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Bora’s Picks (October 19th, 2012)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Prospecting for Quasicrystals by Nadia Drake:

The rock came in a box labeled “khatyrkite.” It didn’t look like much, just a chunk less than a centimeter long with a whitish rind and studded with several dark metals. But when Paul Steinhardt got a good look inside, he saw something he’d been waiting years to see.

The quasicrystals nestled within displayed a bizarre symmetry that had never been seen outside the lab, an interlocking structure with no repeats. Steinhardt had been captivated by these almost-crystals since the early 1980s, when they were still a hypothetical form of matter.

But now, there they were….

The alien next door by Nadia Drake:

Astronomers searching for Earthlike worlds need look no further than Alpha Centauri, the stellar system next door. An Earth-sized planet has been discovered circling a star in the system, just 4.4 light-years away. The planet’s mass is similar to Earth’s, but its orbit is not. Tucked in close to its star — 25 times closer than the Earth is to the sun — the planet is likely a roasted world incapable of hosting life. …

RedBull’s Stratos Stunt by Amy Shira Teitel:

According to YouTube, eight million people watched Felix Baumgartner’s high altitude jump on Sunday morning. It was exciting and death-defying, but at the end of the day it was a just an elaborate publicity stunt that will likely see RedBull sales skyrocket this month. But I’d argue that the event wasn’t entirely a success from a publicity standpoint. RedBull, who sponsored the jump, wasted an incredible opportunity. It had an eight million person audience captivated, but did nothing to teach that audience about the context behind Baumgartner’s jump. Joe Kittinger’s 1960 jump was amazing, the heritage behind these types of tests is fascinating, but without any context the audience just saw a daredevil break a record for record-breaking’s sake….

David Blaine’s Electrical Stunt Could Create Harmful Ozone by Kathleen Raven:

Magicians hold details in high regard, so it’s fair to inquire about one of the key details related to stunt artist David Blaine’s feat that begins today at Pier 54 in New York City’s West Village: How will Blaine’s team handle all the excess ozone gas produced with each million-volt discharge from the Tesla coils?…

Quote my report, but don’t quote me: Why don’t some biotech analysts give interviews? by Kathleen Raven:

In July, an Associated Press story—posted on Bloomberg/Businessweek—quoted a research report written by pharmaceutical analyst Jeffrey Holford at Jefferies & Co., who predicted that Eli Lilly’s Alzheimer’s drug would fail in its late-stage trials before the company released the final results. (It did.) So this summer, while I was reporting a quick Nature Medicine story about the Indianapolis-based drug giant’s five recent phase 3 trial failures, I wanted to get Holford’s take….

The History of Trick Or Treating Is Weirder Than You Thought by Rose Eveleth:

It’s almost that time of year when underaged kids get into costume and traipse around the neighborhood ringing doorbells and begging for treats. When you think about it, trick or treating is kind of a weird thing. Where did it come from anyway?…

“Medical History is Biography” by Erin Podolak:

The title of this post is a very elegant summation provided by Siddhartha Mukherjee of a talk that he gave at Harvard Medical School (HMS) last week. I was lucky enough to be at HMS (in the overflow room, sadly) to listen to Mukherjee’s talk. You may remember that I recently read and reviewed his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. I leapt at the chance to see him talk about his work because I loved the book so much, I gave it a full recommendation for everyone with no caveats, which doesn’t happen often….

Nature and Nurture and Something Else (Plus Bees) by Kelsey Calhoun:

What makes you, you? The nature vs. nurture debate has been going on for more than a century, and recent work with honeybees has managed to make it even more complex. Researchers focused not on the nature part, the bees’ DNA, nor on the nurture part, how the bees grew up and lived, but on a fuzzy gray area in between….

The Worm’s Altruistic Suicide by Jean Mendoza:

Caenorhabditis elegans, a millimeter-long nematode or roundworm, has been poked and prodded, dissected and inspected. Every cell in its body has been mapped, the circuitry of its neurons traced, and its entire genome sequenced. For the past 50 years, it has been the experimental animal of choice, the subject of over 15,000 articles on everything from genetics to drug development. Biologically speaking, we know more about this animal than any other in the world—including ourselves….

Rerun watchers rejoice by Alexa C. Kurzius:

At the end of a long workday I often have two options: I can meet some friends for a drink or go home to a rerun of Mad Men. More often than I care to admit, I’ll skip my social engagements for the company of Don Draper and Peggy Olson. Spending time with my favorite TV characters seems to improve my mood and help prepare me to take on tomorrow….

Lend me your ears by Jonathan Chang:

If you were a band geek, an orch dork or a member of the choir cult, you may have heard about “perfect pitch.” The people who have it are sometimes seen as exemplary musicians who will go on to study music in college, get a job as a professional musician and blow the classical scene away. Unfortunately, it’s not something that people can learn whenever they want. If you’re more than 10 years old, you either already have it or will never have it. …

Musicians hear best over the din by Arielle Duhaime-Ross:

During my three-year stint in music school, I had many chances to witness amazing musical feats. I remember seeing classmates execute complicated fingerings gracefully on ivory and brass keys, sometimes moving an audience to tears. Now scientists have found extra proof of musicians’ unique skills: They tend to be much better at understanding a speaker in a noisy environment. Their advantage seems to lie in an enhanced ability to process sounds in the brain….

Becoming city birds by Kate Baggaley:

City dwellers everywhere often see rats scurrying behind dumpsters and have to sidestep pigeons feasting on abandoned sandwiches. Intrepid critters are a fact of urban life. But according to a new study published in Behavioral Ecology, some animals are actually evolving better adaptations to city living….

Dengue fever vaccine remains elusive by Lily Hay Newman:

A promising vaccine against dengue fever produced disappointing protection rates in a recent trial. The vaccine guarded against three of the four virus strains, or serotypes, that cause the disease, but did not block the fourth, reducing its effectiveness. Still, researchers maintain that the results represent progress….

Cool roofs under scrutiny by Joss Fong:

For anyone who has spent nine straight days in heat above 110 degrees, as the residents of Phoenix did last month, it’s easy to recognize the appeal of “cool roofs.” Like dressing a building in a white T-shirt, these reflective roofs offer relief for city-dwellers baking in a habitat of concrete and asphalt. But a new study indicates that in certain regions, cool roofs may have the unintended consequence of reducing rainfall….

‘Eye Cells’ Hone in on Eye Contact, Create Special Connections with Others by Rachel Nuwer:

At some point, everyone experiences the zing of first making eye contact with a cute girl or guy sitting across a crowded coffee shop or bar. But what causes that feeling of special connection? Researchers presenting at the Society for Neuroscience conference in New Orleans this week say it may be due to newly discovered “eye cells” located in the amygdala, or the part of the brain responsible for social interactions and processing emotions….

In Silico et Vivo: When Life Science Draws Inspiration from Video Games by Jon Chang:

Before coming to New York, I led a dual life. During the work week, I was a neuroscientist in training. I went to class, handled monkeys, and took more than my fair share of grad school happy hour snacks. But when I wasn’t thinking about brains, I was usually thinking about games. I’ve bought nearly every console that’s come out since 2000, except for the Xbox. That thing was a big hunk of ugly….

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