May 21, 2011

Scientists Fight University of California to Study Rare Ancient Skeletons

SAN DIEGO — Two ancient skeletons uncovered in 1976 on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, during construction at the home of a University of California chancellor, may be among the most valuable for genetic analysis in the continental United States. Dated between 9,000 and 9,600 years old, the exceptionally preserved bones could potentially produce the oldest complete human genome from the continent.

But only if scientists aren’t barred from studying them.

Attempts to unlock the skeletons’ genetic secrets are stalled in a dispute pitting UC scientists against their own administration. Five of the scientists wrote with alarm in a letter published May 20 in the journal Science that UC administrators aren’t allowing studies on the skeletons, which were discovered on property owned by UC San Diegoin La Jolla, California.

Before samples can be extracted for genetic analysis, the scientists fear administrators will give the bones to politically powerful local Native Americans who could permanently block study.

“To give them away without study, would be like throwing the genetic crown jewels of the peopling of the Americas in the ocean,” said Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, who is among about a half dozen researchers who have unsuccessfully sought in recent months to sample or study the bones. “It would be a major loss for all, including Native Americans.”

A few studies were done years ago on the skeletons before UC withdrew access to them, but recent technological advances would allow scientists to do much more, including a digital skull calibration and possibly a full genome sequence.

“The potential loss of the La Jolla skeletons would have a profoundly negative impact on our knowledge of the peopling of the Americas,” wrote the authors of the letter, led by Margaret Schoeninger, an anthropologist at UCSD.

Science letter co-author Tim White, a prominent paleoanthropologist at UC Berkeley, told, “Administrators are doing everything they can to ignore the scientific value of the specimens. They are trying to illegally repatriate them to a lobbyist for a dozen San Diego County tribes.”

UC officials are seeking to provide the skeletons to the Kumeyaay Nation east of San Diego under a complex process guided by the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). But critical scientists say NAGPRA requirements aren’t being followed properly, setting the stage for a potential legal battle over the bones.

“This is Kennewick Man II,” White said, referring to the long federal court battle in 2004 when scientists won the right to study bones found in Washington.

In a May 11 letter, Mark Yudof, president of the 10-campus UC system, authorized UCSD chancellor Marye Anne Fox to dispose of the bones — after clarifications are made to a report done under NAGPRA requirements, and other tribes that may be interested in the bones are consulted.

Steve Benegas, the repatriation spokesman for the Kumeyaay nation’s 12 tribes, said they are entitled to the bones and to decide about future analysis. Some Native Americans believe scientific research amounts to desecration of remains, and Benegas said he personally is against studies.

“The university has handled this poorly over the years,” he said. “We have no trust in them. They have treated the remains of our ancestors without respect.”

One of the previous analyses done years ago showed the bones have connective tissue and amino acids that are used in cell function. This means it is very likely ancient DNA can be extracted. And two skeletons buried together offers a rare opportunity to compare their genomes to see if they were related.

Read more at Wired Science

Ultimate Game of Chance: Tracking the Rapture

I predict within the next 2 to 3 minutes, an earthquake will strike somewhere on the planet. You can check how my prediction is doing using Google Earth files from the U.S. Geological Survey.

As the Day of Rapture, which is allegedly upon us on Saturday, is supposed to include a terrible earthquake, we can assume the magnitude of this event must be greater than 5.0. In which case, I need to revise my prediction. If I want to play it safe, I could say two earthquakes of this magnitude will strike before the day is out. But I won't be making any money on that bet, as the average number of earthquakes of magnitude 5 or higher is four a day.

**Get alerts of major earthquakes sent to you by email from the USGS and follow along as the day progresses.**

On average the number of earthquakes that will strike each year include: 1 earthquake of magnitude 8 or larger; 17 earthquakes of magnitudes ranging from 7 to 7.9; 134 earthquakes of magnitudes ranging from 6 to 6.9; and 1,319 earthquakes of magnitudes 5 to 5.9. But lower magnitude earthquakes are more common. For example, more than a million earthquakes in the magnitude 2 to 2.9 range strike each year.

With all these earthquakes rattling the lithosphere on a regular basis, saying an earthquake is coming is about as pointless as saying the wind will blow. The questions that need answering are where, when, and how strong. But currently only risk analysis -- based on stress accumulation, historical patterns, the geology of a region, the tectonics of the region, and so forth -- is possible. Perhaps in the future atmospheric analysis will be included in estimating risk. But currently, those looking at radon levels in the ionosphere, are making bold assertions of predictive possibilities that still need better data and, importantly, peer-review to back them up.

Growing up in Southern California, the common knowledge was that an earthquake was the physical release of pressure along the fault. Aftershocks were considered the latent release of the same pressure or neighboring pressure from shifts in the fault-line as a result of the original quake. As earthquakes and their aftershocks struck, the likelihood of a bigger quake to follow was reduced - or so the thinking went. Now we know that's not always the case.

As the events in Japan recently demonstrated, even big earthquakes of magnitude 7 or 8, as has occurred historically along Japan's offshore trench for centuries, are no indication that the stress is being relieved. In addition, even a large earthquake such as the 7.3 that struck on March 9, can be a foreshock of a larger one to come. The problem is there is currently no way to tell if the original quakes are foreshocks to a larger quake or not, unless and until a larger quake manifests.

