Rusty rocks reveal ancient origin of photosynthesis

SUN-WORSHIP began even earlier than we thought. The world's oldest sedimentary rocks suggest an early form of photosynthesis may have evolved almost 3.8 billion years ago, not long after life appeared on Earth.

A hallmark of photosynthesis in plants is that the process splits water and produces oxygen gas. But some groups of bacteria oxidise substances like iron instead – a form of photosynthesis that doesn't generate oxygen. Evolutionary biologists think these non-oxygen-generating forms of photosynthesis evolved first, giving rise to oxygen-generating photosynthesis sometime before the Earth's atmosphere gained oxygen 2.4 billion years ago (New Scientist, 8 December 2012, p 12).

But when did non-oxygen-generating photosynthesis evolve? Fossilised microbial mats that formed in shallow water 3.4 billion years ago in what is now South Africa show the chemical fingerprints of the process. However, geologists have long wondered whether even earlier evidence exists.

The world's oldest sedimentary rocks – a class of rock that can preserve evidence of life – are a logical place to look, says Andrew Czaja of the University of Cincinnati in Ohio. These rocks, which are found in Greenland and date back almost 3.8 billion years, contain vast deposits of iron oxide that are a puzzle. "What could have formed these giant masses of oxidised iron?" asks Czaja.

To investigate, he analysed the isotopic composition of samples taken from the oxidised iron. He found that some isotopes of iron were more common than they would be if oxygen gas was indiscriminately oxidising the metal. Moreover, the exact isotopic balance varied subtly from point to point in the rock.

Both findings make sense if photosynthetic bacteria were responsible for the iron oxide, says Czaja. That's because these microbes preferentially oxidise only a small fraction of the dissolved iron, and the iron isotopes they prefer vary slightly as environmental conditions change (Earth and Planetary Science Letters, His findings suggest that this form of photosynthesis appeared about 370 million years earlier than we thought.

It is "the best current working hypothesis for the origin of these deposits", says Mike Tice of Texas A&M University in College Station – one of the team who analysed the 3.4-billion-year-old microbial mats from South Africa.

William Martin at the University of Düsseldorf, Germany, agrees. "Anoxygenic photosynthesis is a good candidate for the isotope evidence they see," he says. "Had these fascinating results been collected on Mars, the verdict of the jury would surely remain open," says Martin Brasier at the University of Oxford. "But [on Earth] opinion seems to be swinging in the direction of non-oxygen-generating photosynthesis during the interval from 3.8 to 2.9 billion years ago."

This article appeared in print under the headline "Photosynthesis has truly ancient origins"

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Basketball: Lakers cap emotional week with win over Trail Blazers

LOS ANGELES: Kobe Bryant scored 29 of his 40 points in the second half as the Los Angeles Lakers capped an emotional week with a much-needed 111-107 NBA victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.

Bryant added seven rebounds and two steals for the Lakers, who have won seven of their last 10 games and stand 3-1/2 games behind the Houston Rockets for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference standings.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated published this week, Bryant said he was certain the Lakers would make the playoffs.

"It's not a question of if we make the playoffs. We will," Bryant insisted.

The team, which has had more than its share of dysfunctional moments this season, has been through an emotional five days since the death on Monday of 80-year-old owner Jerry Buss.

Buss was remembered at the first Lakers game following his death, a 113-99 win over Boston on Wednesday.

At a memorial service on Thursday Bryant challenged his teammates to live up to Buss' standards of excellence.

"We're playing for something bigger than ourselves, bigger than a single season. We are playing for a great man, Dr. Jerry Buss," he said.

Playing hours after Buss was buried on Friday, the Lakers remained mindful of his legacy, Bryant said.

"I think we understand what's at stake and what this franchise stands for," Bryant said. "That gives you an extra gear."

Dwight Howard added 19 points and 16 rebounds for the Lakers, and Antawn Jamison chipped in 16 points.

JJ Hickson scored with 22 points and 11 rebounds for the slumping Blazers, who have now lost seven in a row to slip 1-1/2 games behind the Lakers.

- AFP/ir

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Jail officers accused of ordering an inmate beaten

Two Cook County Jail officers overseeing a psychiatric ward ordered two inmates to beat up another inmate who had angered them and then tried to cover it up by claiming the battered victim attempted suicide, prosecutors said Friday.

"This is what happens to you (expletive) when you step out of line. You disrespect us, we disrespect you," prosecutors said the officers announced to the entire tier after the beating last February.

Delphia Sawyer, 31, and Pamela Bruce, 30, both six-year veterans with the sheriff's office, were charged with official misconduct, obstructing justice, perjury and mob action. Judge Edward Harmening set bail at $50,000 each and ordered them to turn over any firearms.

A photograph taken of the victim, Kyle Pillischafske, on the day after shows he sustained two black eyes and severe swelling on his face. Prosecutors said the damage took place despite the officers yelling for the two inmates to hit Pillischafske with "body shots" so his injuries would be less visible.

The inmate's mother, Morgan Pillischafske, of Mount Prospect, told the Tribune that she was shocked when she learned about the beating and later heard from her son that he thought he was going to die. He had been doing well there, receiving treatment for his bipolar disorder while awaiting trial on an aggravated battery charge, she said.

"Not only did these guards mistreat Kyle, they took advantage of two other inmates as well, all because they were supposedly called a name," she said Friday in a telephone interview. "You have to have thicker skin than that."

