Sep 3, 2011

Is This the Face of Jack The Ripper?

Thin-haired with deep-set grey eyes and a large, red pimpled nose: this is how Jack the Ripper, perhaps the most notorious murderer in history, might have looked, according to new archival research into police documents.

Retired British police detective, Trevor Marriott, gathered together evidence and has built a case against Carl Feigenbaum, a 54-year-old German merchant seaman, and made him the top suspect for committing the horrific and notorious murders between August and November 1888.

At that time, at least five women in the Whitechapel area in London were found horribly disfigured, often with organs missing.

The name Jack the Ripper was coined in taunting letters sent to the press and police, in which the writer claimed credit for the crimes.

Ripper's career ended as suddenly as it began with the murderer still at large, making his case one of the history's greatest murder mysteries.

Since the first murder 123 years ago, more than 200 suspects have been named, including Lewis Carroll, author of "Alice in Wonderland," Prince Albert Victor and Sir John Williams, obstetrician to the Royal Family.

According to Marriott, there are a number of factors pointing to the obscure German merchant.

"For example, he killed a woman in ripper like fashion with a long bladed knife which he carried. It was the same type of knife used to kill the Whotechapel victims," Marriott told Discovery News.

The murder occurred in Manhattan, and the woman was his landlady Juliana Hoffman.

For the brutal killing, Feigenbaum went to the electric chair in New York in 1896.

Marriott begun his investigation by examining groups of people who may have been in Whitechapel at the time of the killings.

Since the district is just a short distance from London's docks, sailors were included in the group of suspects.

Crew lists for ships that were in dock at those times revealed that Feigenbaum, who was already in the 200 suspect list, was visiting London at the time of each murder.

"He had been employed as a merchant seaman for The Nordeutcher Line which had a ship in London on all the murder dates," Marriott said.

The former detective also found a 1896 report in the National Police Gazette in which Feigenbaum’s lawyer detailed a confession made by his client at Sing Sing jail.

"I have for years suffered from a singular disease, which induces an all-absorbing passion; this passion manifests itself in a desire to kill and mutilate the woman who falls in my way. At such times I am unable to control myself," he confessed.

No photographs of Feigenbaum exist, but Marriott put together an e-fit based on the description of him when he was in prison in the US.

According to the Sing Sing admittance form, he had deep set grey eyes, dark brown hair and a "medium sized head."

Standing 5ft 4½ tall and weighting 126 pounds, he had a large, red nose with raw pimples, with poor teeth, almost entirely gone on left sides.

The prison official also noted he had "anchor in india ink on right hand at base of thumb and first finger" and a "round scar or birthmark on right leg below left knee."

Given the surgical precision of the mutilations, it was usually assumed that the elusive killer had a great knowledge of human anatomy.

But Marriott argued that the removal of the women's organs occurred in the mortuary, as the 1832 Anatomy Act made it legal to remove organs for medical training.

Read more at Discovery News

Why We Crave Creativity but Reject Creative Ideas

Most people view creativity as an asset -- until they come across a creative idea. That's because creativity not only reveals new perspectives; it promotes a sense of uncertainty.

The next time your great idea at work elicits silence or eye rolls, you might just pity those co-workers. Fresh research indicates they don't even know what a creative idea looks like and that creativity, hailed as a positive change agent, actually makes people squirm.

"How is it that people say they want creativity but in reality often reject it?" said Jack Goncalo, ILR School assistant professor of organizational behavior and co-author of research to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science. The paper reports on two 2010 experiments at the University of Pennsylvania involving more than 200 people.

The studies' findings include:

  •     Creative ideas are by definition novel, and novelty can trigger feelings of uncertainty that make most people uncomfortable.
  •     People dismiss creative ideas in favor of ideas that are purely practical -- tried and true.
  •     Objective evidence shoring up the validity of a creative proposal does not motivate people to accept it.
  •     Anti-creativity bias is so subtle that people are unaware of it, which can interfere with their ability to recognize a creative idea.

For example, subjects had a negative reaction to a running shoe equipped with nanotechnology that adjusted fabric thickness to cool the foot and reduce blisters.

To uncover bias against creativity, the researchers used a subtle technique to measure unconscious bias -- the kind to which people may not want to admit, such as racism. Results revealed that while people explicitly claimed to desire creative ideas, they actually associated creative ideas with negative words such as "vomit," "poison" and "agony."

Goncalo said this bias caused subjects to reject ideas for new products that were novel and high quality.

"Our findings imply a deep irony," wrote the authors, who also include Jennifer Mueller of the University of Pennsylvania and Shimul Melwani of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "Revealing the existence and nature of a bias against creativity can help explain why people might reject creative ideas and stifle scientific advancements, even in the face of strong intentions to the contrary."

Read more at Science Daily

New ‘Demon’ Bat Species Found in Vietnam

Three new bat species, one resembling the Lord of the Underworld, have been discovered in the tropical forests of southern Indochina.

The tiny ‘demon,’ named Beelzebub’s tube-nosed bat, has been seen only in Vietnam.

“We chose the name Beelzebub to reflect the dark ‘diabolic’ coloration of the new species and its fierce protective behavior in the field,” said Gabor Csorba of the Hungarian Natural History Museum.

Bats represent nearly a third of the known mammal species in South East Asia already. But the true number of bat species in the region may be twice current count, based on recent genetic research, said Paul Racey, bat specialist and Vice Chairman of Fauna and Flora International, in a press release today.

Murina beelzebub, like the other two tube-nosed bats discovered, depends on the tropical forest for its survival. The bats are especially vulnerable due to ongoing deforestation in the region, researchers warn.

Read more at Wired Science

Sep 2, 2011

First Long-Term Study of WTC Workers Shows Widespread Health Problems 10 Years After Sept. 11

In the first long-term study of the health impacts of the World Trade Center (WTC) collapse on September 11, 2001, researchers at The Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York have found substantial and persistent mental and physical health problems among 9/11 first responders and recovery workers.

