Caltech Still the Best Research University; Is Coffee Making You Blind?

Discovered: Caltech tops research university ranking again; coffee's connection to glaucoma; Curiosity scoops Martian sand; methadone reduces needle transmission of HIV.

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Discovered: Caltech tops research university ranking again; coffee's connection to glaucoma; Curiosity scoops Martian sand; methadone reduces needle transmission of HIV.

Caltech discovers itself at No. 1, again. The London-based magazine Times Higher Education releases an annual ranking of the world's best research universities, and the California Institute of Technology has retained its place at the top. Caltech is home to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and 31 faculty and alumni have won Nobel Prizes. Caltech President Jean-Lou Chameau says, "We try to support them the best we can and we encourage them them to look at big questions, important scientific issues. It has resulted in game-changing types of discoveries." Oxford and Stanford tied for second, and Harvard dropped to fourth from its perch at No. 2 last year. [Los Angeles Times]

Coffee's connection to glaucoma. Much of the recent research on coffee seems positive enough, suggesting that the drink so many of us need to function reduces the risk of contracting certain cancers, protects heart health and boosts creativity. So you'd be forgiven for taking Special Agent Dale Cooper's advice and treating yourself to another damn fine cup of coffee. Not so fast, say buzzkill researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Observing that coffee-swilling Scandinavians have some of the highest rates of glaucoma, they decided to track nearly 120,000 people from the 1980s through 2008. None had glaucoma to begin with, and each had different caffeine habits, from full-on abstinence to full-blown addicts. The scientists found that those who consumed three cups or more per day were significantly more prone to contracting exfoliation glaucoma. This should probably scare coffee fiends, because this affliction can lead to impaired vision and blindess. But take comfort in some of the study's other findings: "The highest caffeine consumers were somewhat less likely to have hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, and myocardial infarction." [The Atlantic]

How Curiosity plans to analyze Martian sand. For all the scooting around NASA's Curiosity has been doing on Mars, it hasn't yet stopped to study the ground it walks on. Tomorrow, the rover will dig into the Red Planet's soil, extracting a sample for later analysis. But before it goes in for the scoop, Curiosity will have to spend eight hours convulsing "at a nice tooth-rattling vibration level" to rid itself of all the contaminants it brought from Earth. Describing the process, NASA's mission sampling chief Daniel Limonadi says, ""It kind of looks and feels like if you open the hood of your car with the engine running." The first three samples Curiosity digs up will be dumped in order to purge the rover even further. The fourth will then be studied to better understand the percentage of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and oxygen found in Martian soil. [Christian Science Monitor]

Methadone reduces HIV transmission in needle users. Shooting up with used needles is one of the most common ways that HIV is transmitted between people who inject drugs. But researchers from the Centre Hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal have found that injecting methadone reduces the risk of passing on HIV, when compared with other intravenous drugs. "These results are important given that increases in HIV incidence have been reported among people who inject drugs in a number of countries in recent years, where opiate substitution therapies are illegal or severely restricted," says lead researcher Julie Bruneau. Methadone is already commonly used to help heroin addicts detox from opiate addiction, so this finding is just one more point in its favor. [CHUM]

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