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Lifeform of the week: Fishing cats

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As a teenager, I volunteered at the local animal shelter. One of the tasks I performed there was assisting in the bathing of newly acquired cats and kittens. From this I learned two important pieces of information: 1) cats hate water and 2) they will gladly claw your face off to escape a bath. Many wild felines also display a lack of enthusiasm for getting wet, but not the fishing cat. This species regularly and willingly enters water. They swim, they dive and, most importantly, they catch fish – thus earning them their common name.

2014 State of the Birds report: Mixed marks for U.S. birds

A male Rufous hummingbird. Image Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A male Rufous hummingbird. Image Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The annual State of the Birds report documents the health of bird populations across the United States. This year’s findings: While some wetland birds appear to be doing well because of conservation programs, but other birds are experiencing steep declines in population numbers.

Of the more than 800 species of birds in the U.S., 233 have been placed on a Watch List in the new report. The Watch List provides an early warning system for birds that are most in danger of becoming extinct in the years ahead if significant conservation actions are not put in place to protect their populations. The list includes all native Hawaiian forest birds and birds in the continental U.S. such as the Rufous hummingbird, California condor, and wood thrush.

Mars and its atmosphere, seen by MOM spacecraft

Image via Mars Orbiter Mission

Mars from 74,500 kilometers / 46,265 miles. A dust storm is visible in the northern hemisphere. The MOM mission captured this image on September 28, 2914. Image via Mars Orbiter Mission


Two early images from India’s MOM spacecraft. One shows an edge of Mars, with the planet’s tenuous atmosphere above. The other shows the whole planet. Beautiful!

A young galaxy in the local universe?

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows a cosmic oddity, dwarf galaxy DDO 68. This ragged collection of stars and gas clouds looks at first glance like a recently-formed galaxy in our own cosmic neighborhood. But, is it really as young as it looks?

The Hubble Space Telescope captured this image of the dwarf galaxy DDO 68. It looks like a recently-formed galaxy in our own cosmic neighborhood, but is it really as young as it looks? The image is made up of exposures in visible and infrared light taken with Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Image via NASA/ESA

The nearby dwarf galaxy DDO 68 – only 39 million light-years away – looks to be relatively youthful based on its structure, appearance, and composition. But its nearness to us in space would suggest that it’s not as young as it looks. A cosmic puzzle, inside.

Why is Antarctic sea ice increasing as Arctic sea ice declines?

This map, based on data from the AMSR2 sensor, shows Antarctic sea ice on September 19, 2014. Image credit: NASA

This map, based on data from the AMSR2 sensor, shows Antarctic sea ice on September 19, 2014. Image via NASA

Arctic sea ice continued its long-term decline in 2014. Meanwhile, sea ice on the other side of the planet was headed in the opposite direction. Why?

This date in science: E=mc2

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Albert Einstein in 1905, his “miracle year.” Image via Wikimedia Commons

September 27, 1905. On this date, while he was employed at a patent office, Albert Einstein published a paper titled “Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy-Content?” It was the last of four papers he submitted that year to the journal Annalen der Physik. The first explained the photoelectric effect, the second offered experimental proof of the existence of atoms, and the third introduced the theory of special relativity. In the fourth paper, Einstein explained the relationship between energy and mass. That is, E=mc2

Water vapor in atmosphere of exoplanet four times Earth’s size

Because no clouds blocked the view, scientists were able to observe water vapor on a Neptune-sized planet for the first time. The smaller the planet, the more difficult it is to observe its atmosphere, and other small planets have been obscured by clouds. The upper atmosphere of HAT-P-11b appears nearly cloud-free, as shown in this artist's depiction.  Image via NASA/JPL/Caltech

Because no clouds blocked the view, scientists were able to observe water vapor on a Neptune-sized planet for the first time. This is an artist’s depiction of the upper atmosphere of that planet, called HAT-P-11b. Image via NASA/JPL/Caltech

Here on Earth, water = life. That’s why astronomers are very excited about a finding of water vapor in the atmosphere of a planet only about four times bigger than Earth. The planet is called HAT P-11b. It’s some 124 light-years. We now know more than 1,800 planets orbiting stars other than our sun, but astronomers say this is the smallest exoplanet in whose atmosphere they’ve been able to identify some chemical components. The journal Nature will publish their findings on September 25, 2014.

Autumn equinox, cycles of nature and Chinese philosophy

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In the Chinese tradition, the autumn season is associated with the color white, the sound of weeping, the emotions of both courage and sadness, the lung organ, the metal element, and a white tiger. Autumn is also connected in Chinese thought with the direction west, considered to be the direction of dreams and visions.

To the Chinese, nature means more than just the cycling of the seasons. Nature is within us and around us, in all things. The basic cycles of nature, as understood by the ancient Chinese, are easily comprehensible by Western students of nature. They ring true. After all, Chinese civilization flourished for 15 centuries before the Roman Empire came to be. Today we know it’s part of Chinese culture to maintain and add to ancient wisdom. In contrast, we in the Western world tend to replace old ideas with new ideas. So – although our Western way of thinking encourages advances in things like technology and economics – the Chinese understanding of natural cycles remains far deeper than ours.

June through August 2014 hottest ever recorded globally

Image Credit: NOAA/NCDC

August 2014 temperature departures across the globe. It was the warmest August since record keeping began in 1880. Image via NOAA/NCDC

The results are in for NOAA, and they show that the combined average temperature for global land and ocean surfaces for August 2014 was a record high, beating out the old record set back in 1998. The June through August global land and ocean surface temperatures were 0.71°C (1.28°F) higher than the 20th century average, making it the warmest such period since record keeping began in 1880. Have you heard the argument that the past 15 years haven’t seen much warming? Those using that argument are – knowingly or unknowingly – dating it back to the extremely warm year of 1998, when an unusually strong El Niño formed. While we haven’t seen as big of a spike in heating as in 1998, the globe continues to warm and records continue to be broken.

Top 10 things you might not know about stars

The sun in extreme ultraviolet, false color green

The sun in extreme ultraviolet, false color green

Here’s a collection of 10 unexpected, intriguing facts about the stars of our universe – including our sun – that you probably didn’t know!