First Direct Evidence of Cosmic Inflation!

The imprint of the Big Bang

The imprint of the Big Bang: B-mode polarization (the swirls) of light coming the first fraction of a second after the birth of the Universe itself. Photo by BICEP2 Collaboration

A team of astrophysicists from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have announced that, for the first time, they have directly confirmed the first direct evidence for cosmic inflation, as well as the first images of gravitational waves, the signature of a universe being wrenched violently apart when it was roughly a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old. Working the BICEP (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) microwave telescope located at the South Pole, reported their results in a scientific briefing at the Center for Astrophysics here on Monday, and in a set of papers submitted to The Astrophysical Journal.

The BICEP team detected peculiar fluctuations in the Cosmic Microwave Background, distant radiation left over from the beginning of the universe itself, not in its temperature, but in its polarization. Like visible light waves, this early radiation can be polarized, wiggling and oscillating in a given direction, or even in a spiral. By analyzing the particular pattern of that polarization, we can then walk backwards and figure out what gave rise to those patterns in the very, very early universe.

Back in 1978, when he had just gotten his Ph.D., physicist Alan Guth scribbled a “spectacular realization” in his lab notebook that predicted the results reported today:

Alan Guth spectacular realization

He formally proposed inflationary theory in 1980, when he was a postdoctoral scholar at SLAC. Instead of the universe beginning as a rapidly expanding fireball, Guth theorized that the universe inflated extremely rapidly from a tiny piece of space and became exponentially larger in a fraction of a second.

For more in depth explanations, check out the following links:

Brightest Lunar Explosion Ever Seen

On 2013 September 11 at 20h07m28.s68 ± 0.s01 UTC, two telescopes operated in the framework of our lunar impact flashes monitoring project recorded an extraordinary flash produced by the impact on the Moon of a large meteoroid at selenographic coordinates 17 ?.2 ± 0 ?.2 S, 20 ?.5 ± 0 ?.2 W. The peak brightness of this flash reached 2.9 ± 0.2 mag in V and it lasted over 8 s. The estimated energy released during the impact of the meteoroid was 15.6 ± 2.5 tons of TNT under the assumption of a luminous efficiency of 0.002. This event, which is the longest and brightest confirmed impact flash recorded on the Moon thus far, is analysed here. The likely origin of the impactor is discussed. Considerations in relation to the impact flux on Earth are also made.

Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 2014.

record-breaking meteorite strike on the moon

The impact of a large meteorite on the lunar surface on Sept. 11, 2013, resulted in a bright flash, observed by scientists at the MIDAS observatory in Spain.
Credit: J. Madiedo / MIDAS

On Sept. 11, 2013, a pair of telescopes from a project called MIDAS (Moon Impacts Detection and Analysis System) monitored the blast from a meteoroid crashing into the lunar surface. The meteorite hit at a speed of 37,900 mph (61,000 km/h), gouging out a new crater roughly 131 feet (40 meters) wide in an ancient lava-filled lunar basin known as Mare Nubium. The energy released by the impact was comparable to an explosion of roughly 15 tons of TNT, and was at least three times more powerful than the largest previously observed event. The flash, which lasted for about 8 seconds, was about as bright as Polaris, the North Star. The high-speed collision was recorded on video and would have been clearly visible to anyone on Earth who happened to look at the moon at the right time.

The uncertainty of the impact is fairly high, the team who made the discovery said in their paper, and the team cautioned that specifics about the meteorite’s impact were difficult to nail down, in part because its origin cannot be determined. “Two sources have been considered for the impactor,” they write. “The event was compatible with the impact geometry of the September Epsilon Perseids minor shower, but it could also be associated with a sporadic meteorid.” If it was part of the September Epsilon Perseids meteor shower, it would have a very high velocity relative to the moon, and wouldn’t need as much mass to cause an impact with this energy. In this case, the rock would have been about 45kg and 36cm across. If, however, it was a sporadic meteoroid, the velocity would be lower and the mass greater, perhaps a mass of 450kg, and a diameter as large as 1.4 meters.