Sawyer and Bruce were working the 3 to 11 p.m. shift in the psychiatric tier in maximum-security Division 10 when inmates tried to light a makeshift cigarette in an electrical outlet, sparking a small fire and cutting power to part of the tier, Assistant State's Attorney Nicholas Trutenko said.

The officers, believing Pillischafske was partly to blame, confronted him, prompting a heated exchange, the prosecutor said.

The officers instructed "two of the larger inmates" to go into his cell and beat him, Trutenko said.

Sawyer and Bruce are alleged to have stood watch while the two inmates struck Pillischafske in the face and head. They then joined in, hitting him with their radios and kicking him in the side, the prosecutor said.

To cover up their misconduct, the officers misled a supervisor to believe that Pillischafske hurt himself by banging his head against a shower wall during a suicide attempt, the charges alleged.

The two later lied repeatedly to a grand jury investigating the beating, Trutenko said.

After their arrest Thursday, both officers were stripped of police powers and suspended with pay pending an internal disciplinary hearing next week, said Frank Bilecki, the sheriff's spokesman.

A lawsuit filed by Pillischafske against the officers, the county and Sheriff Tom Dart is pending in federal court.

Bruce, of Chicago, and Sawyer, of Justice, are both married mothers of two and have no criminal records or disciplinary history with the Sheriff's Department, according to their attorneys.

Peter Hickey, Sawyer's attorney, noted she was in charge of a very volatile tier of "psychiatrically disturbed patients."

"These aren't choir boys from St. Patrick's parish," Hickey told the judge.

Pillischafske, now 19, was jailed at the time of the beating on a charge he intentionally caused a car crash in a botched suicide attempt, injuring a woman in the other car. He pleaded guilty a few weeks later to aggravated battery and was sentenced to probation, court records show.

Pillischafske's mother said despite her son's mental health issues, he is a "pretty likable kid" who loves music, plays bass guitar and is hoping to go to college.

"Kyle needs to move on from this," she said. "The whole thing was very unfortunate."

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Space Pictures This Week: Space Rose, Ghostly Horses


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Great Energy Challenge Blog

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Cyberattacks Bring Attention to Security Reform

Recent accusations of a large-scale cyber crime effort by the Chinese government left many wondering what immediate steps the president and Congress are taking to prevent these attacks from happening again.

On Wednesday, the White House released the administration's Strategy on Mitigating the Theft of U.S. Trade Secrets as a follow-up to the president's executive order. The strategy did not outwardly mention China, but it implied U.S. government awareness of the problem.

"We are taking a whole of government approach to stop the theft of trade secrets by foreign competitors or foreign governments by any means -- cyber or otherwise," U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator Victoria Espinel said in a White House statement.

As of now, the administration's strategy is the first direct step in addressing cybersecurity, but in order for change to happen Congress needs to be involved. So far, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) is the most notable Congressional legislation addressing the problem, despite its past controversy.

Last April, CISPA was introduced by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md. The act would allow private companies with consumer information to voluntarily share those details with the NSA and the DOD in order to combat cyber attacks.

Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

The companies would be protected from any liabilities if the information was somehow mishandled. This portion of the act sounded alarm bells for CISPA's opponents, like the ACLU, which worried that this provision would incentivize companies to share individuals' information with disregard.

CISPA passed in the House of Representatives, despite a veto threat from the White House stemming from similar privacy concerns. The bill then died in the Senate.

This year, CISPA was reintroduced the day after the State of the Union address during which the president declared an executive order targeting similar security concerns from a government standpoint.

In contrast to CISPA, the executive order would be initiated on the end of the government, and federal agencies would share relevant information regarding threats with private industries, rather than asking businesses to supply data details. All information shared by the government would be unclassified.

At the core of both the executive order and CISPA, U.S. businesses and the government would be encouraged to work together to combat cyber threats. However, each option would clearly take a different route to collaboration. The difference seems minimal, but has been the subject of legislative debates between the president and Congress for almost a year, until now.

"My response to the president's executive order is very positive," Ruppersberger told ABC News. "[The president] brought up how important information sharing is [and] by addressing critical infrastructure, he took care of another hurdle that we do not have to deal with."

Addressing privacy roadblocks, CISPA backers said the sharing of private customer information with the government, as long as personal details are stripped, is not unprecedented.

"Think of what we do with HIPAA in the medical professions; [doctors do not need to know] the individual person, just the symptoms to diagnose a disease," Michigan Gov. John Engler testified at a House Intelligence Committee hearing in an attempt to put the problem into context.

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Synthetic llama antibodies soothe arthritis pain

ARTHRITIS may have met its match, in the form of the llama immune system. Antibodies similar to ones originally discovered in camels and llamas have helped to heal moderate to severe arthritis in a small trial.

The antibodies have inspired the design of a drug, ALX-0061, that blocks a receptor for interleukin 6. This signalling molecule amplifies inflammation, leading to sore and swollen joints. The symptoms ease once the receptor is blocked.

In the trial, 24 patients received one of three unchanging doses of ALX-0061 for six months. Another group received a placebo. Sixty-three per cent of those given the drug saw their symptoms practically vanish when measured using a standard metric, the DAS28 scale, which evaluates symptoms in 28 joints. This figure is more than twice the 30 per cent remission rate seen with the current "gold-standard" rival treatment Actemra (tocilizumab). Tocilizumab also targets interleukin 6, but it is based on a normal-sized mammalian antibody.

