Aug 20, 2011

Mystery Fossils Link Fungi to Ancient Mass Extinction

Of the five mass extinctions in the Earth’s past, one stands above the rest in magnitude: the Permian-Trassic extinction, known as the Great Dying. It saw the disappearance of almost 60 percent of all families, and over 80 percent of all genera — in the ocean, that added up to about 96 percent of all species. The cause of this event, 250 million years in the past, is still a matter of debate.

The most likely culprit is the prolific volcanism of the Siberian Traps — the erupted basalt still covers about 2 million square kilometers — but other events may have also played a role. Evidence for a massive destabilization of methane hydrates on the seafloor (a phenomenon described as “The Big Burp”), ocean anoxia and even contemporary asteroid impacts have all been found.

A couple of recent papers in the journal Geology have brought some new information to the discussion, and may help make the picture just a little bit clearer.

One source of significant mystery has been the nature of the organic microfossils that are common in rocks dated to the time of the extinction worldwide. The tiny fossils resemble filamentous colonies of cells, but have evaded positive identification.

Some researchers think they are the remains of fungi, while others argue that they are algae instead. There’s evidence on both sides, but the two scenarios represent very different conditions. The fungus indicates a widespread dying of woody vegetation, while algae suggest extensive swamps forming along river systems.

A paper published this month shows that the microfossils are almost identical morphologically to a group of pathogenic soil fungi that can infect trees. If its authors have identified these correctly, it fits in well with an overall picture showing loss of forests and topsoil. The demise of tree species is clear in pollen studies, and there is a lot of evidence for greatly accelerated soil erosion, including increased sediment deposition in deltas with lots of soil-derived organic debris.

Modern studies show that drought stress and UV damage, both of which could be caused by the massive releases of volcanic gases from the Siberian Traps, can make trees susceptible to fungal infection.

Connecting a fungus to a global mass extinction may seem tenuous, but the authors point out that processes down in the world of the very small are often overlooked in any extinction discussions. They summarize by saying, “There may have been a variety of other globally operating environmental stress factors, but whatever sequence of events triggered ecosystem destabilization on land, the aggressiveness of soil-borne pathogenic fungi must have been an integral factor involved in Late Permian forest decline worldwide.”

Separately, another recent paper has pinned down the timing of the extinction. It’s not considered to have been as sudden as the End Cretaceous extinction that killed off the dinosaurs, but the precise timeline has been tough to get a handle on, and estimates have varied.

The research group looked at some marine Permian-Triassic rocks in China that recorded cyclical global climate patterns. Climate controlled the amount of terrestrial sediment that was deposited in this area, which shows up as changes in grain size through the rock layers. Using a device that measures magnetic susceptibility, they were able to precisely quantify changes in grain size across the rock layers. Together with some uranium-lead isotopic ages, they were able to pick out the orbital cycles that control climate, including the prominent 400,000-year eccentricity cycle, and use them to precisely date the extinction interval.

A couple of interesting things show up in the data. For one, minima in several of the orbital cycles coincide shortly before the start of the extinction period. (Think of three sine waves with different wavelengths — at certain points in time, all three troughs will line up by chance.) That could have made for some unusual climatic conditions. Additionally, the effect of the 100,000-year orbital cycle on climate seems diminished for as long as 2 million years afterward.

It’s dangerous to extrapolate to the big picture from records like this, but there’s enough there to warrant further investigation of the orbital forcings.

Read more at Wired Science

Aug 19, 2011

Bird Flight Might Have Started With Legs, Not Wings

To take flight, first strengthen your legs: It sounds like a self-help proverb, but it could explain how birds first took wing.

Until now, most explanations of the evolution of flight have assumed that going airborne was an end in itself, driven by the need of some early dinosaur to glide down from trees or up off the ground.

But flight could have instead been an incidental benefit of beefier muscles needed to compensate for losing a heat-generating protein.

“Flight is seen as the hallmark of bird evolution,” said developmental biologist Stuart Newman of the New York Medical College. “But you can make the argument that the particular form bird skeletons took that opened the way for flight was a side effect.”

Newman’s research shows that all birds and reptiles lack a single gene that codes for a protein called UCP1 or, with a nod to its function, thermogenin. It’s an essential part of the metabolic reaction that burns brown fat, helping bodies self-regulate internal temperature and generate heat without shivering.

Thermogenin’s absence from birds and reptiles hints at its loss in some early common ancestor, with the thermogenin-retaining relative later giving rise to mammals. But whereas reptiles became cold-blooded, basking in sunshine when needed, birds stayed warm-blooded.

As Newman describes in a September Bioessays paper, the key to their warmth is muscles. Muscles are powerful generators of heat, which is a byproduct of the chemical reaction that makes them contract. Bird muscles also have further heat-generating adaptations. And birds are, in a word, jacked.

In ounce-for-ounce comparison, mammals and reptiles are scrawny weaklings next to birds. And it’s not just avian breast muscles that are pumped, as would be expected in flyers, but their legs too.

“My hypothesis is that birds basically salvaged their existence by developing very large skeletal muscles,” said Newman.

Once heavily muscled, he believes proto-birds would naturally have gravitated towards bipedalism, which isn’t a particularly challenging transition. Indeed, walking on two legs was widespread in dinosaurs.

Bipedality releases upper limbs, both literally and in evolutionary terms, allowing them to accumulate large mutations with relatively little risk. Combine that with powerful breast muscles, and wings would soon follow.

