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Skeptical Reporter for August 2nd, 2013

Moscow police have once again entered the dark realms of the paranormal, busting a Russian “psychic” ring that has been lifting curses for money after scaring clients into thinking they were jinxed. The alleged psychics ran a parapsychology center called Sapphira, complete with a call center. The psychics also promoted their company through shows on cable television. Sapphira staff convinced callers they were cursed, and claimed to be performing “magical” rituals during their phone conversations. The staff convinced their potential clients they needed supernatural help – which the center then provided for payment. Six alleged psychics now face up to 10 years in prison on fraud charges. The case is not the first incidence of Russian police taking on self-styled psychics. Last summer, more than 20 people were detained in a crackdown on another parapsychology center in Moscow, which reportedly employed more than 500 workers at its call center and had a monthly turnover of 500 million rubles ($15 million).

Authorities in southeastern Jiangxi province are investigating health techniques used by a qigong master who has ties with a long list of celebrities, including Jackie Chan and Jack Ma, and who has been accused of getting rich by defrauding believers of the supernatural. The inquiry comes after China Central Television aired two investigative news programmes, calling Wang Lin a phony and “a vulgar magician” living on “deluding celebrities and blinding the public”. The Luxi Health Bureau later explained that it was looking into Wang’s claims on qigong, a practice with roots in martial arts and Chinese medicine that emphasizes breathing and meditation to strengthen health. Wang has long been known at home as a “qigong master” who claims to be able to heal cancer and other complicated diseases with his supernatural abilities, which he allegedly acquired in the 1980s. He remained largely unknown to the general public until this month when photos of him with dozens of celebrities and senior officials emerged on the internet.

A short video on Valeria Lukyanova, known on the internet as the girl who turned herself into a real-life Barbie doll, gives the viewers a glimpse into the beliefs that the young girl is promoting through her online appearances. In the video, Lukyanova claims she is not a real girl at all, but a time-traveling spiritual guru whose purpose is to save the world from the clutches of superficiality and negative energy. She believes physical perfection is the best medium through which she can deliver life-changing philosophy to the human race. She states: ”Only love and joy exist in the place where I come from. Beings in our dimension are sexless. We do not have such definitions as husband, wife or children. We are able to look inside any being and see ourselves. I hear voices all the time and see different beings”. One of her friends declared that they both come from the ”Pleiades” and remember lots of planets on which they reincarnated in the past.

In England, another businessman has been found guilty of making and selling fake bomb detectors. Devices made by Gary Bolton, 47, were found to be nothing more than boxes with handles and antennae. The prosecution said he sold them for up to £10,000 each, claiming they could detect explosives. The trial heard the company had a £3m annual turnover selling the homemade devices. The prosecutor told the court that Bolton knew the devices - which were also alleged to be able to detect drugs, tobacco, ivory and cash - did not work but supplied them anyway to be sold to overseas businesses. They were made at Bolton's home and at the premises of his company Global Technology Ltd, near Ashford. One company X-rayed a device and found nothing inside the box.

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

A team of astronomers from the University of Anitoquia, Colombia, have discovered a graveyard of comets. The researchers, led by Anitoquia astronomer Ignacio Ferrin, describe how some of these objects, inactive for millions of years, have returned to life leading them to name the group the 'Lazarus comets'. Comets are amongst the smallest objects in the Solar System, typically a few kilometres across and composed of a mixture of rock and ice. If they come close to the Sun, then some of the ice turns to gas, before being swept back by the light of the Sun and the solar wind to form a characteristic tail of gas and dust. The new work looked at a third and distinct region of the Solar System, the main belt of asteroids between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. In the last decade 12 active comets have been discovered in the asteroid main belt region. This was something of a surprise and the Medellin team set out to investigate their origin. "We found a graveyard of comets. Imagine all these asteroids going around the Sun for aeons, with no hint of activity. We have found that some of these are not dead rocks after all, but are dormant comets that may yet come back to life if the energy that they receive from the Sun increases by a few per cent", declared professor Ferrin.

A completely new and unusual antibiotic compound has been extracted from a marine microorganism found in sediments off the coast of California. The discovery of genuinely novel antibiotics is rare, and experts say resistance to the drugs poses a grave threat to human health. US scientists say the new compound, called anthracimycin, seems to be effective against MRSA and anthrax. The unique chemical structure of the compound could lead to a new class of antibiotic medicines. Thomas Frieden, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently warned of the risk posed by antibiotic-resistant "nightmare" bacteria while Sally Davies, UK Chief Medical Officer, described them as a "ticking time bomb" that threatens national security. The Infectious Disease Society of America has expressed concern that the rate of antibiotic development to counter resistance is insufficient. This makes this latest discovery particularly welcome news. The discovery highlights the potential resource for new materials and compounds offered by the oceans, much of which remains unexplored.

Two 6,000-year-old "halls of the dead" found in Herefordshire have been called "the discovery of a lifetime" by archaeologists. Teams from the University of Manchester and Herefordshire Council made the find on Dorstone Hill. Professor Julian Thomas said the "very rare" find was of "huge significance to our understanding of prehistoric life". The remains of the halls were found within prehistoric burial mounds. Archaeologists believe they were deliberately burnt down after they were constructed and their remains incorporated into two burial mounds. The halls are thought to be have been built between 4000 and 3600 BC. A flint axe and a finely-flaked flint knife found on the site are thought to have "close affinities" with artifacts dating from around 2600 BC found in eastern Yorkshire. These subsequent finds show that 1,000 years after the hall burial mounds were made, the site is still important to later generations living 200 miles away - a vast distance in Neolithic terms.

Quantum computers of the future will have the potential to give artificial intelligence a major boost, a series of studies suggests. These computers, which encode information in 'fuzzy' quantum states that can be zero and one simultaneously, have the ability to someday solve problems, such as breaking encryption keys, that are beyond the reach of ‘classical’ computers. The team developed a quantum version of 'machine learning', a type of AI in which programs can learn from previous experience to become progressively better at finding patterns in data. Machine learning is popular in applications ranging from e-mail spam filters to online-shopping suggestions. The team’s invention would take advantage of quantum computations to speed up machine-learning tasks exponentially. Massive amounts of information could be manipulated with a relatively small number of qubits. "We could map the whole Universe — all of the information that has existed since the Big Bang — onto 300 qubits," said Seth Lloyd of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

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

The Greenwich Royal Observatory has announced the short list for candidates that might win the ”Astronomy Photographer of the Year” for 2013. A Romanian, Alexandru Conu, is among the candidates with an image that captured the transit of Venus in front of the Sun. The winners will be announced on September 18th and the Grand Prize will be 1.500 pounds.


Skeptical Reporter for July 26th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Skeptical Reporter for July 19th, 2013

Skechers is finally paying back the customers it's accused of deceiving with the false promise that its athletic shoes would magically tone their booties like TV stars. The Federal Trade Commission is mailing more than half a million refund checks to purchasers of Shape-ups and other so-called toning shoes from Skechers after the company agreed to pay a $40 million settlement. The FTC said that Skechers (SKX) was paying the price for having "deceptively advertised its toning shoes, including making unfounded claims that its Shape-ups shoes would help people lose weight, and strengthen and tone their buttocks, legs and abdominal muscles". Skechers recruited celebrities to tout the shoe's claims, like Brooke Burke of "Dancing with the Stars" and Kim Kardashian. Skechers isn't the only shoe company to pay the price of false booty-shaping claims. Reebok had to pay the FTC $25 million in 2011 for "deceptively" advertising the buttock-toning abilities of EasyTone shoes.