The data are published this week in a special 9/11 issue of the medical journal The Lancet.

The Mount Sinai World Trade Center Clinical Center of Excellence and Data Center evaluated more than 27,000 police officers, construction workers, firefighters, and municipal workers over the nine years following 9/11 and found a high incidence of several conditions, including asthma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, sinusitis, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). More than one in five of all the responders studied had multiple physical and/or mental health problems.

The results showed that nine years after 9/11:

  •     28 percent of patients had asthma, 42 percent had sinusitis, and 39 percent had GERD.
  •     42 percent of patients had abnormal lung function tests, indicative of lung injury.
  •     7 percent of police officers were diagnosed with depression, 9 percent with PTSD and 8 percent with panic disorder.
  •     28 percent of other rescue and recovery workers had symptoms of depression; 32 percent experienced symptoms of PTSD, and 21 percent had symptoms consistent with panic disorder.
  •     Almost 10 percent of rescue and recovery workers had asthma, sinusitis, and GERD simultaneously.
  •     48 percent of rescue workers with asthma, 38 percent with sinusitis, and 43 percent with GERD were also diagnosed with at least one mental health condition.

"Several studies have evaluated the health impacts of 9/11, but this is the first long-term study to demonstrate the lasting burden of disease experienced by the brave men and women who responded in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center," said Juan Wisnivesky, MD, DrPH, Vice-Chair for Research in the Department of Medicine and lead author on the study. "Our findings underscore the importance of long-term monitoring and treatment of the rescue and recovery worker population."

Those who arrived on the scene first received the greatest exposure to the dust and smoke, and sustained the most severe health damage. These first responders were exposed to a complex mix of toxins and known human carcinogens that included benzene from jet fuel, asbestos, dioxin, lead, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), glass fibers, hydrochloric acid, polychlorinated biphenyls, and other caustic chemicals. All of these materials were released into the air of lower Manhattan with the collapse of the towers. Participants were divided into four categories based on their level of exposure to airborne toxins at Ground Zero. Fourteen percent were categorized as low exposure, 65 percent as intermediate, 18 percent high, and 3 percent as very high.

Read more at Science Daily

Quantum computer chips pass key milestones

Quantum computer users may soon have to wrestle with their own version of the "PC or Mac?" question. A design based on superconducting electrical circuits has now performed two benchmark feats, suggesting it will be a serious competitor to rival setups using photons or ions.

"The number of runners in the race has just gone up to three," says Andrew White of the University of Queensland, Australia, who builds quantum computers based on photons and was not involved in the new result.

The defining feature of a quantum computer is that it uses quantum bits or qubits. Unlike ordinary bits, these can exist in multiple states at once, known as a superposition. They can also be entangled with each other, so their quantum states are linked, allowing them to be in a sort of "super" superposition of quantum states.

This means quantum computers could perform multiple calculations simultaneously, making them much faster than ordinary computers at some tasks.

Previously, setups using photons or trapped ions as qubits have made the most headway in early calculations. Now Matteo Mariantoni of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and colleagues have boosted the computing power of a rival design, first demonstrated in 2003, that uses tiny, superconducting wires instead.

Wire loops

Mariantoni's team used a chip embedded with micrometre-sized loops of wire made of a mixture of aluminium and rhenium. When these wires were cooled to within a whisker of absolute zero, they became superconducting, meaning their electrons coupled up as structures called "cooper pairs".

The pairs in each wire were made to resonate as an ensemble. Because each ensemble could exist as a superposition of multiple different resonating states, they acted as qubits.

Mariantoni's team entangled these qubit wires using a second type of wire, known as a bus, that snaked all around the chip. First they tuned this bus so that it took on some of the quantum information in one of the qubits. Then they transferred this information to further qubit wires, thus entangling the qul�.

Benchmark tests

The design made strides in solving calculations often used as benchmarks for testing quantum computers' capabilities.

It ran a calculation known as the quantum Fourier transform, which is a central component of the most famous quantum algorithm, known as Shor's. If Shor's were run on a system with enough qubits, it would allow huge numbers to be factorised quickly. That has not happened yet, but if it ever did, it would cause many current encryption systems to break down, since they rely on the fact that ordinary computers can't do this.

The researchers also used entangled qubits to create a system known as a "Toffoli OR phase gate", which is a critical step towards building codes that do quantum error correction. This required entangling three qubits – a first for superconducting quantum circuits. "Getting three bits to play well together is hard," says White.

Read more at New Scientist

Sep 1, 2011

Oldest Advanced Tools Found in Kenya

Given that chimps have demonstrated the ability to make and use tools in the wild, chances our that our human ancestors inherited some of that ability from the ancestor both humans and chimps have in common. But, starting with the australopithecines, our ancestors started making permanent tools from rocks, and investing increased effort into shaping. Oldowan tools were later used by the first members of the genus Homo, and were carried out of Africa during the global spread of Homo erectus.

By 1.4 million years ago, African Homo erectus was using the far more involved and sophisticated Acheulian tool technology, which later made its way out of Africa. But the transition between the two tool types has remained unclear. Now, scientists are reporting the first find where Oldowan and Acheulian tools have been found at the same site, one that’s old enough to indicate that Acheulian tools were available when Homo erectus first left Africa.

The site in question lies near Lake Turkana in Kenya, which was already famous for finds relevant to human origins, including the Turkana Boy Homo erectus skeleton, which dates from 1.5 million years ago. The slopes near the northwest shore of the lake contain an extensive sedimentary record that can be matched with others in the nearby area, including some that have been dated using radioactive decay. A few meters below the sediments that contained the tools lies a feature that has been dated to 1.9 million years ago; above them, a different feature sets a younger limit at 1.5 million years. That last figure is rather significant, given that there are no reliably dated Acheulian tools older than 1.4 million years.

