Feb 18, 2012

Meet Plants' and Algae's Common Ancestor

A University of Arkansas biologist has created a sketch of what the first common ancestor of plants and algae may have looked like. He explains that primitive organisms are not always simple.

The image appears as part of a "Perspective" article in the Feb. 17 issue of Science.

Fred Spiegel, professor of biological sciences in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, suggests what microscopic parts would have been present in this common ancestor based on findings by Dana Price of Rutgers University and his colleagues, who examined the genome of a freshwater microscopic algae and determined that it showed that algae and plants are derived from one common ancestor. This ancestor formed from a merger between some protozoan-like host and cyanobacterium, a kind of bacteria that use photosynthesis to make energy, that "moved in" and became the chloroplast of this first alga. Price and his colleagues show that today's algae and plants have to be descended from this first alga, but they give no idea what it looked like.

"The work that Price and his group did nailed down what the relationships are" between this organism, the algae and plants, and all other eukaryotes, organisms that have a true nucleus in their cells, Spiegel said. "Once you know that, you can compare the structure of cells and characteristics you see in algae and plants with other eukaryotes and get a reasonable idea of what the original critter must have looked like."

For many years, scientists have speculated that the original ancestor of plants and algae must have originated from a protozoan-like organism and cyanobacteria. They theorized that at some point in the distant past the cyanobacteria became part of the other organism and created the first alga, which in turn created the opportunity for the growth into the biodiversity found in plants that we see today.

However, other scientists argued that the diversity and complexity of plants and algae suggest multiple events where different organisms merged. They pointed out that some members of the plant kingdom have simple structures and therefore must be more primitive than others.

Price and his colleagues' studied the genome of an obscure alga called Cyanophora. Their results strongly suggest that the first alga arose about a billion to a billion and a half years ago. This alga became the ancestor to the group of algae containing Cyanophora, plus the group of algae that includes the red seaweeds, plus the group that includes the green algae and the land plants. Together, these organisms form the super group called Plantae.

Based on this research, Spiegel has put forth a hypothetical snapshot of what the common ancestor of Plantae, the "first alga," might have looked like.

Read more at Science Daily

'Interesting' Higgs Boson Result to be Announced

It may not be the long-awaited news about a Higgs boson discovery, but an "interesting" announcement will soon come from scientists analyzing data from the Tevatron particle accelerator at Fermilab, near Batavia, Ill.

Wait a minute, isn't the Tevatron in semi-retirement? Yes and no.

Although its house-sized particle detectors have seen their last high-energy collisions, huge quantities of Tevatron data have yet to be analyzed.

According to Rob Roser, lead researcher of the Tevatron's CDF experiment, there's something hiding in the data that could support recent findings to come from the Tevatron's European successor, CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC). What's more, the announcement will be made public next month.

Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Vancouver on Friday, Roser said: "We will be able to say something interesting, though whether it is that we don't see it or we do see it remains to be seen."

So what is Rosen referring to?

Long after the Tevatron powered down, physicists still had their work cut out. Many billions of particle interactions had been recorded by the CDF detector and stored for later analysis. By sifting through these data after the fact, a signal has started to reveal itself.

The signal appears to be growing at around the 125 gigaelectron volt range -- within a range of energy that LHC scientists are also seeing a "bump" in their datasets. This just happens to be one of the predicted energies that the Higgs boson may have.

However, this signal is just a hint; not a discovery, yet. Roser has said that the March announcement will hinge on a "three-sigma" event. This is physics talk for the certainty that the signal is real. A "three-sigma" signal means there is still a 0.1 percent chance that the signal is noise or some statistical anomaly.

The statistical likelihood of the LHC signal being "real" stands at an unofficial 4.3 sigma (from the combined results gathered from the ATLAS and CMS detectors) -- meaning there is a 99.996 percent chance the signal is real (and a 0.004 percent chance it's noise).

So both the LHC and Tevatron results still have to go through some analysis and more collisions need to be recorded before a much-needed "five-sigma" signal -- the "gold standard," or one in a million chance that the result isn't real -- is achieved.

Read more at Discovery News

Feb 17, 2012

Geoscientists Use Numerical Model to Better Forecast Forces Behind Earthquakes

Stony Brook University researchers have devised a numerical model to help explain the linkage between earthquakes and the powerful forces that cause them, according to a research paper scheduled to be published in the journal Science on Feb. 17. Their findings hold implications for long-term forecasting of earthquakes.

William E. Holt, Ph.D., a professor in the Geosciences Department at Stony Brook University, and Attreyee Ghosh, Ph.D., a post doctoral associate, used their model to help explain the stresses that act on Earth's tectonic plates. Those stresses result in earthquakes not only at the boundaries between tectonic plates, where most earthquakes occur, but also in the plate interiors, where the forces are less understood, according to their paper, "Plate Motions and Stresses from Global Dynamic Models."

"If you take into account the effects of topography and all density variations within the plates -- the Earth's crust varies in thickness depending on where you are -- if you take all that into account, together with the mantle convection system, you can do a good job explaining what is going on at the surface," said Dr. Holt.

Their research focused on the system of plates that float on Earth's fluid-like mantle, which acts as a convection system on geologic time scales, carrying them and the continents that rest upon them. These plates bump and grind past one another, diverge from one another, or collide or sink (subduct) along the plate boundary zones of the world. Collisions between the continents have produced spectacular mountain ranges and powerful earthquakes. But the constant stress to which the plates are subjected also results in earthquakes within the interior of those plates.

