Science round up – 17/3/11


Here is a round up of some of the more interesting and popular news from the world of science & technology over the last fortnight.

Monkey See, Monkey Laugh
So, to start off on a cheery note – chimpanzees have been found to laugh to promote social bonding, even when they don’t find anything funny. In the same way that humans laugh and smile within a conversation with someone new to enhance social bonding, chimps were found by researchers from the University of Portsmouth to laugh more in new groups of playmates than in more familiar groups containing well-known individuals. Researchers are hoping to establish how laughter evolved into a superior element of communication within humans, and to what extent it played a role in the development of language.

More evidence for alien life?
A scientist at NASA claims to have discovered fossil evidence of microscopic alien life resembling bacteria inside meteorites that landed on Earth. Lab tests on the structures within the meteorites found no evidence suggesting that they were from Earth, due to a lack of nitrogen in the samples that appears in studies of Earth-based organisms. The findings support the theory of ‘panspermia’ – that life originated elsewhere in the universe and found its way to Earth on meteorites billions of years ago. However, critics argue that similar structures to those found inside the meteorites have been found several times before, and much more evidence is needed before the claim of extraterrestrial life can be substantiated.

Skip to around 4:30 for an explanation of ‘panspermia’:

Discovery no more
In other space-related news, March 9th saw the space shuttle Discovery touch down at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida following its last flight, marking the end of an era for NASA. Discovery flew 39 missions, covered 148 million miles, orbited the Earth 5,830 times, and spent a total of exactly 1 year in space. Not bad for a 27 year old machine that ‘came back as perfect on its final flight as it did on its first flight.” With NASA’s attention now on interplanetary travel at Obama’s request, the available funding was not enough to cover both the shuttle program and this new venture, which will hopefully see astronauts set foot on an asteroid followed by Mars within the next few decades.

‘Penis spine’ loss is what makes us human
US researchers have identified a group of genetic differences that are responsible for what separates humans from chimps, and therefore the rest of the animal kingdom. The group of changes is actually a group that has been lost, rather than gained. The loss of this DNA has resulted in humans losing facial hair and whiskers, along with short spines on the tip of the penis (in males, obviously).

One missing segment of DNA that was lost in our divergence from chimpanzees millions of years ago codes for the inhibition of brain cell growth. The loss of this gene could perhaps have been a significant moment in human evolution. The loss of spines on the penis – which make ejaculation happen faster in some animals – could have paved the way for humans to have sex for greater lengths of time, thereby nurturing monogamy and as a result, complex social behaviours unique to humanity.

iPad 2 launched
Apple’s latest tablet offering went on sale last Friday in America and is released across the majority of Europe including the UK next Friday. Available in black or white, Apple’s iPad 2 offers a faster processor, double the memory, faster graphics, front and rear facing cameras for video calling (the front records in VGA, the rear in 720p HD), and a 10 hour battery life, all in the thinnest and lightest design yet. Along with the iPad 2, Apple also released a magnetic screen protector called the ‘Smart Cover’.

The Smart Cover protects and cleans the screen, but can also be folded into a stand to make typing less stressful on the wrists. Like the original iPad, the iPad 2 starts at the same price of £439 for the entry level 16GB WiFi only option. For journalists, a 3G enabled iPad 2 is a very useful tool for reporting on the go. With the improved memory, multitasking between several web pages, email, and a word processor is a breeze on the iPad 2. Coupled with the impressive iMovie editing suite and front and rear cameras, the option to add HD video content to stories is now achievable, and audio software Garageband will take care of the ‘vox pop’ side of things. With better portability and battery life compared to most laptops, and the advent of HTML5 and Web 2.0 technology just around the corner, the iPad 2 looks very much like a feasible reporting bridge between the office and the wild.

If you can bear the nauseating levels of Apple’s self promotion, then watch the iPad 2’s introductory video below:


3rd year biologist at the University of Southampton. Likes science, film, and discovering new ways to make one of my housemates lose his deposit.

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