July Science Highlights

There was some fascinating science news in July.  I’ve already written about one of the most important, the ending of the NASA Space Shuttle program.  Here are three other stories that I thought were very interesting.

1.  Neanderthals

Neanderthals are hominids whose evolutionary path split from ours about 350,000 years ago.  They died out around 30,000 years ago.  Last year scientists managed to sequence almost 65% of Neanderthal DNA and found that Neanderthals and humans are 99.5% identical.

A study published in the July issue of Molecular Biology and Evolution proves that humans and Neanderthals interbred.  Neanderthal DNA is found in all modern humans except those in sub-Saharan Africa.  It’s not found in Africans because the ancestors of Neanderthals left Africa about 400,000 to 800,000 years ago.  They lived mainly in Europe and had the place to themselves until early humans showed up 50,000 to 80,000 years ago.  Next time you encounter a racist you might want to point out that Africans are the only “pure” modern humans.

2. Invisibility

I would never have imagined that invisibility was anything but fantasy.  I was amazed when the first research reports came out a few years ago about meta-materials possibly being able to divert light.  Scientists encountered a number of difficulties, including achieving invisibility in three dimensions rather than two and achieving invisibility in the spectrum in which humans see light (early experiments were with microwave radiation.)

In July a report in the journal Nano Letters says that scientists have created an invisibility material that hides items from light that is visible to human eyes.   The research is still in its infancy, and only a microscopic object has been cloaked so far, but it seems like it is only a matter of time before larger things can be hidden.  Unlike younger people who think, “Oh, Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak,” I think, “Cool, Romulan cloaking device.”  Now if they could work on that transporter and warp drive….

3. Population

The Earth’s population will reach seven billion later this year.  That’s a lot of people.  When I was in school the world population was only three billion and there was a lot of worry about the “population explosion.”  Well founded worry, apparently.  The population in 2100 is estimated to reach 10 billion.

With resources already stretched, this will provide increased hardship for nations, particularly the developing ones.  Many of the countries with the highest growth rates are inAfrica.  Conflict will almost certainly arise as people compete for water, food, housing and energy.  It will obviously have a profound impact on the environment.

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