Extrapolating based on the depth of the deposits between, the authors estimate that the tools are roughly between 1.72 and 1.81 million years old. That lets them start zeroing in on a more precise date based on reversals in the Earth’s magnetic field. This provides a firmer estimate: 1.76 million years, 350,000 years older than the previous site that had been dated so precisely. It also lines up with one of the earliest Homo erectus fossils, reinforcing the link between the two.

Since both toolmaking technologies were present in the same sediments, the site provides a clear indication that one set of techniques didn’t simply replace the others. Either the Acheulian tools were developed by people who continued to use their earlier techniques, or the Acheulian technology was imported without its displacing the native one. In either case, the site suggests a more gradual transition than previous evidence had indicated.

Read more at Wired Science

Body of Infamous Aussie Outlaw Ned Kelly Found

The headless remains of the infamous Australian outlaw Ned Kelly have finally been identified, officials said Thursday, solving a mystery dating back more than 130 years.

Considered by some to be a cold-blooded killer, Kelly was also seen as a folk hero and symbol of Irish-Australian defiance against the British authorities.

After murdering three policemen, he was captured in Victoria state in 1880 and hanged at Old Melbourne Gaol in November of the same year. But his body went missing after it was thrown into a mass grave.

The bodies in the grave were transferred from the jail to Pentridge Prison in 1929 and then exhumed again in 2009. The investigation into Kelly began when a skull believed to be his -- and stolen in 1978 -- was rediscovered.

Doctors and scientists at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine identified his body, found in a wooden axe box, after a DNA sample was taken from Melbourne teacher Leigh Olver, Kelly's sister Ellen's great-grandson.

"The wear and tear of the skeleton is a little bit more than would be expected for a 25-year-old today," said institute director Professor Stephen Cordner.

"But such was Ned's life, this is hardly surprising."

However, tests found that the skull believed to be Kelly's was in fact not his.

Victoria's Attorney-General Robert Clark said he was amazed by the work of the forensic scientists.

"This is an extraordinary achievement by our forensic team," he said.

"To think a group of scientists could identify the body of a man who was executed more than 130 years ago, moved and buried in a haphazard fashion among 33 other prisoners, most of whom are not identified, is amazing."

Believed to have been born in 1854 or 1855, Kelly became an outlaw two years before he was hanged, taking on corrupt police and greedy land barons.

He survived a shootout with police in 1878 that saw him, his brother Dan, and friends Joe Byrne and Steve Hart slapped with an 8,000-pound bounty -- the largest reward ever offered in the British Empire -- for anyone who found them, dead or alive.

Over the next 18 months, the Kelly Gang held up country towns and robbed their banks, becoming folk heroes to the masses.

In a final gunbattle at Glenrowan, three of the gang members died and Kelly, dressed in home-made plate metal armour and helmet, was wounded and arrested.

Photos of his skeletal remains clearly show a bullet hole in one of his leg bones.

Read more at Discovery News

Shaggy, Shovel-Headed Rhino Evolved in Tibet

Woolly rhinos and many other large, shaggy prehistoric animals first evolved their cold tolerance in Tibet, which served as the evolutionary cradle for Ice Age mega plant-eaters, according to a new paper.

The study helps explain why so many different species roamed North America, Europe and Asia during the last Ice Age beginning about 2.8 million years ago. They had previously adapted to cold environments in the western Himalayas before later expanding to other regions.

Several were big with long hair.

"There is a general principle, called Bergmann's Rule, that suggests animals tend to increase their body size in colder environments," said Xiaoming Wang, co-author of the study which appeared in this week's Science. "Large-bodied animals have relatively smaller surface areas to lose heat and thus conserve heat better -- it's a matter of physics."

Wang and his colleagues identified Tibet as the mega herbivore cradle after discovering a new woolly rhino, Coelodonta thibetana, dating to 3.7 million years ago. As its name suggests, this animal was about as furry as a beast can be, and it had a head that functioned like a snow shovel.

"The extinct Tibetan woolly rhino had developed special adaptations for sweeping snow using its flattened, forward-leaning horn to reveal vegetation, a useful behavior for survival in the harsh Tibetan climate," Wang explained.

He and his team suspect that the rhino evolved from Stephanorhinus, a genus of Eurasian-wide distribution. C. thibetana then lived during the Pliocene (5.3 to 2.6 million years ago) at a time, Wang said, "when global climate was much warmer and the northern continents were free of the massive ice sheets seen in the Ice Age later. The Tibetan rhino likely was thus able to accustom itself to cold conditions in high elevations and become pre-adapted for the future Ice Age climate."

Tibet also gave rise to other cold-adapted animals. While woolly mammoths and woolly rhinos bit the proverbial dust some time ago, other species with Tibetan ancestry survived to modern times.

The Tibetan wild yak, for example, is a sister species to European and North American bison. During the Pleistocene, the Tibetan wild ass expanded its population to northern Pakistan and possibly even to Alaska. Snow leopards and blue sheep are two other examples.

"Like the woolly rhino, blue sheep descended down from high Tibet during the Ice Age, presumably for the same reason as the rhinos, but somehow the blue sheep survived to the present day in the high plateau," Wang said.

The Tibetan antelope is now confined to the highest elevations of Tibet and adapted "by evolving one of the finest under furs," often used by local people to weave highly prized shawls.

The Tibetan antelope and virtually all other modern, cold-hardy species are now under threat due to climate change and over-hunting. According to Wang, "The polar bear is a poster child example" of such animals that are presently at risk.

Animal experts largely agree that Tibet was indeed the birthplace for many species that later survived through the Ice Age and beyond.

"We know from today's species that they move up and down mountains in accordance with climate change," said Adrian Lister, a professor in the Department of Paleontology at The Natural History Museum in London. Lister added that "many are now moving upwards" in an attempt "to escape global warming. It seems perfectly reasonable that a similar thing could have happened over longer time scales in the past."

