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    Princeton Scientists

    The pressures of running an academic lab and spending late-nights writing grant proposals make the choice between motherhood and having a career in science tough. Even after getting advanced degrees in science and math, many women drop out of research careers primarily because they want children, finds a new study.

    The researchers also found choosing motherhood over academia seemed to have little to do with any gender-inequality issues, perceived or otherwise.

    "Motherhood, and the policies that make it incompatible with a tenure-track research career, take a toll on women that is detrimental to their professional lives," researchers Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci, of Cornell University, reported in the March-April issue of the magazineAmerican Scientist, "This reality is too daunting for some women, and they either leave the tenure-track pipeline or give up on having children."

    (Many full-time academics work toward a "tentured" position, which offers much greater jobsecurity; though they still need to attain funding for their research, their institution can't fire them from their position without just cause, like making up data.)

    In the top 100 U.S. universities, women held 4.4 to 12.3 percent of the institutions' full professorships and just 16 to 27 percent of assistant professorships in math-intensive fields such as physics, chemistry and engineering.

    Women in science

    For the report, Williams and Ceci reviewed data on the academic careers of women and men with and without children in academic fields. They found that before becoming mothers, women have careers equivalent to or better than men's.

    "They are paid and promoted the same as men, and are more likely to be interviewed and hired in the first place," Williams said in a statement. This is even true at high-level professor positions, but, after the mommy-bug hits, many women stall out.

    "The effect of children on women's academic careers is so remarkable that it eclipses other factors in contributing to women’s underrepresentation in academic science," the authors write. "Even just the plan to have children in the future is associated with women exiting the research fast-track at a rate twice that of men."

    Changing policy

    The researchers suggest various policies in university science departments are unforgiving to female professors wanting children, and may be behind the dropout rate. These are solvable problems, though. Williams and Ceci suggest focusing on alleviating the pressures on motherswhile they are working toward tenure by, for instance, creating a part-time tenure track or allowing more freedom to work from home.

    "It is time for universities to move past thinking about underrepresentation of women in science solely as a consequence of biased hiring and evaluation, and instead think about it as resulting from outdated policies created at a time when men with stay-at-home wives ruled the academy," Williams said in a statement.

    You can follow LiveScience staff writer Jennifer Welsh on Twitter @microbelover. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and onFacebook.

    This post originally appeared at LiveScience.

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    Peter Gleick

    A water and climate scientist with decades of research in his field has admitted to deceiving the free-market conservative Heartland Institute into leaking confidential documents about their donors, fundraising efforts and plans to spread doubt about climate change.

    Peter Gleick, the president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security in Oakland, Calif., issued a statement on the Huffington Post on Monday admitting to using a false name to trick Heartland into sending him the documents, which he then forwarded to climate communicators and journalists, he said.

    "My judgment was blinded by my frustration with the ongoing efforts — often anonymous, well-funded, and coordinated — to attack climate science and scientists and prevent this debate, and by the lack of transparency of the organizations involved. Nevertheless I deeply regret my own actions in this case. I offer my personal apologies to all those affected," he stated on HuffPo.

    The documents included a list of donors to the Heartland Institute as well as fundraising plans for a variety of projects, including one to create school-friendly curricula that would make a case against human-caused climate change. Climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that climate change is largely driven by humans.

    Gleick's admission offers a possible explanation for one document that Heartland says is fake, a memo that purports to outline the organization's 2012 climate change communication plan. Gleick claims that someone anonymously mailed him this memo, and his quest to substantiate the information in the document is what led him to solicit the confidential documents from Heartland. The institute, however, disputes this, calling Gleick's explanation "unbelievable" in a statement on their website and suggesting that Gleick himself wrote the memo.

    The admission of wrongdoing by a prominent climate scientist is likely to fuel the fires of the political debate around climate science, regardless of what the documents reveal.

    "One way or the other, Gleick’s use of deception in pursuit of his cause after years of calling out climate deception has destroyed his credibility and harmed others," wrote climate journalist Andy Revkin on his New York Times "Dot Earth" blog, adding, "The broader tragedy is that his decision to go to such extremes in his fight with Heartland has greatly set back any prospects of the country having the 'rational public debate' that he wrote — correctly — is so desperately needed."

    Others argued that Gleick's actions don't excuse Heartland's strategies.

    "Our criticism of the Heartland Institute's strategy of spreading misinformation about climate science still stands," according to a statement put out by the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It is waging a cynical campaign, funded by corporate interests and anonymous individuals, to undermine the public's understanding of climate science and introduce ideology disguised as science into our children's classrooms."

    You can follow LiveScience senior writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappasFollow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and onFacebook.

    This post originally appeared at Live Science.

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    Via The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism:

    ...experts at the University of Iowa analyzing interactions in job interviews declared handshakes “more important than agreeableness, conscientiousness, or emotional stability.”

    Follow me on Twitter here or get updates via email here.

    Related Posts:

    5 things you need to know before you change jobs

    What "bad" personality trait is very good in a job interview?

    The secret to getting a job



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    axe elevator


    I posted before that the type of cologne women find most attractive on men is that exotic scent called "none."

    This research shows that cologne can have a net positive affect on attraction because wearing it makes men feel more confident.

    Just like with voodoo death curses, the placebo effect can be quite powerful...

    Via The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature:

    Interestingly, the so-called Axe effect seems to actually exist. In a recent study, men were sprayed either with a deodorant imbued with an active concoction (flavor oil and an antimicrobial constituent) or with a nonactive version. Subsequently, they were asked to provide several self-evaluations (e.g., self-confidence and self-attractiveness).

    Then short videos were recorded of the male participants, which were subsequently viewed by female raters, who rated the men along several metrics (confidence and attractiveness).

    Incredibly, not only did the men who received the active deodorant provide higher ratings of self-confidence but also women rated these men as more attractive (based on viewing the short video clips).

    Follow me on Twitter here or get updates via email here.

    Related posts:

    10 things science can teach us about being sexy as hell

    10 ways science explains why James Bond is so irresistible to women

    10 things that can predict whether your spouse will cheat on you

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    obesity fat kids milkshakes

    A few weeks ago, I wrote about the political economy of the obesity epidemic.  Here, from a great oped in yesterday’s NYT, is the evolutionary science behind both the problem and the solution.

    Here’s the argument (though I strongly urge you to read the extremely well-crafted piece):

    Since sugar is a basic form of energy in food, a sweet tooth was adaptive in ancient times, when food was limited. However, excessive sugar in the bloodstream is toxic, so our bodies also evolved to rapidly convert digested sugar in the bloodstream into fat. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors needed plenty of fat — more than other primates — to be active during periods of food scarcity and still pay for large, expensive brains and costly reproductive strategies…

    Simply put, humans evolved to crave sugar, store it and then use it. For millions of years, our cravings and digestive systems were exquisitely balanced because sugar was rare. Apart from honey, most of the foods our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate were no sweeter than a carrot…it wasn’t until very recently that technology made pure sugar bountiful.*

    Here again we run smack into the economics—technology (and trade) has allowed us to push out the supply curve, and thus lower the price, of a food source we crave but that is bad for us in such quantities.

    In this regard, as the author puts it, Mayor Bloomberg’s move to ban large sugary drinks, though admittedly “paternalistic,…is not an aberrant form of coercion but a very small step toward restoring a natural part of our environment.”

    Libertarians will squawk, and not unreasonably.  But as long as the externalities I document in my earlier post persist—and they’re getting worse—the rationale for such policies—bans, Pigouvian taxes, consumer education—is strong and getting stronger.

    When science, evolutionary biology, and simple economics all point in the same direction, it’s probably wise to head that way.

    We humans did not evolve to eat healthily and go to the gym; until recently, we didn’t have to make such choices. But we did evolve to cooperate to help one another survive and thrive. Circumstances have changed, but we still need one another’s help as much as we ever did. For this reason, we need government on our side, not on the side of those who wish to make money by stoking our cravings and profiting from them. We have evolved to need coercion. 

    *One question: what about geographies where sugar wasn’t rare, like the tropics (I had some incredibly sweet pineapple this AM)?  If this theory is correct, wouldn’t it predict that earlier civilizations in such areas were more prone to obesity?  Or is this more about processed sugars?

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    It's early morning, and the chimpanzees are gearing up for another day at the Houston Zoo.

    They munch a breakfast of raw cabbage, scamper, skirmish, joust with rope swings and pause to peer through a window into the near-empty visitor's center.

    In a small cage a few feet away, a strange new dawn is breaking.

    There, Willie, his face inches from the glowing screen of an Apple iPad, is engrossed in the gyrations of an animated goldfish. He taps the screen with a hairy finger, and the fish disintegrates.

    Expressionless, Willie waits and the game begins again.

    A digital revolution is sweeping the ape house, and now its denizens, formerly preoccupied with classic chimpish activities, are turning their attention to computer offerings originally developed for human toddlers.

