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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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Skeptical Reporter for February 7th, 2014

Saudi Arabia, which has the largest number of Twitter users relative to internet users in the world, has formed a special task force to track those who are accused of spreading vice and witchcraft on the social networking service. The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which serves as the religious police of the conservative Gulf kingdom, is conducting surveillance of Twitter accounts in an effort to reign in heightened interest in subjects related to sorcery. The religious public watchdog is keeping a lookout for those accounts which “are spreading vice and witchcraft” through the community, said Ahmed Al Jardan, the Commission’s spokesman. Saudi Arabia’s Mufti, the country’s leading Islamic cleric, recently declared social media networks like Twitter have become a “podium for spreading evil and bad ideas and exchanging accusations and lies” by many of their subscribers and that “many Twitter users in the kingdom are also fools who lack modesty and faith”. The crackdown on Twitter users comes in the same week that Riyadh passed new counter-terrorism legislation that makes it an act of terrorism for any person to disturb public order or defame the reputation of the state or the king.

A British magistrate has issued an extraordinary summons to the worldwide leader of the Mormon Church alleging that its teachings about mankind amount to fraud. Thomas Monson, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been ordered to appear at Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London next month to defend the church’s doctrines including beliefs about Adam and Eve and Native Americans. A formal summons by District Judge Elizabeth Roscoe warns Mr Monson, who is recognized by Mormons as God’s prophet on Earth, that a warrant for his arrest could be issued if he fails to make the journey from Salt Lake City, Utah, for a hearing on March 14. In one of the most unusual documents ever issued by a British court, it lists seven teachings of the church, including that Native Americans are descended from a family of ancient Israelites as possible evidence of fraud. It also cites the belief that the Book of Mormon was translated from ancient gold plates revealed to the church’s founder Joseph Smith by angels and that Adam and Eve lived around 6,000 years ago. The document suggests that asking members of the church to make contributions while promoting theological doctrines which “might be untrue or misleading” could be a breach of the Fraud Act 2006.

A five-month-old baby has died from rickets after his parents insisted on following a strict eating regime as part of their religion. Nkosiyapha Kunene, 36, and his wife Virginia, 32, could face jail after admitting the manslaughter of their son Ndingeko. Acute rickets, from which the child died on June 14, 2012, sees the bones soften because of a deficiency of vitamin D, phosphorus or calcium. The case comes after health professionals raised concerns that the Victorian disease is returning to Britain as a result of poor diets and children not being exposed to sufficient sunshine. It is believed the parents belong to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, whose members follow a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet – one that allows milk and eggs, but not animal flesh. The childhood disease was endemic in the growing cities of 19th century Britain because of a lack of access to sunlight and poor diets. But by the 1950s it had been wiped out thanks to Vitamin D being added to everyday foods such as margarine and cereal. Until recently even specialist doctors had struggled to spot the disease. In 2012 the parents of four-month-old Jayden Wray were charged with his death before doctors realized he had probably died from rickets. Before Jayden there had been only one death in 30 years. Yet in 2012 about 900 cases were diagnosed in hospitals in England. Nutritionists say the return of rickets is largely due to a generation of inactive children not getting enough sunlight and Brian Wharton, of the Institute of Child Health, said a rise in “unusual diets that provide little vitamin D and calcium” were also to blame.

In the United States, the Reverend Michael Maginot has signed a deal with Evergreen Media Holdings to bring “The exorcisms of Latoya Ammons” to the big screen. Maginot declined to disclose the terms of his contract with Evergreen Executive Chairman Tony DeRosa-Grund, calling it a “standard deal.” DeRosa-Grund produced “The Conjuring,” grossing $318 million worldwide. After the publishing of Ammons’ claims that she and her three children had been possessed by demons, the story received international attention. More than a dozen movie producers and countless TV shows have clamored for interviews. Maginot, who performed a series of exorcisms on Ammons, said he signed a contract with DeRosa-Grund because he felt the producer wouldn’t sensationalize what happened. Maginot said he also signed a contract with Zak Bagans, host and executive producer of “Ghost Adventures” on the Travel Channel, to make a documentary.

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

Scientists have discovered the earliest evidence of human footprints outside of Africa, on the Norfolk Coast in the East of England. The footprints are more than 800,000 years old and were found on the shores of Happisburgh. They are direct evidence of the earliest known humans in northern Europe. The footprints have been described as “one of the most important discoveries, if not the most important discovery that has been made on [Britain’s] shores,” by Dr Nick Ashton of the British Museum. “It will rewrite our understanding of the early human occupation of Britain and indeed of Europe,” he told BBC News. The markings were first identified in May last year during a low tide. Rough seas had eroded the sandy beach to reveal a series of elongated hollows. Such discoveries are very rare. The Happisburgh footprints are the only ones of this age in Europe and there are only three other sets that are older, all of which are in Africa.

Pancreatic cancer is a particularly devastating disease. At least 94 percent of patients will die within five years, and in 2013 it was ranked as one of the top 10 deadliest cancers. Routine screenings for breast, colon and lung cancers have improved treatment and outcomes for patients with these diseases, because the cancer can be detected early. But because little is known about how pancreatic cancer behaves, patients often receive a diagnosis when it’s already too late. University of Washington scientists and engineers are developing a low-cost device that could help pathologists diagnose pancreatic cancer earlier and faster. The prototype can perform the basic steps for processing a biopsy, relying on fluid transport instead of human hands to process the tissue. “This new process is expected to help the pathologist make a more rapid diagnosis and be able to determine more accurately how invasive the cancer has become, leading to improved prognosis,” said Eric Seibel, director of the department’s Human Photonics Laboratory. The new instrumentation would essentially automate and streamline the manual, time-consuming process a pathology lab goes through to diagnose cancer.

After suffering a critical injury last year, NASA’s Kepler space telescope has just observed an exoplanet for the first time in months. The Jupiter-sized world is not a new discovery – it was found by another telescope – but spotting it again with Kepler is solid evidence that, following a few modifications, the famed planet-hunter is ready to get back to work. Launched in 2009, Kepler was designed to see planetary transits – the tiny dips in starlight when a planet passes in front of its star, from Earth’s perspective. Over four years the mission collected almost 250 confirmed planets and thousands more candidates, boosting our confidence that the galaxy is brimming with alien worlds. But observations ground to a halt last year, when mechanical failures killed Kepler’s precision steering system and ruined its ability to hold steady enough to see transits. At a meeting in November last year, the Kepler team announced the K2 mission, which would use the radiation pressure from sunlight to hold the craft steady for up to 75 days at a time. During a test run in January, the K2 team nabbed their first planet.

Climate researchers at the University of East Anglia have made the world’s temperature records available via Google Earth. The CRUTEM4 land-surface air temperature data-set is one of the most widely used records of the climate system. The new Google Earth format allows users to scroll around the world, zoom in on 6,000 weather stations, and view monthly, seasonal and annual temperature data more easily than ever before. Users can drill down to see some 20,000 graphs — some of which show temperature records dating back to 1850. The move is part of an ongoing effort to make data about past climate and climate change as accessible and transparent as possible. Dr Tim Osborn from UEA’s Climatic Research Unit said: “The beauty of using Google Earth is that you can instantly see where the weather stations are, zoom in on specific countries, and see station data-sets much more clearly. The new initiative does allow greater accessibility, but the research team do expect to find errors. Dr Osborn said: „This data-set combines monthly records from 6,000 weather stations around the world — some of which date back more than 150 years. That’s a lot of data, so we would expect to see a few errors. We very much encourage people to alert us to any records that seem unusual”.