Read more at Discovery News

Aug 31, 2011

Graphene's Shining Light Could Lead to Super-Fast Internet

Writing in the journal Nature Communications, a collaboration between the Universities of Manchester and Cambridge, which includes Nobel Prize winning scientists Professor Andre Geim and Professor Kostya Novoselov, has discovered a crucial recipe for improving characteristics of graphene devices for use as photodetectors in future high-speed optical communications.

By combining graphene with metallic nanostructures, they show a twenty-fold enhancement in harvesting light by graphene, which paves the way for advances in high-speed internet and other communications.

By putting two closely-spaced metallic wires on top of graphene and shining light on this structure, researchers previously showed that this generates electric power. This simple device presents an elementary solar cell.

More importantly for applications, such graphene devices can be incredibly fast, tens and potentially hundred times faster than communication rates in the fastest internet cables, which is due to the unique nature of electrons in graphene, their high mobility and high velocity.

The major stumbling block towards practical applications for these otherwise very promising devices has so far been their low efficiency. The problem is that graphene -- the thinnest material in the world -- absorbs little light, approximately only 3%, with the rest going through without contributing to the electrical power.

The Manchester researchers have solved the problems by combining graphene with tiny metallic structures, specially arranged on top of graphene.

These so-called plasmonic nanostructures have dramatically enhanced the optical electric field felt by graphene and effectively concentrated light within the one-atom-thick carbon layer.

By using the plasmonic enhancement, the light-harvesting performance of graphene was boosted by twenty times, without sacrificing any of its speed. The future efficiency can be improved even further.

Dr Alexander Grigorenko, an expert in plasmonics and a leading member of the team, said: "Graphene seems a natural companion for plasmonics. We expected that plasmonic nanostructures could improve the efficiency of graphene-based devices but it has come as a pleasant surprise that the improvements can be so dramatic."

Professor Novoselov added: "The technology of graphene production matures day-by-day, which has an immediate impact both on the type of exciting physics which we find in this material, and on the feasibility and the range of possible applications.

"Many leading electronics companies consider graphene for the next generation of devices. This work certainly boosts graphene's chances even further."

Read more at Science Daily

Letters Home After 9/11

This is a letter I wrote to my hometown minister, Scott Planting, the Saturday after the 9/11 attacks. My mother, who had a copy, recently sent it to me and it brought back a flood of memories. Sometimes, memories of events as tumultuous as 9/11 can fade or change over time. I think it's important that we remember that day -- those days -- as they were at that moment. That's why we're asking you to contribute as well. Did you write letters or emails after 9/11 that you could share?

We're compiling a collection called Letters Home After 9/11 and would like to include yours. Please post your letter or email in the comments section below, or email them to, taking out any parts you'd like to keep personal. Thank you for helping us document reflections and memories of that wrenching day 10 years ago.

Saturday, Sept. 15, 2001
Hi Scott,

I heard you were interested in hearing what it's like here. I, and I think most people here haven't really yet come to grips with what happened. The whole city is walking around in a daze, in some kind of horrible, never-ending nightmare.

I was at work at ABC when this happened and have been working ever since. Not really sleeping, barely eating. That morning I got to work at 8 am. At 8:20 we have a meeting to settle on what news we'll cover for the day. Since I cover science, I'm to write a story about how scientists have concluded that more stem cell lines are needed for research. Then, at 8:50, I hear someone in the newsroom say, "Oh my God."

We all look up at the TV monitors and see the unbelievable image of the upper floors of one tower of the World Trade Center burning and smoking. We learn a plane has crashed into it. We assume it was an accident. I call mom and tell her something terrible has happened.

The editors quickly gather and assign stories. I'm told to write a story about what allows the building to remain standing despite being struck by a plane. Then the next plane strikes. There's an audible moan from the newsroom. Now it's clear this is not an accident. It's clear the city is being attacked by terrorists.

For about an hour I can't track down a friend of mine. She was leaving for work shortly before the first plane struck. I leave several messages for her at home and work. I don't hear back until later. She's OK. She was on the train, above ground, when the second plane struck. People in the train watched it happened, cried out and then the train went back underground. They rode the rest of the way in shock.

I start making calls. I talk to structural engineers, some of whom had worked on the design of the World Trade Center. They begin to explain the buildings' complex architecture and how they could remain standing. It appears to be a testimony to the trade's ability.

I start to write my story. Then the first tower falls. We all feel sick. I start over again. I call everyone back. My story now is what caused the tower -- and eventually both towers -- to fall. After I file it I'm asked to go out and do some reporting.

I go outside and see streams of people walking briskly north. It seems like the entire city is walking, walking in the streets, in the sidewalks, in the parks. And they're all heading north, away from the nightmare that's in lower Manhattan. Many are carrying bags of bottled water and food. Many have heard that the city's water supply has been poisoned. I talk to people who have walked for miles -- everyone is scared. A plane flies overhead, everyone looks up, terrified. It's a fighter plane.

I go back to work and file the reporting. I begin hearing from friends and family. In a panic everyone in the city starts calling or emailing everyone they know. We're desperate to know if everyone's OK. Among my friends, one, someone I didn't knew very well, but a great guy with a huge smile, is still missing.

Another friend of mine was shopping at a store right next door to the World Trade Center at the time of the crash. He's a reporter for NBC News and his immediate instinct was to call his wife, also a reporter, and tell her to bring a camera and join him as he tries to report the story. She heads out. He approaches the towers. Now both are burning. He tries to go right up to the building, but a policeman stops him, saying he can't pass beyond that point, and telling him to clear out.

My friend argues with him, saying he's a reporter with NBC and he needs to cover the story. The police officer says no, he's yelling now, saying "Get out!" My friend walks away -- and then the first tower collapses. He runs for his life. Debris and shards pierce his back, he's covered in dust. But he survives. The place where the police officer had been standing is buried. My friend knows that police officer saved his life -- and had probably just lost his own.

