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22 April 2014

Nobel Nerves

Italian neurologist Rita Levi-Montalcini – born on this day in 1909 – received the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, along with Stanley Cohen, for their discovery that a protein called nerve growth factor plays a key role in the development of the nervous system. But particularly remarkable is how Levi-Montalcini managed to conduct her research at a time when Mussolini prevented non-Aryan Italian citizens from having academic careers. This impelled Levi-Montalcini to set up a laboratory in her bedroom at her family home in Turin. Following heavy bombing by English and American forces, she left Turin to rebuild her mini-laboratory in a cottage in the country. When the German army invaded Italy, she fled to Florence to work as a doctor for war refugees. After the war, she went to Washington University, St. Louis, USA, and remained there for thirty years. She died in December 2012 aged 103.

Written by Nick Kennedy

Image courtesy of audrey_sel on Flickr
Originally published under a Creative Commons Licence

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A Second Sedna

Sedna, a dwarf planet that resides far out in the depths of the solar system, is the first known objects that belongs to the inner Oort cloud. Discovered in 2003, Sedna became a very important trans-Neptunian object, aiding in the quest to learn about the evolution of the Solar System. With a perihelion of 76 AU, Sedna was the farthest known body in the Solar System. Recently, an object called 2012VP113 was found to be another inner Oort cloud object. This confirms that Sedna is not an isolated body and that there may be more inner Oort cloud objects out there.

The authors conducted a sky survey that focused on objects with perihelion distances between 50 AU to around 300 AU. 2012VP113 was found to have a perihelion distance of 80 AU, making it farther away from the Sun than Sedna is. The surface color of 2012VP113 is moderately red, which is consistent with formation in the gas giant region, not in the classical Kuiper belt region.

An important question from the discoveries of Sedna and 2012VP113 is how do these inner Oort cloud objects form? Currently there are two preferred models, along with one lesser studied model. One model explores the possibility that a Kuiper belt object is perturbed by some planet-sized object out towards the inner Oort cloud region. The next model suggests that inner Oort cloud objects could have been created from a close stellar encounter during the formation of the early Solar System. The third model suggests that inner Oort cloud objects could be extrasolar planetesimals captured in the formation of the early Solar System. Each theory has different possibilities, and the discovery of additional inner Oort cloud objects would provide more insight into the formation of these bodies as well as our Solar System.

Image: A combination of three images showing 2012VP113, each taken two hours apart, on November 5, 2012. (Credit: Scott S. Sheppard/Carnegie Institution for Science)

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