Testing Newman’s hypothesis may not be possible, as it would require comparing early bird and dinosaur skeletons and genes, and DNA is lost in the fossil record. But that flight could plausibly have been a fortunate side effect of some unrelated adaptation, rather than the original driver of bird development, is a useful evolutionary lesson.

Read more at Wired Science

Aug 18, 2011

Animals Moving More Quickly From Warming

Climate change appears to be forcing many of the world's creatures to migrate to more favorable locales up to three times faster than previously believed, a study said Thursday.

Researchers compiled past studies on species migration and combined them into a meta-analysis that showed a clear trend toward cooler climates, with the fastest moves in places where heating was most intense.

"These changes are equivalent to animals and plants shifting away from the equator at around 20 centimeters per hour, for every hour of the day, for every day of the year," said project leader Chris Thomas, biology professor at the University of York.

"This has been going on for the last 40 years and is set to continue for at least the rest of this century."

The study, which appears in the journal Science, was described by York ecology professor and co-author Jane Hill as "a summary of the state of world knowledge about how the ranges of species are responding to climate change.

"Our analysis shows that rates of response to climate change are two or three times faster than previously realized," she said.

The data came from studies of birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, spiders and plants in Europe, North America, Chile, Malaysia, and South Africa's Marion Island.

By grouping the studies together and analyzing their results, researchers found for the first time a link between how hot it was getting and where organisms were moving.

"This research shows that it is global warming that is causing species to move towards the poles and to higher elevations," said lead author I-Ching Chen, now a researcher at the Academia Sinica in Taiwan.

"We have for the first time shown that the amount by which the distributions of species have changed is correlated with the amount the climate has changed in that region."

Previous studies have suggested that some species are at risk for extinction due to their change in habitat, but this study did not delve into which species might be most in peril.

Instead, researchers said they hoped the analysis would give a more accurate picture of the changes going on across the planet.

Read more at Discovery News

Are UFOs Alien? No!

I'm fed up.

Yet again, a few days ago, someone told me they saw a UFO in the early morning sky and immediately assumed it is unquestionable evidence that aliens exist and that they are visiting Planet Earth, raping and pillaging the locals!

After a big sigh, and a little sly questioning on my part, we discover they had witnessed nothing more than Venus rising in the dawn sky and the flashing lights were the distorting effect of the atmosphere.

A few months ago, at our street party celebration for the Royal Wedding, I convinced the neighbors to launch some Chinese lanterns. It turned out that the fleet of orange lights floating silently across the sky was mistaken by an alarming number of residents nearby as a whole invasion from bog-eyed monsters! I mean, really...

There seems to be an alarming increase in UFO sightings (and UFO hoaxes) and sadly, less common sense being applied to possible explanations.

I can't help but hark back to the fact that I'm an astronomer, have been looking at the sky lots -- and I mean lots -- over the last 20 years, and have yet to see anything that has aroused my suspicion. I think it's fair to say that all of my astronomically-minded friends and colleagues have never seen anything that makes them think we are receiving visits from out interplanetary cousins either.

I am, however, very aware that there is a whole host of professionals, from police officers to airline pilots, who have seen something out of the ordinary. UFOs? Of course! After all, these things seem to be "flying" and are "unidentified"; but little green men? I think not.

For me, it's a matter of numbers. The Universe is around 14 billion years old, yet life on Earth has only been in a position to travel in space (and pretty slowly at that) for the last 50 years or so. Work out the numbers and the only civilization we know of has only been space 'savvy' for the merest fraction of the age of the Universe.

Also consider the size of the Universe: it's BIG! What are the chances that two civilizations emerge at approximately the same time, and in reasonable proximity to each other, and develop the technology to travel in space, or even communicate with each other? The answer, all be it a qualitative one, is a very, very small number.

It's perhaps an appropriate aside to think briefly about the evolution of the Universe, too.

Many of the atoms inside our bodies are 'heavy' elements, carbon and iron for example. These elements were produced inside the core of the first generation of massive stars and were spread throughout the Universe when these stars exploded as supernovae.

Eventually, over many millions of years, a "second generation" of stars formed with planets made out of those heavy elements, and with that came the possibility of life. So it's perhaps reasonable to conclude that any other civilizations might only just now be evolving to a sufficiently advanced level to take those first tentative steps into the Cosmos. This might increase our very, very small number by a tiny bit, but not a lot.

Read more at Discovery News

Scientists reverse evolution with snouted chicken

Chickens and other birds are thought to have descended from dinosaurs through a series of genetic changes.

But by altering the DNA of chicken embryos in the early stages of their development, scientists are able to undo the progress made by evolution and give them qualities they lost millions of years ago.

Ethical regulations prevent the eggs from being hatched but Arhat Abzhanov, an evolutionary biologist based at Harvard University in America, said he hopes to one day to complete his work by turning chickens into Maniraptora, small dinosaurs believed to have spawned 10,000 species of birds.

The ability to rewind evolution also raises the prospect of fast-forwarding the same process to create species which are designed to adapt to Earth's changing climate, and eliminating birth defects in human children, it was claimed.

Scientists believe that modern birds lost their snouts in the cretaceous period, instead developing beaks in one of a number of changes that distances them from other relatives like alligators.

