This week’s biggest science news would have to be the discovery of Gliese 581g, a planet 20 light years away from Earth that appears to have the capacity to support life. The coverage brought the delightful term “Goldilocks Zone” to public awareness – signifying a planet that is the correct distance from its sun to have liquid water on its surface. This is the kind of science news story that produces shockwaves of misinformation and misleading over-hype across the media world, with a small piece of mathematical data converted into definitive proof that aliens will be showing up any day now. But even the reliable science news sources appeared to be pretty pumped about this – “scientists have found the most earth-like planet” is probably the safest (but still exciting!) way to spin the story. Still, if you want to appear smart to your friends in weekend discussions of exoplanets and the potential for alien life, read Phil Plait’s take at his blog Bad Astronomy, which underlines both the caveats and the hidden gems (one day = one year on the Gilese 581g!) of the discovery.
Last year, UChicago researchers were the proud (?) recipients of an Ig Nobel Prize, given out annually by the Annals of Improbable Research. The winner, a woman’s undergarment that can be converted into a gas mask, recently went into production – available in B and C cups and “original red,” according to one of the inventors. But alas, our tenure as an Ig Nobel-winning institution ended yesterday, as the 2010 crop of winners was announced. This year’s esteemed honorees are, as always, a motley crew of bizarre science, covering everything from the sexual habits of fruit bats to the development of a tool to collect snot samples from whale blowholes. But I think my personal favorite, at first glance, is research from Keele University in England finding that swearing increases pain tolerance. Maybe it’s not as socially acceptable as eating a chocolate chip to reduce pain, but it’ll do in a pinch.
The new issue of the Medical Center’s print magazine, Medicine on the Midway (known informally around the office as “MoM”), came out this week, and you can flip through its pages electronically thanks to some really nifty software. The cover story this month focuses on neurology at the Medical Center, and features stories familiar to ScienceLife readers on Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy. There’s also great writing about the Medical Center’s efforts in Haiti written by Cheryl Reed, who spent a week with our volunteers and filmed the Field Hospital Haiti movie, and a perspective by Dr. Kris Alden, an orthopedic surgeon who was part of the first Medical Center team sent to Haiti. The publications team has also started running periodic updates between print issues of the magazine, so give it a bookmark if you’re hungry for more medical news from the University of Chicago.
Add to movie queue: the new documentary based on Freakonomics, the books and column by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and his collaborator Stephen J. Dubner. The premise of the book and film is interesting enough, but it’s also fascinating to read about the creative process behind the documentary, which faced the challenge of transforming data analysis into something interesting to watch. One inventive way around the problem was to launch a whole fleet of documentarians at the project rather than a single director; Eugene Jarecki, one of the directors, told the New York Times, “It’s like taking a piece of music and making it into a birthday cake.” You can watch the movie’s trailer here, and you can buy it on iTunes.
A symposium in Philadelphia on Tuesday celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Philadelphia Chromosome’s discovery, a key landmark in the study of cancer’s genetic origins. The discovery of the abnormal chromosome by Peter Nowell and David Hungerford at Fox Chase Cancer Center was picked up by our own Janet Rowley, who determined that the shortened chromosome was caused by a genetic error called translocation. That research led to Gleevec, a drug that has been used to treat leukemias and other cancers, and a new philosophy of cancer research that began to turn the tide against the disease.