Dec 31, 2010

Happy new year

I wanted to take the chanse to wish everybody a Happy New Year! Let just say that a new year comes with new opportunities!

Danny from A Magical Journey

Dec 30, 2010

Crunch time for stem cells

Trials of therapies to treat paralysis and blindness could reveal the therapeutic potential of human embryonic stem cells

Human embryonic stem cells have inspired hope and loathing in almost equal measure. Next year hESCs could prove their worth, thanks to trials of two very different treatments.

HESCs are unique in their ability to form all 200 tissues of the human body. In principle, cells derived from them could regenerate almost any tissue or organ. But because they come from embryos that are later destroyed, their use is controversial. To pacify the opposition the stem cells need to live up to expectation.

Within weeks, surgeons will inject retinal cells derived from hESCs into the eye of an individual with Stargardt's macular dystrophy, in the hope of delaying or preventing blindness, says Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) in Worcester, Massachusetts, which is developing the treatment. Eleven more patients are due to be injected in 2011. Any improvements in vision should be obvious and could take as little as six weeks to emerge.

The eye, however, is something of a special case. Insulated from the immune system, cells there are less likely to be rejected than in other parts of the body. To find out whether hESCs have broader therapeutic potential, we need to look to another, more ambitious trial.

Read more at New Scientist

Climate Models Miss Effects of Wind-Shattered Dust

Clumps of dust in the desert shatter like glass on a kitchen floor. This similarity may mean the atmosphere carries more large dust particles than climate models assume.

Dust and other airborne particles’ effect in the atmosphere is “one of the most important problems we need to solve in order to provide better predictions of climate,” said climate scientist Jasper Kok of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Other researchers suspect current models also neglect a large fraction of the climate-warming dust that clogs the skies after dust storms.

Most climate models use dust data from satellites that measure how many particles of different sizes are suspended in the atmosphere. These measurements reveal an abundance of tiny clay particles roughly 2 micrometers across (about one-third the width of a red blood cell), which can reflect sunlight back into space and cool the planet.

But satellites may be missing larger particles, called silts, which don’t hang around in the air as long. Silts up to 20 micrometers in diameter can act as a warm blanket to trap heat inside the Earth’s atmosphere.

To figure out how much clay and silt is actually kicked up from the Earth’s deserts, Kok turned to a well-studied problem in physics: how glass breaks.

Cracks spread through breaking glass in specific patterns, creating predictable numbers and sizes of glass shards. The final distribution of small, medium and large glass fragments follows a mathematical law called scale invariance.

“It shows up all across nature, from asteroids to atomic nuclei,” Kok said. “It’s really just beautiful.”

In a paper published Dec. 28 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Kok showed that the physics of how dust clumps break apart is similar to glass breaking.

Soil scientists have long known that dust clumps act like brittle materials, and physicists have well-tested mathematical descriptions of how brittle materials break. “But no one had put one and two together,” Kok said.

Read more at Wired

Dec 29, 2010

World's Oldest Human Remains?

Israeli archaeologists have discovered human remains dating from 400,000 years ago, challenging conventional wisdom that Homo sapiens originated in Africa, the leader of excavations in Israel said on Tuesday.

Avi Gopher, of Tel Aviv University's Institute of Archaeology, said testing of stalagmites, stalactites and other material found in a cave east of Tel Aviv indicates that eight teeth uncovered there could be the earliest traces so far of our species.

"Our cave was used for a period of about 250,000 years -- from about 400,000 years ago to about 200,000 years ago," he told AFP.

"The teeth are scattered through the layers of the cave, some in the deeper part, that is to say from 400,000 years and through all kinds of other layers that can be up to 200,000 years. The oldest are 400,000 years old," he added."

That calls into question the widely held view that Africa was the birthplace of modern man, said Gopher, who headed the dig at Qesem Cave.

"It is accepted at the moment that the earliest Homo sapiens that we know is in east Africa and is 200,000 years old -- or a little less. We don't know of anywhere else where anyone claims to have an earlier Homo sapiens," he said.

Gopher said the first teeth were discovered in 2006 but he and his team waited until they had several samples, then conducted years of testing, using a variety of dating methods, before publishing their findings.

Read more at Discovery News

The 2010 Sceptical Award

Since the blog A Magical Journey only started in March of 2010 and had to change address once for some strange reason and that I who run this blog am a poor student at a college in Sweden I’m only going to give out one award this year! I might give more awards throughout the years but this time I’m just going to let one award get out because of my lack of funds!  If you want me to get more money to the winners and those who comes behind them just let me know! If there are more people who wotes and gives money to the winners the better they will feel! The only thing that you have to remember is that the podcast, blog, skeptical association or anything like that who are working against the alternative medicine that so far has no proof of working including Homeopathy and alternatives like that! The people who are working against charlatans who think they are psychics that has no proof of their ability or anything like that!

All of you who reads this blog are welcome to vote for the 2011 “Best Of” but this year since there are no time left I’m going to announce the winner myself!

The 2010 winner of “The Best Of” and the winner of 100 Swedish kronor is the Swedish skeptical podcast Skeptikerpodden!

The reason why they win the award is that since they started at the end of march 2010 they have been a true skeptical podcast in Swedish that made skepticism public to the common Swede!  Through the 35 shows of 2010 they have proved that they can improve themselves and make themselves a name in the skeptical society!  I Danny Boston from A Magical Journey want to give you thanks for the great podcast and a congratulation of the 2010 award!

Skeptikerpodden consists of 8 skeptical Swedes who works for free and their names are (In alphabetical order): Anders, Andreas, Carl Johan, John, Jon, Maria, Pekka and Peter

Dec 28, 2010

Ancient Egyptian Priests' Names Preserved in Pottery

Broken pieces of clay pottery have revealed the names of dozens of Egyptian priests who served at the temple of a crocodile god, Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) announced.

Engraved with text dating back to the Roman period, the small potsherds have been found by Italian archaeologists on the west side of the temple dedicated to the crocodile god Soknopaios in Soknopaiou Nesos, an Egyptian village in the Fayoum oasis.

Called ostraca from the Greek word ostrakon (meaning "shell") the inscribed pot fragments “have been very helpful in illuminating the religious practices and the prosopography of Greco-Roman Egypt," the SCA said in a statement.

"We found some 150 ostraca. The majority was inscribed with the names of the priests who served at the temple," Mario Capasso, professor of Papyrology at Salento University, told Discovery News.

"A recurring name is that of a priest named Satabous," Capasso said.

According to Capasso, who co-directed the excavation with Paola Davoli, associate professor of Egyptology at Salento University, each ostracon was used in a sort of ballot draw to determine specific religious roles in the temple.

Read more at Discovery News

2010: the year in science

There has been one major story this year: the Large Hadron Collider. In March, it started colliding particle beams; last month, it smashed beams of lead ions together at 99.99 per cent of the speed of light, achieving a temperature of 10 trillion degrees C, equal to the first microsecond after the Big Bang. The results suggest the early universe behaved like a super-hot liquid. From February, it is hoped that experiments will reveal more about dark matter, the nature of quarks, the Strong Nuclear Force, and, of course, the Higgs boson, the mysterious particle that is believed to give matter mass.

Elsewhere, physicists at the University of California induced quantum behaviour in a machine, making it exist in two quantum states at once. The experiment won Science magazine’s Breakthrough of the Year award for its potential to revolutionise quantum engineering by enabling similar objects to exist in two places simultaneously.

