Missing Thanksgivukkah already? There’s always the next one…but by then, the world will be cold, strange, and ruled by super-turkeys.
The hunt for dark matter just keeps getting more confusing. Today scientists released findings from the first three months of the Large Underground Xenon experiment, which looks directly for the invisible particles thought to make up dark matter.
Many physicists hoped that the highly anticipated results would clear up the situation surrounding dark matter experiments, which have so far led to contradictory conclusions about the nature of the mysterious substance. Some thought that LUX might show them which way to go, narrowing the types of particles they might pursue. Instead, the experiment turned up empty.
“Basically, we saw nothing. But we saw nothing better than anyone else so far,” said particle physicist Daniel McKinsey of Yale, a member of the LUX collaboration.
It might appear strange to the rest of us, but a null finding is actually encouraging for physicists, who will use the results to set stringent limits on what kind of dark matter they might expect to find in the future. It also seems to rule out the results of several previous experiments, which had seen hints of what might be dark matter.
“Something that they had thought was in play is being kicked off the field,” said physicist Richard Gaitskell of Brown University, who also works on LUX.
But other scientists are not convinced that LUX has excluded their findings, and it’s likely the debate will continue.
When insect taxonomist Chris Carlton of Louisiana State University went on a collecting trip in Belize, he did what many travelers do: He picked up a souvenir. It was even free, which was pretty sweet. After spending a month in Central America, he returned home and unwrapped his gift to himself.
Unfortunately, the unwrapping happened on the top of his noggin. Carlton’s scalp had become home to a human botfly larva, a spiny parasitic maggot that digs into living human flesh, feeds on the inflamed tissue surrounding it, and grows to more than an inch long.
“I began to notice a sort of discomfort exactly in the very top of my head,” Carlton told WIRED, recalling his horrifying experience in 1997, “and I didn’t think much of it.” He’d known about botflies, what with being an entomologist and all. But he didn’t draw the connection until an intense pain hit him every 15 to 20 minutes. That’s when he remembered that when the larvae reach a certain size, they “rotate in their little burrows in your skin, and this creates this sort of intense shooting periodic pain. So at that point the typical reaction is that you know you have a maggot in your body, and you must get it out.”
In the rivers of China and Japan dwells a salamander so huge that it positively dwarfs its American cousin, the massive 2.5-foot “snot otter” (which, as it happens, is what they called me in high school). This is the giant salamander, a remarkable human-sized amphibian that has remained almost unchanged for millions of years, hiding on river bottoms and hoovering up fish into its gaping maw. It smells like pepper, it’s astonishingly quick, and it makes noises that sound a bit like a child. A really funny-looking child.
There are actually two species of giant salamander, one in China, which can clock in at 6 feet, and a smaller version in Japan, which grows to 5 feet. But how can an amphibian that typically fits in the palm of your hand get so astoundingly large? By being a big baby.
“They’re what we call neotenic animals,” said evolutionary biologist David Wake of the University of California, Berkeley. These creatures often grow huge because they don’t become sexually mature until they get very large.
“So what happens is that as they grow bigger and bigger and bigger, they approach more and more what you would consider to be a perfect stage, a full adult stage. But they never really get there,” said Wake.
More than a year ago, scientists found the Higgs boson. Yesterday, two physicists who 50 years ago theorized the existence of this particle, which is responsible for conferring mass to all other known particles in the universe, got the Nobel, the highest prize in science.
For all the excitement the award has already generated, finding the Higgs — arguably the most important discovery in more than a generation — has left physicists without a clear roadmap of where to go next. While popular articles often describe how the Higgs might help theorists investigating the weird worlds of string theory, multiple universes, or supersymmetry, the truth is that evidence for these ideas is scant to nonexistent.
No one is sure which of these models, if any, will eventually describe reality. The current picture of the universe, the Standard Model, is supposed to account for all known particles and their interactions. But scientists know that it’s incomplete. Its problems need fixing, and researchers could use some help figuring out how. Some of them look at the data and say that we need to throw out speculative ideas such as supersymmetry and the multiverse, models that look elegant mathematically but are unprovable from an experimental perspective. Others look at the exact same data and come to the opposite conclusion.
“Physics is at a crossroads,” said cosmologist Neil Turok, speaking to a class of young scientists in September at the Perimeter Institute, which he directs. “In a sense we’ve entered a very deep crisis.”
Physicists wonder if there are other universes, but biologists have already found them. Just look through a microscope and there you are, in a different world of life.
Igor Siwanowicz, a neurobiologist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, visits often. Acclaimed for his macroscopic photography of insects (like the jumping spider above) and other small animals, he uses microscopes to explore ever-smaller realms.
"I first laid hands on my microscope only three years ago, when I changed fields," said Siwanowicz. "I used to work as a biochemist, but I decided that neurobiology was more in tune with my naturalist approach. Plus they have these cool toys: confocal laser-scanning microscopes."
[MORE PHOTOS: Under the Microscope, Some Things Look Too Crazy To Be Real]
The latest analysis of the bollide that burst over Chelyabinsk, Russia in February suggests that the risk from such airbursts — which occur when friction in our atmosphere heats up a meteor — may be greater than previously thought.
Meteorite collisions are often compared in size to nuclear explosions, but because they are speeding toward Earth they have momentum that makes them far more destructive. And to make matters worse, they may occur more often than currently estimated.
What has a face like a cat, a body like a small bear, and a tail like a monkey? It’s a binturong, also known as a bearcat. Binturongs have long, low, stocky bodies covered with coarse, shaggy black fur tipped in gray, so they sometimes appear speckled. Long ear tufts protrude from their small, rounded ears. Their faces have slightly lighter fur and stiff, white whiskers that can reach up to 8 inches long. They’re robust animals, growing to be 2-3 feet long (double that if you include the tail) and between 25 and 50 pounds.
Binturongs live in the dense tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia and are not often spotted in the wild. They’re currently classified as vulnerable, with populations declining more than 30 percent over the past 30 years. The main threats to binturongs are habitat destruction, hunting, and the wildlife trade.
Their secretive nature has kept many aspects of their behavior hidden until recently.
[Creature Feature: Binturong Butts Smell Like Popcorn, and Other Interesting Bearcat Facts]
My mother used to tell me I’m a unique snowflake, and also that this is my last warning to stop monkeying with the damn thermostat. But let’s face it, I’m not unique. You’re not either. We’re all born largely the same animal. And while we have these pretty sweet brains, even outside of our species we’re quite closely related to other primates — sharing, for example, 96 percent of our genetic material with chimpanzees.
But in the forests of Madagascar, aye-aye mothers are also telling their children that they’re unique snowflakes, and other than their kids not literally being snowflakes, they’re absolutely right. No other creature on this planet comes close to the extraordinary aye-aye. It has the bushy tail of a squirrel, the ears and teeth of a rat, and the extremely elongated, super-thin, swiveling middle finger of … well, just the aye-aye.