"Predicting plate motions correctly, along with stresses within the plates, has been a challenge for global dynamic models," the researchers wrote. "Accurate predictions of these is vitally important for understanding the forces responsible for the movement of plates, mountain building, rifting of continents, and strain accumulation released in earthquakes."

Data for their global computer model came from Global Positioning System (GPS) measurements, which track the movements of Earth's crust within the deforming plate boundary zones; measurements on the orientation of Earth's stress field gleaned from earthquake faults; and a network of global seismometers that provided a picture of Earth's interior density variations. They compared output from their model with these measurements from Earth's surface.

"These observations -- GPS, faults -- allow one to test the completeness of the model," Dr. Holt said.

Drs. Ghosh and Holt found that plate tectonics is an integrated system, driven by density variations found between the surface of Earth all the way to Earth's core-mantle boundary. A surprising find was the variation in influence between relatively shallow features (topography and crustal thickness variations) and deeper large-scale mantle flow patterns that assist and, in some places, resist plate motions. Ghosh and Holt also found that it is the large-scale mantle flow patterns, set up by the long history of sinking plates, that are important for influencing the stresses within, and motions of, the plates.

Topography also has a major influence on the plate tectonic system, the researchers found. That result suggests a powerful feedback between the forces that make the topography and the 'push-back' on the system exerted by the topography, they explained.

Read more at Science Daily

Norwegian Success in Creating an Artificial Child's Voice

"Synthesised speech has grown more and more similar to human speech. Yet children communicating via a speech device are still forced to use a synthetic adult voice," explains Magne Lunde, Managing Director of Media LT, a company developing tools to assist disabled persons.

This drawback was the driver behind a collaborative research project involving MedialT and Lingit, a software company. Together they are developing Norway's first synthesised childlike voice.

Using funding granted under the Research Council programme ICT for the disabled (IT Funk), they are putting an entirely new method to the test.

Converting the master voice into a comprehensible child's voice

"We start with what is known as a master voice, which is the product of three or four adult speakers recording several thousands of phrases. Then we record a single child reading a smaller number of phrases aloud. We use this recording to modify the master voice, making it sound like a child's voice," relates Torbjørn Nordgård from Lingit. Dr Nordgård is also a professor of linguistics at the University of Nordland.

The phrases recorded by the child have been selected to include a number of the most essential sounds found in Norwegian.

"The master voice still carries the intonation, i.e. a phrase's melody. The result sounds rather like a child with unusual elocution skills, but it's still much better than the voice of an adult," says Mr Nordgård.

Very little research has been carried out on this subject internationally. MediaLT and Linget's innovative method of synthesising a child's voice is bringing them to the forefront of their field.

Everything is now in place to start testing trial versions of the child's voice. "We hope to have a beta version in place this summer," says Magne Lunde.

PC's need to understand children's speech

Mr Lunde and his colleagues are also researching voice control such as use of verbal commands to operate a PC.

In order to operate a computer by means of speech, the machine must successfully decipher what is being said. Interpreting the speech of individuals on both the young and the older end of the scale is especially challenging since the distance from their vocal cords to their lips is shorter than that of the average adult.

"Teaching a speech recognition program to understand the pronunciation of the various sounds of a language requires a relatively large amount of recorded speech. Unfortunately, insufficient data exist today in terms of actual children's speech," states Professor Torbjørn Svendsen from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Professor Svendsen and his research partners have come up with a very elegant, yet simple method of overcoming the challenges associated with speech recognition and children -- they have synthesised children's voices and used the results to compile a collection of data.

A vast improvement in quality

The length of the vocal tract affects the frequency distribution of the speech energy. The researchers are using technology to render the energy distribution of adult speech so that it more closely resembles that of a child.

"The converted adult speech resembles the way children speak in terms of sound as well. Thus, we could apply our conversion technique to a large database of adult speech and generate a functional database of artificial childlike voices. We then used this to train a separate speech recognition program for children," explains Professor Svendsen.

"This greatly improved the recognition fidelity of children's speech. The error rate was reduced by 50 to 70 per cent," he states.

Activities are being carried out in cooperation with the researchers in the Voice control in multimodal dialogue (SMUDI) project, which received funding from the Research Council's Large-scale programme Core Competence and Value Creation in ICT (VERDIKT) and the Ministry of Education and Research.

Read more at Science Daily

NASA Map Sees Earth's Trees in a New Light

A NASA-led science team has created an accurate, high-resolution map of the height of Earth's forests. The map will help scientists better understand the role forests play in climate change and how their heights influence wildlife habitats within them, while also helping them quantify the carbon stored in Earth's vegetation.

Scientists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.; the University of Maryland, College Park; and Woods Hole Research Center, Falmouth, Mass., created the map using 2.5 million carefully screened, globally distributed laser pulse measurements from space. The light detection and ranging (lidar) data were collected in 2005 by the Geoscience Laser Altimeter System instrument on NASA's Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat).

"Knowing the height of Earth's forests is critical to estimating their biomass, or the amount of carbon they contain," said lead researcher Marc Simard of JPL. "Our map can be used to improve global efforts to monitor carbon. In addition, forest height is an integral characteristic of Earth's habitats, yet is poorly measured globally, so our results will also benefit studies of the varieties of life that are found in particular parts of the forest or habitats."

The map, available at http://lidarradar.jpl.nasa.gov, depicts the highest points in the forest canopy. Its spatial resolution is 0.6 miles (1 kilometer). The map was validated against data from a network of nearly 70 ground sites around the world.

