No Sign of Methane on Mars; Abstract Thought Melts Political Convictions

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Discovered: Curiosity dispels theory of Martian methane; the flu could presage diabetes; political opinions can't outlive three questions; archaeologist says he's found Europe's oldest town.

Methane is M.I.A. on Mars. Back in 2009, NASA announced some pretty astounding observations from Mars. They thought they'd spotted signs of methane in the red planet's atmosphere, which would force astronomers to contemplate the possibility of biological activity on Mars. NASA's Curiosity rover hasn't made any close encounters of the third kind yet, and after analyzing Mars' atmosphere, turned up no traces of methane. The rover used its Sample Analysis at Mars to measure atmospheric composition for the first time today, and while more tests need to be conducted to determine methane presence definitely, it's not looking good for everyone who hoped Curiosity would find little green men. "The bottom line is that we have no detection of methane so far," says NASA/JPL's Chris Webster. "But we're going to keep looking in the months ahead since Mars, as we all know, may yet hold surprises for us." []

Political convictions are no match for abstract thought. There's a great Louis C.K. routine in which he describes getting flustered by his daughter's incessant question—"why?—to everything he says. "You don't even know who the fuck you are at the end of the conversation," he joked. That's basically what psychologists at the University of Illinois discovered in their research on political convictions. They found that if you just ask highly partisan people "why" questions three times about an unrelated topic (such as maintaining health) before gauging their political views, their convictions tend to drift into more moderate territory. "We used the ground zero mosque as a particularly polarizing issue," says University of Illinois professor Jesse Preston. "People feel strongly about it generally one way or the other." But they felt much less strongly about the proposed mosque near grounds zero after being asked "why" questions three times. "We observed that liberals and conservatives became more moderate in their attitudes. After this very brief task that just put them in this abstract mindset, they were more willing to consider the point of view of the opposition." [University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign]

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Is this Europe's oldest town? Every European country would like to be able to say that they have the world's oldest town (think of the tourism revenue!), and a Bulgarian archaeologist says he's found just such a site in his home country. Vasil Nikolov, a professor from Bulgaria's National Institute of Archaeology is claiming to have unearthed remnants of a prehistoric town in eastern Bulgaria that could date back as far as 4,700 B.C. Examining the walls measuring 10 feet high and 6.5 feet thick, Nikolov believes that around 350 proto-Bulgarian salt-traders called this settlement home. "We started excavation work in 2005, but only after this archaeological season did we gather enough evidence to back up this claim," says Nikolov. [New York Daily News]

Flus could help cause diabetes. Doctors have long noticed that non-inherited type one diabetes often sets in after a particularly nasty infection, hypothesizing that viruses cause the immune system to go haywire and kill the pancreatic cells that produce insulin. Now World Organisation for Animal Health believe that strains of flu virus may act trigger the onset of type one diabetes. Ilaria Capua infected turkeys with the flu, then watched as their pancreases inflamed and the birds developed diabetes. That's a pretty damning link, but Capua says her findings are actually quite encouraging. We have the ability to vaccinate for the flu, after all. "The great thing is that even if flu only causes a few per cent of type one diabetes cases, we can vaccinate and prevent flu in people who are genetically predisposed, and that can have a real impact," she says. [New Scientist]

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