Nov 12, 2011

Lutetia: A Rare Survivor from the Birth of Earth

New observations indicate that the asteroid Lutetia is a leftover fragment of the same original material that formed Earth, Venus and Mercury. Astronomers have combined data from ESA's Rosetta spacecraft, ESO's New Technology Telescope, and NASA telescopes. They found that the properties of the asteroid closely match those of a rare kind of meteorites found on Earth and thought to have formed in the inner parts of the Solar System. Lutetia must, at some point, have moved out to its current location in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

A team of astronomers from French and North American universities have studied the unusual asteroid Lutetia in detail at a very wide range of wavelengths to deduce its composition. Data from the OSIRIS camera on ESA's Rosetta spacecraft, ESO's New Technology Telescope (NTT) at the La Silla Observatory in Chile, and NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii and Spitzer Space Telescope were combined to create the most complete spectrum of an asteroid ever assembled .

This spectrum of Lutetia was then compared with that of meteorites found on Earth that have been extensively studied in the laboratory. Only one type of meteorite -- enstatite chondrites -- was found to have properties that matched Lutetia over the full range of colours.

Enstatite chondrites are known to be material that dates from the early Solar System. They are thought to have formed close to the young Sun and to have been a major building block in the formation of the rocky planets, in particular Earth, Venus and Mercury. Lutetia seems to have originated not in the main belt of asteroids, where it is now, but much closer to the Sun.

"But how did Lutetia escape from the inner Solar System and reach the main asteroid belt?" asks Pierre Vernazza (ESO), the lead author of the paper.

Astronomers have estimated that less than 2% of the bodies located in the region where Earth formed, ended up in the main asteroid belt. Most of the bodies of the inner Solar System disappeared after a few million years as they were incorporated into the young planets that were forming. However, some of the largest, with diameters of about 100 kilometres or more, were ejected to safer orbits further from the Sun.

Lutetia, which is about 100 kilometres across, may have been tossed out from the inner parts of the young Solar System if it passed close to one of the rocky planets and thus had its orbit dramatically altered. An encounter with the young Jupiter during its migration to its current orbit could also account for the huge change in Lutetia's orbit.

"We think that such an ejection must have happened to Lutetia. It ended up as an interloper in the main asteroid belt and it has been preserved there for four billion years," continues Pierre Vernazza.

Earlier studies of its colour and surface properties showed that Lutetia is a very unusual and rather mysterious member of the asteroid main belt. Previous surveys have shown that similar asteroids are very rare and represent less than 1% of the asteroid population of the main belt. The new findings explain why Lutetia is different -- it is a very rare survivor of the original material that formed the rocky planets.

"Lutetia seems to be the largest, and one of the very few, remnants of such material in the main asteroid belt. For this reason, asteroids like Lutetia represent ideal targets for future sample return missions. We could then study in detail the origin of the rocky planets, including our Earth," concludes Pierre Vernazza.

Read more at Science Daily

Iguazu Falls, Halong Bay On Natural Wonders List

The Amazon rainforest, Vietnam's Halong Bay and Argentina's Iguazu Falls were named among the world's new seven wonders of nature, according to organizers of a global poll.

The other four crowned the world's natural wonders are South Korea's Jeju Island, Indonesia's Komodo, the Philippines' Puerto Princesa Underground River and South Africa's Table Mountain, said the New7Wonders foundation, citing provisional results.

Final results will be announced early 2012, said the Swiss foundation, warning there may yet be changes between the provisional winners and the final list.

Sites that failed to make the cut include Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro, the Dead Sea and the Grand Canyon.

Residents of Jeju welcomed the announcement, with a 2,000-strong crowd bursting into cheers of "We made it," the Yonhap news agency reported.

Jeju Govenor Woo Geun-Min said the listing would open "a new chapter" for the island's tourism industry.

"This will greatly help attract tourists to Jeju, enhance investment and bolster awareness about Jeju's agricultural products," he told journalists. The island is renowned for its tangerines.

The poll organized by Swiss foundation New7Wonders has attracted great interest, mobilizing celebrities, including Argentinian football star Lionel Messi calling on fans to pick his home country's Iguazu Falls.

The results come after a long consultation process lasting from December 2007 to July 2009, when world citizens were asked to put forward sites which they deemed were natural wonders.

More than a million votes were cast to trim the list of more than 440 contenders in over 220 countries down to a shortlist of 77.

The group was then further cut to 28 finalists by a panel of experts.

Anyone in the world was then able to vote for the final seven via telephone, text messages or Internet social networks.

Founded in 2001 by filmmaker Bernard Weber in Zurich, the foundation New7Wonders is based on the same principle on which the seven ancient wonders of the world were established. That list of seven wonders was attributed to Philon of Byzantium in ancient Greece.

Read more at Discovery News

Nov 11, 2011

Solar System May Have Lost Fifth Giant Planet

Astronomer David Nesvorny from the Southwest Research Institute in Texas believes that the solar system might have once contained a fifth gigantic planet, which was ejected deep into the galaxy in a moment of cosmic turmoil.

By looking at the population of the Kuiper belt — the icy-cold ring of asteroids beyond Neptune — and by studying the historical fingerprints left on the craters of the Moon, Nesvorny was able to piece together clues about our solar system’s adolescence.

He found that a dynamic instability, which occurred about 600 million years into the solar system’s life, greatly affected the orbit of our giant planets and scattered smaller bodies. Some moved into the Kuiper belt and others traveled inwards, marking their course as impacts on the Moon and planets.

But that scenario has a flaw. Slow changes in Jupiter’s orbit would have had a large effect on the orbits of the terrestrial planets. All hell would have broken lose, and the Earth could have collided with Mars or Venus. Something had to change.

“Colleagues suggested a clever way around this problem,” says Nesvorny in a press release. Instead of a slow movement, Jupiter’s orbit could have quickly changed, which would have altered the outer solar system but been less harmful to the inner planets.

Unfortunately, this too caused problems. Computer simulations, ran thousands of times, showed that Jupiter’s quick jump had the intended effect, but Uranus or Neptune was always knocked out of the solar system. “Something was clearly wrong,” Nesvorny explains.

So perhaps, instead, the early solar system could have had five giant planets instead of four. By plopping an additional giant planet with a mass similar to that of Uranus or Neptune the simulation worked as planned. Jupiter jumped into place, the inner planets remained unharmed and the outer planets stayed behind.

Read more at Wired Science

Prehistoric Men Scarred, Pierced, Tattooed Privates

Men in prehistoric Europe scarred, pierced and tattooed their penises, likely for ritualistic and social group reasons, according to a new study.

Analysis of phallic decorations in Paleolithic art, described in the December issue of The Journal of Urology, may also show evidence of the world's first known surgery performed on a male genital organ. The alteration, or surgery, might have just been for ornamental purposes, or a piercing, the researchers suggest.