The researchers found that, in general, forest heights decrease at higher elevations and are highest at low latitudes, decreasing in height the farther they are from the tropics. A major exception was found at around 40 degrees south latitude in southern tropical forests in Australia and New Zealand, where stands of eucalyptus, one of the world's tallest flowering plants, tower much higher than 130 feet (40 meters).

The researchers augmented the ICESat data with other types of data to compensate for the sparse lidar data, the effects of topography and cloud cover. These included estimates of the percentage of global tree cover from NASA's Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer on NASA's Terra satellite, elevation data from NASA's Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, and temperature and precipitation maps from NASA's Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission and the WorldClim database. WorldClim is a set of freely available, high-resolution global climate data that can be used for mapping and spatial modeling.

In general, estimates in the new map show forest heights were taller than in a previous ICESat-based map, particularly in the tropics and in boreal forests, and were shorter in mountainous regions. The accuracy of the new map varies across major ecological community types in the forests, and also depends on how much the forests have been disturbed by human activities and by variability in the forests' natural height.

"Our map contains one of the best descriptions of the height of Earth's forests currently available at regional and global scales," Simard said. "This study demonstrates the tremendous potential that spaceborne lidar holds for revealing new information about Earth's forests. However, to monitor the long-term health of Earth's forests and other ecosystems, new Earth observing satellites will be needed."

Read more at Science Daily

What Is the Lifespan of a Voice?

Before Whitney Houston died last week, there was talk of the 48-year-old legendary vocalist staging a comeback.

It wouldn't have been easy: Somewhere between the years of Houston mesmerizing fans with the resonating "you" in "I Will Always Love You" and the demise of Being Bobby Brown, Houston's voice had deteriorated.

What is the normal life span of a voice? Can training or techniques prevent aging of the vocal cords, and can surgery -- or a special gel -- correct it?

Think of a singer as an athlete, experts suggest.

"Just like any other muscle, it's a physical thing," said Andrea Leap, a professional singer and voice instructor at the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis. "It depends on the use. If you stopped walking up the stairs every day, it would get harder. It's exactly the same thing for the voice. Muscles do lose strength and agility as they age, so more effort is required in continuing that."

Opera star Placido Domingo is still belting out arias at age 71, because he's in terrific shape vocally, Leap said.

"The voice is not a finite thing; it's not something you use up," Leap said. "When you're singing, you're training your voice at a more intense level than talking. It's like going to the gym and lifting weights as opposed to putting groceries away."

In fact, overexertion is such an issue that the opera singers' union maintains strict rules about the frequency an opera singer can perform.

Preserving their general health, getting good rest and hydration, also helps keeps singers' voices in shape. Houston's overall health was clearly poor.

"If you're a smoker, it's going to be harder; if you're drinking every night, it's going to be harder," Leap said.

"Anything that you put into your body is going to go right past your vocal cords. I know some people who won't drink soda for that reason. I'm sure with Whitney Houston the larger issue was her overall health. That voice was an unbelievable instrument; it was going to take a lot to really undo it."

Even with good health habits, however, vocal cords stiffen with age.

"As the vocal membranes are used more,they become fibrous and stiff with a diminished amplitude of vibration," said Dr. Steven Zeitels, Professor of Laryngeal Surgery at Harvard Medical School.

"Consequently you have to use more air pressure from the lungs to drive the vocal cords into vibration. This occurs from decades of voice use so that the vocal cords become worn out as an individual ages."

Many singers develop growths or nodules on their vocal cords that can bleed and eventually scar. Scarring makes the voice hoarse.

Advances in technology have made surgeries to remove those growths much more common.

Zeitels estimates he's performed about 75,000 voice operations, 500-700 of those on singers -- including Adele, The Who's lead singer Roger Daltrey, and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler. Most of the singers he has performed on have been opera singers, because of the substantial demands on their voice.

"You can't do marathons to train for marathons," Zeitels said. "There is a simple amount of mileage that vocal tissues can handle."

Zeitels has been developing a special gel that he hopes will allow singers to restore and preserve their voices.

When Zeitels explained the idea of the biogel to Julie Andrews during dinner one night, he mentioned that one of his reservations was that he didn't know how long it would work.

"Well, for people like me, even if it would last for a while we could utilize that and get things done," he remembers Andrews saying. "So, we came to think that the way to go at it was not to go for a home run, the perfect fix, but to get it to first base."

Now, he says the gel is ready for human trial.

"The holy grail is to inject a biogel into the vocal cord and restore it. So from a performing perspective, these folks who so-called can't sing anymore are totally fit to sing. Julie Andrews could sing beautifully tomorrow if she had the biogel. It's not that she's too old to sing."

Read more at Discovery News

Feb 16, 2012

Why Do Dinosaur Skeletons Look So Weird?

Many fossilized dinosaurs have been found in a twisted posture. Scientists have long interpreted this as a sign of death spasms. Two researchers from Basel and Mainz now come to the conclusion that this bizarre deformations occurred only during the decomposition of dead dinosaurs.

More or less complete and articulated skeletons of dinosaurs with a long neck and tail often exhibit a body posture in which the head and neck are recurved over the back of the animal. This posture, also known from Archaeopteryx, has been fascinating paleontologists for more than 150 years. It was called "bicycle pose" when talking with a wink, or "opisthotonic posture" in a more oppressive way of speaking.

The latter alludes to an accessory symptom of tetanus, well known in human and veterinarian medicine. Usually, an "opisthotonic posture" like that is the result of vitamin deficiency, poisoning or damage to the cerebellum.