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

Another plagiarism scandal has affected the Education Ministry. This time, state secretary Ștefania Duminică, has been accused of plagiarizing her Master’s Degree research paper. She is responsible for pre-college education and has an impressive CV. She is accused of having copied another research paper written in 2008. A commission has been formed to determine whether this is indeed a case of intellectual theft. This is only the latest in a line of scandals involving officials unable to write their own research papers and caught having plagiarized.

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Skeptical Reporter for September 27th, 2013

The man who shot to Internet fame several years ago after appearing on Today to discuss a condition that permanently turned his skin a deep blue has died. Paul Karason was 62 when he passed away in a Washington hospital, where he was admitted last week after suffering a heart attack. He also had pneumonia and later suffered a severe stroke, his estranged wife, Jo Anna Karason, explained. Karason started turning blue about 15 years ago after he began using a special silver-based preparation to treat a skin condition. He also had been drinking colloidal silver, a product consisting of silver particles suspended in liquid. In 2008, Karason emerged from his reclusive life to discuss his condition, known as argyria, which is caused by the use of dietary supplements. Karason began using a silver preparation to treat a bad case of dermatitis that had broken out on his face. He took the silver in colloidal form that he produced himself, using electrolysis. Silver has antibacterial properties and has been used to fight infection for thousands of years. But it went out of use when the far more effective penicillin was developed in the 1930s. It continued to be used in some over-the-counter medicines until 1999, when the FDA banned it because it causes argyria, which is a result of the silver reacting with light the same way it does in photography. The silver collects in the skin and other organs and does not dissipate.

Venezuela’s beauty culture has prompted a surge in dangerous silicone injections. Astrid de la Rosa was left bedridden for two years after her liquid silicone buttock injections migrated into her spine, paralyzing the supporting muscles. Now she is trying to educate Venezuelan girls early on about the dangers of these procedures. “We have to get to them early, as parents tend to offer these injections as 15th birthday presents”. In Venezuela, 17 women have died in the past 12 months as a result of liquid silicone buttock injections. According to Jesus Pereira, the president of the Venezuelan Plastic Surgeons Association, an estimated 30 percent of Venezuelan women aged 18 to 50 have undergone the procedure in an attempt to achieve a figure thought to be more attractive to Venezuelan men. While the death toll resulting from these injections has risen since they became widely available in 2008, it has done little to curb the trend of Venezuelans seeking a quick-fix solution to what they perceive as physical inadequacies. Despite being illegal in Venezuela (sale of silicone carries a two-year prison sentence) the country’s Association of Cosmetic Surgeons estimates that 2,000 women every month are receiving injections of this bio-polymer, either at home or illegally at unlicensed businesses.

The latest issue of Frontline – India’s National Magazine – features several stories of interest in the theme “Superstition Industry”. One of the articles discusses Sanal Edamaruku’s unmasking of a so-called miracle that saw him forced to leave to country after being accused of breaking the country’s blasphemy laws. On the 5th of March 2012, a woman passing by a roadside crucifix saw water dripping from the feet of Jesus Christ’s image. A non-Christian, she spread the word and soon the site was thronged by people who thought it was a miracle. The crucifix was across the road from Our Lady of Velankanni Church in the Mumbai suburb of Irla. A television channel covering the incident brought Sanal Edamaruku, president of the Indian Rationalist Association, to the site. He debunked the miracle theory and said it was water flowing from some damaged plumbing. Members of a group called the Association of Concerned Catholics challenged Edamaruku, and a battle of words began which culminated in a television studio debate between Edamaruku and Bishop Agnelo of the Archdiocese of Bombay. A report was filed by the Association of Concerned Catholics against Edamaruku under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, concerning blasphemy. The case was popularly referred to as Sanal Edamaruku versus the Catholic Church.

Health Canada is cracking down on the sale of so-called homeopathic vaccines that are falsely promoted by some naturopaths and homeopaths as safer and more effective than traditional vaccines. The department has altered the document that outlines how homeopathic vaccines should be used, saying they must now contain the following warning: “This product is not intended to be an alternative to vaccination.” The document, called a product monograph, was updated June 24, one month after The Globe and Mail published a story outlining the concerns with homeopathic vaccines. “We’re very glad they’ve taken this step,” said Jamie Williams, executive director of Bad Science Watch, a Canadian advocacy organization that led a campaign against homeopathic vaccines. “We feel that it will be a help to consumers who might not have been getting the full information to make a more informed health choice before this.”

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

Scientists say they have made a significant leap towards creating a vaccine that would protect against every form of flu. The influenza virus is a constantly shifting target so seasonal flu vaccines rapidly become useless and new ones are needed each year. A team at Imperial College London says they have made a “blueprint” for a universal flu vaccine. Influenza is able to change the proteins that protrude from the surface of the virus as readily as people change outfits. However, the material on the inside is common to many strains of flu. Vaccine researchers believe targeting the core of the virus may be the way to develop a universal vaccine. A specific part of the immune system, called T-cells, is thought to be able to recognize proteins in the core. A team at Imperial used the 2009 swine flu pandemic to test the theory. “It’s going to be a long journey from this sort of paper to translating it into a vaccine that works”, said Prof John Oxford, of Queen Mary University of London.

In order to move up the world’s financial rankings, emerging economies need to prioritize green growth, a US expert on the topic says. New York University’s Jerry Hultin lists 10 “green future” priorities – such as green energy and innovation – as key areas to ensure future growth. He also wants to see a system to accelerate the time it takes for ideas to appear in the marketplace. Mr Hultin outlined his priorities at a high level forum in San Francisco. “Young people are very excited about the chance to make the world a better place,” explained Mr Hultin, who was under-secretary of the US Navy during Bill Clinton’s presidency. “The clock is ticking as far as population growth, consumption and so on is concerned. We need to come up with solutions”, he explained. Mr Hultin’s 10 priorities include: supporting green energy development and policies, providing “cradle-to-career” education opportunities, enabling university researchers “to exit the system, run businesses, and return”, creating a “culture of national networking for innovation” and investing in “long-term, game-changing breakthrough research”.

There is a surprising amount of water bound up in the soil of Mars, according to an analysis done on-board the US space agency’s (NASA) Curiosity rover. When it heated a small pinch of dirt scooped up from the ground, the most abundant vapor detected was H2O. Curiosity researcher Laurie Leshin and colleagues explained that Mars’ dusty red covering holds about 2% by weight of water. This could be a useful resource for future astronauts, they say. “If you take about a cubic foot of this dirt and you just heat it a little bit – a few hundred degrees – you’ll actually get off about two pints of water – like two water bottles you’d take to the gym. And this dirt on Mars is interesting because it seems to be about the same everywhere you go. If you are a human explorer, this is really good news because you can quite easily extract water from almost anywhere”, Dr Leshin explained.  The revelation about the amount of water chemically bound into the fine-grained particles of the soil is just one nugget of information to come from a series of five papers describing the early exploits of the rover.

A landmark report says scientists are 95% certain that humans are the “dominant cause” of global warming since the 1950s. The report by the UN’s climate panel details the physical evidence behind climate change. On the ground, in the air, in the oceans, global warming is “unequivocal”, it explained. It adds that a pause in warming over the past 15 years is too short to reflect long-term trends. The panel warns that continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all aspects of the climate system. To contain these changes will require “substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions”.