Lead author Javier Angulo, chair of the Department of Urology at Hospital Universitario de Getafe in Spain, explains that, like today, tattooing and manipulation of body parts have always functioned as a way for people to express themselves.

"[People] may feel that scars are a written story on the skin," he said.

"Making scars, holes to pick bones, and also writing on the skin -- tattooing -- may add meaning to an otherwise 'silly body,'" he added. "If one or several marks became popular or fashionable, they may be culturally elected as 'fancy' and 'desirable.' The face and areas around natural orifices are parts of the body with a higher tendency to be decorated and shown."

Angulo and colleagues Marcos García-Díez and Marc Martínez studied male genital representations in portable, mostly handheld sizes of art made in Europe approximately 38,000 to 11,000 years ago.

The pieces, researchers say, frequently mirrored what actually appeared on the male penis. Paleolithic art is known to be very naturalistic, so the artists were recreating what they saw.

Additionally, Angulo said that "Otzi and some mummies confirm tattoos were on their skin."

"Modern primitives did modify their bodies, including their genitals, with the use of tattooing, perforations and cuttings (scars) to change their appearance," Angulo said.

They therefore believe it is "highly probable that the marks left on these phalli are not decorative for the sake of the piece of art but rather a depiction of real-life details."

Many of the marks are geometric shapes, such as triangles or circles. Some designs appear to match those of figures seen within Paleolithic cave art from the same regions. This suggests that the symbols may have held important meanings for people then.

"It is widely understood that these designs are part of an unknown code," Angulo said, adding that some of them might have been made exclusively for a decorative purpose. Tattoos today follow the same coda, for the most part. A lion tattoo on a man's arm may only mean that the man likes the look, not that the lion means anything special to him.

Angulo added that other possible explanations for the symbols include: "territorial signs or landmarks, shamanistic repetitive marks in the passage to an unconscious world, some forms of primitive counting, the investigation of non-figurative artistic expression playing with spaces and light and darkness…Who knows?"

What is clear is that phallic decoration became more prevalent among men of the Magdalenian Culture in France and Spain about 12,000 years ago.

"That could be part of a cultural phenomenon related to a concrete time and space," Angulo said.

Another finding of the study is that prehistoric men seemed to favor preputial retraction, or drawing back of the foreskin. As a result, the scientists think it's likely that early males practiced circumcision as both a way to prevent disease and for affiliation purposes. To this day, ritual or religious circumcisions occur within several cultures.

For the prehistoric cultures, Angulo believes that their "canon of beauty” changed over time. Earlier humans of the Gravettian culture, known for characteristic tools such as carving blades, appear to have favored more exaggerated depictions of sexuality, as is evident in many of their "Venus" figurines of naked women. The Magdalenians, on the other hand, had a more naturalistic concept of beauty, according to the authors.

Read more at Discovery News

Great Pyramid Closed Amid 11/11/11 Rumors

Egypt's authorities closed the Great Pyramid on Friday after rumors that various groups planned to hold bizzarre ceremonies on the Giza Plateau at 11:11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 2011.

Although the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) said the closure was due to "necessary maintenance," the head of the Department of Pharaonic Archaeology Atef Abu Zahab told reporters that the decision came "after much pressure" from concerned Internet users.

Rumours of strange rituals spread after the Egyptian daily Ahram reported that people from all over the world were due to hold a "Ceremony of Love" at the ancient monument on 11/11/11.

Called "Cheops Project," the event was aimed at strengthing the power of the pyramid on the alignment of ones by installing a crystal pyramid inside Khufu's sarcophagus for 24 hours.

The operation, carried with people meditating in circles hand-in-hand around the pyramid, was reportedly designed to create a shield around the Earth to protect the planet against cosmic threats, according to Andrzej Wojcikiewicz, president of the Polish foundation Dar Swiatowida, which sponsored the event.

Rumors soon spread over websites and social networks that among the meditators were 1,200 Jews who planned to erect a Star of David on top of the Great Pyramid to support their claim that Jewish slaves built the pyramids, and not the ancient Egyptians.

Aly El-Asfar, head of the Giza Plateau in the SCA, told Ahram Online that Egyptian authorities initially approved the ceremony as the program submitted by the foundation referred to an ordinary private ceremony, with nothing installed inside the sarcophagus of King Khufu.

"I cannot control anyone's belief, but I am the guardian of the pyramids and Egypt's history and will not, by any means, allow that something wrong would happen, or if any damage occur," El-Asfar told the Egyptian daily.

Read more at Discovery News

Farmer Finds Rare Meteorite

It wasn't a goose that laid a golden egg for one Missouri farmer -- it was an asteroid.

Scientists are analyzing an extremely rare meteorite found by a farmer in a tiny Missouri town called Conception Junction (population 202), reports Washington University in St. Louis, which helped identify the rock.

An unnamed farmer had found the unusually heavy stone buried in the side of a hill. He sawed off the end of the stone and realized he had something that didn't come from Earth.

The metal rock is studded on the inside with green olivine crystals. It is one of only 20 so-called pallasite meteorites that have been found in the United States.

These types of meteorites are believed to be fragments of large asteroids that had enough internal heat to begin melting, which allowed heavy metals to sink and form a core, while lighter elements became part of the rocky surface.

Pallasites are believed to come from the area where an asteroid's metal core transitions to olivine in its lower mantle.

Read more at Discovery News

Nov 10, 2011

Weird World of Water Gets a Little Weirder

Strange, stranger, strangest! To the weird nature of one of the simplest chemical compounds -- the stuff so familiar that even non-scientists know its chemical formula -- add another odd twist. Scientists are reporting that good old H2O, when chilled below the freezing point, can shift into a new type of liquid.

 The report appears in ACS' Journal of Physical Chemistry B.

Pradeep Kumar and H. Eugene Stanley explain that water is one weird substance, exhibiting more than 80 unusual properties, by one count, including some that scientists still struggle to understand. For example, water can exist in all three states of matter (solid, liquid,gas) at the same time. And the forces at its surface enable insects to walk on water and water to rise up from the roots into the leaves of trees and other plants.

In another strange turn, scientists have proposed that water can go from being one type of liquid into another in a so-called "liquid-liquid" phase transition, but it is impossible to test this with today's laboratory equipment because these things happen so fast. That's why Kumar and Stanley used computer simulations to check it out.

They found that when they chilled liquid water in their simulation, its propensity to conduct heat decreases, as expected for an ordinary liquid. But, when they lowered the temperature to about 54 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, the liquid water started to conduct heat even better in the simulation. Their studies suggest that below this temperature, liquid water undergoes sharp but continuous structural changes whereas the local structure of liquid becomes extremely ordered -- very much like ice. These structural changes in liquid water lead to increase of heat conduction at lower temperatures.

Read more at Science Daily

More Findings, Uncertainty About Emperor's Birthplace

A mosaic floor in what is believed to be the birthplace of Rome's first emperor Augustus. Credit: Clementina Panella.