    "Chimps and orangutans and other apes are very intelligent," said chimp keeper Helen Boostrom. "In the wild, the problems they must solve are finding food and shelter. They don't have to do that at the zoo. This is enrichment. It helps them use their minds."

    Children and apes exhibit similar responses to the miracles on the screen, said zoo spokesman Brian Hill.

    "You see the same reaction on their faces when they solve a problem and get something right," he said.

    First in Texas

    Houston is the first Texas zoo to participate in "Apps for Apes," a program developed by the New York-based primate advocacy group Orangutan Outreach. The effort was pioneered at zoos in Milwaukee and Toronto.

    Orangutan Outreach's executive director, Richard Zimmerman, said the program soon will be expanded to an additional 12 zoos.

    "Really, with the iPad, we're moving into new territory," he said. "Chimpanzees and orangutans are very curious. They love new things."

    Chimps, Boostrom explained, are noisy animals and enjoy the iPad's more raucous apps.

    Willie is riveted by a musical app in which he can generate sounds by playing virtual drums, guitars, pianos and saxophones. Willie also enjoys manipulating blobs of virtual paint -- great apes can see color -- in an artistic game, and ruminating over the sound-generating illustrations in an interactive version of "Alice in Wonderland."

    Boostrom said Willie, at age 8 still a juvenile, "gets distracted and bored really fast."

    Sessions for Willie typically can last only a few minutes and generally are conducted in the morning before visitors begin to arrive. Orangutans tend to be more reflective.

    "They will spend what seems like forever to try to figure things out," she said.

    Typically, each chimp and orangutan gets computer time twice a month.

    Like their human cousins, the zoo's chimps and orangutans are mesmerized by computer programs about themselves. Boostrom said iPad videos of other apes or on-screen magazines featuring ape photos are especially intriguing.

    "They aren't very interested in pictures of buildings or architecture," she said.

    Keeping it interesting

    A Texas A&M University master's degree candidate who is writing her thesis on how differing ape species, genders and ages relate to the iPad programs, Boostrom said the computers are only one way the zoo tries to keep the ape habitat interesting.

    "For the chimps, we have lovely termite mounds. We make puzzle feeders filled with something that's healthy but extra delicious and let them figure out how to get the food," she said. "We change their props, their ropes and branches. We play different noises."

    In coming months, Boostrom said, the Houston park will explore establishing connections with other zoos to allow local primates to visit face-to-face online with their cross-continent peers via Skype.

    For Willie, the youngest of the zoo's 11 chimps, such an arrangement would permit long-range socializing with animals his own age. In a larger sense, Boostrom said, it would allow potential breeding partners to size each other up at a safe distance.

    "We'd be able to see what their reaction is rather than waiting until they're already there," she said.

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    California beachIf greenhouse-gas emissions continue unabated, the expected additional warming could raise sea levels by up to four or five feet all along the US West Coast by 2100, according to an analysis released Friday by the National Research Council (NRC).

    Beyond any real estate permanently inundated, such an increase would bring some $100 billion worth of facilities that currently are high and dry into a new 100-year flood plain, according to previous studies that assumed a comparable increase in sea levels. Those facilities include power plants, airports and seaports, and other big-ticket pieces of infrastructure.

    The council, the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, produced the report at the request of the state of California.

    The study is expected to become a common frame of reference that coastal communities can use to plan their adaptation measures, says Heather Cooley, co-director of the water program for the Pacific Institute, based in Oakland, Calif. The institute focuses on environmental issues and on the sustainable use of resources.

    The NRC's estimates are higher than some previous estimates because they take advantage of more recent research than earlier estimates – notably those estimates published in 2007 by the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

    The NRC's estimates are the latest but not the final word on the subject, Ms. Cooley cautions. As techniques for measuring and analyzing sea-level data improve, and as climate models improve, the numbers are likely to change. The biggest uncertainty: how quickly humans move to curb greenhouse-gas emissions – most notably carbon dioxide – in terms of fossil-fuel and land-use changes.

    For now, however, "communities can begin to use this as part of their adaptation planning," she says.

    The report underscores that several factors combine to determine sea-level rise in any one location. Local wind and ocean-circulation patterns, and even the West Coast's shifting crustal plates, which generate earthquakes and raise volcanoes, can play a role. A magnitude 8 quake along the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the Pacific Northwest, for instance, could significantly change a coastal community's height above sea level within seconds, according to the study. Intense El Niño events can boost sea levels in winter by as much as a foot. Changes to the mass of icecaps in AlaskaGreenland, and Antarctica alter sea levels on the West Coast by changing the distribution of mass on the planet, inducing regional changes in Earth's gravitational field.

    Rising sea levels triggered by global warming are superimposed on these natural factors. Warming by itself affects the oceans in several ways. The ocean expands from heating alone. Melting land-based ice contributes. And human-induced changes to river flows also have an effect: Dams tend to reduce rivers' input of water to the oceans, while heavy use of aquifers can increase the flows to the sea.

    Between the 2007 IPCC report and the NRC study, new studies have shown thermal expansion to have played a smaller role in sea-level rise than the IPCC estimated. But melting ice's role has grown. The latest estimates attribute 65 percent of the rise in global average sea levels between 1993 and 2008 to melting ice. Ground water and water stored in reservoirs in effect cancel each other out.

    The NRC estimates that by 2030, global average sea levels could rise between three and nine inches over 2000 levels, range from six inches to two feet by 2050, and from 19 to 55 inches by 2100. The IPCC's upper estimate from 2007 projects as much as a 23-inch rise by 2100.

    For the West Coast, the NRC's figures by century's end are much higher than the IPCC's 2007 projection as well, although different regions take different paths. The report notes that depending on the rate of sea-level rise, north of California's Cape Mendocino, sea levels along the coast could fall roughly a tenth of an inch or more during the first half of the century, largely because of the impact of subduction along the Cascadia Subduction Zone.

    As the Pacific Plate slides beneath the Juan de Fuca Plate, it puts upward pressure on the crust to the east. Although the NRC's projections show considerable sea-level rise north of the cape during the latter half of the century, it remains somewhat less than elsewhere along the coast because of this tectonic process. By 2100, the NRC projects an average rise of between four inches and 56 inches north of the cape, and between 17 inches and 66 inches south of it.

    The broad ranges in the NCR's estimate reflect in no small part uncertainties in the future rate of glacier and icecap melting, as well as in changes to land height, among other issues. The committee acknowledges that the uncertainties grow larger the further out they try to project.

    Regardless of which end of the estimates proves the more likely as time passes, averages don't tell the whole story, adds Robert Dalrymple, a civil engineer at the Johns Hopkins University inBaltimore who chaired the NRC committee conducting the study.

    "As the average sea level rises," he said in a prepared statement, "the number and duration of extreme storm surges and high waves are expected to escalate," increasing the risk of the destruction of wetlands, the erosion of beaches and coastal bluffs, and flooding.  


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    Vets are treating increasing numbers of pets for psychiatric problems, such as “obsessive compulsive disorders”, anorexia and depression.

    Ever since he became man’s best friend, he has barked at strangers, cowered from fireworks and howled when left alone by his owner.

    Now, though, such seemingly natural behaviour in a dog is being put down to a range of psychiatric diagnoses – such as “hyperactivity”, “phobic behaviour” and “separation anxiety”.

    A study has found that eight out of 10 dogs now exhibit such conditions, with vets warning of similar behavioural problems emerging in cats, rabbits and even parrots.

    Other conditions being treated by vets include sleeping problems, anxiety, anorexia, “self-mutilation”, stress and depression.

    The research comes ahead of the launch of a new Prozac-style drug for pets which is expected to be available in Britain later this year.

    However, it has prompted warnings that owners and the veterinary industry could be “medicalising” normal animal behaviour and providing excuses for bad ownership.

    The study found that 80 per cent of dogs exhibit some sort of behavioural problem. The most common was “hyperactivity”, with 60 per cent of dogs said to exhibit this behaviour either “frequently”, “sometimes” or “all the time”.

    Thirty per cent were found to have “fears” or “phobias”, while 22.5 per cent were described as having “obsessive compulsive disorders” — such as excessive paw-licking or tail-chasing — and 12 per cent exhibited “separation-related problems” when parted from their owner.

    The analysis, based on the responses of more than 1,300 dog owners who answered questions about their pets’ behaviour over a two-week period, was carried out by Dr Claire Corridan, a leading vet. “Eighty per cent of dogs have one or more behaviour problems. With 8 million dogs in the UK, extrapolated, that means 6.4 million dogs with one or more behaviour problems,” she said.

    Dr Corridan, who is honorary secretary of the Companion Animal Behaviour Therapy Study Group — an affiliate of the British Small Animal Veterinary Association — suggested that this was a “conservative estimate”.

