News for Nerds - September 16, 2011

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  • Posted by: Dom Testa|
  • 9/16/2011 |
  • 10:00 am
News for Nerds - September 16, 2011

Welcome back to another edition of News for Nerds. This week we dig deep to find an ancient gladiator school, a new use for all those creepy sonogram photos, and a use for genetically modified fluorescent green cats. But first: another Super Earth candidate emerges.

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We are finding planets at such an astonishing rate these days that it's becoming difficult to keep up with all of them. Which is a shame, considering how mind-boggling it is in the first place.

Take for instance the announcement this week that 55 new planets have been found in the Milky Way galaxy. 55 new planets! 19 of them are considered 'Super Earths,' which means that they are rocky, low-mass planets much like our own (but in some cases much bigger)! And one of them, known as HD85512B, lies in the habitable zone -- that's a pretty good indication that the temperatures might be just right for liquid water! And liquid water could mean life!

When you really stop and think about it, this is just an incredible discovery, but you hear very little about it through news outlets, which are understandably more concerned with life-or-death issues like the America's Got Talent finale, or Kim Kardashian's wedding cake.

So, then, let me be the one to tell you about this intriguing new planet. It's about 3.6 times the size of Earth, which sounds big but really isn't in cosmic terms. It's one of 155 exoplanets discovered so far by the HARPS instrument (that stands for High Accuracy Radial-velocity Planet Searcher). HARPS is responsible for the discovery of two-thirds of all planets less massive than Neptune.

And whatever HARPS doesn't uncover, the rival Kepler telescope just might. Kepler has found more than 1,700 planet candidates, not all of which will turn out to be actual planets. But, says one prominent astronomer, Kepler "will find them [Earth-like planets] if they're there, probably within the next 2 to 3 years."

Don't worry, I'll let you know when it happens, since most other news outlets likely won't. Stay tuned.

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From the skies above our heads to the dirt below our feet, our next story takes us to an archeological dig in Austria.

It appears that a dig just outside of Vienna has uncovered an ancient gladiator school that's being described by experts as 'massive.' How massive? We're told that it rivals the famous training grounds outside the Roman Colosseum. In more modern terms, it's roughly 200,000 square feet -- that's about twice the size of your typical Wal-Mart.

The complex includes subterranean dorm rooms with heated floors, as well as a courtyard, mini-amphitheater, a walled practice field, housing for wild animals, the first known gladiators' cemetery, and, of course, bleachers.

The experts assume, but can't yet prove, that it was built around the same time as an adjacent 13,000-seat amphitheater, roughly A.D. 150, by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

So how'd they find such a massive hidden treasure? With science, of course. Archeologists used tractor-mounted radar equipment to come up with three-dimensional images of buried objects, and the digging got underway from there. The scientific director of the local Archaeological park calls it "one of the most interesting things I can imagine here in my career."

And that's coming from a guy whose job it is to dig up history in one of the most historically-steeped regions in the world.

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Readers of a certain age will remember when sonograms of babies looked like little more than shadowy Rorschach tests. Sure, if you tilted your head and squinted your eyes, it looked a little like a fetus. But then again it also looked a little bit like the cursed tiki idol from that Hawaiian episode of The Brady Bunch.

Well, those days are over. The clarity of the images of fetuses these days is shockingly good -- as anyone with a pregnant Facebook friend can probably attest.

And now that clarity has led to some pretty interesting discoveries when it comes to a baby's developmental timeline. It was announced this week that a group of researchers has shown for the first time that recognizable facial expressions develop before birth, and that those expressions include both laughing and crying.

The researchers videotaped fetal facial movements with 4D ultrasound machines at regular intervals between the 24th and 36th weeks pregnancy. What they found was that these movements got much more complex over time.

For instance, a 24-week-old fetus could move only one muscle in its face at a time, maybe to open the mouth or stretch the lips. But by 36 weeks, there was a lot more going on: lowering eyebrows or furrowing the brow along with a lip stretch or other facial movement.

The theory is that these patterns of motor movements are developed before the baby feels the corresponding emotion -- in other words, the baby learns how to laugh physically before it ever figures out that the Backyardigans are funny. This seems to line up with other 'practice reps' that babies take in utero, such as the way that they practice breathing movements before they actually draw a breath of fresh air.

And as with just about any advancement in medical imaging, it's hoped that this advancement will help identify health problems for fetuses at a much earlier stage. Which seems like a good idea, all in all.

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And finally, there's the story of how a band of fluorescent green cats is going to help wage the fight against HIV.

Bear with me here.

Once we started cloning animals, it really didn't take too long to start turning them green. It seems there's a gene, called Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP), that can be inserted into fertilized eggs via a simple virus. Once that happens, the resulting animal shows up green under certain types of light.

In the past, this has been done with a variety of animals, including fruit flies, rabbits and pigs. But now, for the first time, the common domesticated house cat is on the list.

Why, you might ask, would anyone want to create a genetically modified green-glowing cat? And that's a fair question.

The answer has to do with disease -- in this case, HIV/AIDS. Cats happen to be very susceptible to Feline Immunodeficiency Syndrome, which is a close relative of HIV, which kills millions of people every year. By understanding how the activity of genes and viruses works within the feline immune system, it's hoped that we can ultimately crack the code on HIV in humans, which has been an elusive goal for several decades.

Plus, you know. Glowing cats. Halloween is right around the corner.

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That's all for now! I'll be back with more 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!

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