A group of skeptics has offered to help a Tasmanian ghost hunting organisation as it investigates paranormal activity. Evidence presented by the Tasmanian Ghost hunting Society has been criticized by the Launceston Skeptics group. Last week, the ABC was invited to join the society as it investigated the historic Franklin House in Launceston. The group says it recorded shapes and sounds in the 200-year-old house that defy explanation. But the Launceston Skeptics group has criticized the evidence which has been posted online, as spokesman David Tyler says the observations were not compelling. "It has to be good, if it's an extraordinary claim, that is that there are ghosts there it needs very solid evidence," he said. Despite their doubts, the skeptics have raised the possibility of helping the ghost hunters observe future investigations. The Ghost Hunting society says it is open to the idea, provided it is approached in the right spirit.

Unlucky in life and love? If you are used to having things in the palm of your hands, here's a lifeline. For the Koreans, those lovers of all things beautiful and cosmetic surgeons, have now turned the scalpel, the electric scalpel that is, to the palms to alter those lines on them that dictate destiny. All that is needed is 10 to 15 minutes out of one's existence to alter between five and 10 lines, and that stage of life is history. Cosmetic surgeons in Japan are increasing their income with this type of intervention. Takaaki Matsuoka, who has performed 20 such operations at Shonan Beauty Clinic's Shinjuku branch in Tokyo, gave one woman a wedding line and soon after she wrote to him saying she had married. Two others are said to have struck the lottery, with the luckier one winning 2.9 million yen.

In the UK, pregnant women with morning sickness have been told to visit their GP by public health experts, after a nutritional supplement marketed to reduce symptoms was found to contain high levels of heavy metals. The warning from Public Health England comes after they received reports pregnant women in Asian and African communities in London were using ‘calabash chalk’ to treat their morning sickness. The treatment - also known as Argile, La Craie, Mabele, Nzu or Shiley - was recently seized by environmental health officers and was shown to have elevated levels of the metals lead and arsenic. Dr Yvonne Doyle, regional director for PHE London, said: ‘It is of great concern to us that pregnant women may be taking these chalk products as a nutritional supplement during pregnancy. We strongly advise against taking any medicinal or “remedy” product while pregnant without talking to your GP or health visitor about the health risk’.

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

An "intelligent" knife that can sniff out tumours to improve cancer surgery has been developed by scientists. The Imperial College London team hope to overcome the dangerous and common problem of leaving bits of the tumour in a patient, which can then regrow. Early results showed the "iKnife" could accurately identify cancerous tissue on the spot. It is now being tested in clinical trials to see if it saves lives. To avoid leaving cancerous tissue behind, surgeons also remove surrounding tissue. Yet one in five patients who have a breast lump removed still need a second operation to clear their tumour. For lung cancer the figure is about one in 10. The team at Imperial College London modified a surgical knife that uses heat to cut through tissue. It is already used in hospitals around the world, but the surgeons can now analyze the smoke given off when the hot blade burns through tissue. The smoke is sucked into a hi-tech "nose" called a mass spectrometer. It detects the subtle differences between the smoke of cancerous and healthy tissue. Tests on 91 patients showed that the knife could accurately tell what type of tissue it was cutting and if it was cancerous.

The Hubble space telescope has discovered a new moon orbiting Neptune, Nasa has confirmed. Designated S/2004 N 1, this is the 14th known moon to circle the giant planet. It also appears to be the smallest moon in the Neptunian system, measuring just 20 km across, completing one revolution around Neptune every 23 hours. US astronomer Mark Showalter spotted the tiny dot while studying segments of rings around Neptune. Nasa said the moon was roughly 100 million times dimmer than the faintest star visible to the naked eye. It is so small that the Voyager spacecraft failed to spot it in 1989 when it passed close by Neptune and surveyed the planet's system of moons and rings.

Archaeologists believe they have discovered the world's oldest lunar "calendar" in an Aberdeenshire field. Excavations of a field at Crathes Castle found a series of 12 pits which appear to mimic the phases of the moon and track lunar months. A team led by the University of Birmingham suggests the ancient monument was created by hunter-gatherers about 10,000 years ago. The pit alignment was first excavated in 2004. The experts who analysed the pits said they may have contained a wooden post. The Mesolithic "calendar" is thousands of years older than previous known formal time-measuring monuments created in Mesopotamia.

After 69 years, one of the longest-running laboratory investigations in the world has finally captured the fall of a drop of tar pitch on camera for the first time. A similar, better-known and older experiment in Australia missed filming its latest drop in 2000 because the camera was offline at the time. The Dublin pitch-drop experiment was set up in 1944 at Trinity College Dublin to demonstrate the high viscosity or low fluidity of pitch — also known as bitumen or asphalt — a material that appears to be solid at room temperature, but is in fact flowing, albeit extremely slowly.

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

Romanian students took the first spot for Europe ]n the International Physics Olympiad after winning two gold medals and three silver medals. The students also came in fifth place internationally. The gold medals were won by Cristian Frunză (a tenth grader) and  Cristian Andronic (an eleventh grade student). The winners of the silver medals were Tudor Ciobanu, Denis Turcu and Sebastian Dumitru.


Skeptical Reporter for July 12th, 2013

Hollywood actor Charlie Sheen is planning a trip to Scotland, to hunt for the Loch Ness monster. The Anger Management star, 47, is convinced he can solve the mystery of what lurks in the loch. He revealed his plan on Twitter, posing for a snap in what he called his “hunting gear”, a bronze battle helmet, along with friend Brian Peck. Sheen was soon flooded with encouraging messages from fans all over the world wishing him the best of luck with the mission. Many expeditions have been launched in an effort to solve the mystery of Loch Ness, with some hunters speculating that a colony of plesiosaurs has somehow survived and flourished. But just this week geologist Luigi Piccardi said Nessie sightings were caused by bubbles from a “large and very active” fault line under the lake. Sheen, who has battled crack and cocaine addiction, is no stranger to off-the-wall ideas. He has previously claimed to be a “warlock” and a “rock star from Mars” who can cure diseases with his mind. He was sacked from sitcom Two And A Half Men after a meltdown in 2011.

In Australia, hundreds lined up for hours to hear the Californian-based teacher, author and healing evangelist Bill Johnson speak at a Brisbane church. Many in the 1750-strong crowd were young people attracted to the fifth generation pastor's teachings about 'encountering God' for themselves - and having the faith to pray for healing others. An inherent part of Johnson's teaching is 'treasure hunting' where people go through a town or shopping centre and ask God to show them people who may need encouragement or healing. The practice has already made headlines in Brisbane and drew following on YouTube with postings of people speaking of 'liquid love', a warm sensation, and healing experience. After the service, dozens of people claimed they had been healed after being prayed for. Others were not healed but Johnson said some did not receive their healing straight away but days later.

A Chinese magician has conjured up a personal fortune after setting up an online "spell" emporium that is reportedly earning him more than one million yuan ($180,000) each month. Luo Shun from Hunan province, started his internet business last October and has since been swamped with customers seeking paranormal solutions to their distinctly terrestrial problems. Luo is now reportedly making one million yuan each month from clients who hoped to find love, atone for sins or improve relations with their mothers-in-law. "Writing spells is a sacred thing. [You must] calm your heart, shower and change clothes [and] be guided by the Holy Spirit", he said. Last month the online shop sold 2,825 spells, the most popular a $53 love charm.