But by altering parts of their DNA to resemble alligator genes before the beak began to develop, Dr Abzhanov was able to alter the development of chicken embryos so that they grew snouts instead.

The growth of embryos is governed by signalling molecules, which switch on certain genes controlling the development of limbs, organs and other body structures.

Adding proteins that stifle signalling molecules to the centre of the embryo's face prevented them from developing beaks, leaving separate molecules on the sides of the face free to grow into snouts by their 14th day of gestation.

Dr Abzhanov told the New Scientist magazine: "It looks exactly like a snout looks in an alligator [at this stage]."

Jack Horner, a leading paleontologist based at the University of Montana, is conducting a similar project aimed at developing a "chickenosaurus" with a tail and hands similar to those of a dinosaur.

If scientists are able to turn the process around and speed up evolution, they could create species better adapted to the changing planet.

Craig Albertson, a developmental biologist from the University of Massachusetts, has already crossed two blue fish from different populations to create red offspring – a possible evolutionary trait making it easier for males to attract females in murky, polluted water.

Read more at The Telegraph

Aug 17, 2011

Moon Younger Than Previously Thought, Analysis of Lunar Rock Reveals

Analysis of a piece of lunar rock brought back to Earth by the Apollo 16 mission in 1972 has shown that the Moon may be much younger than previously believed. This is concluded in new research conducted by an international team of scientists that includes James Connelly from the Centre for Star and Planet Formation, Natural History Museum of Denmark, University of Copenhagen. Their work has just been published in Nature.

The prevailing theory of our Moon's origin is that it was created by a giant impact between a large planet-like object and the proto-Earth very early in the evolution of our solar system. The energy of this impact was sufficiently high that the Moon formed from melted material that began with a deep liquid magma ocean.

As the Moon cooled, this magma ocean solidified into different mineral components, the lightest of which floated upwards to form the oldest crust. Analysis of a lunar rock sample of this presumed ancient crust has given scientists new insights into the formation of the Moon.

Luna rock from Apollo 16

"We have analysed a piece of lunar rock that was brought back to Earth by the Apollo 16 mission in 1972. Although the samples have been carefully stored at NASA Johnson Space Center since their return to Earth, we had to extensively pre-clean the samples using a new method to remove terrestrial lead contamination. Once we removed the contamination, we found that this sample is almost 100 million years younger than we expected," says researcher James Connelly of the Centre for Star and Planet Formation.

According to the existing theory for lunar formation, a rock type called ferroan anorthosite, also known as FAN, is the oldest of the Moon's crustal rocks, but scientists have had difficulty dating samples of this crust.

Newly-refined techniques help determine age of sample

The research team, which includes scientists from the Natural History Museum of Denmark, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Carnegie Institute's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism and Université Blaise Pascal, used newly-refined techniques to determine the age of the sample of a FAN that was returned by the Apollo 16 mission and has been stored at the lunar rock collection at the NASA Johnson Space Center.

The team analysed the isotopes of the elements lead and neodymium to place the age of a sample of a FAN at 4.36 billion years. This figure is significantly younger than earlier estimates of the Moon's age that range to nearly as old as the age of the solar system itself at 4.567 billion years. The new, younger age obtained for the oldest lunar crust is similar to ages obtained for the oldest terrestrial minerals -- zircons from Western Australia -- suggesting that the oldest crust on both Earth and the Moon formed at approximately the same time.

Read more at Science Daily

Oldest Evidence of Nails in Modern Primates

From hot pink to traditional French and Lady Gaga's sophisticated designs, manicured nails have become the grammar of fashion. But they are not just pretty -- when nails appeared on all fingers and toes in modern primates about 55 million years ago, they led to the development of critical functions, including finger pads that allow for sensitive touch and the ability to grasp, whether it's a nail polish brush or remover to prepare for the next trend.

In a new study co-authored by University of Florida scientists, researchers recovered and analyzed the oldest fossil evidence of fingernails in modern primates, confirming the idea nails developed with small body size and disproving previous theories nails evolved with an increase in primate body size. More than 25 new specimens of Teilhardina brandti -- an extinct primate originally described from a single lower molar -- include pieces of upper teeth and ankle bones that show the mammal lived in trees. Its nails allowed the lemur-like animal to grasp onto branches and move through the trees with more agility, researchers said.

"If you take all the primates that are alive today, they're all going to have characteristics that look the same, but unlike people, many of them live in trees," said co-author Jonathan Bloch, an associate curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus. "By finding parts of the skeleton of this primitive primate, we are able to test whether nails were present in the common ancestor of the group that includes lemurs, monkeys, and humans -- it's direct evidence as opposed to speculation."

Appearing in the current online edition of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, the study provides a better understanding of the evolutionary relationships of one of the oldest known modern primates, as well as the time frame and environmental conditions that allowed for the development of nails on all fingers and toes, an exclusive feature among primates.

Specimens of T. brandti were collected over the last seven years in northwestern Wyoming's Bighorn Basin and represent the earliest North American species from the group of euprimates, also known as "true" primates. The fossils date to the early Eocene epoch, about 55.8 million years ago, at the same time as a 200,000-year global warming event known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum occurred, Bloch said. Mammals evolved to be smaller during that time, when even- and odd-toed hoofed mammals, distantly related to modern deer and horses, also first appeared in the fossil record.