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

Porn star Ron Jeremy, Max Weber and Michael Jackson are three names that appear in the list of references for a recent hoax paper by a group of Serbian academics who scammed a Romanian scientific magazine by publishing a completely fabricated article. The academics were fed up with the poor state of their country’s research output. The paper is full of obvious gimmicks, had anyone been paying attention. It includes a reference to the scholarship of Jackson, Weber, Jeremy and citations to new studies by Bernoulli and Laplace, both dead more than 180 years. They also throw in references to the “Journal of Modern Illogical Studies”, and to a researcher named, dubiously, “A.S. Hole.”  The paper, “Evaluation of transformative hermeneutic heuristics for processing random data,” by Dragan Djuric, Boris Delibasic and Stevica Radisic, appeared in the magazine Metalurgia International. The authors, from the University of Belgrade and the Health Center ‘Stari Grad’, appear on the manuscript in false wigs and mustaches. According to In Serbia, the Romanian magazine which is otherwise full of Serbian authors, published it in its entirety, without a single correction.

 

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Skeptical Reporter for September 20th, 2013

People who take antioxidant supplements don’t live any longer than those who don’t, and some antioxidants may even cut life short, a new review suggests. Danish researchers report that people who took three antioxidants — beta carotene, vitamin E and high doses of vitamin A — tended to have an increased risk of death. “This study confirms what we already know — that antioxidant supplements are not effective in saving lives or making people healthier,” said Dr. Pieter Cohen, an expert on the safety of dietary supplements and an internal medicine specialist at Cambridge Health Alliance. The general idea behind taking antioxidant supplements is that they are thought to help rid the body of unstable, free radical molecules that can damage cells and lead to heart disease, cancer or other conditions. In the review, researchers compared the mortality rates of people who took at least one of five different antioxidant supplements — beta carotene, vitamins A, C and E, and the mineral selenium — with people who received a placebo, or took nothing at all.

Nigeria’s This Day newspaper has published an article about a graduate university student who claims he’s “used science to prove that gay marriage is improper”. The newspaper reports that University of Lagos post graduate student Chibuihem Amalaha has made “many discoveries and inventions” in science and technology. Now, he’s turning his efforts to the issue of gay marriage. “In recent time I found that gay marriage, which is homosexuality and lesbianism, is eating deep into the fabric of our human nature all over the world and this was why nations of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God because they were into gay practice”, says Amalaha. He explains that “God gave me the wisdom to use science as a scientist to prove gay marriage wrong”. Amalaha says that his ‘groundbreaking’ experiments have shown that the north and south poles of two magnets are attracted to each other while same poles repel each other. He concludes that this “means that man cannot attract another man because they are the same, and a woman should not attract a woman because they are the same. That is how I used physics to prove gay marriage wrong”. His other high-school standard experiments include showing that negative ions are attracted to positive ones in the process of electrolysis. Despite massive evidence that homosexuality is all too common in nature, Amalaha further insists that biology also indicates that same-sex attraction is unnatural.

Despite its purported cleansing properties, holy water could actually be more harmful than healing, according to a new Austrian study on “holy” springs. Researchers at the Institute of Hygiene and Applied Immunology at the Medical University of Vienna tested water from 21 springs in Austria and 18 fonts in Vienna and found samples contained up to 62 million bacteria per milliliter of water, none of it safe to drink. Tests indicated 86 percent of the holy water, commonly used in baptism ceremonies and to wet congregants’ lips, was infected with common bacteria found in fecal matter such as E. coli, enterococci and Campylobacter, which can lead to diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, and fever. Nitrates, commonly found in fertilizer from farms, were also identified in the water. If ingested, water containing nitrates over the maximum contaminant level could cause serious illness, especially in infants younger than 6 months, which could lead to death if untreated. “We need to warn people against drinking from these sources,” said Dr Alexander Kirschner, study researcher and microbiologist at the Medical University of Vienna. The study, published in the Journal of Water and Health, also found that all church and hospital chapel fonts contained bacteria — the busier the church, the higher the bacterial count.

Copper bracelets and magnet wrist straps have no real effect on pain, swelling, or disease progression in rheumatoid arthritis, according to new findings from a study conducted at the University of York. In the first randomized controlled trial to study the effects of copper bracelets and magnetic wrist straps on rheumatoid arthritis, 70 patients with active symptoms each wore four different devices over a five-month period, reporting on their pain, disability, and medication use throughout the study. Participants also provided blood samples, after wearing each device for five weeks, in order to monitor changes in inflammation. The research shows that both the standard magnetic wrist strap and the copper bracelet provided no meaningful therapeutic effects beyond those of a placebo, which was not magnetic and did not contain copper. Dr Stewart Richmond, a Research Fellow in the Department of Health Sciences at York, who led the study, said: “It’s a shame that these devices don’t seem to have any genuine benefit. They’re so simple and generally safe to use. But what these findings do tell us is that people who suffer with rheumatoid arthritis may be better off saving their money.”

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

Google Maps just expanded its Street View to include the exotic Galapagos Islands, adding to the growing repertoire of remote and fascinating locales visible from any Internet user’s armchair. Charles Darwin’s famous trip to the Galapagos Islands in the 1830s was a heroic feat of science and human willpower, with many months spent making detailed observations of uncharted territory that would ultimately help form the basis of modern evolutionary biology. Members of the Google Maps team, in partnership with the Galapagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation, took their orb-like 360-degree camera to 30 different locations across the islands, capturing the famous giant tortoises, sea lions frolicking underwater among fish-filled coral reefs, blue-footed boobies waddling on a dry, bushy landscape, and other unique sites. Through a site called Darwin for a Day – created by the Charles Darwin Foundation and the citizen science website iNaturalist – users can submit observations about the plants and animals that they see during their Internet trek through the new images, including details as simple as “plant” or as specific as a genus and species name, if they know it.

MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is a type of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that is difficult to treat, and can be spread around hospitals and nursing homes by doctors, nurses and other staff. But a new study brings some positive news: the number of “invasive” MRSA cases— severe infections that typically require hospitalization, and can be fatal — has declined significantly in the United States. In 2011, there were more than 30,000 fewer invasive cases than in 2005. That’s a 31 percent reduction in the rate of infection (per 100,000 people). The drop was seen primarily in MRSA infections acquired at hospitals and nursing homes, where most cases are picked up, said Dr. Raymund Dantes, a physician and researcher at Emory University in Atlanta. These cases are called health-care-associated MRSA, and often involve pneumonia and infections of the bloodstream and surgical sites. MRSA can also be spread outside hospitals in the community, in cases that typically involve skin infections. These MRSA infections can be spread by skin-to-skin contact in sports like wrestling, for example, and have been a problem in jails and homeless shelters or wherever people live in crowded, unsanitary conditions. The number of community-associated MRSA cases has declined by 5 percent since 2005, according to the study. The decline of MRSA is likely due to hospital programs that encourage hand washing, and the wider use of sterile techniques to keep catheters and intravenous lines clean

People who can keep a rhythm well have more consistent brain responses to speech, a new study finds. The ability of adolescents to keep a beat was mirrored in their brain activity while they were hearing spoken sounds. The findings hint that musical training could improve mental skills involved in language. Rhythm is a critical feature in both music and speech, said study researcher Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University. Grooving to a beat requires coordination between hearing and movement areas in the brain. Previous research has shown that language skills such as reading are linked to both rhythmic ability and to the brain’s response to sound. In earlier studies, Kraus’ team found that musicians’ brains are better at encoding speech than non-musicians’ brains. In particular, musicians are better at hearing speech in noisy environments. Musical training also improves rhythmic ability, which is important for reading skills.

With anesthetics properly given, very few patients wake up during surgery. However, new findings point to the possibility of a state of mind in which a patient is neither fully conscious nor unconscious, experts say. This possible third state of consciousness, may be a state in which patients can respond to a command, but are not disturbed by pain or the surgery, according to Dr. Jaideep Pandit, anesthetist at St John’s College in England, who discussed the idea today at The Annual Congress of the Association of Anesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland. Pandit dubbed this state dysanesthesia, and said the evidence that it exists comes partly from a recent study, in which 34 surgical patients were anesthetized, and had their whole body paralyzed except for their forearm, allowing them to move their fingers in response to commands or to signify if they are awake or in pain during surgery. One-third of patients in the study moved their finger if they were asked to, even though they were under what seemed to be adequate anesthesia, according to the study. “What’s more remarkable is that they only move their fingers if they are asked. None of the patients spontaneously responded to the surgery. They are presumably not in pain,” said Pandit.