The Daily Mail reporters demonstrated once more that they don’t hold particularly good relations with science. They picked up a satirical blog post by doctor Dean Burnett and turned it into serious news. Burnett wrote the blog post on The Guardian website in order to ridicule those who lack an understanding of science and how evolution works. In the post he talks about the possible evolution of human beings in the modern environment and “predicts” that Homo Sapiens could grow flexible skeletons, tentacles, selective hearing, wings and even colour-changing skin. The Daily Mail reporters considered this to be serious news coming from a respectable scientist and wrote about it in very serious terms. They failed to read the last part of the entry which said: “I once spoke with someone who said he didn’t believe in evolution. When asked why, his main argument was that people don’t have wings. While this is definitely the case, I asked how this relates to evolution. His response was that “evolution is survival of the fittest, and wings are the best”. So there’s that. I don’t know how much research this person had done to arrive at this conclusion, so I’m putting it here just in case. Even if it is based on some half-baked observations and a very limited understanding of how evolution works, it’ll fit right in”.

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

Today's 90-year-olds are surviving into very old age with better mental performance than ever before, Danish research suggests. People born in 1915 scored higher in cognitive tests in their 90s compared with those born a decade earlier, according to a study in The Lancet. Better living standards and intellectual stimulation may be key factors, experts say. The number of people reaching very old age is on the rise globally. In the US, for example, the number of people aged 90 or above has more than doubled in 30 years. However, there has been little research on the quality of life that people reaching such an old age can look forward to. The investigations of the Danish research team will be repeated in those born a decade later, giving the chance to see if the findings apply in other populations.

Fragments of two ancient stone axes found in China could display some of the world's earliest primitive writing, Chinese archaeologists say. The markings on the axes, unearthed near Shanghai, could date back at least 5.000 years. But Chinese scholars are divided on whether the markings are proper writing or a less sophisticated stream of symbols. The world's oldest writing is thought to be from Mesopotamia from 3,300 BC. The stone fragments are part of a large trove of artifacts discovered between 2003 and 2006 at a site just south of Shanghai. But it has taken years for archaeologists to examine their discoveries and release their findings. If proven, the stone axes will be older than the earliest proven Chinese writing found on animal bones, which dates back 3,300 years.

Stretchable electronics may start appearing in the near future, after researchers created liquid metal structures on a 3D printer. A team at North Carolina State University used an alloy of two metals - gallium and indium - that are liquid at room temperature but form a "skin" when exposed to air. When printed, the shapes can be stretched without reverting to blobs. The technology could be used for micro-circuits and wearable electronics. "The metal forms a very thin layer of oxide and because of it, you can actually shape it into interesting shapes that would not be possible with normal liquids like water," said the lead author, Michael Dickey. He explained that the printer used a syringe to stack the droplets on top of one another. The droplets retained their shape without merging into a single big droplet, which allowed the scientists to then shape the metal. Gadget makers could potentially use the technique to make connections between electronic components that would not break if their device was pulled or twisted. Flexible electronics are starting to emerge, with companies such as Samsung, LG and Nokia experimenting with bendy displays for phones and televisions.

The rover the US space agency (NASA) sends to Mars in 2020 will look for signs of past life. It will carry a suite of instruments that will attempt to detect the traces left in rocks by ancient biology. The mission is a subtle step on from the current Curiosity rover, designed to establish if the planet has ever had habitable environments in its history. But the 2020 mission will still not be an explicit hunt for present-day life on Mars. The Science Definition Team commissioned by NASA to scope the new rover says such a search would be extremely difficult given what we know about the harsh surface conditions on the planet, and the state of current technologies. The science definition team says the robot should be capable of visual, chemical and mineralogical analysis down to microscopic scale.

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

The Dracula project to promote Transylvania as a tourist destination represents the most profitable strategy that can be found for the development of the tourism in the region, according to a release of the Romanian Federation of Tourism and Service Employers.

“Finally, the local authorities in Transylvania understood that the Dracula myth represents an unrivaled vehicle for promoting tourism in this region. Building on this should be spectacular and uninhibited by such preconceptions that kept hidden in a drawer until now the most valuable country brand of Romania”, said Dan Matei Agathon, the FPTS President.


Skeptical Reporter for July 5th, 2013

Netherlands is facing a measles outbreak. The number of reported cases of measles in the Bible Belt region has gone up to 161 and five children have been hospitalised, the public health institute declared. The true figure is likely to be higher because not all patients will go to their family doctor. The outbreak is largely affecting children aged four to 12 who attend orthodox Protestant schools. Many of the country's strict Protestant communities do not vaccinate their children on religious grounds. The outbreak began in May with 54 reported cases in the past ten days.

In the Phillipines, classes were suspended at a school in Mandaluyong City after around 20 students aged between 12 and 16 started acting strangely—screaming, crying, fainting and convulsing—prompting claims that they were possessed by evil spirits. Julie Esparagoza, an 8th Grade teacher at the public school, said the incident started shortly after 9 a.m. and initially involved two girls from her section. One of the girls suddenly stood up and began acting strangely while the other lost consciousness.  According to Editha Septimo, the officer in charge of the high school section, some of the affected students were taken to the principal’s office while the others were brought to a classroom where a doctor attended to them. She added that she had no choice but to suspend classes in the entire school after parents started rushing to the school to get their children out of fear that they would also be “possessed.” Those who witnessed the incident were divided about what happened. Septimo was skeptical and called the incident a case of “mass hysteria” caused by students who just wanted attention. A priest that was contacted to help the children said the incident was clearly a case of “evil spirits possessing the students.”

Ever heard about the curse of the pharaohs? Well, how about the curse of a 2,500-year-old chief of a nomadic Scythian tribe that brings about floods, droughts, livestock decimation and high atmospheric pressure? Though the curse of the pharaohs has repeatedly been debunked as myth, the Scythian curse is very real, say locals in a remote area of eastern Kazakhstan where the chieftain’s remains were discovered – and where they will be reinterred to appease his spirit, to the despair of archaeologists. In 2003, an archaeological expedition dug up a burial mound in the Shiliktinskaya Valley to find a Golden Man – a presumed leader of the Saka tribe, a branch of the Scythian nomads that populated Central Asia and southern Siberia in the 1st millennium BC. Since the mound was excavated, the area around it has been hit by several floods, a drought, a mass loss of livestock and an increase in births of children with learning disabilities, locals said. Scholars dismissed the rumors, pointing to global climate change as the reason for the area’s problems. But archeologists had to concede to reinter the Golden Man at the request of the Kazakh Culture Ministry and after “unrest” among locals.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and international regulators shut down 1,677 illegal online pharmacy websites this week, and seized more than $41 million worth of illegal medicine worldwide, according to a statement by the FDA. The authorities seized the offending websites, and posted messages on them warning visitors about the websites' alleged illegal activities, and the potential harms of buying counterfeit drugs. Some websites used names similar to some major pharmacy retailers in the United States to imply an affiliation with these retailers. Other drugs sold on these websites included medications that have potentially life-threatening side effects, and should be used only when prescribed by a doctor.

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

A telescope in Hawaii built to seek out asteroids that might one day threaten the Earth has discovered the 10,000th near-Earth space rock ever seen. The powerful Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) caught sight of the 300 meters-wide asteroid 2013 MZ5 on June 18th. The large rock poses no danger to Earth, researchers said. "The first near-Earth object was discovered in 1898," Don Yeomans, the manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office, said in a statement. While 10,000 is a big number, there are many more close-flying space rocks still out there waiting to be found. Scientists estimate that near-Earth space hosts millions of asteroids, some of which could pose a danger to our planet down the road. Near-Earth objects come in all shapes and sizes. Asteroids and comets are labeled NEOs if they come within about 45 million kilometers of Earth's orbital distance, according to NASA officials.