In yesterday's Science Express, geophysicists with the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) published a model of the estimated fault slip due to the 9.0 Tohoku‑Oki megathrust event. Their findings, coupled with two other reports with lead authors from the University of Tokyo and the Japan Coast Guard, are helping to identify the tectonic aspects that led to such a surprising event as well as clarifying what is beyond current knowledge. The Caltech researchers made a point of marking what is unknown in their map with a giant white question mark.

"Instead of saying a large earthquake probably wouldn't happen there, we should have said that we didn't know," said lead author Mark Simmons in a press release. The section of the fault that failed catastrophically on March 11, had remained stable while other sections around it had shifted over the years.

"The Pacific Plate and the Okhotsk Plate had been pinned together for a long time, probably 500 to 1000 years, and finally failed in this magnitude 9.0 event," explained seismologist Hiroo Kanamori also with Caltech.

Just south of the point where the Tohoku‑Oki earthquake ruptured, another area has displayed similar eerie quiet over the centuries. "The highest amounts of stress aren't found where the paper has just ripped, but rather right where the paper has not yet been torn," Simons says.

Calculating stress build-up is possible on land with GPS measurements, but underwater observations of shifts in the seafloor are still a remote and difficult operation to achieve. Early seafloor geodetic stations around Japan were first deployed in 2002.

Now it is clear that better monitoring of the seafloor will be critical in helping to obtain the information needed in terms of risk analysis. "It is important to note that we are not predicting an earthquake here," emphasizes Simons. "However, we do not have data on the area, and therefore should focus attention there, given its proximity to Tokyo."

Read more at Discovery News

May 20, 2011

Doomsdays: Dubious and Deferred

For thousands of years, thousands of people (and their followers) have predicted the imminent end of the world. They’ve all been wrong so far, but minister and broadcaster Harold Camping is sure that the world will end tomorrow.

Well, actually, the world will begin to end; the whole process will take about five months while the Rapture occurs, devout Christians ascend to heaven and Jesus appears. Camping and his followers spent much of the last year informing the world about its demise, through radio, billboards, and pamphlets.

Responses have ranged from ridicule to serious concern. Some enterprising atheists have even offered a pet rescue service assuring Christians who are taken up to heaven that they won’t need to worry about the pets they leave behind.

Religious Doomsday Predictions

Most prophecies of Armageddon, like those of Mr. Camping, are rooted in Bible passages. In the 1830s and 1840s, followers of a man named William Miller believed that the world would end in 1843 or 1844, based on his reading of the Bible. Miller had thousands of followers, many of whom abandoned their houses and personal property in preparation for their meeting with God. The Judgment Day came and went without noticeable global destruction, and some of Miller’s followers formed what would later become the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

Author Hal Lindsey was one of the highest-profile Christian doomsday prophets in modern times, with 1970s best-sellers like The Late Great Planet Earth. He is hardly alone; Pat Robertson claimed in 1980 that the End Times would be upon us by 1982.

Secular Doomsday Predictions

Though most doomsday predictions are based in religion, some (especially those that have emerged in the past century) have more to do with the natural world. The infamous Y2K scare, in which computer experts feared that a computer glitch might trigger global mass destruction, came and went without a problem. (Whether the threat was exaggerated in the first place, or the computer programmers averted a serious problem is debatable.) Others suggest that an asteroid impact, or special planetary alignments, will kill us all.

Those who don’t believe won’t be surprised if nothing happens, but what happens to believers when the promised Armageddon doesn’t materialize?

Psychologist Leon Festinger examined this in the book "When Prophecy Fails," and found that in some cases the fact that the prophet was wrong has little effect. To understand why, it’s important to realize that the high-profile prophecy that captures the public’s attention is only a small part of that group’s belief system. Anyone can make a mistake, and one mistake or misstatement by a religious authority doesn’t necessarily undermine belief in other religious precepts or prophecies. Religious texts are notoriously open to widely varied interpretation, and faith in a leader’s credibility does not necessarily hinge upon one prediction (even if it’s a big one).

Read more at Discovery News

Mummy Had Earliest Case of Heart Disease

An Egyptian princess who lived more than 3,500 years ago had the oldest known case of coronary artery disease, according to a new study which provides unique insights into the origins of atherosclerosis.

The mummified remains of the princess, who lived in Thebes (Luxor) between 1580 and 1550 B.C., were investigated by a team of Egyptian and U.S. researchers.

Using whole-body, multi-slice computed tomography scanning, the researchers found evidence of arterial calcification in the mummy, which is a marker for cardiovascular disease.

The analysis revealed that Princess Ahmose-Meryet-Amon, who died in her early 40s, had a casebook condition of atherosclerosis, a type of hardening of the arteries responsible for most heart diseases.

She showed signs of atherosclerosis in her aorta, carotids, coronaries, iliac and femoral arteries.

"Today she would have needed bypass surgery," said Gregory S. Thomas, director of Nuclear Cardiology Education at the University of California, Irvine, and co-author of the study.

Ahmose-Meryet-Amon wasn't an isolated case. Commonly considered a result of our modern lifestyle, atherosclerosis was surprisingly widespread in ancient Egypt.