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

Romania may soon welcome some digital changes in its education. According to the new school regulations, soon to be finished, students will be allowed to learn off of tablet computers in school. The aim is to also digitize all of the manuals that students require in the classroom and to develop more educational software. After the learning materials have been created, the classrooms will be equipped with tablet computers that are connected to the teacher’s computer and each student will have one.

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Skeptical Reporter for September 13th, 2013

Would you board flight 666 to HEL on Friday the 13th? For superstitious travelers, that might be tempting fate. But Finnair passengers on AY666 to Helsinki – which has the 3 letter designation HEL – don’t seem too bothered. Friday’s flight is almost full. “It has been quite a joke among the pilots”, said veteran Finnair pilot Juha-Pekka Keidasto, who will fly the Airbus from Copenhagen to Helsinki. “I’m not a superstitious man. It’s only a coincidence for me.” The daily flight AY666 from Copenhagen to Helsinki falls on Friday the 13th twice in 2013. Friday the 13th is considered bad luck in many countries and the number 666 also has strong negative biblical associations. Some airlines, like Scandinavian Airlines, take these fears seriously and don’t have a row 13 on board. However, the negative connotations are a relatively new phenomenon for northern Europeans, and Finnair and other regional carriers like Norwegian and Estonian Air keep row 13. “Less than 100 years ago, the number 13 did not have this sinister meaning; it’s quite recent in the north,” said Ulo Valk, professor of comparative folklore at the University of Tartu in Estonia.

This year is on track to be the worst for measles in more than a decade, according to new numbers released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And people who refuse to vaccinate their children are behind the increasing number of outbreaks, health officials say. There were 159 cases of measles in the United States from January 1 through August 24, according to the CDC. If that trend continues, there will be more cases in 2013 than in any year since 1996, when some 500 cases were reported. Measles cases in the United States numbered in the hundreds of thousands before the advent of vaccination, and dropped dramatically throughout the 1960s. The disease was thought to have been eradicated in 2000, but the numbers have recently crept back up, largely because of visitors from countries where measles is common and because of vaccine objectors within the United States. Nearly two-thirds of the reported cases happened in three outbreaks in communities where many people don’t vaccinate their children for religious or philosophical reasons. “This is very bad. This is horrible. The complications of measles are not to be toyed with, and they’re not altogether rare”, said Dr. Buddy Creech, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University.

On September 11, 2013, Kentucky’s governor Steve Beshear announced that he “plans to implement the new Kentucky Next Generation Standards under his own authority”. The announcement follows on the heels of the Kentucky legislature’s subcommittee vote that the standards are deficient. The adoption of the standards was recommended by the state department of education and the state board of education, as well as Kentuckians for Science Education, the Kentucky Paleontological Society, the Kentucky Academy of Sciences, and the Kentucky Science Teachers Association. A deputy press secretary for the governor explained that Beshear “views these standards as a critical component in preparing Kentuckians for college and the workforce. Therefore, as provided by law, he will implement the regulations notwithstanding the finding of deficiency”. NCSE’s executive director Eugenie C. Scott, who taught physical anthropology at the University of Kentucky applauded Beshear’s decision. “It’s a good day for science education in the Bluegrass State,” she said. “There’s no doubt that the Next Generation Science Standards are a tremendous improvement on Kentucky’s existing state science standards, especially when it comes to evolution and climate change. Kentucky’s schoolchildren deserve to learn about these topics in a way consistent with the consensus of the scientific community”.

Friends and family of the late Sara Niethe are outraged by a psychic’s claim she solved the case of her murder. It is ten years since Ms Niethe went missing, but her ex-boyfriend Mark Pakenham didn’t admit to killing her until seven months ago. The case featured on TV programme Sensing Murder and one of the show’s psychics, Sue Nicholson, declared it was the one case she solved. Ms Niethe’s family and friends were astounded by the claim. “We were really shocked and horrified. The case isn’t solved and really Sue didn’t do anything to help. I mean if she can’t pronounce her name right, how the heck is she going to contact her”, Rachel Mains, one of Sara’s friends declared. The comment was made days after the family was devastated to learn Mark Pakenham, the killer, is coming up for parole. Since then the psychic’s Facebook page has been inundated by people both supporting and attacking her. She didn’t respond to requests for a second interview, but posted a message saying she had been misrepresented through editing.

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

Scientists say that they have discovered the single largest volcano in the world, a dead colossus deep beneath the Pacific waves. The team says the 310,000 sq km Tamu Massif is comparable in size to Mars’ vast Olympus Mons volcano – the largest in the Solar System. The structure topples the previous largest on Earth, Mauna Loa in Hawaii. The massif lies some 2km below the sea. It is located on an underwater plateau about 1.600 km east of Japan. It was formed about 145 million years ago when massive lava flows erupted from the centre of the volcano to form a broad, shield-like feature. The researchers doubted the submerged volcano’s peak ever rose above sea level during its lifetime and say it is unlikely to erupt again.

A huge water source has been discovered in the arid Turkana region of northern Kenya which could supply the country for 70 years, the government says. The discovery of two aquifers brings hope to the drought-hit region. They were found in the Turkana Basin and Lotikipi Basin using satellites and radar. Last year, scientists released a map detailing the vast reservoirs which lie under much of Africa. Turkana is one of the hottest, driest and poorest parts of Kenya and was hit by a devastating drought last year. Many of the region’s inhabitants are nomadic herders, who are especially vulnerable to a lack of rain. Test drilling confirmed there was water under the ground.

The living tissue inside an animal has been regressed back into an embryonic state for the first time, Spanish researchers say. They believe it could lead to new ways of repairing the body, for example after a heart attack. However, the study published in the journal Nature, showed the technique led to tumours forming in mice. Stem cell experts said it was a “cool” study, but would need to be much more controlled before leading to therapies. When an egg is first fertilised, it has the potential to develop into every tissue in the human body, from brain cells to skin. That flexibility is lost as an embryo develops. However, transforming adult tissues back into an embryonic-like state may lead to treatments that can regenerate a weakened heart, or the light-sensing cells in the eye or even the brain after a stroke. The transformation has been done in a laboratory, by treating skin samples with a mix of chemicals or genetic modification. “It is a surprising result, this was not expected, most of us thought that it would be impossible,” lead researcher Professor Manuel Serrano explained.

A new snail species with a beautifully translucent shell was recently discovered more than 914 meters underground in a Croatian cave. A team of cavers and biologists with the Croatian Biospeleological Society discovered Zospeum tholussum in the Lukina Jama-Trojama cave systems of western Croatia. The system of caves is one of the 20 deepest in the world. The team collected all animal specimens found along the way, since deep cave crevices are often promising places to find new species, and happened upon one live sample of the new snail, along with eight empty shells. The team presented the elegant snail to taxonomist Alexander Weigand at Goethe-University in Frankfurt, Germany, for help in identification. Weigand determined that this particular species had never before been found, but that it is related to other known species.

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

Four Romanian universities are no longer holding their positions in the top best universities in the world. While in the previous classification all four institutions were amongst the 700 best study centers in the world, they have now fallen by almost 100 places. “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University in Iaşi, “Babeş-Bolyai” University from Cluj-Napoca, The University of Bucharest and WestUniversity in Timişoara have not been able to keep their good scores.