The Earth experienced unprecedented recorded climate extremes during the decade 2001-2010, according to the World Meteorological Organisation. Its new report says more national temperature records were reported broken than in previous decades. There was an increase in deaths from heatwaves over that decade. This was particularly pronounced during the extreme summers in Europe in 2003 and in the Russian Federation during 2010. But despite the decade being the second wettest since 1901 (with 2010 the wettest year recorded) fewer people died from floods than in the previous decade. Better warning systems and increased preparedness take much of the credit for the reduced deaths. The WMO says smarter climate information will be needed as the climate continues to change. The decade was the warmest for both hemispheres and for both land and ocean surface temperatures. The record warmth was accompanied by a rapid decline in Arctic sea ice, and accelerating loss of mass from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets and from glaciers. Global mean sea levels rose about 3 mm per year - about double the observed 20th century trend of 1,6 mm per year. Although overall temperature rise has slowed down since the 1990s, the WMO says temperatures are still rising because of greenhouse gases from human society.

The recently discovered fourth and fifth moons of Pluto now have official names: Kerberos and Styx. The International Astronomical Union, charged with official name designations, stipulates that names derive from Greek or Roman mythology. The names - referring to a three-headed dog and a river separating the living from the dead, ranked second and third in an international public vote. The winning submission, Vulcan, was vetoed by the IAU. The two moons - each just 10-25km across, were formerly known simply as P4 and P5. They were only discovered in July 2011 and July 2012, respectively.

Tiny human livers grown from stem cells get to work when they are transplanted into mice, cranking out proteins and breaking down drugs that mice normally can't, say scientists in Japan who created the working organs. The human "liver buds" grew blood vessels and produced proteins such as albumin that are specific to humans. The researchers further confirmed the livers were working by showing that transplanting a liver into a mouse whose liver was lethally damaged allowed the animal to live longer then expected. "It's a human liver, functioning in a mouse," said study researcher Takanori Takebe, a stem-cell biologist at Yokohama City University in Japan.

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

The Romanian Mathematics Olympiad group has won four gold medals and two silver medals at the Balkans Mathematics Olympiad that took place in Cyprus this year. The latest edition of the Olympiad had 120 participants from 16 counties. Each country can be represented by a group of six students who must me up 20 years old.



Skeptical Reporter for June 28th, 2013

In Scotland, the British Homeopathic Association intends to fight the NHS decision to no longer support homeopathy from public funds. The Association claims the unproven alternative medicine had been the victim of a “hate campaign”. The organization believes the removal of clinics, used by around 500 people a year in the region, constitutes a “major service change” and is therefore a decision for the Scottish Government, rather than NHS Lothian. Other groups have expressed delight that the service had been cut, calling the decision a victory for “evidence over superstition”. The decision to end funding had been largely based on a public consultation which found that almost three-quarters of Lothian residents did not think homeopathy should be free on the health service.

In the United States, local New York City doctors are seeing a spike in requests for intravenous vitamin treatments. It is the new health fad that has taken over the preferences and pockets of Americans in the Big Apple who wish to keep up their energy, combat colds, stay youthful or simply look better. Though they are not FDA-approved as treatments, IVs are being administered at the offices of even prominent physicians. In many cases, patients first begin with a blood workup, to determine what nutrients they need. Then, they sit with a drip from 30 minutes to an hour, at a cost ranging from $130 to $1,000 per session. “It’s basic biochemistry; when the body has its building blocks, it works better,’’ says Morrison, who recommends weekly drips during particularly stressful periods for a span of four to six weeks. According to Morrison, IVs first started to become popular with athletes about five years ago, when Major League Baseball players were rumored to use them, because the treatments allowed them to enhance their performance legally. Though doctors in a large range of specialties are now offering the IVs, critics say they are nothing more than snake-oil salesmen. “There is no evidence-based medicine to support the use of vitamin drips; they are just moneymakers”, says Elizabeth Kavaler, a urologist and assistant clinical professor at Weill Cornell Medical Center.

In his big speech on climate change, President Obama mocked Republicans who deny the existence of man-made global warming by derisively referring to them as members of “the Flat Earth Society”. As it turns out, there is a real Flat Earth Society and its president thinks that anthropogenic climate change is real. In an email to Salon, president Daniel Shenton said that while he “can’t speak for the Society as a whole regarding climate change,” he personally thinks the evidence suggests fossil fuel usage is contributing to global warming. “I accept that climate change is a process which has been ongoing since the beginning of detectable history, but there seems to be a definite correlation between the recent increase in world-wide temperatures and man’s entry into the industrial age. If it’s a coincidence, it’s quite a remarkable one,” he said. As for Obama’s dig at his group, which indeed thinks the world is flat, Shenton said he’s not surprised and doesn't take it personally.

And Australians are making progress in their fight against anti-vaccination groups. The Senate recently voted in favor of a proposition that the controversial anti-immunisation Australian Vaccination Network should “immediately disband”. Greens health spokesperson Senator Richard Di Natale won the support of all major parties for the motion and says it is important the Parliament take the lead in expressing its disdain for the group's activities. “I think it is important that we take them on, that the community recognizes them as a group that is actively harming kids”, he declared. The motion approved by the Senate calls on the AVN to “immediately disband and cease their harmful and unscientific scare campaign against vaccines”.

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

Physicists have resurrected a particle that may have existed in the first hot moments after the Big Bang. Called Zc(3900), it is the first confirmed particle made of four quarks, the building blocks of much of the Universe’s matter. Until now, observed particles made of quarks have contained only three quarks (such as protons and neutrons) or two quarks (such as the pions and kaons found in cosmic rays). Although there are no laws in physics that would imply the existence of particles with more quarks is impossible, none had been observed so far. Finding the quartet expands the ways in which quarks can be snapped together to make exotic forms of matter. “The particle came as a surprise,” said Zhiqing Liu, a particle physicist at the Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing and a member of the Belle collaboration, one of two teams claiming the discovery. Housed at the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization (KEK) in Tsukuba, Japan, the Belle detector monitors collisions between intense beams of electrons and their antimatter counterparts, positrons. These crashes have one-thousandth the energy of those at the world’s most powerful accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland, but they are still energetic enough to mimic conditions in the early Universe.

On the 26th of June, NASA plans to launch the 181-million dollars Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS), that will take a closer look at our Sun’s choromosphere. The instrument’s “eyes”, working in the ultraviolet spectrum and designed to follow the flow of matter and energy in the chromosphere, will help astronomers to work out how the photosphere and corona are linked — including how temperatures soar from some 6.000 °C at the solar surface to more than 1 million degrees in the corona. The chromosphere is “a missing piece of the puzzle”, says Bart de Pontieu, the IRIS science lead at the Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory in California. IRIS will take images every five seconds, will obtain spectra every one to two seconds and will be able to discern objects as small as 240 kilometers across. “It’s just staggering the dynamics you can see when you have that kind of resolution”, says Scott McIntosh, an IRIS co-investigator. That resolution will help researchers to map out small, finger-like jets of plasma that were discovered in 2007.

Like werewolves and vampires, bacteria have a weakness: silver. The precious metal has been used to fight infection for thousands of years and now a team led by James Collins, a biomedical engineer at Boston University in Massachusetts, has described, for the first time, how silver can disrupt bacteria. The team have also shown that the ancient treatment could help to deal with the thoroughly modern scourge of antibiotic resistance. “Resistance is growing, while the number of new antibiotics in development is dropping. We wanted to find a way to make what we have work better,” says Collins. Collins and his team found that silver — in the form of dissolved ions — attacks bacterial cells in two main ways: it makes the cell membrane more permeable, and it interferes with the cell’s metabolism, leading to the overproduction of reactive, and often toxic, oxygen compounds. Both mechanisms could potentially be harnessed to make today’s antibiotics more effective against resistant bacteria.

