would have allowed greater dexterity, making it less clear why we ended up with the hands we have. But only one hand shape lets us make a fist with a thumb as buttress.












Among primates' hands, ours is unique for its ability to form a fist with the thumb outside the fingers. The fingers of other primates' hands are too long to curl into their palms, and their thumbs are too short to reach across the fingers. So when apes fight, they are far more likely to wrestle or hold their opponent down while others stomp on him, says Carrier.












To test the importance of fists, Carrier and his colleagues recruited 10 athletes and measured how hard they could hit a punching bag using a normal fist, a fist with the thumb stuck out, and with an open palm.












The athletes could generate more than twice the force with a normal fist as with the thumb-stuck-out fist, because of thumb's buttressing role. There was no difference in the force they could generate with a normal fist and with an open palm, but Carrier says it's possible that a fist concentrates the force into a smaller area and so does more damage.











Cause or effect?













Mary Marzke of Arizona State University in Tempe says the study is interesting, but it far from proves that the ability to make a strong fist was the main driver behind the evolution of our hands' shape. It is more likely that it was a useful side effect of a whole suite of modifications.












She points out that apes strike with the heel of their hand when knocking fruit out of trees. Carrier's study didn't assess the force that the heel of the hand generates, but if it turns out to be as good as a fist, it becomes less clear that our hands evolved so as to be perfect for fist-making, Marzke says.











But if the hypothesis is true, Carrier thinks it could explain another mystery. It has long been unclear why high levels of testosterone cause men's ring fingers to be longer than their index fingers. He says the finger-length ratio makes sense if it generates a better fist. This would make dominant males even better fighters.













Journal reference: Journal of Experimental Biology, doi:10.1242/jeb.075713


















































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Mexico empties prison of inmates after deadly riot






DURANGO, Mexico: Officials have removed all of the prisoners -- about 500 inmates -- from a prison in northern Mexico, one day after the facility erupted in violence, leaving 15 inmates and nine guards dead.

The prison "has been totally emptied as a preventive measure," Durango public safety spokesman Fernando Rios told AFP, who said the inmates had been distributed to penal facilities throughout the region.

Security forces said Tuesday's uprising, which occurred at the prison in the city of Gomez Palacio, erupted when prison guards foiled an attempted jailbreak by inmates.

Mass jailbreaks have become a recurring problem in Mexico. In September, 131 inmates escaped through the front door of a prison in Piedras Negras, a city on the US border.

A jailbreak at a prison in the northern state of Nuevo Leon in February saw 44 prisoners killed during fighting between two warring drug cartels.

In the last two years, 521 inmates have run free in 14 prison escapes while 352 homicides have been committed inside penitentiaries, according to the National Human Rights Commission.

- AFP



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FBI: Video shows escaped bank robbers getting into cab

There have been more developments today in the story of two men who escaped a Chicago prison yesterday.









Two fugitive bank robbers who slid down the side of a high-rise federal jail on a rope constructed from bedsheets made their getaway by hopping a cab a few blocks away, authorities said Wednesday as they continued the manhunt for the elusive convicts.


Federal agents obtained surveillance video of Joseph "Jose" Banks and Kenneth Conley jumping into a taxi at Congress Parkway and Michigan Avenue at about 2:40 a.m., FBI spokeswoman Joan Hyde said. The video showed the two wearing light-colored clothing.


The break helped investigators pinpoint the timing of the bold nighttime escape from some 15 stories above the street at the Metropolitan Correctional Center.








Banks and Conley, both convicted bank robbers awaiting sentencing, were last accounted for at 10 p.m. Monday during a routine bed check.


Hours after the pair fled south in the cab, they banged on Conley's mother's door in far southwest suburban Tinley Park but were quickly sent on their way, according to a family member.


The two were last seen walking away from the home about 7 a.m., Hyde said.


FBI agents were analyzing the video for more leads, including the identity of the cab company and the number of the taxi.


The FBI also announced on Wednesday a $50,000 reward for information leading the capture of the two fugitives. Banks, 37, was described as black, 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighing 160 pounds, while Conley, 38, is white, 6 feet and 185 pounds. Conley has a tattoo of a devil on his shoulder and a sun tattoo on his back.


With the pair on the loose for a second day, new details were emerging about Conley, the lesser known of the two.


