Oct 1, 2011

Two-headed Cat ‘Frankenlouie’ Turns 12

“A two-headed cat in Worcester, Mass., has twice the reasons for celebrating his recent birthday: It got him in the Guinness Book of World Records.

The double-domed feline is named “Frankenlouie,” and according to its owner, who only wants to be known as Marty, he turned 12 on Sept. 8, according to the Worcester Telegram.

In doing so, he earned a place in the record books for being the longest-lived Janus cat (the term for cats with two heads, which comes from the name of a two-faced Roman god).

“He is the most astounding two-headed animal of all,” according to Todd Ray of the Venice Beach Freakshow, who has some by estimates, the largest collection of bizarre animals in the world — including 22 living two-headed animals and a five-legged dog.

Still, he says Frankenlouie is in a class by his two-headed self.

“We might never see another one in our lifetime,” Ray told HuffPost Weird News. “I have seen many two-headed animals die within a week. To see one alive for weeks is incredible, but to have one alive for years is truly amazing.”"

Read more at Huffington Post

Galaxy Caught Blowing Bubbles

Hubble's famous images of galaxies typically show elegant spirals or soft-edged ellipses. But these neat forms are only representative of large galaxies. Smaller galaxies like the dwarf irregular galaxy Holmberg II come in many shapes and types that are harder to classify. This galaxy's indistinct shape is punctuated by huge glowing bubbles of gas, captured in a new image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

The intricate glowing shells of gas in Holmberg II were created by the energetic lifecycles of many generations of stars. High-mass stars form in dense regions of gas, and later in life expel strong stellar winds that blow away the surrounding material. At the very end of their lives, they explode in as a supernova. Shock waves rip through these less dense regions blowing out and heating the gas, forming the delicate shells we see today.

Holmberg II is a patchwork of dense star-forming regions and extensive barren areas with less material, which can stretch across thousands of light-years. As a dwarf galaxy, it has neither the spiral arms typical of galaxies like the Milky Way nor the dense nucleus of an elliptical galaxy. This makes Holmberg II, gravitationally speaking, a gentle haven where fragile structures such as these bubbles can hold their shape.

While the galaxy is unremarkable in size, Holmberg II does have some intriguing features. As well as its unusual appearance -- which earned it a place in Halton Arp's Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies, a treasure trove of weird and wonderful objects -- the galaxy hosts an ultraluminous X-ray source in the middle of three gas bubbles in the top right of the image. There are competing theories as to what causes this powerful radiation -- one intriguing possibility is an intermediate-mass black hole which is pulling in material from its surroundings.

This colourful image is a composite of visible and near-infrared exposures taken using the Wide Field Channel of Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys.

Read more at Science Daily

Sep 30, 2011

Mighty Tevatron Shuts Down After Decades of Discoveries

The Tevatron was the world's most powerful particle accelerator and the site of many of the biggest discoveries in the field for more than two decades. It symbolized the United States' scientific dominance and was the center of the international physics world until it was eclipsed by Europe's Large Hadron Collider last year.

Today, protons and antiprotons will stop speeding around the 4-mile-long circular accelerator track at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, and data from the Tevatron's final particle collisions will be recorded. The end will be marked by a ceremony to turn the machine off and celebrate the dozens of discoveries it made, broadcast live online at 2 p.m. central time.

“For the last 28 years, the Tevatron has been the real workhorse of particle physics,” said physicist Paul Halpern of the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia and author of the book Collider. Without it, physicists would have a large gap in their knowledge of the universe, he added.

Over the course of its life, the Tevatron has made a number of remarkable findings related to the Standard Model of physics, which describes the characteristics and behavior of subatomic particles. The facility's two detectors, the Collider Detector at Fermilab (CDF) and DZero experiments, have both competed and worked together to reveal the nature of matter.

Even after Europe's Large Hadron Collider began producing higher-energy beams, and budget constraints forced the lab to schedule its shut down, the Tevatron continued to perform and put in an impressive ninth-inning effort in pursuit of the still elusive Higgs boson, the last undiscovered particle predicted by the Standard Model. And there is still a chance it could succeed, as scientists continue to analyze the Tevatron's data, even after the machine goes dark.

Here are some of the Tevatron's greatest achievements.

Ring of Energy

The Tevatron accelerates charged particles to extremely high speeds using a four-mile long ring of magnets. The instrument then slams the particles together in order to split them up into their constituents. The Tevatron typically shoots a beam of protons and antiprotons in opposite directions around the ring until they reach a desired energy range and then allows the two beams to meet. The ensuing collision produces a rain of particles that researchers then dig through to search for those predicted by the Standard Model.

The accelerator produces an extremely bright beam of these particles and is able to reach energies up to 1 TeV, or roughly a trillion times the energy of ordinary visible light. The facility was the world-record holder in high-energy physics until it was surpassed by the LHC, which will ultimately be able to reach energies seven times those of the Tevatron’s peak.

Read more at Wired Science

Self-Claimed Vampire-Werewolf Accused of Murder

A teen connected to a homicide is claiming she's a vampire-werewolf, and that's not likely to serve as much of a defense. According to a CBS News story,

    A Florida teenager is behind bars as an accessory to the brutal murder of 16-year-old Jacob Hendershot. But that may not be the most shocking part of the crime -- Stephanie Pistey says she believes she's part vampire and part werewolf. Florida police say that, in July, Pistey's friends lured Hendershot to a house, killed him, and then left his body in a storm drain.

Pistey told a local TV station "I know this is going to be crazy, but I believe that I'm a vampire and part werewolf." She claims she drank blood from her fiancé and co-defendant William Chase.