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Skeptical Reporter for September 6th, 2013

Former WBO heavyweight champion Tommy Morrison died in an Omaha hospital this week. He was 44. Morrison’s longtime promoter, Tony Holden, said Morrison died with his wife, Trisha, beside him. Morrison tested positive for HIV in 1996 before a fight with Arthur Weathers, effectively ending his boxing career. In the years that followed, he denied having HIV and also challenged the existence of the virus. Trisha Morrison, who married Morrison in 2011, picked up that fight, and in a recent interview with ESPN.com insisted that Morrison had Guillain-Barre Syndrome, not HIV.

Swaziland’s absolute monarch, King Mswati III, said he was visited by God during the weekend and this resulted in atypical electrical storms in the country, but also a new name for the country’s controversial political system. “The lightning was flashing even though it was (the time of year) when there is usually no clouds or rain,” Mswati said when he opened a trade fair in Manzini. He said the storm was sent by God to accompany his vision. The South African Weather Service interpreted it differently, reporting that a cold front from South Africa to the north colliding with warm air from the Mozambique Channel had created thunderstorm conditions in Swaziland. Swaziland is now officially to be known as a monarchical democracy, the king decreed. Mswati said the new name reflected the people’s participation in the country’s governance through use of the ballot box. Swaziland’s parliamentary election will be held next week. However, political parties are banned, and widespread bribery and vote-rigging were reported in last week’s primary election. Parliament has no governing power and may be dissolved at any time by Mswati, who may also ignore its resolutions.

The carcass of a dead dog floats on the lake that supplies tap water to 750,000 Venezuelans. Witch doctor Francisco Sanchez has just dumped the previous night’s sacrifice from a cliff, contaminating the resource that has become scarcer than gasoline in Caracas. The water from Lake Mariposa, polluted by sacrifices and garbage from a local cult, is pumped to a 60-year-old treatment plant that lacks the technology to make it safe for drinking, said Fernando Morales, an environmental chemistry professor at Simon Bolivar University in Caracas who has visited the site. Ten years ago, Mariposa was a sunbathing and sailing destination. Today it is a haven for followers of Santeria. Eight kilometers away from the lake, in Caracas, sales of bottled water are booming, with families paying the equivalent of almost $5 for a five-gallon jug, twice the price of gasoline.

A vote-rigging row has erupted in the Maldives ahead of the presidential election amid suspicions that one party is using cursed coconuts imbued with black magic spells to sway voters’ political allegiances. The claims came after a coconut, described as “young”, was placed near a polling booth in an alleged bid to disrupt the upcoming elections. The fruit had been inscribed with verses from the Koran and placed near the booth at a school on the remote Kaafu atoll, one of the islands that make up the Indian Ocean archipelago state. Following the discovery of the ‘cursed’ coconut police brought in a ‘ruqyah’ practitioner (white magician) to examine the coconut. The expert found the black magic element of the coconut to be fake and because it’s was fake the police were not worried.

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

A system that allows electronic messages to be sent with complete secrecy could be on the verge of expanding beyond niche applications. A team of British scientists has discovered a way to build communications networks with quantum cryptography at a larger scale than ever before. Quantum cryptography has the potential to transform the way sensitive data is protected. The system is based on a communication system, where information is carried by individual photons – single particles of light. Once these single photons of light are observed, they change. That is, they cannot be intercepted by an “eavesdropper” without leaving a detectable trace. The team says they have now extended the way to send uncrackable codes – referred to as “quantum key distribution” (QKD) – beyond very niche applications. Andrew Shields of Toshiba’s Cambridge Research Laboratory and his colleagues, have demonstrated that up to 64 users can share a fiber link and a detector.

A “window to the brain” implant which would allow doctors to see through the skull and possibly treat patients has been devised by US researchers. It uses a see-through version of the same material used for hip implants. The team at University of California, Riverside, say it could allow lasers to be fired into the brain to treat neurological disorders. The researchers say emerging laser-treatments in stroke and cancer care and brain imaging require access to the brain. However, they are limited as a part of the skull needs to be removed and replaced each time a treatment is performed. Instead the team of scientists have devised a transparent implant that would replace a small section of the skull. Professor of mechanical engineering, Guillermo Aguilar, said: “This is a case of a science fiction sounding idea becoming science fact, with strong potential for positive impact on patients”.

Scientists believe they have discovered a new reason why we need to sleep – it replenishes a type of brain cell. Sleep ramps up the production of cells that go on to make an insulating material known as myelin which protects our brain’s circuitry. The findings, so far in mice, could lead to insights about sleep’s role in brain repair and growth as well as the disease MS. Precisely why we need to sleep has baffled scientists for centuries. It’s obvious that we need to sleep to feel rested and for our mind to function well – but the biological processes that go on as we slumber have only started to be uncovered relatively recently.

A new timeline for the origin of ancient Egypt has been established by scientists. A team from the UK found that the transformation from a land of disparate farmers into a state ruled by a king was more rapid than previously thought. Using radiocarbon dating and computer models, they believe the civilization’s first ruler – King Aha – came to power in about 3100 BC. Lead researcher Dr Michael Dee, from the Research Laboratory for Archaeology at the University of Oxford, said: “The formation of Egypt was unique in the ancient world. It was a territorial state; a state from which the moment it formed had established borders over a territory in much the same way we think of nations today”. Until now, the chronology of the earliest days of Egypt has been based on rough estimates.

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

Romanian first graders will get to learn a bit about philosophy, economy and social education. The new subjects will be introduced as optional, but they could help the young students understand society and social involvement, as well as making them more financially aware from a young age.

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Skeptical Reporter for August 30th, 2013

A bleeding disorder in babies so rare that it typically affects fewer than one in 100,000 is becoming more common in Tennessee. The illness is occurring more frequently because parents are refusing vitamin K injections at birth, according to pediatric specialists. Since February, four babies with no signs of injury or abuse have been sent to one children’s hospital with either brain hemorrhages or bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract. They were all diagnosed with vitamin K deficiency bleeding. All four had not received the preventive treatment, which doctors have been giving to newborns since the 1960s. Pediatricians believe that parents are increasingly refusing consent because of concerns based on misinformation or the goal of having natural childbirths. All four children survived, but the three who suffered brain bleeds face challenges. Years ago there was no problem in administering vaccines to newborn babies. But these days parents are also refusing a hepatitis B vaccine, which is given to the babies to protect them from possible exposure from the mother. The doctors blame “debunked” studies — reports that have not stood up to scientific scrutiny — still floating around on the Internet that have linked vaccine ingredients to autism and vitamin K injections to leukemia.

Shakhter Karagandy boss Viktor Kumykov plans to continue the Kazakh club’s sheep-sacrificing ritual ahead of their Champions League play-off second-leg tie against Celtic. The Kazakh champions caused a stir when they killed a sheep at the Astana Arena the last time they won a game. Animal rights group Peta expressed their outrage in a strongly-worded letter to UEFA president urging Michel Platini to punish Shakhter. Kumykov explained the practice during the pre-match press conference: “All I can say is that every team and every club has its own pre-match traditions and rituals. Celtic must have their own. We will try to respect our traditions and those traditions have been in place even before we came to the club.” He added that the ritual will probably be carried out. Police Scotland said sacrificing a sheep in a football stadium would breach Section 19 of the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2006. A spokesperson added: “Only professional slaughterhouses or people under licence may lawfully kill a protected animal.”