The MIDAS project has been running since 2009, and has an automated pipeline for identifying impacts. The statistics it has generated suggest that some early estimates of the rate at which Earth is bombarded may be low by as much as a factor of 10. In their paper, the team noted “Thus, the impact energy of the lunar impact flash would be equivalent to an impact energy of 28.3 ± 4.5 tons of TNT on Earth for the sporadic meteoroid and 24.3 ± 3.8 tons of TNT for the SPE meteoroid. So, by performing the corresponding surface area scaling between both bodies, the impact rate on Earth for events with an energy above these values would be of about 1680 ± 1050 events per year.”

“Our telescopes will continue observing the Moon as our meteor cameras monitor the Earth’s atmosphere,” said Madiedo and Ortiz in a press release. “In this way we expect to identify clusters of rocks that could give rise to common impact events on both planetary bodies. We also want to find out where the impacting bodies come from.”

A video of the impact has been posted on YouTube.

Close Encounters Of The Sexual Kind

A good bit of imagination has gone into attempts to represent close encounters of a sexual kind. Major authors, such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip Jose Farmer, and Octavia Butler, have written critically-acclaimed novels in which deep emotional, intimate, and sexual relations between humans and aliens form the central narrative. Significant episodes of the various Star Trek series have also shown intimate relations among aliens — sometimes between humans and aliens, sometimes among different alien species (such as the relationship between the Klingon Whorf and the Trill Jadzia Dax in Deep Space Nine). Star Trek’s own Mr. Spock was the product of a marriage between a human female and a male alien from the fictional planet Vulcan.

The human/alien sex trope typically assumes that an alien species would reproduce in a manner that’s compatible with how humans reproduce, but that can be a dangerous assumption, judging by the way many species on earth reproduce. The male of the deep sea anglerfish, for example, attaches to the female permanently, fusing with her blood stream and gradually atrophying until they are just a pair of gonads that release sperm into the female in response to hormonal cues in her blood, a process known as sexual parasitism. Other species, such as the New Mexico whiptail, are an all-female species. Adult female New Mexico whiptails reproduce solely through parthenogenesis (a type of asexual reproduction in which a female gamete or egg cell develops into an individual without fertilization), laying unfertilized eggs that develop into other female whiptails.

There are organisms without distinctive male and female forms. The black mold Rhizopus nigricans, displays an unusual form of reproduction known as “heterothallism.” This species of fungus requires two organisms are for fertilization and replication to take place. However, the two sexes are physically indistinguishable. There are no constant differences between members of opposite mating groups other than their reciprocal behavior when crossed. Thus, it is impossible to designate one form of the black mold as male and the other as female. Customarily the complementary groups are labeled merely “+” and “-” for convenience during experiments.

If some species have no distinctive examples of male and female forms, others have more than two sexes. Some species have one female and two male genders include red deer who have two male morphs (distinct forms of an organism or species), one with antlers and one without, known as hummels or notts, as well as several species of fish such as plainfin midshipman fish and coho salmon. Others have one female and three male genders, including bluegills, where four distinct size and color classes exhibit different social and reproductive behaviors, the spotted European wrasse (Symphodus ocellatus), the Oreochromis mossambicus cichlid, and the ornate tree lizard (Urosaurus ornatus).1 Slime mold has thirteen sexes, while the fungus Schizophyllum commune has over 28,000 sexes.

Other organisms lack specific maleness and femaleness, but exhibit an alternating or intermediate condition. For example, simultaneous hermaphrodites possess at once both female and male sex organs. Ovaries and testes are present together in the same individual. Matings occur in pairs, with each partner serving both sexual roles at the same time. Planarians, earthworms, sponges and snails fall into this category, as well as a few among more highly evolved vertebrates are known, such as the belted flamefish (Serranus subltgarius). Some simultaneous hermaphrodites form harems, in which a single male supervises a school of females. If the male is killed, the dominant female in the harem transitions and takes his place. In such harems, the male is usually responsible for defending the school from invaders and protecting his territory to ensure that his flock does not wander astray or encounter potential dangers.

There are also species where individuals start life as one sex and finish it as another, called sequential hermaphrodites. There are two types of sequential hermaphrodites. Animals which are born male with the ability to become female exhibit a trait of protandry. Protogyny, on the other hand, is a trait in which animals are born as females, with the ability to become males later in life. Depending on the species, simultaneous hermaphrodites may change sex only once, or they may be able to flip back and forth between genders several times. Oysters, for example, are born as males, then spend the rest of their lives switching back and forth between male and female in irregular cycles a few months long.

