Of Schemes and Memes Blog

Best of nature.com blogs, SciLogs.com and Scitable: 31 – 6 September

Dark energy survey launches

High in the Chilean Andes, a massive project to probe the nature of dark energy has begun. Alexandra Witze explains more in the News Blog:

The Dark Energy Camera photographs galaxies from its perch on the Blanco telescope in Chile. REIDAR HAHN/FERMILAB

The Dark Energy Survey (DES) launched on 31 August at the 4-metre Blanco telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. It is one of several new pushes to explore the physical properties of dark energy, the mysterious force that is driving the Universe to expand at an ever faster rate.

Over the course of 5 years, the DES will map 300 million galaxies over one-eighth of the night sky. Its backbone is a 570-megapixel digital camera (pictured), designed to capture sharp images of galaxies and galaxy clusters. Such high resolution is essential because the DES measures weak gravitational lensing, the phenomenon in which light from distant cosmic objects is subtly distorted by the gravity of matter between them and Earth.

Find our more in Alexandra’s summary.

Standard vaccines can offer protection against H5N1 pandemic flu

Controversial avian influenza work yields insight into combating looming viruses. EL ALVI/FLICKR

Scientists may be able to protect humans from avian influenza viruses — before they have even evolved to spread among people. Beth Mole reports on this in the News Blog:

An experimental flu vaccine designed for a bird-specific H5N1 influenza virus can protect humans from a lab-made H5N1 strain engineered to pass among mammals. The finding is published today in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

The vaccine was made the same way as seasonal flu shots. But it was tested on a synthetic H5N1 flu, tweaked to spread among ferrets, a model of human infection. Doing any research of this sort has been dogged by heated debate and self-imposed moratoriums.

“The transmissible viruses are very scary because H5N1 has a very high mortality rate,” says lead author James Crowe, of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. But he says that the study justifies creating such dangerous pathogens in lab. “Our paper shows that there is a very clear mechanism for conventional vaccines to kill these things.”

Continue to Beth’s post to learn more about this research.

NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft is spinning out of control


NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft is in deep trouble. The craft, famous for blasting a projectile into the Comet Tempel 1 in 2005, lost contact with Earth sometime between 11 August and 14 August. Eric Hand explains more in the News Blog:

Recent commands to put the craft in hibernation, or safe mode, were unsuccessful and Deep Impact is now spinning out of control, says principal investigator Michael A’Hearn of the University of Maryland in College Park. 

Engineers have traced the problem to a software communications glitch that reset the craft’s computer. They are now working on commands that could bring Deep Impact back in operation. They may try to communicate with the spacecraft this weekend, but the team first has to figure out its most likely orientation and whether to broadcast signals to the vehicle’s high-gain or low-gain antenna.

Into Classrooms, and Beyond

The next big business opportunity for biotech researchers may be quite close to the classroom.  Bernard Dichek reveals more in the Trade Secrets Blog:

The Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) revolution is here and it is bringing with it many new possibilities.

As organizations like the Coursera consortium have already shown, there is a huge potential for reaching a mass market through on-line learning. Coursera is a private, for-profit entity that partners with universities and organizations to offer educations courses online, for free. It was founded about a year and a half ago, and since then Coursera-affiliated educators have taught more than 300 courses to more than 4 million students around the world, including one course that attracted a whopping 180,000 students.


Share your thoughts in the comment thread.

Scientists to sequence genomes of hundreds of newborns

Hundreds of US babies will be pioneers in genomic medicine through a US$25-million programme  to sequence their genomes soon after they are born.  Erika Check expands on this in the News Blog:


The programme will not replace the screening tests that most states require for newborns, which check for chemicals in the blood and defective proteins that signal the presence of nearly 60 genetic diseases. Instead, the grants will support research for studying whether sequencing a newborn’s DNA is better than conventional screening for detecting genetic disorders that affect drug metabolism, immune function and hearing, as well as some disorders that are included in conventional screening, such as metabolic disorders and cystic fibrosis.

“One can imagine a day when every newborn will have their genome sequenced at birth, and it would become a part of the electronic health record that could be used throughout the rest of the child’s life both to think about better prevention but also to be more alert to early clinical manifestations of a disease,” says Alan Guttmacher, director of the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which is funding the new programme with the US National Human Genome Research Institute.

Follow through to Erika’s report to find out more.

Virus survey

Imagine if pandemics could be forecast by infectious disease scientists the way that bad weather can be tracked by meteorologists. Liz Devitt investigates in the Spoonful of Medicine Blog:

New viruses would still infect people, but the cost of monitoring the emergence of those novel pathogens would be far less than the expense of dealing with a worldwide outbreak. At least that’s the reasoning behind a new study,published today in mBio, in which researchers propose launching a billion-dollar-plus global surveillance plan to find all the viruses lurking in mammalian wildlife before those same viruses find us.

A consortium of scientists, funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), headquartered in Washington, DC, estimated that at least 320,000 viruses remain unidentified in the world’s 5,500 mammals. They argue that the cost of systematically searching for those new viruses would pale in comparison to the estimated $16 billion another epidemic such as SARS could cost.


 Where Are Tomorrow’s Jobs in the Natural Sciences?

The Nature Jobs Blog features a guest post from Ben Thomas, who looks at the career opportunities for those in the natural sciences:

If you’re on the path toward a degree in the natural sciences, chances are you’ve already heard more than your share of grim career predictions. Competition for academic tenure is tougher than ever, government jobs often only arrive at the ends of long waiting lists, and even well-paying work in the nonprofit and private sectors may mean making distant detours from your central scientific passions. Still, natural-science jobs in certain sectors do appear to be poised for slow but steady long-term growth in the near future. Here, two experts in scientific career planning explain how your expertise and love of the natural sciences can point the way toward a stable, impactful career path.

Hear advice from the experts in Ben’s post.

You’re Doing It Wrong: Lessons Learned from Bad Science Pitches

Some people have the wrong idea about how to pitch a story idea to science reporters.

SciLogs blogger Matt Shipman, looks at the lessons learned from bad science pitches:

Reporters write stories. And public relations (PR) pros, including public information officers (PIOs – like me), pitch story ideas to reporters. But sometimes those pitches are wildly off target. And sometimes those pitches are so bad that they actually make reporters angry.

For example, I know reporters that have gotten pitches from PR firms that offer to pay reporters if the reporters are willing to mention a specific product in their stories. These pitches backfire (big time), because the reporters I know who have received these pitches have been offended at the idea that they can be bought.

But those are corporate PR efforts. Not something that affects the sphere of science news, right?

More advice can be found in Matt’s post. 

Why Do We Cry When We’re Happy?

Scitable blogger Jordan Gaines Lewis investigates why we cry when we are happy:

Most of us have heard that crying, in essence, is good for us—that it relieves us when we’re sad, releases stress and toxins, yadda yadda.

So what was with my sobbing on what was inarguably the happiest day of my life?

Here’s the thing: my teeny-tiny almond-sized hypothalamus can’t tell the difference between me being happy or sad or overwhelmed or stressed. Yours can’t tell the difference, either. All it knows is that it’s getting a strong neural signal from the amygdala, which registers our emotional reactions, and that it must, in turn, activate the autonomic nervous system.

Learn more about this emotional reaction in Jordan’s post. 


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