Basically, the cerebellum is a brain region that controls fine muscle movement, which includes the body's antigravity muscles that keep the head and tail upright. If the cerebellum ceases to function, the antigravity muscles will clench at full force, tipping the head and tail back, and contracting the limbs.

A syndrome like that as a petrified expression of death throes was discussed for the first time about 100 years ago for some vertebrate fossils, but the acceptance of this interpretation declined during the following decades. In 2007, this "opisthotonus hypothesis" was newly posted by a veterinarian and a palaeontologist. This study, generously planned, received much attention in the public and the scientific community.

Now, five years later, two scientists from Switzerland and Germany have re-evaluated the revitalized "opisthotonus hypothesis" and examined one of its icons, the famous bipedal dinosaur Compsognathus longipes from the "Solnhofen Archipelago" (Germany). It is widely acknowledged that this 150-millions-years-old land-living dinosaur was embedded in a watery grave of a tropical lagoon.

"In our opinion, the most critical point in the newly discussed scenario of the preservation of an opisthotonic posture in a fossil is the requirement that terrestrial vertebrates must have been embedded immediately after death without substantial transport. But consigning a carcass from land to sea and the following need of sinking through the water column for only a few decimetres or meters is nothing else" says sedimentologist Achim Reisdorf from University of Basel's Institute of Geology and Paleontology.

Biomechanics in Watery Graves Convinced that the back arching was generated, not by death throes, but by postmortem alterations of a decaying carcass, the researchers made experiments with plucked chicken necks and thoraxes, immersed in water. Submersed in water, the necks spontaneously arched backwards for more than 90°. Ongoing decay for some months even increased the degree of the pose. Thorough preparation and dissection combined with testing revealed that a special ligament connecting the vertebrae at their upper side was responsible for the recurved necks in the chickens. This ligament, the so-called Ligamentum elasticum, is pre-stressed in living chickens, but also in dead ones.

"Veterinarians may often have to do with sick and dying animals, where they see the opisthotonic posture in many cases. Vertebrate palaeontologists, however, who want to infer the environment in which the animals perished and finally were embedded have to elucidate postmortem processes and biomechanical constraints too" says palaeontologist Michael Wuttke from the Section of Earth History in the General Department for the Conservation of Cultural History Rhineland Palatinate in Mainz (Germany).

Read more at Science Daily

Quest for Sugars Involved in Origin of Life

Team from University of the Basque Country manage to isolate a sugar -- a ribose -- in gas phase and to characterise a number of its structures.

Sugars give rise to enormous biochemical interest given the importance and diversity of the functions they carry out: they act as an energy storage system and serve as fuel for a number of biological systems; they form part of DNA and of ribonucleic acid (RNA) and, moreover, play a key role in cell processes. Recently interest in sugars has also been increasingly attracting the attention of cosmochemistry, more concretely, in the search for the fundamental matter of the origin of life in interstellar space.

Finding this would also help in the understanding of what the mechanism of the origin of life on Earth was. The most elemental of sugars, made up of 2 and 3 units of carbon, have already been found in interstellar molecular clouds and meteorites. Nevertheless, it has not been possible to date to detect more complex sugars in space, given the absence of precise information about their structure. This information is what the research laboratories have to provide.

There are numerous research teams to be first in the race to detect this sugar in gas phase, using high-resolution techniques. Problems have arisen in trying to vaporise it due to the thermal instabilities caused by loss of water. "Only if you avoid the processes of decomposition on dehydration and manage to isolate the sugar, thus obviating the changes produced by neighbouring molecules, will you be in a position to characterise its structure," explained Mr Emilio José Cocinero, researcher at the Department of Physical Chemistry of the University of the Basque Country (UPV-EHU). His latest research has become amongst the first worldwide to have managed to observe a sugar -- a ribose -- in the gas phase and to characterise a number of its structures. His article, "Ribose Found in the Gas Phase", published by the Angewandte Chemie International Edition, was announced on the front cover of the April issue of the scientific journal and also highlighted in the online version.

Participating in the research, led by Mr Cocinero, was Ms Patricia Écija, Mr Francisco José Basterretxea, Mr José Andrés Fernández and Mr Fernando Castaño, from the UPV/EHU, with the collaboration of Mr Alberto Lesarri from the University of Valladolid and of Jens-Uwe Grabow, from the University of Hannover (Germany), being undertaken in its totality with the team formed at the Basque university.

In concrete, in order to observe the ribose in gas phase, microwave spectroscopy was used combined with ultra-rapid laser vaporisation with ultraviolet light. Not only was it isolated and observed, but six different structures of the ribose were detected.

Read more at Science Daily

Odd Black Hole Is Last Survivor of Its Galaxy

The Hubble space telescope has spotted a supermassive black hole floating on the outskirts of a large galaxy.

The location is odd because black holes of this size generally form in the centers of galaxies, not at their edges. This suggests the black hole is the lone survivor of a now-disintegrated dwarf galaxy.

The black hole — named HLX-1 — is 20,000 times more massive than the sun, and is situated 290 million light-years away at the edge of the spiral galaxy ESO 243-49.

Hubble detected a great deal of energetic blue light coming from the black hole’s accretion disk — a massive collection of gas and dust that spirals into the black hole’s maw, generating x-rays. But scientists studying Hubble’s data also noticed the presence of cooler, red light, which shouldn’t have been there.

Astronomers suspect the red light indicates the existence of a cluster of young stars, roughly 200 million years old, orbiting around the black hole. These stars, in turn, are the key to explaining the chaotic history of the supermassive black hole.