A steak house might not be the place you’d expect to go for a pitch on curing diabetes. But a company continues offering free dinners to lure people into diabetes seminars even as one of its charter members awaits trial in two states, including Arizona, on charges ranging from operating without a license to fraud and bilking the elderly. Diabetic Solutions MD promises it can help cure diabetes through a step-by-step process and nutritional supplements that could cost you thousands. Don’t be misled by the MD in the title. The doctors pitching the supplements are licensed chiropractors whose practices revolve around marketing supplements and diet plans. Diabetic Solutions has some close ties to another company that has recently caught the attention of law enforcement. It is called Diabetes Solutions, based in Utah. Most medical experts agree that the most important way to control diabetes is through diet and exercise. That could be something to consider when promise of a cure comes with a free steak-house luncheon.

Congress is on holiday this month, but the lobbyists are baiting their hooks, planning their strategies for how to get more money for themselves. A growing lobby is Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM ) providers, who have discovered a new opportunity to extract even more money from patients than they do already. They want the government to force insurance providers to pay for quack treatments, regardless of whether or not the treatments work. Any attempt to require evidence, they argue, amounts to discrimination. The strategy is simple: require the government to fund any treatment that a patient wants, and dress this up as “patient choice.”  Then if insurance companies resist paying for ineffective treatments, accuse them of discriminating against the poor, hapless “integrative medicine” providers.

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

One of the biggest canyons in the world has been found beneath the ice sheet that smothers most of Greenland. The canyon – which is 800 kilometers long and up to 800 meters deep – was carved out by a great river more than four million years ago, before the ice arrived. It was discovered by accident as scientists researching climate change mapped Greenland’s bedrock by radar. The British Antarctic Survey said it was remarkable to find so huge a geographical feature previously unseen. The hidden valley is longer than the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The ice sheet, up to 3 kilometers thick, is now so heavy that it makes the island sag in the middle (central Greenland was previously about 500m above sea level, now it is 200m below sea level). Glaciologists think the canyon plays an important role in transporting sub-glacial meltwater produced at the bed towards the ocean.

Miniature “human brains” have been grown in a lab in a feat scientists hope will transform the understanding of neurological disorders. The pea-sized structures reached the same level of development as in a nine-week-old foetus, but are incapable of thought. The study has already been used to gain insight into rare diseases. Neuroscientists have described the findings as astounding and fascinating. One of the researchers, Dr Juergen Knoblich, said: “What our organoids are good for is to model development of the brain and to study anything that causes a defect in development. Ultimately we would like to move towards more common disorders like schizophrenia or autism”. The technique could also be used to replace mice and rats in drug research as new treatments could be tested on actual brain tissue.

A team of researchers claims to have created the world’s fastest spinning man-made object. They were able to levitate and spin a microscopic sphere at speeds of up to 600 million revolutions per minute. This spin speed is half a million times faster than a domestic washing machine and more than a thousand times faster than a dental drill. Although there is much international research exploring what happens at the boundary between classical physics and quantum physics, most of this experimental work uses atoms or molecules. The St Andrews team aimed to understand what happened for larger objects containing a million million atoms or more. Dr Yoshihiko Arita of the university’s School of Physics and Astronomy said: “This is an exciting, thought-provoking experiment that pushes the boundary of our understanding of rotating bodies”. The researchers have managed to examine the rotating sphere and hope to gain more information from the experiment.

Scientists have presented new evidence for the existence of an unconfirmed element with atomic number 115. The element is highly radioactive and exists for less than a second before decaying into lighter atoms. First proposed by Russian scientists in 2004, the super-heavy element has yet to be verified by the governing body of chemistry and physics. A Swedish team has managed to create the element. “This was a very successful experiment and is one of the most important in the field in recent years”, said Dirk Rudolph, professor at the division of atomic physics at Lund University, who led the research. After the discovery of element 115, independent confirmation to measure the exact proton number was required. The potential new element will now be reviewed by a committee which consists of members of the international unions of pure and applied physics and chemistry. They will decide whether to recommend further experiments before the discovery of the new element is acknowledged.

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

Over 6.000 students from 506 schools in five Romanian counties have had the opportunity to learn more about science. Their teachers managed to access the MaST European funds for science and math three years ago and since then, students have been taught the difficult subjects in innovative ways. The program’s purpose is to make math and science education more accessible to students.

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Skeptical Reporter for August 23rd, 2013

In the United States, Tarrant County health officials have zeroed in on a mega-church near Eagle Mountain Lake as where a measles outbreak began to spread. A congregant contracted the viral infection during a visit to a foreign country and attended a service before he knew his diagnosis. The individual was not a member of the church and was visiting the facility as part of a multi-nation mission trip. The Texas Department of Health and Human Services last week issued an alert against the measles, a viral infection that has been nearly eradicated by vaccinations.  The youngest victim is 4-months-old while the oldest is 44-years-old, said Tarrant County epidemiologist Russell Jones. More than half are younger than 20. Jones said he believes the county has reached all children who are possibly exposed to it, although there is concern that residents outside the church could have been infected. The outbreak is prompting state and county health authorities to remind residents of the importance of immunizations, especially as school begins across the state and in North Texas. The majority of the patients were not vaccinated.

The Indian state of Maharashtra has enacted emergency laws banning black magic and superstition, one day after a prominent campaigner was killed. Anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar, 71, who campaigned for the law, was shot dead in the city of Pune by unidentified gunmen. Many businesses closed to protest against his killing and chanting demonstrators marched through the city. He spent decades campaigning against what he called “fraudulent” practices. After his murder, the government rushed through emergency legislation which, according to local media reports, makes it an offence to exploit people by offering rituals, charms and magical cures, and to practice black magic. Dabholkar and his committee (Committee for the Eradication of Blind Faith), was particularly well-known for openly criticizing some of India’s so-called “godmen”, the self-styled Hindu ascetics who claim to perform miracles and are revered by many.

You cannot convince people that evolution is false with logic, according to the founder of the Creation Museum in Kentucky. In a 60-second radio ad, Answers in Genesis President Ken Ham admitted there was no scientific evidence that conclusively demonstrated that evolution was a lie. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t solid evidence that evolution was a lie. The solid evidence just wasn’t scientific. “We have solid proof in in our hands that evolution is a lie: the Bible,” Ham explained. “You see, we can’t depend solely on our reasoning ability to convince skeptics. We present the evidence and do the best we can to convince people the truth of God by always pointing them to the Bible.”

In the US, governor Chris Christie signed a bill barring licensed therapists from trying to turn gay teenagers straight, making New Jersey the second state to ban so-called conversion therapy, along with California. The bill passed both houses of the New Jersey Legislature with bipartisan support in June. Assemblyman Tim Eustace, who sponsored the bill and is openly gay, described the therapy as “an insidious form of child abuse.” In a note accompanying the bill, Christie said he believes people are born gay and that homosexuality is not a sin. The Republican governor also said the health risks of trying to change a child’s sexual orientation, as identified by the American Psychological Association, outweigh concerns over the government setting limits on parental choice. “Government should tread carefully into this area,” he said in the note, “and I do so here reluctantly. However, I also believe that on the issues of medical treatment for children we must look to experts in the field to determine the relative risks and rewards,” Christie said, citing a litany of potential ill effects of trying to change sexual orientation, including depression and suicide.

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

European forests are showing signs of reaching a saturation point as carbon sinks, a study has suggested. Since 2005, the amount of atmospheric CO2 absorbed by the continent’s trees has been slowing. This is a result of the declining volume of trees, deforestation and the impact of natural disturbances. Many of Europe’s forests are reaching an age where growth, and carbon uptake, slows down as they have been recovering in recent times after centuries of stock decline and deforestation. The carbon cycle is the process by which carbon – essential for life on the planet – is transferred between land, sea and the atmosphere. Carbon sinks refers to the capacity of key components in the cycle – such as the soil, oceans, rock and fossil fuels – to store carbon, preventing it from being recycled. Saturation refers to the point where the natural carbon sinks are unable to keep pace and absorb the additional atmospheric carbon being released by human activities.

