Brain atlas gets printed … all 350 pages’ worth

Image: Human brain atlas

These are just a few of the brain images that appear in a newly published atlas of the human brain. (Credit: Allen Institute for Brain Science)

As neuroscience marches on, researchers are creating more and more brain mapsand atlases – but the Allen Human Brain Reference Atlas is a rarity. This week it’s actually being published as a 350-page atlas you can hold in your hands.

Like most brain references, the detailed map of a single human brain is available online. The Allen Institute for Brain Science’s reference atlas shows brain structure down to the cellular level, at a resolution of 1 micron per pixel. The anatomical map, based on trillions of bytes of imaging data, is supplemented by readings from two different types of brain scans.

This sort of atlas usually stays online. In contrast, the illustration-heavy Comprehensive Cellular-Resolution Atlas of the Adult Human Brain takes up pretty much all of the latest issue of the Journal of Comparative Neurology.

“It’s actually a highly unusual publication. … We’re pretty much lacking in structural maps of the human brain,” Allen Institute neuroscientist Ed Lein, the study’s senior author, told GeekWire. By some accounts, it could be the first such anatomical map of the full human brain to make its print debut in more than a century.

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Arctic sea-ice study is bad news for polar bears

Image: Polar bear

A polar bear tests the strength of thin Arctic sea ice. (Credit: Mario Hoppmann via

Scientists have long known that Arctic climate change is bad news for bears, but University of Washington researchers quantify just how bad it is in a study published today.

The study in The Cryosphere, a journal of the European Geosciences Union, is said to be the first to assess the impact of sea ice changes for 19 different populations of polar bears across the entire Arctic region, using the metrics that are most relevant to polar bear biology.

“This study shows declining sea ice for all subpopulations of polar bears,” Harry Stern, a researcher with UW’s Polar Science Center, said in an EGU news release.

The analysis draws upon 35 years’ worth of satellite data showing daily sea-ice concentration in the Arctic. There’s a consistent trend toward earlier thawing in the spring, and later freezing in the winter. Between 1979 and 2014, the total number of ice-covered days declined at the rate of 7 to 19 days per decade. Over the course of 35 years, seven weeks of good sea-ice habitat were lost.

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How Pluto ‘spray-painted’ its biggest moon

Image: Charon

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution, enhanced color view of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, just before closest approach on July 14, 2015. Scientists have learned that reddish material in the north (top) polar region – informally named Mordor Macula – is chemically processed methane that escaped from Pluto’s atmosphere onto Charon. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

When NASA’s New Horizons probe sent back pictures of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, researchers were surprised to see a big red spot on its north pole. More than a year later, they’ve published their best explanation for its origin.

Mission scientists guessed at the basic outlines of the answer a year ago, but in a paper published today by the journal Nature, they lay out the computer modeling to back up their guess.

The process begins when molecules of methane escape from Pluto’s thin atmosphere. Those molecules are drawn to Charon, a mere 12,200 miles away, by the moon’s gravitational pull. The rarefied methane gas freezes out and settles onto the surface as ice.

Methane ice piles up when it’s winter in the north, but when the season turns toward spring, the northern polar region is exposed to sunlight. The sun’s ultraviolet rays cook the methane into a mix of hydrocarbons.

As the ice warms up, any methane that remains thaws back into gas. But the heavier hydrocarbons stick around on the surface, and get cooked into reddish organic compounds known as tholins.

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Astronaut Chris Hadfield helps kids face fears

Image: Chris Hadfield

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is arguably best-known for his orbital rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Bowie gave his approval for Hadfield’s performance. (Credit: CSA)

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield says he wanted to be an astronaut ever since he was a kid – but he had to get over one big problem: Outer space is dark. “Like really, really dark,” he said.

“I was afraid of the dark, so it made me feel sort of daunted,” Hadfield recalled Sept. 13 during an evening talk at Town Hall Seattle.

Recognizing and overcoming that kind of fear is the focus of Hadfield’s totally biographical storybook for kids, titled “The Darkest Dark.” During the first official book-tour stop, Hadfield wowed the crowd with a reading, plus an airing of a song that ties in with the book. Then he took questions.

One of the high points came when a young boy clad in a spacesuit costume came up on stage to ask a question: How high can you jump in space? Hadfield and the boy took turns jumping, and figuring out how high the jump would have been in Mars’ one-third gravity, or the moon’s one-sixth gravity.

Then Hadfield explained that a jump off the side of a spaceship in zero gravity might never end. “You can jump forever,” he told the boy. Hadfield waited several beats to let that sink in, and then added: “So you want to be careful.”

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Candidates answer presidential science quiz

Image: August temperature trends

NASA’s figures on global temperatures show that last month was the warmest August in 136 years of record-keeping. This color-coded chart tracks the temperature anomalies. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have sharp differences over policies to address climate change.(Credit: NASA)

If you think something absolutely has to be done about climate change and other environmental worries, Donald Trump isn’t the presidential candidate for you.

You probably knew that already, but the deeo differences in the presidential campaign come through loud and clear in three candidates’ responses to a 20-question policy quiz drawn up by Science Debate.

The questions address topics ranging from biodiversity to space exploration, and touch on hot-button issues such as vaccination and opioid abuse. Trump, the GOP candidate, provided statements addressing all the questions, as did Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Green Party candidate Jill Stein. Libertarian Gary Johnson hasn’t responded as of this week.

For the most part, the responses track what you’d expect from the candidates (or, more likely, from their campaigns): Clinton provided the longest answers, Trump gave one-paragraph replies, and Stein furnished point-by-point policy proposals.

Environmental issues revealed the most divergence.

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Edward Snowden’s former boss speaks out

Edward Snowden (Photo: Praxis Films)

Edward Snowden (Photo: Praxis Films)

The cybersecurity expert who hired Edward Snowden for his last job is laying out his lessons learned – but admits it would have been hard to stop the man who spilled some of the National Security Agency’s most closely held secrets.

“Knowing what I knew at the time, l would have hired him again,” Steven Bay, a former cyberintelligence analyst for Booz Allen Hamilton, said today in Seattle at the IEEE Computer Society’s “Rock Stars of Cybersecurity” conference.

“Knowing what I know now, obviously, I wouldn’t,” he added.

Bay said today’s talk marked the first time he discussed his side of the Snowden story in a public forum.

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Contest could make your Dreamliner come true

Image: Kung Fu Panda jet

Hainan Airlines is letting contestants design livery for one of its Boeing 787 Dreamliner jets with a Kung Fu Panda theme. (Credit: Hainan Airlines / Dreamworks Animation)

How can you top a Boeing 787 Dreamliner jet painted to look like Star Wars’ R2-D2 robot? How about a Kung Fu Panda Dreamliner? Hainan Airlines is teaming up with the Boeing Co. and DreamWorks Animation to make it so, and give away some sweet trips to China in the process.

The contest, which runs through Sept. 30, makes it easy to design the livery for Hainan’s jet: All you have to do is go to Hainan’s website, arrange a set of online stamps, symbols and paint patterns to fill out the livery on a 3-D plane template. Click a button to submit your design, and you could be a winner.

The design elements have to include the usual corporate branding, but you can also choose from the characters in DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda movies, including roly-poly Po (the panda, of course) plus Tigress, Ox, Rhino, Wolf and so on.

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