The remission rate was even higher – 75 per cent – for the eight patients given one of the three doses: 3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight administered once every four weeks. "These data suggest that out of every 10 patients, seven to eight could experience rapid, durable responses to their symptoms," says Josi Holz, the chief medical officer of Ablynx, in Ghent, Belgium, which released its results on 13 February.

According to Ed Moses, CEO of Ablynx, it could be the tiny size of the molecule – one-fifth the usual size – that gives it the edge over existing antibody-based treatments. "It potentially gives far faster and deeper penetration of diseased joints," he says.

Other researchers caution against over-optimism because the trial was short and small. "If the results are repeated in randomised, controlled, double-blinded studies, then they would be very impressive," says David Scott, chief medical adviser to the UK's National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society.

To take ALX-0061 forward, Ablynx is now looking for a partner to help finance such a larger, decisive trial.

This article appeared in print under the headline "Llama-inspired drug relieves arthritic pain"

If you would like to reuse any content from New Scientist, either in print or online, please contact the syndication department first for permission. New Scientist does not own rights to photos, but there are a variety of licensing options available for use of articles and graphics we own the copyright to.

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Locals fill most jobs at new plant on Jurong Island

SINGAPORE: Tuas Power's Tembusu multi-utilities complex on Jurong Island has generated 150 jobs ahead of its official opening next week.

One hundred positions have been filled and the plant's looking for Singaporeans to fill 50 more vacancies.

Nine in 10 positions are currently held by locals.

The jobs are technical in nature, with Tuas Power looking out for graduates from polytechnics and the Institutes of Technical Education.

The Jurong Island facility provides steam, water and electricity to petrochemical firms.

Phase one of the plant's operations has been completed, with full completion expected no later than 2017.

By then, the plant would have generated a total of some 200 jobs.

- CNA/ck

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Storm begins to coat Chicago area with snow

Between and inch-and-a-half and two-and-a-half inches of snow has fallen across much of the Chicago region, though the snow is expected to turn to freezing drizzle in the next couple hours.

Meteorologists have scaled back their predictions on snow fall totals from the storm, though.

Illinois State Police described conditions as "horrible" and have responded to about 15 crashes already.

State Police are in a "snow plan" and aren't responding to accidents without injuries - those are supposed to be reported later.

"It will be tapering off from the south in the next couple hours, possibly some freezing drizzle across whole area," said Mark Ratzer, meteorologist for the National Weather Service. "We may end up coming in a little less."

The city of Chicago has sent 199 plows to work clearing main thoroughfares, according to the streets and sanitation department.

Check back for more information.

Twitter: @ChicagoBreaking

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Oldest Known Wild Bird Hatches Chick at 62

Wisdom, the oldest known wild bird, has yet another feather in her cap—a new chick.

The Laysan albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis)—62 years old at least—recently hatched a healthy baby in the U.S. Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, her sixth in a row and possibly the 35th of her lifetime, according to the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) North American Bird Banding Program. (Related: "51-Year-Old Albatross Breaks N. American Age Record [2003].")

But Wisdom's longevity would be unknown if it weren't for a longtime bird-banding project founded by USGS research wildlife biologist Chandler Robbins.

Now 94, Robbins was the first scientist to band Wisdom in 1956, who at the time was "just another nesting bird," he said. Over the next ten years, Robbins banded tens of thousands of black-footed albatrosses (Phoebastria nigripes) and Laysan albatrosses as part of a project to study the behavior of the large seabirds, which at the time were colliding with U.S. Navy aircraft.

Robbins didn't return to the tiny Pacific island—now part of the U.S. Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument—until 2002, when he "recaptured as many birds as I could in hopes that some of them would be the old-timers."

Indeed, Robbins did recapture Wisdom—but he didn't know it until he got back to his office at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, and checked her band number in the database.

"That was real exciting, because we didn't think the chances of finding one that old would be that good," Robbins said Wednesday in an interview from his office at the Patuxent center, where he still works.

Chandler Robbins counts birds.

Chandler Robbins counts birds in Maryland's Patuxent Research Refuge.

Photograph by David H. Wells, Corbis

Albatrosses No Bird Brains

Bigger birds such as the albatross generally live longer than smaller ones: The oldest bird in the Guinness Book of Animal Records, a Siberian white crane (Leucogeranus leucogeranus), lived an unconfirmed 82 years. Captive parrots are known to live into their 80s. (See National Geographic's bird pictures.)

The Laysan albatross spends most of the year at sea, nesting on the Midway Atoll (map) in the colder months. Birds start nesting around five years of age, which is how scientists knew that Wisdom was at least five years old in 1956.

Because albatrosses defend their nests, banding them doesn't require a net or a trap as in the case of other bird species, Robbins said—but they're far from tame.

"They've got a long, sharp bill and long, sharp claws—they could do a job on you if you're not careful how to handle them," said Robbins, who estimates he's banded a hundred thousand birds.

For instance, "when you're not looking, the black-footed albatross will sneak up from behind and bite you in the seat of the pants."

But Robbins has a fondness for albatrosses, and Wisdom in particular, especially considering the new dangers that these birds face.