Given these tremendous potential biological differences, would or could copulation be possible at all between humans and extraterrestrials?


There are well-documented cases of attempted and successful sex between different species. These include dolphins and humans. seals and penguins, otters and seals, sheep and deer, orangutans and humans, and humans with various farm animals. This suggests that, if humans were to mingle socially with alien races, interspecies sexual contacts are at least possible.

Even if such activity were possible, how likely would it be? Could humankind and an alien race derive sexual pleasure from mutual physical encounters?

Suppose, for example, we discovered an alien race that is sequential hermaphroditic. In this society, individuals spend their early life neither male or female, then attain puberty and enter their first sexually active phase as functioning males. After a certain amount of time, latent ovaries within them ripen into maturity, and the individual, now considered an adult, spends the remainder of its life as a female.

In such a society, monogamous marriage as we know it would be impossible. Husbands would change into wives, and males would be too immature psychologically to be treated as anything other than young lovers. Since all fertile middle-aged females in a family in theory could mate with any or all male children, it’s likely there would be complex incest prohibitions. To offset the negative effects of inbreeding, exchanges of matriarchs would occur between families. Love as humans understand it probably would not exist. In such a society, females would likely have strong affective and familial non-sexual ties with other females. Human concepts of male/female romantic relationships would be quite incomprehensible to them. Even if their sexual organs were compatible with those of a human, and neither species found the physical appearance of the other repellant, the sensitivities of the alien race would likely be such that there wouldn’t be any desire on their part to have any type of sexual contact with humans.


1. See Roughgarden, Joan (2004). Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-24073-1 Especially chapter 6, Multiple Gender Families, pp. 75–105.

Further Reading

The Sex Is Out of This World: Essays on the Carnal Side of Science Fiction, edited by Sherry Ginn, Michael G. Cornelius, Donald E. Palumbo, and C.W. Sullivan III

Alien Sex: From Ming the Merciless to “The Lovers, David Lumb and Jonathan Alexander, Los Angeles Review of Books

Alien Sex Acts in Feminist Science Fiction: Heuristic Models for Thinking a Feminist Future of Desire“. Alcena Madeline Davis Rogan, PMLA, Vol. 119, No. 3, Special Topic: Science Fiction and Literary Studies: The Next Millennium (May, 2004), pp. 442-456

NASA’s Crowdsourced Search for Planetary Habitats

NASA Goddard announced on January 30th that it’s sponsoring a new project and website, Disk Detective, which allows people to discover “embryonic planetary systems” hidden in the data generated by NASA’s Wide-field infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission. The data mining and analysis effort is NASA’s largest ever crowdsourcing project, and the agency says its main goal is to produce publishable scientific results.

“Through Disk Detective, volunteers will help the astronomical community discover new planetary nurseries that will become future targets for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope,” said James Garvin, the chief scientist for NASA Goddard’s Sciences and Exploration Directorate.

WISE was designed to survey the entire sky at infrared wavelengths. From a perch in Earth orbit, the spacecraft completed two scans of the entire sky between 2010 and 2011. It took detailed measurements on more than 745 million objects, representing the most comprehensive survey of the sky at mid-infrared wavelengths currently available.

WISE was shut down in 2011 after its primary mission was completed, but was reactivated in September 2013, renamed the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE), and given a new mission, to assist NASA’s efforts to identify the population of potentially hazardous near-Earth objects (NEOs). NEOWISE also can assist in characterizing previously detected asteroids that could be considered potential targets for future exploration missions.

Developed alongside Zooniverse, a network of scientists, software developers, and educators, the project will make sifting through the astronomical data easier. From 2010 to 2011 WISE, which is locked in Earth orbit, scanned the entire sky in infrared, measuring some 745 million objects in detail. NASA is in the process of searching through this data for planets that form and grow in “dust-rich circumstellar disks,” which shine brightly in infrared wavelengths.

The problem is that other objects, such as galaxies, interstellar dust clouds, and asteroids, also shine in infrared. This infrared noise makes it difficult to identify planet-forming environments – Young Stellar Object disks (gaseous and less than 5 million years old), and debris disks, which are 5 million years or older and contain little to no gas. The former are found in or near young star clusters, while the latter contains “belts of rocky or icy debris that resemble the asteroid and Kuiper belts” found in our solar system.

