Excerpts from science, technology, environment and health reports from around the web.

Is Samsung’s Galaxy Gear the first truly smart watch?

At events held simultaneously in Berlin and New York, Samsung announced three new products, including a smart watch that marks the company’s first foray into wearable computing.

Along with the watch, called the Galaxy Gear, Samsung executives announced an oversized 5.5-inch smartphone (or “phablet”)—the Galaxy Note 3—and a tablet called the Galaxy Note 10.1. All three devices will be available in 149 countries beginning on September 25.

How soot forced the end of the Little Ice Age

Coal soot shrank the Alpine glaciers in mid-19th-century Europe, according to new findings that show how black carbon alone, even without warmer temperatures, can affect ice and snow cover.

The research, which involved a Univ. of Michigan (U-M) atmospheric scientist, provides insights into when the so-called Little Ice Age ended and why European glaciers began to retreat decades before global temperatures rose.

EU biofuels policy will push ‘thousands’ of Africans into poverty

EU biofuels policies are pushing thousands of people into poverty in Africa, NGO Actionaid warns.

It says that in sub-Saharan Africa, six million hectares of land – 38 times the size of London – are now under the control of European companies seeking to profit from Europe’s biofuel policies.

Next week members of the European Parliament will agree on future biofuel standards. Current EU targets stipulate that 10% of its transport fuels must be sourced from renewable sources by 2020.

Japan’s levitating train hits 310 MPH in trials

It’s currently the world’s longest and fastest stretch of maglev train, reaching speeds as high as 310 mph in a demonstration last week. But Japan’s L-Zero only lives on 15 miles of test track, and we’re still more than a decade away from completion.

After five years of trials, plus some starts and stops, Central Japan Railway Co. is finally starting construction on a maglev line between Nagoya and Tokyo, a 177-mile trip that will be cut from 95 minutes on today’s high-speed trains to just 40 minutes with maglev by 2027. To put that kind of speed in perspective, Amtrak’s Acela takes about 3 hours and 40 minutes to go about 210 miles. A trip from Boston to New York on maglev would take under an hour.

Flying above the Martian radar

The future of Mars exploration, it seems, is on wheels. The Mars rover Curiosity, and its elder, smaller counterpart Opportunity, have captured most of the headlines and interest about Mars, as they cross the Martian terrain, seeking in particular to understand if Mars once had conditions suitable for life. NASA is now in the early planning stages of a 2020 rover mission based on Curiosity that will collect samples for later return to Earth.

The Dark Energy Survey begins

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Dark Energy Survey. Its five-year mission: to map a portion of the southern sky in unprecedented detail. To use the world’s most powerful digital camera to probe the mystery of dark energy. To boldly photograph where no astrophysicist has photographed before.

The Dark Energy Survey officially began on Saturday, Aug. 31. Using the Dark Energy Camera, a 570-megapixel imaging device built at Fermilab, scientists plan to take clear, dazzling pictures of the largest number of galaxies ever studied in such a survey. The camera is mounted on a telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, which offers a mountaintop vista perfect for obtaining crystal-clear, high-resolution images.

Evidence found for planet-cooling asteroid 12,900 years ago

The dust refuses to settle on a debate about whether asteroid impacts caused one of Earth’s most famous cold snaps 12,900 years ago.

The latest evidence in the contentious discussion comes in the form of pieces of bedrock from Quebec, Canada, that seem to have been blasted out as far as Pennsylvania. “I’d say there’s evidence of an impact happening, for sure,” says Mukul Sharma, an isotope geochemist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and co-author of a study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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