Today's news

December 23, 2005

Cambridge fails to return to profit
Cambridge University reported a year-on-year improvement in its finances yesterday, but narrowly failed to return to the black despite a major cost-cutting exercise. It admitted it had been struggling to reverse several years of losses, under pressure because of general underfunding in higher education. Last year's deficit of £8.3 million was slashed to £500,000, it revealed in its accounts for 2004-05, largely due to increased income and strong investment performance by its endowment fund. For the first time the activities of the Cambridge trusts - including the Gates Trust, funded by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, which provides financial aid for overseas students wishing to study at Cambridge - were included. This added £219 million to the university's net assets, which now total £1.9 billion.
The Guardian

Evolution studies win breakthrough award
Several studies in evolution today collectively won the title "breakthrough of the year", awarded by the leading US journal, Science . A number of papers published this year focused on the "nuts and bolts" of Charles Darwin's theory - ranging from studies of the flu virus to chimpanzee genetics and stickleback fish armour. A Science editorial says: "Today evolution is the foundation of all biology, so basic and all-pervasive that scientists sometimes take its importance for granted." The decision to name evolution research as the most significant scientific milestone of 2005 makes a thinly disguised political point. It comes at a time when Darwin's ideas are increasingly under attack by Christian fundamentalists and supporters of "intelligent design", particularly in the US.
The Guardian, The Times, The Independent

Stem cell faker quits his job
Researcher Hwang Woo-suk apologised and resigned from a South Korean university after the school said he fabricated results in stem-cell research that had raised hopes of new cures for hard-to-treat diseases. "I sincerely apologise to the people for creating a shock and disappointment," Hwang told reporters as he was leaving his office at Seoul National University. "With an apologising heart ... I step down as professor of Seoul National University." However, Hwang still maintained that he had produced the technology to create patient-matched stem cells as he claimed to do in a May article in the journal Science.
The Scotsman, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent

Ice Age footprints tell a touching tale
Archaeologists have unearthed the world's largest collection of Ice Age era footprints, dating from about 20,000 years ago, in the bed of a dry lake in the New South Wales outback. The fossilised tracks, in a clay pan in Mungo National Park, are said to be astonishingly well-preserved. They offer a fresh and touchingly human insight into the lifestyle of ancient Aborigines. Among the images they evoke are children milling around their parents' ankles, a hunter sprinting at 12 miles an hour, mud squelching between his bare toes, and a dead animal being dragged along the shore of a lake.
The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, The Times

The sobering news: hangover cures don't work
There are scores of hangover cures advertised on the internet, from Dr Ralph's Monday Medicine to Nux Vomica, a homoeopathic remedy. But few if any of them work, researchers say. The authors of a study in the British Medical Journal said: "No compelling evidence exists to suggest that any complementary or conventional intervention is effective for treating or preventing alcohol hangover." However, the researchers, led by Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, found encouraging results for borage, a herbal remedy with anti-inflammatory properties, a product based on dried yeast called Morning Fit and tolfenamic acid, a painkiller. Professor Ernst said a major problem preventing development of an effective cure for hangovers was the lack of information about the effect of alcohol on the body.
The Independent

Tree planting not always green
Planting forests to soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere can have a range of side effects, including drying up streams and making soil saltier, according to a global study. The discovery highlights the tradeoffs involved in tree-planting projects, say researchers. Because plants use carbon dioxide to grow, planting forests of large, fast-growing trees is one way to remove the gas from the atmosphere, thus staving off global warming. But such forests need a lot of water, say Robert Jackson, of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and his colleagues.
The Guardian

Moongazing reveals the chaotic world of Uranus
New orbital data on two moons of Uranus and two rings suggest the seventh planet may be a more chaotic place than thought. The two new moons, dubbed Cupid and Mab, were discovered in 2003 using the Hubble Space Telescope and archived images from the Voyager 2 spacecraft. Since then, the moons' discoverers, Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute and Jack Lissauer of NASA Ames Research Center, both in California, US, have refined the orbits of the moons and spotted two previously undetected dust rings. “To me, the exciting part of this discovery is the fact that there were these faint outer rings that previously escaped detection,” says Richard French, an astronomer at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, US, who studies the dynamics of planetary rings.
New Scientist

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