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Solar Maximum May Be Upon Us – On Science

October 28, 2013

The sun is flaring up.

What challenge pilots are facing in the skies.

Pricking your fingers could soon be a thing of the past.

And we’re all unique! Today, On Science.

It’s that time again when the sun starts acting up! The sun goes through a natural solar cycle about every 11 years, which is visible in the increase or decrease of sunspots that appear on the surface of the sun. When there is an increase, the sun is said to be approaching a “solar maximum.” Well, there has been a noticeable increase in sunspots over the past several years, and experts say that a solar maximum is upon us. With that comes solar flares and coronal mass ejections which can affect spacecraft, satellites, and knock out electronic systems. NOAA reported several solar flares this week with the latest occurring October 25. From their observations of the recent activity, NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center is forecasting a solar storm for today. But not to worry, they are only expecting a G1, which is a minor Geomagnetic storm. They say updates will be given as conditions unfold.

And all that space weather makes for a dicey forecast for pilots. NASA reported that airline pilots absorb as much radiation over the course of a year as nuclear power plant employees. It’s so much that they are considered “occupational radiation workers” by the FAA. They fly at heights where there is little atmosphere to protect them from cosmic rays and radiation. This radiation exposure puts them at a higher risk for cancer and cataracts. And frequent flyers get more than rewards for racking up the miles. According to NASA, a 100,000 mile frequent flyer gets about the equivalent of 20 chest x-rays. Exposure levels are dependent on latitude and altitude. In order to protect passengers and pilots, NASA is developing an experimental tool to predict exposures in real time. The plan is to develop an online global map of radiation dose rates for different flight paths and altitudes.

Let’s face it; we’re all unique in the face. Even twins. Why is that? A new study from the US Department of Energy’s Berkeley Lab shows that gene enhancers – regulatory sequences of DNA that act to turn or amplify the expression of a specific gene – are the major players in craniofacial development. However, researchers don’t know the “how,” just that they “do.” They identified more than 4,000 candidate enhancer sequences predicted to be active in fine-tuning the expression of genes involved in facial development. They say that finding, mapping and understanding the general activity of these enhancers may help doctors to develop better diagnostic and therapeutic approaches to birth defects such as a cleft of the lip or facial palate. That’s saving face.

And diabetics may be soon saving some blood! German researchers are developing a new, non-invasive method to test blood glucose levels. The new device would apply a pulse of infrared light to the top of the skin, instead of traditional pricking methods. The pulse is absorbed by the glucose and creates a sound signature – what researchers are calling the “sweet melody of glucose” – instead of measuring sugar levels from a blood sample. A device is in development but still needs to be tested. I would imagine the sweet melody of glucose to sound like Pop music but that’s just me.

Hmm…I think I’ll have the steak with mac and cheese and a soda. Oh wait. You’re getting the fish and veggies? Never mind, I’ll have the same. A new study from the University of Illinois says the peer pressure plays into our order at the table. After studying lunch receipts for three months, researchers concluded that when groups of people eat together in a setting where they have to announce their food choices, they tend to choose items from the same menu categories. They said we really don’t want to be so different from one another. The research showed that if a person’s peers were ordering higher calorie and more expensive food, then they felt happier about doing the same. The take away, it might be better to nudge people toward healthier friends, than to healthier food!

And that’s it for today On Science. See you tomorrow!



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