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Science news that’s good for Lonesome George, bad for new car smell

In this July 21, 2008 file photo released by Galapagos National Park, a giant tortoise named "Lonesome George" is seen in the Galapagos islands, an archipelago off Ecuador's Pacific coast. Lonesome George, the late reptile prince of the Galapagos Islands, may be dead, but scientists now say he may not be the last giant tortoise of his species after all.

Galapagos National Park/AP

A roundup of the good, the bad and the just plain interesting from the week's science headlines:

Good news

Lonesome George, the late reptile prince of the Galapagos Islands, may be dead, but scientists now say he may not be the last giant tortoise of his species after all. Researchers say they may be able to resurrect the Pinta Island subspecies by launching a cross-breeding program with 17 other tortoises found to contain genetic material similar to that of Lonesome George, who died June 24 at the Pacific Ocean archipelago off Ecuador's coast after repeated failed efforts to reproduce. Edwin Naula, director of the Galapagos National Park, said in a telephone interview on Thursday that the probability is high it can be accomplished. "It would be the first time that a species was recovered after having been declared extinct," Mr. Naula said. But it won't happen overnight: "This is going to take about 100 to 150 years," Mr. Naula added. – The Associated Press

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Bad news

While new car smell may be appealing for some people, it risks shortening the lifespan of spacecraft surfaces and other sensitive instruments. Outgassing – the process that produces new car smell – occurs when materials release or emit some sort of substance as a vapour. (In a vehicle, this could come from materials used in manufacturing the dashboard or car seats.) But a group of NASA engineers have developed a sprayable paint that traps gases released from solvents, lubricants and other materials, preventing the vapours from sticking to equipment surfaces and extending the life of some instuments. The paint is very porous and works better than current methods, NASA said in a release. Next steps include tweaking the formula to make it more effective, and experimenting with different colours to find a coating that could absorb stray light to aid scientists with other research. – Aleysha Haniff

Just news

Researchers who studied 4D scans of 15 healthy fetuses say they think yawning is a developmental process which could potentially give doctors a new way to check on a baby's health. While some scientists have previously suggested that fetuses yawn, others disagree and say it is nothing more than a developing baby opening and stretching its mouth. But writing in the journal PLOS ONE on Wednesday, British researchers said their study was able to clearly distinguish yawning from "non-yawn mouth opening" based on how long the mouth was open. "Unlike us, fetuses do not yawn contagiously, nor do they yawn because they are sleepy," said Nadja Reissland of Durham University's psychology department, who led the study. "Instead, the frequency of yawning in the womb may be linked to the maturing of the brain early in gestation." – Reuters

Just like humans, a new study finds that chimpanzees and orangutans often experience a mid-life crisis, suggesting the causes are inherent in primate biology and not specific to human society. Since 2002, studies in some 50 countries have found that well-being is high in youth, plunges in mid-life and rises in old age – a U-shaped curve also seen in apes in this study. Why the similarity? It could be that their societies are close enough to the human variety that social, and not only biological, factors are at work, said economist Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick in England and a co-author of the paper. But an evolutionary explanation is even more intriguing. "Maybe nature doesn't want us to be contented in middle age, doesn't want us sitting around contentedly with our feet up in a tree," Prof. Oswald said. "Maybe discontent lights a fire under people, causing them to achieve more" for themselves and their family. The research was published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. – Reuters

Forget pencils and workbooks: Scientists testing what they hope might become the classroom of the future have found that "Star Trek"-style multi-touch, multi-user desks can boost children's maths skills. A three-year project with 400 eight to 10 year olds found that using interactive "smart" desks built into the classroom's furniture can have benefits over doing math on paper, and that pupils are able to improve their fluency and flexibility in math by working together. "Our aim was to encourage far higher levels of active student engagement, where knowledge is obtained by sharing, problem-solving and creating, rather than by passive listening," said Liz Burd of Britain's Durham University, who led the study. The research team, whose findings were published in the journal Learning and Instruction, designed software and desks that recognize multiple touches on a desktop using infrared light vision systems. Prof. Burd's team found that 45 per cent of pupils who used a math program on the smart desk system increased the number of unique mathematical expressions they created, compared with 16 per cent of those doing it on paper. – Reuters

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