Unlike Banks, who was considered by the FBI as one of the most prolific bank robbers in Chicago history, Conley was facing sentencing on just one bank holdup.


According to court records, Conley has a long criminal history. He has been convicted in Cook County of offenses ranging from retail theft to weapons violations and was sentenced to eight years in prison for an armed robbery in 1996.


Conley also was sentenced to six years in prison in San Diego County for petty theft with a prior conviction, according to California records. Less than a year after his parole in 2010, Conley robbed a bank in suburban Homewood of less than $4,000 cash, the heist that landed in him in the MCC.


Federal court records show Conley had been involuntarily committed at a hospital not long after the May 2011 bank robbery and that he was arrested at the Tinley Park Mental Health Center for violating his California parole.


A brother of Conley's who asked that his name not be printed said he wasn't home when Conley and Banks arrived at the family home early Tuesday, but he spoke to his mother and sister minutes after the pair's visit.


He said Conley turned up at the Tinley Park home with a man whom family members later identified as Banks.


"He was pounding on the door, and the doorbell was going crazy," said his brother.


Conley came in, looking frazzled and wearing a white shirt and gray pants, the brother said. "He said, 'Hey, I'm out on bond,' which we thought was strange, because usually the family gets some notice."


They asked him to leave, although one brother gave him a winter coat.


"Do I think he's capable of doing something dangerous?," the brother said. "I don't know. I hope he just turns himself in."


Banks, too, has a criminal history, court records show. He was sentenced to three years in prison each for a 1994 burglary and a 1995 attempted burglary.





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Detecting Rabid Bats Before They Bite


A picture is worth a thousand words—or in the case of bats, a rabies diagnosis. A new study reveals that rabid bats have cooler faces compared to uninfected colony-mates. And researchers are hopeful that thermal scans of bat faces could improve rabies surveillance in wild colonies, preventing outbreaks that introduce infections into other animals—including humans.

Bats are a major reservoir for the rabies virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. Previous research shows that bats can transmit their strains to other animals, potentially putting people at risk. (Popular Videos: Bats share the screen with creepy co-stars.)

Rabies, typically transmitted in saliva, targets the brain and is almost always fatal in animals and people if left untreated. No current tests detect rabies in live animals—only brain tissue analysis is accurate.

Searching for a way to detect the virus in bats before the animals died, rabies specialist James Ellison and his colleagues at the CDC turned to a captive colony of big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus). Previous studies had found temperature increases in the noses of rabid raccoons, so the team expected to see similar results with bats.

Researchers established normal temperature ranges for E. fuscus—the bat species most commonly sent for rabies testing—then injected 24 individuals with the virus. The 21-day study monitored facial temperatures with infrared cameras, and 13 of the 21 bats that developed rabies showed temperature drops of more than 4ÂșC.

"I was surprised to find the bats' faces were cooler because rabies causes inflammation—and that creates heat," said Ellison. "No one has done this before with bats," he added, and so researchers aren't sure what's causing the temperature changes they've discovered in the mammals. (Related: "Bats Have Superfast Muscles—A Mammal First.")

Although thermal scans didn't catch every instance of rabies in the colony, this method may be a way to detect the virus in bats before symptoms appear. The team plans to fine-tune their measurements of facial temperatures, and then Ellison hopes to try surveillance in the field.

This study was published online November 9 in Zoonoses and Public Health.


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Obama Invokes Newtown on 'Cliff' Deal













Invoking the somber aftermath of the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., President Obama today appealed to congressional Republicans to embrace a standing "fair deal" on taxes and spending that would avert the fiscal cliff in 13 days.


"If there's one thing we should have after this week, it should be a sense of perspective about what's important," Obama said at a midday news conference.


"I would like to think that members of that [Republican] caucus would say to themselves, 'You know what? We disagree with the president on a whole bunch of things,'" he said. "'But right now what the country needs is for us to compromise.'"


House Speaker John Boehner's response: "Get serious."


Boehner announced at a 52-second news conference that the House will vote Thursday to approve a "plan B" to a broad White House deal -- and authorize simply extending current tax rates for people earning less than $1 million a year and little more.