Meanwhile my friend's wife has just arrived as the first tower crashes. She's terrified and starts phoning my friend on his cell phone trying to reach him. He doesn't answer, he doesn't answer, finally he does. Theirs is a happier story than many that we've heard.

That night, I'm not sure how or if I'll be able to get home. A friend walks 40 blocks from her office to mine so we can try getting back to Brooklyn together. We've heard some of the trains are still running and they are. After many long waits on eerie, empty platforms, many transfers and stopping and starting rides, we get home.

My bedroom, which has two windows facing lower Manhattan, is coated in fine debris. There's an acrid, sick, choking smell in the air. Plumes of black smoke still rise from Manhattan. Sirens sound all night. All of this continues still.

The next day I leave for work-at 5:30 a.m. the next day, and the next day. I get home late at night, call friends, family and go to bed. Many times as I'm working, I start to cry. Then I stop because I'm at work and we’re expected to perform. But I can't eat, can't sleep.

I think about the stunned look I've seen in other peoples' eyes in the trains on the way to work, on the streets I think about the time a few weeks ago that some friends and I went to the base of the World Trade Center to go shopping. I think about the maze of wide, gleaming hallways connecting buildings to other buildings, to subway lines, to stores. I think about how packed with people the buildings always were. I can't imagine it's all gone now. I can't imagine so many people are gone now -- even when I see the hole in the sky line, it still isn't real.

A friend and I walked downtown and went to a candlelight vigil outside in a park. Below 23rd street, every lamp post is plastered with hand-made posters. The posters an have pictures of someone with the words "Missing" above their smiling faces and a number to call if anyone has information.

On the sidewalks, people have written messages in chalk -- from Shakespeare, the bible, Gandhi and others. We've all seen little signs of desperation and diminishing hope. At my friend's apartment, she's noticed how the mail of one of her neighbor's has stacked up since Tuesday. No one has been there to collect it. Many of us have gotten calls, messages from strangers on our cell phones, asking for any information about a lost husband or wife.

I've been frustrated I haven't had time to volunteer, but among my friends who have tried, many have been turned away. They try to give blood, but are turned away. The hospitals are still waiting for patients, but they haven't arrived. Some of my friends visit their local fire departments and ask if they need anything. One unit, a squad that lost seven firefighters, asks her to bring some dinner and plastic utensils and plates. When we bring the food by, we realize that the station is not only staffed by surviving members of the crew, but also by an entire crew from Boston. Rescue workers from around the country have been streaming in to help.

Another friend is on her way home and encounters a woman who looks lost. She's a nurse who drove to New York from Rhode Island as soon as it happened on Tuesday. She's been volunteering at the disaster site and  isn't sure where to stay for the night. My friend takes her in.

Many of my friends have bought supplies -- plastic bags, bandages, ice, food -- to centers to help support the incredible rescue workers helping downtown. It seems like the job of clearing rubble and finding victims is going to take the rest of our lives. Mayor Rudolf Guiliani has been a pillar of light. He's telling New Yorkers to go on with their lives. He tells us to go to restaurants, to show that we will not be cowered by this cowardly act. Every night as I go home, I see the restaurants are packed.

Read more at Discovery News

Eyewitnesses: Why They Can't Be Trusted

Most people trust what they see with their own eyes above all else. For the same reason they put great weight on eyewitness testimony. They point to the legal system, which often convicts people of crimes based largely on an eyewitnesses saying "I was at the scene and I absolutely saw the accused commit the crime."

What more do you want? The person was there, he saw who did it, and unless he's a proven liar the case is closed.

Except it's not.

In fact, the New Jersey Supreme Court recently issued new rules to prevent innocent people from being wrongly convicted of a crime based upon eyewitness testimony. According to an article in The New York Times,

    The New Jersey Supreme Court, acknowledging a "troubling lack of reliability in eyewitness identifications," issued sweeping new rules... making it easier for defendants to challenge such evidence in criminal cases. The court said that whenever a defendant presents evidence that a witness's identification of a suspect was influenced, by the police, for instance, a judge must hold a hearing to consider a broad range of issues. These could include police behavior, but also factors like lighting, the time that had elapsed since the crime or whether the victim felt stress at the time of the identification.

The chief justice, Stuart J. Rabner, wrote in a unanimous decision that the legal system had to catch up with scientific evidence in order to ensure justice. "Study after study revealed a troubling lack of reliability in eyewitness identifications....From social science research to the review of actual police lineups, from laboratory experiments to DNA exonerations, the record proves that the possibility of mistaken identification is real. Indeed, it is now widely known that eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions across the country."

The idea that people often incorrectly see, remember, and report what they experience is not merely theory but a proven fact; there are over 2,000 published scientific studies demonstrating it. By some estimates, as many as one-third of eyewitness identifications in criminal cases are wrong, and nearly 200 people who were convicted of crimes based on positive eyewitness identifications were later exonerated through DNA evidence.

The problem of eyewitness unreliability (and memory unreliability) has been known in academia for years; psychologists have long documented how sincere, honest people make important mistakes when reporting what they saw. But it's only recently that the legal system has recognized -- and taken steps to mitigate -- the problem of eyewitness misidentification.

Consider a few cases that were started (or fueled) by mistaken eyewitnesses.

• When Elizabeth Smart was abducted from her Salt Lake City home in 2002, Elizabeth's sister, Mary-Katherine, watched the abduction while pretending to be asleep, and told the police that the abductor was "about 30 or 40 years old, wearing light-colored clothes and a golf hat." Actually, Smart's abductor, Brian David Mitchell, was wearing black (not white), was nearly 50 (not 30 or 40), and was not wearing a golf hat.

