Skeptical reporter @ 2013-07-26

Skeptical Reporter for July 26th, 2013

If you had placed your bet on the gender of Kate and William’s first royal offspring and you looked for the advice of psychics, you probably made a bad investment. Before the birth of the royal baby, on July 9th, 62% of the 50 psychics surveyed at Psychic Source, the most respected psychic service provider, predicted that the royal couple will be welcoming a female heir. Representing the majority of psychics surveyed, Psychic Ricky stated matter-of-factly: “It will be a girl. At least one of her names will be Diana”.

In India, homeopathy doctors demanding permission to prescribe allopathic medicines and permanent employment in government hospitals continued their hunger strike at Azad Maidan. Around 100 doctors have been on strike since July 15th.  47 were admitted in Gokuldas Tejpal (GT) hospital. Two were admitted in ICU. Currently, there are around 60,000 homoeopathic doctors in the the state, with 10,000-15,000 in Mumbai alone. Prashant Shinde, an independent practitioner, said, ”Our demands have been pending for almost 35 years. We want removal of the word 'only' from Bombay Homoeopathic Practitioners Act 1959, which states that homoeopathy doctors can only practice homoeopathy and nothing else”. The other demands include appointment in each Public Health Centre, PHC sub-centres and rural hospitals.

Conspiracy theorists concerned with intentional weather modification will have to find someone else to blame, because HAARP (the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program) has closed. The 35-acre ionospheric research facility in remote Gakona, Alaska shut down in early May 2013. HAARP has an antenna array used by scientists to study the outer atmosphere by zapping it with generated radio waves. HAARP became infamous among conspiracy theorists and some environmental activists, who believed it was responsible for intentional weather modification. Dire events – such as Hurricane Sandy in late 2012 – have been blamed on HAARP by people called “uninformed” by scientists and other commentators. HAARP’s program manager, Dr James Keeney, said in a press release: ”Currently the site is abandoned. It comes down to money. We don’t have any”.

The Independent Investigations Group, the international skeptical research and science advocacy organization, has announced the finalists to be honored in their annual awards ceremony recognizing the promotion of science in popular media and arts. These include Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, along with The Onion.com satirical website, the TV series “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” and “The Hamster Wheel”. “The IIG Awards recognize mainstream entertainment for promoting critical thinking and scientific values and dispelling myths and superstition. This has become an important annual event at the intersection of science and entertainment”, said James Underdown, Chair of the IIG. The awards presentation will be held on Monday Jul 29th at the Steve Allen Theater at the Center for Inquiry in Los Angeles.

And now let’s look at some news in science.

False memories have been implanted into mice, scientists say. A team was able to make the mice wrongly associate a benign environment with a previous unpleasant experience from different surroundings. The researchers conditioned a network of neurons to respond to light, making the mice recall the unpleasant environment. They say it could one day shed light into how false memories occur in humans. Just like in mice, our memories are stored in collections of cells, and when events are recalled we reconstruct parts of these cells - almost like re-assembling small pieces of a puzzle. It has been well documented that human memory is highly unreliable, first highlighted by a study on eyewitness testimonies in the 70s. Simple changes in how a question was asked could influence the memory a witness had of an event such as a car crash.

Scientists have confirmed one of the rarest phenomena of decay in particle physics, found about three times in every billion collisions at the LHCb. They are now certain of the rarity of a transformation of subatomic particles hinted at previously. Scientists found a particle called a Bs meson decaying into two muons for the first time. The LHCb team announced: ”Finding particle decays this rare makes hunting for a needle in a haystack seem easy”. Val Gibson, leader of the Cambridge particle physics group and member of the LHCb experiment, declared that it was the rarest decay they have observed so far. The way this unfolds casts doubt on versions of the theory of physics known as Supersymmetry (Susy). It was hoped Susy could explain gaps in the most established theory of how the Universe works.

NASA has released photos of the Earth and Moon taken by a spacecraft orbiting Saturn - nearly a billion miles away. Our planet and its only satellite appear only as dots in the picture, which was taken by the Cassini spacecraft on July 19th. Scientists wanted to pay homage to the "Pale Blue Dot" image captured by the Voyager 1 probe in 1990. This was the first time people knew in advance that their long distance picture was being taken. As part of the event launched by NASA, people were asked to wave in what Carolyn Porco, who leads Cassini's camera team, described as an "interplanetary cosmic photo session". The wide-angle image is part of a larger mosaic - or multi-image portrait - that imaging scientists are putting together of the entire Saturn system. Pictures of Earth from the outer Solar System are rare because, from that distance, Earth is very close to the bright Sun. Just as a person can damage their retina by looking directly at the Sun, a camera's sensitive detectors can be damaged by the bright rays. These images were taken when the sun had moved behind the planet Saturn from the spacecraft's point of view, blocking out most of the light.

Scientists have discovered the largest virus yet. The genome of the discovered virus hints at a 'fourth domain' of life. The organism was initially called NLF, for “new life form”. Jean-Michel Claverie and Chantal Abergel, evolutionary biologists at Aix-Marseille University in France, found it in a water sample collected off the coast of Chile, where it seemed to be infecting and killing amoebae. Under a microscope, it appeared as a large, dark spot, about the size of a small bacterial cell. Later, after the researchers discovered a similar organism in a pond in Australia, they realized that both are viruses — the largest yet found. Each is around 1 micrometer long and 0.5 micrometers across making the viruses larger than many bacteria and even some eukaryotic cells. But these viruses are more than mere record-breakers — they also hint at unknown parts of the tree of life. Just 7% of their genes match those in existing databases. Claverie asked: “What the hell is going on with the other genes? This opens a Pandora’s box. What kinds of discoveries are going to come from studying the contents?” The researchers call these giants Pandoraviruses.

And, now, in local news from Romania, we learn that

A Romanian computer science teacher, Anna-Monika Muscaş, participated at HE@SA, a special session organized in the US, where educators learn new teaching techniques for NASA specialists. Started in 2004, the Honeywell Educators@Space Academy program (HE@SA) selects hundreds of teachers from around the world who are trained to stimulate students' interest in science and mathematics. Besides the training sessions the teachers also had the opportunity to participate in simulated space missions.

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