News for Nerds - February 10, 2012

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  • Posted by: Dom Testa|
  • 2/10/2012 |
  • 10:00 am
News for Nerds - February 10, 2012

Welcome back...

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You know about extreme sports. They've become part of the mainstream these days, with entire TV shows dedicated to showcasing the skills (and courage) of base jumpers and X gamers. But Felix Baumgartner would like you all to know that when it comes to extreme sports, he's not messing around anymore.

Baumgartner, an Austrian adrenaline junkie, is planning to set the record this summer for highest skydive when he takes a high-altitude helium balloon 120,000 feet in the air, and then, like any sane person would do, jumps off and plummets back to Earth.

If all goes well, he could become the first person ever to break the sound barrier and reach supersonic speeds using only his body (and not a vehicle).

In order to make this dream a reality, Baumgartner will rely on some pretty high-tech gear. For starters, he'll be enclosed in a pressurized capsule while riding the helium balloon into the stratosphere. Then, when he exits the capsule and makes the jump, he'll be protected by a pressurized 'space' suit and a helmet supplied with oxygen.

(You might be wondering, "Where, exactly, does space begin?" Here's a quick and interesting article that tries to answer that.)

No exact dates for the leap are known just yet, as organizers will instead look for a three-day window with perfect weather forecasted. But they do know that this will take place over Roswell, New Mexico. So if you're in the Roswell area this summer and you see an unidentified flying object, don't worry: it's just Felix Baumgartner.

Here's video of the Austrian daredevil skydiving across the English Channel in 2003, hitting speeds up to 220 miles per hour:

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In other news: your morning routine is crushing your own creative abilities.

Several recent studies have shown that the very activities that we build our mornings around tend to be counterproductive to the creativity that we want and need.

For many of us, that starts with the alarm clock. It goes off, maybe we hit the Snooze button once or twice, and then we rush out of the house in a frenzy. In the car, it's all gridlock and road rage. At the office, we surf the web for a few minutes, reading the heavy news of the day while drinking our first cup of coffee.

As it turns out, the coffee is the only productive part of that equation.

Studies now show that our most imaginative thoughts come to us when we're groggy -- usually either just after waking, or right before falling asleep. That's because the mental processes that inhibit our distracting thoughts are at their weakest during these times, giving our imagination room to roam.

What's more, a stressful commute can bump up the levels of cortisol in your body. This is bad because cortisol -- in addition to being blamed for some weight gain -- harms your body's supply of myelin, the fatty substance that coats your brain cells. When these myelin sheaths are damaged, signals are not transmitted as quickly between neurons, making those Eureka! moments of insight much less frequent.

And finally, reading bad news early in the morning can negatively affect your mood, which decreases the so-called 'cognitive flexibility' that you need for creative problem solving.

Coffee, on the other hand, is a helpful part of your morning routine -- in moderation, of course. The caffeine in your average cup of joe makes us more alert and increases levels of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that influences feelings of motivation when we come across a great idea.

So, the experts say you should give yourself some downtime in the morning, take deep breaths and try to relax during your commute, and avoid reading about bad news before lunch. But you can keep the Folgers.

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It took two decades of drilling, but this week Russian scientists reached a giant freshwater lake buried for 20 million years beneath the icy continent of Antarctica.

Lake Vostok might be home to living organisms that pre-date the last ice age. And better yet, it just might hold some clues to the search for life elsewhere in our solar system.

Is this a big deal? NASA's chief scientist told the Associated Press, "In the simplest sense, it can transform the way we think about life." A Russian counterpart adds, "I think it's fair to compare this project to flying to the moon." So, um, yes. It's a very big deal.

The Russian team made contact with the lake on Sunday, after more than 20 years spent drilling (and cutting through red tape) to a depth of more than 12,000 feet.

At 160 miles long and 30 miles wide, Lake Vostok is roughly the same size as Lake Ontario. The biggest difference between the two is that Vostok might contain microbial life forms that may have followed a different evolutionary path than anything we're used to seeing. Because of the conditions (including high pressure, constant cold and pitch-blackness), these life forms may be similar to those that could exist under the ice crust on Mars, on Jupiter's moon Europa, or on Saturn's moon Enceladus.

The first samples from Lake Vostok won't be accessible for analysis until December, which is the next summer season in Antarctica. But until then, scientists from all over the world are holding their breath -- and licking their chops -- at what might turn up. Even our wildest imagination could come up short.

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And finally, I ask you this: Who doesn't love a great massage?

We all do. And there's plenty of medical evidence to show that getting a good massage does, in fact, reduce pain. But would it surprise you to know that there's never been much evidence to show just how a massage has these effects? For many years the popular theory had to do with the removal of lactic acid from tired muscles, but many physicians are quick to point out a lack of credible data supporting that theory.

And they may be right in doing so, because new studies have shown that the real catalyst may actually be your genes, and not lactic acid.

One study in particular indicates that kneading sore muscles 'turns off' genes associated with inflammation and 'turns on' genes that help muscles heal. After stressful cycling workouts, a group of test subjects who had enjoyed a post-exercise massage had three times less NFkB, a protein that turns on inflammation genes, and 30% more PGC-1alpha, a gene that helps muscle cells build mitochondria (which, in turn, turns a cell's food into energy).

So feel free to go ahead and schedule that discount massage you got from Living Social last month. It's all in the name of science.

Also, in semi-related news, there's this story about how and why scratching feels better on certain parts of your body. Pretty interesting stuff. Can you guess which parts of the body feel the best?

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That's all for now! I'll be back with more News for Nerds next week, but be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter, and to sign up for the free e-Newsletter so that you can properly get your nerd on every single month! And please send any juicy News for Nerds tips to me right here!

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