"The appearance of the first modern primates in North America co-occurred with the appearance of other modern mammals such as horses, and it's all associated with a major global warming event," said co-author Stephen Chester, a Yale University doctoral student and research associate at UF. "It in part set the stage for what we see today in terms of modern mammalian biodiversity."

Less than 6 inches long, T. brandti was omnivorous, Bloch said. While archaic primates mostly had claws, some of the characteristics of modern primates include forward-facing eyes, an enlarged brain and nails on all digits.

"They are the smallest true nails known on record, whether living or fossil," said first author Ken Rose, a professor in the Center for Functional Anatomy & Evolution at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "That certainly doesn't suggest nails developed with larger bodies."

Based on the age of the fossils and analyses of Teilhardina species from other parts of the world, researchers were also able to analyze the hypothesis that mammals migrated from Asia into North America. Instead, they likely passed from Asia, through Europe and into North America on high-latitude land connections.

"This research really suggests that we are looking at something extremely close [to the species found in Europe] and that's of great interest in itself," Rose said. "We can show these species were extremely close morphologically in time and found in Europe and Wyoming."

During the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, average temperatures were about 15 degrees Fahrenheit higher than today, and the large variety of mammals found in the fossil record from that time remains a mystery to scientists.

Read more at Science Daily

'Living Fossil' Retains Dinosaur-Era Look

An eel recently discovered in an underwater cave appears to have evolved out of step with the rest of us, retaining primitive characteristics associated with animals from the Dinosaur Era.

The eel, described in the latest Proceedings of the Royal Society B, is what Charles Darwin referred to as a "living fossil." These are extremely long-lasting species that have undergone few bodily changes over the millennia.

In this case, the enigmatic eel dubbed Protoanguilla ("first eel") palau represents a new family, genus and species that dates back to around 200 million years ago.

"The eel looks so bizarre -- large head with relatively short body and various unique, internal characters -- that no ichthyologist, including us, correctly identified it as a member of true eel at first sight," co-author Masaki Miya told Discovery News. Miya is curator of fishes and an adjunct associate professor at Chiba University's Natural History Museum and Institute.

His colleague, diver Jiro Sakaue, found the eel nearly 115 feet under the surface of the Pacific Ocean in a cave at the western fringing reef of Ngemelis Island, Republic of Palau. Although just 1.7 inches long, the eel's reddish brown body is striking, especially given its iridescent fins tipped in bright white.

Both morphological and molecular analysis place Protoanguilla in a sister lineage independent of other eels. There are more than 800 species of true eels classified into 19 families. The oldest known eel in the fossil record dates to 100 million years ago, and this newly discovered species remarkably has features even more ancient than that.

"Those characters assumed to be more primitive than, and equally primitive with, the oldest fossil record actually represent those descended from the Dinosaur Era," Miya said.

Lead author David Johnson explained that these primitive features include fewer vertebrae, certain fused skull bones, presence of an upper jaw bone found in Cretaceous eels, and toothed gill rakers, which could be involved in feeding and gill maintenance.

Johnson, curator of the Division of Fishes at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, added that the eel's "tail fin rays extend back slightly farther than the adjacent fin rays. This is another feature in which Protoanguilla appears to be primitive with respect to living eels."

Co-author Hitoshi Ida shared that the cave home of this eel "is extremely young (110,000 to 10,000 years ago) compared with the evolutionary history of the living fossil eel."

"I think that what we see is a remnant of their habitat," Ida said.

It's possible that this unusual eel may be found in other remote marine habitats, but so far, the small Palau cave is its only known home.

Read more at Discovery News

Aug 16, 2011

Evidence of Early Oxygen in the Oceans of Our Planet

Today, oxygen takes up a hefty portion of Earth's atmosphere: Life-sustaining O2 molecules make up 21 percent of the air we breathe. However, very early in Earth's history, O2 was a rare -- if not completely absent -- player in the turbulent mix of primordial gases. It wasn't until the "Great Oxidation Event" (GOE), nearly 2.3 billion years ago, when oxygen made any measurable dent in the atmosphere, stimulating the evolution of air-breathing organisms and, ultimately, complex life as we know it today.

Now, new research from MIT suggests O2 may have been made on Earth hundreds of millions of years before its debut in the atmosphere, keeping a low profile in "oxygen oases" in the oceans. The MIT researchers found evidence that tiny aerobic organisms may have evolved to survive on extremely low levels of the gas in these undersea oases.

In laboratory experiments, former MIT graduate student Jacob Waldbauer, working with Professor of Geobiology Roger Summons and Dianne Newman, formerly of MIT's Department of Biology and now at the California Institute of Technology, found that yeast -- an organism that can survive with or without oxygen -- is able to produce key oxygen-dependent compounds, even with only miniscule puffs of the gas.

The findings suggest that early ancestors of yeast could have been similarly resourceful, working with whatever small amounts of O2 may have been circulating in the oceans before the gas was detectable in the atmosphere. The team published its findings last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"The time at which oxygen became an integral factor in cellular metabolism was a pivotal point in Earth history," Summons says. "The fact that you could have oxygen-dependent biosynthesis very early on in Earth's history has significant implications."

The group's results may help reconcile a debate within the earth sciences community: About a decade ago, geochemists encountered sedimentary rocks containing fossil steroids, an essential component of some organisms' cell membranes. Making a single molecule of a sterol, such as cholesterol, from scratch requires at least 10 molecules of O2; since the molecular fossils date back to 300 million years before the GOE, some have interpreted them as the earliest evidence of oxygen's presence on Earth. But because other evidence for the presence of oxygen in rocks of similar age is inconclusive, many geologists have questioned whether the fossilized steroids are indeed proof of early oxygen.