HLX-1 was likely formed at the center of a dwarf galaxy that once orbited ESO 243-49. But in this dog-eat-dog universe of ours, large galaxies often swallow up their smaller brethren. When the dwarf galaxy came too close to ESO 243-49, the larger galaxy plucked away most of its stars, leaving behind the exposed central black hole.

The force of the galaxies’ collision would have also triggered the formation of new stars, explaining the presence of a young stellar cluster around the black hole. The cluster’s age, 200 million years, gives a good estimate of when the merger occurred.

Read more at Wired Science

Ancient 'Great Eruption' Echoes Reach Astronomers

When the binary star system Eta Carinae experienced a spectacular outburst in 1837 -- dubbed the "Great Eruption" -- there were no cameras or other sophisticated scientific instruments around to record the event for posterity.

But now, 170 years later, remnants of light from the Great Eruption are finally reaching Earth, providing new insight into how massive stars behave when they are on the brink of exploding.

Astrophysicists at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network, announced the detection of this "light echo" in a Feb. 16 letter to the journal Nature.

UCSB Postdoc Federica Bianco, who compared the light echo to eyewitness reports from the 1800s, phrased the phenomenon best: "You are at the stadium, watching the game, and your team scores. But you do not have modern instruments, detectors and spectrographs to study it," she said in a press release.

"Now we are getting a replay -- an up-close detailed view of our cosmic eruption," she continued. "And just like with the replay, we get to see the outburst from a different point of view, as the light that we see now was originally traveling in a different direction than the light seen in the 1840s."

Eta Carinae is a rare, massive binary star, and the dominant partner in this cosmic coupling belongs to the class of luminous blue variable stars. When it erupted 170 years ago, it became one of the brightest stars in the sky for a time. So why are we suddenly seeing light from that event again?

The astrophysicists explain that originally, the light traveled away from Earth, and then bounced off dust clouds, which rerouted it to Earth -- just like an echo. The longer path means we are only now seeing that echo.

There might not be photographs, but there are a few historical eyewitness accounts on record to help astrophysicists determine that what they are seeing really is a "light echo" from Eta Carinae's 19th century outburst.

In the 1830s, astronomer Sir John Herschel noticed an especially bright star in the southern sky while conducting a survey from Cape Town, South Africa. He dutifully sketched the region where the star appeared, particularly noting a dark ring in the upper part of the Carina Nebula that resembled a keyhole (see image, left).

Within a few years, however, that star had so faded in brightness that Herschel's telltale keyhole was barely visible.

Today we know that Herschel's bright star was Eta Carinae, experiencing a sudden burst of brightness thanks to a "supernova imposter" event, in which the star system shed a whopping 20 solar masses worth of outer shell.

You can still see the remnant of this stellar explosion in the Homunculus Nebula. It's called that because Argentine astronomer Ernest Gaviola, who first observed it in 1950, thought it looked like a human figure, with a head, legs and folded arms.

There is even evidence that Australian aborigines may have spotted the Great Eruption around the same time, according to a paper that appeared last year in the Journal for Astronomical History and Heritage. Co-author Duane Hamacher maintains that the Boorong people of northwestern Victoria were aware of celestial objects and cast them as characters in their oral stories of the Dreaming -- including the eruption of Eta Carinae.

The evidence can be found in a paper by William Edward Stanbridge, a 19th century Australian astronomer who did a bit of star-gazing with two men of the Boorong clan, who recited those stories to him while pointing out the relevant stars overhead. Stanbridge dutifully recorded this information, matching the Boorong stars with their Western counterparts using a star atlas.

Alpha Centauri, for instance, was Berm-berm-gle, while Antares was Djuit, and Canopus was known to them as War (pronounced "Wahh", meaning "Crow"). But when they pointed out Collowgullouric War ("Wife of Crow"), Stanbridge was stumped. He couldn't identify the star on his chart. So he simply wrote, "Large red star in Robur Carol, marked 966. All the small stars around her are her children."

In 1996, astronomer John Morieson came across Stanbridge's work and re-analyzed it. You can see the constellation Carina to the left in the image below. (Eta Carinae is the brightest dot in the lower right corner.) On the right, Morieson "connected the dots" into something resembling a bird in flight -- what he believes the Boorong would have pictured as the "wife of Crow."

Morieson never published his thesis, but Hamacher and his collaborator, David Frew, came across it as they were rifling through historical records to build their case.

Hamacher figured folks would be skeptical of their claim that the Boorong story was a direct reference to Eta Carinae's Great Eruption. That's why he proffered an explanation on the Aboriginal Astronomy blog last year as to their reasoning process:

During the early 1840s, when Eta went through its great outburst and the time that Stanbridge was learning firsthand about Boorong astronomy, it was one of the brightest stars in the night sky (“large star”), it had a reddish color, was located in the now-defunct constellation of Robur Carol....

Star charts from the period refereed to the Carinae Nebula (surrounding Eta Carina) as '966'.  Eta Carinae itself was designated '968', but was labeled as a 4th magnitude star.  This was probably a simple transcription error by Stanbridge, who did not recognize the bright star where his star charts claimed was a fairly mundane 4th magnitude star.  Finally, this region of the sky is rich in 4th and 5th magnitude stars, which would have been the "small" stars representing the children of the female Crow.

Read more at Discovery News

Feb 15, 2012

Prehistoric Flying Reptile Had Massive Teeth

Paleontologists have identified the world’s largest toothed pterosaur, which probably used its enormous pearly whites to scare off others.