Archaeologists digging in Rome's Palatine Hill have found the remains of a large house which they believe is the birthplace of Rome's first emperor Augustus.

However, archaeologists are still not totally certain that it was the place where Augustus was born in 63 B.C.

Announced at the end of a 10-year excavation, the finding was partly uncovered in 2006, when a team led by Clementina Panella, professor at the University of Rome La Sapienza, unearthed part of a corridor and other fragments of "a very ancient aristocratic house" near the Arch of Titus on the northeastern side of the Palatine.

Extensive excavation in the past five years (founded by the Sapienza University and the Banca Nazionale delle Comunicazioni) and historical cross-checks have provided further weight to support the hypothesis that the house belonged to Gaius Octavius, Augustus's father.

"We have unearthed more than 10 rooms, beautiful mosaic floors and frescoed walls," Panella told Discovery News.

According to the archaeologist, the two story house looks like it almost climbed up on the Palatine, the most aristocratic of all the Roman hills. Built around an atrium (a large open space), the residence had great views, overlooking the Roman Forum and Esquiline Hill.

Beyond a tufa wall, the archaeologists also found the remains of a sanctuary.

"This is a crucial finding indeed. We have identified this area as the Curiae Veteres, the earliest shrine of the curies of Rome," Panella said.

According to tradition, Romulus, the city's founder, divided the Romans into 30 parts or curiae. These in turn were grouped into three sets of ten that were called tribes.

Mentioned by the Roman historian Tacitus (AD 56 – AD 117) as one point in the Palatine pomerium, which according to legend was the original line ploughed by Romulus to mark Rome's boundaries, the Curiae Veteres were an important gathering place.

The place housed the ritual obligations that the representatives of the thirty curiae had to carry on certain days of the year to reaffirm their membership.

Thousands of votive offerings and cult objects unearthed at the site indicate that the Curiae Veteres sanctuary was active for about 11 centuries -- from the 7th century BC to the 4th century AD.

The Roman historian and biographer Suetonius (about 69/75 – after 130), reported that Augustus was born on September 23, 63 BC, "in the region of the Palatine called Ad Capita Bubula (Ox Heads)."

Several scholars believe that the toponym probably indicated a place in the Curiae Veteres.

"Augustus could have even made up his birth in the Curiae Veteres. He might have badly wanted to be born in that place as it was strongly symbolic. It represented Romulus' founding and Augustus' re-founding of Rome," Panella said.

Born Gaius Octavius in 63 B.C., the future emperor was named adoptive son and heir of his great-uncle Julius Caesar when he was 18 years old.

After the civil wars that followed Caesar's assassination, Gaius Octavius was made emperor in 29 B.C., taking the name Augustus.

He was deified after his death in 14 A.D., and a calendar month -- Sextilis -- was renamed Augustus (August) in his honor.

The architect of the "Pax Romana" (Roman peace), a 200 -year period of peace and prosperity after years of civil war, Augustus was known for his fear of thunder and lightning and for his dislike of ostentation and excess.

"For more than 40 years, he used the same bedroom in winter and summer," Suetonius wrote in his "Life of Augustus."

Augustus lived in the house near the Curiae Veteres for just three years. His family then moved to the Carinae, a spur which stretched from the Esquiline towards the Palatine.

When he was 18 years old, Augustus bought a house near the Roman Forum; then, at 36, he moved again to the Palatine, where he bought the house of the orator Hortensius.

The choice of the residence was again symbolic. It was just above what is believed to be the grotto where Romans once worshiped the city's founders, Romulus and Remus.

Read more at Discovery News

Deep-Sea Camouflage Switcheroo

When swimming near the ocean’s well-lit surface, some octopus and squid become transparent in order to hide from hungry predators. In deeper waters, found a new study, they do something completely different: They turn deep red.

The study, which offers a rare look into the behavior of deep-sea creatures, documents the first known example of an animal using completely different tricks to achieve camouflage in different situations. And it gives new insight into the secrets of invisibility, which has a range of applications, from sustainable fishing to medicine.

The findings also suggest that a decline in water quality from pollution and other sources may harm undersea animals more than researchers have previously realized.

"A lot of ecosystems are balanced on who can see who and who can hide from who," said Sönke Johnsen, a visual ecologist at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "If you change the optics of the water, all of a sudden you shift the ecosystem for things that relied on sight for the ability to catch their prey. When the water becomes murkier, species diversity drops."

Cephalopods, the group that includes squid and octopuses, have long impressed divers with their rapid color displays. They can turn from clear to green to nearly black in an instant.

To better explain these rainbow-like behaviors, Johnsen and colleague Sarah Zylinski caught members of one species of octopus and one species of squid, caught while on a ship off the coasts of Peru, Chile and Mexico, they put the animals in shipboard tanks and performed a series of experiments.

Under the room's ambient light, the researchers reported today in the journal Current Biology, both the squid and the octopus were transparent. But when the researchers shone blue light on them, they turned deep red. They did not respond the same way to beams of red light, moving light, or other kinds of light disturbances.

Those findings suggested that the animals might use different strategies for camouflage, depending on how deep they were because in shallow waters, being mostly clear makes an animal basically invisible.

But like a windowpane, a transparent animal reflects light at depths below about 800 meters (2,600 feet), where hiding places are scarce and predators lurk with bioluminescent flashlights that shine in the blue wavelengths. In that environment, it is wisest to be red or black, as those colors absorb blue light rather than reflect it – creating a different kind of invisibility.

To confirm that camouflage was the motivation for switching from clear to red and back again, the researchers measured how much light the squid and octopuses reflected in their alternate color schemes. The results showed that their chosen hues did the best job of hiding the animals under various conditions.

"This is the first time that anyone has ever shown that these animals are actively switching between completely different modes of camouflage," Johnsen said. "Being clear or deeply red are completely different tricks that work under completely different principles."

Read more at Discovery News

Pristine Big Bang Gas Found

Scientists have found two interstellar clouds of original gas, which -- unlike everything else in the universe -- has never mingled with elements forged later in stars.

The existence of pristine gas that formed minutes after the Big Bang explosion some 13.7 billion years ago, had been predicted, but never before observed.

The clouds, which are located about 12 billion light-years from Earth within the constellations Ursa Major and Leo, were found serendipitously during an ongoing study to characterize gas in distant galaxies.

In analyzing the light coming from quasars (active nuclei of distant galaxies), astronomers realized the rays had passed through gas that contained only hydrogen and deuterium, elements that formed minutes after the Big Bang.

The surprise was that the clouds contained nothing else -- no carbon, no nitrogen, no silicon, no iron -- none of the heavier elements forged in stars and spread throughout the universe.

"In some respect we were searching for this, but we had been doing so for years and had been unsuccessful so the discovery was a very welcome surprise," astronomer Jason Prochaska, with the University of California's Lick Observatory, told Discovery News.