To deal with this problem, Disk Detective takes images from WISE and other sky surveys (the James Webb Telescope will contribute data in the future) and converts them to brief animations the website calls flip books. Volunteers then classify objects according to specific but simplecriteria, such as whether the image is round or includes multiple objects. Working on this cataloged image analysis, astronomers will then decide which objects deserve greater attention.

Herbig-Haro 30

Herbig-Haro 30 is the prototype of a gas-rich young stellar object disk. The dark disk spans 40 billion miles in this image, cutting the bright nebula in two and blocking the central star from direct view. Volunteers can help astronomers find more disks like this through [Credit: NASA/ESA/C. Burrows (STScI)]

For more information, you can watch the NASA | Disk Detective: Search for Planetary Habitats video, and this Hubble Space Telescope Google hangout.

Jellyfish-Like Flying Machines

Jellyfish-;ike robot

Credit: Dr. Leif Ristroph / NYU

Researchers have built a small vehicle whose flying motion resembles the movements of a Jellyfish.

inventor Dr. Leif Ristroph, a postdoctoral researcher at New York University, wanted to determine if he could invent a winged flying machine that was inherently stable, with no sensors or artificial nervous system needed. After trying several designs, he ended up creating a cone-like machine made of four wings that are hinged at the top approximately 3 inches (8 centimeters) long, surrounding a small motor, a commercially available component about the size of the vibrator in a cell phone and which accounts for about half the mass of the device. The motor, located at the at the top, opens and closes the wings together not-quite-simultaneously at a rate of 20 times a second.

Other flying robots, like the tiny robotic bee built at Harvard’s Wyss Institute, or the H2bird flapping-wing drone built at a lab at Berkeley, sense the direction and location and adjust their movements to stay in the air. But the lightweight, electrically powered flyer keeps itself right side up without the benefit of sensors or any righting mechanism. Instead, the stability is a result of the shape and the movement of the wings.

Dr. Ristroph and his colleagues detailed their invention in the January 15th in the Journal of the Royal Society. They also presented the robot at the 66th Annual Meeting of the APS Division of Fluid Dynamics last November. In addition to showing that the flying device is stable, Ristroph and Stephen Childress, also at NYU, found that the size of the machine mainly depends on the weight and power of the motor.

“What’s cool is you can actually build these flying things yourself,” Ristroph told LiveScience. “All the components I used to make this, they cost about $15 and they’re available on hobby airplane websites.”

The top figures illustrate the body and wing design; the bottom figures detail the motor assembly (left), and the wingspan assembly (right).

The top figures illustrate the body and wing design; the bottom figures detail the motor assembly (left), and the wingspan assembly (right). Images © Journal of The Royal Society

The prototype doesn’t include a battery, so the ornithopter, as they call it, requires a wire for power. More engineering work is necessary to get power and a radio receiver onboard so that an operator can control the ornithopter from a distance. It also can’t steer, either autonomously or via remote control.

You can view a YouTube video of the ornithopter in action here.

Is The Universe A Hologram?


The holographic principle is a property of quantum gravity and string theories which states that the description of a volume of space can be thought of as encoded on a boundary to the region—preferably a light-like boundary like a gravitational horizon. In other words, all of three-dimensional reality can be described as a two-dimensional sheet or surface of information that extends to the limits of the observable universe – what theoretical physicist and string theorist Raphael Bousso calls “a universal relation between geometry [surface area] and information” in space-time.

So what makes at least some theoretical physicists think that the universe may be a hologram, or at least be best described as a hologram.

It all starts with black hole physics. When an object becomes part of a black hole, two things happen. First, information about that object is lost. Second, the surface area of the black hole’s event horizon (the point at which the gravitational pull becomes so great as to make escape by both matter and energy impossible) grows. The first fact appears to violate the second law of thermodynamics, since one of the lost details was the object’s entropy, or the information describing its microscopic parts. But the second fact offered a way out: if entropy must always grow, and a black hole’s surface area must too, perhaps for the black hole they’re one and the same, and information is somehow stored on the horizon.