Navy planes are no longer a problem—albatross nesting dunes were moved farther from the runway—but the birds can ingest floating bits of plastic that now inundate parts of the Pacific, get hooked in longlines meant for fish, and be poisoned by lead paint that's still on some of Midway Atoll's buildings. (Also see "Birds in 'Big Trouble' Due to Drugs, Fishing, More.")

That Wisdom survived so many years avoiding all those hazards and is still raising young is quite extraordinary, Robbins said.

"Those birds have a tremendous amount of knowledge in their little skulls."

"Simply Incredible"

Wisdom's accomplishments have caught the attention of other scientists, in particular Sylvia Earle, an oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer in Residence, who said by email that Wisdom is a "symbol of hope for the ocean." (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)

Earle visited Wisdom at her nest in January 2012, where she "appeared serenely indifferent to our presence," Earle wrote in the fall 2012 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review.

"I marveled at the perils she had survived during six decades, including the first ten or so years before she found a lifetime mate. She learned to fly and navigate over thousands of miles to secure enough small fish and squid to sustain herself, and every other year or so, find her way back to the tiny island and small patch of grass where a voraciously hungry chick waited for special delivery meals."

Indeed, Wisdom has logged an estimated two to three million miles since 1956—or four to six trips from Earth to the moon and back, according to the USGS. (Related: "Albatross's Effortless Flight Decoded—May Influence Future Planes.")

Bruce Peterjohn, chief of the North American Bird Banding Program, called Wisdom's story "simply incredible."

"If she were human, she would be eligible for Medicare in a couple years—yet she is still regularly raising young and annually circumnavigating the Pacific Ocean," he said in a statement.

Bird's-Eye View

As for Robbins, he said he'd "love to get out to Midway again." But in the meantime, he's busy going through thousands of bird records in an effort to trace their life histories.

There's much more to learn: For instance, no one has ever succeeded in putting a radio transmitter on an albatross to follow it throughout its entire life-span, Robbins noted.

"It would be [an] exciting project for someone to undertake, but I'm 94 years old," he said, chuckling. "It wouldn't do much for me to start a project at my age."

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Arias Challenged On Pedophilia Claim

Accused murderer Jodi Arias was challenged today by phone records, text message records, and her own diary entries that appeared to contradict her claim that she caught her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander, looking at pictures of naked boys.

Arias had said during her testimony that one afternoon in January 2008, she walked in on Alexander masturbating to pictures of naked boys. She said she fled from the home, threw up, drove around aimlessly, and ignored numerous phone calls from Alexander because she was so upset at what she had seen.

The claim was central to the defense's accusation that Alexander was a "sexual deviant" who grew angry and abusive toward Arias in the months after the incident, culminating in a violent confrontation in June that left Alexander dead.

Arias claimed she killed him in self-defense. She could face the death penalty if convicted of murder.

Catching Up on the Trial? Check Out ABC News' Jodi Arias Trial Coverage

Today, prosecutor Juan Martinez, who has been aggressive in questioning witnesses throughout the trial, volleyed questions at her about the claim of pedophilia, asking her to explain why her and Alexander's cell phone records showed five calls back and forth between the pair throughout the day she allegedly fled in horror. Some of the calls were often initiated Arias, according to phone records.

Jodi Arias Doesn't Remember Stabbing Ex-Boyfriend Watch Video

Jodi Arias Murder Trial: Testimony About Ex's Death Watch Video

Arias on Ex-Boyfriend's Death: 'I Don't Remember' Watch Video

She and Alexander also exchanged text messages throughout the afternoon and evening at a time when Arias claims the pedophilia incident occurred. In those messages they discuss logistics of exchanging one another's cars that night. Alexander sends her text messages about the car from a church social event he attended that night that she never mentioned during her testimony.

Arias stuck by her claim that she saw Alexander masturbating to the pictures, and her voice remained steady under increasingly-loud questioning by Martinez.

But Martinez also sparred with Arias on the stand over minor issues, such as when he asked Arias detailed questions about the timing and order of events from that day and Arias said she could not remember them.

"It seems you have problems with your memory. Is this a longstanding thing? Since you started testifying?" Martinez asked.

"No it goes back farther than that. I don't know even know if I'd call it a problem," Arias said.

"How far back does it go? You don't want to call them problems, are they issues? Can we call them issues? When did you start having them?" he asked in rapid succession. "You say you have memory problems, that it depends on the circumstance. Give me the factors that influence that."

"Usually when men like you or Travis are screaming at me," Arias shot back from the stand. "It affects my brain, it makes my brain scramble."

"You're saying it's Mr. Martinez's fault?" Martinez asked, referring to himself in the third person.

"Objection your honor," Arias' attorney finally shouted. "This is a stunt!"

Timeline of the Jodi Arias Trial

Martinez dwelled at one point about a journal entry where Arias wrote that she missed the Mormon baptism of her friend Lonnie because she was having kinky sex with Alexander. He drew attention to prior testimony that she and Alexander used Tootsie Pops and Pop Rocks candy as sexual props.

"You're trying to get across (in the diary entry) that this involved a sexual liaison with Mr. Alexander right?" he asked. "And you're talking about Tootsie Pops and Pop Rocks?"

"That happened also that night," Arias said.

"You were there, enjoying it, the Tootsie Pops and Pop Rocks?" he asked again, prompting a smirk from Arias.

"I enjoyed his attention," Arias said.