• In 2009, six-year-old Falcon Heene caused a national outcry when his father said he'd been accidentally launched into the skies over Colorado in a homemade balloon. Police weren't sure what to make of the case, whether it was a hoax or a mistake, but what convinced them to take the case seriously was the eyewitness account of Falcon's brother Brad. According to Sheriff Jim Alderman, "He said he saw his brother climb into that apparatus and he was very adamant, they interviewed him multiple times and that was his consistent story." It turned out to be a hoax; the eyewitness was wrong (or he lied).

• When two snipers terrorized the Washington, D.C. area in October 2002, killing 10 people and injuring three others, the nation's capital was paralyzed. Police caught a break when eyewitnesses reported seeing the shooters: Two white men in a white box truck. Checkpoints were set up on roads near the shootings hoping to snare the suspects. The killers were eventually captured: two black men driving not a white box truck but a dark blue Chevrolet Caprice sedan. If the multiple eyewitnesses hadn't got nearly every detail about the killers wrong, the police might have caught them sooner and lives might have been saved.

Read more at Discovery News

Aug 30, 2011

Black Death Strain May be Extinct

A much less virulent version of the Black Death plague that killed a third of Europe's population in the 14th century is still present today, according to a study published Tuesday.

DNA testing on the skeletons of plague victims unearthed in a medieval London mass grave reveals part of the same gene sequence as the modern bubonic plague, despite its different attributes.

"At least this part of the genetic information has barely changed in the past 600 years" says Johannes Krause, one of the authors of the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

"Without a doubt, the plague pathogen known today as (yersinia) pestis was also the cause of the plague in the Middle Ages," he added.

The Black Death claimed the lives of one-third of Europe's population in just five years from 1348 to 1353, but modern outbreaks have been far less deadly, even given advances in medicine.

An outbreak in Bombay, India in 1904, for example, killed just three percent of the population despite the fact that it happened before the advent of antibiotics.

For the study, undertaken by the University of Tubingen's Institute of Scientific Archaeology in Germany and the McMaster University in Canada, researchers extracted DNA from 109 skeletons from a mass burial site in London.

Read more at Discovery News

Legendary Eunuch Had Post-Menopausal Disease

The legendary castrato singer Farinelli (1705–1782) suffered from a disease typical of post-menopausal women, according to the first-ever osteological analysis of a eunuch.

The poorly preserved remains of the 18th-century singer were exhumed in Italy in 2006. While Farinelli's music fans hoped to find the secret of a legendary voice, the scientists' goal was to reconstruct the singer's biological profile and the changes brought about by his castration before puberty.

Depriving Farinelli of his testes and their testosterone secretions not only resulted in the absence of male-type growth of the larynx, but also caused hormone-related pathologies.

Farinelli's skull, which consisted of facial fragments and the incomplete frontal (forehead) bone, featured clear signs of hyperostosis frontalis interna (HFI) -- a thickening of the inner table of the frontal (forehead) bone that is found almost exclusively in post-menopausal women.

"The fact that this disease was found in Farinelli's bones shows some important effects of castration," said Maria Giovanna Belcastro at the Laboratory of Bioarchaeology and Forensic Osteology of Bologna University.

The research project was supported by a group of music enthusiasts at the Centro Studi Farinelli and by a team of scientists led by Belcastro and Gino Fornaciari, professor of forensic anthropology at the University of Pisa.

The practice of castrating promising young singers began in the 16th century and was outlawed in Italy only in 1870. It was linked, in part, to Catholicism's ban on females singing in church.

Like many other boys destined to a singing career, Farinelli, whose real name was Carlo Broschi, was castrated before puberty to preserve his boyish treble voice into adult life.

Indeed, Farinelli became the most popular singer of his day. His voice could span over three octaves and he could hold a note for a whole minute without taking breath.

At the age of 32, when he was at the height of his career, Farinelli was invited to Spain by Queen Elisabetta Farnese, who believed that the castrato's powerful and sweet voice would cure the depression of her husband Philip V.

The music therapy lasted for 23 years. While in Spain, Farinelli sang the same four songs every night to Philip and established an Italian opera company, but he never again performed publicly.

In 1760, at the age of 55, having amassed a vast fortune, the singer retired to Bologna, where he lived until his death at 78.

Analysis of his bone remains showed other effects likely related to castration at an early age.

"The epiphyseal line (what remains after growth ceases and the growth plate of children and adolescents disappears) was still visible on the medial border of the left scapula (the bone connecting the upper arm bone with the clavicle) and on the left iliac crest (the most prominent bone on the pelvis). Both sites are normally completely fused at 23 years," Belcastro and colleagues wrote in the Journal of Anatomy.

They added that epiphyseal lines almost never persist past about 35 years old.

Such delayed epiphyseal fusion produced long limb bones and a subsequent tall stature. Based on the length of the right ulna, the researchers estimated that Farinelli was about six feet, three inches tall.

He also had decent teeth. According to the researchers, 25 teeth were preserved and only two were decayed.

"The health and aesthetic of the dentition is likely to have been important in the career of a singer," they wrote.

Most importantly, the researchers found that Farinelli's cranial fragments revealed an extreme thickening of the forehead, up to 21 millimeters, pointing to a severe case of hyperostosis frontalis interna (HFI).

Due to its slow progression, the disease, which is found almost exclusively in post-menopausal women and men with sex hormonal imbalances, rarely poses a risk for the individual. However, in severe cases, it can be associated with headaches, epilepsy and dementia.

It didn't in Farinelli's case. Historic accounts record that three weeks before his death he sang almost the whole day long, that he still had a good memory and was lucid until the day before his death.

Read more at Discovery News

Size Matters to Skinks

Size matters when skink lizards are trying to mate.

After observing hundreds of failed attempts at inter-species lizard love in his laboratory, Jonathan Richardson, a U.S. Geological Survey researcher, realized it may be the size of the skinks that keeps different species from interbreeding.

To successfully mate, the male skink must corkscrew his body around the female and align their genitals. If the alignment is off, so is the courtship.