One of the foundations of the Big Bang theory is that only the lightest elements -- hydrogen, helium, lithium and the hydrogen variant deuterium -- formed minutes after the universe's creation, but no such pristine samples had ever been found.

"These two clouds are the first examples to fit precisely in that picture," Prochaska said.

All other elements were made inside of stars millions and billions of years later.

The hunt for other pockets of primordial gas is under way. Scientists believe the clouds may have played in role in funneling cold gas to growing early galaxies.

"One of our biggest questions in cosmology is how galaxies get the gas they need to form stars, and how they also sent out the remnants of stars into their surroundings," physicist John O'Meara, with Saint Michael's College in Vermont, told Discovery News.

Read more at Discovery News

Nov 9, 2011

How Humans Became Social

Look around and it’s impossible to miss the importance of social interactions to human society. They form the basis of our families, our governments, and even our global economy. But how did we become social in the first place? Researchers have long believed that it was a gradual process, evolving from couples to clans to larger communities. A new analysis, however, indicates that primate societies expanded in a burst, most likely because there was safety in numbers.

It’s a controversial idea, admits anthropologist and study author Susanne Shultz of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. “We’re likely going to cause a bit of trouble.”

Over the past several decades, researchers have gained tremendous insights into the evolution of social groups in bees and birds by comparing them with relatives with different social systems. In these animals, it seems that complex societies evolved in steps. Single individuals paired off or began living with a few offspring. These small groups gradually grew larger and more complicated, ultimately yielding complex organizations. Some anthropologists have assumed a similar history for primates.

Shultz and colleagues decided to test this idea. Their first task was figuring out which factors influenced the makeup of current primate societies. A common hypothesis is that the local environment shapes group structure. For example, food scarcity might drive individuals together so that they can help each other with hunting and foraging. But after combing the scientific literature on 217 primate species, the researchers noticed that closely related species tended to organize their societies in the same way, no matter where they lived. Baboons and macaques, for example, inhabit many places and habitats, yet for the most part they always live in a mixed company of related females and unrelated males.

Because group structure was not at the whims of the environment, Shultz and colleagues reasoned, it must be passed down though evolutionary time. And indeed, when they looked across the primate family tree, they found that the current social behaviors of a species tended to be similar to those of its ancestors.

With this in mind, the researchers inferred how the ancestors of these primates lived, trying to come up with the scenario that would require the fewest evolutionary changes to get to the current distribution of social organizations in the family tree. They ran a statistical model to determine what would happen, say, if the last common ancestor to the monkeys and apes lived in pairs or lived in groups.

To the researchers’ surprise, the most sensible solution suggested that the solitary ancestor started banding together not in pairs, as scientists had thought, but as loose groups of both sexes, as the team reports online today in Nature. Given the modern distribution of social organizations, the most likely time for this shift was around 52 million years ago, when the ancestors of monkeys and apes split off from the ancestors of lemurs and other prosimian primates.

Shultz suspects that, at this time, the nocturnal ancestors of today’s primates became more active during the day. It’s easier to sneak around at night when you’re alone, she notes, but when you start hunting during the day, when predators can more easily spot you, there’s safety in numbers.

But not all of today’s primates live in large, mixed-sex groups. A few, such as the New World titi monkeys, live in pairs. And some primates, such as gorillas, form harems with one male and multiple females. The analysis shows that these social structures showed up only about 16 million years ago.

“When I read the paper, I was really quite struck with what a different picture [it] gives us,” says Joan Silk, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “[Some] theoretical models will have to be revised.”

Read more at Wired Science

Mysterious Moon Magnetism Could Be Result of Earth’s Gravity

A new model for generating a global magnetic field in the ancient moon could help solve a 40-year-old mystery.

The Earth’s magnetic field exists because it has a spinning solid core surrounded by hot metallic liquid, which churns around lava-lamp style and generates magnetism. But the moon is too small and cool to possess such a molten interior and therefore lacks a global magnetic field.

Yet when Apollo astronauts brought the first samples back from the moon’s surface, scientists discovered many of the rocks were magnetized.

“At first people said, ‘What are you talking about?’ since this was completely unexpected,” said planetary scientist Christina Dwyer of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who is the lead author of a paper in Nature Nov. 9 proposing a new way to create global magnetic fields.

The answer to this mystery begins with the moon’s formation more than 4 billion years ago. Researchers think that at this time an enormous Mars-sized object hit the Earth, splitting off a giant chunk. This proto-lunar lump orbited much closer to the Earth than the current moon.

Dwyer and her collaborators suggest that after this chunk cooled down, tidal forces from Earth’s gravity could have acted on the moon to keep its outer mantle stirring around its core for more than a billion and a half years — the same way the moon’s gravitational pull causes tides on Earth today. Instead of a spinning core, the shifting mantle would have generated the complex interior motions necessary to produce a magnetic field.

As the moon moved farther and farther away over time, the tidal force grew weaker. Around 2.7 billion years ago, it became too feeble to move the moon’s mantle anymore. This is important because no global magnetic field is observed on the moon today, so the force must have turned off at some point, Dwyer said.

In the same issue of Nature, another research team has arrived at the same conclusion: Lunar mantle motions generated a global magnetic field on the ancient moon. But this study suggests that repeated impacts from enormous asteroids could have pushed the outside of the moon, causing it to slide over the inner core and create magnetism.

Rather than a billion and a half years, each encounter would have produced relatively short-lived magnetic fields, roughly one to 10 thousand years in duration. Currently, there isn’t enough data to determine which of these accounts is more accurate.

Regardless of which model is correct, this type of mechanism for generating a global magnetic field has drawn praise from other researchers.

“I think it’s a major advance on something that’s been a real puzzle since the Apollo era,” said planetary scientist Benjamin Weiss from MIT. The mechanism might also be applied to explain possible magnetic fields on other small bodies such as asteroids, he added.

Eventually, more detailed data from magnetized Apollo rocks may be necessary to differentiate between the two teams’ proposals.

Read more at Wired Science

Cooked Meat Gave Ancestors An Advantage

For years, scientists have thought cooked foods are easier to digest, and thus, are more nutritious than non-cooked eats.

Before now, though, they lacked the evidence needed to confirm these claims for meat. But a recent experiment suggests that cooked meat packs more nutritional value than its raw counterpart. The findings could give clues to how early humans gained more energy from cooking meats as well as provide insight on ways to maximize nutrition today.

The researchers tested foods in the ways that they're actually digested in organisms, rather than analyzed outside of the body.

The experiment involved feeding groups of mice variations of organic beef or sweet potatoes over a 40-day period. Different diets included raw/intact, raw/pounded, cooked/intact and cooked/pounded foods (either the beef or the sweet potato). Mice could eat food freely, and researchers monitored the rodents' activity levels and body mass.

While activity didn't differ across groups, body mass did. All mice lost weight on the diets, but those consuming cooked foods lost less than others eating raw foods. This means that the mice were getting more energy from the cooked foods, especially the meat.