The fact that Pistey claims to be a vampire is not, by itself, that unusual. Many people are interested in vampires, and they are everywhere, from "Twilight" to "True Blood" and "Fright Night." In the mainstream media and pop culture, vampires are very alluring, with elements of power, romance, eroticism and immortality.

It's not surprising that many people identify with vampires and some even claim to be them. But it's usually done in the context of goth-inspired role-playing.

As strange as the case is, it's also not the first time that a person claimed to be a vampire/werewolf hybrid.

In 2007 a 19-year-old Pennsylvania man named Kristian Carl came to believe he was a werewolf (partly because he has prominent canine teeth). According to police, Carl convinced his new girlfriend that he was a vampire-werewolf before having sex with her. Apparently intrigued at the prospect of sleeping with both a werewolf and a vampire at the same time, the real-life Bella Swan agreed.

However, supernatural hybrid or not, Carl's girlfriend was 15 at the time and he was charged with statutory rape in February 2008.

Most vampire enthusiasts engage in harmless role-playing, though now and then criminals with a vampire fascination make the news. Just last month a Texas man named Lyle Bensley allegedly broke into a woman's apartment and bit her on the neck. He claimed to be a vampire needing blood to survive; his victim was unsympathetic and called police. In 1996 (coincidentally also in Florida) five teenagers accused of killing two people were said to be part of a "vampire cult."

Already there is talk about a "vampire cult" in this case, and as often happens, entertainment media is blamed. The news media loves stories like this, but the fact is that 99.9 percent of kids -- even those fascinated by vampires -- have a pretty good grasp on reality.

Typically it's not the occult subject matter that is the problem; troubled individuals will always find some avenue for their issues. There were about 15,000 homicides last year, virtually none of them connected with vampires, Satanists, or the occult. It's only troubled kids with a sensational angle who make the news.

Read more at Discovery News

Genocide Skulls Returned to Namibia

Germany will face up to a bloody chapter of its colonial past Friday when it hands back 20 skulls spirited away after what many historians call the first genocide of the 20th century.

A delegation of 55 Namibians is in Berlin to attend the solemn ceremony to receive the remains which they hope will be just a first step toward a greater reckoning with Germany's brief but brutal African adventure a century ago.

"We have come to first and foremost to receive the mortal human remains of our forefathers and mothers and to return them to the land of their ancestors," delegation member Ueriuka Festus Tjikuua told reporters in Berlin.

He said the mission intended to "extend a hand of friendship" to Germans and encourage a dialogue "with the full participation and involvement of the representatives of the descendants of those that suffered heavily under dreadful and atrocious German colonial rule".

The skulls are among an estimated 300 taken to Germany after a massacre of indigenous Namibians at the start of the last century during an anti-colonial uprising in what was then called South West Africa, which Berlin ruled from 1884 to 1915.

Incensed by German settlers stealing their land, cattle and women, the Herero people launched a revolt in January 1904 with warriors butchering 123 German civilians over several days. The Nama tribe joined the uprising in 1905.

The imperial German colonial rulers responded ruthlessly. General Lothar von Trotha signed a notorious extermination order against the Hereros.

Rounded up in prison camps, captured Namas and Hereros died from malnutrition and severe weather. Dozens were beheaded after their death and their skulls sent to German researchers in Berlin for "scientific" experiments.

Up to 80,000 Hereros lived in Namibia when the uprising began. Afterwards, only 15,000 were left.

Over time, the skulls gathered dust in the German archives until three years ago when a German reporter uncovered them at the Medical History Museum of the Charite hospital in Berlin, and at Freiburg University in the southwest.

So far, 47 skulls have been found at the Charite and about a dozen more in Freiburg.

The publicity around their discovery prompted Herero and Nama leaders to ask the Namibian government to seek their return. After three years of talks, the delegation arrived in Berlin Sunday.

"The skulls will be handed over to the Namibian government in a ceremony that reflects their historical and cultural importance," a foreign ministry spokeswoman said, adding that Deputy Foreign Minister Cornelia Pieper would take part.

Charite spokeswoman Claudia Peter said the purported "research" on the skulls performed by German scientists had been rooted in the perverse racial theories that later planted the seeds for the Nazis' genocidal ideology.

"They thought that they could prove that certain peoples were worth less than they were," she told AFP. "What these anthropologists did to these people was wrong and their descendants are still suffering for it."

German researchers have now determined the region from which the skulls came as well as the sex and age of the victims but say there is no hope of learning their identity or cause of death.

The Namibian representatives will return home Tuesday with a memorial service planned in the capital Windhoek the following day to welcome the 11 Nama and nine Herero skulls, which will go on display in a local museum.

Read more at Discovery News

Bats Have Fastest Mammal Muscles

By possessing the fastest known mammal muscles bats are able to flex up to 200 times per second.

The findings, published in the latest issue of the journal Science, put bats on a short list of animals that possess rare superfast muscles. The list includes rattlesnakes, which have them in their tails, and certain other species of reptiles, birds and fish.

Songbirds may have the world's fastest muscles, since a sound-producing organ allows them to modulate volume and pitch at rates up to 250 times per second. Tying possibly with bats on the fastest muscles list might be a fish that uses gas to its advantage.

"One of the champions among fish is the oyster toadfish, found along the U.S. East Coast," lead author Coen Elemans told Discovery News. "This animal uses superfast muscles to contract its gas bladder about 200 times per second to generate its courtship 'boatwhistle.'"

Elemans, an assistant professor in the Center for Sound Communication at the University of Southern Denmark, and his colleagues focused their attention this time on bats. They measured sound production in free-flying Daubenton's bats as the bats closed in on flying insects.

