Start your Monday off well, by expanding your mind with these short reports on what's new in the world of science.
Hubble goes partly blind: Many sites are reporting that the Advanced Camera for Surveys has been shut down, probably due to a flaky power supply. If it is the power supply, there is already a backup on board, so all is well. The specific camera that has broken was installed in 2002 and provides rapid exposures of wide-field views, allowing it to rapidly scan large regions of the sky. It's scheduled for an upgrade if another service mission is ever sent to the Hubble again.How Xist came to exist: Mammals cope with having an extra X chromosome in females by shutting one of the two down, a process that requires RNA from the Xist gene. The RNA doesn't code for a protein, and winds up physically associated with the inactivated X. A recent publication looks at the origin of Xist, and finds that part of it started out as a regular protein-coding gene. The Xist ancestor and four other genes around it were all inactivated sometime after marsupials diverged from the rest of mammals. This suggests that marsupials may have a significantly different mechanism for shutting down their X chromosome, pointing the way towards an interesting avenue for future studies.Re-wiring the heart: A press release about a paper to be published in July suggests a potential biological alternative to a pacemaker for heart patients. Pacemakers are needed when electrical impulses, which normally spread in a coordinated fashion through the heart, become disorganized. Researchers recognized that skeletal muscles, which regenerate, could also transmit these impulses. They created bundles of skeletal muscles, and used these to successfully re-wire the hearts of rats that had been subjected to procedures that damaged the heart's electrical conduction system.It's like a comet, except it's not: Scientists who are attempting to communicate with the public often use metaphors to help people understand something that's otherwise hard to comprehend. Sadly, some of them wind up obscuring more than clarifying. I think one such example was the discovery of a giant ball of gas discovered amidst a galaxy cluster. Many stories used similar language of terming this "comet-like," undoubtedly taking the language from the press release. It's 5 million light years long, moving at 750 kilometers per second, it is moving between entire galaxies, and is estimated to be at a temperature of 46 million degrees Celsius. Other than that, just like a comet.Enigmas in space: It's hard to come up with a metaphor when you don't even know what it is you're describing. The New Scientist reports on an object that appears to be a supernova in slow-motion. A new object has brightened, but has done so on a schedule that is about five times slower than the normal 20 days it takes a supernova to hit its peak. It's also twice as bright as a typical Type-Ia supernova, and doesn't have an obvious host galaxy. It's possible that further observations will make sense out of it, but as of yet, it's still an enigma.Conflict? What conflict? We often report on the messy intersection where science, politics, and society cause multi-concept accidents, so I'm happy to be able to point out bits of good news on that front. The Episcopalian church has just approved a resolution that makes clear the compatibility between their faith and reason as represented by science, and strongly endorses the teaching of science.Natural pest control: CNN reports on efforts to pump up the population of a species of fish that's endemic to the south and feasts on insect larvae, including mosquitos. The hope is to have enough to distribute to many of the temporary bodies of fresh water (including abandoned pools) that have appeared in the wake of Katrina and could make for an otherwise bite-filled summer.Time to throw out the radar detectors? A press release touts the development of a cheap, indetectable radar system that can easily see through walls. It works by rapidly performing ultra-wide band scans and building up a picture by filtering the noise from multiple wavelenghts at once. As a result, each wavelength is scanned using less energy, making the radar emissions indistinguishable from background noise. The researchers talk warm and fuzzy about uses such as search-and-rescue, but I expect the military and NSA will be quite interested.