As if making food from light were not impressive enough, it may be time to add another advanced skill to the botanical repertoire: the ability to perform — at least at the molecular level — arithmetic division. Computer-generated models recently published illustrate how plants might use molecular mathematics to regulate the rate at which they devour starch reserves to provide energy throughout the night, when energy from the Sun is off the menu. If so, the authors say, it would be the first example of arithmetic division in biology. But it may not be the only one: many animals go through periods of fasting — during hibernation or migrations, for example — and must carefully ration internal energy stores in order to survive. Understanding how arithmetic division could occur at the molecular level might also be useful for the young field of synthetic biology, in which genetic engineers seek standardized methods of modifying molecular pathways to create new biological devices. Researchers once thought that plants break down starch at a fixed rate during the night. But then they observed that the diminutive weed Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant favoured for laboratory work, could recalculate that rate on the fly when subjected to an unusually early or late night. To Alison Smith and Martin Howard of the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK, and their colleagues, this suggested that a more sophisticated molecular calculation was at work. The team hypothesized the existence of two molecules: one, S, that tells the plant how much starch remains, and another, T, that informs it about the time left until dawn. The researchers built mathematical models to show that, in principle, the interactions of such molecules could indeed drive the rate of starch breakdown such that the plant would not “go hungry”.

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

A student from the “Radu Greceanu” NationalCollege in Slatina won the second prize in an international science contest organized by NASA, for the development of an international space station. Adrian Vulpe Grigoraşi, an 11th grade student, also won the international “InfoMatrix” contest, bringing home the gold medal, for a project on the development of a robotized hand that imitates the motions of a human hand and could be controlled directly through brain waves.


Skeptical Reporter for June 21st, 2013


A new petition has been launched that aims at banning Creationism and Intelligent Design in the science classroom by federal law. The petition states: “Even after 150 years after the establishment of evolution, some schools across the US are "teaching the controversy," including Creationism and Intelligent Design. Both of these so-called "theories" have no basis in scientific fact, and have absolutely zero evidence pointing towards these conjectures. These types of loopholes in our education are partially to blame for our dangerously low student performances in math and science. Therefore, we petition the Obama Administration to ban the teachings of these conjectures that contradict Evolution”. You can find the petition and sign it at

And now, let’s look at the news in skepticism.

Naveena Shine, the Eastside woman testing whether she could live just on sunshine, gave up her experiment on day 47 of not eating, after losing 20 percent of her body weight. She explained that she had to end her experiment with the New Age spiritual idea of “breatharianism” because her money has run out and she doesn’t want to encourage others to try it without having their “belief systems lined up”. “I was just asking a question, but there was just so much negative response that that means the question can’t even be asked,” she said about her experiment. She also says that she didn’t want to be responsible for others trying “Living on Light”. Shine declared she simply wanted to know if “breatharianism,” a New Age belief that sunshine can substitute for food, was possible. She posted about her experiment on Facebook, YouTube and her Living on Light website. Doctors have warned that it is not possible for humans to photosynthesize, and four deaths have been linked to people who apparently had tried.

In the UK, a labor politician has defended his beliefs in extra-terrestrial life - after claiming to have fathered a child with an alien. Married father-of-three Simon Parkes, who represents Stakesby on Whitby Town Council, said his wife had rowed with him after revealing he had a child called Zarka with an alien he refers to as the Cat Queen. The 53-year-old driving instructor said he has sexual relations with the alien about four times a year. Councillor Parkes, who also claims his "real mother" is a green alien with eight fingers, said people only claim he is mad because they have not shared his experiences and that the encounters don't affect his work on behalf of Whitby residents.

Doctors were shocked by the case of a 12-year-old girl who was diagnosed  with acute pancreatitis, from the toxic side effects of more than 80 dietary supplements, which the girl's mother carried in a shopping bag. The girl's mother had been treating her with the supplements and other therapies for four years to treat the girl's "chronic Lyme disease," a condition that, experts say, doesn't actually exist. Doctors were able to control the girl's illness with standard therapies and although her story was unforgettable, it wasn't unusual. Parents now "routinely" bring children to her hospital with a variety of alternative remedies, hoping that nurses will administer them during a child's stay. There are more than 54,000 varieties sold in stores and the Internet, according to the Food and Drug Administration. About 50% of Americans use alternative medicine, and 10% use it on their children, notes Paul Offit, Children's Hospital's chief of infectious disease. He has published a book: “Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine” is which he paints a picture of an aggressive, $34 billion a year industry whose key players are adept at using lawsuits, lobbyists and legislation to protect their market. "It's a big business," says Offit, best known for developing a vaccine against rotavirus, a diarrheal illness that killed 2,000 people each day, mostly children in the developing world. In the best cases, Offit says, alternative remedies are ineffective but relatively harmless, functioning as expensive placebos that may appear to relieve symptoms such as pain, largely because people expect them to. In the worst cases, scam artists masquerading as healers push bogus cures on desperate, vulnerable people, charging prices that patients can't afford.

In Japan, the health ministry decided to withdraw its recommendation for a vaccination to protect girls against cervical cancer after registering hundreds complained about possible side effects, including long-term pain and numbness.  The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare is not suspending the use of the vaccination, but it has instructed local governments not to promote the use of the medicine while studies are conducted on the matter. It is rare for the ministry to withdraw a recommendation for a vaccine that is used regularly by local governments and is spelled out in a law. Girls can still receive the vaccination for free, although medical institutions must now inform them beforehand that the ministry does not recommend it. The risk of cervical cancer increases in women in their 20s or 30s. About 9,000 people contract the disease every year in Japan, and about 2,700 die annually. The World Health Organization recommends the vaccination, which is used in various countries.

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

A China-based supercomputer has taken the title of world's most powerful system. Tianhe-2, developed by the government-run National University of Defence Technology, topped the latest list of the fastest 500 supercomputers, by a team of international researchers. They said the news was a "surprise" since the system had not been expected to be ready until 2015. China last held the top rank between November 2010 and June 2011. According to the list, the US has the world's second and third fastest supercomputers, Titan and Sequoia, while Japan's K computer drops to fourth spot.

The world's population could reach 11 billion by the year 2100, according to a new statistical analysis. That represents 800 million more people than was forecast in 2011. Most of that increase comes because birth rates in Africa haven't dropped as fast as projected. "The fertility decline in Africa has slowed down or stalled to a larger extent than we previously predicted, and as a result the African population will go up," said study co-author Adrian Raftery, a statistician at the University of Washington, in a statement. The United Nations reported that the population hit 7 billion in October 2011. That's an amazing increase from the mere 5 million people who lived on the planet in 8000 B.C. or the 1 billion who were alive in 1805. Right now, Africa's population stands at 1.1 billion, but that is expected to increase four-fold, to 4.2 billion, by 2100. The rest of the world is unlikely to see big changes from the past estimate.

Raising awareness of organ donation on social media websites can help boost donation rates, according to a new study. Facebook began allowing users to make their status as organ donors visible in their profiles in May 2012, and on the first day of the change, about 13,000 people in the U.S. registered to become organ donors —20 times more than the average number of daily registrations. The effect of the social media initiative on its first day varied across states, ranging from a seven-fold increase in registrations in Michigan, to 100-fold increase in Georgia, the results showed. The findings mean that social media might be an effective tool for encouraging organ donation, as well as tackling other public health problems in which communication and education are essential, the researchers said.