The researchers pointed out that 45 percent of the mummies they put through CT scans show signs of atherosclerosis. They presented their findings at the International Conference of Non-Invasive Cardiovascular Imaging in Amsterdam last week.

They investigated 52 Egyptian mummies, mostly from the Egyptian National Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, who lived between 1981 BC and 364 A.D.

The mummies included 33 males, 17 females and two individuals of unknown gender.

Recognizable arteries were present in 44 of the mummies, while an identifiable heart was present in 16.

Among the 44 mummies with hearts or identifiable blood vessels, 20 had definite or probable atherosclerosis.

Eight mummies showed carotid calcification, while severe atherosclerotic calcifications was seen in the arteries of the upper leg of a male scribe who lived during the 18th Dynasty.

"Overall, it was striking how much atherosclerosis we found," said Thomas.

It's not the first time that plaque build-up has been found in the arteries of Egyptian mummies.

Atherosclerosis in ancient Egyptians was first identified in 1852 when physiologist Johann Nepomuk Czermak found calcific aortic atherosclerosis during the autopsy of a mummy belonging to an elderly Egyptian woman.

Other autopsies found histologic evidence of atherosclerosis in the aorta as well as in other large arteries on several 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummies.

However, the Horus study is the largest, non-invasive investigation on this disease. Spanning over two millennia, it detected evidence of atherosclerosis in almost all the dynastic eras of ancient Egypt, and  highlighted differences in the mummies’ socioeconomical status.

"Among the 25 mummies for whom social position could be determined, 10 were priests or priestesses. Atherosclerosis was less common in clergy than in non- clergy," wrote the researchers.

Cardiovascular diseases are now the world's leading killers, claiming more than 17 million lives in 2010.

Thomas and colleagues wondered how this "disease of modern life" could have affected the ancient Egyptians.

They appeared to eat a heart-healthy diet, including lots of vegetables, fruit and a limited amount of meat, bread and beer. Egyptians were active, and did not know tobacco or trans-fats.

Thomas and his co-principal investigator Dr. Adel Allam of Al Azhar University, Cairo, suggested that the cause for atherosclerosis could have been a genetic predisposition or an inflammatory response to frequent parasitic diseases.

Read more at Discovery News

Milky Way Has Rare Symmetry

A new study suggests the Milky Way doesn’t need a makeover: It’s already just about perfect.

Astronomers base that assertion on their discovery of a vast section of a spiral, star-forming arm at the Milky Way’s outskirts. The finding suggests that the galaxy is a rare beauty with an uncommon symmetry -- one half of the Milky Way is essentially the mirror image of the other half.

Thomas Dame and Patrick Thaddeus of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., say the structure they’ve discovered is most likely the outer extension of the Scutum-Centaurus arm from the inner galaxy. The finding suggests that Scutum-Centaurus wraps all the way around the Milky Way, making it a symmetric counterpart to the galaxy’s other major star-forming arm, Perseus.

The two arms appear to extend from opposite ends of the galaxy’s central, bar-shaped cluster of stars, each winding around the galaxy, the researchers note in an upcoming issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Dame found evidence for the new structure while reviewing galactic data on atomic hydrogen gas, which radiates at a radio wavelength of 21 centimeters. After tracing the extension of the arm in the 21-centimeter radio emission, “I was in the unique position of being able to walk up two flights of stairs to the roof of my building [at Harvard] and search for carbon monoxide emissions from molecular clouds using the CfA 1.2-meter radio telescope,” says Dame. Molecular gas clouds contain the raw material for making stars.

“This is a major new discovery,” comments Robert Benjamin of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. “Dame and Thaddeus have found evidence for a large-scale coherent structure, spanning 60 degrees in the sky … which contains giant molecular gas clouds very far from the galactic center.” The newfound structure lies about 49,000 light-years from the galaxy’s center, and one of the arm’s many large molecular clouds contains an amount of carbon monoxide equivalent to that of 50,000 suns.

Virtually every spiral arm in the Milky Way has been found in sections, Dame notes. When astronomers realized that the Sagittarius arm, found in the northern sky, and the Carina Arm, in the south, were part of a single, larger structure, they became known as the Sagittarius-Carina Arm. Similarly, since Dame and Thaddeus believe the new arm is an extension of Scutum-Centaurus, “we suggested ‘Outer Scutum-Centaurus’ as a more logical name,” Dame says. The structure is longer than the known parts of the Scutum-Centaurus arm, he adds.

The new feature was previously overlooked because it tilts out of the plane of the galaxy, following the outer galaxy’s warp. Most studies examining spiral arms focus on the galaxy’s plane, says Dame.

Read more at Discovery News

Amazonian tribe has no calendar and no concept of time

The Amondawa people who live deep in the Amazonian rainforests of Brazil have no watches or calendars and live their lives to the patterns of day and night and the rainy and dry seasons.

They also have no age – and mark the transition from childhood to adulthood to old age by changing their name.

The team of researchers, led by University of Portsmouth, said that it is the first time they have been able to prove time is not a deeply entrenched universal human concept, as previously thought.

Professor Chris Sinha said: 'We can now say without doubt that there is at least one language and culture which does not have a concept of time as something that can be measured, counted or talked about in the abstract.

