Science news

Three ways to die on Venus, and other space facts

Jan 14, 2017
ESA (image by Christophe Carreau). 

Today we call it the “Big Dipper,” but in the year 75000, we may look up in the night sky and admire a constellation known affectionately as the “Big Spatula.”

As astronomer Dean Regas explains, that’s because the stars are moving relative to our position here. “And so you know, over thousands and thousands of years, the constellations we see today will actually change a little bit,” he says. “Where we saw the Big Dipper, they'll see something that looks like a big spatula. And who knows what kind of mythology will spring from that.”

Citizen scientists have been taking an annual ‘bird census’ for over a century

Jan 14, 2017
<a href="">Finiky</a>/<a href="">CC BY 2.0</a>. Image cropped.&nbsp;

As snow, wind and rain kept many of us cozy inside our homes this December, thousands of bird-watchers grabbed their binoculars and headed out for a day in the elements.

Theirs was no average bird-nerd-devotion: They were on a mission to count every bird they saw or heard, as part of the National Audubon Society's 117th annual Christmas Bird Count.

The count, which begins every Dec. 14 and wraps every Jan. 5, is a census of local bird populations.

Dr. Ranjit Koodali and Dr. Brian Burrell joined Innovation. They recently received a nearly $3 million grant to train STEM students. Dr. Koodali and Dr. Burrell are professors at The University of South Dakota.  

Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

This is a detective story that started off as a love story. And it involves a nearly trillion-dollar-a-year industry — romance scams.

According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, online romance scams account for higher financial losses than any other internet-based crime. It’s not uncommon for victims to lose tens of thousands of dollars.

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&nbsp;

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.  

Wisconsin Cranberry Research Station In The Works

Jan 9, 2017

Despite leading the nation in cranberry production, Wisconsin doesn't have an outdoor research station for the tart fruit, but a partnership between growers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is about to change that.

Outbursts of extremely cold air over Lake Superior often cause a phenomenon that's commonly known as sea smoke.

Carol Christenson, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Duluth, Minnesota, said the surface temperature of Lake Superior is around 32 to 34 degrees Fahrenheit right now. But, she said the air temperature Thursday morning dipped to around 20 below zero.

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.