Different species of Plestidon skink are native to the same parts of Western North America, but are different sizes. So when the different species try to mate, the important parts don't line up.

"As size diverges, the corkscrew fails," Richmond said in a press release. "In this case, it just happens that this is about the only thing necessary to get the ball rolling for speciation."

To test the effect of size on skink mating, Richardson developed a computer simulation of skinks in the throes of reptile romance.

His model backed up his observations that different size skinks could rarely achieve the genital alignment necessary for successful mating.

Read more at Discovery News

Aug 29, 2011

Bilingual Babies' Vocabulary Linked to Early Brain Differentiation

Babies and children are whizzes at learning a second language, but that ability begins to fade as early as their first birthdays.

Researchers at the University of Washington's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences are investigating the brain mechanisms that contribute to infants' prowess at learning languages, with the hope that the findings could boost bilingualism in adults, too.

In a new study, the researchers report that the brains of babies raised in bilingual households show a longer period of being flexible to different languages, especially if they hear a lot of language at home. The researchers also show that the relative amount of each language -- English and Spanish -- babies were exposed to affected their vocabulary as toddlers.

The study, published online Aug. 17 in Journal of Phonetics, is the first to measure brain activity throughout infancy and relate it to language exposure and speaking ability.

"The bilingual brain is fascinating because it reflects humans' abilities for flexible thinking -- bilingual babies learn that objects and events in the world have two names, and flexibly switch between these labels, giving the brain lots of good exercise," said Patricia Kuhl, co-author of the study and co-director of the UW's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.

Kuhl's previous studies show that between 8 and 10 months of age, monolingual babies become increasingly able to distinguish speech sounds of their native language, while at the same time their ability to distinguish sounds from a foreign language declines. For instance, between 8 and 10 months of age babies exposed to English become better at detecting the difference between "r" and "l" sounds, which are prevalent in the English language. This is the same age when Japanese babies, who are not exposed to as many "r" and "l" sounds, decline in their ability to detect them.

"The infant brain tunes itself to the sounds of the language during this sensitive period in development, and we're trying to figure out exactly how that happens," said Kuhl, who's also a UW professor of speech and hearing sciences. "But almost nothing is known about how bilingual babies do this for two languages. Knowing how experience sculpts the brain will tell us something that goes way beyond language development."

In the current study, babies from monolingual (English or Spanish) and bilingual (English and Spanish) households wore caps fitted with electrodes to measure brain activity with an electroencephalogram, or EEG, a device that records the flow of energy in the brain. Babies heard background speech sounds in one language, and then a contrasting sound in the other language occurred occasionally.

For example, a sound that is used in both Spanish and English served as the background sound and then a Spanish "da" and an English "ta" each randomly occurred 10 percent of the time as contrasting sounds. If the brain can detect the contrasting sound, there is a signature pattern called the mismatch response that can be detected with the EEG.

Monolingual babies at 6-9 months of age showed the mismatch response for both the Spanish and English contrasting sounds, indicating that they noticed the change in both languages. But at 10-12 months of age, monolingual babies only responded to the English contrasting sound.

Bilingual babies showed a different pattern. At 6-9 months, bilinguals did not show the mismatch response, but at 10-12 months they showed the mismatch for both sounds.

This suggests that the bilingual brain remains flexible to languages for a longer period of time, possibly because bilingual infants are exposed to a greater variety of speech sounds at home.

This difference in development suggests that the bilingual babies "may have a different timetable for neurally committing to a language" compared with monolingual babies, said Adrian Garcia-Sierra, lead author and a postdoctoral researcher at UW's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.

"When the brain is exposed to two languages rather than only one, the most adaptive response is to stay open longer before showing the perceptual narrowing that monolingual infants typically show at the end of the first year of life," Garcia-Sierra said.

Read more at Science Daily

Birds Are Changing Their Tune

When bombarded by noise pollution, some male birds begin to sing higher tunes, found a new study. And that tonal shift makes them less attractive to females.

The findings suggest that birds must make difficult trade-offs in urban areas and places where traffic and industrial noises threaten to drown them out. Either they sing less appealing songs or tones in an effort to rise above the din, or they sing the songs that make them sound appealing at the risk of not being heard at all.

"If females can hear all song types equally well, they will go for the sexy ones, but if they cannot hear the sexy ones well anymore, then they might just go for the songs they can still hear," said Wouter Halfwerk, a behavioral ecologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands. "It could very well be that noise pollution is interfering with reproductive decisions by females."

Modern life has brought with it a rising hum of background noise, which tends to cluster within the low frequencies that many animals use to communicate. In recent years, researchers have been documenting all sorts of ways that cars, boats, industrial machinery and other noises have affected the behavior of many kinds of species, including birds.

In his previous work on a bird called the great tit, Halfwerk had found that exposing males to artificial traffic noise caused them to sing at higher frequencies. That made him wonder if these birds were managing to thrive by working around noise pollution. The other possibility was that shifting their songs was harming them in some way.

To find out, Halfwerk and colleagues started by recording the songs of 30 male birds on various days during their pre-dawn, springtime mating ritual in the Netherlands. Their results showed that males sang the lowest songs in their repertoires just before the females laid their eggs.

After the eggs hatched, the researchers then conducted paternity tests to see how many males were taking care of their own babies and how many had been duped at the last minute by females that snuck out after mating and mated again with someone else. Their results, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that males who sang the highest songs were most likely to be cheated on by their female mates.

Those two findings showed that the low-frequency songs are the most attractive to females. The results also suggested that males use their deepest, sexiest voices at the moment when it matters most.

In a final experiment, the scientists played recordings of high and low songs to females who were lurking in their nest boxes. When the environment was quiet, females emerged most often in response to low-pitched songs. But when the researchers pumped low-frequency noises into the background, females often responded instead to higher tunes.