Seasonal flu shots have prevented about 13.6 million cases of illness over the last six years, according to new estimates from researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The researchers analyzed information from each flu season between 2006 and 2011, including the number of flu illnesses and flu hospitalizations, as well as how well the vaccine worked and the total number of people who were vaccinated each year. The analysis also revealed that flu vaccines prevented an estimated 5.8 million doctors' visits and 112,900 flu-related hospitalizations. While flu vaccination has had a substantial health benefit, even more flu cases could be prevented if more people — particularly young and middle-aged adults — were vaccinated, the researchers said.

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

The Romanian medical system may be in big trouble as union representatives have announced major strikes across the country and threaten that many doctors may quit their jobs. They require salary raises for doctors, but the Health Ministry declared there are are no funds available for such raises.


Skeptical Reporter for June 14th, 2013

Jurors at the Michael Jackson trial heard testimony from a surprise witness: the ghost of Michael Jackson! Randy Phillips, CEO of concert promoter AEG Live, testified about a chat he had with his longtime friend Brenda Richie, who claimed to have talked to a medium who had channeled the spirit of Michael after his 2009 death. Allegedly, Jackson’s ghost absolved Dr. Conrad Murray of any guilt in his death and admitted he “accidentally killed himself,” Phillips said. Brian Panish, a lawyer for Michael Jackson’s family, objected to Phillips’ ghost story, calling it triple hearsay, since Phillips was relaying a chat from Richie, who had heard from a medium, who — allegedly — spoke to the deceased. Remarkably — over the laughter of courtroom spectators — LA County Superior Court Judge Yvette Palazuelos allowed Phillips’ explanation to stand. Jackson’s family is suing AEG Live, claiming that concert promoters knew the King of Pop was in declining health, but did nothing to help him — other than hire Murray. AEG officials insist they had no idea Jackson was in such fragile shape and argue the company shouldn’t be held liable for Murray’s criminal acts.

Deadly violence linked to witch hunts is an increasingly visible problem in Papua New Guinea — a diverse tribal society of more than 800 languages and 7 million people who are mostly subsistence farmers. Experts say witch hunting appears to be spreading to parts of the country where such practices never took place before, but they and government officials in the South Pacific nation seem at a loss to say why it appears to be growing. Some are arguing the recent violence is fueled not by the nation's widespread belief in black magic, but instead by economic jealousy since the country has experienced an economic boom. The changing economic situation has widened the divide between the rich and the poor and the unfortunate resort to the belief system to eliminate those who are perceived as well-off. The United Nations has documented hundreds of cases of sorcery-related violence in Papua New Guinea in recent years and many more cases in remote areas are thought to have gone unreported. Until last month, the country's 42-year-old Sorcery Act allowed for a belief in black magic to be used as a partial legal defense for killing someone suspected of inflicting harm through sorcery. The government repealed the law in response to the recent violence.

Conspiracy theorists have dismissed US radio host Alex Jones as a government stooge designed to make conspiracy theorists look ridiculous, following his meltdown on live BBC television. Jones used his appearance on Andrew Neil’s Politics Show to make shouty conspiracy theorists appear mentally ill in front of an audience of millions. The BBC have been congratulated for opening their doors to those suffering from paranoid delusions and other undiagnosed mental disorders. However the conspiracy theorist movement have spoken out to disown Alex Jones in the strongest possible terms. Conspiracy blogger Chuck Matthews stated: “He’s not one of us, no way. Alex Jones is clearly a plant by a government desperate to silence the conspiracy theory movement by making us all look like complete idiots.” The BBC's Sunday Politics was the setting for a confrontation between host Andrew Neil and US conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who was labelled the worst person to be interviewed on the show and an idiot. He had been invited on the show alongside journalist David Aaronovitch to discuss the secretive Bilderberg conference, which took place near Watford.

The controversial Australian Vaccination Network is now effectively blacklisted as a media source after the Australian Communications and Media Authority reprimanded a regional broadcaster for using statements from founder Meryl Dorey. In an August 2012 report about a measles outbreak in Sydney, WIN News Illawarra included the following statement by Ms Dorey: "All vaccinations, in the medical literature, have been linked with the possibility of causing autism...". According to ACMA, using the statement conveyed a "higher level of controversy and uncertainty about immunisation than was justified by the facts". WIN was found to have breached two provisions of the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice. The findings come as a new local group to combat misinformation about vaccination has emerged. The Northern Rivers Vaccination Supporter Group was started by polio survivor Ross Cornwill.

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

The mysterious dark matter that makes up most of the matter in the universe could be composed, in part, of invisible and nearly intangible counterparts of atoms, protons and electrons, researchers say. Dark matter is an invisible substance thought to make up five-sixths of all matter in the universe. Scientists inferred the existence of dark matter via its gravitational effects on the movements of stars and galaxies. Most researchers think dark matter is composed of a new type of particle, one that interacts very weakly at best with all the known forces of the universe except gravity. This might not hold true for all forms of dark matter, though. Now, researchers suggest a new kind of dark matter could exist, and it could be as plentiful as conventional matter. "There is no good reason to assume that all the dark matter in the universe is built out of one type of particle," study author Andrey Katz of HarvardUniversity explained. These new dark matter particles would essentially consist of heavy "dark protons" and light "dark electrons." They would interact with each other far more than other dark matter particles. The interactions between dark protons and dark electrons could make them lose energy over time. As such, they might slow down enough to clump into flat disks around galaxies, just like regular matter does. This concept means galaxies would have two disks, one made of regular atoms and one of dark atoms, which is why the investigators call their idea the double-disk dark matter model.

A project currently on Kickstarter would give supporters the tools to remote-control a cockroach using their smartphones. Called RoboRoach, the project is billed as "the world's first commercially available cyborg" and comes from a group of educational researchers called Backyard Brains. RoboRoach has three components: a cockroach with surgically implanted electrical stimulators, a cockroach-size "backpack" that transmits these signals to a smartphone and an app that allows users to send the cockroach directional commands. The controls build off of the cockroach's existing biology: cockroaches navigate by feeling their surroundings with their long antennae. The RoboRoach takes advantage of this natural mechanism to control the cockroach's direction. It's a technique similar to the deep brain stimulation currently used to treat Parkinson's disease, or treatments for deafness such as cochlear implants. Neither the surgery nor the actual process hurt the cockroaches, Backyard Brains says. The project's developers explain that it's more than just a neat trick — it's a learning tool, designed to teach neuroscience principles to people at a young age.

An ultra-faint collection of 1,000 stars orbiting the Milky Way is the most lightweight galaxy ever discovered. The dwarf galaxy known as Segue 2 is bound together by a tiny clump of dark matter. Scientists who measured it say the finding adds support to theories about the formation of the universe. Models predict that the outskirts of our cosmic neighborhood should be teeming with tiny galaxies, but scientists have found far fewer satellite dwarf galaxies in the Local Group than they expected. Astronomers' inability to measure these cosmic bodies "has been a major puzzle, suggesting that perhaps our theoretical understanding of structure formation in the universe was flawed in a serious way," said study researcher James Bullock, a University of California, Irvine cosmologist. "Finding a galaxy as tiny as Segue 2 is like discovering an elephant smaller than a mouse," he added. Segue 2 has a luminosity just 900 times that of our sun. The Milky Way, meanwhile, is 20 billion times brighter. The researchers say there could be thousands more very low-mass star bodies orbiting the Milky Way, just beyond our ability to detect them.