"This doesn't mean that the Amondawa are "people outside time", but they live in a world governed by events rather than the passing of time."

Only discovered in 1986, the Amondawa, about 150 strong, continue their traditional way of life, hunting, fishing and farming.

They also have their own language which have a number system but it only goes up to four.

Prof Sinha and his team, including a linguist and anthropologist, spent eight weeks with the Amondawa researching how their language conveys concepts like "next week" or "last year".

There were no words for such concepts, only divisions of day and night and rainy and dry seasons.

They also found nobody in the community had an age.

Instead, they change their names to reflect their life-stage and position within their society.

A little child will give up their name to a newborn sibling and take on a new one.

Prof Sinha said: "We have so many metaphors for time and its passing – we think of time as a 'thing' – we say 'the weekend is nearly gone', 'she's coming up to her exams', 'I haven't got the time', and so on, and we think such statements are objective, but they aren't.

"We've created these metaphors and they have become the way we think. The Amondawa don't talk like this and don't think like this, unless they learn another language.

Read more at The Telegraph

May 19, 2011

Criminal-Profiling Trick Used to Combat Disease

A technique that helps crime fighters zoom in on a serial killer’s whereabouts may help scientists prevent deaths of a different sort — those caused by infectious diseases.

The widely used criminology technique, called geographic profiling, helps investigators narrow a search by pinpointing high-priority targets among thousands of potential locations. In an upcoming International Journal of Health Geographics, researchers demonstrated the technique’s usefulness by identifying the sources of a recent malaria outbreak in Cairo and reconstructing an infamous cholera outbreak in Victorian London. Applying the technique to infectious diseases could help focus interventions, perhaps preventing the spread of disease while saving time and money.

“I think this has a lot of promise,” says disease ecologist Richard Ostfeld of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York. “It’s a very interesting application of a criminological tool to epidemiology.”

When hunting criminals, geographic profiling uses the sites of connected crimes to figure out where a criminal might live. Pioneered by criminologist Kim Rossmo, a former Vancouver police officer now at Texas State University-San Marcos, the method is based on a criminal’s tendency to take a Goldilocks-like approach when selecting where to commit a crime — a location that’s not too close to home, not too far, but just right.

Rossmo, a coauthor of the new study, developed an algorithm that incorporates this notion in two parts. The crime is less likely to be committed in the criminal’s buffer zone — the immediate vicinity of his or her home or work — because detection is riskier and opportunities may be few. And the likelihood of a crime site decays with distance, because travel requires time, effort and money.

“I’m based in London,” says study coauthor Steven Le Comber of Queen Mary, University of London. “So I’m not going to pop up to Inverness [in the far reaches of Scotland] to murder someone. But, equally, I don’t want to commit crimes on my own doorstep.”

The math behind geographic profiling also incorporates the idea that all distances are not created equal — highways are easier to traverse than a congested downtown. All these measures then generate a map of places the offender is likely to live, which is overlaid on a map of a search area. Unlike geospatial techniques that designate a central point from which a search radiates equally outward, geographic profiling pinpoints highly probable locations, even if they are at opposite ends of the search area.

Le Comber and his colleagues applied geographic profiling to a recent malaria outbreak in Cairo. Of 59 water bodies where mosquito larvae were found, only eight contained those species that are the most dangerous carriers of the disease. Knowing only the locations of the outbreak’s 139 malaria cases, geographic profiling correctly put six of these eight sites in the most infectious 2 percent of the 59.

“I have to say, it impressed us,” says Le Comber. “We thought it would work, but it was a bit stunning.”

The team also used the technique on the 1854 London cholera outbreak, from which doctor John Snow famously created a map of cholera deaths. This led Snow to the Broad Street pump as a source of the disease, and launched the modern field of epidemiology. Based on 321 deaths, geographic profiling also ranked the Broad Street pump as the most likely origin of the outbreak, the researchers report.

In some instances, such as diseases that have secondary outbreaks, geographic profiling might not work as well, says Ostfeld. But it could help yield more accurate maps for ecological questions, he says, such as how species ranges might respond to climate change. Researchers are already using the method to study how sharks hunt and the movement of bats and bees.

Read more at Wired Science

Dark Energy Is Real: Claim

A new study says dark energy is real and it's causing spacetime and the universe to expand.

The paper to be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society has been put together by a team of 26 scientists including Dr Chris Blake from Melbourne's Swinburne University, and provides the first independent confirmation of both the existence of dark energy and its rate of expansion.

"It shows physicist Albert Einstein was right," says Blake. "Dark energy is a smooth cosmological constant throughout the universe, rather than a change in the laws of gravity."

A hundred years ago scientists believed the universe was steady and unchanging. Einstein invented the cosmological constant to expand the fabric of space-time after his own equations for general relativity wouldn't allow for the cosmos to remain static as expected in a steady state universe.

Soon afterwards, astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered the universe was actually expanding, consistent with Einstein's original general relativity theory.

Einstein then removed his cosmological constant describing his failure to predict an expanding universe in theory before it was proven by observation, as his biggest blunder.

In 1998, astronomers studying distant exploding stars called a Type 1A supernovae discovered that not only was the universe expanding, but that the rate of expansion was accelerating due to some type of unknown force or dark energy. Einstein's cosmological constant was back.