The species, Coloborhynchus capito, is also now the world’s largest known toothed pterosaur, with a wingspan up to around 23 feet. A paper describing the prehistoric flying reptile will be published in the April issue of the journal Cretaceous Research.

“The first two teeth of each jaw projected forwards and may have been 3 inches long, and the two teeth behind it would have been a bit longer at 4 inches,” said co-author David Martill, a professor in the University of Portsmouth’s Palaeobiology Research Group, told Discovery News.

“Together (the teeth) formed a sort of rosette that interlocked when the jaws were closed,” he added, saying that they might have been used in “threatening displays" and for catching fish.

Martill and colleague David Unwin of the University of Leicester made the discovery after analyzing a fragmentary, yet toothy, fossil housed within the collections of the Natural History Museum, London.

The fossil was unearthed from the Cretaceous Cambridge Greensand of eastern England, revealing that the pterosaur lived around 100 million years ago during what is known as the Albian stage.

During that time, Cambridge was under the sea. But Martill said there might have been a low island to the south where London is now. The climate was tropical then. Based on other fossil finds, the region was teaming with life. Fish, ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, crocodiles, turtles, dinosaurs (including prehistoric birds), and different types of pterosaurs all lived in the area.

Unlike dinosaurs, which live on today through birds, pterosaurs have no modern day descendants. They were “a sort of cousin to dinosaurs,” according to Martill, and they bit the earthly dust 65.5 million years ago, when the world’s non-avian dinosaurs also went extinct.

Darren Naish, a palaeozoologist at the University of Southampton, told Discovery News that researchers have been interested in the size extremes of pterosaurs, since these animals were often gigantic and yet could also fly. The new paper, he said, tests claims that toothed pterosaurs grew to huge sizes.

Both he and Martill agree that one of the biggest known pterosaurs was Quetzalcoatlus, with a wingspan that could have extended 32 feet.

While the new toothy pterosaur was big, “it isn’t in the same league as the giant azhdarchids (toothless pterosaurs). So we can now say with confidence that toothed ornithocheirids did evolve very large sizes, but so far as we know they did not reach the super-enormous size of those giant azhdarchids.”

Read more at Discovery News

Queen of Sheba's Lost Gold Mine Discovered?

A British archaeologist claims she may have uncovered the treasure mine from which the fabled Queen of Sheba drew her wealth, the UK daily The Observer reported.

Hidden on a hill on the Gheralta plateau in northern Ethiopia, the unexplored mine lies within the Queen's former territory, a nearly 3,000-year-old Sheba kingdom which scholars believe spanned modern day Ethiopia and Yemen.

"One of the things I've always loved about archaeology is the way it can tie up with legends and myths. The fact that we might have the Queen of Sheba's mines is extraordinary," Louise Schofield, an archaeologist and former British Museum curator, told The Observer.

According to the Old Testament, the Queen of Sheba travelled from her mysterious kingdom to meet King Salomon in Jerusalem "with a very great train, with camels that bare spices, and very much gold, and precious stones."

The Queen was "overwhelmed" by Solomon's wisdom and the splendour of his kingdom. As she departed, "she gave the king 120 talents of gold" - the equivalent of four-and-a-half tons.

Legend has it that she gave birth to Solomon's child shortly after their passionate encounter and that descendants of their child, Menelik, became the kings of Abyssinia.

Schofield found the ancient mine hidden behind a 20ft stone which was carved with a sun and crescent moon, the "calling card of the land of Sheba," according to Schofield.

"I crawled beneath the stone – wary of a 9ft cobra I was warned lives here – and came face to face with an inscription in Sabaean, the language that the Queen of Sheba would have spoken," she said.

Buried about four feet beneath the surface of a hill circled by vultures, the shaft featured an ancient skull embedded above the entrance. This boasted Sabaean chiselling, according to Schofield.

She said that the structure has gone unnoticed despite the fact that locals still pan for gold in a nearby river.

Not far, the archaeologist discovered remains of columns and other finely carved stones possibly belonging to a buried temple believed to be dedicated to a moon deity of Sheba.

The site of a battlefield, complete with ancient bones, was also unearthed nearby.

Read more at Discovery News

Animal Mummies Discovered at Ancient Egyptian Site

A wealth of new discoveries, from animal mummies linked to the jackal god and human remains to an enigmatic statue, are revealing the secrets of an ancient holy place in Egypt once known as the "Terrace of the Great God."

The mysterious wooden statue may be a representation of Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh who ruled the land 3,500 years ago, the researchers say. She was typically portrayed as a man in statues, but this one, giving a nod to femininity, had a petite waist.

The discoveries were made during one field season this past summer by a team led by Mary-Ann Pouls Wegner, director of the excavation and a professor at the University of Toronto. The findings offer insight into Abydos, a site that was considered a holy place, Pouls Wegner said at a recent meeting of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities in Toronto, Canada.

Burial of a god

In fact, the earliest kings of Egypt, those who ruled nearly 5,000 years ago, chose to be buried at Abydos. Ancient Egyptians believed that the god of the underworld, Osiris, was buried there as well and there was a tomb at the site that they deemed to be his. According to legend, the god's brother, Set, killed Osiris and his wife Isis, then gathered his remains and brought him back to life. Their son, Horus, is said to have fought Set in battle.

A temple dedicated to Osiris was also constructed at Abydos and every year, in a great procession, the Egyptians would carry an image of Osiris from the temple to his tomb, where it was kept overnight with rituals being performed.