Waldbauer and colleagues suggest that perhaps O2 was in fact present on Earth 300 million years before it spiked in the atmosphere -- just at extremely low concentrations that wouldn't have left much of a trace in the rock record. They reasoned that, even at such low levels, this O2 may have been sufficient to feed aerobic, sterol-producing organisms.

To test their theory, they looked to modern yeast as a model. Yeast naturally uses O2, in combination with sugars, to synthesize ergosterol, its primary sterol. Yeast can also grow without O2, so long as a source of ergosterol is provided. To find the lowest level of O2 yeast can consume, the team set up an experiment to identify the point at which yeast switches from anaerobic to aerobic activity.

Waldbauer grew yeast cells with a mixture of essential ingredients, including ergosterol as well as glucose labeled with carbon-13. They found that, without oxygen present, yeast happily took up sterol from the medium but made none from scratch. When Waldbauer pumped in tiny amounts of oxygen, a switch occurred, and yeast began using O2 in combination with glucose to produce its own sterols. The presence of carbon-13 differentiates the biosynthesized sterol from that acquired from the growth medium.

The scientists found that yeast are able to make steroids using vanishingly small, nanomolar concentrations of O2, supporting the theory that oxygen -- and its producers and consumers -- may have indeed been around long before the gas made an appearance in the atmosphere.

Read more at Science Daily

Super-Dense Stars May Squash Neutrons Into Cubes

Deep inside the super-dense hearts of exploding stars, gravity may squash neutron particles from spheres into cubes.

The idea could mean that neutron stars, as researchers call the stellar corpses, are denser than anyone expected. It could also question what stops them from collapsing into black holes and out of existence.

“If you take this result purely at face value, it means neutron stars are in trouble. They should collapse into black holes at lower masses,” said theoretical physicist Felipe Jose Llanes-Estrada of Complutense University of Madrid, co-author of a study published Aug. 9 on the prepublication server arXiv.

“But that’s not what we observe. It’s possible there’s an additional repulsive interaction [between neutrons] to counter a collapse that we just haven’t thought of yet.”

A star between nine and 20 times the sun’s mass detonates as a supernova toward the end of its life. At that weight, a star isn’t heavy enough to create a critical, ultra-dense state and shrink into a black hole. Instead, it collapses into a sphere no bigger than 15 miles wide and so dense that a single teaspoon of it weighs as much as everyone on Earth, multiplied by 18.

Late last year, astronomers discovered the biggest-ever neutron star, called J1614-2230, that weighed in at 1.97 times the sun’s mass.  Prior to its discovery, the most massive neutron weighed 1.67 solar masses.

The find left more than a few astrophysicists scratching their heads. Its existence ruled out some models of neutron stars that relied on exotic forms of matter to explain why they didn’t collapse farther, and instead supported models of neutron stars as containing only neutrons and protons.

When Llanes-Estrad and his university colleague Gaspar Moreno Navarro heard of J1614-2230, they wanted to know what might be happening inside of it.

The duo knew of a model from the 1970s suggesting pure neutrons could form a crystal lattice under incredible pressure (similar to how carbon forms diamonds in the bowels of the Earth). When they tweaked a familiar computer model to incorporate the idea, they discovered that — at the pressures anticipated deep in neutron stars — neutrons deformed from spheres into cubes.

“There’s an optimum packing density with spheres, including neutrons. It’s about 74 percent. No matter how efficiently you arrange them, like oranges on display at a supermarket, there’s always space in between,” Llanes-Estrada said. “If you want to be most efficient, you distort the oranges. Pack them a mile high and squish the ones on the bottom.”

Gravity shapes aggregate particles of matter into the simplest, most efficiently-packed object possible, normally a sphere like the Earth. The particles themselves, though, remain individually unaffected; gravity is too weak to overcome the strong interactions that hold neutrons and other particles together. But if gravity becomes intense enough, it might overpower the interactions.

So deep within a neutron star, a neutron’s most efficient shape may be a cube. “They’ll be flattened on all sides, like dice,” Llanes-Estrada said.

So far, the response to their study has proven lukewarm.

Read more at Wired Science

What if Earth Were a Cube?

Back in 1884, a Swiss astronomer by the name of Arndt made headlines when he claimed to have discovered a very curious planet in an orbit beyond Neptune -- a surprisingly cubical planet.

You know, like Bizarro World from the Super Man comics.

Of course even in 1884, everyone knew this was bunk. The New York Times even ran a piece titled "The Cubical Planet" in their Nov. 16 edition.

As informative as it is stuffy, the Gilded Age article interviews physicist Dr. Theodore Vankirk, who first dismisses the prospect of a square planet as pure hooey, and then proceeds to wax scientific about just what a cube world would be like.

It all comes down to gravity. On our spherical Earth, gravity pulls "down" us toward the planet's center of mass. So on a flat surface, we naturally stand up straight.

A hypothetical cube world, however, would feature six square faces and you'd only encounter up/down gravity toward the centers of these regions. As you traveled closer and closer to the edge, it would feel like you were walking up an incline and it would be difficult to stand up straight because the gravitational pull would draw you toward the center of the massive cube, which wouldn't lie directly beneath your feet.

