It was a lively week for science news. From exploring dark matter to curing baldness, science continues to amaze. Below are the top five science stories that most captivated my attention this week.
1. Hubble Spots Dark Matter:
The Hubble Space Telescope returned images of a dark ring in galaxy cluster Cl 0024+17, leading some top scientists to posit the mysterious formation as evidence for the theoretical dark matter. In the 1930s, Caltech’s Fritz Zwicky first introduced the idea that an unknown substance permeates the universe and accounts for the missing mass needed to balance galaxy clusters so they don’t disperse. The Hubble photo shows an area of the universe approximately 5 billion light-years away, with the dark ring measuring about 2.6 million light-years in width. The image is not completely conclusive, leading some physicist to withhold judgment until the James Webb Space Telescope, an upgrade to the Hubble, is launched in 2013. You can read the Reuters release on the NY Times web site here.
2. “Stumbling on Happiness” Wins Book Prize:
This didn’t receive much news coverage in the United States, but I thought it was fascinating. The U.K.’s Royal Society, the national academy of science for the Commonwealth, declared Harvard psych professor Daniel Gilbert’s book, “Stumbling on Happiness,” the 2007 winner of the science book prize . He was awarded £10,000. The press release states that the book: “draws on psychology and neuroscience, as well as personal experience, to take the reader through the various ways people attempt to make themselves happy. Finding happiness is an underlying desire for most of us but how to achieve and sustain it often proves problematic. Gilbert uses science to show that it is not always through conventional routes that we find happiness.”
I haven’t yet read the book, but found the premise intriguing in that the topic typifies post-Enlightenment Western thought. While the Greek philosopher Epicurus is the fist person (that I’m aware of) known to dissect what it means to be happy, and other Greek philosophers – Aristotle in particular – also followed that line of thinking, the Enlightenment gets most of the credit for Western awareness of the pursuit of happiness as basic human experience. The text of the Declaration of Independence provides the most ready example. It makes me wonder if the book is a modern leftover, or if it uses neuroscience to push boundaries. I’m guessing the latter, if the Royal Society recognizes it as a breakthrough achievement, but I’ll reserve my opinion until I’ve read it.
3. Encyclopedia of Life:
What a great idea. The Field Museum of Natural History, Harvard University, Marine Biological Laboratory, Smithsonian Institution, and the Biodiversity Heritage Library announced this week they’re creating an Encyclopedia of life. The press release states that it’s an “unprecedented global effort to document all 1.8 million named species of animals, plants, and other forms of life on Earth. For the first time in the history of the planet, scientists, students, and citizens will have multi-media access to all known living species, even those that have just been discovered.” In an era when it seems every other news story tells us how much plant and animal life is being eradicated, it seems natural, and wise, to catalog the species we know, how they interact, and how they effect the planet.
4. New Supernova:
A gigantic explosion occurred in the heavens this week, as SN 2006gy erupted in a mass of fire, spewing its contents into space. What makes it different than any other supernova? It was about five times brighter than any one previously observed and about 100 times more powerful. Additionally, the star was as large as scientists presently believe as star can get (about 150 times the size of our sun). Explosions this large have been proposed, but never observed. Scientists hope studying monstrous dispersions of gas and matter will better explain how the universe evolved. It was noted that Eta Carinae, a star in the Milky Way, bears strong resemblance to SN 2006gy. One physicist noted that if Eta Carinae exploded, "it would be so bright that you would see it during the day, and you could even read a book by its light at night.” That would be a sight to behold. To read the NY Times coverage, click here (slightly more comprehensive, but with a seven day archive date) . To read the BBC coverage, click here (always free and available).
5. Baldness Reversible?:
Some studies suggest that over seventy percent of men experience some form of significant hair loss in their lifetime, so the article in “Nature” published this week by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania provides hope for those who pine for bushier days. (Click here to read the BBC coverage.) Researchers located a specific gene responsible for healing wounds that also appears to restore hair follicles. It worked on mice, and I’m sure there’ll be a lineup of human volunteers for additional studies. Personally, I think baldness becomes some men, and I’m not convinced vanity is a good excuse to spend loads of money. But then, I’m not balding.
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