Restricting the use of psychoactive drugs in research represents the most serious case of scientific censorship since the Catholic Church banned the works of Copernicus and Galileo, some scientists say. In a paper published in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience, a group of researchers argues that drug laws enacted in the United States and the United Kingdom during the 1960s and 1970s have hindered vital research into the drugs' functions and therapeutic uses. The laws were designed to prevent drug use and drug harm, but they failed to do that, said paper co-author David Nutt, a psychopharmacologist at Imperial College, London. Nutt and his colleagues focused on three classes of drugs restricted by national laws and international conventions: cannabis (marijuana), MDMA (ecstasy) and psychedelics. Prior to restrictions, studies investigating these drugs had demonstrated important therapeutic uses, the authors argue. Aside from medicinal uses, the scientists say psychedelic drugs can play a role in probing the nature of consciousness, because they induce changes in the conscious state.

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

A Romanian student has invented a very small and easy to use device that will recharge your mobile phone if you run out of battery. After a semester of research, Răzvan Mărcuş has created the device that looks like a phone case and will keep your phone permanently charged. It is easy to use and much smaller that other such technologies. It works like a generator and can be adapted for any kind of phone model.


Skeptical Reporter for June 7th, 2013

The number of New York parents who had their child skip at least one required vaccine due to religious reasons increased over the past decade, according to a new study. What's more, researchers found counties with high religious exemption rates also had more whooping cough cases - even among children that had been fully vaccinated. States set their own requirements on which vaccines a child must have received to enter school. All allow exemptions for medical reasons, and most, including New York, also permit parents with a religious objection to forgo vaccination. "Particularly in New YorkState, I do believe that parents are using religious exemptions for their personal beliefs," said Dr. Jana Shaw, who worked on the study. Studies have shown cases of whooping cough, also known as pertussis, have been on the rise across the U.S. Researchers suspect that's due to the use of a new type of pertussis vaccine - which is safer, but less effective over the long run - and to more children missing or delaying vaccination.

Journalist Tony Ortega has written an article about the Church of Scientology using a natural disaster to spread the faith: “One of our tipsters forwarded to us an e-mail that will be all too depressingly familiar to our longtime readers. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that Scientology is leaping on the chance to take advantage of another natural disaster to promote itself. In this case, Texas Scientologists are being urged to head to Oklahoma, the site of several recent deadly tornadoes. Once they get there, the “volunteer ministers” will do what they've done in places like New York after 9/11 and Haiti after its big earthquake: set up yellow tents and pretend to be useful by giving out “touch assists” — running their fingers over people as if it were a form of faith healing — and handing out Scientology booklets”.

In the United States, the FDA is trying to better supervise mobile apps that promise users to help them with various medical conditions. The FDA said it will publish final guidelines for medical apps later this year, potentially sweeping tons of new apps under its jurisdiction. But some app makers and lawyers are worried that the FDA’s approach could be overkill. "If the FDA regulates in a broad brush fashion, that will stifle innovation," said Matthew Kaminer, general counsel for Epocrates, a company that makes a drug-reference app for doctors, which has more than 1 million active users. Part of this issue is that it remains unclear exactly what type of app should be considered "medical," and which of these should be regulated by the government. Medical apps can be grouped into two broad categories: those designed for patients to use on their own, and apps designed for healthcare professionals, including doctors and nurses, to help them treat patients. And there is a larger problem in distinguishing between apps that offer legitimate medical functions, and those that are little more than digital snake oil.

Turkey has a long history as a secular state, for mostly Islamic people. So it comes as no surprise that a TV program is promoting Creationism. But what may be surprising is the women, or at least how they're dressed, spreading that message. Turkey’s Islamic creationist guru Adnan Oktar is a regular fixture on his TV channel A9. Oktar and his cult-like organization have been in the Turkish media space for decades. But only last year did he deploy his new weapon in the battle against Darwinism: A flock of ostensibly attractive, curvy young women. The “kittens,” as he calls them, call him “master” and generally react at the right moments and nod their heads in agreement with whatever he says. Some of the women have their own programs in which they also “debunk” evolution, among other things. The spectacle has attracted attention beyond the creationist community. Turkish artist Pinar Demirdag describes herself as a “visual narrator” of “extreme happenings.” She says she finds herself drawn to Oktar’s kittens, who look eerily as though they were all created in a Turkish Barbie factory. Demirdag calls the spectacle a “sensation overload,” skillfully combining Islam, sexual objectification, demagoguery and Versace.

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

Europe has launched its giant robotic freighter towards the International Space Station (ISS). The vehicle, dubbed Albert Einstein, is carrying food, water, equipment and fuel for the orbiting outpost. The space truck left Earth on an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana at 18:52 local time on Wednesday. At 20.2 tones, the Albert Einstein freighter is the heaviest spacecraft ever launched by Europe. The vessel will spend the next 10 days performing checks and maneuvers designed to take it to the vicinity of the 415 km-high station. Albert Einstein will stay attached to the ISS until October. Astronauts will gradually remove its 6.6 tones of supplies, replacing them with rubbish that has built up on the platform. When the freighter leaves the platform, it will take this refuse into a destructive dive into the Earth's atmosphere.

A mouse-sized fossil from China has provided remarkable new insights into the origin of primates. At 55 million years old, it represents the earliest known member of this broad group of animals that includes humans. Scientists have called the diminutive creature Archicebus, which roughly translates as "ancient monkey". They believe that its skeleton helps explain the branching that occurred at the very base of the primate evolutionary tree. The team puts Archicebus on the line leading to tarsiers, a collection of small arboreal animals now found exclusively in south-east Asia. But its great age and primitive features mean it sits right at the base of this lineage, and so it has much to say also about the emergence of the tarsiers' sister grouping - the anthropoids, the primates that include monkeys, apes and us. It suggests the first of these anthropoids were, likewise, petite creatures scurrying through the tropical canopies that grew to cover the Earth shortly after the dinosaurs' extinction. "We are all very curious about the ancestors of primates, including those of human beings. From this almost complete skeleton, we can conclude that our ancestors were a kind of very small animal. It was very active and agile; and it lived in the trees and fed on insects", Dr Xijun Ni from the Chinese Academy of Sciences explained.

The UK population must be encouraged to eat less meat "over time" in an effort to make the global food supply more sustainable, MPs have said. The International Development Committee said increased growing of grain to feed cattle was reducing the resources for nourishing people. And food production companies that wasted too much should face "clear sanctions". The committee's report comes ahead of World Environment Day, which focused on the issue of global hunger. Prime Minister David Cameron will be hosting a G8 "hunger summit" in London. The global demand for meat is growing, with China more than doubling its consumption per person since 1985. The amount of meat eaten by people in the UK stood at 85.8 kg each in 2007, according to official figures. The UK Food Group suggests that the production of meat causes an annual "calorie loss" around the world equivalent to the need of 3.5 billion people.

Japan has built a new generation of trains that will travel at speeds of 500 km/h. The nation has successfully tested its new generation of "L0" trains that use magnetic levitation, or "maglev" technology, to achieve record-breaking speeds. The L0 trains — the fastest in the world — are on schedule to be ready for passengers in 2027 on the line connecting Tokyo with Nagoya, a trip of about 351 kilometers that will take just 40 minutes instead of the usual 90 minutes. Japan inaugurated the era of high-speed bullet trains almost 50 years ago. Maglev trains use powerful magnets to levitate and propel the train's cars, which rely on the principles of magnetic attraction and repulsion to hover above their track without using wheels.