Standing on the "edge" of this cube world would feel like standing atop a mountain range.

Contemporary cosmologist Karen L. Masters also finds the topic of cube worlds fascinating -- especially the atmospheric possibilities. As she explains in Cornell's Ask a Physicist feature, all six faces of the plant aces would boast temperate weather, centralized bodies of water and none of them would feature polar or equatorial weather.  What's more, the pointy edges of the cube would actually poke through the planet's atmosphere like titanic mountains. Here's her explanation:

    Let's assume that the atmosphere goes up 1000 km above the Earth (when it is a sphere), and so is a sphere itself of radius 6400km+1000km=7400km. This should be about the right number. A cube with the same volume as the spherical Earth would have a side 10,000 km (6,400 miles) long so the corners are 8700 km from the center! They would definitely stick out above the atmosphere.

As I was poking around the net on this topic, I also ran across this amusing tidbit from a 1964 edition of the Rice University campus paper. A mysterious, well-dressed gentleman had been observed hanging out around the Houston-area campus, distributing literature about an alien, cubical planet.

The man claimed that the planet was called Aocicinori and that it was the 63rd in a system of 96 planets. He showed off maps of the world, as well as some colorful illustrations of the creatures that lived there. The Rice University article reveals that these materials were created by Scotland L. Moore, an outpatient form the Houston State Psychiatric Institute.

Read more at Discovery News

Aug 15, 2011

F1 fan receives bionic hand from Mercedes team

Matthew James, 14, who was born without his left hand, sent a cheeky letter to Ross Brawn, boss of F1 team Mercedes GP Petronas, asking for £35,000 to pay for a top-of-the range artificial limb.

In return, shrewd Matthew said he would allow the company to sponsor the hand by putting the Mercedes logo on it - like ads seen on F1 cars.

But Mercedes where so touched by Matthew's ''intelligent and moving letter'' they agreed to help him and teamed up with firm Touch Bionics, who create and fit hi-tech artificial limbs.

Together they designed his own customised i-LIMB Pulse - the most advanced prosthetic limb in the world.

The hand is so versatile Matthew can grip a pen to draw pictures and write, tie his shoe laces and catch a ball.

The hand, made from high-grade plastic with a black silicone socket, literally plugs into Matthew's arm.

Two electrodes on the inside of the socket detect electrical impulses made by the muscles in Matthew's lower arm.

The signals are then beamed to a mini-computer in the palm which translates the messages into movements, replicating a normal hand.

After being fitted with the hand last Friday Matthew said: ''It is just amazing.

''My old artificial hand was not great, it had a pretty basic open close mechanism similar to a clamp.

''But with this one I can do everything, it is just like the real thing.

''It is going to make such a big difference to my life.

''It also looks really cool - the outer-shell is see through so you can actually see the mechanics working.

''They are even going to put a little Mercedes badge by the wrist.''

Each finger is powered by an individual motor which allows the digits to move independently.

The hand is protected by an aluminium chassis-style casing which is capable of supporting a load of up to 90kg (14st).

Amazingly, it is even fitted with Bluetooth technology to allow Matthew to hook up to a computer wirelessly to track the strength and speed of his movements.

Matthew, from Wokingham, Berks., travelled to Touch Bionic's HQ in Livingston, Scotland, to take control of his new hand.

Matthew, who lives with his father Rob, 44, mum Tina, 42, said: ''I am actually looking forward to getting back to school so I can test it out, it's going to be so much fun.

''I like science and am planning to go into engineering but I used to struggle with lab experiments - now they should not be a problem.

''I also love sport but anything that involves two hands, like cricket, has always been a struggle but now I can compete with the other lads.

''It is really amazing technology and I am so grateful to Touch Bionics and Mercedes.''

After receiving the letter in June, Mercedes invited Matthew to their headquarters, where he toured the factory and met racing legend Michael Schumacher.

The company said they were unable to pay for the hand but agreed to help Matthew raise the money, by asking fans and sponsors to make donations.

Touch Bionics also agreed to fit the hand and train Matthew at their state of the art facilities for free, which would have otherwise cost £25,000.

Matthew was born with a congenital defect which meant his left arm only developed up to his wrist.

Incredibly, Matthew, who goes to the prestigious Reading School, is a brown belt in Karate and hopes to pursue a career as an engineer with F1.

Dad Rob, an IT consultant, said: ''We are so proud of him.

''He has wanted a Touch Bionics limb since he was young but we have never been able to afford it.

''He contacted Mercedes on his own volition and they were so impressed by his intelligence and maturity that they agreed to help.

''He has never let his disability get him down but he has also always strived to achieve his best and now he truly feels he can with the i-LIMB Pulse.

Read more at The Telegraph

Mysterious Fossils Provide New Clues to Insect Evolution

Scientists at the Stuttgart Natural History Museum and colleagues have discovered a new insect order from the Lower Cretaceous of South America. The spectacular fossils were named Coxoplectoptera by their discoverers and their findings were published in a special issue on Cretaceous Insects in the scientific journal Insect Systematics & Evolution.

The work group led by Dr. Arnold H. Staniczek and Dr. Günter Bechly, both experts on basal insects, determined that these fossils represent extinct relatives of modern mayflies. Coxoplectoptera, however, significantly differ from both mayflies and all other known insects in anatomy and mode of life.