"Then, the president will have a decision to make," the Ohio Republican said. "He can call on Senate Democrats to pass that bill or he could be responsible for the largest tax increase in American history."








Fiscal Cliff Negotiations: Trying to Make a Deal Watch Video









House Speaker John Boehner Proposes 'Plan B' on Taxes Watch Video









'Fiscal Cliff' Negotiations: Deal Might Be Within Reach Watch Video





Unless Congress acts by Dec. 31, every American will face higher income tax rates and government programs will get hit with deep automatic cuts starting in 2013.


Obama and Boehner have been inching closer to a deal on tax hikes and spending cuts to help reduce the deficit. But they have not yet had a breakthrough on a deal.


Obama's latest plan would raise $1.2 trillion in new tax revenue over 10 years, largely through higher tax rates on incomes above $400,000. He also proposes roughly $930 billion in spending cuts, including new limits on entitlement spending, such as slower annual cost-of-living increases for Social Security beneficiaries.


Boehner has agreed to $1 trillion in new tax revenue, with a tax rate hike for households earning over $1 million. He is seeking more than $1 trillion in spending cuts, with significant changes to Medicare and Social Security.


The president said today that he remains "optimistic" about reaching a broad compromise by Christmas because both sides are "pretty close," a sentiment that has been publicly shared by Boehner.


But the speaker's backup plan has, at least temporarily, stymied talks, with no reported contact between the sides since Monday.


"The speaker should return to the negotiating table with the president because if he does I firmly believe we can have an agreement before Christmas," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a White House ally.


Schumer said Obama and Boehner are "not that far apart" in the negotiations.


"If they were to come to an agreement by Friday, they could write this stuff over the Christmas break and then we'd have to come back before the New Year and pass it," Schumer said.


Obama said he is "open to conversations" and planned to reach out to congressional leaders over the next few days to try to nudge Republicans to accept a "fair deal."


"At some point, there's got to be, I think, a recognition on the part of my Republican friends that -- you know, take the deal," he told reporters.


"They keep on finding ways to say no, as opposed to finding ways to say yes," Obama added. "At some point, you know, they've got take me out of it and think about their voters and think about what's best for the country."



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Today on New Scientist: 18 December 2012








Violent polar storms help control the world's weather

Without the mini-hurricanes which form over the Arctic, the world could face massive weather disruption



Ancient city of Troy rebranded itself after war

Changing styles of pottery 3200 years ago show the Trojans were quick to align themselves with the region's new political power



Court ruling will clarify end-of-life decisions

Canada's supreme court will soon rule on whether doctors can stop treatment for "unconscious" patients, but determining awareness remains a thorny issue



Colourful claw of tiny ocean predator

See a prizewinning photo of the claw of a Phronima: a tiny marine predator whose size belies its ferocity



Gaming chair mimics a full-motion simulator

If you can't afford a full-motion flight or car simulator, here's a cheap way of creating some of the same effects



How an ancient Egyptian code unmasked a cannibal star

Has a papyrus from the time of the pharaohs exposed the ghoulish habits of the baleful Demon Star? Stephen Battersby investigates



Best videos of 2012: Bonobo genius makes stone tools

Watch a creative bonobo fashion tools to retrieve hidden food, at number 9 in our countdown of the year's best videos



Is the obesity epidemic caused by too much sugar?

In Fat Chance, endocrinologist Robert Lustig argues that insidious changes to our eating habits have caused disruptions to our endocrine systems



'The idea we live in a simulation isn't science fiction'

If the universe is just a Matrix-like simulation, how could we ever know? Physicist Silas Beane thinks he has the answer



Fungal frog killer hops into crayfish

Crayfish are vulnerable to the same chytrid fungus already killing frogs all over the world. The discovery provides a clue to how the disease spreads




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Migrant Workers' Centre reminds employers of their roles






SINGAPORE: The Migrant Workers' Centre has reminded employers of their responsibilities to foreign workers under Singapore's manpower regulations.

These include prompt payment of salaries, providing acceptable housing and adequate care during their stay here.

The reminder came after Tuesday' incident at a Yishun construction site where some workers stopped work as a result of unpaid salaries.

The centre's chairman, Yeo Guat Kwang, also urged the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to respond swiftly to all foreign worker claims and complaints so that they do not take matters into their own hands out of desperation.