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

The cleanest hospital in Europe might be in Braşov. A private medical unit in Romania is fighting for the prized title with three other hospitals from Germany, Luxembourg and Ireland. Representatives of the World Health Organization have arrived in Braşov and declared the medical unit has the highest chances of winning. "We use high grade disinfectants in turn according to regulations. The hospital areas are cleaned according to a closely kept schedule. And we have monthly checks to verify the microscopic state of cleanliness”, Andreea Moldovan, a specialist in infectious diseases has declared.


Skeptical Reporter for May 24th, 2013

In the United States, Ball State University has agreed to investigate complaints that a course taught by a physics and astronomy professor has crossed a line from being about science to being about Christianity. Science blogs have been discussing the course for a few weeks now. Ball State received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation charging that the course -- "The Boundaries of Science" -- is being used "to proselytize students and advance Christianity." The letter states that the course's description makes it seem "to be an honest objective investigation regarding the intersection of science and religion." But the letter notes that the syllabus and reading list includes creationists and "Christian apologists who lack any scientific credentials whatsoever," while leading proponents of the idea that evolution is true (embraced by a wide scientific consensus) are not represented.

The founder of a controversial anti-immunization group has been accused of using apprehended violence orders to gag her critics. Former Australian Vaccination Network president Meryl Dorey has applied for AVOs against three of her most vocal opponents. As a special condition of the AVOs, she wanted the men banned from making online comments about her in "any derogatory manner". She took out an AVO against Daniel Raffaele, who helped start the Stop the Australian Vaccination Network group, claiming he made threatening calls to her. Raffaele, who denied making any threatening calls, said he eventually agreed to the order because he was "sick of dealing with it", although he made sure her "gag order" was struck out. "The only thing I was never going to agree to was being silenced on the internet. The information (the AVN) spread is dangerous and it's not based on anything other than lies - and it costs lives", Raffaele said. Western Australia-based Dan Buzzard, another AVN opponent, said Ms Dorey probably saw taking out the AVOs as a "quick and easy" way to silence her critics. Ms Dorey refused to comment on the applications but denied using the AVOs to shut up her opponents. She said she had received anonymous death threats and had only taken the AVOs out at the suggestion of police.

Two Philadelphia faith-healing churches have a long history of the youngest members of their congregation dying because parents refused medical care. Families who attend Faith Tabernacle Congregation in North Philadelphia and First Century Gospel Church in Juniata Park have lost more than two dozen children to illness since 1971, according to non-profit Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, Inc. Both churches believe in the power of prayer over modern medicine. Two members, Herbert and Catherine Schaible stand charged with third-degree murder and other crimes after their 7-month-old son Brandon died from bacterial pneumonia, dehydration and a group B streptococcus infection on April 18. The Schaibles are members of the First Century Gospel Church. At least 22 children from the congregations have died from illnesses. In 1991, Faith Tabernacle lost five children to the measles after an outbreak. One child from First Century Gospel also died.

For the fourth time since 1956, voters in Portland, defeated a plan to add fluoride to the public water supply. For weeks, residents have been debating fluoridation, the addition of fluoride to tap water for the purpose of reducing cavities and tooth decay. About 60 percent of voters cast their ballots against fluoridation. "The measure lost even with my own 'yes' vote," Portland's mayor Charlie Hales said in a statement. "Disappointing, but I accept the will of the voters." More than $1 million dollars was spent on the campaign, which is a considerable sum for a Portland-only election issue. In the period before the vote, proponents of fluoridation outspent anti-fluoridation groups by a 3-to-1 margin, public records show. Pro-fluoride groups say that fluoridation will help reduce cavities among poor children who don't have access to dental care. Those in the opposing camp object to fluoridation's possible negative health effects, like impaired brain development and function, and say the practice amounts to forced medication of the populace without consent. Fluoridation is supported by the American Medical Association, the American Dental Association and the CDC, which lists it as one of the top 10 most important public health measures of the 20th century.

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

Excavations at an archaeological site in Bahrain are shedding light on one of the oldest trading civilizations. Despite its antiquity, comparatively little is known about the advanced culture represented at Saar. The site in Bahrain is thought to be the location of the enigmatic Dilmun civilization. The belief system here has a lot in common with those of Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt”. According to Salman al-Mahari, the Bahraini archaeologist in charge, the Saar settlement divides into two: a residential zone and, at a small distance, the cemetery where the inhabitants buried their dead. Dilmun, one of most important ancient civilisations of the region and said to date to the third millennium BC, was a hub on a major trading route between Mesopotamia - the world's oldest civilisation - and the Indus Valley in South Asia. It is also believed that Dilmun had commercial ties with ancient sites at Elam in Oman, Alba in Syria and Haittan in Turkey.

The United Kingdom's National Physical Laboratory (NPL) has come up with a printed circuit board that falls apart when immersed in hot water. The organization has developed circuit boards made out of what they're calling "unzippable polymeric layers" built to withstand the heat stressing and long-term thermal cycling. The layers easily come apart, however, when they come into contact with water of sufficient temperature for several seconds. The resistors, capacitors and integrated circuits, which don't have to be changed or adapted from their current formats in any way, are mounted on the boards. But after the contact with hot water, they can simply be scraped off, ready to be harvested and reused in other devices. The NPL says the technology can be applied to three-dimensional structures and flexible electronics as well as rigid circuit boards. Lab tests showed that 90 percent of the components can be reused, compared with the 2 percent that can be salvaged from current boards.

A new breed of flu vaccine is being developed that provides better and broader protection than commercially available ones — at least in animal tests. Current flu vaccines use inactivated whole viruses and must be regularly remade to target the strains most likely to cause illness in the coming year. But the nanoparticles in the new vaccine would require fewer updates because they induce the production of antibodies that neutralize a wider range of flu strains. They could even protect against varieties of flu that have not yet emerged. “This is taking us on the road to a universal vaccine,” says Gary Nabel, now at the biotechnology firm Sanofi, who led the work in his former lab at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland. The self-assembling nanoparticles can be made in the lab without having to grow real viruses in eggs or cell cultures, a time-consuming step of commercial vaccine preparation. “In theory, a new version could be produced quickly once a new pandemic virus had been identified, or a new seasonal variant started to circulate,” says Sarah Gilbert, a vaccine researcher at the University of Oxford, UK, who was not involved in the work.

On the 17th of March, an object the size of a small boulder slammed into the lunar surface, creating a flash nearly 10 times as bright as anything scientists had ever seen. NASA's lunar monitoring program has detected hundreds of meteoroid impacts. For the past eight years, NASA astronomers have been monitoring the Moon for signs of explosions caused by meteoroids hitting the lunar surface. "Lunar meteor showers" have turned out to be more common than anyone expected, with hundreds of detectable impacts occurring every year. But they just got to see the biggest one yet. "On March 17, 2013, an object about the size of a small boulder hit the lunar surface in Mare Imbrium," says Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office. Anyone looking at the Moon at the moment of impact could have seen the explosion--no telescope required.  For about one second, the impact site was glowing like a 4th magnitude star. Ron Suggs, an analyst at the Marshall Space Flight Center, was the first to notice the impact in a digital video recorded by one of the monitoring program's 14-inch telescopes. "It jumped right out at me, it was so bright," he recalls. The explosion caused by the impact was similar to one caused by 5 tons of TNT.

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

The winner of the famous INTEL science contest has returned home, to Romania. Ionuţ Budişteanu has won not only international recognition, but also a check for 75.000 dollars. The 19 year old student from Râmnicu Vâlcea won the contest with his self-driving automobile.