For the first time in Britain, a trial of a treatment based on embryonic stem cells – heralded as the next leap forward for medicine – went ahead. Researchers at University College London, said it “marks the dawn of the Stem Cell Age”. In January, we learnt that a vaccine for leukaemia had been tested on humans. Trials at King’s College London are at an early stage, but the vaccine showed promising results in mice.

In February, hopes of “personalised” cancer treatments were raised by geneticists at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. Treatment that is customised according to a person’s genetic fingerprint has been tested on patients with bowel and breast cancer. It is a step towards cancer “becoming a manageable, chronic disease”. The race is also on to be the first scientist to sequence a person’s entire genetic code for less than $1,000.

Read more at The Telegraph

Dec 27, 2010

The Curious Evolution of Holiday Lights

In 1882, the look of the holiday season changed forever.

Instead of decorating a Christmas tree with candles, Edward H. Johnson, inventor and vice president of Thomas Edison’s booming electric company, strung 80 red, white and blue light bulbs on his scrawny evergreen. The whole thing rotated six times per minute on an electric crank.

“I need not tell you that the scintillating evergreen was a pretty sight — one can hardly imagine anything prettier,” wrote a reporter for the Detroit Post and Tribune.

More than a century later, those 80 bulbs have multiplied into hundreds of millions of tiny electric lights — perhaps billions — decorating American homes and roughly 40 million live trees each year.

From those first simple strings of bulbs to computer-controlled LED light displays, we retrace the curious evolution of the holiday light bulb.

Arc Lights

Before the advent of the modern incandescent light bulb, chemist Humphry Davy tinkered with high-voltage arc lights. The devices allowed electricity to jump between two carbon rods, emitting a super-bright point of light.

The design wasn’t long-lasting or safe, however, pushing inventors to create self-contained incandescent lights.

Swan and Edison

The first incandescent lights came out of Sir Joseph Wilson Swan’s workshop as early as 1850. Swan filed a patent for the design in 1861, but the bulb’s carbon filaments burned out quickly in the presence of oxygen.

Thomas Edison was working on his own version and eventually wooed Swan into his company, effectively gaining rights to Swan’s light-bulb patents. Edison knew the secret to success was a better carbon filament (tungsten versions came years later), so his shop tested thousands of plant fibers looking for the best material.

Cotton fibers, which could stay lit for more than 1,500 hours, were found to be the best natural filament in 1880. Edison’s company continued to work on supporting technologies to make the device commonplace, including the parallel circuit, more durable glass bulbs, better dynamos, reliable voltage supplies, fuses, insulation, sockets and even light switches.

Read more at Wired

Woman being prepared for burial comes back to life

Maria das Dores was a few hours from being buried alive when an official noticed she was still breathing.
The 88-year-old was rushed back to the same hospital who had earlier declared her dead.
Officials in Brazil have now launched an investigation into how medical chiefs failed to realise the woman was alive and not dead when they sent her body for burial.
She had been brought to the hospital in the town of Ipatinga suffering from blocked arteries. She also suffered from Alzheimer's and was bedridden.
Doctors declared her dead on Dec 22 after noticing she had no vital signs.

Her body was transferred to a local undertakers to prepare her for burial.

An official looking into her coffin noticed she was still breathing and that she had moved.

Custodia Amancio, daughter of the resuscitated Brazilian woman, said: "We are happy to know my mother is alive and unhappy with the lack of respect due her. We are still not sure if we will sue the municipality and hospital.

Read more at The Telegraph

Dec 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

Here from A Magical Journey I just wanted to wish you all a very Merry Christmas!

From your own sceptical Santa

Christmas: how to cheat at pulling crackers

Ever wanted to make the perfect snowball, win the Christmas cracker novelty every time, and impress your festive guests by creating snowflakes indoors? Science correspondent Richard Gray asks the experts who can show you how…

As demonstrated by the weapons experts at QinetiQ, the defence agency which, when they’re not developing technology for the MoD, like to experiment with Christmas table decorations.
* Hold your end lower than the other person’s, so the cracker tilts downwards towards you.
* To prevent the cracker tearing, use a firm, two-handed grip.
* Apply a slow, steady pull, rather than a swift tug, which will only compromise the integrity of your section of the cracker.
* Avoid twisting, as this will add stress to the cracker wrapping. For the same reason, avoid laughing too hard at Uncle Bob’s annual ‘joke’ about ‘pulling a cracker’.

Read more at The Telegraph

Meet the Brit man who is set to marry his Christmas tree!

“A Brit man is set to fulfill his desire of marrying his Christmas tree.

Andy, also known as Mr Christmas, has admitted many will think he’s had too much sherry but that hasn’t stopped him drawing up plans for the ceremony.

“I love my Christmas tree more than anything else, so that’s why I want to marry it,” the Sun quoted the 47-year-old divorcee from Melksham, Wilts, as saying.

“I’ve already got a ring, although I’m not sure yet which branch I’ll want to hang it on. The only problem seems to be finding a vicar who is willing to do the ceremony,” he said.

He said that although he’d only had the plastic tree for two years, he felt it was like “his best friend” and he never tired of seeing it sitting in his living room.

“I can’t see why we can’t be joined in matrimony. I’ve heard of other people marrying their pets and so on, so why can’t I get hitched to my tree?” he added.”

Read more at Sify News

Dec 23, 2010

Placebo Effect Works Without the Bluff

A fake pill can make patients feel better, even when they know it's nothing but inert ingredients, according to a new study.

It has been known for decades that patients taking a dummy pill or receiving a fake treatment they believe is real can still show improvement of their symptoms. This placebo effect is strong enough that more than half of doctors admit to prescribing drugs strictly to capitalize on the patients' placebo reaction to taking a pill.

But this practice raises ethical questions, nor can doctors prescribe fake pills while telling a patient they are taking a real drug.

A new study shows that there may not be need for deception. In certain situations, doctors may be able to invoke the same benefits of placebos even if the patients know they are taking a pill with no active ingredients.

"There's a universal belief in medicine that placebos are only effective if you fool the patient into believing they are receiving the medicine," said Ted Kaptchuk at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston. "We decided to test if this is true. Do you really have to lie to get a placebo effect?"

The study involved 80 volunteers with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), half of whom were assigned to receive no treatment while the other half received placebo pills.

The pills were presented as "placebo pills made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes." (This description was true.)

The patients were also told that the placebo effect is powerful; that the body can become conditioned to respond to placebo pills like Pavlov's dogs were conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell; that a positive attitude helps but is not necessary; and that taking the pills faithfully is crucial.

"We built up expectations in the sense that we explained that the placebo effects are real, they happen automatically and you don’t have to believe in them," Kaptchuk said. "We also tried to suspend the patients' disbelief."

Read more at Discovery News

Some of the Universe's Biggest Stars are Loners

Feeling lonely this Christmas? Spare a thought for some of the most massive stars in our universe that shine so bright, but live all on their lonesome.

One would think that to build the biggest stars, you need a really big star factory, like a bubbling and churning stellar nursery stuffed full of plump baby stars gulping down as much nebulous gas a possible. However, according to a University of Michigan study, some of the biggest stars can reach a ripe, massive age in isolation.

Using the Hubble Space Telescope, the Michigan astrophysicists analyzed eight stellar monsters -- each 20 to 150 times the mass of the sun -- in the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC). The SMC is one of the Milky Way's nearest galactic neighbors.

Five of the massive stars had no neighboring stars and the other three lived in small clusters of ten or less stars. This finding suggests this sample of stars grew fat in a region of space with few stellar siblings.

Using one of the better analogies I've read in a press release, Joel Lamb, a doctoral student in the Department of Astronomy, likened these big stellar loners in small clusters to big fish in small ponds.

