NPR Science

The study of cosmology, the branch of the physical sciences that investigates the universe and its properties, presents quite a practical challenge: contrary to most other sciences, where different samples can be probed and analyzed directly, it's impossible to experiment with different universes in the lab.

"The night is nowhere as dark as we might think."

That's the word from Mitch Goldberg, program scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association's Joint Polar Satellite System. Together with NASA, scientists have unveiled a new composite, cloud-free image of our planet at night.

NASA is finally receiving data on Martian soil samples from Curiosity, its rover currently traversing the red planet. The results from the soil samples hint at something exciting, but rover scientists are making very sure not to raise expectations.

Mercury is not the first planet to come to mind if you were searching for ice in the solar system. After all, the surface temperature across most of the planet is hot enough to melt lead.

But at the poles on Mercury it's a different story. Almost no sun reaches the poles, and as a result, temperatures can drop to less than -100 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, three papers in the journal Science suggest there really is ice at the bottom of craters near the poles on Mercury.

Now that the election is over its time to address that one burning question still haunting us all. You know the one I am talking about: What exactly is the Higgs Boson?

Scientists working on NASA's six-wheeled rover on Mars have a problem. But it's a good problem.

They have some exciting new results from one of the rover's instruments. On the one hand, they'd like to tell everybody what they found, but on the other, they have to wait because they want to make sure their results are not just some fluke or error in their instrument.

There were two minutes of stunning astronomical coincidence over Australia today.

It was a total solar eclipse and the images are just stunning:

The AP reports that people across Australia waited on boats, hot air ballons, hill tops and beaches waiting for the sublime moment. Some worried that clouds would obscure it.

But totality, or the point at which the moon completely covers the surface of the sun, lasted 2 minutes and 5 seconds and it was spectacular.

Picture, if you can, a prehistoric Bobby Flay — an inventive 3 million-year-old version of the Food Network star chef. He's struggling to liven up yet another salad of herbs and twigs when inspiration strikes. "We've got grass here, and sedge," he says. "Grass and sedge, that's what this dish needs!"

His pals take a tentative taste of this nouvelle cuisine. Sedges usually aren't considered gourmet fare, after all, by these human ancestors. They're tough grasslike plants that grow in marshes. But wow! Not only is this a new taste sensation, it's found in many places.

The same brain system that controls our muscles also helps us remember music, scientists say.

When we listen to a new musical phrase, it is the brain's motor system — not areas involved in hearing — that helps us remember what we've heard, researchers reported at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in New Orleans last month.

In Oliver Sacks' book The Mind's Eye, the neurologist included an interesting footnote in a chapter about losing vision in one eye because of cancer that said: "In the '60s, during a period of experimenting with large doses of amphetamines, I experienced a different sort of vivid mental imagery."

He expands on this footnote in his new book, Hallucinations, where he writes about various types of hallucinations — visions triggered by grief, brain injury, migraines, medications and neurological disorders.

I've been hearing strange wind stories all my life. The best ones are both wildly improbable but still true, like how the Empire State Building gets hit by wafts of barley flying in on jet streams from Iowa, or how tons of sand from the Saharan desert rain down every year onto Brazilian rainforests. You never know what the wind will bring. The wind decides.

Scientists say an Asian elephant at a South Korean zoo can imitate human speech, saying five Korean words that are readily understood by people who speak the language.

The male elephant, named Koshik, invented an unusual method of sound production that involves putting his trunk in his mouth and manipulating his vocal tract.

"This is not the kind of sound that Asian elephants normally make, and it's a dead-on match of the speech of his trainers," says Tecumseh Fitch of the University of Vienna in Austria.

How rare is the Earth? Kepler satellite sheds light

Oct 31, 2012

Now that we are fairly sure that there are many Earth-like planets in our galactic neighborhood, the time is ripe (or almost so) to wonder whether these new worlds do indeed have a high probability of hosting new forms of life.

Some of the weirdest animal behavior is about romance. That's especially true with birds — they croon or dance or display brilliant feathers to seduce the reluctant.

This sort of sexual display apparently has a long pedigree: There's now new evidence that some dinosaurs may have used the same come-on.

The source is a kind of dinosaur that was built like a 400-pound ostrich. It lived about 75 million years ago and is called ornithomimus, meaning "bird mimic."

"Frankenstorm" may be drawing the attention of meteorologists here on Earth.