The procession ended with the image of Osiris returning to the temple to great fanfare. "There's a really neat reference on some of the Middle Kingdom (4,000 to 3,600 years ago) material to hearing the sound of jubilation," Pouls Wegner told LiveScience in an interview.

Exploring the terrace

This procession was so popular that Egyptians, both royal and private individuals, built chapels lining the route so that they could take part in the event for eternity.

It had been hypothesized that these chapels gradually encroached on the route, despite a death penalty in place for doing so. According to this theory the more recent chapels would be nearest the route while earlier ones would be farther back.

The team's discovery of an early offering chapel dating back more than 3,600 years, located close to the processional route, suggests this wasn't the case.

"It's rare that you can actually disprove or prove your research question in the course of one short season of fieldwork, but that's exactly what happened," Pouls Wegner said at the meeting.

The chapel itself had a place for libations and an emplacement for a stone stele that is no longer there. "It [the chapel] must have been for someone of some importance," Pouls Wegner said, adding that it appears to have been a "focal point" for offerings over several centuries.

A mystery building with animal mummies

In the same season the team investigated a "monumental" building with thee chambers at the back, on the western side, and a transverse corridor in front on the eastern side.

While the thickness of the walls - 6 feet (2 meters) thick - suggests the building could have been used as a storage area, its design indicates a religious purpose. "It looks much more like a temple plan," Pouls Wegner said.

Scant inscriptions found at the site refer to Seti I, a pharaoh of Egypt who ruled more than 3,200 years ago, suggesting it was built for the pharaoh. The temple's bricks are also identical to those found in a nearby temple known to have been started by Seti.

Packed tightly into one of the chambers, the team discovered a cache of at least 83 animal mummies, which dates back more than 2,000 years. Most of the animals are dogs, although they also found two cats as well as sheep and goats.

The team believes that the animals were each sacrificed and are from an as-yet-undiscovered tomb in the area that likely dates to a later period than the monumental building.

"I think there's another tomb there, another third intermediate period (3,000 to 2,600 years ago), tomb, a very large one," said Pouls Wegner. This tomb would likely have been re-used at a later date.

"In some subsequent period, when that tomb was robbed, disturbed, the animals were simply, you know, taken out with a pitchfork and became disarticulated and dissociated from their original linen wrapping," Pouls Wegner told the Toronto audience.

The presence of so many dogs is likely related to Wepwawet, a jackal god whose procession immediately precedes Osiris' at Abydos. He "overthrows and subdues all potential enemies," writes David O'Connor, a professor at New York University, in his book "Abydos: Egypt's First Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris" (Thames and Hudson, 2009).

Pouls Wegner explained that people visiting the temple were probably able to get a sacrificed dog to offer the god. "I think this is just another form of votive activity really, in addition to putting out a spoken prayer or commemorating prayer on a stele, that one could sacrifice an animal that was associated with him in some way."

Read more at Discovery News

Piranha-Proof Fish May Build Better Body Armor

An ancient Amazonian fish with thick piranha-proof scales may hold the secret to building better bullet-proof body armor, puncture resistant gloves or even safety goggles and CD cases.

Researchers at several institutions have been looking engineering new materials that contain some of the same properties as these fish scales; they’re light, flexible and often transparent. Now some are taking a step forward and actually building these materials.

At the University of California, San Diego, materials science professor Marc Meyers has been studying the scales on the massive freshwater arapaima, which use two layers of scales to repel bites from the predatory piranha.

Piranha normally don’t attack the arapaima, which can grow to nearly 8 feet long and weigh more than 500 pounds, however when food supplies are low and water levels drop in the Amazon basin, everything in the water is considered a meal, Meyers said.

“The arapaima is called the cod of the Amazon,” Meyers said. “When there is not a lot of food, the piranha will attack anything that is in trouble.”

Meyers likes to go fishing in the Amazon, and once hooked a 100-pound arapaima. At his lab in San Diego, Meyers used a special device to press a piranha tooth into the arapaima scales to measure the force it took to penetrate them. But the piranha tooth failed to penetrate into two layers and broke when it was pulled out.

“What arapaima have are fairly thick triangular ridges that other fish don’t have,” Meyers said. “It can bend at same time, like a ceramic that would be flexible.”

The outer scales are mineralized bio-material, while the inner ones are made of collagen fibers that form a flexible laminate, almost like a woven cloth.

Meyers experiments were published in this month’s Advanced Engineering Materials.

In Canada, scientists are using a scales of a more common fish, the striped bass, as inspiration for new materials that could even change the shape and form of airplane wings.

Francois Barthelat, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at McGill University, has tried to puncture the much lighter and weaker bass scales with a sharpened steel needle, which simulates the shape of a tooth used by predators.The results showed the scales were stronger than protective plastics used for CD cases, biomedical equipment and safety goggles.

Barthelat said it’s the formation and pattern of the scales, rather than their intrinsic properties that make them tough. Now he’s used this research on scales to build a composite material that he one day hopes will be worn by both soldiers and athletes.

Read more at Discovery News

Ancient Yellowstone Eruptions Not from Supervolcano

Ancient giant eruptions in the Pacific Northwest may actually have been caused by the tearing of a titanic slab of rock and not the supervolcano underlying Yellowstone National Park, scientists now suggest.

Supervolcanoes are capable of eruptions dwarfing anything ever recorded by humanity. There are roughly a dozen supervolcanoes on Earth today, one of which sits beneath Yellowstone National Park.