The centre said it has always advocated for stricter enforcement against errant employers, and is encouraged by the ministry's swift response to Tuesday's Yishun incident.

The centre said it received notice of the workers' salary dispute with Sime Chong Construction at 4pm on Tuesday, and quickly sent a team to the site.

The team worked with MOM officials, the employer and workers to reach a satisfactory resolution.

The centre also provided emergency housing for four workers who were not able to have their claims resolved on Tuesday. It will follow up with the ministry on Wednesday and is confident of a favourable resolution for them.

The centre added that it is ready to intervene and provide further assistance to the workers, should the need arise.

- CNA/al



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Field Museum to cut staff, may reduce hours of operation









Battered by the recession and a high debt load, the Field Museum on Tuesday announced plans to cut staff, overhaul its operations and limit the scope of its research.

A comprehensive plan being drawn up by museum officials also could include changes to its hours of operation and the admission price for special exhibits. Staff reductions would be aimed at curators and scientists, according to museum officials.

"This may turn out to involve shrinking certain areas of inquiry," said John Rowe, chairman of the museum's board of trustees.

The Field Museum is both an international research institution and a vital cultural attraction for residents and tourists, drawing about 1.3 million visitors in 2011.

The natural history museum is home to Sue, the best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex in the world and a Chicago icon. In the bowels of the museum and all around the world, Field scientists also are discovering new plants and animals—more than 200 last year alone—along with preserving rain forests and studying artifacts.

That complex, dual mission comes at a price, however, one that has grown increasingly difficult to cover amid the persistent economic downturn.

The cost-cutting plan announced Tuesday comes on the heels of a previous effort that included reducing operating costs by $5 million, mostly through staff cuts. Those measures were not enough to shore up an institution that in the past decade has doubled its bond debt and run multiple operating deficits amid flat revenues and shrinking government subsidies.

In April, the museum tapped former University of Oregon president Richard Lariviere to become president and CEO. Lariviere, who started in October, said he wants to use the cost-cutting measures as an opportunity to refocus the museum's mission.

"If we wrestle these issues to the ground successfully, our future is rosy," he said during a meeting with the Tribune's editorial board.

The effort will take shape between now and July 1, with input from the museum's staff and board members, who signed off on the approach Monday. The goal is to trim another $5 million in costs and, during the next few years, add $100 million to the museum's endowment.

Although the price of special exhibits may rise slightly, Lariviere said the average museum patron should feel little or no change in the short term. Over the long run, he said, the museum will rely more on its own collection, use technology to enhance its interaction with visitors and be more selective in choosing special exhibits it brings in from the outside.

Though the recession contributed significantly to the museum's financial struggles, its debt load is also to blame. The museum has more $170 million in outstanding bonds, which is "very high" compared with the Field's endowment of about $300 million, Lariviere said.

Those bonds cost the Field more than $7 million a year out of an operating budget of less than $70 million. The debt — along with the operating losses that the museum has seen in the past decade — has drawn the attention of Moody's Investors Service, which described the museum's finances as "imbalanced."

The high debt load means the museum is not able to borrow any more money, which affects its ability to shore up operations.

"Our credit cards are maxed out," Lariviere said.

He also suggested that it's possible the museum would seek to restructure its debt, taking advantage of historically low interest rates.

Despite the financial pressures, Lariviere said the museum benefits from a healthy endowment fund and loyal donors.

He and other museum officials outlined the broad strokes of their plan to staff members Tuesday. Those include shrinking its museum's staff and overhauling its management structure, he said.

Currently the museum is organized much like a university, with researchers divided into academic departments. Under Lariviere's plan, that structure would be simplified into four broad areas: science and education, programming, fundraising and operations.

He views those changes as a chance to better leverage the Field's world-renowned scientific collections to shed light on some of the most pressing questions of the day. Among them: climate change.

"Those kinds of climatological shifts, those kinds of questions related to the environment, are going to be one of the sweet spots of the museum going forward," Lariviere said.

The idea is to monetize the museum's one-of-a-kind collection while relying less on bringing in exhibitions from other institutions, which costs more money. "We've got to find a way to get more bang out of the exhibits," Lariviere said.

Museum officials said they also expect to cut research staff as they seek to narrow the scope of its mission, in part because support staffing already has been reduced.