The secretive underground lives of British mammals have been captured on camera by filmmakers. Full-scale rabbit warrens, vole burrows and badger sets were crafted in order to film previously unrecorded details. The team were able to capture intimate views of family life for some of Britain’s best loved, and least understood, species. In the past, underground filming has been limited by natural conditions. The lack of light forced filmmakers to use infra-red cameras that only produced black and white footage. The claustrophobic nature of underground dwellings also makes it difficult to follow animals without disturbing them. The filmmakers overcame these challenges by consulting with zoo architects, model makers and experts in underground species, then building artificial burrows based on those found in the wild.

The oldest known globe to represent the New World has been discovered. Dated to the early 1500s, the globe was likely crafted in Florence, Italy, from the lower halves of two ostrich eggs. It is engraved with then-new and vague details about the Americas garnered from European explorers like Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci. It is also decorated with monsters, intertwining waves and even a shipwrecked sailor, according to the Washington Map Society, which published a study of the artifact. The anonymous owner of the globe, who bought it in 2012 at the London Map Fair, allowed researchers to investigate the globe. Using carbon dating, computer tomography testing, an ink assessment, as well as a geographical, cartographic, and historical analysis it was determined that the grapefruit-sized globe was made around 1504. It was likely used to cast the famous copper Lenox globe housed at the New York Public Library, which, until now, had been thought to be the oldest globe to show the Americas and is dated to 1510.

Human beliefs are shaped by perception, but new research suggests delusions — unfounded but tightly held beliefs — can turn the tables and actually shape perception. People who are prone to forming delusions may not correctly distinguish among different sensory inputs, and may rely on these delusions to help make sense of the world, the study finds. Typical delusions include paranoid ideas or inflated ideas about oneself. “Beliefs form in order to minimize our surprise about the world. Our expectations override what we actually see”, said neuroscientist Phil Corlett of Yale University, who was not involved in the study.

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

An article in “Nature” looks at the failures of Romanian science and how research has stood still. The article is a severe criticism to the steps that Romania has taken backwards and states: “In April, hundreds of scientists took to the streets in protest, and more than 900 signed a petition addressed to Prime Minister Victor Ponta, demanding that the research budget and quality control be restored. The entire National Research Council, Romania’s main research-funding agency, resigned in protest. With no compromise from the government and the council seats still unfilled, Romanian science is adrift. Scientists are resigned to treading water, in the hope that the tide will turn”.

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Skeptical Reporter for August 16th, 2013

A surge of electrical activity in the brain could be responsible for the vivid experiences described by near-death survivors. A study carried out on dying rats found high levels of brainwaves at the point of the animals’ demise. US researchers said that in humans this could give rise to a heightened state of consciousness. The lead author of the study, Dr Jimo Borjigin, of the University of Michigan, said: “A lot of people thought that the brain after clinical death was inactive or hypo-active, with less activity than the waking state, and we show that is definitely not the case. If anything, it is much more active during the dying process than even the waking state”. From bright white lights to out-of-body sensations and feelings of life flashing before their eyes, the experiences reported by people who have come close to death but survived are common the world over. Even though they are currently little understood, this kind of new research could help to shed some light on near-death experiences.

In California, believers have discovered a tree that they think delivers the tears of God. The small but growing group attribute the liquid dripping from a Crape Myrtle tree to a miracle. Parishioner Maria Ybarra says: “When you say ‘glory be to God in Jesus name’ the tree starts throwing out more water.” On close inspection, arborist Jon Reelhorn agrees, something is falling from the tree in front of St. Johns Cathedral. But it isn’t water: “The aphids will suck the sap, the sap goes through the aphid and then it is a honey dew excrement from the aphid and it gets so heavy in the summertime that it will drip down”.  He calls it a natural process. He also found another tree dripping across the street. And like the honey dew rolling off its leaves, clinical therapist Mark McOmber says the way people choose to interpret it can also be attributed to nature: “Human beings inherently need to hope for things, things that they can’t understand, things they can’t see”.

Warren Jeffs, the president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints,  is a self-proclaimed “prophet of God”. He was convinced of sexual assault on minors and now, from behind bars, he is sharing his prophecies with one of Arizona’s top leaders — Attorney General Tom Horne. From behind bars in Palestine, Texas, Jeffs telephones his followers who transcribe his words and often send copies of them to public officials. The “revelations” are a mixture of orders, visions and demands. Horne said he’s concerned because the revelations show that Jeffs still has control over the FLDS community in Colorado City. “It’s the worst injustice happening in Arizona right now,” he said. Jeffs is the leader of the polygamist FLDS church. But he’s currently serving more than 100 years in prison for child molestation. Former members of the FLDS community said that Jeffs writes the revelations on a regular basis to be studied and carried out by his followers.

And another UFO sighting has been explained by more ”earthly” means. On October 16, 2012, the sighting of a shiny object in the sky above Kentucky gained considerable media attention. Plenty of people saw the object: The Kentucky State Police received multiple reports of sightings. A couple of days later, the Appalachian News-Express ran a story headlined “Mystery Object in Sky Captivates Locals.” Regional television stations reported that government agencies professed ignorance. The story was picked up by CNN. And the UFO-loving website Ashtar Command Crew linked to the news as ostensible proof of continuing visits from the Galactic Federation fleet. Rich DeVaul has recently explained the sighting. The shiny object in the sky was the work of his Google team. The people who saw the „UFO” in Pike County were witnessing a test of Project Loon, a breathtakingly ambitious plan to bring the Internet to a huge swath of as-yet-unconnected humanity—via thousands of solar-powered, high-pressure balloons floating some 60,000 feet above Earth.

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

A strange, pulsing star has revealed a powerful magnetic field around the giant black hole at the heart of Earth’s Milky Way galaxy. The finding may help shed light on how the galaxy’s supermassive black hole devours matter around it and spits out powerful jets of superhot matter. The center of virtually every large galaxy is suspected to host a supermassive black hole with a mass that can range from millions to billions of times the mass of the sun. Astronomers think the Milky Way’s core is home to the monster black hole called Sagittarius A* — pronounced “Sagittarius A-star” — that is about 4 million times the mass of Earth’s sun. One way to see how black holes warp space and time is by looking at clocks near them. Cosmic versions of clocks are known as pulsars — rapidly spinning neutron stars that regularly give off pulses of radio waves. Astronomers have been searching for pulsars near Sagittarius A* for the past 20 years. And earlier this year, NASA’s NuSTAR telescope helped confirm the existence of such a pulsar apparently less than half a light-year away from the black hole. So far, the researchers have been able to detect a magnetic field surrounding Sagittarius A* and more research could lead to new revelations about the most difficult to observe objects in the Universe.

An engineered window coating can be tweaked to respond to changing weather conditions. Small voltages applied to the material trigger it to block heat and, independently, light. Selective control over the amount of heat and light passing through windows could help to keep buildings cool during the summer and warm during the winter. Around 4% of all energy consumed in the United States is used to cool or warm buildings to compensate for heat transfer through windows, according to the US Department of Energy. “The ability to perform well in hot and cold climates could mean big energy savings,” says Delia Milliron, a materials chemist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, who led the team that developed the material. The recipe calls for nanoscale crystals of indium tin oxide, a conductive material used to coat flat-panel displays. When indium tin oxide is jolted with electricity, the extra electrons help it to absorb as much as 35% of heat-producing near-infrared radiation passed through the crystals. The researchers embedded the nanoscale heat sponges into glass made from niobium oxide, which darkens when exposed to current. Together, the two materials allow control of both heat and visible light passing through the window.