The paper's authors think a few mechanisms might be at play. First, cooking seems to unwind proteins in meat, which could make it easier to digest in the small intestine before gut bacteria take their share of the pie. In addition, cooking meat seems to loosen muscle fiber connections, making the foods easier to chew.

The way foods are prepared -- whether they're pounded, crushed, sliced, and so on -- also matters. Pounded foods appeared to provide more energy, but not as much as cooking. Yet while pounding breaks down the structure of food fibers, it doesn't have as much of an effect on cells at the molecular level. This is where cooking has the advantage. Incorporating both cooking and pounding produced the best results.

Anthropologists think early humans began using fire to cook foods some 1.8 million years ago. Though the archaeological evidence is sparse, some scientists adopt this time frame and support that cooking may have lifted the energetic constraints that allowed humans to develop larger brains.

Read more at Discovery News

How She-Male Birds Win the Girl

Birds of prey have a macho image, but some male raptors look and act feminine, fooling everyone into thinking they are females.

These she-males often win out in the end. They avoid conflicts with other puzzled males, and yet they establish territories and enjoy successful mating with females.

"Permanent female mimicry," as the phenomenon is called, has already been confirmed in the shorebird ruff Philomachus pugnax. Now a paper in the latest Royal Society Biology Letters has determined that 40 percent of all sexually mature marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus males exhibit lifelong female behaviors and attributes.

Such female mimicry, also seen in fish, reptiles and insects, appears to emerge most often in species with males that fight a lot with each other.

"When intrasexual aggression is high, permanent female mimicry is arguably adaptive and could be seen as a 'permanent non-aggression pact' with other males," lead author Audrey Sternalski and her colleagues explained.

Sternalski, a researcher at the Instituto de Investigación en Recursos Cinegéticos in Spain, and colleagues François Mougeot and Vincent Bretagnolle tested out their theory. They presented plastic decoys representing each of the three types of birds -- males, she-males and females -- to each bird group during different stages of their breeding cycles.

Typical males were aggressive toward male decoys, but more tolerant of the she-males.

"By contrast," the researchers wrote, "female-like males tolerated male decoys (both she-male and male) and directed their aggression towards female decoys…Therefore, female-like males not only look like females, but also tended to behave like them when defending breeding resources."

Randolph Krohmer, an associate professor of biology at Saint Xavier University, recently led a study on she-male red-sided garter snakes, Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis. In this species, the female mimics don't look like females, but they release a pheromone that fools other snakes into thinking they are gals instead of guys.

"During courtship these snakes form mating balls that can consist of 50 males and one actual female," Krohmer told Discovery News. "It looks like a tumbleweed rolling around on the ground."

He said the snakes "taste" the sex pheromone by flicking their tongues. When males detect the chemical released by the she-males, they sometimes spend time courting them. While these males are busy being confused, the female mimics then make moves toward the actual females.

Read more at Discovery News

Mite Fossilized While Sucking on Spider's Head

The world's smallest fossil detected by 3D imaging in amber is a miniscule mite, which 49 million years ago decided to hitch a ride on a spider's head. The unusual pair, described in the latest Royal Society Biology Letters, has been entombed in amber ever since.

The mite measures less than than .2 mm long. Here's a closeup view:

Mites are rare in the fossil record because their small size makes them difficult to study. Using a modern method called phase contrast X-ray computed tomography, Jason Dunlop of Humboldt University Berlin and colleagues successfully scanned the mite and spider in an ancient chunk of Baltic amber. The process enabled them to reconstruct the duo in vivid three-dimensional detail.

Here's the mite's underside:

The mite belongs to a group called the Astigmata, previously almost unknown as fossils.

Dunlop and his team write that members of this group "breed rapidly under ideal circumstances, and in order to facilitate dispersal many of the more basal (i.e. non-parasitic) lineages employ phoresy: attaching themselves to larger arthropod carriers that transport them to hopefully better conditions."

They explain that free-living juveniles handle dispersal in this way.

These young mites "typically adhere to the carrier via a distinct attachment organ or 'sucker plate' composed of various suckers and mechanoreceptors on the underside of the body."

Read more at Discovery News

Nov 8, 2011

Easily 'Re-Programmable Cells' Could Be Key in Creation of New Life Forms

Scientists at The University of Nottingham are leading an ambitious research project to develop an in vivo biological cell-equivalent of a computer operating system.

The success of the project to create a 're-programmable cell' could revolutionise synthetic biology and would pave the way for scientists to create completely new and useful forms of life using a relatively hassle-free approach.

Professor Natalio Krasnogor of the University's School of Computer Science, who leads the Interdisciplinary Computing and Complex Systems Research Group, said: "We are looking at creating a cell's equivalent to a computer operating system in such a way that a given group of cells could be seamlessly re-programmed to perform any function without needing to modifying its hardware."

"We are talking about a highly ambitious goal leading to a fundamental breakthrough that will, -- ultimately, allow us to rapidly prototype, implement and deploy living entities that are completely new and do not appear in nature, adapting them so they perform new useful functions."

The game-changing technology could substantially accelerate Synthetic Biology research and development, which has been linked to myriad applications -- from the creation of new sources of food and environmental solutions to a host of new medical breakthroughs such as drugs tailored to individual patients and the growth of new organs for transplant patients.

The multi-disciplinary project, funded with a leadership fellowship for Professor Krasnogor worth more than £1 million from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), involves computer scientists, biologists and chemists from Nottingham as well as academic colleagues at other universities in Scotland, the US, Spain and Israel.

The project -- Towards a Biological Cell Operating System (AUdACiOuS) -- is attempting to go beyond systems biology -- the science behind understanding how living organisms work -- to give scientists the power to create biological systems. The scientists will start the work by attempting to make e.coli bacteria much more easy to program.

Professor Krasnogor added: "This EPSRC Leadership Fellowship will allow me to transfer my expertise in Computer Science and informatics into the wet lab.

"Currently, each time we need a cell that will perform a certain new function we have to recreate it from scratch which is a long and laborious process. Most people think all we have to do to modify behaviour is to modify a cell's DNA but it's not as simple as that -- we usually find we get the wrong behaviour and then we are back to square one. If we succeed with this AUdACiOuS project, in five years time, we will be programming bacterial cells in the computer and compiling and storing its program into these new cells so they can readily execute them.

"Like for a computer, we are trying to create a basic operating system for a biological cell."

Among the most fundamental challenges facing the scientists will be developing new computer models that more accurately predict the behaviour of cells in the laboratory.

Scientists can already programme individual cells to complete certain tasks but scaling up to create a larger organism is trickier.

The creation of more sophisticated computer modelling programmes and a cell that could be re-programmed to fulfil any function without having to go back to the drawing board each time could largely remove the trial and error approach currently taken and allow synthetic biology research to take a significant leap forward.