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Tobacco giant wants to help you quit smoking

British American Tobacco aims to turn electronic cigarettes into medicines in the UK. It's a welcome move, but leaves a bitter taste in the mouth

BACK in the 1950s, when the dangers of smoking were becoming clear and the tobacco industry was panicked, cigarette-makers came up with a wheeze: safer smokes. Filter-tipped, low-tar and "light" cigarettes were the result.

In reality, those cigarettes were not safer at all. Smokers inhaled more deeply or smoked more. And the industry knew it. Internal documents later revealed that they cynically promoted safer cigarettes to discourage people from quitting.

Given this history of smoke and mirrors, you could be forgiven for being suspicious when a tobacco company announces that it is investing in a "reduced risk" cigarette. In December, British American Tobacco (BAT) bought a company called CN Creative, which makes "electronic cigarettes". It is now planning to ask the UK authorities to recognise one of its products as a smoking-cessation medicine.

History repeating? Probably not. You could argue that aiming to profit from curing an addiction that you helped cause in the first place is pretty cynical. But credit where it is due: BAT and other tobacco companies now openly admit that smoking is a serious health risk. There is mounting evidence that e-cigarettes are safer than smoking and really can help addicts cut down or quit. They seem especially useful for hard-core smokers who have failed to quit or who don't even want to try (see "E-cigarettes may soon be sold as life-saving medicine").

There are still unanswered scientific questions, including how e-cigarettes compare with existing medicines such as nicotine patches. That will form a big part of the debate on whether to license them as a medicine.

Long-term safety is also open to question, as is whether they will serve as a "gateway" product attracting new people to smoking, and if their use in public places will renormalise smoking at a time when it is increasingly frowned upon.

But again, the evidence is pointing in the right direction. Tellingly, the anti-tobacco group Action on Smoking and Health has given a qualified backing to e-cigarettes for harm reduction. ASH sensibly points out that e-cigarettes are clearly safer than inhaling tobacco smoke, and says there is little evidence that they will attract non-smokers or make smoking acceptable again. If so, there is little reason to worry about unintended consequences.

Don't hold your breath, though. A similar argument has been made for "snus", a form of oral tobacco mainly used in Sweden. There is evidence that it can help smokers quit and that it is safer than smoking. Sweden has the lowest rates of smoking and lung cancer in Europe, which is often attributed to the use of snus. By some estimates, if Sweden's snus habit was replicated across the European Union it would prevent 92,000 lung cancer deaths a year (Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, vol 37, p 481). And yet it remains illegal everywhere in the EU but Sweden, condemned as a carcinogen and a potential gateway to smoking. The lesson? Harm reduction is a tough sell.

It may be distasteful to watch a tobacco company spearhead a campaign for cigarette harm reduction. But action is sorely needed. If the evidence stacks up, they should be given the benefit of the doubt – for now.

If you would like to reuse any content from New Scientist, either in print or online, please contact the syndication department first for permission. New Scientist does not own rights to photos, but there are a variety of licensing options available for use of articles and graphics we own the copyright to.

All comments should respect the New Scientist House Rules. If you think a particular comment breaks these rules then please use the "Report" link in that comment to report it to us.

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Australia's Fairfax up on asset sales; revenues plunge

SYDNEY: Ailing Australian media company Fairfax on Thursday unveiled a quadrupling of first-half profit to A$386.3 million (US$395.5 million) after offloading assets to guard against plunging revenues.

Fairfax, publisher of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald broadsheets and owner of radio and digital assets, said net profit for the half-year to December 31 was almost four times that of the Aus$96.7 million over the same period last year.

The profit surge was underpinned by over A$300 million in one-off gains including from the sale of a stake in major New Zealand online auction site TradeMe and United States agricultural publishing business Penton Media Inc.

Revenue continued to bleed, down 7.1 percent on the previous corresponding period, as advertisers and readers turned to other sources, but Fairfax said it had paid down some A$717 million of its debt, reducing it to A$197 million.

Underlying earnings excluding significant items slumped 22.2 percent to A$230.3 million, in line with market expectations.

"For some time we have considered it prudent to manage Fairfax Media on the basis that a significant cyclical upswing was unlikely in the near term," said CEO Greg Hywood.

"While the economic environment continues to be stressed and structural change presents (an) ongoing challenge our overall performance is in line with expectations. Our transformation is ahead of schedule."

Fairfax sent shockwaves through Australia's media sector in June by announcing it would sack 1,900 staff and put its newspapers - the only serious rival to Rupert Murdoch's vast Australian holdings - behind a paywall.

Its shares hit an all-time low in August after staggering losses of A$2.73 billion due to massive writedowns in the value of mastheads and trade names.

As well as putting content behind a paywall, Fairfax has announced it will switch to tabloid format in a bid to save money and stave off advances from the likes of mining magnate Gina Rinehart, a major shareholder.

The latest circulation data, published last week, showed a steep decline for Fairfax titles, with the Sun Herald down 23 percent in the three months to December 31 when compared with the same period last year.

The Sunday Age was down 14 percent, the Saturday editions of both newspapers lost more than 13 percent and weekday editions plunged 14.5 percent in the quarter according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

- AFP/de

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Tribune exclusive: 'We were just regular parents who were slapped in the face'

The parents of slain teen Hadiya Pendleton talk about her life and death and the issues raised after she died. (Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune)

Hadiya Pendleton’s parents haven’t had much time to reminisce about their daughter’s life and death before Wednesday, when they sat down for an exclusive interview with the Tribune.

Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton recalled getting the phone call on Jan. 29 that her 15-year-old daughter had been shot, and rushing to the hospital only to find out it was too late, her daughter was dead.

A whirlwind of activity followed as Hadiya became a national symbol of gun violence and her parents traveled to Washington for President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech.

“I’m not going to be extremely political, but if I can help someone else not go through what we’ve gone through, then I have to do what I can,” Cowley-Pendleton said. “These are the cards we have been dealt. If these are the shoes I need to walk in, I don’t mind walking in them.”

To read the full story, you must be a digitalPlus member.

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NASA's Mars Rover Makes Successful First Drill

For the first time ever, people have drilled into a rock on Mars, collecting the powdered remains from the hole for analysis.

Images sent back from NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Wednesday confirmed that the precious sample is being held by the rover's scoop, and will soon be delivered to two miniature chemical labs to undergo an unprecedented analysis. (Related: "Mars Rover Curiosity Completes First Full Drill.")

To the delight of the scientists, the rock powder has come up gray and not the ubiquitous red of the dust that covers the planet. The gray rock, they believe, holds a lot of potential to glean information about conditions on an early Mars. (See more Mars pictures.)

"We're drilling into rock that's a time capsule, rocks that are potentially ancient," said sampling-system scientist Joel Hurowitz during a teleconference from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

A Place to Drill

The site features flat bedrock, often segmented into squares, with soil between the sections and many round gray nodules and white mineral veins.

Hurowitz said that the team did not attempt to drill into the minerals or the gray balls, but the nodules are so common that they likely hit some as they drilled down 2.5 inches (6.3 centimeters).

In keeping with the hypothesis that the area was once under water, Hurowitz said the sample "has the potential of telling us about multiple interactions of water and rock."

The drill, located at the end of a seven-foot (two-meter) arm, requires precision maneuvering in its placement and movement, and so its successful initial use was an exciting and welcome relief. The rover has been on Mars since August, and it took six months to find the right spot for that first drill. (Watch video of the Mars rover Curiosity.)

The flat drilling area is in the lower section of Yellowknife Bay, which Curiosity has been exploring for more than a month. What was previously identified by Curiosity scientists as the dry bed of a once-flowing river or stream appears to fan out into the Yellowknife area.

The bedrock of the site—named after deceased Curiosity deputy project manager John Klein—is believed to be siltstone or mudstone. Scientists said the veins of white minerals are probably calcium sulfate or gypsum, but the grey nodules remain something of a mystery.


To the team that designed and operates the drill, the results were a triumph, as great as the much-heralded landing of Curiosity on the red planet. With more than a hundred maneuvers in its repertoire, the drill is unique in its capabilities and complexities. (Watch video of Curiosity's "Seven Minutes of Terror.")

Sample system chief engineer Louise Jandura, who has worked on the drill for eight years, said the Curosity team had made eight different drills before settling on the one now on the rover. The team tested each drill by boring 1,200 holes on 20 types of rock on Earth.

She called the successful drilling "historic" because it gives scientists unprecedented access to material that has not been exposed to the intense weathering and radiation processes that affect the Martian surface.


The gray powder will be routed to the two most sophisticated instruments on Curiosity—the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin).

SAM, the largest and most complex instrument onboard, operates with two ovens that can heat the sample up to 1,800°F (982°C), turning the elements and compounds in the rock into gases that can then be identified. SAM can also determine whether any carbon-based organic material is present.

Organics are the chemical building blocks of life on Earth. They are known to regularly land on Mars via meteorites and finer material that rains down on all planets.

But researchers suspect the intense radiation on the Martian surface destroys any organics on the surface. Scientists hope that organics within Martian rocks are protected from that radiation.

CheMin shoots an X-ray beam at its sample and can analyze the mineral content of the rock. Minerals provide a durable record of environmental conditions over the eons, including information about possible ingredients and energy sources for life.

Both SAM and CheMin received samples of sandy soil scooped from the nearby Rocknest outcrop in October. SAM identified organic material, but scientists are still trying to determine whether any of it is Martian or the byproduct of organics inadvertently brought to Mars by the rover. (See "Mars Rover Detects Simple Organic Compounds.")

In the next few days, CheMin will be the first to receive samples of the powdered rock, and then SAM. Given the complexity of the analysis, and the track record seen with other samples, it will likely be weeks before results are announced.

The process of drilling and collecting the results was delayed by several glitches that required study and work-arounds. One involved drill software and the other involved a test-bed problem with a sieve that is part of the process of delivering samples to the instruments.

Lead systems engineer Daniel Limonadi said that while there was no indication the sieve on Mars was malfunctioning, they had become more conservative in its use because of the test bed results. (Related: "A 2020 Rover Return to Mars?")

Author of the National Geographic e-book Mars Landing 2012, Marc Kaufman has been a journalist for more than 35 years, including the past 12 as a science and space writer, foreign correspondent, and editor for the Washington Post. He is also author of First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt for Life Beyond Earth, published in 2011, and has spoken extensively to crowds across the United States and abroad about astrobiology. He lives outside Washington, D.C., with his wife, Lynn Litterine.