"My dad used to fish in a tiny pond on his grandma's farm," Lamb said. "One day he pulled out a giant largemouth bass. This was the biggest fish he's caught, and he's fished in a lot of big lakes. What we're looking at is analogous to this. We're asking: 'Can a small pond produce a giant fish? Does the size of the lake determine how big the fish is?'"

"Our results show that you can, in fact, form big stars in small ponds."

Read more at Discovery News

Missed the Lunar Eclipse. Here it is in stop motion.

Winter Solstice Lunar Eclipse from William Castleman on Vimeo.

Dec 22, 2010

Neanderthal Relative Bred With Humans

A previously unknown Siberian group, the Denisovans, left fingerprints in some humans' DNA.

Neanderthals need to make room for a new kid sister in the early human family.

By sequencing the full genome of a girl's fossil finger bone found in a Siberian cave, researchers conclude that there must have been a closely related sister group of Neanderthals living in central Asia about 40,000 years ago. The data also show that, like Neanderthals, the mysterious group interbred with modern humans, in this case leaving behind a genetic fingerprint in modern-day Melanesians of Papua New Guinea and Bougainville Island, nearly 10,000 kilometers (6,213 miles) from where the fossil was found.

The new genetic information, reported Dec. 23 in Nature, underscores the fluidity of human evolution and hints that even more groups are waiting to be uncovered, says paleoanthropologist Milford Wolpoff of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "We're just scraping the outside of what's probably a much more complex picture."

As recently as a year ago, evidence suggested that modern humans spread throughout the world in a single migration out of Africa that wiped out any genetic traces of other early hominids. But the new study suggests that the lineage of modern humans is much more intertwined.

"This is quite exciting," says genomicist Webb Miller of Pennsylvania State University in University Park. "A lot of people are going to hate it and a lot of people are going to love it."

The presence of the ancient group's genes in modern-day humans suggests that the new group, christened "Denisovans" after the Denisova Cave in southern Siberia where the finger bone was found, was once widespread throughout Asia.

"This was a place where Neandertals and modern humans were already known to be living, right in this region," says study co-author David Reich of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Mass. "Now there's a third group that's neither Neanderthal nor modern human."

Earlier this year, researchers reported sequencing the mitochondrial DNA from the finger bone, leading them to conclude that the girl belonged to a new group that split from the line leading to modern humans about a million years ago, before the Neanderthal-human split about 270,000 to 400,000 years ago. But mitochondrial DNA, a small loop of genetic material inherited only through the female line, isn't as informative as the DNA packed into cells' nuclei. So Reich and his colleagues decided to sequence the entire nuclear genome.

Read more at Discovery News

Beatles' Abbey Road Crossing a Historic Landmark

A legendary London zebra crossing featured on the cover of The Beatles' album "Abbey Road" has been designated a heritage site, the British government said Wednesday.

Heritage minister John Penrose said the decision to list the black-and-white crossing in north London was a "fantastic testimony to the international fame of the Beatles".

Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr are seen walking across the road in the picture on the sleeve of their 1969 album. The crossing is outside the Abbey Road studios where it was recorded.

McCartney welcomed the news, which comes in a big year for the band after their songs went on sale on Apple's iTunes for the first time.

"It's been a great year for me and a great year for the Beatles and hearing that the Abbey Road crossing is to be preserved is the icing on the cake," McCartney said.

It is the first time that Britain has given so-called Grade II status to a site that is not a building.

"It is a fantastic testimony to the international fame of the Beatles that, more than 40 years on, this crossing continues to attract thousands of visitors each year, trying to mimic their iconic Abbey Road album cover," Penrose said.

Read more at Discovery News

Indian Man Marries and Then Sells 60 Wives To Brothels

In Darjeeling, a mountainous tea-growing district of the eastern state of West Bengal, a 27 year-old man has been arrested for duping 60 women into marrying him and then selling them into prostitution.

Bikky Biswarkarma pretended to be a well paid army officer home on holiday when over a five year period, he married at least 60 girls and then sold them to brothels in Mumbai and Pune, cities in the western state of Maharastra, for 70,000-100,000 rupees ($1,500-$2,000).

“He used to pose as an army man on leave who…wanted to get married before returning to work. He would change bases frequently to lure girls from poor families in tea gardens and villages,” said district police chief, Debendra Prasad Singh.

It was difficult for the police to take action in this case because there were few if any complaints issued by the families of the girls who never knew they had been sold to brothels.

Emirates 247

Cache in Chinese Mountain Reveals 20,000 Prehistoric Fossils

A giant cache of nearly 20,000 fossil reptiles, shellfish and a host of other prehistoric creatures unearthed from a mountain in China is now revealing how life recovered after the most devastating mass extinction on Earth.

This research could help point out which species might be more or less susceptible to extinction nowadays, and how the world might recover from the damage caused by humanity, scientists added.

Life was nearly completely wiped out approximately 250 million years ago by massive volcanic eruptions and devastating global warming. Only one in 10 species survived this cataclysmic end-Permian event.

Much was uncertain regarding the steps life took to piece itself back together after this disaster, or even how long it took. Now the clearest picture yet of this recovery has been discovered by a team of researchers, who excavated away half a mountain in Luoping in southwest China to unearth thousands of marine fossils, the first fully functional ecosystem seen after the end-Permian.

"The pattern and timing of recovery can tell us something about how life today might recover after human-induced crises," said researcher Michael Benton, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Bristol in England.

A trove of fossils

The 50-foot-thick (16 meters) layer of limestone that held these fossils dates back to when south China was a large island just north of the equator with a tropical climate. A smattering of fossil land plants suggest this marine community lived near a conifer forest.

Read more at Yahoo! News

Dec 21, 2010

Ukraine to open Chernobyl area to tourists in 2011

“Want a better understanding of the world’s worst nuclear disaster? Come tour the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Beginning next year, Ukraine plans to open up the sealed zone around the Chernobyl reactor to visitors who wish to learn more about the tragedy that occurred nearly a quarter of a century ago, the Emergency Situations Ministry said Monday.

Chernobyl’s reactor No. 4 exploded on April 26, 1986, spewing radiation over a large swath of northern Europe. Hundreds of thousands of people were resettled from areas contaminated with radiation fallout in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Related health problems still persist. The so-called exclusion zone, a highly contaminated area within a 30-mile (48-kilometer) radius of the exploded reactor, was evacuated and sealed off in the aftermath of the explosion. All visits were prohibited.

Today, about 2,500 employees maintain the remains of the now-closed nuclear plant, working in shifts to minimize their exposure to radiation. Several hundred evacuees have returned to their villages in the area despite a government ban. A few firms now offer tours to the restricted area, but the government says those tours are illegal and their safety is not guaranteed.

Emergency Situations Ministry spokeswoman Yulia Yershova said experts are developing travel routes that will be both medically safe and informative for Ukrainians as well as foreign visitors. She did not give an exact date when the tours were expected to begin.”

Read more at NC Times

Fly Geyser – Not Quite Of This World

“They look as if they were taken on another planet, or at least on the set of a new and very expensive science fiction movie. Yet these pictures are of the Fly Geyser which is very much of planet earth (Nevada, US to be exact). However – and herein lies the surprise – it is effectively man made.

The geyser can be found in Hualapai Valley near Gerlach. It is a little seen phenomenon as the land upon which it sits is private. It can be seen from State Road 34 but unless you have permission the view from a distance is all you should attempt.

Back in 1916 the owners of the place were looking for water in the hope of creating rich farmland in this desert area of the state. They came across water, yes, and the well worked for decades. However, the drill that was driven down a shaft hit a geothermal pocket of water and the result was a geyser, if not quite made by man then certainly made possible by him.

