The Week In Science: Whale Beer, Aurora Borealis, Missing Time Travelers And A Dangerous Chemical Spill

 @rpalmerscience
on January 10 2014 11:42 AM
back to the future
If there really were Marty McFlys traveling through time, we probably should have already discovered their tracks on the Internet, scientists think. Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment

This week in science, we talked with some would-be Martians, learned about a new kind of battery technology that could push solar and wind power into the mainstream, and figured out why prairie dogs do "the wave." But there’s still a lot more science news that broke this week. Here’s a roundup:

The intense solar flare that scrubbed a rocket launch this week may also have another side effect: amped-up aurora borealis. A flare may cause a geomagnetic storm high in the atmosphere that will allow the northern lights to expand outside their usual range – possible as far south as northern U.S. cities. [LiveScience]

General Mills’ plain Cheerios are trumpeted as GMO-free on the cereal box, but the company’s decision wasn’t all that difficult: There are no genetically modified oats. Why? Several reasons, but the two biggest ones are 1) oats aren’t as in demand as other crops, so there’s less of an economic reason to justify lots of expensive research; and 2) the oat genome is trickier to modify than the genomes of corn or soybeans. [Modern Farmer]

Icelandic brewery Steoji announced that one of its newest beverages contains a special ingredient: dead whale. [Smithsonian Magazine]

West Virginia is in a state of emergency, with more than 300,000 people without safe drinking water, after a chemical used in coal mining spilled into the Elk River. The chemical, called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, has a licorice-like odor and is used to wash coal. MCHM exposure can cause severe burning sensations and irritation, vomiting and trouble breathing. [ThinkProgress]

Octopus tentacles and human tongues have more in common than you might think. And researchers think that unlocking the octopus arm’s movements might lead to a better understanding of diseases like Parkinson’s that affect speech. [Scientific American]

The rise in obesity in recent years has been sometimes blamed on the fat-hoarding genes of our Paleolithic ancestors, who had to hold onto an energy reserve during times of famine. It seems to make sense, but the latest research shows that hunter-gatherer societies aren’t necessarily prone to food shortages. [io9]

Computer giant Intel announced that its microprocessors will no longer be made with "conflict materials" extracted from Africa under brutal conditions for workers. A National Geographic photographer who has spent more than a decade documenting the toll of human suffering paid for minerals like tantalum, tungsten, gold and tin is one of those cheering. [National Geographic]

West African lions are on the brink of extinction. [Scientific American]

Why scientists think there probably aren’t any time travelers living among us: They aren’t betraying their knowledge of the future on social media. In a fun study, researchers searched for instances where people might have mentioned Pope Francis or the recent sungrazing comet ISON before they were supposed to know about them – but they came up empty. [LiveScience]

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