NEW VIEWS ABOUT PLANETARY SYSTEMS
Two new discoveries announced at last week's meeting of the American Astronomical Society have convinced scientists that nearby planetary systems are much different than our own solar system. A telescope in Hawaii observed a so-called brown dwarf -- believed to be a failed star that did not have quite enough mass to ignite its nuclear furnace -- orbiting a star similar to our own 58 light-years away. "This companion is probably too massive to have formed the way we believe that planets do, namely from a circumstellar disk of gas and dust when the star was young," Michael Liu, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii, told the New York Times. "This finding suggests that a diversity of processes act to populate the outer regions of other solar systems." The discovery of the brown dwarf was also a milestone because it was the first extrasolar companion object to be detected directly, rather than indirectly through the companion's gravitational effects on the star. Researchers also observed a planet orbiting an extremely large star, whose radius is 13 times that of our Sun and is believed to have already burned out its hydrogen fuel. The new discoveries reported last week are "really just tantalizing appetizers for things to come," said Alan Boss, an astrophysicist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington.
LINGUIST SUGGESTS UNIVERSAL GRAMMAR RULES
Every existing human language contains elements that are hard-wired into the human brain, according to a new book co-authored by noted linguist Noam Chomsky. Entitled "The Atoms of Language: The Mind's Hidden Rules of Grammar" (Basic Books, 2001), the book describes research by Chomsky and Mark C. Baker, a Rutgers University linguist, which shows that languages as diverse as American-Indian and African tongues are built on a basic hierarchy of parameters that form the basis of a language's grammar. These parameters could even help even help children learn languages, if their existence is 'hard-wired' into the human mind, Baker said. Among the most tantalizing of the discoveries: The grammar of the English and Mohawk languages are dominated by a single, powerful parameter whose position at the top of the hierarchy produces an enormous effect. Baker and other researchers have identified 14 such parameters, and they believe there may be as many as 16 more. But Robert Van Valin, a professor of linguistics at the State University of New York at Buffalo, questions the research's underlying assumption -- that a universal grammar exists at all. "What they're doing in that whole program is taking English-like structures and putting the words or parts of words of other languages in those structures and then discovering that they're just like English," he told the New York Times.
NEW SCHEME COULD IMPROVE WEATHER FORECASTING
The notoriously inaccurate science of weather prediction is about to get a boost by a technique that should greatly increase the predictability of rainfall and snowfall. The new method looks at changes in sea surface temperatures in various ocean basins, and then weighs their individual impacts on regional climate to greatly increase predictability of precipitation during all seasons. Changes in sea surface temperatures strongly influence atmospheric winds, climate and weather. "The paper (presented January 15 at the American Meteorology Society meeting in Orlando, FL) presents results applied to the U.S. continent, where we show that the potential predictability can be raised 10 to 20 percent above traditional methods," said William Lau, a senior researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "The scheme can be applied to other regions as well. It raises the bar for seasonal and inter-annual climate forecasts." Current forecasts are derived from global sea surface temperatures -- for example, rising warm moist air creates tropical storms during El Niño years. These storms interact with the jet stream, causing it to steer southward during U.S. winters and cause more storms and rain over the west coast and the southern states. For unknown reasons, however, the reliability of the technique drops off considerably during the summer. In the summer, the study revealed a strong correlation between northern Pacific sea surface temperatures and the climate of the region that stretches from the Gulf coast of Texas to the northern Great Plains and the Midwest.
GENE VARIANT MAY LIMIT HUMAN LIFESPAN
A gene variant named after one of the Fates of Greek myth may play a role in determining human lifespan, according to research published in this week's edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Called Klotho, the gene variant is more commonly found in newborns than in 65-year olds, suggesting that those who carry it are more likely to die before they reach 65. "It seems that carrying two copies of this gene (variant) is detrimental to survival," Johns Hopkins University geneticist Dan Arking, who led the work, told MSNBC. "We found that infants that have two copies of the variant, one from each parent, have a frequency of about 3 percent in the populations we looked at." But only 1.1 percent of the people over 65 had two copies of that form of the gene. "So those people are dying off," Arking said. The researchers took samples from a wide group of individuals, including Bohemian Czechs, central Europeans, and people of African descent. "What's so striking about the klotho variant is that it is relatively common and has its effect by age 65," Arking said. The team hasn't linked the gene variant to any specific disease, but mice that carry a similar gene variant tend to develop atherosclerosis, osteoporosis, and emphysema, which are characteristics of aging that are not normally associated with mice.
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