Yet it is not the geyser you see in the pictures here. In the 1960s the water found another weak spot and a new, natural geyser was created. The older one no longer spouts at all. It is thought that the new geyser somehow diverted its water. Or perhaps it simply waits for another time to come when it can spring in to life again.”

Read more and see further photos at Kuriositas

Nasa captures stunning images of the far side of the moon

“These amazing pictures capture the moon’s cratered surface in the most intricate detail ever recorded.
The images, which were taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter (LRO), have boosted the resolution of images of the far side of the moon over 100 times.

Digital elevation and terrain maps based on the new data reveal the heavily cratered and bumpy surface of the moon in all its complexity.

Dr Gregory Neumann of NASA’S Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said that digital elevation and terrain maps based on the new data ‘will be a fundamental reference for future scientific and human exploration missions to the moon.’ The brilliant, iridescent green concepts, pictured here, show the topography of different hemispheres of the moon.

Dr Neumann said: ‘After about one year taking data, we already have nearly 3 billion data points from the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter on board the LRO spacecraft.

‘We expect to continue to make measurements at this rate through the next two years of the science phase of the mission and beyond. Near the poles, we expect to provide near-GPS-like navigational capability as coverage is denser due to the spacecraft’s polar orbit.’”

Read more at The Daily Mail

Dec 20, 2010

Life on Earth Began Three Billion Years Ago

Life on Earth dramatically surged around three billion years ago, possibly when primitive forms developed more efficient ways to harness energy from sunlight, according to a study published on Sunday in Nature.

The conclusion is made by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who built a "genomic fossil," in essence a mathematical model that took 1,000 key genes that exist today and calculated how they evolved from the very distant past.

The collective genome of all life expanded massively between 3.3 and 2.8 billion years ago, and during this time 27 percent of all presently existing gene families came into being, the study suggests.

Investigators Eric Alm and Lawrence David said the great surge probably came through the advent of a biochemical process called modern electron transport.

This is a key biological function, involving the movement of electrons within the membranes of cells. It is central to plants and to some microbes, enabling them to harvest energy from the sun through photosynthesis and to breathe oxygen.

The big change, which Alm and David dub the Archean expansion, was followed some 500 million years later by a phenomenon known as the Great Oxidation Event, when Earth's atmosphere became progressively flooded with oxygen.

The Great Oxidation Event is possibly the biggest species turnover in Earth's history, as primitive or microbial lifeforms that were non-oxygen breathers died out and were replaced by bigger, smarter aerobic forms.

"Our results can't say if the development of electron transport directly caused the Archean Expansion," David admitted.

"Nonetheless, we can speculate that having access to a much larger energy budget enabled the biosphere to host larger and more complex microbial ecosystems."

Read more at Discovery News

UFO hunters claim alien incidents are 'US airmen covering up blunders'

There has been widespread and continuing belief that the mysterious lights and flying saucer seen in a remote forest next to a US Air Force base on Boxing Day 1980 were alien ships.

But now as the 30th anniversary of the bizarre incident approaches, locals have suggested the real explanation lies with an American helicopter crew who bungled the transfer of an Apollo space capsule and tried to cover it up with the UFO claim.

They believe the "alien spacecraft" was actually the crew pod from a space rocket which was accidentally dropped in Rendlesham Forest, Woodbridge, Suffolk by the helicopter from the nearby Bentwaters air base.

Witnesses reported seeing bright fast moving lights in the sky leading to speculation that it was a UFO.

Several badly-shaken American airmen gave detailed descriptions of the craft after it landed and security teams, guarding NATO nuclear weapons on the base, raced to investigate.

Read more at The Telegraph

Scientists find the sleep switch inside our brains

Researchers have discovered the mechanism that causes the brain to switch from being awake to sleeping, according to a study from Washington State University. The analysis is expected to help scientists focus on finding ways to develop new sleep aids and even treatments for strokes and brain injuries.

“We know that brain activity is linked to sleep, but we’ve never known how,” said James Krueger, WSU neuroscientist and lead author of a paper in the latest edition of the Journal of Applied Physiology. ”This gives us a mechanism to link brain activity to sleep. This has not been done before.”

In an interview with Postmedia News, Krueger said the way we sleep goes against what science believed previously. ”Our work also emphasizes that sleep begins as a local process driven by cell activity.” Krueger said the view is in contrast to the current sleep research that views sleep as being imposed upon the brain by sleep regulatory circuits.

“The problem with that view is that despite millions of cases of stroke (brain damage) or intentional lesions to those circuits, a sleepless human or animal has yet to be described (with exception of patients in a coma, which is neither a wake nor sleep state),” he said.

The researchers documented how ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the fundamental energy currency of cells, is released by active brain cells to start the molecular events leading to sleep. The ATP then binds to a receptor responsible for cell processing and the release of cytokines, small signalling proteins involved in sleep regulation.

Read more: Montreal Gazette

Four in 10 Americans Believe in Strict Creationism

Belief in evolutionary origins of humans slowly rising, however.

Four in 10 Americans, slightly fewer today than in years past, believe God created humans in their present form about 10,000 years ago. Thirty-eight percent believe God guided a process by which humans developed over millions of years from less advanced life forms, while 16%, up slightly from years past, believe humans developed over millions of years, without God’s involvement.

A small minority of Americans hold the “secular evolution” view that humans evolved with no influence from God — but the number has risen from 9% in 1982 to 16% today. At the same time, the 40% of Americans who hold the “creationist” view that God created humans as is 10,000 years ago is the lowest in Gallup’s history of asking this question, and down from a high point of 47% in 1993 and 1999. There has been little change over the years in the percentage holding the “theistic evolution” view that humans evolved under God’s guidance.

Americans’ views on human origins vary significantly by level of education and religiosity. Those who are less educated are more likely to hold a creationist view. Those with college degrees and postgraduate education are more likely to hold one of the two viewpoints involving evolution.

Read more at Gallup

Dec 19, 2010

World's first animal-to-human transplant approved

THE world's first xenotransplantation treatment - where animal cells are transplanted into humans - has been approved for sale in Russia.

The treatment, developed by Living Cell Technologies in New Zealand, is for type 1 diabetes. It consists of insulin-producing pig cells coated in seaweed, says Bob Elliott of LCT.

Type 1 diabetes occurs when insulin-producing cells in the pancreas are destroyed. Insulin is vital in controlling blood glucose levels, so people who lack the cells need daily insulin injections.

However, injecting the wrong amount of insulin can cause blood glucose levels to swing dangerously, causing fainting, and cardiovascular and nervous effects. These can reduce a person's life span, Elliott says.

LCT's treatment involves surgically implanting the replacement cells into the pancreas. The "seaweed" coating is alginate, which prevents the immune system from attacking the foreign cells.

Read more at New Scientist

How Will We Know if Planets Are Inhabited?

The recent and scientifically controversial announcement of arsenic-eating microbes in the eastern California desert has ratcheted up the expectation of finding life among the stars.

Add this to the building anticipation of the NASA Kepler mission’s promise to find “Earth-sized” planets in its survey of over 100,000 stars near the Summer Triangle.

Another Kepler data release is scheduled for February and once again there will probably be a flurry of blogs speculating if the mission has found the interstellar Holy Grail -- an Earth-sized planet in the balmy habitable zone about a sunlike star.

A term that's often kicked around is finding an Earth-analog. But what does that really mean? Does it imply something is living there? If so, the answer is very likely to be decades away, and full of uncertainty.

What Makes Earth Habitable?

