Discovered: Amateur astronomers find fascinating new planet; mapping Antarctica before it melts away; bigger brains correlate with greater cancer risk; shocking pants prevent bedsores.
New planet found in four star system. Combing through data from the Kepler Observatory uploaded to citizen scientist website Planet Hunters, two amateur astronomers have discovered a fascinating planet. Called PH-1, it's 5,000 light years away from us, has a radius six times longer than Earth's, could be up to 170 times heavier than our planet, and has an average cloud-top temperature of 800 degrees Fahrenheit. Perhaps the coolest thing about this new discovery is the system the newly discovered planet inhabits. PH-1 orbits a binary star, which is itself orbited by another binary star. That means this planetary system has a total of—count 'em—four stars. Our sorry little one-star solar system looks pretty lame in comparison. Though they aren't professional astronomers, Kian Jek and Robert Gagliano can add a line to their resume about being the first scientists to have discovered a planet orbiting a four star system. [Discover]
Mapping a melting Antarctica. Climate change scientists keeping track of Antarctica's steady demise are in a weird position currently. They know that huge slabs of the southernmost continent are disappearing, but they don't yet have a way for tracking specifically where or by how much. That's why a team of researchers from eight countries are traveling to the frigid climes of Antarctica with the goal of mapping its sea ice. The thickness of the ice is an important variable, making it impossible to map from the sky alone. "We've got a good idea of the area from the satellites but the satellites can't tell the thickness and without the thickness we won't know the total volume or the actual amount of sea ice," says Guy Williams of the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre. In order to find out, Williams and his colleagues hopped in a submarine outfitted with multi-beam sonar to measure the topography of Antarctica in 3D. Jan Lieser says this project is important because by knowing "how the thickness of the sea ice cover is changing over time we can estimate the influence of global changing climate on the overall environment down here which includes not only the physical environment in terms of sea ice, atmosphere but also the biosphere." [Reuters]
Eggheadedness correlates with cancer. An increased risk of cancer might just be the price we have to pay for our oversized human brains. Georgia Institute of Technology's John McDonald conducted research on skin cells from humans, chimps, and macaques, observing the rate at which they undergo apoptosis (the process by which malfunctioning cells self-destruct). He noticed that the human cells die off the slowest, and he theorizes that human evolutionary history might help to explain why. In order to get these big brains of ours, humans had to up the number of cells in our brain tissue. That evolutionary growth may have made our bodies less willing to kill off bad cells, which is great for improving intelligence but bad for fending off cancer. "Reduced apoptotic function is well known to be associated with cancer onset," McDonald says. It's a cruel trade-off. Would you rather have the IQ of a chimp but be cancer free, or be as intelligent as Einstein with an increased chance of contracting cancer? [New Scientist]
Shocking pants prevent bedsores. Here's a truly electrifying fashion choice: pants that shock wearers confined to a hospital bed so that they won't develop bedsores. Lying down for long periods of time cuts off blood flow in certain parts of the body, leading to nasty wounds called pressure ulcers. They can be avoided by shifting position every so often. Or you can just zap people in the butt. University of Calgary researchers have built a special pair of pants that uses jolts to induce fidgeting and position adjusting. By sending a mild current through 37 subjects with spinal cord injuries for 10 seconds every 10 minutes for 12 hours a day, they were able to prevent bedsores in every case. Researcher Robyn Rogers says that hospitals aren't addressing the problem of pressure ulcers any better than they have since the 1940s. The accumulated cost of such bedsores costs the UK's National Health Service nearly £2 billion each year. "Our hope is that this innovative, clinically friendly system will eventually make a difference in the lives of millions of people," Rogers says. [BBC]