With the discovery of adult winged specimens and excellently preserved larvae, the scientists were able to clarify the phylogenetic position of these animals and presented a new hypothesis regarding the relationships of basal winged insects. Equipped with wing venation of a mayfly, breast and wing shape of a dragonfly, and legs of a praying mantis, these winged insects look like a patchwork of various animals. The peculiar larvae, however, are reminiscent of freshwater shrimps. Their lifestyle turned out to be a major enigma: their mode of embedding and certain other characteristics clearly suggest a fluvial habitat. Their unique anatomy indicates that these animals were ambush predators living partly dug in the river bed.

Read more at Science Daily

Marco Polo Never Got to Asia (Plus More History Myths)

Marco Polo never made it to Asia, according to a team of Italian archaeologists. Rather, his stories of his travels to China were tall tales lifted from fellow traders he met around the Black Sea, the Daily Mail is reporting.

Marco Polo, the legendary explorer famous for his epic journey into Asia, was just a "conman," according to the report.

As years turn into centuries and history becomes more disconnected from its source, facts can become twisted, lost or discarded. In Marco Polo's case, the story seems to be of his own creation. But sometimes, even the most careful historians can lose sight of the truth.

Some legends are apocryphal tales that merely add color to a famous figure. We've all heard that George Washington had wooden teeth. He didn't, but he did wear dentures.

Other myths, however, are so central to the story of a historical figure that fact is not commonly separated from fiction. For example, Isaac Newton didn't discover gravity after an apple hit him on the head. However, since Newton often used apples as an analogy to explain gravity, the story became an often misrepresented part of his history.

If you have a Napoleonic complex, then your ambition is likely much greater than your stature. Named after the legendary general and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, the condition describes men of small build who have an inferiority complex and overcompensate for it.

There's just one problem with that name: Napoleon wasn't short.

In fact, his commonly attributed height, five feet and two inches, only holds true under an old French system of measurement. The equivalent using the modern standard is about five feet, six inches -- not particularly diminutive for a man of his era.

Benjamin Franklin deserves a lot of credit. He was one of the founding father of the United States, a major figure of the Enlightenment, a diplomat and much more.

One achievement often falsely attributed to Franklin, however, is that he discovered electricity. Although an accomplished scientist who experimented with electricity, Franklin was not the first to describe or explore the properties of electricity and magnetism.

The first description of magnetism traces back to nearly 2,600 years ago to Thales of Miletus who witnessed iron attracted to a loadstone but attributed it to the metal having a soul. The earliest attempts to explain this force with scientific explanations occurred several hundred years later.

William Gilbert, an English scientist who lived during the 16th century and was praised by Galileo, established some of the basic principles of electricity and magnetism, including that the Earth itself produced a magnetic field.

The voyages of Christopher Columbus launched a new era of European expansion into the American continent. They brought a collision of worlds unprecedented in human history.

Although story of Columbus's first voyage is fraught with embellishment, few myths have endured quite like the claim that his sailors believed the Earth was flat. According to the myth, the sailors believed after sailing for weeks without spotting land, they would fall off the face of the Earth.

That, however, was not the case. In fact, Columbus's crew likely held onto the widely accepted belief that navigators grasped since ancient times -- that the Earth is in fact a sphere.

Did Albert Einstein, a pioneer of modern physics, the father of the theory of relativity, and one of the greatest minds in all of history, really fail math as a child?

Not even close. In fact, by Einstein's own admission, he considered being a mathematician instead of a physicist.

So where does this legend come from? According to Karl S. Kruszelnicki with ABC Science Online, it's a simple misunderstanding of the grading system when Einstein was a schoolboy. When Einstein was in school, the grading system ranked students on a scale from one to six, with one being the highest score and six being the lowest. Shortly after Einstein left, the system was reversed, with six being the highest score a student could receive.

As a result, anyone looking at Einstein's grades after the switch would have been under the impression that Einstein was a poor student under the more contemporary grading system.

More at Discovery News

Aug 14, 2011

How Butterflies Copy Their Neighbors to Fool Birds

The mystery of how a butterfly has changed its wing patterns to mimic neighbouring species and avoid being eaten by birds has been solved by a team of European scientists. The study is published August 14,  2011 in the journal Nature.

The greatest evolutionary thinkers, including Wallace, Bates and Darwin, have all wondered how butterflies that taste bad to birds have evolved the same patterns of warning colouration. Now for the first time, researchers led by the CNRS (Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris) and the University of Exeter (UK) have shown how butterflies perform this amazing trick, known as 'Müllerian mimicry'.

Funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the study focused on the Amazonian species Heliconius numata, which mimics several other butterfly species at a single site in the rainforest. One population of Heliconius numata can therefore feature many distinct wing colour patterns resembling those of other butterflies, such as the Monarch's relatives Melinaea, which are unpalatable to birds. This acts as a disguise, protecting them against predators.

The researchers located and sequenced the chromosomal region responsible for the wing patterns in H. numata. The butterfly's wing-pattern variation is controlled by a single region on a single chromosome, containing several genes which control the different elements of the pattern. Known as a 'supergene', this clustering allows genetic combinations that are favoured for their mimetic resemblance to be maintained, while preventing combinations that produce non-mimetic patterns from arising. Supergenes are responsible for a wide range of what we see in nature: from the shape of primrose flowers to the colour and pattern of snail shells.