Those cuts have been so drastic that Lariviere said it's now more of a crisis when a housekeeping staffer calls in sick than when a curator does.

With operational staff cut to the bone, Rowe said, "We have to get (savings) out of focusing our scientific work, but not eliminating it, out of reprioritizing our exhibitions and making certain that we are doing the right thing."

However, he acknowledged, those moves are likely to stir controversy inside the museum. "Over the next five months, we've got to come up with a more descriptive, positive agenda."

hgillers@tribune.com

jgrotto@tribune.com

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Race Is On to Find Life Under Antarctic Ice



A hundred years ago, two teams of explorers set out to be the first people ever to reach the South Pole. The race between Roald Amundsen of Norway and Robert Falcon Scott of Britain became the stuff of triumph, tragedy, and legend. (See rare pictures of Scott's expedition.)


Today, another Antarctic drama is underway that has a similar daring and intensity—but very different stakes.


Three unprecedented, major expeditions are underway to drill deep through the ice covering the continent and, researchers hope, penetrate three subglacial lakes not even known to exist until recently.


The three players—Russia, Britain, and the United States—are all on the ice now and are in varying stages of their preparations. The first drilling was attempted last week by the British team at Lake Ellsworth, but mechanical problems soon cropped up in the unforgiving Antarctic cold, putting a temporary hold on their work.


The key scientific goal of the missions: to discover and identify living organisms in Antarctica's dark, pristine, and hidden recesses. (See "Antarctica May Contain 'Oasis of Life.'")


Scientists believe the lakes may well be home to the kind of "extreme" life that could eke out an existence on other planets or moons of our solar system, so finding them on Earth could help significantly in the search for life elsewhere.



An illustration shows lakes and rivers under Antarctica's ice.
Lakes and rivers are buried beneath Antarctica's thick ice (enlarge).

Illustration courtesy Zina Deretsky, NSF




While astrobiology—the search for life beyond Earth—is a prime mover in the push into subglacial lakes, so too is the need to better understand the ice sheet that covers the vast continent and holds much of the world's water. If the ice sheet begins to melt due to global warming, the consequences—such as global sea level rise—could be catastrophic.


"We are the new wave of Antarctic explorers, pioneers if you will," said Montana State University's John Priscu, chief scientist of the U.S. drilling effort this season and a longtime Antarctic scientist.


"After years of planning, projects are coming together all at once," he said.


"What we find this year and next will set the stage for Antarctic science for the next generation and more—just like with the explorers a century ago."


All Eyes on the Brits


All three research teams are at work now, but the drama is currently focused on Lake Ellsworth, buried 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) below the West Antarctic ice sheet.


A 12-person British team is using a sophisticated technique that involves drilling down using water melted from the ice, which is then heated to 190 degrees Fahrenheit (88 degrees Celsius).


The first drilling attempt began on December 12, but was stopped at almost 200 feet (61 meters) because of technical problems with the sensors on the drill nozzle.


Drilling resumed on Saturday but then was delayed when both boilers malfunctioned, requiring the team to wait for spare parts. The situation is frustrating but normal due to the harsh climate, British Antarctic team leader Martin Siegert, who helped discover Lake Ellsworth in 2004, said in an email from the site.


After completing their drilling, the team will have about 24 hours to collect their samples before the hole freezes back up in the often below-zero cold. If all goes well, they could have lake water and mud samples as early as this week.


"Our expectation is that microbes will be found in the lake water and upper sediment," Siegert said. "We would be highly surprised if this were not the case."


The British team lives in tents and makeshift shelters, and endures constant wind as well as frigid temperatures. (Take an Antarctic quiz.)


"Right now we are working round the clock in a cold, demanding and extreme location-it's testing our own personal endurance, but it's worth it," Siegert said.


U.S. First to Find Life?


The U.S. team is drilling into Lake Whillans, a much shallower body about 700 miles inland (1,120 kilometers) in the region that drains into the Ross Sea.


The lake, which is part of a broader water system under the ice, may well have the greatest chances of supporting microbial life, experts say. Hot-water drilling begins there in January.


Among the challenges: Lake Whillans lies under an ice stream, which is similar to a glacier but is underground and surrounded by ice on all sides. It moves slowly but constantly, and that complicates efforts to drill into the deepest—and most scientifically interesting—part of the lake.