"The acceleration was a shocking discovery, because it showed we have a lot more to learn about physics, "Blake says.

To verify the supernovae findings, Blake and colleagues spent four years using a powerful spectrograph at the Australian Astronomical Observatory to collect data on more than 240,000 galaxies going back over seven billion years to when the cosmos was less than half its current age.

"It showed the growth of structure in the universe, the development of galaxy clusters and super clusters has slowed down," Blake says. "This implies the most distant parts of the universe which are further back in space-time, have ordinary matter and hence gravity is dominating. But today this antigravity dark energy has taken hold."

The researchers then looked at the distances between pairs of galaxies.

"The average distance between galaxy pairs is about 500,000,000 light years," says Blake. "Galaxies tend to grow on compression waves called baryon acoustic oscillations, which spread through the universe. They can be detected as ripples in cosmic microwave background radiation."

According to Blake, "The average distance between these galaxy pairs has also been found to have grown because of the expansion of space-time, and that's further confirmation of an antigravity agent.'

Read more at Discovery News

Body reprogrammed to accept donor organ as its own

British-based researchers have discovered a way to reprogramme immune system cells so that they think the donated organ is a natural part of the recipient's body.

Not only will the development avoid patients having to take three different types of costly drugs every day of their life, it will also mean the donated organs lasts indefinitely.

Dr Pervinder Sagoo, co-author at King's College London, said: "We hope this is the holy grail that means that the recipient is completely tolerant to the transplanted organ for the rest of their life."

Currently patients must take around three immunosuppressant drugs a day to prevent a new organ from being rejected after transplantation.

However, these drugs suppress the entire immune system, leaving the patient susceptible to infections and tumours.

Transplanted organs are also put under pressure andoften do not last longer than 10 years.

The new approach involves re-educating the immune system so that the body sees the organ as a natural part of the body.

The immune system carries on working in exactly the same way but because it does not see the new tissue as alien, leaves it alone.

The technique works by mixing the immune cells of the donor and the recipient in the laboratory to produce a kind of hybrid which is then copied millions of times.

These new cells of then injected into the recipient – spreading around the body and re-educating the immune system for life.

Ultimately this approach could extend the life of a transplanted organ and in turn, could alleviate the organ shortage problem.

The technique has already been used in animals and clinical human trials start at the end of the year.

Scientists hope it could be used in earnest within a decade.

Professor Robert Lechler, Vice-Principal for Health at King's, said: "This study is a promising step forward that could lead to dramatic advances in preventing organ rejection and improving the quality of life of transplant patients."

Read more at The Telegraph

May 18, 2011

Forgeries in the Bible's New Testament?

Nearly half of the New Testament is a forgery, according to a provocative new book which charges that the Apostle Paul authored only a fraction of letters attributed to him, and the Apostle Peter just wrote nothing.

Written by Bart Ehrman, a former evangelical Christian and now agnostic professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, the book claims to unveil "one of the most unsettling ironies of the early Christian tradition:" the use of deception to promote the truth.

"The Bible not only contains untruths of accidental mistakes. It also contains what almost anyone today would call lies," Ehrman writes in "Forged: Writing in the Name of God -- Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are."

According to the biblical scholar, at least 11 of the 27 New Testament books are forgeries, while only seven of the 13 epistles attributed to Paul were probably written by him.

"Virtually all scholars agree that seven of the Pauline letters are authentic: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon," said Ehrman.

Individuals claiming to be Paul wrote 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians and Colossians, he added.

Contradictory views, discrepancies in the language and the choice of words among the books attributed to Paul are all evidence of this forgery, the author asserts..

For example, Ehrman’s analysis of the book of Ephesians shows that the text, filled with long Greek sentences, doesn’t match with Paul’s peculiar Greek writing style, made of short sentences.

Moreover, the content of what the author says "stands at odds with Paul’s own thought, but is in line with the Ephesians," writes Ehrman.

The biblical scholar, who also challenges the authenticity of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John, disputes the assumption that the Apostle Peter wrote the Epistles of Peter or anything else.

Unlike Paul, Peter, a fisherman raised in rural Palestine, was most certainly illiterate. So was the Apostle John, who could have not written the Gospel bearing his name, said Ehrman.

But why would an author claim to be an Apostle when he wasn’t? The answer is pretty obvious according to the scholar.

In the early centuries of the church, Christians felt under attack from all sides. "They were in conflict with Jews and pagans over the validity of their religion... but the hottest debates were with other Christians, as they argued over the right thing to believe and the rights ways to live," said Ehrman.

Thus Christians aiming at authorizing views they wanted others to accept, wrote in the name of the Apostles, "fabricating, falsifying, and forging documents," said Ehrman.

"If your name was Jehoshaphat and no one had any idea who you were, you could not very well sign your own name to the book," said Ehrman.

"No one would take the Gospel of Jehoshaphat seriously. If you wanted someone to read it, you called yourself Peter. Or Thomas. Or James. In other words, you lied about who you really were," Ehrman concluded.

According to the scholar, the idea that "writing in the name of another" was a common, accepted practice in antiquity is wrong. Forgery was just as deceitful, inappropriate, and wrong as it is today, he said.