The technology could be used in a whole range of applications where being able to modify the behaviour of organisms could be advantageous. In the long run, this includes the creation of new microorganisms that could help to clean the environment for example by capturing carbon from the burning of fossil fuel or removing contaminants, e.g. arsenic from water sources. Alternatively, the efficacy of medicine could be improved by tailoring it to specific patients to maximise the effect of the drugs and to reduce any harmful side effects.

Read more at Science Daily

Fish in Shoals Steer Like Cabbies

Shoals of fish are able to move and turn in seamless formation by following simple rules that are like those used by car drivers, say researchers.

The research, which builds on earlier work showing that fish in large groups make better decisions than individuals or small groups, is reported in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Some of the most incredible sights in nature happen when animals form into groups and move together as if choreographed," said lead author, James Herbert-Read, a PhD student in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Sydney.

Many theories have been put forward about how animals might communicate in order to achieve this.

"But now we're finding that it's really, really simple," said Herbert-Read.

The researchers filmed groups of two, four or eight mosquitofish, Gambusia Holbrooki, in a square arena for five minutes, and studied the movements of individuals in each group.

The images of the swimming fish were fed into tracking software, which acts like many pairs of eyes to keep tabs on the direction and speed of each fish in the school and how it responds to other fish around it.

The researchers used a technique called artificial neural networks to look for patterns in the data.

"It turns out the amazing synchronized swimming that fish in shoals exhibit is actually caused by each fish using very simple rules to respond to its neighbors," said Herbert-Read.

"These rules include: 'accelerate towards a neighbor that is far away from you' and 'decelerate when a neighbor is right in front of you'.

Read more at Discovery News

Zoo Plans To Separate Gay Penguins

Buddy and Pedro, two African penguins at the Toronto Zoo, are inseparable and show signs of same-sex mating behaviors. But the zoo plans to break the pair apart soon, according to a report in The Toronto Star.

That's because the two males were intended for a breeding program, which could help strengthen their species in captivity. Buddy and Pedro are said to have quality genes that would pass on to any offspring they might father.

Gay male penguin couples appear to be fairly common. The Central Park Zoo has turned out to be the Castro of the penguin world, with several homosexual pairs observed there. Perhaps the most famous couple is Roy and Silo, two male chinstrap penguins who incubated an egg and together raised the hatched chick, named Tango. A children's book, And Tango Makes Three, chronicles this event from about six years ago.

Gay penguins have also been noted at SeaWorld Orlando and zoos in Japan and Germany. Homosexuality in general has been documented in at least 1,500 species.

As a SheWired story points out, "gay" or "homosexual" isn't usually the term used by animal keepers. In zoo speak, it's called "pair bonding." Buddy and Pedro apparently forged their connection in Toledo, Ohio, where they were members of a bachelor flock. It's a May-December pairing too, as Buddy is 20 years old and Pedro is 10.

According to the Toronto Star report, the two penguins emit mating calls to each other, which make them sound like braying donkeys. They also swim and frolic together, regularly groom each other, and pair off together every night.

“It’s a complicated issue, but they seem to be in a loving relationship of some sort," Joe Torzsok, chair of the Toronto Zoo board, was quoted as saying in the news story.

Read more at Discovery News

Stone Age Cave Painters Were Realists

An international team of researchers said Monday they have found the first evidence that spotted horses, often seen depicted in cave paintings, actually existed tens of thousands of years ago.

That means ancient artists were drawing what they saw around them, and were not abstract or symbolic painters -- a topic of much debate among archeologists -- said the findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By analyzing bones and teeth from more than 30 horses in Siberia and Europe dating back as many as 35,000 years, researchers found that six shared a gene associated with a type of leopard spotting seen in modern horses.

Until now, scientists only had DNA evidence of monochrome horses, such as bay and black.

One prominent example that has generated significant debate over its inspiration is the 25,000-year-old painting, "The Dappled Horses of Pech-Merle" in France, showing white horses with black spots.

"The spotted horses are featured in a frieze which includes hand outlines and abstract patterns of spots," explained Terry O'Connor, a professor at the University of York's Department of Archaeology.

"The juxtaposition of elements has raised the question of whether the spotted pattern is in some way symbolic or abstract, especially since many researchers considered a spotted coat phenotype unlikely for Paleolithic horses," he said.

"However, our research removes the need for any symbolic explanation of the horses. People drew what they saw."

The team was led by Melanie Pruvost of the Department of Evolutionary Genetics at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research and the Department of Natural Sciences at the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin.

Scientists from Britain, Mexico, the United States, Spain and Russia helped with the genotyping and analysis of the results.

Read more at Discovery News

Nov 7, 2011

Scientists Find Evidence of Ancient Megadrought in Southwestern U.S.

A new study at the the University of Arizona's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research has revealed a previously unknown multi-decade drought period in the second century A.D. The findings give evidence that extended periods of aridity have occurred at intervals throughout our past.

Almost 900 years ago, in the mid-12th century, the southwestern U.S. was in the middle of a multi-decade megadrought. It was the most recent extended period of severe drought known for this region. But it was not the first.

The second century A.D. saw an extended dry period of more than 100 years characterized by a multi-decade drought lasting nearly 50 years, says a new study from scientists at the University of Arizona.

UA geoscientists Cody Routson, Connie Woodhouse and Jonathan Overpeck conducted a study of the southern San Juan Mountains in south-central Colorado. The region serves as a primary drainage site for the Rio Grande and San Juan rivers.

"These mountains are very important for both the San Juan River and the Rio Grande River," said Routson, a doctoral candidate in the environmental studies laboratory of the UA's department of geosciences and the primary author of the study, which is upcoming in Geophysical Research Letters.

The San Juan River is a tributary for the Colorado River, meaning any climate changes that affect the San Juan drainage also likely would affect the Colorado River and its watershed. Said Routson: "We wanted to develop as long a record as possible for that region."

Dendrochronology is a precise science of using annual growth rings of trees to understand climate in the past. Because trees add a normally clearly defined growth ring around their trunk each year, counting the rings backwards from a tree's bark allows scientists to determine not only the age of the tree, but which years were good for growth and which years were more difficult.

"If it's a wet year, they grow a wide ring, and if it's a dry year, they grow a narrow ring," said Routson. "If you average that pattern across trees in a region you can develop a chronology that shows what years were drier or wetter for that particular region."

Darker wood, referred to as latewood because it develops in the latter part of the year at the end of the growing season, forms a usually distinct boundary between one ring and the next. The latewood is darker because growth at the end of the growing season has slowed and the cells are more compact.

To develop their chronology, the researchers looked for indications of climate in the past in the growth rings of the oldest trees in the southern San Juan region. "We drove around and looked for old trees," said Routson.

Literally nothing is older than a bristlecone pine tree: The oldest and longest-living species on the planet, these pine trees normally are found clinging to bare rocky landscapes of alpine or near-alpine mountain slopes. The trees, the oldest of which are more than 4,000 years old, are capable of withstanding extreme drought conditions.

