Science news

Donald Trump this, Rex Tillerson that. Russia, Russia, Russia. It's been a week of heavy news about US politics and America's relationship with the world.

Let's catch up now on some news that's been bumped off the front page by all that's going on in Washington.

Let's start with Peru

Quietly, a court in Peru has recognized a same-sex marriage.

Courtesy of WGBH 

Science journalist Miles O’Brien recently returned to Fukushima, Japan, for the sixth time since a massive earthquake and tsunami triggered a nuclear meltdown there nearly six years ago.

O’Brien thought he would be reporting on the massive clean-up effort at the shuttered nuclear power plant, a decommissioning effort that requires 4,000 workers to suit up in Tyvek suits, three layers of socks, gloves and respirators every day.

Instead, O’Brien found himself chasing a very different story about nuclear power.

Carlos Barria/Reuters

In an eleventh-hour attempt to cement his legacy on climate change and dissuade his successor from scrapping his policies, President Barack Obama published an article in a top academic journal, Science, this week.

Science editors say, according to their records, he is the first sitting US president to author an article in the peer-reviewed journal.  

Mike Hutchings/Reuters/File Photo

If you remember Darth Vader’s famous line in "Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back," as “Luke, I am your father,” you’re not alone — but you’re not right, either. His actual words are “No, I am your father.”

The art and science of composing movie scores

Jan 8, 2017
Baher Kairy/CC0. Image cropped.

Imagine what some of the most thrilling films ever made would be like without their musical scores.

How to bring out the wild in zoo animals

Jan 6, 2017
Courtesy of Hilda Tresz

When Hilda Tresz was 17, she walked into the office of the director of the Budapest Zoo and demanded a job.

Laughing, she recalls, “I was a young, ignorant child who doesn't know that [you’re] not just supposed to march into the director’s office and tell him things.” Things like, “Make me a zookeeper.”

Tresz kept at it for a year — and finally, he agreed.

“I think he just did that to shut me up,” she says.

So the day after she graduated from high school, Tresz started work at the zoo.

Two New Lakes Discovered In Jewel Cave

Jan 6, 2017
Jewel Cave

Jewel Cave rang in the New Year with new discoveries. Two lakes were found inside the cave over the weekend. Officials say these lakes, along with others in Wind Cave, offer researchers the rare opportunity to visit the water source in person.

David Yoder

When archaeologists ventured into a thick Honduran rainforest in 2015, they were searching in an unexplored valley for the remnants of a long-lost city. Legend had it that an ancient metropolis was buried under centuries worth of jungle growth.

Deep in the forest, with the help of new technologies, scientists discovered the untouched ruins of a vanished culture.


It’s a special day for the high school students in Alyssa Parr’s advanced art history class at Milan High School.

They are taking a field trip to the National Gallery in London, looking at Neoclassical pieces they’ve been studying. But the class of 30 didn’t need to travel for this field trip. Instead, students are taking a virtual tour of the museum, navigating the marble hallways and viewing gold leaf, vaulted ceilings on their laptops.

“There’s that horse again,” Parr says to the class, as her mouse hovers on a painting of a horse.

There is no curtain-raising in “The Encounter.” The show simply begins — with the actor Simon McBurney telling a story, and each member of the audience listening through a set of headphones.

The weight of gender bias on women’s scientific careers

Jan 1, 2017

A series of high-profile sexual misconduct investigations have sent waves through the scientific academy this year.

Why the moons of Uranus are named after characters in Shakespeare

Jan 1, 2017

"What’s in a name?" Shakespeare’s star-crossed Juliet famously wanted to know. And for those of us peering skyward, it’s a question for the ages: Where do celestial bodies get their names from?

There are constellations and planets christened after Greek and Roman gods. The craters on Mercury are artists and musicians, like Bach, John Lennon and Disney. And the moons of the planet Uranus — there are, impressively, 27 altogether — have literary ties — 25 of them relate to characters in Shakespeare’s plays. 

Who invented the alphabet, and why?

First, the hard facts: The earliest evidence of what’s thought to be the world’s first alphabet is a group of 3,500-year-old inscriptions found in Egypt’s Sinai desert — a simplified form of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Scholars call the alphabet Proto-Sinaitic. The people who invented it, they believe, were educated scribes who knew hieroglyphics and simplified the complicated writing system into a couple dozen letters.

Known Unknowns

Dec 28, 2016

Study Shows Possible Way To Head Off Algal Blooms

Dec 27, 2016

There may be a way to prevent harmful blooms of algae in some lakes or reservoirs, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Limnology and scientists from three other universities gradually spread phosphorus and nitrogen in a small lake in Michigan.

The team compared the lake with two others and found they could collect data predicting when a rapid growth of algae and loss of oxygen were coming.

A New Way To Track Drug Use In Milwaukee

Dec 27, 2016

Theres no one single place in Milwaukee County where overdose data is kept. Paramedics respond to an overdose, the medical examiner does an autopsy, the state Department of Justice collects statistics. But this information isn’t on one system where it can be shared.

The Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin Endowment, which was created with money from the conversion of Blue Cross Blue Shield into a private insurer, is seeking to change that.

Study: Coal Tar Sealant Harming Milwaukee-Area Streams

Dec 27, 2016

A study published on Dec. 22 found a type of blacktop sealant is the main source of a harmful pollutant in Milwaukee-area streams.

These early female astronomers shattered the 'glass universe'

Dec 26, 2016
Harvard College Observatory

Looking up at the night sky, we know that a star’s brightness can tell us something about how far away it is, and even what it’s made of. But how do we know that?

As it turns out, our system for classifying stars comes from work done by a group of female astronomers at Harvard more than a century ago. Decades before American women gained the right to vote, the astronomers of the Harvard College Observatory shattered the “glass universe,” analyzing delicate photographic plates to discern patterns in the cosmos. 

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

The writer John Wray learned a thing or two about Albert Einstein while researching his new novel, "The Lost Time Accidents." For one, he says that despite Einstein’s fame and charming persona, the physicist always had a surprising quality — a lack of interest in popularity.

“He really truly had no interest in the trappings of fame or fortune,” Wray says. “He truly was an outsider, even in Princeton. You know, he spent most of his time alone, and he truly had a remarkable sense of humor — about himself, as well as the society he was in.”

<a href="">Lynn Ketchum/Oregon State University</a>. <a href="">CC-BY-SA 2.0</a>. Image cropped.

With the holidays just around the corner, another tradition is in full swing for many Americans: choosing the perfect Christmas tree.

Fossil hunters have hit pay dirt in northeastern China

Dec 23, 2016
Stephanie Abramowicz, from &ldquo;Birds of Stone&rdquo;

Our picture of bird evolution has changed dramatically over the past three decades, thanks to an avian fossil jackpot in northeastern China. These ancient remains, dating back 120 to 131 million years ago, are part of a diverse assembly of animal and plant fossils collectively known as the Jehol Biota. (The term is a historic reference to a region ruled centuries ago by the Khitan Empire.)

Shane McMillan&nbsp;

Germany is facing an unprecedented wave of cyberthreats. 

Early this month, almost 2,500 leaked documents were put online by WikiLeaks. They detailed cooperation between German and US intelligence agencies. 

Before that, nearly a million internet routers operated by Deutsche Telekom were taken offline in a malicious hack. 

There was a hack into the headquarters of the Christian Democratic Union, the party of Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel. 

Courtesy of&nbsp;Julia Sybalsky and Bethany Palumbo

In 2011, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City changed out the light bulbs illuminating the dioramas in the Hall of North American Mammals in an effort to conserve energy. That’s when museum conservators realized that their displays could use a makeover.

“I liken it to when you do renovations or re-do your living room in your own home, and you might replace the blinds or the couch, and then when you do that, you realize you should really take a look at everything else,” says Fran Ritchie, a project conservator at the museum.

There's an experiment water scientists like to do this time of year to prove the point that human behavior affects the health of our lakes and rivers and other waterways.

Cinnamon and vanilla are two ingredients we tend to consume more of during the holidays, be it for meals on the Thanksgiving table, batches of gingerbread cookies or the seasonal cup of coffee.

Sure enough, researchers have detected the deliciously innocent spices in waterways throughout the country when they take water samples in early winter.

Companies that mine western and central Wisconsin's coveted silica sands, which are well-suited to use in hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas, have encountered mixed business prospects over the course of 2016.

Do you know what's in your medical records?

Dec 19, 2016

In 1996, Congress enacted HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), which was designed, in part, to give patients the right to access their own medical records. Twenty years later, much has improved, but patients still have trouble prying their personal information out of hospitals and health care systems. 

What are the best snow boots to wear?

Dec 17, 2016

Thousands of injuries and even some deaths occur when people slip and fall on winter ice. A new study has looked at the effectiveness of winter boot soles and found that very few of them measure up.

“Unfortunately, we tested over 100 boots, and only nine of them passed,” says Barry Westhead, director of research engineering at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that some new technologies are already on the market, and two of them perform particularly well, Westhead says.

A meat-and-potato pie in northern England has boldly gone where no pastry delicacy has gone before: into (near) space.

Organizers of the World Pie Eating Championship attached the heaven-bound savory treat to a weather balloon, allowing it to rise 30 miles into the stratosphere. Footage of the oven-baked carnivore’s delight has now gone viral.

Donald Pettit/NASA

Astronauts have countless official tasks to accomplish once they’re up and out of Earth’s atmosphere. But space walkers need hobbies, too.

Charlie Neibergall/Reuters

President-elect Donald Trump has ruffled feathers in Beijing lately with his seemingly cozy approach to Taiwan.

But his appointment of Iowa Governor Terry Branstad as ambassador to China may be winning approval with the Asian giant's leadership.

China's President Xi Jinping has a soft spot for the Hawkeye State. He and Branstad have cultivated a friendship since 1985, when President Xi, then a government official, visited Iowa with an agricultural delegation from Hebei province to learn more about the US state's agriculture practices.