    Her study involved many women and “dog lovers” who, she said, might be less inclined to identify problems with their pets.

    “We are seeing more and more behaviour problems in our companion animals,” she added. “We all have busy lifestyles, so quite often cats and dogs are spending less time with their owners and less time being socialised.

    “It’s now not such a big deal to say you are going to see a pet psychiatrist or behaviour counsellor.”

    There is also a growing market for drugs which work in a similar way to human antidepressants. One such product, Reconcile – made by Eli Lilly, the company which developed Prozac – is expected to get a licence for use in Britain this year. There are already two other similar drugs being used by vets.

    Dr Corridan said there was a risk that reliance on such drugs could mean the root causes of a pet’s problems were not addressed.

    Beverley Cuddy, editor of Dogs Today, said: “Maybe people are becoming a bit more perfectionist and want their dogs free of all negatives. But this means you are not tolerating normal doggy behaviour. There are lots of things you would prefer your dog not to do, but that is part of having a pet.

    “Also, if you medicalise your animal’s problem, it removes a bit of guilt and responsibility from the owner. You can say your dog is not a thug, he has a condition.”

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    Sexy Couple

    Testosterone is often cast as the manly hormone, the chemical bestower of virility and the reason for men's high sex drives. But new research turns this conventional wisdom on its head. In healthy men, it turns out, testosterone isn't linked to sexual desire at all. And in women, high testosterone is actually associated with less interest in sex with a partner.

    Complicating the picture further, while high-testosterone women may be less interested in slipping between the sheets with a lover, high testosterone is linked to greater interest in masturbation in healthy women, according to research detailed online in May in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.

    The findings are unique because most studies of sexual desire and hormones use either animal subjects or focus on people with abnormally low or high testosterone who come into clinics for treatment, said study researcher Sari van Anders, a behavioral neuroendocrinologist at the University of Michigan. Healthy individuals are rarely studied, van Anders told LiveScience.

    "People have argued that sex research focuses too much on dysfunction and pharmaceutical treatment as opposed to questions like pleasure or relationships or stress," van Anders said. "There is a whole scope of factors that go unstudied." [Busted! 6 Gender Myths in the Bedroom & Beyond]

    Delving into desire

    When people do study factors such as stress and body image regarding people's sex lives, they rarely look at hormonal influences at the same time. That's what van Anders did differently. She recruited volunteers from university classes and community fliers to fill out questionnaires on their relationships, their stress and moods, and their own feelings about their bodies and sexuality. These questions were designed to get at factors that influence people's sex lives: How happy are you, generally? How stressed? Are you self-conscious about your body during sex?

    The 196 volunteers (105 men and 91 women) also answered questions about how frequently they had partnered sex and masturbated, and how frequently they had the desire to masturbate or to have sex with a partner.

    People tend to think of desire as a single phenomenon, but the desire to have sex may come from a different place than the desire to masturbate, van Anders said.

    "When you're feeling sexual desire for a partner there might be other factors that play into that, for example, how you felt about that partner that day, how attracted you feel to that partner, how attractive you feel to that partner, your relationship and things like that," van Anders said. [6 Great Things Sex Can Do For You]

    Solitary desire, on the other hand, may be more internal and less influenced by social factors like relationship satisfaction, she said.

    Testosterone and libido

    Each study participant gave a saliva sample for hormonal analysis. Van Anders measured testosterone as well as cortisol, a hormone released in times of stress (a surefire libido-killer).

    She then compared low-versus-high testosterone participants and their self-reported levels of desire. In men, she found, levels of testosterone had nothing to do with how much guys thought about sex, solitary or partnered.

    Multiple studies have found that men generally desire sex more frequently than women. And men also produce more testosterone than women. These two facts have led to the belief that testosterone is the reason for the desire, van Anders said. But that idea is based on animal studies and studies of men who produce extreme, abnormally low levels of testosterone. In men in the healthy range, an extra spurt of the "macho hormone" doesn't seem to influence interest in getting busy. [Top 10 Aphrodisiacs]

    "In this regular, healthy range of testosterone, it's high enough that the variations aren't what's driving any changes," van Anders said. (There have been studies, though very few, showing similar results.)

    Things get a bit more complicated on the female side. Women with higher testosterone reported less desire for partnered sex. It may seem strange, but the finding fits with previous evidence, van Anders said. For example, women in long-term relationships have been shown to have lower testosterone. It could be that their partner desire relates to a need to be close and connected as opposed to simply a need for pleasure, van Anders said.

    Alternatively, higher testosterone might reflect higher stress in women. Testosterone is secreted by the adrenal glands, which go into overdrive during stressful times.

    Solitary sexual desire, on the other hand, was higher in the higher-testosterone women, such that the 27 women in the study who reported no desire to masturbate at all had lower testosterone than the women who said they sometimes felt desire to masturbate. The finding bolsters the idea that desire for a partner is more influenced by social factors, van Anders said, while solitary desire is more innate.

    Gender differences

    Next, van Anders looked into the burning question of why men, on average, want sex more often than the average woman. Sure enough, she found that testosterone was not the culprit. Levels of this hormone did not explain the differences in desire between men and women.

    The only factor that did link to gender differences was masturbation. Men masturbated more than women and reported more sexual desire (with a partner and solitary). Women masturbated less, and reported less desire.

    There's no way to tell from this research whether the desire or the masturbation comes first. But there are intriguing hints that perhaps the difference in masturbation habits could explain the desire gap, van Anders said. Sex therapists often tell low-desire patients to try starting sex or masturbation even if they feel uninterested. Often, the desire follows. 

    Though female masturbation has become less taboo, it is still somewhat stigmatized compared to male masturbation, van Anders said. It's possible that women simply don't practice revving up their desires as much as men do.

    "The idea is that if women don't feel comfortable with their genitals and masturbating, and if they don't think it's okay and refrain from doing it and don't express their desires, after a while, the desire might change as well," van Anders said.

    The next step, van Anders said, is to get a better handle on the concept of desire, focusing on social factors and not just pharmaceutical fixes for low libidos. People often think that the desire comes first and drives people to seek out sexual pleasure, she said. In reality, desire is a lot like hunger, she said. You might eat because you're starving, or because you're bored, or because it's 6:30 p.m. and that's when you have dinner.

    "When you're saying you desire sexuality with another person, what are you desiring and are people desiring different things sometimes?" van Anders said. "Are some people more desiring to be with their partner, to give their partner pleasure, to have a routine, or for their own pleasure?"

    Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas or LiveScience @livescience. We're also onFacebook & Google+.

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    Did a UFO really crash near Roswell, N.M., in 1947? What was that mysterious triangle of lights that hundreds of people spotted over Phoenix, Ariz., last fall? Are alleged alien abductees telling the truth? For a new series on the National Geographic Channel called "Chasing UFOs," a team of investigators visited UFO hotspots around the world and interviewed witnesses in an attempt to address some of history's most famous purported evidence that aliens have visited Earth.

    We caught up with Ben McGee, a geoscientist and the lead field researcher on the UFO-chasing team, as well as its only skeptic, to get a taste of what he and his team discovered.

    "I tried to help illustrate applying critical analysis to the range of alleged evidence," McGee told Life's Little Mysteries."The difference between UFO believers and astronomers is on the one hand you have people who find the data to support their hypothesis, and on the other you have the guys who attack their own hypothesis — who know there's a huge range of possible other explanations."

    Military action

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    polluted water

    Over the past several decades, U.S. industries have injected more than 30 trillion gallons of toxic liquid deep into the earth, using broad expanses of the nation's geology as an invisible dumping ground.

    No company would be allowed to pour such dangerous chemicals into the rivers or onto the soil. But until recently, scientists and environmental officials have assumed that deep layers of rock beneath the earth would safely entomb the waste for millennia.

    There are growing signs they were mistaken.

    Records from disparate corners of the United States show that wells drilled to bury this waste deep beneath the ground have repeatedly leaked, sending dangerous chemicals and waste gurgling to the surface or, on occasion, seeping into shallow aquifers that store a significant portion of the nation's drinking water.

    In 2010, contaminants from such a well bubbled up in a west Los Angeles dog park. Within the past three years, similar fountains of oil and gas drilling waste have appeared in Oklahoma and Louisiana. In South Florida, 20 of the nation's most stringently regulated disposal wells failed in the early 1990s, releasing partly treated sewage into aquifers that may one day be needed to supply Miami's drinking water.

    There are more than 680,000 underground waste and injection wells nationwide, more than 150,000 of which shoot industrial fluids thousands of feet below the surface. Scientists and federal regulators acknowledge they do not know how many of the sites are leaking.

    Federal officials and many geologists insist that the risks posed by all this dumping are minimal. Accidents are uncommon, they say, and groundwater reserves—from which most Americans get their drinking water—remain safe and far exceed any plausible threat posed by injecting toxic chemicals into the ground.