But NASA scientists using the Cassini spacecraft have witnessed a rare massive storm on Saturn that was so violent it sent the temperature in the planet's stratosphere soaring to 150 degrees Fahrenheit above normal.

If you're reading this blog, you're probably into food. Perhaps you're even one of those people whose world revolves around your Viking stove and who believes that cooking defines us as civilized creatures.

Well, on the latter part, you'd be right. At least according to some neuroscientists from Brazil.

Whales are among the great communicators of the animal world. They produce all sorts of sounds: squeaks, whistles and even epic arias worthy of an opera house.

And one whale in particular has apparently done something that's never been documented before: He imitated human speech.

The beluga, or white whale, is smallish as whales go and very cute, if you're into marine mammals. Belugas are called the "canaries of the sea" because they're very vocal.

Nerds, rejoice! It's Nobel season — the Oscars for lab rats, peacemakers and cognoscenti alike. Every fall, big thinkers around the world wait for a middle-of-the-night phone call from Sweden, dreaming of what they might do with the $1.2 million prize.

Tell us you can resist clicking on this headline from Florida's Sun Sentinel:

"Huge Eyeball From Unknown Creature Washes Ashore On Florida Beach."

It's big, it's blue and the newspaper says "among the possibilities being discussed are a giant squid, some other large fish or a whale or other large marine mammal."

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has sent the eye off for study.

Scientists have discovered a world much fancier than our homely, little Earth.

New research that will published in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters details a planet that is eight times heavier than Earth and with twice its radius. But instead of being covered in water and granite, it is encrusted in graphite and diamond.

For the past decade, scientists have been toying with the notion of encapsulating medicine in microscopic balls.

These so-called nanospheres could travel inside the body to hard-to-reach places, like the brain or the inside of a tumor. One problem researchers face is how to build these nanospheres, because you'd have to make them out of even smaller nanoparticles.

David Wineland is the American half of the scientific duo celebrating the award of the Nobel Prize in Physics today.

Wineland and French scientist Serge Haroche developed new ways for scientists to observe individual quantum particles without damaging them. This may not sound so impressive, but the work opens a world of possibilities— including the development of a quantum computer and super-precise clock.

But who needs a better clock? Don't we have pretty good ones already?

The 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to Serge Haroche of France and David Wineland of the United States for their work on the "fundamental interactions between light particles and matter."

"The Nobel laureates have opened the door to a new era of experimentation with quantum physics by demonstrating the direct observation of individual quantum particles without destroying them," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a statement.

The two scientists who won this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine discovered that cells in our body have the remarkable ability to reinvent themselves. They found that every cell in the human body, from our skin and bones to our heart and brain, can be coaxed into forming any other cell.

Columbus, they say, crossed the Atlantic at a speed of roughly four knots. That's four-plus miles an hour. When the wind gusted, he could hit 9.2 mph. In 1492, that was speedy.

Scientists in Japan report they have created eggs from stem cells in a mammal for the first time. And the researchers went on to breed healthy offspring from the eggs they created.

While the experiments involved mice, the work is being met with excitement — and questions — about doing the same thing for humans someday.

What we learn about dinosaurs keeps surprising us. Today in the journal ZooKeys we get a peek into an odd, new kind of dinosaur that was lighter than a house cat and just as small but had a terrifying set of teeth and a short, birdlike beak.

The fossil used to re-create the creature was actually discovered in southern Africa in the 1960s, but it is described for the first time today by Paul Sereno, paleontologist and professor at the University of Chicago.

You are 200 miles directly above the Martian surface — looking down. This image was taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Jan. 27, 2010. (The color was added later.) What do we see? Well, sand, mostly. As you scroll down, there's a ridge crossing through the image, then a plain, then dunes, but keep looking. You will notice, when you get to the dunes, there are little black flecks dotting the ridges, mostly on the sunny side, like sunbathing spiders sitting in rows. Can you see them?

Do you bite your nails? For 30 years, I did. We nail biters can be "pathological groomers" — people for whom normal grooming behaviors, like skin picking or hair pulling, have become virtually uncontrollable.

As you take in your next breath of air, you can thank a form of microscopic marine life known as plankton.

They are so small as to be invisible, but taken together, actually dwarf massive creatures like whales. Plankton make up 98 percent of the biomass of ocean life.

"This invisible forest generates half of the oxygen generated on the planet," Chris Bowler, a marine biologist, tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

And, as climate change alters the temperature and acidity of our waters, this mysterious ocean world may be in jeopardy.

Pages