Read more at Discovery News

Tarantulas Shoot Out Silk Like Spiderman

As tarantulas fall, they appear to react like Spiderman -- shooting threads of silk from their feet (spiders don't have hands).

The move lets them avoid falls that could prove fatal to their hefty bodies, say researchers in a new study.

The work, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, follows conflicting reports over whether these fuzzy arachnids can indeed eject silk from the ends of their legs. The new study suggests they can, but researchers who found contradictory evidence in earlier work say the debate is still not settled.

The first report was by Stanislav Gorb of the University of Kiel, Germany, and colleagues in 2006, who reported "footprints" of spider silk from all four pairs of legs when the tarantulas slipped on a vertical glass surface. Gorb showed pictures of what appeared to be tiny spigots among the hairs of the spider's feet.

But in 2009, another group argued that the spider silk could simply have come from the abdominal spinnerets -- the typical source -- and have stuck to and been dragged along by the legs as the spiders climbed.

This team, led by Fernando Pérez-Miles of the University of the Republic in Montevideo, Uruguay, sealed tarantulas' abdominal spinnerets with paraffin. The researcher subsequently found no evidence of silk as the spiders climbed, suggesting that the spiders could not make silk from other parts of their body. They also detected no trace of silk glands or channels in dissections of tarantula legs.

In the new work, Claire Rind and a team of undergraduates at the University of Newcastle, U.K., studied three different types of spiders as they climbed in glass tanks lined with microscope slides and surveyed by video. The researchers slowly tilted the tank to a vertical position as the spider held on, and then shook it slightly, until the spider slipped.

Using the video information, they removed any glass slides that were contacted by the abdominal spinnerets during the experiment to eliminate the possibility of contamination. After the experiment, they examined the slides under the microscope and found silk strands at all sites where the legs slipped.

The team also examined freshly molted tarantula exoskeletons and specimens of dead tarantulas under the microscope.

"From those experiments, we actually saw those little spigots and we saw silk emerging from those spigots," Rind said. "In some cases we could see strands of silk emerging from these tall stalks."

Rind suggests that Pérez-Miles' experiments using tarantulas with sealed spinnerets were done in a tank that was too shallow and was not shaken, such that the spiders never actually slipped and needed to use the silk from their feet.

"We are very glad to see such supportive information for the previous work," Gorb, who made the original 2006 report, told Discovery News. "They did hard work showing from which spigots the silk is coming out. This is essential.

"The next step," Gorb added, "is to show the gland, where the silk is really produced."

Read more at Discovery News

Lonely Planets Populate the Cosmos

The biggest singles scene in the universe isn't on or eHarmony. It's in space, where solitary planets are the rule, not the exception, say scientists.

Extrapolating from a survey of planets without nearby parent stars, Takahiro Sumi at Japan's Osaka University and colleagues figured out that there are at least twice as many free-flying planets as there are stars like the sun.

"The most important thing is that we found that these free-floating planets are as common as stars," Sumi told Discovery News.

The solo planets probably didn't start out that way.

Computer simulations show that if there is more than one giant planet in a solar system's family, they will perform a kind of gravitational arm-wrestling match, making their orbits unstable. Eventually, one planet loses the battle and winds up in the nether regions of its solar system or kicked out of the parent star's orbital nest entirely.

"If they formed in the proto-planetary disk (a rotating disk of dense gas surrounding a newly formed star ) as we guess, this information is very important for the planetary formation theory," Sumi wrote in an email.

That's because planets bound to a parent star would only reflect the survivors, not how many gas giant planets actually formed.

The isolated planets, however, may not have formed around a parent star at all, points out Joachim Wambsganss, with the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

"An alternative scenario has been proposed some time ago, that objects of planetary mass could also form in isolation via a collapse of matter, similar to the way a star forms," Wambsganss wrote in an email to Discovery News. "Maybe there are even two 'production lines' for these objects."

Ten extra-solar planets that served as models for the study were found with a technique known as gravitational micro-lensing, a naturally occurring "zoom" effect caused by the bending of light around a massive foreground object.

Read more at Discovery News

May 17, 2011

The Original Noah’s Ark: Pond Scum

Like exhausted nightclubbers, early animals may have weathered their harsh lifestyle by squirming up to the oxygen bar.

Animals living more than 550 million years ago could have survived inhospitable oceans by associating with dense mounds of cyanobacteria called microbial mats, an international team of researchers argues in a new study. Such clumps of oxygen-producing gunk could have supplied the first mobile animals with food to eat and air to breathe, the group reports online May 15 in Nature Geoscience.

The animal kingdom’s vanguard would have needed all the help it could get. Recent fossil finds show that wriggling animals first emerged at least 555 million years ago, when atmospheric oxygen concentrations may have been about one-tenth what they are today. Yet as creatures moved around more, they needed more oxygen. So how early mobile critters, which probably resembled worms or slugs, eked out a living in these choked environments has been a big puzzle for paleontologists, says study coauthor Murray Gingras. “Biomats provided the oxygen that ironically enabled the animals to better exploit biomats as food,” he says.