The researchers found that three versions of the same chromosome coexist in this species, each version controlling distinct wing-pattern forms. This has resulted in butterflies that look completely different from one another, despite having the same DNA.

"We were blown away by what we found," said Dr Mathieu Joron of the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, who led the research. "These butterflies are the 'transformers' of the insect world. But instead of being able to turn from a car into a robot with the flick of switch, a single genetic switch allows these insects to morph into several different mimetic forms -- it is amazing and the stuff of science fiction. Now we are starting to understand how this switch can have such a pervasive effect."

Professor Richard ffrench-Constant of the University of Exeter added: "This phenomenon has puzzled scientists for centuries -- including Darwin himself. Indeed, it was the original observations of mimicry that helped frame the concept of natural selection. Now that we have the right tools we are able to understand the reason for this amazing transformation: by changing just one gene, the butterfly is able to fool its predators by mimicking a range of different butterflies that taste bad."

This single supergene also appears important in melanism in other species, including moths. In April 2011, a team led by Liverpool University explained in the journal Science how the Peppered Moth developed its black wings in nineteenth-century Britain's sooty industrial environment.

Read more at Science Daily

‘Drowned’ Boy Reveals the Psychology of Miracles

A young boy's recovery from drowning earlier this week is being credited to a miracle.

Dale Ostrander, 12, was swimming in the ocean at Long Beach, WA., when he got sucked under by a rogue wave. He was there as part of a church group, who cried and prayed while searchers looked for the boy. About fifteen minutes later two rescuers found Ostrander, pulled him to safety, and performed CPR. he was then flown to an Oregon hospital, where he was put into an induced coma and recovered on Monday. Ostrander's friends and family are crediting prayer (with a little help from doctors, of course). His recovery has been widely dubbed a miracle.

Was it a miracle? How we interpret miracles depends on several factors, including our religious beliefs and our knowledge of medicine and statistics.

For many, unusual and positive events can seem miraculously rare, when in reality they are not. For example, many people consider surviving an airplane crash to be a miracle. In fact, statistics show that most people involved in airplane crashes and accidents survive without life-threatening injuries. Plane crashes are very rare, and incidents where everyone aboard is killed are incredibly rare. Since surviving a plane crash is far more common than being killed in a plane crash, it's wonderful for the survivors, but hardly unusual.

Other times what appears to be a miracle to a layperson or a victim's family is not considered a miracle by medical professionals, who may see similar cases on a routine basis. Doctors know that it's not unusual for drowning victims—especially ones who have been underwater for about 20 minutes or less, as Ostrander was—to survive and fully recover.

As ABCNews reported,

    Dr. Benjamin Abella, director of clinical research in the Center for Resuscitation Science at the University of Pennsylvania said Ostrander's survival may be due to the fact that he was submerged in frigid water. "A number of studies have shown that hypothermia -- reduced body temperature -- is highly protective of the brain when it is starved for oxygen and blood flow," Abella told ABC News. "The water that bathed him was certainly quite cold, and it's likely that his core body temperature dropped during his cardiac arrest event." Abella said Ostrander's youth and overall health may have also helped his chances. "There have been a number of reported cases where people have been rescued from icy water and restored to health," he said. "These cases are not common, but they aren't as rare as one might think.

This is widely known in the medical community, and suggests that fatalistic predictions about Ostrander that appear in media accounts such as “they never expected him to live” (or in a contradictory prognosis, "expected him to be a vegetable”) were exaggerated.

There's also a psychological process called confirmation bias, in which people tend to seek out, focus on, and remember information that supports their ideas and beliefs while ignoring or downplaying information that contradicts or undermines their beliefs.

This helps explain why, for example, God was credited for saving Ostrander’s life through miraculous, divine intervention, but He was not blamed for the boy’s accident. Surely God could have simply prevented Ostrander from drowning in the first place, saving his friends and family untold grief and worry (not to mention medical bills). If you’re going to credit God for saving the boy's life, logically you should blame God for threatening the boy’s life. How do people reconcile this contradiction?

Read more at Discovery News

Superman's memory crystals may become reality in computers

Researchers at Southampton University used lasers to rearrange the atoms in pieces of glass, turning it into new type of computer memory.

They claim the glass memory is far more stable and resilient than current types of hard-drive memory, which have a limited lifespan of a couple of decades and are vulnerable to damage from high temperatures and moisture.

The glass memory can withstand temperatures of up to 1,800 degrees F, is unaffected by water and can last for thousands of years without losing information.

Information can be written, wiped and rewritten into the molecular structure of the glass using a laser, the scientists claim.

The process changes the way light travels through the glass, creating whirlpools of polarised light that can then be read in much the same way as data in optical fibres.

The glass memory has been compared to the "memory crystals" used in the Superman films, which contain recorded video and data saved by his parents that play back when inserted into a player in his fortress.

Martynas Beresna, lead researcher for the project at Southampton University's optoelectronics research centre, said they can currently store the equivalent of a whole Blu-ray Disc – up to 50GB of data – on a piece of glass no bigger than a mobile phone screen.

He said: "We have developed this memory which means data can be stored on the glass and last forever. It could become a very stable and safe form of portable memory.

"It could be very useful for organisations with big archives. At the moment companies have to back up their archives every five to ten years because hard-drive memory has a relatively short lifespan.

"Museums who want to preserve information or places like the National Archives where they have huge numbers of documents, would really benefit."

Read more at The Telegraph