During this high call rate phase, dubbed the "terminal buzz," bats send out 160 or more calls per second. As part of this echolocation process, the calls produce echoes when they hit nearby objects. Bats then use these echoes to locate and identify prey.

The researchers identified the superfast muscles that help to control tension in the folds and membranes located within a bat's larynx. All species with these muscles use the speedy muscles for sound production.

"This is because superfast muscles trade-off force and power for speed," Elemans explained. "Therefore, the bones and tissue they move can only be very light and small. Because of this tradeoff, superfast muscles would not be useful for locomotion. They simply do not generate enough power."

Co-author John Ratcliffe, also from the University of Southern Denmark, told Discovery News that bats likely evolved the muscles to meet the demands of hunting at night.

"Echolocation has evolved only in those species of mammals and birds that operate in the dark, or under conditions of uncertain lighting, and so better echolocation was probably an easier option that better eyesight," Ratcliffe said. "On the other hand, improved flight performance may have co-evolved with improvements in the bat’s ability to update spatial information through echolocation. That is, complimentary changes in echolocation and powered flight worked together to improve both target tracking and acquisition."

Ratcliffe believes the superfast muscles that power part of the bat's echolocation system are present in all bats that take airborne prey while on the wing -- more than 70 percent of bat species alive today.

Brock Fenton, a leading expert on bats who is in the Department of Biology at the University of Western Ontario, told Discovery News that the new study is "excellent and imaginative work. (It’s) an important contribution to our knowledge about the evolution of echolocation in bats."

Read more at Discovery News

Sep 29, 2011

500-Year-Old Music Books Accessible to All

Fragile treasures of 16 th Century music are now freely available online, thanks to a partnership between Royal Holloway, University of London, the British Library and JISC. The Early Music Online project has digitised more than 300 books of the world's earliest printed music from holdings at the British Library.

Some of the books date back as far as the 1500s and, due to their fragile nature, would not be freely available to researchers, but thanks to this digitization project, musicians from around the world can now source the original music free of charge using the Early Music Online website.

Highlights of the collection include church music by the Flemish composer Josquin des Prez and the English musicians Thomas Tallis and William Byrd; drinking-songs from Nuremberg and love-songs from Lyon; lute music from Venice and organ music from Leipzig.

Dr Stephen Rose, from the Department of Music at Royal Holloway, said: "This is an invaluable resource for any musician as it offers many insights into how these early works were originally sung and played. For the first time, musicians now have immediate access to more than 9,000 individual compositions."

Dr Sandra Tuppen, from the British Library, added: "It's wonderful to be able to share such fantastic musical treasures at the click of a button and make the works available to anyone in the world."

Dr Rose explained that the British Library had worked with the College's music department on previous database projects and they were keen to make use of the College's expertise again. The project was funded by JISC, the UK's technology consortium for higher and further education.

Read more at Science Daily

Galaxy Clusters Back Up Einstein’s Theory of Relativity

Testing gravity is simple: walk out of a second-floor window and see what happens. It’s a lot tougher to test Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity — the general theory of relativity — which says that the gravity of an object warps space and time around it. Although researchers have proved general relativity on the scale of the solar system, validating it on cosmic scales has been more challenging. That’s exactly what a group of astrophysicists in Denmark have now done.

The researchers, led by Radek Wojtak of the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen, set out to test a classic prediction of general relativity: that light will lose energy as it is escaping a gravitational field. The stronger the field, the greater the energy loss suffered by the light. As a result, photons emitted from the center of a galaxy cluster — a massive object containing thousands of galaxies — should lose more energy than photons coming from the edge of the cluster because gravity is strongest in the center. And so, light emerging from the center should become longer in wavelength than light coming from the edges, shifting toward the red end of the light spectrum. The effect is known as gravitational redshifting.

Wojtak and his colleagues knew that measuring gravitational redshifting within a single galaxy cluster would be difficult because the effect is very small and needs to be teased apart from the redshifting caused by the orbital velocity of individual galaxies within the cluster and the redshifting caused by the expansion of the universe. The researchers approached the problem by averaging data collected from 8000 galaxy clusters by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The hope was to detect gravitational redshift “by studying the properties of the redshift distribution of galaxies in clusters rather than by looking at redshifts of individual galaxies separately,” Wojtak explains.

Sure enough, the researchers found that the light from the clusters was redshifted in proportion to the distance from the center of the cluster, as predicted by general relativity. “We could measure small differences in the redshift of the galaxies and see that the light from galaxies in the middle of a cluster had to ‘crawl’ out through the gravitational field, while it was easier for the light from the outlying galaxies to emerge,” Wojtak says. The findings appear online today in Nature.

Besides confirming general relativity, the results strongly support the Lambda-Cold Dark Matter model of the universe, an already popular cosmological model according to which most of the cosmos is made up of invisible stuff that does not interact with matter constituting stars and planets. The test also lends support for dark energy, the mysterious force that appears to be pushing the universe apart.

Read more at Wired Science

As Temps Rise, Amphibians May Vanish

As the climate heats up, scientists expect all sorts of animals to move to cooler places. But that may be easier said than done.

When researchers mapped out the escape routes that a variety of amphibians would need to take in the coming decades to adapt to changing climate conditions, they uncovered some serious trouble.

Because of unpredictable rises and dips in temperature, many salamanders, frogs and newts will get stuck in unfavorable conditions along their travels -- enough to threaten their survival.

The findings are likely to apply not just to amphibians, but also to insects and other types of animals as well as plants. The study adds fire to a longstanding debate among conservation biologists and wildlife managers.

