A Mega-Prime Number, Sensitive Salmon and More

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"My scurrying ancestor."

"The rat with the hairy tale."

"The Ratiocinator."

"Lovable little guy."

Readers who left comments on nytimes.com had choice words for an artist's rendering of a placental mammal that scientists say was the earliest common ancestor of humans and other species. The front-page article by John Noble Wilford attracted more than 225 comments and a wide range of sentiments: appreciation, skepticism, wonder, humor ("saw one [of] those on the Lexington Ave. #6, he looked content and completely unafraid").

Reporters are pleased when an editor decides to "turn on the comments" on an article (because the comments are moderated, not every article can be opened to them). The conversations that emerge can provide a way to reconsider an issue or article through the eyes of others --  or merely contribute new and enjoyable punch lines.

"So is [it] just lawyers that evolved from this rat or everyone?"

DEVELOPMENTS

Health

Smoking and Mental Illness

People with mental health problems have been known to be far more likely to smoke cigarettes than others, but now federal health officials have quantified how much. A new report found that 31 percent of all cigarettes are smoked by adults with mental illness, and 40 percent of men and 34 percent of women with mental illness smoke. The problem has been exacerbated by mental hospitals, which have used cigarettes as rewards for patients' good behavior, though some are now adopting antismoking rules, as Pam Belluck reported in The Times last week.

Aeronautics

Supersonic Felix

Remember the man who jumped out of a capsule 24 miles above New Mexico in October and fell to earth for four scary minutes? Not only did he become the first human to break the sound barrier with his body (in a claustrophobia-inducing pressurized suit), but authorities are now saying he went faster than initially estimated: according to The Associated Press, he fell at a top speed of 843.6 miles per hour, or Mach 1.25, with Mach being the speed of sound. At the time, his top speed had been pegged at 834 m.p.h., or Mach 1.24.

Biology

Look Homeward, Salmon

Pacific salmon are born in freshwater rivers that empty into the ocean, and then -- in migration patterns that amaze and baffle -- often return to their rivers of birth at spawning time. A new report in the journal Current Biology says that the fish are tuned in to Earth's magnetic force field and use this sense to find their way home. An article in The Wall Street Journal described how scientists discovered this by looking at the routes that sockeye salmon took around Vancouver Island to return to their spawning grounds in the Fraser River.

Mathematics

17,425,170 Digits

That's how many are in the largest prime number ever discovered, which was announced by mathematicians at the University of Central Missouri. Curtis Cooper, a computer science professor at the school, has made something of a cottage industry out of finding huge prime numbers, and this is the third record he has claimed. The latest one "took 39 days of nonstop computing on one of the university's PCs" to find, according to a news release. Fun facts: these mega-prime numbers are called Mersenne numbers, named for a 17th century French monk; the hunt for them is called the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, or G.I.M.P.S. And according to The Associated Press, anyone who can come up with one that has 100 million digits could win $150,000 from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Animal Conservation

In a Word, Moose

"People love to see moose," said Lee Kantar, the state of Maine's moose biologist, in a video on The Boston Globe's Web site, where an article described an effort to take a moose census by flying over them in a helicopter. The tally in Maine -- about 76,000 -- was higher than expected and led for calls to issue more moose-hunting licenses. By contrast, Minnesota just canceled its moose hunting season after an aerial survey showed a moose paucity: according to The Associated Press, the population in northeastern Minnesota has dropped precipitously, to an estimated 2,760 moose.

COMING UP

Astronomy

No Need to Duck

A 150-foot long chunk of rock is hurtling toward Earth, but you don't have to worry about it, according to NASA. The asteroid, known by the distinctly un-catchy name of 2012 DA14, will pass by on Friday, coming within 17,200 miles of our planet -- "so close that it will pass inside the ring of geosynchronous weather and communications satellites" -- but leaving us unscathed, NASA officials said. People in Eastern Europe, Asia and Australia who have binoculars and know where to look may be able to see the asteroid, but the rest of us are out of luck.

science

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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