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News and Trends
March 14, 2011


A More Crowded Universe?
Searching for India's LeBron
Bomb-Detecting Plants
Why Buffalo Meat Is a Lot Less Rare
Go West, Young Man (and Woman)
Call Him Ishmael

A More Crowded Universe?
NASA's Kepler satellite recently identified 1,235 possible planets outside our solar system—triple the number of known planets. Launched into space in 2009, Kepler has been searching for Earth-like planets by measuring the brightness of stars. Though none of the new planet contenders appears to be quite like Earth, astronomers are optimistic that there are such planets out there. Fifty-four of the 1,235 are in habitable zones of stars dimmer and cooler than the sun. That means liquid water—a key element for supporting life—can be found on them. And the Kepler telescope has surveyed only 1/400th of the sky; if it could scan the whole sky, there'd be 4,000 possible new planets, says one researcher. Another scientist who works with Kepler says the windfall is "the first big step forward to answering the ancient question, 'How common are other Earths?' "

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Searching for India's LeBron
Is India ready for basketball? The N.B.A. thinks so. In a country where cricket is a national obsession, basketball and other sports, like baseball, soccer, and auto racing, have joined the chase to become the No. 2 sport in India, which has a growing middle class and a population of 1.2 billion. The N.B.A. has set up youth leagues in India to give its teens more opportunities to dribble, shoot, and dunk. It's also taking a page out of its playbook in China, where hundreds of millions of people became fans in 2002, after 7-foot-6 Yao Ming was drafted by the Houston Rockets. The key to getting Indians hooked may also be identifying a homegrown star. Among the most promising is Satnam Singh Bhamara, 15, a 7-foot player who's now at a basketball academy in Florida.

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Bomb-Detecting Plants
Don't be surprised if five years from now you go through airport security and are told, "Please have your photo ID and boarding pass ready, and walk past the hydrangeas." Scientists at Colorado State University say they've created technology that makes plants subtly change color when they're exposed to small amounts of TNT, the most commonly used explosive. After they detect TNT, the plants' leaves drain off chlorophyll—the stuff that makes them green—and turn white. Plants seem to be uniquely suited by evolution to analyze chemicals in their environment and can react to levels 1/100th of what bomb-sniffing dogs can. The next step: making the plants respond within minutes instead of hours. That technology is about five years off, the researchers say, but if developed, it could be used to protect troops from explosive devices as well as civilians from terrorist threats at home.

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Why Buffalo Meat Is a Lot Less Rare
Beef may be what's for dinner on many American tables, but demand for buffalo, also known as bison, is breaking records. The Great Plains animal, which once numbered 100 million, was hunted to near extinction beginning in the late 19th century. But today, they're raised on ranches by the tens of thousands. In an era of growing concern over where food comes from, what animals eat, and how it all affects the planet, grass-fed bison fits the bill perfectly: A grain-free diet is more natural for the animal and also produces a low-fat, environmentally sustainable meat. Along with the meat's popularity, Buffalo prices are soaring, up 28 percent last year for a rib-eye steak cut. That has some bison dealers worried that growth will come too fast, or prices could surge so much that buyers will back away. Bison, however, still have a long way to go before they pose a challenge to cows: According to the National Bison Association, the average American ate about 65 pounds of beef last year but not even a Quarter Pounder's worth of bison.

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Go West, Young Man (and Woman)
Like Americans in general, young people are headed South and West—and to Texas in particular. Of the top 10 cities that people ages 25 to 34 moved to from 2007 to 2009, three were in Texas, according to the Brookings Institution. This isn't surprising to anyone who's seen the results of the 2010 Census. "As our economy shifts from industrial to post-industrial, to more high-tech and knowledge-based jobs, people can be more mobile and follow amenities like a sunny climate," says William Frey at Brookings. The cities young people are heading to tend to have strong economies, like Dallas, or are considered hip like Austin and Seattle. Austin, with its thriving music and arts communities, has inspired the local catchphrase "Keep Austin Weird."

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Call Him Ishmael
The story goes on for Captain George Pollard Jr., who inspired Herman Melville's Moby Dick and its main character, Captain Ahab. One hundred fifty years after the book's publication, archaeologists have found remains of the Two Brothers, Pollard's whaling ship that sank in 1823 after hitting a reef on an island 600 miles northwest of Honolulu. Whaling lances, anchors, and cauldrons in which whale blubber was boiled down into valuable oil were among the 80 relics found. The discovery is likely the first of a Nantucket whaler, one of many that set sail during the early 19th century, when the Massachusetts island was an international capital of whaling. It was a brutal pursuit for both the whales, which were overhunted, and the sailors, who spent years at sea. Pollard was twice unlucky: Three years before the Brothers sank, his Essex was attacked by an angry whale (just as Captain Ahab's ship was), and Pollard's crew floated for three months, facing death, madness, and worse: Pollard ate his cousin to survive.

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