Some experts argue that threatened species need to be bred in captivity or that animals should be moved to places that will foster their survival. Others cite infamous examples like the invasive cane toad in Australia and argue that introducing species to new environments is simply a recipe for disaster.

"What conservationists have been planning for some time is that we might be able to use green habitat corridors so species can jump from place to place quite easily," said Regan Early, a climate change ecologist at the University of Évora, in Portugal. "We're finding it isn't going to be that simple. If we put corridors in place, we are going to have to do a lot of work to help species along."

"I don't think there is a silver bullet," she added. "We are going to be faced with a lot of hard decisions about what we want to do. We can either act and do things we might not be happy with, or not act and see a lot of species that we're used to seeing every day start to disappear."

"We need to decide what it is we want form our environment and how we’re going to manage it."

Amphibians are perfect subjects for studies on climate change, Early said, because they are extremely sensitive to changes in temperature. Because frogs and related creatures are so small, they are also limited in how far they can move at a time. So they can't easily escape from conditions that become inhospitable to them.

Early and colleagues looked at 15 amphibian species: Two types of newts, two types of frogs and 11 varieties of salamanders, all native to the western United States.

Armed with detailed information about the survival needs of each species, the researchers used climate projections to map out the routes they would need to take to survive climate changes. The study plotted data in 10-year increments, from 1990 to 2100.

Resulting maps showed that four of the 15 species will end up going extinct, without any suitable places to go in the future, the researchers report today in the journal Ecology Letters. A large potential range will continue to exist for six other species, but they will be able to access just half of that range. Four species are likely to become vulnerable or endangered as a result of climate changes.

Read more at Discovery News

Sep 28, 2011

200 Tons of Silver Found on WWII Ship

It was a stormy Second World War night when, on February 17, 1941, three lifeboats abandoned the SS Gairsoppa, a 412 foot-long British cargo ship en route from India to Liverpool, England.

In service of the Ministry of War Transport, the Gairsoppa was laden with tea, iron and tons of silver. Because of bad weather and insufficient coal, she was forced to break away from the military convoy off the coast of Ireland.

As the captain re-routed in emergency for Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, the merchant steamship and its crew of 86 men were hit by a torpedo from a Nazi U-boat. She sank in icy seas within 20 minutes.

Left at the mercy of the winds and waves, two lifeboats soon disappeared. A third boat managed to sail for 13 days, with only one person, second officer Richard Ayres, surviving the long journey to shore.

Now, 70 years after the dramatic sinking, treasure hunters have announced the discovery of the Gairsoppa's intact wreck about 300 miles off the coast of Ireland, at a depth of nearly three miles.

Laying deeper than the Titanic, the wreck is believed to hold the largest haul of precious metal lost at sea.

According to U.S. underwater archaeology and salvage company Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc, up to 240 tons of silver, valued at more than $200 million, could be retrieved by next spring.

"We've accomplished the first phase of this project -- the location and identification of the target shipwreck -- and now we're hard at work planning for the recovery phase," Andrew Craig, Odyssey Senior Project Manager, said in a statement.

The wreck was found with the help of an underwater robot which took three and a half hours to descend to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

The robot-captured video footage showed a unique view into the rusty ship, revealing a ladder leading to the forecastle deck, a stern compass, and even an intact toilet.

The torpedo hole in the hull, which featured the red-and-black colors used by the British Indian Steam Navigation Company, was also clearly visible.

Although none of the precious metal was filmed, Odyssey is confident that it is still there.

Read more at Discovery News

Prehistoric Beetles Sported Hotrod Colors

Fossils tend to offer a black and white view of the past, but new research on prehistoric beetles brings the insects' flashy metallic colors back to vivid life.

The findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, add to the growing body of evidence that non-avian dinosaurs, Dino Era birds, prehistoric fish, early insects, and more were literally very colorful creatures.

The colors within fossils may not always be visible to the naked eye. Researchers, however, are now able to reveal the long-lost hues by studying the structural and chemical bases of the individual's original color. Many beetle fossils do exhibit colors, but they are a far cry from the hotrod shades these insects once sported.

"Our results show that the colors of the fossil beetles we studied changed during the fossilization process," lead author Maria McNamara told Discovery News.

"In particular, the colors have been shifted towards the red end of the spectrum -- not completely, but enough to make, for example, a formerly blue beetle more green, and a formerly yellow beetle more orange," added McNamara, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at Yale University.

She and her colleagues made the determination after studying fossil beetle specimens dating from 15 to 47 million years ago. The beetles once lived in what are now Idaho (U.S.), Germany, and other locations.

The beetles' flashy yellow, green, blue, red, and other metallic car-like hues were due to structural color, meaning color that results from interference of light. The ocean is blue, for example, because water absorbs colors in the red part of the light spectrum, leaving behind blue.

The fossil beetles achieved their light manipulation, not with water, but with "very fine layers, millionths of a meter, in the outermost levels of the beetle cuticle," McNamara explained.

Such color depends on two variables: the structure itself and the refractive index of the beetle's cuticle, meaning how much light is bent, or slowed, as it passes through a material.

Extremely high magnification of the beetle remains showed that the structure of the beetles' cuticles did not change during fossilization, so the color changes were instead due to changes in the cuticles' refractive index.

"These findings will allow the former presence, and original hue, of metallic structural colors to be identified in diverse fossil insects, thus providing critical evidence of the evolution of structural color in this group," the researchers concluded.

Gengo Tanaka, a researcher at Japan's Gunma Museum of Natural History, has also studied color in fossilized beetles and believes that McNamara and her team "broke a milestone in paleontology" given the future possibility of recreating past structural colors in now-extinct species.