"We did a lot of hiking and found a couple of sites of bristlecone pines, and one in particular that we honed in on," said Routson.

To sample the trees without damaging them, the dendrochronologists us�O� tool like a��al screw thanditres a tiny hole in the trunk of the tree and allows them to extract a sample, called a core.labl take a piecve u wood about ."
"We also sampled ly n wood that wr />ying about tanotand. We took our samples back to the lab where we used a visual, graphic technique to match addie the annualn drwth patternsthe the living trees overlap with the patterns in the dead wood. Once we have the pattern matche A.D measure the /> gs and avera seehese values to generate a site chronology."

"In our chronology for the south San Juan mountainsutsocreated a re's w that extends back 2,200 years," said Routson. "It was pretty profound that we were able to r-loback that fa drybr />

"The medieval period extends roughly from Andto 1300 A.D.c evaid Routson. "During that period there was a lot of evidence from previous studies for increased aridity, in particular two major droughts: one in the middle of the 12th century, and one at the end of the 13th century."

"Very few records are long enough to assess the global conditions associated with these two periods of Southwestern aridity," said Routson. "And the available records have uncertainties."

But the chronology from the San Juan bristlecone pines showed something completely new:

"There was another period of increased aridity even earlier," said Routson. "This new record shows that in addition to known droughts from the medieval period, there is also evidence for an earlier megadrought during the second century A.D."

"What we can see from our record is that it was a period of basically 50 consecutive years of below-average growth," said Routson. "And that's within a much broader period that extends from around 124 A.D. to 210 A.D. -- about a 100-year-long period of dry conditions."

"We're showing that there are multiple extreme drought events that happened during our past in this region," said Routson. "These megadroughts lasted for decades, which is much longer than our current drought. And the climatic events behind these previous dry periods are really similar to what we're experiencing today."

Read more at Science Daily

How We Create False Memories: Assessing Memory Performance in Older Adults

A new study in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, published online October 26 addresses the influence of age-related stereotypes on memory performance and memory errors in older adults.

Ayanna Thomas, assistant professor of psychology and director of the Cognitive Aging and Memory Lab at Tufts University, and co-author Stacey J. Dubois, a former graduate student at Tufts, set out to investigate how implicitly held negative stereotypes about aging could influence memory performance in older adults.

Thomas and Dubois presented a group of older and younger adults with a list of semantically related words. A sample list participants would be presented with would be words associated with "sleep," such as "bed," "rest," "awake," "tired" and "night." Though the word "sleep" itself was not actually presented, both the older and younger adults falsely indicated that they thought it had been included in the list, older adults more so than younger adults.

"Older adults are more likely to falsely recall these unrepresented words than younger adults. We investigated whether we could reduce this age-difference in false memory susceptibility by reducing the influence of negative stereotypes of aging," said Thomas.

According to Thomas and Dubois, older adults may implicitly believe that their memory is impaired because of their age. To test this theory, Thomas and Dubois informed a certain group of participants (which included both older and younger adults) that their memory would be tested and that it was typical for older adults to do much more poorly on memory tests than younger adults. Another group of participants were told to identify words that had already been presented and the memory part of this test was deemphasized. Those participants were led to believe that this was more of a language based test than a memory test.

Thomas and Dubois found that older adults who were told they would perform as well as younger adults were less likely to demonstrate false memory susceptibility than older adults who were informed about age differences in memory performance before testing.

Read more at Science Daily

Prehistoric Whale Done in By Shark, Frozen in Time

About 40 million years ago, a single shark in Egyptian waters snuck below a whale and attempted to rip it to shreds, but it wasn't entirely successful.

The shark-bit and torn apart whale, described in the latest Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, was recently discovered as a stonecutter in Italy prepared to slice into decorative limestone.

The whale, whose last moments were painful ones, turns out to represent a new species, Aegyptocetus tarfa, which lived on land as well as in the sea.

Co-author Giovanni Bianucci of the University of Pisa's Department of Earth Sciences, told Discovery News it's probable that the shark attacked the whale as it was "diving, considering that the bite was on the abdomen"

Bianucci and co-author Phillip Gingerich of the University of Michigan's Museum of Paleontology and Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences determined that the shark bit into five of the whale's ribs, with the most significant damage occurring to its rear left side.

"The shape and position of these marks make it likely that they resulted from an individual shark attack," Bianucci said. "Probably the shark attacked from the rear and the left, an attack strategy also described for the extant white shark when attacking seals and sea lions."

The whale may have fought back, because the shark did not completely consume its target, eventually releasing it either dead or dying. Over millions of years the whale's body fossilized prior to being discovered by a shocked stonecutter from Italy who sliced it into decorative facing stone before realizing what he had found.

Normally scientists try not to cut such rare specimens, but since this one was already sliced, the researchers could see important details, enabling them to identify this as a transitional land-to-water whale. All whales evolved from a land animal that gradually started to rest, breed and give birth on land while feeding in the sea at other times.

Based on skull and skeleton measurements, Aegyptocetus weighed about 1,400 pounds when it was alive. Its teeth suggest that it primarily fed on fish.

This species lived in the middle of the great whale's move to permanent ocean life. That transition started about 55 to 50 million years ago. Modern baleen and toothed whales didn't evolve until around 30 million years ago.

Bianucci and Gingerich document how the newly found species displays characteristics of the transition, such as a retained sense of smell, which is usually lost in aquatic mammal lineages, the ability to haul itself out of water, and an enhanced ability to hear, with a better hearing than later and modern whales.

As for why whales chose the all-water life, the researchers suggest ample food might have been the irresistible draw. Gingerich explained that the whales probably first engaged in "scavenging of dead fish on a shoreline, then chasing dying fish in the water, then pursuing healthy fish farther offshore as well as the dying, and finally losing all ties to the land and becoming fully marine."

Read more at Discovery News

'Shieldcroc' May Be Father of All Crocodiles

An enormous prehistoric crocodile-like creature called "Shieldcroc," so named because of a shield-like bony plate on its head, could be the last common ancestor of animals related to crocodiles and alligators.

Shieldcroc lived during the Late Cretaceous approximately 93 to 99 million years ago. Its skull was discovered in continental freshwater deposits from what is now Morocco, and researchers think that modern crocs may have first evolved near the Mediterranean Sea.

But Shieldcroc then and now is capturing greater interest due to its hard-to-miss "shield," a raised mound of tissue packed with blood vessels and likely covered by a thick sheath, similar to what is seen in the frill of horned dinosaurs. It might have helped to regulate body temperature, but probably served a flashier purpose.

"There is anecdotal evidence that modern horned crocs will raise the back of their heads to show off their horns during courtship and territorial disputes," Casey Holliday told Discovery News. "We think this shield served a similar purpose, as a means to show off."

Holliday and co-author Nick Gardner analyzed the remains of Shieldcroc, which have been housed at the Royal Ontario Museum of Canada since the early 2000's. The researchers examined the skull in detail, and also compared it to other crocodyliformes from the same time period in Africa.