The habitability of Earth depends on a lot more than just orbit location and its mass. Proponents of the Rare Earth hypothesis say that a long chain of unlikely events led to the emergence of complex life here. The Gaia hypothesis proposes Earth is nurtured and reshaped by life into a single mega-organism.

The flip side is the Medea hypothesis that says life is self-destructive and poisons a planet. For example, over 2 billion years ago blue green algae pumped out oxygen that was toxic to ancient bacteria. Microbes may have sucked enough greehouse gasses out of the atmosphere to trigger two "mother of all ice ages" at 2.3 billion years ago and again at 700 million years ago.

Based on current theories of planetary evolution, any extraterrestrials observing the solar system 4 billion years ago would have seen oceans on Venus, Earth, and Mars. Alien scientists would have cataloged all of them as potentially habitable.

Earth’s biggest advantage comes from having plate tectonics that stabilize the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that keeps Earth warm. Carbonic acid (essentially soda pop) dissolved in silicate rocks is transported to our oceans by rain. Sea life makes carbonate shells from this runoff. This makes carbonate sediments on the floor of the ocean that are subducted back into the Earth though plate tectonics. Volcanism recycles the carbonates into the atmosphere.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 18, 2010

Does sleep increase creativity?

“Sleep is making memories stronger,” says Jessica D. Payne of the University of Notre Dame, who co-wrote the review with Elizabeth A. Kensinger of Boston College. “It also seems to be doing something which I think is so much more interesting, and that is reorganizing and restructuring memories.”

Payne and Kensinger study what happens to memories during sleep, and they have found that a person tends to hang on to the most emotional part of a memory. For example, if someone is shown a scene with an emotional object, such as a wrecked car, in the foreground, they’re more likely to remember the emotional object than, say, the palm trees in the background — particularly if they’re tested after a night of sleep. They have also measured brain activity during sleep and found that regions of the brain involved with emotion and memory consolidation are active.

“In our fast-paced society, one of the first things to go is our sleep,” Payne says. “I think that’s based on a profound misunderstanding that the sleeping brain isn’t doing anything.” The brain is busy. It’s not just consolidating memories, it’s organizing them and picking out the most salient information. She thinks this is what makes it possible for people to come up with creative, new ideas.

Full article at Science Daily

Cold Plasma Kills Bacteria Better Than Antibiotics

Russian and German scientists may have found a better way to treat infections than using antibiotics. The solution is not another drug, but a feat of physics: cold plasma.

Before you ask whether that is an oxymoron, let me explain. Cold here is not cold in the Arctic sense; rather the opposite of scalding hot. Plasma -- an ionized gas sometimes called the fourth state of matter -- typically exists at thousands of degrees Celsius, and hot plasmas are regularly used to sterilizing surgical equipment.

And only recently have researchers been able to make plasmas at a steady 35 to 40 degrees Celsius and at atmospheric pressure. This is cold enough to touch safely -- watch this woman on YouTube run her finger beneath a cold plasma flame.

Cold plasmas are closer to room temperatures. Svetlana Ermolaeva and her research team at the Gamaleya Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow wanted to see how well cold plasma could work against nasty microbes that lead to infections.They used a cold plasma torch in the lab to combat two common bacteria, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus, which show up frequently in wound infections, but are resistant to antibiotics because they have a protective layer called a biofilm.

After five minutes, the plasma torch killed 99 percent of bacteria grown in a Petri dish, and after ten minutes, it killed 90 percent of bacteria present in the wounds of a rat wounds. And because the torch can be directed at a specific, small area of infection, surrounding tissue is left unharmed.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 17, 2010

Meet the woman who literally has no fear of anything

A 44-year-old woman who doesn’t experience fear has led to the discovery of where that fright factor lives in the human brain.

Researchers put out their best foot to try to scare the patient, who they refer to as “SM” in their write-up in the most recent issue of the journal Current Biology. Haunted houses, where monsters tried to evoke an avoidance reaction, instead evoked curiosity; spiders and snakes didn’t do the trick; and a battery of scary film clips entertained SM.

The patient has a rare condition called Urbach–Wiethe disease that has destroyed her amygdala, the almond-shaped structure located deep in the brain. Over the past 50 years studies have shown the amygdala plays a central role in generating fear responses in various animals from rats to monkeys.

Full article at LiveScience

Bulgarian TV reports of 8000 year old sun temple

The oldest temple of the Sun has been discovered in northwest Bulgaria, near the town of Vratsa, aged at more then 8000 years, the Bulgarian National Television (BNT) reported on December 15 2010.

The Bulgarian ‘Stonehenge’ is hence about 3000 years older than its illustrious English counterpart. But unlike its more renowned English cousin, the Bulgarian sun temple was not on the surface, rather it was dug out from under tons of earth and is shaped in the form of a horse shoe, the report said.

The temple was found near the village of Ohoden. According to archaeologists, the prehistoric people used the celestial facility to calculate the seasons and to determine the best times for sowing and harvest. The site was also used for rituals, offering gifts to the Sun for fertility as BNT reported.

This area of Bulgaria was previously made famous because remnants of the oldest people who lived in this part of Europe were found. Archaeologists also found dozens of clay and stone disks in the area of the temple.

“The semantics of the disks symbolise the disk of the Sun itself, which means that this is the earliest ever temple dedicated to the worship of the Sun God, discovered on our lands,” archaeologist Georgi Ganetsovski told the BNT.


Dec 16, 2010

Child regains sight after stem cell treatment in China

Izabelle Evans, who was born with septo-optic dysplasia, a condition that affects five in one million babies, can now see objects that are up to 3 feet away after the £50,000 treatment.

Her parents James Evans and Hollie McHugh raised the money in just over a year after finding out about the procedure online.

The family spent over a month in the Chinese city of Tsingtao where Izabelle frequently became upset as she endured the gruelling five-days-a-week treatment.

However, since returning to Hayling Island, Hants, Izabelle's parents have been delighted with the results.

Miss McHugh said: "We thought that if it did work it may be a bit of light perception but for her to be able to tell the difference between faces and objects has been amazing."

Read more and see video at The Telegraph

Brain only fully 'matures' in middle age, claims neuroscientist

Scientists used to believe that your brain stopped physically evolving in early childhood but new research has shown that keeps changing well into middle age.

Brain scans have shown that prefrontal cortex – the area just behind your forehead – continues to change shape in your 30s and 40s.

The discovery is particularly significant as the prefrontal cortex is a key area of the brain and is often thought said to be key to what makes us human.

It is said to be involved with decision making, social interaction and many other personality traits.

Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a neuroscientist at University College London, revealed the new thinking at the British Neuroscience Christmas symposium in London.

She said: "Until about 10 years ago we pretty much assumed that the human brain stopped developing in early childhood.

"But we now understand from brain imaging that that is far from the truth and that many human brains keep on developing for many decades.

"The area of the brain that goes through the most protracted development is the prefrontal cortex right at the front of the brain.

"It is the part of the brain that is involved in high cognitive function such as decision making, planning and social behaviour. It is also to do with understanding other people.

Read more at The Telegraph

The size of your brain’s visual cortex determines whether optical illusions fool you

“How we perceive the world is determined by the visual cortex, but not everybody’s cortex is created equal. One person’s visual cortex can be up to three times bigger than someone else’s, and size matters when it comes to perception.

The primary visual cortex has a far more active role in shaping how we see the world than anyone had suspected. Researchers at University College London discovered this when they were testing a pair of optical illusions on some test subjects. Here’s the first one, known as the Ebbinghaus illusion:

Which of the two circles at the center of the other circles is smaller? Most people will say the circle on the left is smaller than the circle on the right, but they’re actually the exact same size.”