    But in interviews, several key experts acknowledged that the idea that injection is safe rests on science that has not kept pace with reality, and on oversight that doesn't always work.

    "In 10 to 100 years we are going to find out that most of our groundwater is polluted," said Mario Salazar, an engineer who worked for 25 years as a technical expert with the EPA's underground injection program in Washington. "A lot of people are going to get sick, and a lot of people may die."

    The boom in oil and natural gas drilling is deepening the uncertainties, geologists acknowledge. Drilling produces copious amounts of waste, burdening regulators and demanding hundreds of additional disposal wells. Those wells—more holes punched in the ground—are changing the earth's geology, adding man-made fractures that allow water and waste to flow more freely.

    "There is no certainty at all in any of this, and whoever tells you the opposite is not telling you the truth," said Stefan Finsterle, a leading hydrogeologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who specializes in understanding the properties of rock layers and modeling how fluid flows through them. "You have changed the system with pressure and temperature and fracturing, so you don't know how it will behave."

    A ProPublica review of well records, case histories and government summaries of more than 220,000 well inspections found that structural failures inside injection wells are routine. From late 2007 to late 2010, one well integrity violation was issued for every six deep injection wells examined—more than 17,000 violations nationally. More than 7,000 wells showed signs that their walls were leaking. Records also show wells are frequently operated in violation of safety regulations and under conditions that greatly increase the risk of fluid leakage and the threat of water contamination.

    Structurally, a disposal well is the same as an oil or gas well. Tubes of concrete and steel extend anywhere from a few hundred feet to two miles into the earth. At the bottom, the well opens into a natural rock formation. There is no container. Waste simply seeps out, filling tiny spaces left between the grains in the rock like the gaps between stacked marbles.

    Many scientists and regulators say the alternatives to the injection process—burning waste, treating wastewater, recycling, or disposing of waste on the surface—are far more expensive or bring additional environmental risks.

    Subterranean waste disposal, they point out, is a cornerstone of the nation's economy, relied on by the pharmaceutical, agricultural and chemical industries. It's also critical to a future less dependent on foreign oil: Hydraulic fracturing, "clean coal" technologies, nuclear fuel production and carbon storage (the keystone of the strategy to address climate change) all count on pushing waste into rock formations below the earth's surface.

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has primary regulatory authority over the nation's injection wells, would not discuss specific well failures identified by ProPublica or make staffers available for interviews. The agency also declined to answer many questions in writing, though it sent responses to several. Its director for the Drinking Water Protection Division, Ann Codrington, sent a statement to ProPublica defending the injection program's effectiveness.

    "Underground injection has been and continues to be a viable technique for subsurface storage and disposal of fluids when properly done," the statement said. "EPA recognizes that more can be done to enhance drinking water safeguards and, along with states and tribes, will work to improve the efficiency of the underground injection control program."

    Still, some experts see the well failures and leaks discovered so far as signs of broader problems, raising concerns about how much pollution may be leaking out undetected. By the time the damage is discovered, they say, it could be irreversible.

    "Are we heading down a path we might regret in the future?" said Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell University engineering professor who has been an outspoken critic of claims that wells don't leak. "Yes."

    In September 2003, Ed Cowley got a call to check out a pool of briny water in a bucolic farm field outside Chico, Texas. Nearby, he said, a stand of trees had begun to wither, their leaves turning crispy brown and falling to the ground.

    Chico, a town of about 1,000 people 50 miles northwest of Fort Worth, lies in the heart of Texas' Barnett Shale. Gas wells dot the landscape like mailboxes in suburbia. A short distance away from the murky pond, an oil services company had begun pumping millions of gallons of drilling waste into an injection well.

    Regulators refer to such waste as salt water or brine, but it often includes less benign contaminants, including fracking chemicals, benzene and other substances known to cause cancer.

    The well had been authorized by the Railroad Commission of Texas, which once regulated railways but now oversees 260,000 oil and gas wells and 52,000 injection wells. (Another agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, regulates injection wells for waste from other industries.)

    Before issuing the permit, commission officials studied mathematical models showing that waste could be safely injected into a sandstone layer about one-third of a mile beneath the farm. They specified how much waste could go into the well, under how much pressure, and calculated how far it would dissipate underground. As federal law requires, they also reviewed a quarter-mile radius around the site to make sure waste would not seep back toward the surface through abandoned wells or other holes in the area.

    Yet the precautions failed. "Salt water" brine migrated from the injection site and shot back to the surface through three old well holes nearby.

    "Have you ever seen an artesian well?" recalled Cowley, Chico's director of public works. "It was just water flowing up out of the ground."

    Despite residents' fears that the injected waste could be making its way toward their drinking water, commission officials did not sample soil or water near the leak.

    If the injection well waste "had threatened harm to the ground water in the area, an in-depth RRC investigation would have been initiated," Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman for Texas' Railroad Commission, wrote in an email.

    The agency disputes Cowley's description of a pool of brine or of dead trees, saying that the waste barely spilled beyond the overflowing wells, though officials could not identify any documents or staffers who contradicted Cowley's recollections. Accounts similar to Cowley's appeared in an article about the leak in the Wise County Messenger, a local newspaper. The agency has destroyed its records about the incident, saying it is required to keep them for only two years.

    After the breach, the commission ordered two of the old wells to be plugged with cement and restricted the rate at which waste could be injected into the well. It did not issue any violations against the disposal company, which had followed Texas' rules, regulators said. The commission allowed the well operator to continue injecting thousands of barrels of brine into the well each day. A few months later, brine began spurting out of three more old wells nearby.

    "It's kind of like Whac-a-Mole, where one thing pops up and by the time you go to hit it, another thing comes up," Cowley said. "It was frustrating. ... If your water goes, what does that do to the value of your land?"

    Deep well injection takes place in 32 states, from Pennsylvania to Michigan to California. Most wells are around the Great Lakes and in areas where oil and gas is produced: along the Appalachian crest and the Gulf Coast, in California and in Texas, which has more wells for hazardous industrial waste and oil and gas waste than any other state.

    Federal rules divide wells into six classes based on the material they hold and the industry that produced it. Class 1 wells handle the most hazardous materials, including fertilizers, acids and deadly compounds such as asbestos, PCBs and cyanide. The energy industry has its own category, Class 2, which includes disposal wells and wells in which fluids are injected to force out trapped oil and gas. The most common wells, called Class 5, are a sort of catch-all for everything left over from the other categories, including storm-water runoff from gas stations.

    The EPA requires that Class 1 and 2 injection wells be drilled the deepest to assure that the most toxic waste is pushed far below drinking water aquifers. Both types of wells are supposed to be walled with multiple layers of steel tubing and cement and regularly monitored for cracks.

    Officials' confidence in this manner of disposal stems not only from safety precautions, but from an understanding of how rock formations trap fluid.

    Underground waste, officials say, is contained by layer after layer of impermeable rock. If one layer leaks, the next blocks the waste from spreading before it reaches groundwater. The laws of physics and fluid dynamics should ensure that the waste can't spread far and is diluted as it goes.

    The layering "is a very strong phenomenon and it's on our side," said Susan Hovorka, a senior research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin's Bureau of Economic Geology.

    According to risk analyses cited in EPA documents, a significant well leak that leads to water contamination is highly unlikely—on the order of one in a million.

    Once waste is underground, though, there are few ways to track how far it goes, how quickly or where it winds up. There is plenty of theory, but little data to prove the system works.

    "I do think the risks are low, but it has never been adequately demonstrated," said John Apps, a leading geoscientist who advises the Department of Energy for Lawrence Berkeley National Labs. "Every statement is based on a collection of experts that offer you their opinions. Then you do a scientific analysis of their opinions and get some probability out of it. This is a wonderful way to go when you don't have any evidence one way or another... But it really doesn't mean anything scientifically."

    The hard data that does exist comes from well inspections conducted by federal and state regulators, who can issue citations to operators for injecting illegally, for not maintaining wells, or for operating wells at unsafe pressures. This information is the EPA's primary means of tracking the system's health on a national scale.

    Yet, in response to questions from ProPublica, the EPA acknowledged it has done very little with the data it collects. The agency could not provide ProPublica with a tally of how frequently wells fail or of how often disposal regulations are violated. It has not counted the number of cases of waste migration or contamination in more than 20 years. The agency often accepts reports from state injection regulators that are partly blank, contain conflicting figures or are missing key details, ProPublica found.

    In 2007, the EPA launched a national data system to centralize reports on injection wells. As of September 2011—the last time the EPA issued a public update—less than half of the state and local regulatory agencies overseeing injection were contributing to the database. It contained complete information from only a handful of states, accounting for a small fraction of the deep wells in the country.

    The EPA did not respond to questions seeking more detail about how it handles its data, or about how the agency judges whether its oversight is working.

    In a 2008 interview with ProPublica, one EPA scientist acknowledged shortcomings in the way the agency oversees the injection program.