Andrew Parker, a research leader at both Oxford University's Green Templeton College and The Natural History Museum, London, is another leading expert on color in the prehistoric world.

"I am very keen to see studies that add details of color and vision to the geological time scale" Parker told Discovery News. "This informs us that the myriad interactions involving color that we see today -- the arms race between predators and prey, and the signaling to a potential mate within conspecifics -- extend back through time."

Read more at Discovery News

Dead Sea Scrolls Go Online

Five of the main Dead Sea scrolls, containing some of the oldest-known surviving biblical texts, were put online as part of a joint project between the Israel Museum and Google.

The project gives the public access to ultra high-resolution images of the ancient scrolls in a format which is easily searchable, with the magnified text revealing details previously invisible to the naked eye, a museum statement said.

So far, five of the scrolls have been digitised as part of the $3.5-million project which uses space-age technology to produce the clearest renderings yet of the ancient texts: the Great Isaiah scroll, the Community Rule scroll, the commentary on Habbakuk, the Temple scroll and the War scroll.

By visiting http://dss.collections.imj.org.il/ web users can view all of the text, as well as a translation tool and other background information on the documents, the museum said.

"We are privileged to house in the Israel Museum's Shrine of the Book the best preserved and most complete Dead Sea Scrolls ever discovered," Israel Museum director James Snyder said in a statement, describing them as of "paramount importance" for the world's monotheistic religions.

"Now, through our partnership with Google, we are able to bring these treasures to the broadest possible public."

The 900 biblical and other manuscripts, comprising some 30,000 fragments, were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in the Qumran caves above the Dead Sea and photographed in their entirety with infra-red technology in the 1950s.

The parchment and papyrus scrolls contain Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic writing, and include several of the earliest-known texts from the Bible, including the oldest surviving copy of the Ten Commandments.

Read more at Discovery News

Earth's Two Moons

Our Moon. It lights up our nights, governs our tides and has inspired millions -- perhaps billions -– of people throughout history to contemplate its nature, its influence on our lives (if any) and, of course, where it may have come from.

The currently accepted theory is that over four and a half billion years ago our newly-formed planet was impacted by a Mars-sized body, a catastrophic collision that flung molten bits of Earth's mantle into space and created a ring of debris.

This ring gradually coalesced into the moon, which cooled and moved further and further away from Earth into its current position. This theory is widely accepted, and research on the composition of lunar samples seems to coordinate with an Earthly origin of the moon. But one thing never quite lined up perfectly with the whole scenario: the moon's far side.

The lunar far side has a very different appearance from the face we see from Earth. It is much more heavily cratered, for one thing, in fact featuring one of the largest impact basins in our solar system. It lacks the mare features that create the "man-in-the-moon" patterns we are familiar with, and while the near side is relatively flat and consistent in elevation, the far side is much more mountainous and raised.

These "lunar highlands" have been an enigma to scientists since they were discovered at the beginning of the Space Age... and thanks to some recent computer models by researchers at UC Santa Cruz we may be a step closer to solving the mystery.

Earth may have once had two moons.

Erik Asphaug, professor of Earth an planetary sciences, along with postdoctoral researcher Martin Jutzi, have developed a model that fits in with the giant impact theory but also explains the disparity of the lunar far side.

In this model, the remnants of the collision coalesced into two moons, one larger than the other. These primordial moons settled into orbit around Earth within the Lagrange points -- that is, until the smaller one became dislodged and migrated toward its larger sibling, eventually colliding with it in a low-speed impact.

Read more at Discovery News

Sep 27, 2011

‘Earth-Shattering’ Science Is Relatively Rare

What began last week as whispered rumors posted on the physics blog Resonaances grew to a roar of articles around the world about an experiment that has seen neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light.

The findings from the Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus (OPERA) collaboration at Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy show neutrinos arriving 60 nanoseconds sooner than expected, and have many eager sources suggesting the possibility of overturning Einstein’s well-known theory of relativity. While the prospect is exciting, can just one result really upend a century of physics?

“It really depends on what happens next,” said Mordecai-Mark Mac Low, curator of the Division of Physical Sciences at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Taking the historical view, Mac Low compares the result to other earth-shattering experiments from recent decades. In 1986, physicists announced the miraculous discovery of a superconducting material that worked at temperatures higher than were thought possible. But it wasn’t until many other experiments confirmed the finding that the original work could be seen as credible.

On the other hand, when an experiment in 1989 seemed to have created the astonishing feat of cold fusion, the findings were ultimately dismissed because no other team could corroborate the results.

“In general, things aren’t turned over by one experiment,” said Rob Plunkett, a physicist at Fermilab National Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. “The whole process of science is by its nature self checking; one experiment always has to be checked with another.”

Plunkett is in a good position to speak on this, as he is co-spokesperson for the Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search (MINOS) experiment, which is one of only a few that can independently verify the original OPERA results. MINOS did in fact see several neutrinos back in 2007 that seemed to be moving faster than light, but dismissed the findings because the margin of error was too high. Still, Plunkett remains skeptical of the OPERA claims and said it would take six to nine months before his collaboration will be able to verify or contradict the findings.

But even if the faster-than-light neutrinos are found to be valid, that doesn’t mean scientists have to toss out their old theories. “Relativity and quantum mechanics didn’t throw away Newton and Maxwell,” said Lawrence Krauss, a physicist at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.

New data can expand our view of the universe, Krauss explained, but it doesn’t automatically invalidate well-tested theories from the past. For instance, when data in 1998 revealed the existence of dark energy and showed that the expansion of the universe was accelerating — a very unexpected result — it merely modified, not destroyed, the theories that came before.