Those results confirmed that noise pollution interferes with the birds' ability to communicate during their high-stakes mating games. Other research has shown that female great tits lay fewer eggs when they mate with high-singing males.

Great tits sing at higher frequencies than many other birds do, and they are fortunate in their ability to alter their songs when they need to. Not all species have such flexibility, Halfwerk said. Noise pollution might have an even bigger effect on those more rigid birds.

"If you have a species that sings very low songs, doesn't have a flexible repertoire, and might just sing simple songs or not be a song-learner, like a cuckoo or dove, there will be more overlap with background noise," Halfwerk said. "If you extrapolate these findings to other bird species, it's the frequency of the song that really matters in whether noise pollution affects attractiveness."

Previous studies have shown that a variety of birds can suffer when they change their songs, said Erin Bayne, an ornithologist at the University of Alberta. The new study is one of the first to explain why.

Read more at Discovery News

Humans Hardwired to Tune Into Animals

Years of either running from or running after animals left its mark in the human brain -- even just looking at a photo of an animal jolts our brains into action.

No matter how high tech and urban we may become, animals continue to affect our brains like no other person, place or thing, shows new research in the latest issue of Nature Neuroscience.

Co-author Ralph Adolphs explained to Discovery News "that it is important for the brain to be able to rapidly detect animals. The reasons for this are probably several, but would likely include the need to avoid predators and catch prey."

"These abilities are at once critically important to survival and yet very difficult to do," added Adolphs, a professor of psychology, neuroscience and biology at the California Institute of Technology. "Both predator and prey detection requires fast, real-time detection of shapes that are often camouflaged in a cluttered environment."

Adolphs, project leader Florian Mormann, and their colleagues recorded how the brains of 41 neurosurgical patients undergoing epilepsy monitoring responded to images of people, landmarks, animals, or objects. During 111 experimental sessions, the researchers monitored the subjects' brain activity as they sat in bed while viewing about 100 images per session. The monitoring was quite precise, showing how even individual neurons reacted.

The scientists found that neurons in the right amygdala responded preferentially to pictures of animals, whether they were of cute little critters or threatening big beasts. The amygdalae are two almond-shaped groups of neurons located deep within the brain.

Mormann told Discovery News that the right amygdala "has previously been implicated in the processing both of stimuli that are aversive and of stimuli that are rewarding. During our evolutionary past, animals could have represented either predator (aversive) or prey (rewarding). In either case, their behavioral relevance was pretty high."

Outside of an experimental setting, humans, of course, don't just see animals. We hear them and they affect our other senses too. Although the study just involved photographs, the researchers suspect the amygdala would have also been jolted into action by animal calls.

Even though we may not feel particularly moved by animal images, the researchers say the resulting brain activity occurs at a conscious level. The researchers stop short of saying that animals inherently trigger our emotions, but it's possible that they do affect our fear and arousal responses in unique ways.

Prior studies have supported that early in vertebrate evolution, "the right brain hemisphere became specialized in dealing with unexpected and behaviorally relevant stimuli," Mormann said. This latest study strengthens that theory.

Read more at Discovery News

Aug 28, 2011

Photons made to change colour and shape

FORGET the X-Men - photons are the true superheroes. Not only do they travel at the universe's fastest possible speed, now they have been made to both change colour and shape-shift. The feat brings the dream of ultrafast quantum computers a step closer.

Photons are waves of electromagnetic energy that come in different wavelengths, or colours. The wave patterns also vary in shape, depending in part on how they came into being. The wavelength of a photon produced by a laser resembles a bell curve, for example, while a photon emitted spontaneously by an atom when an electron loses energy has a peak that rises quickly and tails off slowly. The shape can affect how a photon interacts in collisions.

Photons normally maintain their size and shape until they are absorbed by matter. Now Matthew Rakher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, has made photons behave like shape-shifting chameleons. They piped infrared photons with a wavelength of 1300 nanometres into a crystal, into which they also pumped photons from a 1550-nm-wavelength laser. Each had different shapes.

The crystal acted as a waveguide, reflecting and channelling the photons to hit each other at a specific angle and place, making them blend together to form photons with a wavelength of 710 nm with the same shape as the laser photons.

Such transformations will be crucial for developing networked quantum computers. These replace binary bits with quantum bits, or qubits, which can exist in a multitude of quantum states at once, allowing multiple simultaneous calculations.

Quantum computers could send and store data using photons' quantum properties, such as polarisation, which is a measure of a photon's angular momentum. The problem is that the fibre-optic cables that would transmit the photons between computers operate most efficiently at infrared wavelengths, while quantum-memory devices - made of atoms that would absorb the photons - work best with visible photons of a given shape.

More at New Scientist

Swine flu, not vaccine, may trigger narcolepsy

IN SPRING last year, the number of narcolepsy cases in Beijing, China, multiplied threefold. Now, it looks like the swine flu pandemic of the previous winter was to blame.

Previously, similar rises in cases of narcolepsy - a disorder that causes sleepiness at inappropriate times - have been linked to use of a swine flu vaccine. The cause was presumed to lie in the vaccine's adjuvants, additives that boost a person's immune response to the shot.

The claim puzzled researchers who saw a rise in narcolepsy cases in China, where few people had opted to get vaccinated and those who did received a vaccine without adjuvants. Some began to suspect that the flu itself was to blame.

To find out, Fang Han and his colleagues at Beijing University People's Hospital looked at the medical profiles of 906 people who had come to the hospital with narcolepsy since 1998.

The team found that, even before the vaccine was introduced in October 2009, the number of narcolepsy cases followed a seasonal pattern, dropping significantly around November and spiking in April. The peak was higher than normal in the spring after the swine flu pandemic.

The idea that flu causes narcolepsy fits in with the theory that the sleep disorder is triggered by the immune system's response to airway infections, says Masashi Yanagisawa at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, who was not part of the study. However, he adds that there is "no direct cellular evidence" to support the idea yet.

More at New Scientist