    "It's assumed that the monitoring rules and requirements are in place and are protective—that's assumed," said Gregory Oberley, an EPA groundwater specialist who studies injection and water issues in the Rocky Mountain region. "You're not going to know what's going on until someone's well is contaminated and they are complaining about it."

    ProPublica's analysis of case histories and EPA data from October 2007 to October 2010 showed that when an injection well fails, it is most often because of holes or cracks in the well structure itself.

    Operators are required to do so-called "mechanical integrity" tests at regular intervals, yearly for Class 1 wells and at least once every five years for Class 2 wells. In 2010, the tests led to more than 7,500 violations nationally, with more than 2,300 wells failing. In Texas, one violation was issued for every three Class 2 wells examined in 2010.

    Such breakdowns can have serious consequences. Damage to the cement or steel casing can allow fluids to seep into the earth, where they could migrate into water supplies.

    Regulators say redundant layers of protection usually prevent waste from getting that far, but EPA data shows that in the three years analyzed by ProPublica, more than 7,500 well test failures involved what federal water protection regulations describe as "fluid migration" and "significant leaks."

    In September 2009, workers for Unit Petroleum Company discovered oil and gas waste in a roadside ditch in southern Louisiana. After tracing the fluid to a crack in the casing of a nearby injection well, operators tested the rest of the well. Only then did they find another hole—600 feet down, and just a few hundred feet away from an aquifer that is a source of drinking water for that part of the state.

    Most well failures are patched within six months of being discovered, EPA data shows, but with as much as five years passing between integrity tests, it can take a while for leaks to be discovered. And not every well can be repaired. Kansas shut down at least 47 injection wells in 2010, filling them with cement and burying them, because their mechanical integrity could not be restored. Louisiana shut down 82. Wyoming shut down 144.

    Another way wells can leak is if waste is injected with such force that it accidentally shatters the rock meant to contain it. A report published by scientists at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Texas said that high pressure is "the driving force" that can help connect deep geologic layers with shallower ones, allowing fluid to seep through the earth.

    Most injection well permits strictly limit the maximum pressure allowed, but well operators—rushing to dispose of more waste in less time—sometimes break the rules, state regulatory inspections show. According to data provided by states to the EPA, deep well operators have been caught exceeding injection pressure limits more than 1,100 times since 2008. 

    Excessive pressure factored into a 1989 well failure that yielded new clues about the risks of injection.

    While drilling a disposal well in southern Ohio, workers for the Aristech Chemical Corp. (since bought by Sunoco, and sold again, in 2011, to Haverhill Chemicals) were overwhelmed by the smell of phenol, a deadly chemical the company had injected into two Class 1 wells nearby. Somehow, perhaps over decades, the pollution had risen 1,400 feet through solid rock and was progressing toward surface aquifers.

    Ohio environmental officials—aided by the EPA—investigated for some 15 years. They concluded that the wells were mechanically sound, but Aristech had injected waste into them faster and under higher pressure than the geologic formation could bear.

    Though scientists maintain that the Aristech leak was a rarity, they acknowledge that such problems are more likely in places where industrial activity has changed the underground environment.

    There are upwards of 2 million abandoned and plugged oil and gas wells in the U.S., more than 100,000 of which may not appear in regulators' records. Sometimes they are just broken off tubes of steel, buried or sticking out of the ground. Many are supposed to be sealed shut with cement, but studies show that cement breaks down over time, allowing seepage up the well structure.

    Also, if injected waste reaches the bottom of old wells, it can quickly be driven back toward aquifers, as it was in Chico.

    "The United States looks like a pin cushion," said Bruce Kobelski, a geologist who has been with the agency's underground injection program since 1986. Kobelski spoke to ProPublica in May, 2011, before the EPA declined additional interview requests for this story. "Unfortunately there are cases where someone missed a well or a well wasn't indicated. It could have been a well from the turn of the [20th] century."

    Clefts left after the earth is cracked open to frack for oil and gas also can connect abandoned wells and waste injection zones. How far these man-made fissures go is still the subject of research and debate, but in some cases they have reached as much as a half-mile, even intersecting fractures from neighboring wells.

    When injection wells intersect with fracked wells and abandoned wells, the combined effect is that many of the natural protections assumed to be provided by deep underground geology no longer exist.

    "It's a natural system and if you go in and start punching holes through it and changing pressure systems around, it's no longer natural," said Nathan Wiser, an underground injection expert working for the EPA in its Rocky Mountain region, in a 2010 interview. "It's difficult to know how it would behave in those circumstances."

    EPA data provides a window into some injection well problems, but not all. There is no way to know how many wells have undetected leaks or to measure the amount of waste escaping from them.

    In at least some cases, records obtained by ProPublica show, well failures may have contaminated sources of drinking water. Between 2008 and 2011, state regulators reported 150 instances of what the EPA calls "cases of alleged contamination," in which waste from injection wells purportedly reached aquifers. In 25 instances, the waste came from Class 2 wells. The EPA did not respond to requests for the results of investigations into those incidents or to clarify the standard for reporting a case.

    The data probably understates the true extent of such incidents, however.

    Leaking wells can simply go undetected. One Texas study looking for the cause of high salinity in soil found that at least 29 brine injection wells in its study area were likely sending a plume of salt water up into the ground unnoticed. Even when a problem is reported, as in Chico, regulators don't always do the expensive and time-consuming work necessary to investigate its cause.

    "The absence of episodes of pollution can mean that there are none, or that no one is looking," said Salazar, the EPA's former injection expert. "I would tend to believe it is the latter."

    The practice of injecting waste underground arose as a solution to an environmental crisis.

    In the first half of the 20th century, toxic waste collected in cesspools, or was dumped in rivers or poured onto fields. As the consequences of unbridled pollution became unacceptable, the country turned to an out-of-sight alternative. Drawing on techniques developed by the oil and gas industry, companies started pumping waste back into wells drilled for resources. Toxic waste became all but invisible. Air and water began to get cleaner.

    Then a host of unanticipated problems began to arise.

    In April, 1967 pesticide waste injected by a chemical plant at Denver's Rocky Mountain Arsenal destabilized a seismic fault, causing a magnitude 5.0 earthquake—strong enough to shatter windows and close schools —and jolting scientists with newfound risks of injection, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

    A year later, a corroded hazardous waste well for pulping liquor at the Hammermill Paper Co., in Erie, Pa., ruptured. Five miles away, according to an EPA report, "a noxious black liquid seeped from an abandoned gas well" in Presque Isle State Park.

    In 1975 in Beaumont, Texas, dioxin and a highly acidic herbicide injected underground by the Velsicol Chemical Corp. burned a hole through its well casing, sending as much as five million gallons of the waste into a nearby drinking water aquifer.

    Then in August 1984 in Oak Ridge, Tenn., radioactive waste was turned up by water monitoring near a deep injection well at a government nuclear facility.

    Regulators raced to catch up. In 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act was passed, establishing a framework for regulating injection. Then, in 1980, the EPA set up the tiered classes of wells and began to establish basic construction standards and inspection schedules. The EPA licensed some state agencies to monitor wells within their borders and handled oversight jointly with others, but all had to meet the baseline requirements of the federal Underground Injection Control program.

    Even with stricter regulations in place, 17 states—including Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina and Wisconsin—banned Class 1 hazardous deep well injection.

    "We just felt like based on the knowledge that we had at that time that it was not something that was really in the best interest of the environment or the state," said James Warr, who headed Alabama's Department of Environmental Management at the time.

    Injection accidents kept cropping up.

    A 1987 General Accountability Office review put the total number of cases in which waste had migrated from Class 1 hazardous waste wells into underground aquifers at 10—including the Texas and Pennsylvania sites. Two of those aquifers were considered potential drinking water sources.

    In 1989, the GAO reported 23 more cases in seven states where oil and gas injection wells had failed and polluted aquifers. New regulations had done little to prevent the problems, the report said, largely because most of the wells involved had been grandfathered in and had not had to comply with key aspects of the rules.

    Noting four more suspected cases, the report also suggested there could be more well failures, and more widespread pollution, beyond the cases identified. "The full extent to which injected brines have contaminated underground sources of drinking water is unknown," it stated.

    The GAO concluded that most of the contaminated aquifers could not be reclaimed because fixing the damage was "too costly" or "technically infeasible."

    Faced with such findings, the federal government drafted more rules aimed at strengthening the injection program. The government outlawed certain types of wells above or near drinking water aquifers, mandating that most industrial waste be injected deeper.

    The agency also began to hold companies that disposed of hazardous industrial waste to far stiffer standards. To get permits to dispose of hazardous waster after 1988, companies had to prove—using complex models and geological studies—that the stuff they injected wouldn't migrate anywhere near water supplies for 10,000 years. They were already required to test for fault zones and to conduct reviews to ensure there were no conduits for leakage, such as abandoned wells, within a quarter-mile radius. Later, that became a two-mile minimum radius for some wells.