Read more at Wired

Miracle Fruit's Trippy Effects Explained

Pop the red, cranberry-sized miracle fruit in your mouth and chew it for a while, allowing its juices to coat your mouth. It doesn't taste like much.

But what follows "is just a miracle or a kind of magic" according to Keiko Abe, of the University of Tokyo, as you sample other foods. "Beer tastes like sweet juice. Lemon tastes like sweet orange."

Sour foods are perceived as trippily sweet when tasted for up to an hour after consuming the berry. This effect has led curious folks in the U.S. and elsewhere to seek the miracle fruit for "flavor-tripping" parties: pop the fruit with friends, then sample a smorgasbord of sour-leaning snacks: limes, goat cheese, beer, grapefruit, vinegar, pickles and more.

"To me it was very exhilarating. It really is a very joyous experience," said writer Adam Gollner of trying the fruit. Gollner is author of The Fruit Hunters, which includes a chapter on the miracle fruit. "It's almost like this thing that you can't understand that is happening to you. That sense of incomprehensibility is a great feeling."

Abe and his colleagues report this week exactly how the wacky effect of the miracle fruit works. The team used a novel system of cultured cells that allowed them to test human taste receptors at various pHs to uncover the mechanism.

The key ingredient in the fruit, a protein known as miraculin, binds strongly to the sweet taste receptors on our tongues, Abe reported, but it does not activate the receptors at neutral pH.

When acid is introduced, the miraculin protein changes shape in such a way that it turns on the sweet receptors it is bound to, creating a sensation of ultra-sweet without affecting the other flavors in the food.

After the acidic food is swallowed, miraculin returns to the inactive shape, but it remains bound to the sweet receptor for up to an hour, ready to receive a new acid trigger. The strong binding explains the molecule's lasting effect.

While flavor-tripping has driven demand for the miracle fruit, which grows natively in West Africa, its ability to make things taste sweet without the calories that accompany sugar, makes it an intriguing candidate for a non-calorie sweetener.

The new findings show "the sweetness of miraculin at acidic pH in the mouth is the strongest of almost all the known sweeteners," Abe noted. "This will lead to industrial use of this non-calorie sweetener."

Miracle fruit is bred for sale in Japan, where it is served in some restaurants, and production of the purified miraculin protein is being pursued, Abe said.

Meanwhile, its status in the U.S. is murky. Sale of purified miraculin was disallowed in 1974 by a Food and Drug Administration ruling. But Gollner's numerous efforts to clarify the legal status of the whole fruit ended in frustration.

Read more at Discovery News

Monkeys at typewriters 'close to reproducing Shakespeare'

The virtual monkeys, created by an American programmer, have already typed up the whole of the poem A Lover's Complaint and are 99.99 per cent of the way through the Bard's complete works.

The experiment attempts to prove the theory that an infinite number of monkeys sitting at an infinite number of typewriters would eventually reproduce the works of Shakespeare by chance.

Jesse Anderson, the programmer behind the project, said he was inspired by an episode of The Simpsons which spoofs the famous problem.

Mr Anderson set up millions of small computer programmes, or virtual monkeys, using Amazon's SC2 cloud computing system, and programmed them to churn out random sequences of nine characters.

If the nine-letter sequence appears anywhere in one of Shakespeare's writings, it is matched against the relevant passage in a copy of the Bard's complete works, and is checked off the list.

The monkeys, which started typing on August 21, have already completed more than five trillion of the 5.5 trillion possible nine-letter combinations, but have so far only finished one whole work.

But the experiment is an imperfect reproduction of the infinite monkey theorem because it saves correct sections of text while discarding future wrong guesses, experts said.

Dr Ian Steward, emeritus professor of mathematics at Warwick University, said that for the monkeys to type up the complete works in the correct order without mistakes would take much longer than the age of the universe.

He told the BBC: "Along the way there would be untold numbers of attempts with one character wrong; even more with two wrong, and so on.

"Almost all other books, being shorter, would appear (countless times) before Shakespeare did."

Writing on his blog, Mr Anderson said: "This is the largest work ever randomly reproduced. It is one small step for a monkey, one giant leap for virtual primates everywhere.

"I understand the definition of infinite and infinite monkey theorem and I realise that this project does not have infinite resources.

"No monkeys were harmed during the making of this code. This project is my attempt to find a creative way to attain an answer without infinite resources."

In 2003 the Arts Council for England paid £2,000 for a real-life test of the theorem involving six Sulawesi crested macaques, but the trial was abandoned after a month.

Read more at The Telegraph

Sep 26, 2011

Escaped Pet Birds Are Teaching Wild Birds to Speak English

“Across parts of Australia, reports have been pouring in of strange voices chattering high in the treetops — mysterious, non-sensical conversations in English. But while this phenomenon is certainly quite odd, its explanation isn’t paranormal. It turns out that escaped pet birds, namely parrots and cockatoos, have begun teaching their wild bird counterparts a bit of the language they picked up from their time in captivity — and, according to witnesses, that includes more than a few expletives.

Jaynia Sladek, an ornithologist from the Australian Museum, says that some birds are just natural mimickers, able to acquire new sounds based on things they hear around them. For birds kept as pets, these sounds tend to mirror human language — but that influence doesn’t cease even after said birds escape or are released back into the wild.

Once back in their natural environments, these chatty ex-pets eventually join with wild birds who, in turn, start picking up the new words and sounds. The remnants of that language also eventually gets passed along to the escaped birds’ offspring, much like it does for humans.

“There’s no reason why, if one comes into the flock with words, [then] another member of the flock wouldn’t pick it up as well,” Sladek said in an interview with Australian Geographic.