Scientists are reporting a significant milestone for cancer research after charting 21 major mutations behind the vast majority of tumours. The disruptive changes to the genetic code accounted for 97% of the 30 most common cancers. Finding out what causes the mutations could lead to new treatments. Some causes, such as smoking are known, but more than half are still a mystery. A tumour starts when one of the building blocks of bodies, a cell, goes wrong. Over the course of a lifetime cells pick up an array of mutations which can eventually transform them into deadly tumours which grow uncontrollably. The international team of researchers was looking for the causes of those mutations as part of the largest-ever analysis of cancer genomes. Professor Mike Stratton, the director of the Sanger Institute declared: “I’m very excited. Hidden within the cancer genome are these patterns, these signatures, which tell us what is actually causing cancer in the first place – that’s a major insight to have. It is quite a significant achievement for cancer research, this is quite profound. It’s taking us into areas of unknown that we didn’t know existed before”.

Scientists in the US have discovered a new animal living in the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador. It has been named olinguito and is the first new species of carnivore to be identified in the Western hemisphere in 35 years. It has taken more than a decade to identify the mammal, a discovery that scientists say is incredibly rare in the 21st Century. The credit goes to a team from the Smithsonian Institution for the addition of the 35cm-long olinguito to the animal family that includes racoons.

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

Eight Romanians have added their names to a list of people who hope to go to Mars and remain there for the rest of their lives. 100.000 candidates have already signed up to the project initiated by Mars One, that hopes to colonize Mars beginning with 2022. The eight Romanians have posted small descriptions of themselves and seem to be keen to go on the adventure of their lives that would take place on Mars.

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Skeptical Reporter for August 9th, 2013

In Australia, chiropractors will be forced to stop making anti-vaccination and other misleading claims in a crackdown on operators from the profession’s governing board. Earlier this year some chiropractors were revealed to have received government-mandated training by anti-vaccination clinicians who believe diet and ”keeping the spine in line” will prevent deadly diseases such as polio. The chairman of the Chiropractic Board of Australia said it had removed some courses from its approved training schedule and would be randomly auditing practitioners to ensure they were not making unsubstantiated claims about the benefits of chiropractic. It also announced all registered chiropractors would be required to remove anti-vaccination claims from their websites.

A new study has examined the relationship between belief in precognition and sense of control. They found that belief in psychics, clairvoyance, fortune telling, is one way people may compensate for feeling a lack of control in life. And, that this actually works to provide a greater sense of control. In an abstract from the paper the issue is explained: ”We argue that believing the future is predictable increases one’s own perceived ability to exert control over future events. As a result, belief in precognition should be particularly strong when people most desire control–that is, when they lack it. Prediction therefore acts as a compensatory mechanism in times of low control. The present research provides new insights into the psychological functions of seemingly irrational beliefs, like belief in psychic abilities”.

Plants of the Aristolochia genus have for centuries been used in Chinese herbal remedies, but they contain a naturally carcinogenic compound that causes mutations in the cells of people who consume them, according to two studies recently published. The papers reveal that the compound, called aristolochic acid, causes more mutations than two of the best-known environmental carcinogens: tobacco smoke and UV light. “A lot of people in the lay public assume that if something is herbal or natural that it is necessarily healthy, But this work very clearly shows that this natural plant product is extremely genotoxic and carcinogenic,” said Marc Ladanyi, an investigator in the human oncology and pathogenesis program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York who was not involved in the studies. Despite the long history of Aristolochia use in herbal remedies, evidence of the plants’ inherent danger emerged only recently. Aristolochic acid has been banned in most countries since 2003. But there are a lot of countries in Asia, like India, that still use it as part of their traditional herbal medicines. And even though it is banned in places like China, it is still readily available.

Demons can be sexually transmitted, say three young exorcists, and when it happens, it can be a real menace. The girls, who hail from Phoenix, Arizona, are featured in a new documentary by film Vice.com. They travel all over the world, meeting with people who have been afflicted with what they say are sexually transmitted demons, and commanding those demons to leave the person alone. The ringleader is Brynn Larson who was raised by televangelist Bob Larson, who claims he recently cured a man of a homosexual curse and the demon inside him. The elder Larson believes that about 50% of the entire world’s population is possessed by demons.

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

Several vaccines for malaria have been developed over the past few decades, but none offer complete protection. Now, for the first time, US researchers have developed a vaccine that protects 100 percent of those given five doses of the vaccine, albeit in a very small trial. Malaria is caused by Plasmodium parasites. It affects more than 200 million people annually and, according to the World Health Organisation, it killed 660,000 people in 2010, most of them children. The new vaccine, dubbed PfSPZ, has been developed by Sanaria, a US biotech firm, in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This was only a proof-of-principle study, although a very important one, and the experiment will need to be repeated on a larger number of subjects before it can be taken into field trials in malaria endemic areas.

The sun is gearing up for a major solar flip, NASA says. In an event that occurs once every 11 years, the magnetic field of the sun will change its polarity in a matter of months, according to new observations. The flipping of the sun’s magnetic field marks the peak of the star’s 11-year solar cycle and the halfway point in the sun’s “solar maximum” — the peak of its solar weather cycle. NASA released a new video describing the sun’s magnetic flip. As the field shifts, the “current sheet” — a surface that radiates billions of kilometers outward from the sun’s equator — becomes very wavy, NASA officials said. Earth orbits the sun, dipping in and out of the waves of the current sheet. The transition from a wave to a dip can create stormy space weather around Earth, NASA officials said. While the polarity shift can stir up some stormy weather, it also provides extra shielding from dangerous cosmic rays.

South Korea has switched on a road which can recharge electric vehicles as they drive over it. The project’s developer says the 12 kilometers route is the first of its kind in the world. It means vehicles fitted with compatible equipment do not need to stop to recharge and can also be fitted with smaller than normal batteries. Two public buses are already using the technology and there are plans to add 10 more by 2015. “It’s quite remarkable that we succeeded with the OLEV [online electric vehicle] project so that buses are offering public transportation services to passengers,” said Dong-Ho Cho, who led the team behind the scheme at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. Because the vehicles do not need to stock up on energy before making their journey, the batteries involved can be three times smaller than would otherwise be needed. This reduces the weight of the vehicles helping reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted when generating the power required. However, the cost of installing such a system are currently very high.

Researchers have reconstructed the structure of 4-billion-year-old proteins. The primeval proteins could reveal new insights about the origin of life, said study co-author José Manuel Sanchez Ruíz, a physical chemist at the University of Granada in Spain. Exactly how life emerged on Earth more than 3 billion years ago is a mystery. But it’s difficult to recreate events that happened so far in the distant past. Sanchez Ruiz and his colleagues decided to study a class of proteins called thioredoxins, which perform dozens of cellular functions in organisms across all three domains of life: Archaea, Eukaryotes and Bacteria. The proteins’ broad functionality and presence in all life forms suggests they have primordial roots, the researchers said. The team analyzed all the differences between the versions of the proteins found in organisms in each domain, and mapped those differences to the dates when the organisms are believed to have diverged. Using that information, they determined the likely amino acid sequence of the ancient thioredoxin proteins, which spawned all other versions and existed in the most primitive life. They then recreated the protein in the lab. The “fossil” protein was incredibly stable, bound to many different chemicals and functioned well in a highly acidic environment.

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

A study on consumers revealed that 7 in 10 Romanians read the labels of products they purchase and more than half of those interviewed are concerned with the existence of food additives in products. Unfortunately, it was also revealed that Romanians can’t tell the difference between additives that may be harmful to their health and those that have no negative effects.

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