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Arias Leaves Stand After Describing Killing, Her Lies

Jodi Arias stepped down from the witness stand today after mounting an emotional effort to save herself from death row, insisting to the Arizona jury that an explosive fight with ex-boyfriend Travis Alexander led to his death, and that her lies about killing him masked deep regret and plans to commit suicide.

Arias, 32, will now face what is expected to be a withering cross-examination beginning Thursday from prosecutor Juan Martinez, who has been aggressive to many witnesses throughout the trial and who is expected to go after Arias' claim that she was forced to kill Alexander or be killed herself.

She is charged with murder for her ex-boyfriend's death and could face the death penalty if convicted.

Catching Up on the Trial? Check Out ABC News' Jodi Arias Trial Coverage

The day's dramatic testimony started with Arias describing the beginning of the fight on June 4, 2008 when she and Alexander were taking nude photos in his shower and she claims she accidentally dropped his new camera, causing Alexander to lose his temper. Enraged, he picked her up and body slammed her onto the tile floor, screaming at her, she told the jury.

Arias said she ran to his closet to get away from him, but could hear Alexander's footsteps coming after her down the hall. She grabbed a gun from his shelf and tried to keep running, but Alexander came after her, she said.

"I pointed it at him with both of my hands. I thought that would stop him, but he just kept running. He got like a linebacker. He got low and grabbed my waist, and as he was lunging at me the gun went off. I didn't mean to shoot. I didn't even think I was holding the trigger," she said.

"But he lunged at me and we fell really hard toward the tile wall, so at this point I didn't even know if he had been shot. I didn't see anything different. We were struggling, wrestling, he's a wrestler.

"So he's grabbing at my clothes and I got up, and he's screaming angry, and after I broke away from him. He said 'f***ing kill you bitch,'" she testified.

Asked by her lawyer whether she was convinced Alexander intended to kill her, Arias answered, "For sure. He'd almost killed me once before and now he's saying he was going to." Arias had earlier testified that Alexander had once choked her.

Timeline of the Jodi Arias Trial

Arias on Ex-Boyfriend's Death: 'I Don't Remember' Watch Video

Jodi Arias Describes Violent Sex Before Shooting Watch Video

Jodi Arias Testifies Ex Assaulted Her, Broke Her Fingers Watch Video

But Arias' story of the death struggle ended there as she told the court that she has no memory of stabbing or slashing Alexander whose body was later found with 27 stab wounds, a slit throat and two bullets in his head. She said she only remembered standing in the bathroom, dropping the knife on the tile floor, realizing the "horror" of what had happened, and screaming.

"I have no memory of stabbing him," she said. "There's a huge gap. I don't know if I blacked out or what, but there's a huge gap. The most clear memory I have after that point is driving in the desert."

Arias said that she decided in the desert not to admit to killing Alexander, a decision that would last for two years as Arias lied to friends, family, investigators and reporters about what really happened in Alexander's bathroom.

During that time she initially claimed she got lost that night while driving to a friend's house and never went to Alexander's home in Mesa,Ariz. She later changed her story and said two masked people, a man and a woman, burst into the home and killed Alexander and threatened to kill her family if she told anyone what happened.

She eventually confessed to killing her ex-boyfriend, but insisted it was self defense.

"The main reason (for lying) is because I was very ashamed of what happened. It's not something I ever imagined doing. It's not the kind of person I was. It was just shameful," she said. "I was also very scared of what might happen. I didn't want my family to know that I had done that, and I just couldn't bring myself to say that I did that."

"From day one there was a part of me that always wanted to (tell the truth) but didn't dare do that. I would rather have gone to my grave than admit I had done something like that," she said.

Arias said that she continued to lie because she figured she would never get caught; she was planning to kill herself before trial.

"I was concerned with how it would affect my family. I wanted to die. I was going to definitely kill myself," she said. "That was my plan. You can purchase different things in jail and I bought a bunch of Advil... and took it all in the next few days so it was in my system. They have razors for shaving, so I got one and took it apart one night with intentions to slit my wrists."

Arias said she balked at slitting her wrists after accidentally cutting herself, but that she still planned to commit suicide sometime in the future. When she told news reporters that "no jury would convict her," she claims she said it believing that she would be dead before they'd have a chance to put her on trial, Arias testified.

Arias said support from the public and her family eventually led her to change her mind.

"My family remained very supportive, and told me 'it doesn't matter what happens, we love you anyway.' I realized even if I told the truth they would still be there and wouldn't walk away," she testified.

"By the time spring, 2010, rolled around, I confessed. I basically told everyone what I could remember of the day and that the intruder story was all BS pretty much."

She said that her testimony today, a third version of events, was the truth.

Arias was arrested a month after Alexander's death, and prosecutors have argued that her behavior during those weeks showed a lack of remorse for the killing and an attempt to get away with murder.

Arias said today that after she killed Alexander and drove away from his Mesa, Ariz., home in a panic, it dawned on her that police would soon be looking for Alexander's killer, and she decided that she would pretend the bloody confrontation had never happened.

"I knew that it was really bad, that my life was probably done now. I wished it was just a nightmare I could wake up from, but I knew I had messed up pretty badly and the inevitable was going to be something I could not really run from," she testified.

"I didn't want anyone to know that that had happened or that I did it, so I started taking steps in the aftermath to cover it up. I did a whole bunch of things to try to make it seem like I was never there," she said.