According to the report, ‘Hello cockie’ is one of the most commonly heard phrases feral birds are teaching in the wild, along with a host of expletives — perhaps the last words those escapees heard after their frantic owners realized they were making a break for freedom.”

Via Treehugger.com

Five easy mutations to make bird flu a lethal pandemic

H5N1 bird flu can kill humans, but has not gone pandemic because it cannot spread easily among us. That might change: five mutations in just two genes have allowed the virus to spread between mammals in the lab. What's more, the virus is just as lethal despite the mutations.

"The virus is transmitted as efficiently as seasonal flu," says Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, who reported the work at a scientific meeting on flu last week in Malta.

"This shows clearly that H5 can change in a way that allows transmission and still cause severe disease in humans. It's scary," says Peter Doherty, a 1996 Nobel prizewinner for work in viral immunology.

H5N1 evolved in poultry in east Asia and has spread across Eurasia since 2004. In that time 565 people are known to have caught it; 331 died. No strain that spreads readily among mammals has emerged in that time, despite millions of infected birds, and infections in people, cats and pigs. Efforts to create such a virus in the lab have failed, and some virologists think H5N1 simply cannot do it.

The work by Fouchier's team suggests otherwise. They first gave H5N1 three mutations known to adapt bird flu to mammals. This version of the virus killed ferrets, which react to flu viruses in a similar way to humans. The virus did not transmit between them, though.

Then the researchers gave the virus from the sick ferrets to more ferrets - a standard technique for making pathogens adapt to an animal. They repeated this 10 times, using stringent containment. The tenth round of ferrets shed an H5N1 strain that spread to ferrets in separate cages - and killed them.

The process yielded viruses with many new mutations, but two were in all of them. Those plus the three added deliberately "suggest that as few as five are required to make the virus airborne", says Fouchier. He will now test H5N1 made with only those five.

All the mutations have been seen separately in H5N1 from birds. "If they occur separately, they can occur together," says Fouchier. Malik Peiris of the University of Hong Kong, a flu virologist, says this means H5N1 transmissible between humans can evolve in birds, where it is circulating already, without needing to spend time in mammals such as pigs.

Read more at New Scientist

Coming Soon: Live 3D TV Without the Glasses

For the relatively few 3D TV owners out there, content is limited. In Europe, 3D TV is catching on but because of the post-production work needed, live 3D broadcasts are extremely rare and viewers still need to don goofy glasses for it. But that may soon change

German researchers have found a way to make glasses-free live 3D TV production not only possible but affordable.

The technology for glasses-free 3D television, known as autostereoscopy already exists, although it's still developing. The display works by using special optical foil which show different images to each eye, tricking viewers' brains into seeing pop-out images. To generate a high-quality effect, numerous camera angles of each shot are needed, making the production process extremely daunting. The higher the number of grayscale images, the better the 3D quality.

"It's not very practical to put eight or nine or 20 cameras on the set," said Frederik Zilly, manager for the Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute’s 3D analyzer project in Berlin. The cost, weight, power consumption, and bandwidth requirements for autostereoscopic videos are incredible, he added. "That's where we thought, OK, we need to create something."

Zilly's team already developed a stereoscopic analyzer dubbed STAN that corrects standard 3D images in real-time to make live broadcasts possible. Their new system is an extension of STAN that can generate up to 25 views of the same scene from slightly different viewpoints, which is needed for effective glasses-free 3D. This virtual view rendering is fairly fast in the lab but not quite at the speed needed for transmitting in real-time for live broadcasting, Zilly said.

The Fraunhofer project team recently presented its autostereoscopic technology at the International Broadcasting Convention in Amsterdam. Their current version works offline, but Zilly hopes to present a real-time version of the broadcast technology at next year's convention.

The researchers are working with a European consortium called MUSCADE, which loosely stands for "multimedia scalable 3D for Europe." The consortium, funded by the European Commission, aims to create a standard, scalable format and advance 3D technology in general. The project includes several satellite providers that Zilly says could broadcast live autostereoscopic TV shows if the Fraunhofer system is successful.

"It's more of a test case or a proof-of-concept to demonstrate that it works," Zilly said of the system. "Once the production tools become mass-market products, then it will be affordable for all kinds of production."

Markus Aha is a 3D TV producer as well as the founder and CEO of Aha International Media in Berlin. He knows Zilly and the Fraunhofer work well, in part because they are both part of a group that is collaborating on a new 3D innovation center in Berlin.

"The sooner the productions are glasses-free, the sooner the market will open up for 3D content," he said. At the moment, however, consumer electronics companies are still developing autostereoscopic displays. Aha points out that Toshiba presented a high-definition LCD prototype earlier this year, but that’s not on the market yet.

Read more at Discovery News

Sep 25, 2011

From the Comfort of Home, Web Users May Have Found New Planets

Since the online citizen science project Planet Hunters launched last December, 40,000 web users from around the world have been helping professional astronomers analyze the light from 150,000 stars in the hopes of discovering Earth-like planets orbiting around them.

Users analyze real scientific data collected by NASA's Kepler mission, which has been searching for planets beyond our own solar system -- called exoplanets -- since its launch in March 2009.

Now astronomers at Yale University have announced the discovery of the first two potential exoplanets discovered by Planet Hunters users in a new study to be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

"This is the first time that the public has used data from a NASA space mission to detect possible planets orbiting other stars," said Yale astronomer and exoplanet expert Debra Fischer, who helped launch the Planet Hunters project.

The candidate planets orbit their host stars with periods ranging from 10 to 50 days -- much shorter than the 365 days it takes Earth to orbit the Sun -- and have radii that range in size from two-and-a-half to eight times Earth's radius. Despite those differences, one of the two candidates could be a rocky planet similar to the size of Earth (as opposed to a giant gas planet like Jupiter), although they aren't in the so-called "habitable zone" where liquid water, and therefore life as we know it, could exist.

