GROUNDHOG DAY: Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow this morning, foreshadowing six more weeks of winter, but some of the famous Pennsylvania groundhog's colleagues disagree with him. New York's Staten Island Chuck and Atlanta's Gen. Beauregard Lee didn't see their shadows, for example, thus predicting an early spring. The Wall Street Journal reports today about the proliferation of these meteorological marmots across the United States and Canada — including 16 other groundhogs in Pennsylvania alone — as well as at least one weather-predicting llama. (Read more about the history of Groundhog Day.) According to weather-predicting humans at the National Weather Service, February will bring mainly above-normal temperatures to much of the West Coast, Great Basin, Great Plains and Great Lakes, while El Niño should continue hitting the East Coast with below-normal temperatures and above-normal precipitation. (Sources: Associated Press, Staten Island Advance, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Wall Street Journal, National Weather Service)
SPACIAL REASONING: In the new federal budget that President Obama unveiled Monday, NASA received not just a new game plan but an entirely new playbook. Rather than merely shifting around its focus among Mars, the moon and other high-priority research, Obama is reinventing how the 52-year-old space agency operates — under his proposal, NASA would no longer run its own spacecraft, but would instead pay private businesses to fly its astronauts off the planet. Some of those companies, such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing, are already experienced at building parts for NASA, while others are brand-new startups (such as SpaceX, whose Falcon 1 rocket is pictured at right). The companies say they can begin space flights quickly and inexpensively, but some critics worry about astronaut safety, as well as what NASA will do if the private sector can't deliver. By shifting from human space flight to smaller-scale missions, NASA may become more nimble, but it will no longer be able to actually send people to space on its own. "This is a pretty substantial change," an MIT astronautics professor tells the AP. "It is more change than I thought they'd take on." On top of freeing up $4 billion from human-space-flight missions, Obama's budget would give NASA an extra $6 billion over five years to encourage companies to build spaceships the agency could then rent. (Sources: AP, New York Times)
COPIN' WITH COPENHAGEN: Fifty-five countries from around the world — accounting for nearly 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — have submitted their pledges for reducing those emissions under the U.N.'s new "Copenhagen Accord." The accord is the result of December's U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen, and while the summit was widely seen as a bust for failing to produce a binding treaty, U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer (pictured) says the international response since then proves "the commitment to confront climate change at the highest level is beyond doubt." Still, though, he admits that "greater ambition is required" — the 55 nations that met the Copenhagen Accord's Jan. 31 deadline represent less than one-third of the 193 nations that actually attended the summit, and many of the pledges that have been submitted would do very little to limit emissions on their own. Canada's pledge is linked to the United States', for example, while the U.S. pledge is contingent on Congress passing a climate bill. (Sources: Los Angeles Times, BBC News)
HOMELESS TOADS: Today's Science Times examines the unusual case of the Tanzanian spray toad, a rare amphibian that's smaller than a dime, doesn't lay eggs and has nowhere to live in the wild. The waterfall on Tanzania's Kihansi River where they once lived is now all but gone, reduced to 10 percent of its former flow by a new hydroelectric dam built upstream in 2000. The species only still exists because scientists rescued 499 spray toads from Tanzania a decade ago when the dam first opened; they're now extinct in the wild, but 4,000 live in a complex system of misty tanks and tubes at the Bronx Zoo and Toledo Zoo, waiting to one day be reintroduced to the wild. The World Bank, which funded the Kihansi River dam, has installed an artificial mist sprayer in the toads' former home, but scientists say it's still unclear whether a reintroduction effort could work. On top of their degraded habitat, spray toads are still threatened by chytrid fungus, a pandemic that has already wiped out at least 120 amphibian species worldwide in recent years. (Source: NY Times)
BRAIN FOOD: Researchers in China have discovered that boosting magnesium levels in the brains of both young and old rats improves their learning and memory, raising the possibility that higher magnesium intake may also enhance humans' cognitive abilities. That could one day bring relief to aging adults who suffer from memory loss, but if people turn out to be like rats in this case — who were fed a standard diet and had no pre-existing memory problems — magnesium would also increase a healthy person's brainpower beyond its normal levels. "Our findings suggest that elevating brain magnesium content via increasing magnesium intake might be a useful new strategy to enhance cognitive abilities," says the study's lead author. "Moreover, half the population of industrialized countries has a magnesium deficit, which increases with aging. This may very well contribute to age-dependent memory decline; increasing magnesium intake might prevent or reduce such decline." (Source: ScienceDaily)
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Photo (Punxsutawney Phil on Feb. 2, 2010): Gene J. Puskar/AP
Photo (Falcon 1 rocket): SpaceX/AP
Photo (Yvo de Boer): ZUMA Press
Photo (spray toads): IUCN, Tim Herman/AP
Photo (lab rat): U.S. Energy Department
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