The beginning of the attempt to resolve the black hole information paradox within the framework of string theory, Charles Thorn in 1978 developed an approach to string theory based on the idea of string bits, observing that string theory admits a lower-dimensional description in which gravity emerges from it in what would now be called a holographic way. Then in 1993, Gerard t’Hooft proposed what is now known as the holographic principle. Quantum mechanics starts with the assumption that information is stored in every volume of space. But any patch of space can become a black hole, nature’s densest file cabinet, which stores information in bits of area. Perhaps, then, all that’s needed to describe a patch of space, black hole or no, is that area’s worth of information. t’Hooft argued exactly that – that the information contained within a region of space can be determined by the information at the surface that contains it. Mathematically, the space can be represented as a hologram of the surface that contains it.

In 1995, Leonard Susskind a Professor of Theoretical Physics at Stanford University, combined his ideas with previous ones of ‘t Hooft and Charles Thorn in a paper suggesting that the entire universe might be a hologram in which people are just seeing a projection of the real thing. Susskind suggested that the entire universe could be seen as a two-dimensional information structure “painted” on the cosmological horizon, such that the three dimensions we observe are only an effective description at macroscopic scales and low energies.

In 1997, theoretical physicist Juan Maldacena proposed a model of the Universe in which gravity arises from infinitesimally thin, vibrating strings could be reinterpreted in terms of well-established physics. Called the anti-de Sitter/conformal field theory correspondence, or AdS/CFT correspondence In this model, the mathematically intricate world of strings, which exist in nine dimensions of space plus one of time, would be merely a hologram: the real action would play out in a simpler, flatter cosmos where there is no gravity.

Maldacen’s model did two things: it solved apparent inconsistencies between quantum mechanics and general relativity, and it provided a way to translate back and forth between the two. Unfortunately, while Maldacena made a compelling argument, it was a conjecture, not a formal proof.

Now, two papers have come out demonstrating that the conjecture works for a particular theoretical case. In two papers posted on the arXiv repository, Yoshifumi Hyakutake of Ibaraki University in Japan and his colleagues now provide, if not an actual proof, at least compelling evidence that Maldacena’s conjecture is true.

In the first paper, Hyakutake computes the internal energy of a black hole, the position of its event horizon (the boundary between the black hole and the rest of the Universe), its entropy and other properties based on the predictions of string theory as well as the effects of so-called virtual particles that continuously pop into and out of existence. In the second, Hyakutake and his collaborators calculated the internal energy of the corresponding lower-dimensional cosmos with no gravity. The two computer calculations match.

It’s important to note that the papers don’t suggest that our universe is a hologram. The computations describe a universe with ten dimensions in the realm of the black hole and a single dimension universe when calculating characteristics of a gravity free two-dimensional universe. It does, however, suggest that what can be calculated using different dimensional universes could one day be calculated for our own, and is one more step showing that the holographic principle could be useful in understanding the universe.


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See you next year!

We sciency fictiony writery types are taking our customary midwinter break. We’ll be back soon, we promise! We hope you enjoy your own winter activities, whatever they may be (or summer activities, if you’re south of the equator).

My Clone Sleeps Alone

“As you must have guessed by now,” the man took over, “I am, we are, clones of a single individual. Some two hundred and fifty years ago, my name was Kahn. Now it is Man…I am over ten billion individuals but only one consciousness…No other humans are quickened, since I am the perfect pattern.” Joe Haldeman – The Forever War

In nature, some plants and single-celled organisms produce genetically identical offspring through a process called asexual reproduction. In asexual reproduction, a new individual is generated from a copy of a single cell from the parent organism. For example, water hyacinth produces multiple copies of genetically-identical plants through a process known as apomixis, or asexual seed formation.

Archaea, bacteria, and protists reproduce asexually by binary fission, where a cell divides giving rise to two cells, each having the potential to grow to the size of the original cell. Finally, some plants, invertebrates (such as water fleas, aphids, stick insects, some ants, bees and parasitic wasps), and vertebrates (such as some reptiles, amphibians, fish, and few birds) reproduce using parthenogenesis, a form of asexual reproduction where an unfertilized egg develops into a new individual in the absence of the male gamete.