Read more at io9

Dec 15, 2010

Murdered French King's Remains Identified

A mummified head has been confirmed to belong to Henri IV, the French king who was stabbed to death by a Catholic fundamentalist 400 years ago.

The head has been identified using a combination of anthropological, paleopathological, radiological and forensic strategies by a multi-disciplinary team of 20 experts, who report their findings in Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal.

One of France's most popular monarchs, also known as the "Green Gallant" for his allure on women, Henry IV is credited with ending the wars between Catholics and Protestants.

Following the St Bartholomew's Day massacre of Protestants, he was forced to convert to Catholicism, allegedly declaring, "Paris is worth a Mass," before becoming “good King Henry”.

Despite his popularity, he was assassinated on May 14, 1610, at age 57, by Catholic fanatic Francois Ravaillac, who slashed him twice in the throat while the royal coach was stopped in traffic congestion.

Henry IV’s embalmed body was solemnly buried with the other kings of France in the basilica of Saint-Denis, north of Paris.

Read more at Discovery News

Can't learn a foreign language? Not true, say scientists

All one needs to do is listen to a word 160 times over that period, found Cambridge neuroscientists.

After that the brain will have formed a whole new network of neurons specifically tasked with remembering that word.
The process happens far quicker than previously thought, they found.
Dr Yury Shtyrov and his team made the discovery after placing electrodes on the heads of 16 healthy volunteers to monitor their brain activity.
First they recorded the pulses generated when they listened to a familiar word. Then the volunteers were made to listen to a made-up word, over and over again.

Initially the brain had to work hard to recognise the new word. But after 160 repetitions over 14 minutes, the new memory traces were "virtually indistinguishable" from those of the already familiar word, said Dr Shtyrov.
He said: "What this suggests is that practising language is important. Every little helps.

"Just perception - listening - is helpful. Our volunteers didn't repeat the words."

Getting them to repeat the words would "probably extend the new neural networks" to the part of the brain tasked with speech, he said.

However, he and colleagues at the Medical Research Council's Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit developed the approach, called constraint-induced aphasia therapy (CIAT), not to help tourists learn French, but to help stroke patients regain their speech.

He said: "This research suggests that faster rehabilitation may be possible if treatments for people with brain damage, such as stroke patients, target the brain’s ability to rapidly create these memory traces."

The next step was to test the theory in stroke patients, he added.

The research is published today (WED) in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Read more at The Telegraph

Massive Volcanism May Have Caused Biggest Extinction Ever

SAN FRANCISCO — The greatest extinction in the history of life may have been caused, in part, by ozone-depleting gases spewed in a massive volcanic eruption, a new study suggests. Geologists have found surprisingly high amounts of the elements fluorine and chlorine in Siberian lavas dating back 250 million years — when about 90 percent of marine species and 70 percent of terrestrial species went extinct.

Benjamin Black, a graduate student at MIT, and his colleagues described their theory Dec. 13 in a poster presentation at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

Researchers have long struggled to explain the “Great Dying” that occurred at the end of the Permian period. Some think that the extinction was a long, drawn-out affair caused by multiple factors — perhaps gradual changes in oceanic or atmospheric chemistry (SN: 5/28/05, p. 339). Others have blamed a single catastrophic event such as a belch of methane from the seafloor or an asteroid impact (SN: 2/24/01, p. 116) like the one thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs and other species 65 million years ago.

Full Story at Wired Science

Dec 14, 2010

Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People: a Christmas show that promises fun for all the faithless

On paper, it shouldn't really work. How many takers could there be for a science-themed variety show, mingling orchestral numbers, stand-up comedy and lectures from Simon Singh, Brian Cox and Richard Dawkins, before concluding with a rousing singalong led by Barry Cryer?

Yet against all the odds, Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People has become something of a seasonal institution. Tomorrow, it starts a sold-out run at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London; last year's show attracted such buzz that it was screened on BBC Four.

The event is the brainchild of comedian Robin Ince, who acts as host and general impresario. "It's sort of a mix of the Royal Variety Show and the Royal Institution's Christmas Lectures," he explains. "You're mixing physics with Jarvis Cocker singing I Believe in Father Christmas, before Richard Dawkins talks about cobweb formation. Hopefully, we manage to iron out the kinks."

The show's success has certainly surprised those who thought that gags about the Uncertainty Principle would never be big box office – and it is part of a more general trend. "Until recently, television in particular hasn't had as much science on it as when I was growing up," says Ince. "But what sometimes gets forgotten is that people are receptive to having ideas thrown at them."

One problem, he argues, is that science is often dismissed as dry. "I had the normal path, which was to love science as a child, then find it really dull when I became a teenager, because it's hard to make it interesting while sticking to the curriculum. But 10 years ago, I picked up a book by Carl Sagan called Pale Blue Dot, about mankind's place in the universe, which set me back on the path."

Now, he is evangelical on the topic. "How can science be dry," he asks, "when it covers everything, from human behaviour to the Sun? In fact, the whole behaviour of the universe is so eccentric that there's an endless amount of material for comedy."

This enthusiasm comes across in the show – which last year featured stand-up from Dara O'Briain, an "evolutionary rap" and Al Murray's proof that God exists (how else could the bacon sandwich have been created?). Yet it was also possible to detect a certain smugness: profits go to the Rationalist Association, and there's definitely a chiding tone towards those credulous enough to believe in the Bible.

Ince rejects the accusation that he's anti-religion. "It's not like Richard Dawkins and I are building a giant tank that we'll drive into Canterbury Cathedral. Actually, I come from a long line of vicars. And one thing I ask all the performers is to avoid talking about religion or having a go at the Bible, and instead to celebrate the universe."

Read more at The Telegraph

Have we finally cured HIV? Doctors claim success

Doctors who carried out a stem cell transplant on an HIV-infected man with leukaemia in 2007 say they now believe the man to have been cured of HIV infection as a result of the treatment, which introduced stem cells which happened to be resistant to HIV infection.

The man received bone marrow from a donor who had natural resistance to HIV infection; this was due to a genetic profile which led to the CCR5 co-receptor being absent from his cells. The most common variety of HIV uses CCR5 as its ‘docking station’, attaching to it in order to enter and infect CD4 cells, and people with this mutation are almost completely protected against infection.

The case was first reported at the 2008 Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Boston, and Berlin doctors subsequently published a detailed case history in the New England Journal of Medicine in February 2009.

They have now published a follow-up report in the journal Blood, arguing that based on the results of extensive tests, “It is reasonable to conclude that cure of HIV infection has been achieved in this patient.”

Full story over at

Ancient Chinese pyramids baffle scientists

No one seems to know the origin or the meaning behind a mysterious pyramid that sits atop Mount Baigong in western China that local legends claim is an alien UFO launch tower.

Nine scientists form the team that will travel to the western province of Qinghai and the mouth of this 165-198 foot tall structure known as the “ET Relics.”

“The pyramid has three caves with openings shaped like triangles on its fa├žade and is filled with red-hued pipes leading into the mountain and a nearby salt water lake,” says China’s state-run Xinhua agency.

The site in question with its high altitude and thin, crisp air has long been considered an ideal astronomical location. Two of the three caves at the foot of the mountain have collapsed and are inaccessible. The remaining middle one, which is the largest, stands with its floor about 6 feet above the ground and its top about 9 feet above the surface.

Inside the cave, there is s a half-pipe about 40 centimeters in diameter tilting from the top to the inside of the cave. Another pipe of the same diameter goes into the earth with only its top visible above the ground. Dozens of strange pipes surround the opening with diameters ranging from 10 to 40 centimeters. Their structures indicate a highly advanced and completely unknown construction technique.

