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Time Traveling at the AAAS Meeting

16 February 2009 (All day)
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CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—Since Thursday, our reporters have been here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which publishes Science. You can read full coverage on our Findings blog. Here are some of the highlights:

Considering the theme of this year's meeting, "Our Planet and Its Life: Origins and Futures," it's no surprise that many of the talks traveled through time. First, it was off to the future with a sober assessment of what lies ahead for our planet. Perhaps the most frightening news is that the worst-case scenarios forecast by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) may not have been dire enough. Humans are pumping out climate-warming gasses nearly three times faster than the IPCC anticipated, meaning our world could warm faster than predicted. Sea level is also rising twice as fast as it has in the past. These changes spell bad news for humans, as coastal cities flood and diseases such as malaria spread to new areas. The future is also dim for endangered species, many of whom may never be taken off federal conservation lists.

What can scientists do? At an invited talk, former vice president Al Gore implored meeting attendees to get involved in politics and educate the public. "Scientists," he said, "can no longer in good conscience accept this division between the work you do and the civilization in which you live."

Another series of talks focused on the "Origins" theme of the meeting by peering into humanity's past. Particle accelerators are allowing scientists to view our history like never before, as beams a billion times brighter than a hospital x-ray bring ancient manuscripts and statues to life. Scientists are also learning more about our distant relatives. Neandertals rarely knew their grandparents, for example, as most died before the age of 30. And some of the first humans to leave Africa traveled tremendous distances armed only with very primitive stone tools. And what of those Indonesian "hobbits" that have confounded scientists since their discovery in 2004? Researchers presented new evidence at the meeting that they are not a deformed Homo sapiens but rather represent a small species of human.

Speaking of small, in one of the meeting's more lighthearted sessions, scientists explained why little dogs, such as dachshunds and Scottish terriers, have such funny legs. Other researchers, perhaps seizing on the fact that the meeting took place over Valentine's Day, probed the evolutionary importance of kissing. And if you ever wanted to fold a piece of paper into a 3-dimensional rabbit, scientists are working on a computer program called an origamizer to help you out.

To read about these and other fascinating stories from the meeting, check out Findings. If you couldn't make it to Chicago, you'll feel like you did.

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