    The added regulations would have prevented the vast majority of the accidents that occurred before the late 1980s, EPA officials contend.

    "The requirements weren't as rigorous, the testing wasn't as rigorous and in some cases the shallow aquifers were contaminated," Kobelski said. "The program is not the same as it was when we first started."

    Today's injection program, however, faces a new set of problems.

    As federal regulators toughened rules for injecting hazardous waste, oil and gas companies argued that the new standards could drive them out of business. State oil and gas regulators pushed back against the regulations, too, saying that enforcing the rules for Class 2 wells—which handle the vast majority of injected waste by volume—would be expensive and difficult.

    Ultimately, the energy industry won a critical change in the federal government's legal definition of waste: Since 1988, all material resulting from the oil and gas drilling process is considered non-hazardous, regardless of its content or toxicity.

    "It took a lot of talking to sell the EPA on that and there are still a lot of people that don't like it," said Bill Bryson, a geologist and former head of the Kansas Corporation Commission's Conservation Division, who lobbied for and helped draft the federal rules. "But it seemed the best way to protect the environment and to stop everybody from just having to test everything all the time."

    The new approach removed many of the constraints on the oil and gas industry. They were no longer required to conduct seismic tests (a stricture that remained in place for Class 1 wells). Operators were allowed to test their wells less frequently for mechanical integrity and the area they had to check for abandoned wells was kept to a minimum—one reason drilling waste kept bubbling to the surface near Chico.

    Soon after the first Chico incident, Texas expanded the area regulators were required to check for abandoned waste wells (a rule that applied only to certain parts of the state). Doubling the radius they reviewed in Chico to a half mile, they found 13 other injection or oil and gas wells. When they studied the land within a mile—the radius required for review of many Class 1 wells—officials discovered another 35 wells, many dating to the 1950s.

    The Railroad Commission concluded that the Chico injection well had overflowed: The target rock zone could no longer handle the volume being pushed into it. Trying to cram in more waste at the same speed could cause further leaks, regulators feared. The commission set new limits on how fast the waste could be injected, but did not forbid further disposal. The well remains in use to this day.

    In late 2008, samples of Chico's municipal drinking water were found to contain radium, a radioactive derivative of uranium and a common attribute of drilling waste. The water well was a few miles away from the leaking injection well site, but environmental officials said the contaminants discovered in the water well were unrelated, mostly because they didn't include the level of sodium typical of brine.

    Since then, Ed Cowley, the public works director, said commission officials have continued to assure him that brine won't reach Chico's drinking water. But since the agency keeps allowing more injection and doesn't track the cumulative volume of waste going into wells in the area, he's skeptical that they can keep their promise.

    "I was kind of like, 'You all need to get together and look at the total amount you are trying to fit through the eye of the needle,'" he said.

    When sewage flowed from 20 Class 1 wells near Miami into the Upper Floridan aquifer, it challenged some of scientists' fundamental assumptions about the injection system.

    The wells—which had helped fuel the growth of South Florida by eliminating the need for expensive water treatment plants—had passed rigorous EPA and state evaluation throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Inspections showed they were structurally sound. As Class 1 wells, they were subject to some of the most frequent tests and closest scrutiny.

    Yet they failed.

    The wells' designers would have calculated what is typically called the "zone of influence"—the space that waste injected into the wells was expected to fill. This was based on estimates of how much fluid would be injected and under what pressure.

    In drawings, the zone of influence typically looks like a Hershey's kiss, an evenly dispersed plume spreading in a predictable circular fashion away from the bottom of the well. Above the zone, most drawings depict uniform formations of rock not unlike a layer cake.

    Based on modeling and analysis by some of the most sophisticated engineering consultants in the country, Florida officials, with the EPA's assent, concluded that waste injected into the Miami-area wells would be forever trapped far below the South Florida peninsula.

    "All of the modeling indicated that the injectate would be confined in the injection zone," an EPA spokesperson wrote to ProPublica in a statement.

    But as Miami poured nearly half a billion gallons of partly treated sewage into the ground each day from the late 1980s through the mid 1990s, hydrogeologists learned that the earth—and the flow of fluids through it—wasn't as uniform as the models depicted. Florida's injection wells, for example, had been drilled into rock that was far more porous and fractured than scientists previously understood.

    "Geology is never what you think it is," said Ronald Reese, a geologist with the United States Geological Survey in Florida who has studied the well failures there. "There are always surprises."

    Other gaps have emerged between theories of how underground injection should work and how it actually does. Rock layers aren't always neatly stacked as they appear in engineers' sketches. They often fold and twist over on themselves. Waste injected into such formations is more likely to spread in lopsided, unpredictable ways than in a uniform cone. It is also likely to channel through spaces in the rock as pressure forces it along the weakest lines.  

    Petroleum engineers in Texas have found that when they pump fluid into one end of an oil reservoir to push oil out the other, the injected fluid sometimes flows around the reservoir, completely missing the targeted zone.

    "People are still surprised at the route that the injectate is taking or the bypassing that can happen," said Jean-Philippe Nicot, a research scientist at the University of Texas' Bureau of Economic Geology.

    Conventional wisdom says fluids injected underground should spread at a rate of several inches or less each year, and go only as far as they are pushed by the pressure inside the well. In some instances, however, fluids have traveled faster and farther than researchers thought possible.

    In a 2000 case that wasn't caused by injection but brought important lessons about how fluids could move underground, hydrogeologists concluded that bacteria-polluted water migrated horizontally underground for several thousand feet in just 26 hours, contaminating a drinking water well in Walkerton, Ontario, and sickening thousands of residents. The fluids traveled 80 times as fast as the standard software model predicted was possible.

    According to the model, vertical movement of underground fluids shouldn't be possible at all, or should happen over what scientists call "geologic time": thousands of years or longer. Yet a 2011 study in Wisconsin found that human viruses had managed to infiltrate deep aquifers, probably moving downward through layers believed to be a permanent seal.

    According to a study published in April in the journal Ground Water, it's not a matter of if fluid will move through rock layers, but when.

    Tom Myers, a hydrologist, drew on research showing that natural faults and fractures are more prevalent than commonly understood to create a model that predicts how chemicals might move in the Marcellus Shale, a dense layer of rock that has been called impermeable. The Marcellus Shale, which stretches from New York to Tennessee, is the focus of intense debate because of concerns that chemicals injected in drilling for natural gas will pollute water.

    Myers' new model said that chemicals could leak through natural cracks into aquifers tapped for drinking water in about 100 years, far more quickly than had been thought. In areas where there is hydraulic fracturing or drilling, Myers' model shows, man-made faults and natural ones could intersect and chemicals could migrate to the surface in as little as "a few years, or less."

    "It's out of sight, out of mind now. But 50 years from now?" Myers said, referring to injected waste and the rock layers trusted to entrap it. "Simply put, they are not impermeable."

    Myers' work is among the few studies done over the past few decades to compare theories of hydrogeology to what actually happens. But even his research is based on models.

    "A lot of the concepts and a lot of the regulations that govern this whole practice of subsurface injection is kind of dated at this point," said one senior EPA hydrologist who was not authorized to speak to ProPublica, and declined to be quoted by name.

    "It's a problem," he said. "There needs to be a hard look at this in a new way."

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    swine flu kazakhstan mask contagion

    How many people did swine flu kill during the H1N1 pandemic a few years back? If you answered 18,500, you'd be -- excuse the pun -- dead wrong. By at least 133,000 deaths.

    Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control have upped their estimate of the number of people who died of H1N1 globally between April 2009 and August 2010, according to a new report appearing this week in The Lancet. The study puts the new death toll at a range of 151,700 to 575,500.

    That means swine flu was somewhere between 8 and 30 times more deadly than previous estimates suggested. Going with the middle ground, the researchers' best guess is that 284,500 were killed by the disease -- with around 201,000 dying for respiratory reasons related to H1N1, and about 83,000 dying for cardiovascular reasons.

    Why the discrepancy between the old and new numbers? The previous death toll only took into account laboratory-confirmed swine flu deaths. By contrast, the new study draws in country data on all flu-related deaths as well as reports of flu symptoms, and cross-references them with World Health Organization data on deaths due to respiratory infection and cardiovascular disease for the relevant time period. In all, the researchers looked at 12  different countries of varying levels of development.

    Fifty-nine percent of the world's swine flu-related deaths took place in Southeast Asia, and 80 percent were in people younger than 65 -- an unusually high rate of death among young people, for the flu.

    The revised report coincides with a separate study on swine flu's effect on high-income and low-income countries. In some wealthy countries, hospitalization among those infected with H1N1 was as high as 87 percent; unfortunately, the disease proved deadly no matter where patients were treated. A quarter of swine flu victims in intensive care wound up dying in the hospital. In lower- and middle-income countries, hospitalization rates reached a high of 45 percent, and about 15 percent of ICU patients ended up dying.