Montana State's Priscu—currently back in the U.S. for medical reasons—said his team will bring a full lab to the Lake Whillans drilling site to study samples as they come up: something the Russians don't have the interest or capacity in doing and that the British will be trying in a more limited way. (Also see "Pictures: 'Extreme' Antarctic Science Revealed.")


So while the U.S. team may be the last of the three to penetrate their lake, they could be the first to announce the discovery of life in deep subglacial lakes.


"We should have a good idea of the abundance and type of life in the lake and sediments before we leave the site," said Priscu, who plans to return to Antarctica in early January if doctors allow.


"And we want to know as much as possible about how they make a living down there without energy from the sun and without nutrients most life-forms need."


All subglacial lakes are kept liquid by heat generated from the pressure of the heavy load of ice above them, and also from heat emanating from deeper in the Earth's crust.


In addition, the movement of glaciers and "ice streams" produces heat from friction, which at least temporarily results in a wet layer at the very bottom of the ice.


The Lake Whillans drilling is part of the larger Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project, first funded in 2009 by the U.S. National Science Foundation with funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.


That much larger effort will also study the ice streams that feed and leave the lake to learn more about another aspect of Antarctic dynamism: The recently discovered web of more than 360 lakes and untold streams and rivers—some nearing the size of the Amazon Basin—below the ice. (See "Chain of Cascading Lakes Discovered Under Antarctica.")


Helen Fricker, a member of the WISSARD team and a glaciologist at University of California, San Diego, said that scientists didn't begin to understand the vastness of Antarctica's subglacial water world until after the turn of the century.


That hidden, subterranean realm has "incredibly interesting and probably never classified biology," Fricker said.


"But it can also give us important answers about the climate history of the Earth, and clues about the future, too, as the climate changes."


Russia Returning to Successful Site


While both the U.S. and British teams have websites to keep people up to date on their work, the Russians do not, and have been generally quiet about their plans for this year.


The Russians have a team at Lake Vostok, the largest and deepest subglacial lake in Antarctica at more than 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) below the icy surface of the East Antarctic plateau.


The Vostok drilling began in the 1950s, well before anyone knew there was an enormous lake beneath the ice. The Russians finally and briefly pierced the lake early this year, before having to leave because of the cold. That breakthrough was portrayed at the time as a major national accomplishment.


According to Irina Alexhina, a Russian scientist with the Vostok team who was visiting the U.S. McMurdo Station last week, the Russian plan for this season focuses on extracting the ice core that rose in February when Vostok was breached. She said the team arrived this month and can stay through early February.


Preliminary results from the February breach report no signs of life on the drill bit that entered the water, but some evidence of life in small samples of the "accretion ice," which is frozen to the bottom of the lake, said Lake Vostok expert Sergey Bulat, of the Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute, in May.


Both results are considered tentative because of the size of the sample and how they were retrieved. In addition, sampling water from the very top of Lake Vostok is far less likely to find organisms than farther down or in the bottom sediment, scientists say.


"It's like taking a scoop of water from the top of Lake Ontario and making conclusions about the lake based on that," said Priscu, who has worked with the Russians at Vostok.


He said he hopes to one day be part of a fully international team that will bring the most advanced drilling and sample collecting technology to Vostok.


Extreme Antarctic Microbes Found


Some results have already revealed life under the ice. A November study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that subglacial Lake Vida—which is smaller and closer to the surface than other subglacial lakes—does indeed support a menagerie of strange and often unknown bacteria.


The microbes survive in water six times saltier than the oceans, with no oxygen, and with the highest level of nitrous oxide ever found in water on Earth, said study co-author Chris McKay, an astrobiologist at NASA's Ames Research Center.


"What Antarctica is telling us is that organisms can eke out a living in the most extreme of environments," said McKay, an expert in the search for life beyond Earth.


McKay called Lake Vida the closest analog found so far to the two ice and water moons in the solar system deemed most likely to support extraterrestrial life—Jupiter's Europa and Saturn's Enceladus.


But that "closest analog" designation may soon change. Life-forms found in Vostok, Ellsworth, or Whillans would all be living at a much greater depth than at Lake Vida—meaning that they'd have to contend with more pressure, more limited nutrients, and a source of energy entirely unrelated to the sun.


