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Big news from Mars coming soon, maybe

The Curiosity rover comes complete with a mini chemistry lab. It's designed to analyze the composition of Martian soils and Martian air. And, right now, that particular piece of equipment is at the center of a giddy storm of activity. Curiosity has turned up something important — big enough for Curiosity's principal investigator to tell NPR, "This data is gonna be one for the history books."

What is it? NASA's not telling just yet. Right now, researchers are in the process of verifying said exciting data, in order to make sure they aren't deceiving themselves into thinking they've spotted something that isn't really there. That's pretty good policy, given the recent flap around over-hyped studies about Earth-like planets and arsenic-based life.

On the other hand, if you're trying to avoid overhyping something, might I suggest that "We have groundbreaking, world-changing data that we can't tell you about yet," is maybe not the best way to do it.

Stay tuned.

Pictured: A 360-degree view of Mars, taken by Curiosity on October 5th, from the location where it first started collecting samples of rocks and dirt. NASA/JPL

So, did CERN find a Higgs Boson?

I just finished watching particle physicist Fabiola Gianotti on CERN's live webcast, talking about the hunt for the Higgs Boson. I'll be writing more about this later today or tomorrow, but I know a lot of you are really curious to find out what this public announcement was all about. Shorter version: The public announcement wasn't really an announcement of anything. Instead, it was more like a year-in-review presentation. CERN has made some good progress in the hunt for the Higgs Boson, they've been able to narrow their search to small field, and they have seen some potentially interesting things happening within that field. But there's not really enough here to say, one way or the other, whether the Higgs Boson is there. What they can say: 2012 is likely to be a really exciting year for particle physics, as researchers dive into experiments that will help them figure out what those "interesting things" really are.

Maggie

Cloning a wooly mammoth: Harder than it sounds

A Japanese research team has begun the process of cloning a wooly mammoth and thinks it can pull off the job in 5 years. Discover magazine is skeptical. Maggie

Potentially habitable exoplanet: The fine print

Kepler-22b is a newly confirmed exoplanet, orbiting a Sun-like star 600 light years away from Earth. The exoplanet sits in the "habitable zone"—a range of orbits around a star that are, based on what we know about life on Earth, most likely to provide the right conditions for life to happen.

That is pretty damn cool. But it does not mean there must be life on Kepler-22b. As Phil Plait explains on the Bad Astronomy blog, there's a lot we don't know about this exoplanet yet, and "within the habitable zone" is not a guarantee of habitability. Case in point: Our solar system. Earth is within the Sun's habitable zone. But so are Mars and Venus, and you may have noticed that they are not especially teeming with life.

Kepler detects planets when they transit their star, passing directly in front of the star, blocking its light a little bit. The bigger the planet, the more light it blocks. The astronomers going over the data determined that Kepler-22b is about 2.4 times bigger than the Earth. The problem is, that and its distance from its star are all we know. We don’t know if it’s a rocky world, a gaseous one, or what. It may not even have an atmosphere!

Another good post to read on this subject is Matthew Francis' explanation of "habitability" on the Galileo's Pendulum blog. Even the statement, "Kepler 22-b is within the habitable zone," comes along with a lot of assumptions that may or may not turn out to be true.

The following factors are needed to calculate whether a planet is in the habitable zone: The temperature of the host star: the hotter the star, the more it emits light of all wavelengths ... The size of the host star: a large star emits more light from its surface simply because there is more surface area ... The albedo of the planet: how much light gets reflected back into space ... Hand in hand with albedo comes the composition of the planet’s atmosphere—if it has one.

When we say Kepler-22b is in the habitable zone, we're assuming that it has the same atmospheric composition and albedo as Earth. We don't know that. And it's a big leap, bearing in mind (again) that there's not even another planet in our own solar system that shares those characteristics.

I swear, I'm not a fun-hater. Kepler-22b is awesome. Just keep it in context and know that there's still a lot we don't know about this thing.

Size comparison of Kepler-22b via Galileo's Pendulum.

Comparison of good and bad reporting on leukemia gene therapy

Gary Schwitzer, whose Health News Review should be your first stop for evaluating health and medicine journalism, has a quick line up of the good and the ugly in the coverage of the recent leukemia gene therapy study. Notice I didn't say "cure for cancer." Notably, neither did the good reporting that Schwitzer highlighted on his blog. More to come...