More info and pictures at Weird Asia

Dec 13, 2010

Wireless at the speed of plasma

Antennas that use plasma to focus beams of radio waves could bring us superfast wireless networks

BEFORE you leave for work in the morning, your smartphone downloads the latest episode of a television series. Your drive to work is easy in spite of fog, thanks to in-car radar and the intelligent transport software that automatically guides you around traffic jams, allowing you to arrive in time for a presentation in which high-definition video is streamed flawlessly to your tablet computer in real time.

This vision of the future may not be far off, thanks to a new type of antenna that makes use of plasma consisting of only electrons. It could revolutionise high-speed wireless communications, miniature radar and even energy weapons.

Existing directional antennas that transmit high-frequency radio waves require expensive materials or precise manufacturing. But the new antenna, called Plasma Silicon Antenna, or PSiAN, relies on existing low-cost manufacturing techniques developed for silicon chips. It has been developed by Plasma Antennas of Winchester, UK.

PSiAN consists of thousands of diodes on a silicon chip. When activated, each diode generates a cloud of electrons - the plasma - about 0.1 millimetres across. At a high enough electron density, each cloud reflects high-frequency radio waves like a mirror. By selectively activating diodes, the shape of the reflecting area can be changed to focus and steer a beam of radio waves. This "beam-forming" capability makes the antennas crucial to ultrafast wireless applications, because they can focus a stream of high-frequency radio waves that would quickly dissipate using normal antennas.

"Beam-forming antennas are the key for enabling next-generation, high-data-rate indoor wireless applications," says Anmol Sheth, at Intel Labs in Seattle. "Without beam-forming antennas it would be difficult to scale to the levels of density of wireless devices we expect to have in future homes."

There are two types of plasma antenna: semiconductor or solid-state antennas, such as PSiAN, and gas antennas. Both could fit the bill, but solid-state antennas are favoured as they are more compact and have no moving parts.

Read more at New Scientist

Prehistoric People Ate Each Other, Bones Show

Prehistoric humans, along with Neanderthals and Homo antecessor, made meals of each other, suggests new research on probable human teeth marks found on prehistoric human bones.

The findings, which will be published in the January issue of The Journal of Human Evolution, support prior theories that the first humans to re-colonize Britain after the last ice age practiced nutritional cannibalism 12,000 years ago at a site called Gough's Cave in what is now Somerset, England.

It was a survival strategy, according to authors Yolanda Fernandez-Jalvo and Peter Andrews.

"Think that a member of your group dies," Fernandez-Jalvo told Discovery News. "The body can give one day off from hunting, which was always dangerous at that time, and what to do with the dead body that may attract other dangerous carnivores that may attack the group."

"This could be a good solution," she added, reminding that cannibalism does not always mean the cannibal killed the consumed individual.

To determine what patterns humans leave behind when they chew or gnaw on bones, the researchers had four different groups of European people chew raw and cooked meat bones from various animals.

The scientists also studied bones, now in a museum, which were chewed in the 1960's by the Koi people of Namibia. The Koi tended not to cook food as much as the Europeans did, so the researchers wanted to see what kind of damage they left behind on discarded bones.

The scientists also analyzed fossilized bone collections from ancient hominid sites in Spain, the U.K. and the Caucasus region.

They determined that when humans chew and gnaw bones, a distinctive pattern is left behind. It includes bent ends of bones, puncture marks, superficial linear marks, peeling, crenulated ends and double arch punctures on the chewed edge. Not all of these features are unique to human chewing, but in combination, the researchers believe the features provide evidence for human eating.

Since bone chewing usually occurs when the consumer is trying to get at marrow and the last bit of meat, the marks can help to distinguish nutritional cannibalism from ritual de-fleshing. The findings can also reveal which animals prehistoric humans and human ancestors ate.

"Indications of Homo habilis eating hedgehog and using tools to eat them" has already been identified, Fernandez-Jalvo said.

She also said evidence suggests Neanderthals consumed marine mammals shortly after these animals gave birth, "chasing the youngest as an easy and clever strategy and avoiding the adults that were quite dangerous."

Read more at Discovery News

WikiLeaks backlash: The first global cyber war has begun, claim hackers

“He is one of the newest recruits to Operation Payback. In a London bedroom, the 24-year-old computer hacker is preparing his weaponry for this week’s battles in an evolving cyberwar. He is a self-styled defender of free speech, his weapon a laptop and his enemy the US corporations responsible for attacking the website WikiLeaks.

He had seen the flyers that began springing up on the web in mid-September. In chatrooms, on discussion boards and inboxes from Manchester to New York to Sydney the grinning face of a Guy Fawkes mask had appeared with a call to arms. Across the world a battalion of hackers was being summoned.

“Greetings, fellow anons,” it said beneath the headline Operation Payback. Alongside were a series of software programs dubbed “our weapons of choice” and a stark message: people needed to show their “hatred”.

Like most international conflicts, last week’s internet war began over a relatively modest squabble, escalating in days into a global fight.

Before WikiLeaks, Operation Payback’s initial target was America’s recording industry, chosen for its prosecutions of music file downloaders. From those humble origins, Payback’s anti-censorship, anti-copyright, freedom of speech manifesto would go viral, last week pitting an amorphous army of online hackers against the US government and some of the biggest corporations in the world.

Charles Dodd, a consultant to US government agencies on internet security, said: “[The hackers] attack from the shadows and they have no fear of retaliation. There are no rules of engagement in this kind of emerging warfare.”

The battle now centres on Washington’s fierce attempts to close down WikiLeaks and shut off the supply of confidential US government cables. By Thursday, the hacktivists were routinely attacking those who had targeted WikiLeaks, among them icons of the corporate world, credit card firms and some of the largest online companies. It seemed to be the first sustained clash between the established order and the organic, grassroots culture of the net.”

Read more at The Guardian

Skin was the first organ to evolve

“In the evolution of organs, skin came first. The discovery that even sponges have a proto-skin shows that the separation of insides from outsides in multicellular animals was key to their evolution.

It has been known since the 1960s that sponges have a distinct outer layer of cells, or epithelium. But because sponges lack the genes involved in expelling molecules, it was assumed that this was not a functional organ. Sally Leys and her team at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, have now shown otherwise. When they grew flat sponges on thin membranes, with liquid above and below, they found that the epithelium kept some molecules out, sometimes only allowing 0.8 per cent through in 3 hours (PLoS ONE, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0015040).

Sponges were the first multicellular animals to evolve, so the finding means all complex life has a skin. Leys thinks the organ was vital as it isolated animals’ insides from their surroundings. As a result, cells could send chemical signals to each other without interference, setting the stage for complex organs to evolve.

Scott Nichols of the University of California, Berkeley, says the findings hint that sponges were the ancestors of other animals rather than a sister group.”

Read more at New Scientist

Dec 12, 2010

Fake Watchful Eyes Discourage Naughty Behavior

Being watched by a photograph of staring eyes can be enough encouragement to behave, follow orders or do the right thing, a study has found.

Psychology researchers at Newcastle University hung two different posters at a restaurant, to see how customers would react. They both featured text asking patrons to bin their rubbish, but one had a picture of flowers on it and the other had a pair of staring eyes.

The number of people who paid attention to the sign, and cleaned up after their meal, doubled when confronted with a pair of gazing peepers. The research team, lead by Dr. Melissa Bateson and Dr. Daniel Nettle of the Centre for Behaviour and Evolution found that twice as many customers followed the orders when met with eyes, compared to figures for the flower poster from the day before.