He got his first clue after drilling into a frozen pond in Alberta, Canada. The pond, almost entirely deprived of oxygen, hosted a small number of insect larvae surrounding a layer of photosynthesizing algae. “They were eating the biological material, and they were using it as a scuba tank at the same time,” says Gingras, a paleontologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

Alberta’s frozen lakes don’t look much like ancient oceans, however, so Gingras and his colleagues turned to supersalty lagoons in Venezuela. Here, gelatinous masses of cyanobacteria, a type of oxygen-producing microbes with ancient origins, clog the waters. Animals first evolved in a similar “world ruled by microorganisms,” Gingras says, in which microbial mats like these may have dominated shallow oceans across the globe. In fact, he adds, the oldest discovered fossil trace of animal life depicts the tooth marks of a long-dead creature biting into such a mound of bacteria.

The modern lagoons, like their ancient counterparts, carry few traces of oxygen. But the gas does run high — reaching near or above typical water levels — right above and below the mats, the team discovered. These lagoons usually host scant animal life but, as in Alberta, clusters of insect larvae gather around the mats, taking bites and maybe breaths. The first mobile animals easily could have done the same, Gingras says.

“In a way, it’s dead obvious,” says Mary Droser, a paleontologist at the University of California, Riverside.

Read more at Wired Science

God Particle Mystery May Soon Be Solved

Physicists believe that by the end of 2012 they will be able to determine whether a theorized particle called the Higgs boson, which has unleashed a gruelling decades-long hunt, exists or not, they said on Tuesday.

"I'm pretty confident that towards the end of 2012 we will have an answer to the Shakespeare question for the Higgs boson -- to be, or not to be?" Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director general of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), told a press conference at Britain's Royal Society.

CERN has ordered the world's biggest particle collider to step up the quest to explain mass, one of the greatest puzzles in physics.

The key to this is believed to be the Higgs, a notional sub-atomic particle named after British physicist Peter Higgs who mooted its existence in 1964.

If it is found, one of the last pieces would be set in place in the famous Standard Model, which seeks to bring all the particles and forces in the Universe under a single, unified theory.

"By the end of 2012 we will either discover the Standard Model Higgs Boson, if it exists, or we will rule it out," said Fabiola Gianotti, who is the spokesman for CERN's biggest particle-collider lab, called Atlas.

CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is located in a 27-kilometer (16.9-mile) ring-shaped tunnel 100 meters (325 feet) below ground, straddling the French-Swiss border.

It is designed to accelerate protons to nearly the speed of light and then smash them together in house-sized labs where detectors record the seething sub-atomic debris.

The smashups briefly stoke temperatures 100,000 times hotter than the Sun, fleetingly replicating conditions which prevailed split-seconds after the "Big Bang" that created the Universe 13.7 billion years ago.

In this primordial soup, novel particles may lurk that will resolve mysteries clouding our understanding of fundamental matter, scientists say.

Enigmas include the Higgs -- dubbed "the God particle" for being mysterious yet ubiquitous -- as well as suspected "supersymmetrical" particles that could explain dark matter, which comprises around 23 percent of the Universe.

The first proton collisions at the LHC occurred on September 10, 2008. The smasher then had to endure a 14-month shutdown to fix technical problems.

The LHC recently notched up the biggest-ever energy release from particle collisions, although this is still only half of its design capacity.

It had been due to shut down in early 2012 for work enabling it to crank up to full power.

However, a decision was made several weeks ago to delay closure for a year to help the search for the Higgs, said Gianotti.

The theory behind the Higgs is that mass does not derive from particles themselves.

Instead, mass comes from collisions between particles and a non-matter particle, or boson, called the Higgs. These collisions slow down some particles and give them mass, but other particles experience few collisions or none at all.

Europe and the United States have been jousting for Higgs glory -- and the competition is feverish right now, because the legendary Tevatron collider at Fermilab in Chicago will be shut down for good in 2011.

Read more at Discovery News

May 16, 2011

How Childhood Memories Fade Away

What's your earliest memory?

Whatever you recall, it's unlikely you'll bring back memories before the ages of 3 or 4 because of a phenomenon called infantile amnesia, or the inability of adults to remember the earliest years of life. Recent research explores the range of time in which children's memories of early childhood disappear or become clearer with time.

The findings: The older kids get, the greater the age of their first memory.

In a longitudinal study featured in the journal Child Development, researchers revisited 140 children of different age groups and asked them follow-up questions about their earliest memories. The team compared the results to what the same children said two years ago in order to learn how childhood memories change in time among various age groups.

In the first and current study, children were asked to recall their three earliest memories. Younger children were generally better than older ones at bringing up memories before the ages of 3 and 4, but they were inconsistent through time. Basically, they didn't recall the same memories when asked two years later.

Read more at Discovery News

Stephen Hawking: 'heaven is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark'

The 69 year-old physicist, who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 21, insisted that he is “not afraid of death”.

Shortly after being diagnosed with the incurable illnes many expected the author of A Brief History of Time to die.

But he said it has instead led him to enjoy life more.

In an interview with The Guardian, ahead of key note speech on Tuesday, Prof Hawking discusses his thoughts on death.

He rejected the idea of life beyond death and emphasised, what he described as the need to fulfil our potential on Earth by making good use of our lives.

"I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years,” he told the newspaper.