They determined a sister taxon to Shieldcroc is Aegyptosuchus, but this animal possessed a poorly defined "shield."

Given its impressive shield and size, Shieldcroc would have been hard to miss back in its day. Holliday and Gardner estimate that the ancient croc measured over 33 feet long and potentially had a 6.5-foot-long head. Shieldcroc appears to have had a very long, flat face, a rounded nose, small teeth and surprisingly weak jaws.

"Like most of today's crocs, it was likely opportunistic, feeding on whatever it could, however, it was likely not capable of wrestling large vertebrate prey given the slenderness of its jaws," Holliday said.

The Mediterranean Sea at this time was part of the Tethyan Sea that opened into both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The Middle East, he explained, hadn't fully formed, "nor had India rammed into Asia yet." Europe then was a cluster of islands.

The area seems to have been ground zero for crocs, leading some researchers to even rename this Age of Dinosaurs time to the Age of Crocs.

"The Cretaceous is full of giant crocs including Sarcosuchus, Dyrosaurus, Deinosuchus, Shieldcroc and others," Holliday said. "There was likely ample food and a warm climate facilitating their ability to reach large sizes. There are fossils of very large fish from the region, so there were certainly large prey to catch as well."

Huge fish called coelacanths were probably front and center on Shieldcroc's menu, the researchers suspect. They presented their work today at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology's 71st Annual Meeting in Las Vegas.

Christopher Brochu, an associate professor in the University of Iowa's Department of Geoscience, told Discovery News that Shieldcroc "really is a cool crocodyliform" and he admires the authors' "careful comparative work," but he doesn't "buy the taxonomic conclusions." Brochu thinks "the origins of Crocodylia are almost certainly Laurasian in origin and probably not Mediterranean."

Brochu, however, added that Shieldcroc is a significant fossil, with its importance lying "in revealing the diversity and flat-out bizarreness of crocodyliformes during the Cretaceous, especially in the Southern Hemisphere. There was something different about that region at that time -- many of the roles played by dinosaurs in the Northern Hemisphere were played by crocodyliformes in the south."

Read more at Discovery News

Nov 6, 2011

11/11/11: Maya Scholar Debunks Doomsday Myths

University of Kansas anthropologist and Maya scholar John Hoopes and his students are watching predicted doomsday dates such as 11/11/11 and Dec. 21, 2012, with considerable skepticism.

Hoopes is regarded as one of the major go-to guys to separate fact from fiction about the Maya calendar and a prediction that the world would end Dec. 21, 2012.

He has written scholarly articles debunking the 2012 myth, including a chapter in "2012: Decoding the Counterculture Apocalypse," edited by Joseph Gelfer and scheduled for release this month by Equinox Publishing. In addition, Hoopes contributes to Wikipedia as a 2012 skeptic and is featured in at least three documentaries on the topic ("Apocalypse 2012" airing on CNBC, and two more scheduled for release next year). In his fall course on Archaeological Myths and Realities -- An Introduction to Critical Thinking, the 2012 myth works as a dynamic teaching tool.

This fall, Hoopes and his students have watched two predicted cataclysmic dates -- Oct. 21 and 28 -- come and go with little fanfare. Oct. 21 was a date selected by California evangelist Harold Camping after his original May 21, 2011, prediction passed without calamity. Swedish pharmacologist, self-help advocate and self-taught Maya cosmologist Carl Johan Calleman was among those predicting that Oct. 28 would usher in a worldwide unified consciousness.

The next big date to consider is 11/11/11, when many in the New Age movement plan celebrations to receive emerging energies in preparation for a transformation of consciousness on Dec. 21, 2012.

Whether these dates mark a time for transformation of consciousness or a catastrophic end, they are part of a 2012 eschatological myth that originated with Christopher Columbus and Franciscan missionaries, not the ancient Maya calendar, Hoopes emphasizes.

In a paper presented in January at the Oxford IX International Symposium on Archaeoastronomy in Lima, Peru, Hoopes tracks the 2012 Maya myth origins through various revivals into the 21st century. The myth is rooted in an early 16th-century European combination of astrological and biblical prophecies to explain the new millennium. Columbus believed that his discovery of the world's "most remote land" would lead to Spain's re-conquest of Jerusalem and fulfill world-end events described in the Book of Revelations.

To validate his convictions, Columbus wrote his own Book of Prophecies that included an account of his interview with a "Maia" leader in 1502. The reference inspired early speculation by explorers and missionaries, indirectly influencing crackpots as well as scholars to link ancient Maya -- before any contact with Europeans -- with the astrological and religious beliefs popular in Europe in the 1500s.

Misinterpretations and distortions flowed with each revival of interest in Maya culture. In the 1960s, the myth re-flowered as the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, enjoyed a resurgence in Y2K and thrives today. Hoopes adds that the Occupy Wall Street movement clearly reflects a nostalgia for the progressive culture of the 1960s.

More than 1,000 books have been published on the 2012 myth, not to mention a plethora of Web sites on the topic. Hoopes expects the hype won't hit its peak until well into 2012. Fear and fantasy both sell well, especially in uncertain times, he notes.

End-of-the-world and transformative beliefs are found in many ancient cultures but have been a fundamental part of modern times since 1499, Hoopes point out. They are also fundamentally American, he adds.

"The United States has always embraced religious freedom. Peculiar religious sects, including occult beliefs, have always been part of America," he says.

Astrology, Ouija boards, séances, channeling, spiritualists, extraterrestrial life and a host of pseudosciences all have had acceptance in parts of America, he adds. Mary Todd Lincoln used séances to contact her son. Nancy Reagan consulted astrologists.

Wishful or magical thinking help perpetuate myths and beliefs that have no basis in science. Hoopes uses the 2012 myth and others to teach students to think critically and learn to distinguish science and myth.

Read more at Science Daily

What's That Strange Disk Around That Black Hole?

One of the first questions that someone asks me upon learning that I am an astronomer is, "So what's up with black holes?"

We are fascinated by these bizarre objects that can trap anything that comes to close, even light. Since astronomers can't directly see a black hole, we can infer its presence by what is going on around it.

Recently, using the Hubble Space Telescope, the light from the accretion disk around a black hole has been measured for the first time.

My first reaction to the image above was, "Oh, pretty!" My second reaction, however, was, "Wait, that could be misleading."

The study talks about how astronomers have detected a disk around a black hole, and this image shows what looks to be two bright objects surrounded by disks. Those are NOT the black hole disk in question, but rather artifacts of the optics of the telescope itself, along with the spots and rays around them.

These artifacts fundamentally limit the resolution of your telescope, so you actually want to be able to see the "Airy disk" when you zoom in so you know that you've removed any other imaging artifacts. (Or so I've been told. I'll admit that it's been a while since I've used anything other than radio telescope.)

Read more at Discovery News