The study is based on the theory of “nudge psychology,” which suggests people behave better if the best option is highlighted, but not forced upon them. Linking that with the eyes grabs peoples’ attention, and makes that nudge even more effective.

It’s a followup to a 2006 study where similar posters were hung up in a communal tea room, by the honesty box. Subjects were found to pay up nearly three times as much cash when stared at by eyes, rather than flowers. Luckily, we’re far too honest to need one of these posters in the Wired offices.

Read more at Wired

Dec 11, 2010

Couple banned from hanging fairy lights for 'health and safety'

For the last 10 years, Ian and Linda Cameron have lit up the top floor of their tower block with a sparkling display of festive lights, enjoyed by thousands of people who can see them from miles around.
But this year the council told them to take them down because they are too dangerous.
The couple live on the 19th floor of Brighton's second highest clocks of council flats, right in the city centre, and for many, the switching on of their lights is the unofficial start to the Christmas season.

Last summer tenants in the block were ordered to remove their doormats from internal corridors because they were considered a fire risk.

Mrs Cameron, 53, said: "Now they are picking on our fairy lights. A woman from the housing office called me at home and told me to take them down immediately.

"I was quite upset because she talked to me like I was some kind of criminal. We only put them on when we are at home and turn them off at bedtime.

"I asked why and she simply said: 'Health and Safety.'

"Have they got nothing better to worry about?"

A Brighton and Hove Council spokesman said: "There is no suggestion that this action is 'suddenly' necessary. In fact, we are responding to a complaint from a member of the public and were not previously aware these lights were being suspended so high above the ground. Far from being 'health and safety gone mad', this is common sense.

"Where electric lights are being hung more than 100 feet high, we have a duty to ensure they are not a danger to passers-by."

Mr Cameron, 63, said: "People can see our lights right across the city. I've looped them along the balcony, which stretches half way round the top floor, every year since we moved in a decade ago and nobody has ever said anything before.

Read more at The Telegraph

Ancient Desert Oasis Echoes Eden

The waters of the Persian Gulf may cover one of humanity's oldest and largest footholds outside Africa -- according to archeologist Jeffery Rose in this month's issue of Current Anthropology.

A verdant oasis provided a sanctuary the size of Great Britain for humans from at least 74,000 years ago until 8,000 years ago. The Gulf Oasis, as the area is called, provided a refuge from the harsh deserts created by the Ice Age.

Humans may have inhabited southern Arabia for more than 100,000 years. While researchers previously considered the area a corridor between Africa and Eurasia, evidence from the Gulf Oasis shows humans used the coast region to create homesteads and survive dry spells while independently developing cultures and technologies. Archeologists find evidence of this in distinctively Arabian stone working techniques, Rose reports.

The Gulf Oasis expanded and contracted as the world's climate changed throughout the ages known as the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene. Then, around 8,000 years ago, the Indian Ocean flooded into the basin, creating the Persian Gulf and driving out the humans.

The refugees, apparently, did not travel too far to find a new place to call home. Along the coast of the Persian Gulf, archeologists found more than 60 sites appearing suddenly from culturally advanced peoples, where before only a few hunter-gather camps dotted the landscape.

The Gulf Oasis refugees survived by a combination of fishing, date palm cultivation, and raising livestock. These newcomers managed to also continue their network of overseas trading. By 7,000 years ago, there is evidence that the refugees from the sunken oasis were also using irrigation in the northern portion of the coastline. Archeologists suggest that the irrigation developed there eventually led to the creation of cities.

UR The Gulf Oasis was at the southern tip of the Fertile Crescent, or Mesopotamia. The Fertile Crescent eventually gave rise to some of the first cities, including Ur, which was located in the southern portion of Mesopotamia. One famous resident of Ur was Abraham, considered to be the patriarch of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religions.

Read more at Discovery News

Apple chap knocks up ancient Lego computer

“Apple software engineer Andrew Carol has rather impressively put together a replica of the ancient Antikythera Mechanism – built entirely from Lego.

The mechanism, constructed around 80BC, was recovered from the wreck of a cargo ship off the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901, but wasn’t until 2006 revealed to be a planetary motion calculator.

Carol has, with a big bucket of Lego and the backing of Digital Science, demonstrated how the contraption may have been used to calculate eclipses:”

Via The Register

Dec 10, 2010

Red haired people do not feel more pain: doctors

People with red hair do not feel more pain or bleed more after operations, despite doctors' fears that they do, it has emerged.

Doctors treat red heads with trepidation, an article in the British Medical Journal said, because of their reputation for complications.

But surgeon Jonathan Barry from Morriston Hospital in Swansea and colleagues checked the evidence for such worries and found it was flimsy at best.

He wrote in the BMJ: "Red haired patients are traditionally regarded with a degree of trepidation by surgeons and anaesthetists alike due to a reputation for excessive bleeding, reduced pain threshold and a propensity to develop hernias."

Read more at The Telegraph

Mutual criticism is vital in science. Libel laws threaten it

“Recently we have seen a large number of fairly high-profile libel cases involving scientists and doctors, including Dr Peter Wilmshurst, Dr Henrik Thomsen, Dr Simon Singh, and my own.

In many of them, lawyers have been dismissive of any special pleading for science in the libel reform movement: if you want to step out and criticise, they explain, you should be aware of the implications and ready to defend your point. But in science, the assumptions and traditions are different, and with good reason. In science and medicine, criticising each others’ ideas and practices isn’t an aberration, or a special occasion: it’s exactly what you are supposed to do, all of the time, and with very good reason.

Medicine is almost unique among all human activities in that it’s possible to do enormous harm even when you set out with the absolute best of intentions, and there are many examples of this, even in mainstream healthcare. On paper, for example, it made perfect sense to give antiarrhythmics preventively to everyone who’d had a heart attack, rather than just the people who had abnormal hearth rhythms. But it turned out that this practice had killed more Americans than died in the whole of the Vietnam war.

In medicine, when you make a mistake about whether something works or not, it’s possible to cause death and suffering on a genuinely biblical scale.

That’s why we have systems to try and stop us making such mistakes, and at the heart of all these lies mutual criticism: criticising each others ideas and practices. This isn’t something that’s marginal, or tolerated by the profession. It’s something that is welcomed and actively encouraged. More than that, it’s institutionalised.”

Read more at The Guardian

Dec 9, 2010

Baby’s brain scan during birth

A team comprised of obstetricians, radiologists and engineers have built an “open” MRI scanner that allows a mother-to-be to fit fully into the machine and give birth there, the hospital announced on Tuesday.

The MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanner has already taken unique images of the body of a mother and the movement of her baby through the birth canal to the point where its head emerges into the world. The birth that took place in the scanner went smoothly and both mother and baby were in good health, a hospital spokeswoman said.

More at The Local

If you can teach computers to learn, NASA needs your help.

Sometimes the distortions are obvious, like in the Hubble image of a distant galaxy cluster above. But sometimes they’re too subtle to be picked out by human eyes, and can even be confused with noise from the telescope used to take the galaxies’ picture. So cosmologists have turned to machine learning algorithms that teach computers to recognize patterns.

“We’re trying to teach computers to pick out the correct shape given all sorts of other noise around the galaxy’s shape,” said NASA cosmologist Jason Rhodes, who is helping to organize the challenge. “We have our ideas as a community about how to do this, but we realized a few years ago that it was quite possible there were ideas we weren’t familiar with.”

The competition is designed to bring fresh ideas from machine learning and computer science experts. But the challenge is open to anyone.

Full details at Wired