Natural clones, also known as identical twins, occur in humans and other mammals. Natural clones are produced when a fertilized egg splits, creating two or more embryos that carry almost identical DNA. Identical twins have nearly the same genetic makeup as each other.

But when most people think about cloning, they think about scientists cloning animals, especially Dolly the cloned sheep. Few people understand that scientists have been working on cloning for over 100 years.


The first cloned animals were created by Hans Driesch, a philosopher and biologist who cloned a sea urchin in 1891. He took a two-cell sea urchin embryo, shook it apart, and showed that each cell developed into a complete individual, refuting the then prevalent idea that if the cells from a two-cell embryo were separated, each could create only half a creature. Then in 1902, embryologist Hans Spemann used a hair from his infant son as a noose to constrict the egg of a salamander into a dumb-bell shape, with the nucleus in one half and only cytoplasm and other cellular material in the other, pioneering the process of nuclear transfer. In this process, the nucleus is removed from an egg, and replaced with the nucleus of an older donor cell. A new clone – a genetic copy of the donor – forms when the egg starts to divide.

In 1951, a team of scientists in Philadelphia working at the lab of Robert Briggs cloned a frog embryo, taking the nucleus out of a frog embryo cell and used it to replace the nucleus of an unfertilized frog egg cell. Despite claims in 1977 by German development biologist Karl Illmensee that he had cloned three mice (never independently replicated), and the claims of author David Rorvik in his 1978 book “In His Image: The Cloning of a Man” that the world’s first human clone had been born (a claim later admitted by the publisher – but not Rorvik – to be a hoax), no progress was made until 1986, when two teams, working independently but using nearly the same method, announced that they had cloned a mammal. One team was led by Steen Willadsen in England>, which cloned a sheep’s embryo. The other, led by Neal First in America, cloned a cow’s embryo.

On July 5, 1996, Dolly, a Finn Dorset lamb, was born at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, cloned from a frozen mammary cell from another adult sheep. The team that created her, led by Scotsman Ian Wilmut, hoped to create an animal whose cells were genetically young again, rather than prematurely adult. When Dolly was euthanized nearly six years after her birth, concern was raised that her progressive lung disease was caused because her cells were already old; she also had premature arthritis. Over the course of her life, Dolly gave birth to four lambs, proving clones can reproduce.

In 1997, Teruhiko Wakayama and Ryuzo Yanagimachi of the University of Hawaii created Cumulina the cloned mouse. She was cloned from cumulus cells (cells which surround developing egg cells) using traditional nuclear transfer, a technique now known as the Honolulu Technique. The nucleus was taken from the cumulus cell and implanted in an egg cell from another mouse. The new cell was then treated with a chemical to make it grow and divide. The scientists repeated the process for three generations, yielding over fifty mice that were virtually identical by the end of July, 1998, with a success rate of 50:1, compared to the Roslin Institute’s technique (used to create Dolly) which had a success rate of 277:1.

Cloning Today

Cloned animals have showed up in a variety of places in the past few years. In 2007, South Korean scientists produced drug-detecting dogs that are clones of a prized security dog named Chase. Because only 30 percent of natural-born sniffer dogs can normally pass the required training, researchers hoped cloned dogs would significantly improve this rated. In 2011, it was reported that all of Chase’s clones passed the required training.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration ruled in 2008 that meat from cloned animals is safe to eat. Currently, two U.S. companies, Trans Ova Genetics and ViaGen, offer cloning services to cattle breeders.

In 2007, two clones (Show Me and Shawnee) from the mare Sage, awarded “best playing polo pony” at the 1997 International Gold Cup, were born. Earlier this December, polo superstar Adolfo Cambiaso rode Show Me in the championship match of the Argentine National Open, which his team La Dolfina won. Polo horses are hard to find and extremely expensive. Each world-class rider may have dozens, the best of which may cost more than $200,000 each. Cambiaso teamed up with Alan Meeker of Crestview Genetics, a Texan firm, to clone eight of his mounts. Although polo’s various governing bodies approved clones for competition, no clone had yet been tested in a match prior to this, since polo horses seldom compete until they are five years old. In June 2012, the Fédération Equestre Internationale lifted a ban on cloned horses, making them eligible for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Cloned racehorses aren’t popular because the U.S. Jockey Club, with which horses must register to race in North America, bans cloned horses.

