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 June 04 - 10, 2001

Its time for our monthly roundup of new and exciting things in the science world. From lobsters making music to the perplexing problem of "Who is that man on Mars?". Let's dig right in shall we?

Lobsters are unique for their spine encrusted antennae and the way they migrate in only single file across the ocean floor. And for how delicious they taste on a plate. But scientists have found one other unique fact. The way they use the biological equivalent of a violin, to make a not too harmonic, raspy sound. "When you rub a bow over a violin, the sound is produced by frictional interaction between the two surfaces," explains Sheila Patek, a Duke University post doctorate researcher who authored a study about the crustacean's noisemakers published in Nature magazine. "Lobsters also have a bow and a string. They're just not resonant." The lobster has a tissue nub called the plectrum that rubs over the soft surface of a fleshy file just below its eye. The sticking and slipping action over microridges on the file provides the lobster with its caustic sound. The sound not only resembles the violin's mechanisms, it's also created in the same way that rubbing a wet thumb over a balloon makes a squeak or the moving parts of a squeaky door hinge creak. Patek suspects the spiny lobsters don't use the noise to communicate, as she says, "We don't even think they have ears." Spiny lobsters hear only at close range using sensory hairs. Instead Patek thinks the noise is intended to discourage a predator such as a grouper or a shark from eating the animal. "It's like you were going to eat a sandwich and just before you bit it makes a loud noise," explains Patek. "That might give you pause." The spiny lobster's noisemaking device is the only one of its kind to be detected in any animal, says Ron Hoy, a professor of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University. Many other animals, such as crickets, produce noise by scraping a hard pick over a rough-edged file. The effect generates pulses of sound, much like a stick scraping over a washboard. The American lobster, the large clawed species best known to seafood lovers on the East coast, makes noise in its own strange way, by rapidly contracting special muscles in its head.

Twenty five years ago the Viking I photographed Mars on its orbit around the Red Planet. One of the images it found, looked like the face of a man. That image has been much debated and written about to this day, including the theory that it was carved by an alien race. This past April, the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft took pictures that show the area in far sharper detail, but reduces any resemblance to a humanlike extraterrestrial. National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientists say the interplay of light and shadow gave the hill the brooding anthropomorphic features that stood out in the Viking pictures. Michael Malin, principal investigator of the Global Surveyor camera, said the new images show the area to be nothing more than a hill. "I have no desire to discuss it with the true believers. They can't be convinced, they don't want to be convinced," Malin said. NASA's Global Surveyor last turned to photograph the face in April 1998. The spacecraft arrived in orbit around Mars in 1997 and began its extended mission in February.

From the field of environmental research comes this tasty invention. How about running your car on french fry oil instead of petrol? Biodiesel fuel made from recycled cooking oils at casino hotels and restaurants went on sale in Nevada this month, the first public access fueling station in the nation to offer the biodegradable fuel that reduces emissions. Western Energetix Cardlock, a Reno-based division of Berry-Hinkley Industries, began offering the fuel at a station in Sparks just south of Interstate 80. Other fuel stations in California were following suit today. Biodiesel runs in any diesel engine without the need for any engine alterations, usually as a 20 per cent blend with 80 per cent petroleum diesel, the manufacturers say. The Las Vegas-based Biodiesel Industries developed a process to make the biodiesel fuel from waste cooking oils with the help of grants from the Nevada Energy Office and the U.S. Energy Department's Western Regional Biomass Energy Program. Backers of the yellow fuel say it replaces black sooty exhaust with a lighter exhaust that smells like french fries. Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection consider it to be an alternative fuel because it substantially reduces carbon emissions. "By taking our waste cooking oil and turning it into biodiesel, we are not only cleaning up the air at a reasonable price, but also creating jobs," said Jim Brandmueller, outgoing administrator of the Nevada State Energy Office. "When we showed local fleet managers the Bio Bug and described the benefits, they all wanted to try it," said Norma McCusker of Western Energetix Cardlock based in Reno. "Given our large customer base with government and private fleets, we decided to make it available to everyone at one of our stations," she said. Biodiesel Industries now has a plant operating with Haycock Petroleum in Las Vegas and recently entered into a contract to provide 1 million gallons of biodiesel to the Las Vegas Valley Water District, Clark County Health Department and city of Las Vegas. Russ Teal, president of Biodiesel Industries, said the state's assistance was key in "getting this project from a dream to reality... "I hope this can show communities all across America that biodiesel can be made and used almost anywhere," he said. Approximately 20 million gallons of biodiesel are expected to be produced nationwide this year, compared with 5 million gallons in 2000, according to the National Biodiesel Board.