Astro News Near and Far

On Life at the SETI Institute, Dr. Franck Marchis shares the latest results from Kepler, a telescope in an Earth-trailing heliocentric orbit which keeps a distant eye on 156,453 stars. Kepler watches for tell-tale reductions in brightness, which “could be due to the transit of an exoplanet passing between its star and us.” As of Tuesday, Kepler has identified 1202 likely new exoplanets, tripling the number of known worlds beyond our solar system. These results suggest that out of the 200 billion stars in our galaxy, “several hundred million of them could have an exoplanet with a surface temperature adequate to sustain liquid water.” Great, now where’s our hyperdrive? Ethan Siegel also reports that Hubble has detected a galaxy at a record-breaking redshift of 10.3, making it the most distant galaxy ever observed. If it still exists, it’s probably full of planets too.

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Google: The Hand that Rocks the Cradle

If the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world, then what of the hand that rocks the world? Dr. Jeffrey Toney reports that Google recently showed its revolutionary colors with speak2tweet, a service that enabled netless Egyptians to access Twitter over the phone. After breaking with China over censorship issues last year, Google’s political conscience is becoming clear. Their Android operating system powers smartphones around the world, their driverless cars turn heads in California, and the new information services just keep on coming. Jessica Palmer shares the Google Art Project, where you can virtually tour the world’s museums and inspect artwork at incredible levels of detail. PZ Myers decries the indiscriminate filtering of Google Scholar, which returns creationist sources among its academic search results. And Frank Swain plugs the phrase ‘apparent death’ into Google’s Ngram Viewer, which plots the rise and fall of word usage in its concordance of digitized books. Google’s mantra is ‘don’t be evil,’ but as their influence grows, here’s hoping that power won’t corrupt their good intentions.

Remembering Challenger

January 28th marked the 25th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, when one of the rocket boosters separated from the external fuel tank after liftoff and aerodynamic forces tore the shuttle apart. Like millions of Americans, Ethan Siegel and Greg Laden watched the orbiter disintegrate live on TV. Ethan writes that while “we found and fixed the flaws that caused the accident, and returned to space 32 months later with the Space Shuttle Discovery,” we “lost our eagerness for human space exploration in a way that would have been unfathomable 20 years prior.” NASA shifted its priorities from manned spaceflight to scientific investigation, and we have since learned a lot from the likes of Hubble, the Mars rovers, and Cassini. But still we are called to new horizons. In honor of all the trailblazers who have lost their lives in the spirit of human exploration, we pause to remember.

The Science of Kissing

Kissing remains popular among the people of the world, and in a new book former scibling Sheril Kirshenbaum delves into the emerging science behind the age-old practice. For one, the sensory experience of osculation (as sucking face is more formally known) forges new neuronal connections in the brain. On Dean’s Corner, Dr. Jeffrey Toney says “these new connections represent learning, memory and can enhance sensory perception and even healing.” We at Scienceblogs recommend five to nine servings a day. Dr. Toney also shares a video which demonstrates affection throughout the animal kingdom, including among bonobos, who are known to exercise their synapses in the French style. Sheril provides other insights in a 2009 post on The Intersection, writing that “up to ten percent of humanity doesn’t even touch lips” and kissing “may have evolved from primates feeding their babies mouth-to-mouth.” If that doesn’t quite set the mood, maybe some Marvin Gaye will do.

Excelsior?

We heard recently that 36% of university students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” upon graduation, although they may have bettered their Xbox skills, social lives, and tolerance to alcohol. Physics professor Chad Orzel isn’t surprised by this number, saying it “seems consistent with my experiences both as a student and as a faculty member.” According to Chad, laziness is just human nature, and there are other important (if not academic) lessons that college provides. The new statistics, drawn from a book called Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, also jibe with professor Ethan Siegel’s experience. But while the book’s authors blame underachievement on a lack of rigor in college curriculum, Ethan says “a quarter to a third of students in college aren’t intrinsically motivated to be there.” The solution, he says, is to make sure students are pursuing their passion, even if it’s in a garage rather than a lecture hall.