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    tomatoes, vegetables, groceries

    Breeding tomatoes to have the perfect color ruins their flavor, a genetic study has shown, explaining why many people believe supermarket tomatoes are tasteless.

    For about 70 years tomato growers have sought to produce varieties in which all the fruit ripens at once and develops the same even, red coloring so that it will look more appealing to shoppers.

    But the breeding process which produced this color has accidentally disabled a key gene used in photosynthesis, causing a reduction in the sugars which give the fruit its sweet taste, scientists have found.

    In contrast, tomatoes with active copies of the gene ripen at different rates and come in varying shades, but contain higher levels of sugar, they reported in the Science journal.

    Tweaking the gene in supermarket varieties so that it becomes active again could bring about a return to the sweet tomatoes enjoyed by previous generations.

    Dr Ann Powell of the University of California Davis, who led the study, said: "This information about the gene responsible for the trait in wild and traditional varieties provides a strategy to recapture quality characteristics that had been unknowingly bred out of modern cultivated tomatoes.

    "Now that we know that some of the qualities that people value in heirloom tomatoes can be made available in other types of tomatoes, farmers can have access to more varieties of tomatoes that produce well and also have desirable color and flavor traits."

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    It sounds like something out of a horror flick, but doctors in India say they found and removed a 5-inch live worm from a man's eye.

    PK Krishnamurthy, 75, came to Fortis Hospital in Mumbai complaining of "itching and irritation" in his right eye for the past two weeks, BBC News reported.

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    Eye expert  Dr V. Seetharaman told Agence France-Press he was shocked by what he found -- a writing, threadlike parasite swimming around in the man's eye.

    "It was wriggling there under the conjunctiva," he told AFP. "It was the first time in my career of 30 years that I had seen such a case."

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    Doctors rushed Krishnamurthy to surgery, fearing serious damage, but were able to safely removed the creature as his horrified wife, Saraswati, watched, the Mumbai Mirror reported.

    "It just kept moving and jumping," she told the Mirror. "It was scary for a bit."

    The worm has been sent to the hospital's microbiologists for testing, AFP reported.

    The case was "extremely unusual" and Krishnamurthy was lucky the worm did not end up in his brain, Dr. S Narayani, the hospital's medical director, told the BBC.

    It's not clear how the worm got there, but such parasites often enter a person's body through their bloodstream, Narayani told the BBC.

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    Space jumper

    A daredevil leapt from a balloon more than 18 miles above the Earth today (July 25), moving one step closer to a so-called "space jump" that would set the record for the world's highest skydive.

    Austrian adventurer Felix Baumgartner stepped out of his custom-built capsule at an altitude of 96,640 feet (29,456 meters) above southeastern New Mexico, officials with Red Bull Stratos — the name of Baumgartner's mission — announced today.

    In today's jump, Baumgartner experienced freefall for three minutes and 48 seconds, reaching a top speed of 536 mph (863 kph), project officials said. Baumgartner then opened his parachute and glided to Earth safely about 10 minutes and 30 seconds after stepping into the void. 

    Baumgartner has his eyes on an even bigger leap, a "space jump" from 125,000 feet (38,100 m) in the next month or so. (Space, however, is generally considered to begin at an altitude of 62 miles, or 327,000 feet.) 

    He's working up to this goal in stepwise fashion, having completed a jump from 71,581 feet (21,818 m) this past March. Before that, his highest-ever skydive was from 30,000 feet (9,144 m) up, team officials said. 

    Today's successful leap came tantalizingly close to the current record for highest-altitude skydive, which stands at 102,800 feet (31,333 m). It was set in 1960 by U.S. Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger, who serves as an adviser for Baumgartner's Red Bull Stratos mission.

    The Austrian daredevil doesn't take his leaps lightly.

    "The pressure is huge, and we not only have to endure but excel," Baumgartner told ABC News before his jump. "We're excellently prepared, but it's never going to be a fun day. I'm risking my life, after all."

    Baumgartner's helium-filled balloon lifted off from Roswell, N.M. this morning and took about 90 minutes to reach the skydiver's jumping-off altitude, officials said.

    Baumgartner and his team had hoped to attempt his record jump in 2010, but they were delayed by a legal challenge that claimed the idea of the dive was earlier suggested to Red Bull by California promoter Daniel Hogan. That lawsuit has since been settled out of court, and the Red Bull Stratos mission is moving forward.

    Follow senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall or @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

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    Antartic ice field

    A dramatic gash in the surface of the Earth that could rival the majesty of the Grand Canyon has been discovered secreted beneath Antarctica's vast, featureless ice sheet.

    Dubbed the Ferrigno Rift for the glacier that fills it, the chasm's steep walls plunge nearly a mile down (1.5 kilometers) at its deepest. It is roughly 6 miles (10 km) across and at least 62 miles (100 km) long, possibly far longer if it extends into the sea.

    The rift was discovered during a grueling 1,500-mile (2,400 km) trek that, save for a few modern conveniences, hearkens back to the days of early Antarctic exploration. And it came as a total surprise, according to the man who first sensed that something incredible was literally underfoot, hidden by more than a half-mile (1 km) of ice.

    Old-school exploration

    Robert Bingham, a glaciologist at the University of Aberdeen, along with field assistant Chris Griffiths, had embarked on a nine-week trip during the 2009-2010 field season to survey the Ferrigno Glacier, a region humans had visited only once before, 50 years earlier. Over the last decade, satellites have revealed the glacier is the site of the most dramatic ice loss in its West Antarctica neighborhood, a fringe of coastline just west of the Antarctic Peninsula — the narrow finger of land that points toward South America.

    Ferrigno GlacierThe two-man team set out aboard snowmobiles, dragging radar equipment behind them to measure the topography of the rock beneath the windswept ice, in a region notorious for atrocious weather. Braced for arduous, yet uneventful fieldwork, the surprise came right away. [Images: Antarctica's Icy Wilderness]

    "It was literally one of the first days that we were driving across the ice stream, doing what we thought was a pretty standard survey, that I saw the bed of the ice just dropping away," Bingham said.

    The drop was so sudden and so deep that Bingham drove back and forth across the area two or three more times to check the data, and saw the same pattern. "We got the sense that there was something really exciting under there," he told OurAmazingPlanet. "It was one of the most exciting science missions I've ever had."

    Slippery implications

    Bingham compared the hidden chasm to the Grand Canyon in scale, but said that tectonic forces of continental rifting — in contrast to erosion — created the Ferrigno Rift, wrenching the fissure's walls apart probably tens of millions of years ago, when Antarctica was ice-free.

    Snomobile in snow

    Excitement surrounding the discovery has deeper implications than the mere gee-whiz factor of finding such a massive feature. The Ferrigno Rift's "existence profoundly affects ice loss," Bingham and co-authors from the British Antarctic Survey wrote in a paper published in Nature today (July 25).

    "The geology and topography under the ice controls how the ice flows," said Robin Bell, a geophysicist and professor at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who was not associated with the research. "Ice will flow faster over sediments, like those found in rifts," said Bell, a veteran Antarctic researcher, who has long studied yet another dramatic, yet invisible geological feature, the hidden Gamburtsev Mountains in East Antarctica. 

    In addition, the study authors write, the rift is providing a channel for warm ocean water to creep toward the interior of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, gnawing away at the Ferrigno Glacier from below.

    Together, these two factors could be speeding the glacier's march to the sea, and the overall effects could have implications for the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which is responsible for 10 percent of global sea level rise that is currently happening.

    Tent in snow

    Scientists are still only just beginning to understand the myriad mechanisms that control the seemingly dramatic melting observed in regions of West Antarctica, and how climate change is affecting all the moving parts.

    "With something like the Antarctic ice sheet, some of these processes take centuries, and the amount of time we've been able to observe changes is at the maximum 20 years," Bingham said. "It's a very small amount of time."

    "We need to gather more data," he said.

    Reach Andrea Mustain at, or follow her on Twitter @AndreaMustainFollow OurAmazingPlanet on Twitter @OAPlanet. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

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    man woman kissing romantic love

    Here are 10 things we'll bet you didn't know about love and romance:

    • Love does mean being a little deluded. Don't believe it? You're deluded. This has been shown time and time and time again.

    Join 25K+ subscribers. Get a free daily update via email here.


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    lab mice

    BERKELEY -- Three blind mice: See how they run.

    That's what scientists have been doing at UC-Berkeley, and they've made a startling discovery that raises hopes for a treatment someday to restore vision in people.

    When injected with a chemical, these blind mice scurried away from bright light -- instead of ignoring it, as expected.

    Never available to nursery rhyme creatures, the new chemical makes "blind" cells in the retina responsive to light, said lead researcher Richard Kramer.