“I'm not afraid of death, but I'm in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.

"I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail.”

He added: “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

Asked how we should live he replied: "We should seek the greatest value of our action."

He is due to speak at the Google Zeitgeist meeting in London, in which he will address the question: "Why are we here?"

He will argue that tiny “quantum fluctuations” in the very early universe became the seeds from which galaxies, stars, and ultimately, human life began.

He will join other speakers including George Osborne, the Chancellor and Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel prize-winning economist.

In A Brief History of Time, Prof Hawking's most famous work, he did not dismiss the possibility that God had a hand in the creation of the world.

He wrote in the 1988 book: "If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we should know the mind of God.”

In his new book he rejects Sir Isaac Newton's theory that the Universe did not spontaneously begin to form but was set in motion by God.

In June last year Prof Hawking told a Channel 4 series that he didn't believe that a "personal" God existed.

He told Genius of Britain: "The question is: is the way the universe began chosen by God for reasons we can't understand, or was it determined by a law of science? I believe the second.

“If you like, you can call the laws of science 'God', but it wouldn't be a personal God that you could meet, and ask questions."

Read more at The Telegraph

How Twitter helped doctors during Japanese disaster

Doctors in Japan used Twitter to coordinate medical assistance in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that hit the country in March this year.

In a letter to The Lancet this week, Yuichi Tamura and Keiichi Fukuda of the Keio University School of Medicine in Tokyo say the social networking service played a significant role in triumphing over the disaster.

The pair explain the earthquake made it difficult to ensure a continuous supply of drugs for their patients suffering chronic diseases such as pulmonary hypertension. With phone lines unreliable but internet connections still working, they turned to Twitter to help inform people where to get their medicine.

Tamura set up an account, @ut1tamura, three days after the disaster and tweeted information from his hospital computer, providing messages in Japanese such as “Patient can get the orphan drugs for pulmonary hypertension in XX hospital” or “Patient should keep additional oxygen tanks preparing for electrical power interruption, and can get tanks by XX”.

Retweeting meant the messages spread rapidly and ordinary Twitter users were quick to lend a hand. “Not only patients but also other general persons provided retweets,” says Tamura.

This stream of information combined with drug deliveries to patients by medical staff meant that all of their patients received the treatment they needed.

Via NewScientist

May 15, 2011

Bee Venom Used to Detect Explosives

With about one-third of the human diet dependent on insect-pollinated plants, bees play a crucial role in keeping us nourished and healthy. Turns out their salubrious little stingers can also protect us from bomb-wielding terrorists.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have revealed that protein fragments in bee venom, aptly called bombolitins, can be used to detect single molecules of nitro-aromatic explosives, such as TNT. If applied to security sensors at such human hives like airports, the bombolitins will increase the sensitivity of the sensors, making them much more effective.

First, the MIT team coated the insides of carbon nanotubes with bombolitins, then exposed the nanotubes to air samples taken from the vicinity of various explosives. While carbon nanotubes naturally fluoresce, the bombolitins created quite a buzz at the molecular level.

The team discovered that the wavelength of that fluoresced light changed when molecules of nitro-aromatic compounds bonded with the bee-venom proteins. The shift in wavelength is not visible to the naked eyed, but can be detected by a special microscope.

In the past, MIT has designed similar sensors where fluorescent light increases when in the presence of explosives. However, such technology is said to be more prone to errors because the readings can be influenced by ambient light. Observing changes in the light's wavelength offers a more precise detection.

Read more at Discovery News

Teen music prodigy can learn pieces in hours despite being unable to read a note

Samuel Osmond, 19, has never had a piano lesson but can pick up pieces by composers such as Chopin and Beethoven in minutes because of his note perfect memory.

The teenager from St Austell, Cornwall, who is studying Law at AS Level along with Sociology and Music Subsidiary Diploma Level 3, had intended to pursue a career as a barrister.

However, his teachers have urged him to make his future in the field of music instead.

Osmond learns a piece of music by listening to it in sections and then working out the notes.

He started playing two years ago and the first piece he played was Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven.

He is currently learning a piece by Chopin, Ballarde No1 in G Minor, which is filled with rapid scales, large chords and difficult fingerings.

It is a piece so difficult that his music lecturer Cecil Du Valle, who has two masters in music, cannot play it.

Osmond said: “I grew up with music. My mum played and I played guitar for six years.

"About two years ago I suddenly decided to start playing the piano, without being able to read music and without having any lessons.

"It comes easily to me - I hear the notes and can memorise them - each individual note.

"Recently I did a performance of a Chopin piece in public.

"It's ten minutes long and must have over a thousand notes in it but I had committed it to memory.”

He added: “I was looking at training to be a barrister but my tutors have advised me to apply to a music college like Chethams or Wells.”

Mr Du Valle, who teaches at Cornwall College in St Austell, said his pupil was a unique find over a 40 year career.

He said: “He's extraordinary - I have never ever known anybody with an ability like this - it's extremely rare.

"He's just appeared out of the mist. He didn't even realise what he was doing was special. He was training for a career in law.

"He memorised a nine minute long Chopin piece and was note perfect - without being able to read music -or without any piano lessons.

"It's incredible."

Read more at The Telegraph