"Unique Moment in Antarctica"


The prospect of finding microscopic life in these extreme conditions may not seem to be such a big deal for understanding our planet—or the possibility of life on others. (See Antarctic pictures by National Geographic readers.)


But scientists point out that only bacteria and other microbes were present on Earth for 3 billion of the roughly 3.8 billion years that life has existed here. Our planet, however, had conditions that allowed those microbes to eventually evolve into more complex life and eventually into everything biological around us.


While other moons and planets in our solar system do not appear capable of supporting evolution, scientists say they may support—or have once supported—primitive microbial life.


And drilling into Antarctica's deep lakes could provide clues about where extraterrestrial microbes might live, and how they might be identified.


In addition, Priscu said there are scores of additional Antarctic targets to study to learn about extreme life, climate change, how glaciers move, and the dynamics of subterranean rivers and lakes.


"We actually know more about the surface of Mars than about these subglacial systems of Antarctica," he said. "That's why this work involves such important and most likely transformative science."


Mahlon "Chuck" Kennicutt, the just-retired president of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, an international coordinating group, called this year "a unique moment in Antarctica."


"There's a growing understanding of the continent as a living, dynamic place—not a locked-in ice desert—and that has created real scientific excitement."


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Newtown Settles In for Prayerful, Somber Christmas













Residents of Sandy Hook, Conn., gather every year under an enormous tree in the middle of town to sing carols and light the tree. The tree is lit this year, too, but the scene beneath it is starkly different.


The tree looms over hundreds of teddy bears and toys, but they are for children who will never receive them. The ornaments are adorned with names and jarringly recent birth dates.


Wreaths with pine cones and white ribbons hang near the tree, one each for a life lost. A small statue of an angel child sleeps among a sea of candles.


A steady flow of well-wishers, young and old, tearfully comes to cry, pray, light candles, leave gifts and share hugs and stories.


CLICK HERE for complete coverage of the massacre at Sandy Hook.


The Christmas season is a normally joyful time for this tight-knit village, but in the wake of a shooting rampage, holiday decorations have given way this year to memorial signs. And instead of cars with Christmas trees on top, there are media vans with satellites.


Connie Koch has lived in Newtown for nine years. She lives directly behind Sandy Hook Elementary School, where Adam Lanza, 20, killed 20 children and six adults before turning the gun on himself. Earlier that Friday morning, he had also killed his mother at home.










President Obama on Newtown Shooting: 'We Must Change' Watch Video







Koch said the shocked town, which includes the Village of Sandy Hook, is experiencing a notably different Christmas this year.


"It's more somber, much more time spent in prayer for our victims' families and our friends that have lost loved ones," she said as she stood near the base of the tree.


CLICK HERE for a tribute to the shooting victims.


Her family has been touched by the tragedy is multiple ways.


"My daughter, she lost her child that she babysat for for six years," she said, holding back tears. "And for her friend who lost her mother. And for my dear friend who lost one of her friends in the school, one of the aides.


"It's hard. And there will be much prayer on Christmas morning for these people, for our community."


Koch said her community always rallies in the face of tragedy, but the term "hits close to home" resonates this time more than ever before. She says the only way to make it through is one day at a time.


"It's all you can do, one hour at a time," Koch said. "For me, I don't even want to wake up in the morning because I don't want to have to face it again. You feel like it's still just a dream and with the funerals starting, it's becoming more real. It's becoming more final."


Another Newtown parent, Adam Zuckerman, stood by the makeshift memorial with a roll of red heart stickers with the words, "In Our" above a drawing of the Sandy Hook Elementary School welcome sign. He was selling the stickers to collect money for a Sandy Hook victims' fund.


"It's a lot," he said of the events of the past few days. "We don't know how it's going to affect our community, but I feel very strongly that I needed to do something to keep it positive, to keep this community positive."


Zuckerman's 20-year-old stepdaughter came home from college for winter break the night before the shooting. As a high school student, she worked in one of the town's popular toy stores.


"She knew a lot of the kids," he said of his daughter. "Their parents brought them in over the years. We have other friends who have lost family here and good friends who are dear friends with the principal of the school. … It's pretty rough."






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