Next, the Planet Hunters team -- a collaboration between astronomers at Yale, the University of Oxford and the Adler Planetarium in Chicago -- used the Keck Observatory in Hawaii to analyze the host stars. "I think there's a 95 percent chance or greater that these are bona fide planets," Fischer said.

The Kepler team has already announced the discovery of 1200 exoplanet candidates and will follow up on the highest potential ones with further analysis, but they had discarded the two found by Planet Hunters users for various technical reasons that led them to believe they weren't promising candidates.

"These three candidates might have gone undetected without Planet Hunters and its citizen scientists," said Meg Schwamb, a Yale researcher and Planet Hunters co-founder. "Obviously Planet Hunters doesn't replace the analysis being done by the Kepler team. But it has proven itself to be a valuable tool in the search for other worlds."

Users found the two candidates in the first month of Planet Hunters operations using data the Kepler mission made publicly available. The Planet Hunters team sent the top 10 candidates found by the citizen scientists to the Kepler team, who analyzed the data and determined that two of the 10 met their criteria for being classified as planet candidates. The two candidates were flagged as potential planets by several dozen different Planet Hunters users, as the same data are analyzed by more than one user.

"Scientists on the Kepler team obtained the data, but the public helped finance the project with their tax dollars," Fischer said. "It's only right that this data has been pushed back into the public domain, not just as scientifically digested results but in a form where the public can actively participate in the hunt. The space program is a national treasure -- a monument to America's curiosity about the Universe. It is such an exciting time to be alive and to see these incredible discoveries being made."

Read more at Science Daily

Archaeologists Uncover Evidence of Large Ancient Shipyard Near Rome

University of Southampton and British School at Rome (BSR) archaeologists, leading an international excavation of Portus -- the ancient port of Rome, believe they have discovered a large Roman shipyard.

The team, working with the Italian Archaeological Superintendancy of Rome, has uncovered the remains of a massive building close to the distinctive hexagonal basin or 'harbour', at the centre of the port complex.

University of Southampton Professor and Portus Project Director, Simon Keay comments, "At first we thought this large rectangular building was used as a warehouse, but our latest excavation has uncovered evidence that there may have been another, earlier use, connected to the building and maintenance of ships.

"Few Roman Imperial shipyards have been discovered and, if our identification is correct, this would be the largest of its kind in Italy or the Mediterranean."

It has long been known that Portus was a crucial trade gateway linking Rome to the Mediterranean throughout the Imperial period and the Portus Project1 team has been investigating the port's significance over a number of years. Until now, no major shipyard building for Rome has been identified, apart from the possibility of one on the Tiber near Monte Testaccio, and a smaller one recently claimed for the neighbouring river port at Ostia.

A recent new grant of £640,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has made this latest phase of excavation possible. These AHRC funds, together with financial support from the Archaeological Superintendancy of Rome, the University of Southampton and the British School at Rome have allowed extensive excavation to be undertaken at the site this year.

The huge building the team has discovered dates from the 2nd century AD and would have stood c. 145 metres long and 60 metres wide -- an area larger than a football pitch. In places, its roof was up to 15 metres high, or more than three times the height of a double-decker bus. Large brick-faced concrete piers or pillars, some three metres wide and still visible in part, supported at least eight parallel bays with wooden roofs.

"This was a vast structure which could easily have housed wood, canvas and other supplies and certainly would have been large enough to build or shelter ships in. The scale, position and unique nature of the building lead us to believe it played a key role in shipbuilding activities," comments Southampton's Professor Keay, who also leads the archaeological activity of the BSR.

Investigations by his team in 2009 concentrated on the remains of an 'Imperial palace' and amphitheatre-shaped building, which lie adjacent to this building. He argues that together these formed a key complex where an imperial official was charged with coordinating the movement of ships and cargoes within the port. Furthermore he believes that the shipyard was an integral part of this.

Additional supporting evidence comes in the form of inscriptions discovered at Portus referring to the existence of a guild of shipbuilders or corpus fabrum navalium portensium in the port. Also, a mosaic, which is now in the Vatican Museum, but once adorned the floor of a villa on the ancient Via Labicana (a road leading south east of Rome), depicts the façade of a building similar to the one at Portus, clearly showing a ship in each bay.

"The discovery of this building has major implications for our understanding of the significance of the hexagonal basin or harbour at Portus and its role within the overall scheme of the port complex," says Professor Keay.

He continues, "We need to stress there is no evidence yet of ramps which may have been needed to launch newly constructed ships into the waters of the hexagonal basin. These may lie beneath the early 20th century embankment, which now forms this side of the basin. Discovering these would prove our hypothesis beyond reasonable doubt, although they may no longer exist," says Professor Keay.

Geophysicists from the Archaeological Prospection Services of Southampton and from the British School at Rome have been making geophysical surveys of the area around the building to gain additional information about its still partially buried structure. Members of Southampton's Archaeological Computing Research Group, led by Dr Graeme Earl, have also created a computer graphic simulation, to provide both valuable visual data on its layout and construction and an impression of how it appeared and may have been used.

Professor Keay's team is also working with Angelo Pellegrino from the Archaeological Superintendency of Rome to extend earlier excavations by the Portus Project, and the restoration of standing structures, relating to 'the Imperial palace', to better understand key issues about its layout and development.

The international team is planning further investigations at Portus to find out more about this fascinating, significant site, which holds an enormous amount of information about the activities and trade of Rome.

Read more at Science Daily