Starfish tale stars in science awards

A mini-documentary about the die-off facing the West Coast’s sea stars has won KCTS producer/photographer Katie Campbell one of the country’s most prestigious science journalism awards.

The TV tale – titled “Is Alaska Safe for Sea Stars?” – focuses on scientists who are studying why starfish off the coast of Alaska were able to dodge the outbreak until now. It aired last year in October as part of KCTS’ “IN Close” documentary series, and now it’s won the top prize in the 2015 Kavli Science Journalism Awards’ spot news/feature reporting category for television.

“This piece was about far more than starfish,” David Baron, a former science editor for PRI’s “The World” who served as one of the competition’s judges, said intoday’s announcement of the winners. “By showing how biologists painstakingly collect data to understand the natural world, the story beautifully demostrates what it means to be a scientist.”

Campbell said she was “ecstatic” to be included among the winners, and said the award also recognizes “the important work being done by researchers on the front lines of the massive sea star wasting epidemic.”

The Science Journalism Awards are funded by the Kavli Foundation, administered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and judged by independent panels of science journalists. (In 2002, one of the awards went to yours truly.) As a Gold Award winner, Campbell will receive $5,000 at the AAAS’ annual meeting in Washington, D.C., next February. For the first time, the awards program is also giving out Silver Awards worth $3,500, and honoring international as well as U.S.-based journalists.

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Heat scan spots anomaly in Great Pyramid

Image: Pyramid scan
A computer animation shows how infrared scanning can produce heat maps of the exteriors of Egypt’s pyramids (Credit:

Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities says thermal scanning has turned up anomalies inside the pyramids of Giza, including a “particularly impressive one” on the eastern side of the biggest monument. The report comes just days after the ministry said a similar scan found temperature anomalies in King Tutankhamun’s tomb, hundreds of miles to the south.

Empty space doesn’t hold heat as well as rock or soil, so heat anomalies provide clues to structural features beneath or beyond the surface being scanned. They could point to hidden chambers or passages at the ancient sites. However, the anomalies also could be due to less spectacular differences in structure or composition – for example, fractures in the underlying rock.

When infrared cameras scanned the interior of Tut’s burial chamber, in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor, the ministry said anomalies were found along the northern and western walls. That meshes with other evidence suggesting that yet another burial chamber – perhaps that of Tut’s mother, Nefertiti – lies beyond the walls.

Meanwhile, just outside Cairo, the international Scan Pyramids team took infrared readings of the Giza pyramids’ exteriors at sunrise, when the morning sun was starting to heat up the monuments; and at sunset, when the pyramids were cooling down. The ministry said scientists found intriguing anomalies in the cycle of heating and cooling, and singled out a temperature variation at the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops).

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Hurricane Patricia looks scary from space

VIIRS view of Hurricane Patricia
An infrared image from the Suomi NPP satellite’s VIIRS instrument shows the well-defined eye of Hurricane Patricia as of 9:20 GMT Friday. (Credit: NASA / NOAA / CIMSS)

Even the International Space Station’s commander is worried about Hurricane Patricia, the strongest storm ever tracked by the National Hurricane Center.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who is currently heading the station’s crew during his yearlong tour of orbital duty, passed along a picture showing the monstrous whirl of white clouds as it approached Mexico today:

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Carve a scientist into your Halloween pumpkin

Physicist pumpkins
Symmetry magazine’s pumpkin designs include Paul Dirac-ula, Mummy Noether, Albert Frank-Einstein, Werewolfgang Pauli and Scary Curie. (Photo for Symmetry by Reidar Hahn, Fermilab with Sandbox Studios)

Albert Frank-Einstein? Scary Curie? You’ve got to hand it to the folks at Symmetry magazine: Those science geeks really know how to throw a Halloween party. Or a Christmas party. Or a Valentine’s Day soiree. Their latest holiday tribute to scientific greats takes the form of pumpkin-carving patterns that will impress trick-or-treaters even if they don’t know a thing about Werewolfgang Pauli’s Exclusion Principle.

In addition to Einstein, Curie and Pauli, Symmetry provides templates to make your jack-o’-lanterns look like Paul Dirac-ula (with batty positrons flying in the background) or Mummy Noether (featuring the famous mathematician under wraps).

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Egypt plans cosmic-ray pyramid scans

Bent Pyramid
The Bent Pyramid at Dahshur, about 25 miles south of Cairo, is slated to be the first target for the Scan Pyramids project in Egypt. (Credit: Coralie Carlson / AP)

Indiana Jones, eat your heart out: The international project to scan Egypt’s pyramids for hidden chambers, using cosmic rays, is gearing up for its launch this weekend.

The scientists behind the Scan Pyramids effort will install sensitive detectors to map the pyramids’ structure by studying how the cosmic rays that continually zap our planet skitter through the stones. Similar techniques have been used recently to look inside ancient pyramids in Mexico and Belize, as well as theruined reactors at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear site.

“The survey will be implemented through invasive – though non-destructive – scanning techniques using cosmic rays in cooperation with scientists and experts from Japan, France and Canada,” Egypt’s antiquities minister, Mamdouh Eldamaty, told Ahram Online. Ahram Online and Le Figaro reportedthat Eldamaty would announce the project’s official launch on Sunday.

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Robo-tail shows how dinosaurs cracked the whip

Image: Sauropod tail
Researchers assembled a quarter-scale sauropod tail, using 3-D-printed vertebrae and a bullwhip popper, to show that dinosaurs could create sonic booms. (Credit: D. Sivam / P. Currie / N. Myhrvold)

Nathan Myhrvold, the Microsoft millionaire who went on to found Intellectual Ventures, is a huge dinosaur geek. But not just any dinosaur geek: He funds paleontological digs, gets heavily involved in research and keeps a life-size T. rex skeleton in his living room. Now he and other scientists have built a quarter-scale dinosaur tail to show that giant sauropods really could snap their tails at supersonic speeds.

Myhrvold and University of Alberta paleontologist Philip Currie first made that claim 18 years ago, based on computer modeling. But their hand-operated contraption – a 44-pound tail section that’s assembled from 3D-printed vertebrae and tipped with a bullwhip popper – provides an ear-splitting demonstration of the effect.

“Personally, I think one of the most interesting aspects of this is the process of using physical simulations to try to ascertain the behavior of extinct animals,” Dhileep Sivam, a bioinformatics specialist who works at Intellectual Ventures, said in an email.

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