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Today on New Scientist: 19 February 2013

Doctors would tax sugary drinks to combat obesity

Hiking the price of fizzy drinks would cut consumption and so help fight obesity, urges the British Academy of Medical Royal Colleges

Space station's dark matter hunter coy about findings

Researchers on the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which sits above the International Space Station, have collected their first results - but won't reveal them for two weeks

Huge telescopes could spy alien oxygen

Hunting for oxygen in the atmospheres of distant exoplanets is a tough job, but a new wave of giant telescopes should be up to the task

Evolution's detectives: Closing in on missing links

Technology is taking the guesswork out of finding evolution's turning points, from the first fish with legs to our own recent forebears, says Jeff Hecht

Moody Mercury shows its hidden colours

False-colour pictures let us see the chemical and physical landscape of the normally beige planet closest to the sun

LHC shuts down to prepare for peak energy in 2015

Over the next two years, engineers will be giving the Large Hadron Collider the makeover it needs to reach its maximum design energy

Insert real news events into your mobile game

From meteor airbursts to footballing fracas, mobile games could soon be brimming with news events that lend them more currency

3D-printing pen turns doodles into sculptures

The 3Doodle, which launched on Kickstarter today, lets users draw 3D structures in the air which solidify almost instantly

We need to rethink how we name exoplanets

Fed up with dull names for exoplanets, Alan Stern and his company Uwingu have asked the public for help. Will it be so long 2M 0746+20b, hello Obama?

A shocking cure: Plug in for the ultimate recharge

An electrical cure for ageing attracted the ire of the medical establishment. But could the jazz-age inventor have stumbled upon a genuine therapy?

Biofuel rush is wiping out unique American grasslands

Planting more crops to meet the biofuel demand is destroying grasslands and pastures in the central US, threatening wildlife

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India's workers strike to protest "anti-labour" policies

NEW DELHI: Millions of India's workers walked off their jobs on Wednesday in a two-day nationwide strike called by trade unions to protest at the "anti-labour" policies of the embattled government.

Financial services and transport were hit by the strike called by 11 major workers' groups to protest at a series of pro-market economic reforms announced by the government last year, as well as high inflation and rising fuel prices.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had appealed to unions to abandon the strike, the latest in a string of protests against liberalisation, warning it would cause a "loss to our economy" already poised for its slowest annual growth in a decade.

But talks following Singh's appeal this week collapsed after the government refused to bow to union demands to roll back the reforms, which are aimed at jumpstarting the economy and averting a downgrade in India's credit rating.

"The workers are being totally ignored and this is reflected in the government's anti-labour policies," said Tapan Sen, general secretary of the umbrella Centre of Indian Trade Unions.

The government's "big ticket" reforms include opening the retail, insurance and aviation sectors to wider foreign investment, raising prices of subsidised diesel used by farmers and reducing the number of discounted cooking gas cylinders.

The steps aim to free up the still heavily state-controlled economy and reduce India's ballooning subsidy bill and fiscal deficit. But they have stirred anger in some areas, especially among the poor.

"The last time that we called a strike (in February 2012), nearly 100 million workers participated. This time we're expecting a bigger number," Sen told AFP.

The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry estimated losses from the strike at around 200 billion rupees (US$3.7 billion).

"The national economy... can ill afford this situation. In fact, the strike would aggravate the price situation because of disruption in supply line of essential commodities," the chamber said in a statement.

The strike's impact appeared to be the greatest in the eastern state of West Bengal and the southern state of Kerala where banks, schools and the transport sector were hit.

Flag-waving protesters stopped trains and staged noisy demonstrations in the eastern states of Orissa and Bihar. A trade union leader was crushed by a bus that he was trying to stop in Ambala district in the northern state of Punjab.

In Mumbai, the financial sector was crippled with government banks, insurance companies and workers at other businesses taking part in the stoppage.

The strike comes a day before the start of parliament's budget session, which is likely to be disrupted by the opposition parties over allegations of kickbacks in a US$748 million government contract for Italian helicopters.


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Cops shoot suspect they say is wanted in string of heists

Chicago police officers shot a man near a busy Bucktown neighborhood intersection after a pursuit that stemmed from an armed robbery at a Subway restaurant on the Near North Side, police said.

Police said the suspect is the same man wanted in more than a dozen robberies of North Side convenience stores and restaurants.

Police said the man shot tonight, about 11:50 p.m., fled from a Subway at 816 N. State Street and the pursuit ended when his SUV crashed into a car outside a Walgreens at 1601 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Police said the suspect did not respond to commands and made suspicious movements inside the vehicle before he was shot.

The other robberies police are investigating happened most often between 11:30 p.m. and 2:15 a.m.

Among the pair: two within hours of each other at 2200 N. Lincoln Avenue and 300 W. Chicago Avenue early in the morning of Feb. 6. 

It’s unclear if the man was shot inside or outside the vehicle and his condition is not known. He was taken to John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County and is expected to survive, police said. 

Police from a number of nearby districts responded to the scene after officers called "10-1," a radio term used to signal an officer, firefighter or paramedic in distress. Detectives from two of the three city detective areas also responded to the scene.

Detectives approached people inside and out of the numerous bars that line the intersection asking if anyone saw anything. 

Traffic in the area, including CTA buses, is being rerouted through the neighboring side streets. 

 Check back for updates.

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