Finally, there is a growing interest in cloning extinct species. In 2003, a team of Spanish and French scientists used frozen skin to clone a bucardo, or Pyrenean ibex, a subspecies of Spanish ibex that went extinct in 2000. Unfortunately, the clone died minutes after birth. Researchers will make another attempt using the 14-year-old preserved cells from the last animal, which was named Celia. Celia’s cells have been frozen during the last 14 years in liquid nitrogen, and if the cells prove to be intact, an attempt to clone embryos and implant them in female goats

In Australia, the genome of an extinct Australian frog has been revived and reactivated by a team of scientists by implanting a “dead” cell nucleus into a fresh egg from another frog species, although none of the embryos survived beyond a few days.

One of the questions being raised about such cloning is whether such cloning techniques “bring back” an extinct species, or just create a new one that looks exactly like the old one. At a TEDx conference in Washington DC sponsored by National Geographic, scientists and conservationists met to discuss the so called ‘de-extinction’ of a number of species, as well as the ethical, moral and technical questions of doing so. According to one of the conference organisers “That remains to be seen. It is one reason to do the research: is the genome the species? The answer will vary from species to species. De-extincted plants should flourish as if they’d never left, if suitable pollinators are still around. But if California condors had gone extinct, it’s unclear if they could be brought back fully, because the young rely on parental training.”


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Digging in odd corners

I like to explore the odder bits of biology: deep sea worms that get their energy from symbiotic bacteria which in turn make food from hydrothermal seeps without any help from solar energy, photosynthetic sea slugs, mysterious undersea creatures.

But here’s one that was new to me: fungi that eat gamma radiation. No really. We think of fungi as decomposers, if we think of them at all, breaking down dead plants and animals to keep the carrion from overwhelming us. But some fungi have melanin in their cell walls, the same pigment responsible for human coloration. These black fungi grow faster in the presence of gamma radiation.

The initial clue came from observing that these black fungi were thriving at Chernobyl, and trying to figure out why. Scientists tried growing them with and without gamma radiation, and studied the chemistry of melanin to discover whether it could be working kind of like chlorophyl does in photosynthesis. And yes, it might be. Not everyone is convinced: other scientists think the melanin is purely protective.

The idea that fungi could be getting energy from gamma radiation via melanin has a couple of science-fictional implications. First and most obvious is that humans could raise black fungi in space, exposed to radiation. But we have melanin too: what if we too could get energy from gamma radiation? Wouldn’t that be neat?

Is it or isn’t it?

Comet ISON, I mean. It went whizzing around the Sun on (US) Thanksgiving, and fizzled, thus ending the hopes of amateur astronomers like me for a December show.

XKCD comic

Except it didn’t, quite.

This ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory timelapse image shows the bright comet heading in, and something heading back out. (Remember that a comet’s tail points away from the Sun no matter which way it’s going.)


While it looks as if ISON won’t be visible, watching the science unfold over the past few days has been utterly fascinating. Most people don’t get to see data come in and science happen nearly real-time, being exposed only to the articles written after everything is known. This blog post especially highlights the joy and frustration.

Karl Battams writes there:

And I just want to end on this note: not long after comet ISON was discovered, it began to raise questions. Throughout this year, as many of you who have followed closely will appreciate, it has continued to confuse and surprise us. For the past few weeks, it has been particularly enigmatic and dynamic, in addition to being visually spectacular. This morning we thought it was dying, and hope was lost as it faded from sight. But like an icy phoenix, it has risen from the solar corona and – for a time at least – shines once more. This has unquestionably been the most extraordinary comet that Matthew and I, and likely many other astronomers, have ever witnessed. The universe is an amazing place and it has just amazed us again. This story isn’t over yet, so don’t stray too far from your computer for the next couple of days!

Phil Plait has done his usual good job summarizing the ups and downs and ups and downs of ISON-watching, with his post from yesterday offering video and analysis.

David Levy famously said, “Comets are like cats: they have tails, and they do precisely what they want.” Definitely.

Even through my disappointment, I’ve found the real-time science a lot of fun to watch: the data coming in, the changing interpretations, the frantic scientists trying to figure out what to say to the inquiring public. More science-fictional scientists should behave like this!