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Skeptical Reporter @ 2014-02-14

Skeptical Reporter for February 14th, 2014

The "jelly doughnut" rock that seemed to appear out of nowhere on Mars last month did not fall out of an extraterrestrial pastry box. The rock had been mysterious to scientists because Mars rover Opportunity photographed it in a spot where the rock had not been present just four days earlier. Steve Squyres, lead scientist of the Mars Exploration Rover mission, described it as a white rock with a dark red low spot in the middle. The rock was named Pinnacle Island. Researchers have concluded that it is a piece of a larger rock, which Opportunity broke and moved with its wheel in early January. Further images from the rover reveal the original rock that the rover's wheel must have struck. No, that's not as exciting as if the rock had crawled into view on its own or been dropped there by aliens. But now that this puzzle has been solved, the rover team plans to drive Opportunity south and uphill to look at exposed rock layers on a slope. The rock has high levels of manganese and sulfur, which may have been concentrated in the rock because of water.

He's been to a doctor and a vet just to make sure, but New Zealand Prime Minister John Key is adamant he's not a shapeshifting reptilian alien. Mr Key was unusually forced to deny any previously non-declared extraterrestrial connections to reporters after an Auckland man put in an Official Information Act (OIA) request asking for proof he might be one. "To the best of my knowledge, no. Having been asked that question directly, I've taken the unusual step of not only seeing a doctor but a vet, and both have confirmed I'm not a reptile," a smiling Mr Key explained, adding: "So I'm certainly not a reptile. I've never been in a spaceship, never been in outer space, and my tongue's not overly long either." Last month, Auckland resident Shane Warbrooke put in an OIA request to the prime minister's office, asking for "any evidence to disprove the theory that Mr John Key is in fact a David Icke style shapeshifting reptilian alien ushering humanity towards enslavement".

The authenticity of the Shroud of Turin has been in question for centuries. Some believe it is a miracle, while some state in is an elaborate hoax? Now, a study claims neutron emissions from an ancient earthquake that rocked Jerusalem could have created the iconic image, as well as messed up the radiocarbon levels that later suggested the shroud was a medieval forgery. But other scientists say this newly proposed premise leaves some major questions unanswered. Radiocarbon dating tests conducted at three different labs in the 1980s indicated the cloth was less than 800 years old, produced in the Middle Ages. The first records of the shroud begin to appear in medieval sources around the same time, which skeptics don't think is a coincidence. The new study wishes to demonstrate that the shroud is much older, dating from the time of Jesus. Even if it is theoretically possible for earthquake-generated neutrons to have caused this kind of reaction, the study doesn't address why this effect hasn't been seen elsewhere in the archaeological record, Gordon Cook, a professor of environmental geochemistry at the University of Glasgow, explained. It seems unlikely that the new study, published in the journal Meccanica, will settle any of the long-standing disputes about how and when the cloth was made, which depend largely on faith.

In the US, the Prince George’s County Police Department is transforming how detectives conduct photo lineups in an effort to prevent innocent people from going to prison. Starting this spring, detectives must show witnesses photos of potential suspects one at a time on separate pieces of paper rather than all at once on a single page. Lineups must also be “blind,” which means a detective unfamiliar with the case must present photos to witnesses instead of an officer investigating the crime. The method is called the “double-blind sequential lineup.” The goal is to reduce chances that witnesses would falsely identify suspects or that detectives would unwittingly nudge witnesses to choose a particular photo. “You don’t want to catch the wrong guy because now you’re messing with someone who is innocent and the bad guy is still out there,” said Carlos Acosta, inspector general for the Prince George’s police. The consequences of a false identification and bad eyewitness memories can be devastating. About 75 percent of wrongful convictions later overturned through DNA evidence originally involved bad eyewitness identifications, according to the nonprofit Innocence Project.

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

Scientists have announced a major achievement in the step toward viable fusion energy. A new set of experiments has produced more energy than was contained in the fuel that was put into the system. The experiments also show the beginnings of a process that could lead to a self-sustaining reaction, or ignition, Omar Hurricane, the study's lead author, said in a press briefing. "We're closer than anyone else has ever gotten before," said Hurricane, a physicist at the Nuclear Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California. Still, the new results are miles away from those needed to make a clean, safe nuclear fusion power plant, or even a nuclear fusion weapon, experts say.  Scientists have long sought a way to create limitless, safe energy by fusing two atoms together. But the running joke is that fusion power is always 30 years away, and has been so for the last 30 years. To be a viable energy source, the fusion reaction needs to be self-sustaining, and should produce more energy than it takes to initiate the process. The new results from the Nuclear Ignition Facility (NIF) take fusion research much closer to those goals.

A team led by astronomers at The Australian National University has discovered the oldest known star in the Universe, which formed shortly after the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago. The discovery has allowed astronomers for the first time to study the chemistry of the first stars, giving scientists a clearer idea of what the Universe was like in its infancy. "This is the first time that we've been able to unambiguously say that we've found the chemical fingerprint of a first star," said lead researcher, Dr Stefan Keller of the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics. The star was discovered using the ANU SkyMapper telescope at the Siding Spring Observatory, which is searching for ancient stars as it conducts a five-year project to produce the first digital map the southern sky. The ancient star is around 6,000 light years from Earth, which Dr Keller says is relatively close in astronomical terms.

Researchers have found a gene linking intelligence to the thickness of so-called "grey matter" in the brain, and say their discovery could help scientists understand how and why some people have learning difficulties. An international team of scientists analyzed DNA samples and brain scans from more than 1,500 healthy 14-year olds and gave them a series of tests to establish their verbal and non-verbal intelligence. The researchers looked at the cerebral cortex - the outermost layer of the brain that is also known as "grey matter" and plays a key role in memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thought, language and consciousness. They found that, on average, teenagers with a particular gene variant had a thinner cortex in the left half of their brains - and were the ones who performed less well on tests for intellectual ability. Sylvane Desrivieres, who led the study at King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry, stressed that their finding did not amount to a discovery of a "gene for intelligence". "It's important to point out that intelligence is influenced by many genetic and environmental factors. The gene we identified only explains a tiny proportion of the differences in intellectual ability," she said.

The EU is set to approve a new type of genetically modified maize for cultivation despite huge opposition. The European Commission says the US-developed maize variety, called Pioneer 1507, is safe and the decision is now in the Commission's hands. Most EU governments objected to it in a vote, but the vote tally was still not enough to block it. Under EU rules, the Commission can now authorise it. Only one GM crop - another maize variety - is grown in the EU currently. GM crops are engineered in labs to be resistant to pests and weedkillers. They are widely cultivated in the US, South America and Asia.

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

Local students can now get help with their homework thanks to the new Brainly social networking website that has been launched in Romania. The idea behind Brainly is to encourage students to help each other. If a student posts a question, others will help out with answers and everyone can contribute in the subjects they feel they know best. The portal will also collaborate with schools in order to better help students do their homework and learn!

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