    "Our molecule is light sensitive," said Kramer, UC-Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology who along with colleagues at the University of Washington, Seattle published the study in Thursday's issue of the journal Neuron. "It has the potential for restoring visual function."

    Nocturnal denizens of dark and gloomy places, mice usually go to great lengths to avoid light. But when blind, they don't care, and will scamper anywhere, dark or bright.

    When the chemical AAQ was injected into the eyes of blind lab mice and an LED lamp illuminated one corner of their cage, they acted like regular mice, "turning around and running away, pointing their head in the opposite direction," he said.

    There was additional proof of light sensitivity: Their pupils contracted when a bright light was shone in their faces.

    This approach could eventually help those with blindness caused by the death of light-sensitive cells in the retina, the rods and


    One common disease of this type is retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary disease that causes continual loss of peripheral vision and slowly steals sight. Former San Francisco mayor and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown lives with this disease, forcing him to listen intently and memorize vast amounts of information.

    It could also help those with age-related macular degeneration, the most common cause of acquired blindness in the developed world.

    The chemical is essentially a "photoswitch" that binds to protein ion channels on the surface of retina cells. When switched on by light, AAQ alters the flow of ions through the channels -- and activates the neurons much the way rods and cones are activated by light.

    "AAQ has the potential to be a powerful treatment because it may restore vision in people who are completely blind from a variety of diseases," says Dr. Stephen Rose, chief research officer, Foundation Fighting Blindness. "We are excited to see this research team move this approach closer to studies in humans."

    The current version of AAQ wears off quickly. New versions -- that could activate neurons for days, not hours -- are being tested, said Kramer.

    If proven successful in humans, the idea of simply injecting eyes to be sensitive to light has various advantages over other experimental approaches for restoring sight, such as implanting light-sensitive chips in the eye or inserting electrodes into the optic nerve to simulate the cell firings normally triggered by a visual scene.

    It is also simpler, and less permanent, than genetically engineering light-sensitive cells.

    "The advantage of this approach is that it is a simple chemical, which means you can change the dosage, you can use it in combination with other therapies, or you can discontinue the therapy if you don't like the results," Kramer said.

    Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.

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    Missy Franklin U.S. Olympic swimmer

    There's nothing like the Olympics to inspire you to get in shape. This summer, as Team USA fights for the gold in every athletic arena in London, follow suit and add some variety to your summer workout. 

    Following along with the Olympic events in the coming days, here are some workout suggestions that will have you feeling like an Olympian in no time, said Mike Soster, a trainer and certified performance enhancement specialist in Cleveland.  

    July 28: Swimming events get under way

    As Michael Phelps swims for his 17th Olympic medal, jump in the pool as if you're fighting for a medal of your own. Always begin with an easy warm-up of two laps at low-intensity. But then increase the tempo, and do four lengths each of freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke to work all of your major muscle groups. Repeat this cycle for 30 minutes for a low-impact cardio workout. Swimming is on all week, so if you like this workout, try it more than once. (Calories burned: 212)

    July 29: Cycling, Women's Road Race

    After watching the women dash across the finish line Sunday morning, hop on your bike and try a road race of your own. "Find a path or trail that has some elevation changes. This is going to force you to come up and down from your seat, as opposed to just a leisure flat-level cruise," Soster said. You can use your car to plot out a 10-mile ride ahead of time. (Calories burned: 292)

    Aug. 2: Women's Gymnastics, Individual All-Around

    We can't all be gymnastic superstars like Gabrielle Douglas and Jordyn Wieber, but we can learn a thing or two from these athletes — mainly, the importance of flexibility, Soster said.

    Not only does stretching reduce your risk of injury, but it can also improve your workout by increasing the range of motion in your joints. So instead of lounging while you watch the Women's All-Around today, add some stretching to your couch time. 

    The area people are most tight is in the hips, Soster said.

    "A tight hip flexor muscle can create issues from low back pain and hernias, to immobility and proximal joint disorders," he said. (The hip flexor muscle is found directly under your front pants pocket.)

    The best way to stretch this muscle, Soster said, is to get yourself in a lunge position, with your left leg forward, and your right knee pointing down to the ground. Push your hips forward while keeping your upper body straight, and reach up to the ceiling. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds on each side. Don't forget to stretch your other major muscle groups as well.

    Aug. 8: Track & Field, Women's 200-Meter Sprint

    As Allyson Felix sprints for the gold in the women's 200-meter dash today, mix up a regular jog with a sprinting workout. All you need is two cones or other markers, about 30 yards apart.

    But first, start with a five-minute jog to warm up. "A proper warm-up to increase core temperature, and prepare the leg muscles for activity is more important in this scenario [sprinting] than any other, due to the high force production by the legs," Soster said.

    When you're ready to start sprinting, work in a 3:1, rest-to-run ratio. That means if it takes you 10 seconds to get from one cone to the other, you get 30 seconds of rest before it's time to sprint again. Do 15 sprints for a workout that will earn you a spot in the medals' ceremony. (Calories burned: 215)

    Aug. 10: Track & Field, Women's 5K

    "Not all of us are trained to run a full 3.2 miles, but that doesn't mean we can't complete it," Soster said.

    Instead of taking the full 5-kilometer run at once, break the distance into stages, alternating between five to 10 minutes of moderately-paced jogging, and two minutes of walking, until you finish the course.

    "Interval training not only can help you complete your event, but it has also been found to be more beneficial for weight management than steady-state aerobic training," Soster said. (Calories burned: 303)

    Aug. 11: Modern Pentathlon

    You're almost there, and we've saved the best for last: The Pentathlon. The Olympic athletes will shoot a pistol, fence, swim, ride a horse, and run, but here is a modified exercise circuit, Soster suggested, that you can do in your own home. Complete the given exercises below, all the way through without stopping:

    • Body-weight squats: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, and hands out in front of you for balance, and squat down so your thighs are parallel to the ground. Keep your weight on your heels, and really push them into the ground. Do 25 reps.
    • Side shuffles: Place two cones 10 to 15 yards apart, and shuffle back and forth between them, facing the same direction the whole time. Repeat five times to really hit those gluteus muscles.
    • Modified push-ups: Put your hands down a steady object, such as a car hood or the back of a couch, and perform a push-up. The greater the incline of your body, the more difficult the push-up. Keep your abs pulled in tight, and do 25 reps.
    • Single-Leg Floor Touches: Stand on your right leg bent at the knee (like a flamingo), and reach down to touch the floor with your left hand, using only a slight bend in the right knee, then return to standing straight. Repeat 15 times on each side.
    • Jog in place: To make this jog pentathlon-worthy, get your knees up high and keep your hands above your head — this increases the demand on your core muscles, Soster said. "Empty the tank on this one, dig deep inside to find every ounce of available energy!"

    Aug. 12: Closing Ceremonies

    Congratulations, you made it! As you watch the athletes round the track with their medals, hold your head up high and be proud — you too should feel like an Olympian today.

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    wieden and kennedy dogs

    When a wiggly little bead of light catches a dog's eye, nothing in the world matters more than capturing it. Unfortunately, "it" is just an ungraspable bundle of massless photons. The lack of closure in laser-beam chasing could be messing with your dog's head.

    Dogs (and some cats) instinctively chase these bright-red dots simply because the dots move, said Nicholas Dodman, a professor of animal behavior at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. Movement automatically stimulates their innate prey drive, which explains why lower-on-the-food-chain animals such as rodents and rabbits often freeze in place as a survival strategy. Although dogs aren't so discerning when it comes to color, their eyes contain a high preponderance of light-sensitive cells called rods for top-notch motion detection.

    A laser beam's incessant movement keys into this predatory system. "They can't help themselves; they are obliged to chase it," Dodman told Life's Little Mysteries.

    But should you really be stimulating your dog's prey drive when it won't ever lead to triumph — the catching of light? Probably not such a good idea. "They can get so wound up and driven with prey drive that once they start chasing the light they can't stop. It becomes a behavior problem," Dodman said. "I've seen light chasing as a pathology where they will just constantly chase around a light or shadow and pounce upon it. They just spend their whole lives wishing and waiting." [How Did Dogs Get to Be Dogs?]

    Never getting a reward for their vigilance "makes dogs loopy," he explained. Along the same lines, trainers of bomb- and drug-sniffing dogs have found that their dogs become psychologically disturbed if they never find bombs or drugs, so they must occasionally be taken on dummy missions.

    For pets who love to chase, more tangible toys pose a solution. Dodman recommends "Talk to Me Treat Ball" products, a line of motion-activated balls that play owner-recorded messages and kick out food treats through slits as the dog plays. "It's about as near to real prey as you can get, other than tipping open a box of mice in your living room," he said.

    If you insist on dancing a laser beam across the floor instead, one option is to hide treats in nooks and crannies around the room, and occasionally surprise your pet by landing the light upon them.

    Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover or Life's Little Mysteries @llmysteries. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

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