Volcanism at Yellowstone is thought to have started with the Steens-Columbia River flood basalts. A flood basalt is the result of a large volcanic eruption that covers vast areas with lava, and the Steens–Columbia River flood basalts erupted more than 55,000 cubic miles (230,000 cubic kilometers) of molten rock over approximately 2 million years, spewing out more than 1 million times the notorious Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980.

Flood basalts are thought to typically occur when the head of a giant mushroom-shaped upwelling of hot rock rising from near the Earth's core, known as a mantle plume,reaches the surface. Now researchers suggest a new way for these massive eruptions to form — a breach in a massive slab of the Earth's crust.

Ripping rock

Scientists generated computer models of how the complicated structure of the Earth's mantle layer under the western United States evolved over the past 40 million years. They based their work on data from the USArray, a mobile seismic networkof 400 sensor stations traveling across the United States.

The researchers suggest that about 17 million years ago, a giant chunk of rock known as the Farallon slab that was diving underneath the western United States began ripping apart. This led to massive outpourings of magma, the pattern and timing of which appear consistent with the Steens–Columbia River flood basalts.

"When the slab is first opened, there's a little tear, but because of the high pressure underneath, the material is able to force its way through the hole," said researcher Dave Stegman, a geophysicist at the University of California, San Diego. "It's like in the movies when a window breaks in an airplane that is at high altitude — since the cabin is at higher pressure, everything gets sucked out the window."

Volcanoes are most often seen at the boundaries of tectonic plates. These new findings shed light on a way — in addition to mantle plumes — that volcanoes can emerge within tectonic plates, the researchers said.

"Only with a break of this scale inside the down-going slab can we reach the present-day geometry of mantle we see in the area," said researcher Lijun Liu, a geophysicist also at UC San Diego. "Geochemical evidence from the Columbia River lavas can also be explained by our model."

Mantle plumes, subducted slabs

Intriguingly, the supervolcano at Yellowstoneseems to be due to a mantle plume under the area, but the researchers do not think it was involved with the Steens–Columbia River flood basalts. "There are 40 to 50 active mantle plumes in the Earth right now, so just because one is close doesn't mean that it was behind these flood basalts," Stegman told OurAmazingPlanet. Still, he added, "we are now incorporating the Yellowstone plume into our modeling so we can learn a bit more about this region."

Read more at Discovery News

Feb 14, 2012

Cellphone Use Linked to Selfish Behavior

Though cellphones are usually considered devices that connect people, they may make users less socially minded, finds a recent study from the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Marketing professors Anastasiya Pocheptsova and Rosellina Ferraro, with graduate student, Ajay T. Abraham, conducted a series of experiments on test groups of cellphone users. The findings appear in their working paper, "The Effect of Mobile Phone Use on Prosocial Behavior."

Prosocial behavior, as defined in the study, is action intended to benefit another person or society as a whole.

The researchers found that after a short period of cellphone use the subjects were less inclined to volunteer for a community service activity when asked, compared to the control-group counterparts. The cell phone users were also less persistent in solving word problems -- even though they knew their answers would translate to a monetary donation to charity.

The decreased focus on others held true even when participants were merely asked to draw a picture of their cellphones and think about how they used them.

The study involved separate sets of college student subjects -- both men and women and generally in their early 20s. "We would expect a similar pattern of effects with people from other age groups," said Ferraro. "Given the increasing pervasiveness of cellphones, it does have the potential to have broad social implications."

The authors cited previous research in explaining a root cause of their findings: "The cellphone directly evokes feelings of connectivity to others, thereby fulfilling the basic human need to belong." This results in reducing one's desire to connect with others or to engage in empathic and prosocial behavior.

The study also distinguished its subjects from users of other social media -- Facebook users -- in one of the tests. The authors found that participants felt more connected to others because of their cellphones than because of their Facebook accounts, suggesting that this difference in connectedness was the underlying driver of the observed phenomenon.

Read more at Science Daily

Globular Clusters: Survivors of a 13-Billion-Year-Old Massacre

Our Milky Way galaxy is surrounded by some 200 compact groups of stars, containing up to a million stars each. At 13 billion years of age, these globular clusters are almost as old as the universe itself and were born when the first generations of stars and galaxies formed. Now a team of astronomers from Germany and the Netherlands have conducted a novel type of computer simulation that looked at how they were born -- and they find that these giant clusters of stars are the only survivors of a 13-billion-year-old massacre that destroyed many of their smaller siblings.

The new work, led by Dr Diederik Kruijssen of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany, appears in a paper in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Globular star clusters have a remarkable characteristic: the typical number of stars they contain appears to be about the same throughout the Universe. This is in contrast to much younger stellar clusters, which can contain almost any number of stars, from fewer than 100 to many thousands. The team of scientists proposes that this difference can be explained by the conditions under which globular clusters formed early on in the evolution of their host galaxies.

The researchers ran simulations of isolated and colliding galaxies, in which they included a model for the formation and destruction of stellar clusters. When galaxies collide, they often generate spectacular bursts of star formation (“starbursts”) and a wealth of bright, young stellar clusters of many different sizes. As a result it was always thought that the total number of star clusters increases during starbursts. But the Dutch-German team found the opposite result in their simulations.

While the very brightest and largest clusters were indeed capable of surviving the galaxy collision due to their own gravitational attraction, the numerous smaller clusters were effectively destroyed by the rapidly changing gravitational forces that typically occur during starbursts due to the movement of gas, dust and stars. The wave of starbursts came to an end after about 2 billion years and the researchers were surprised to see that only clusters with high numbers of stars had survived. These clusters had all the characteristics that should be expected for a young population of globular clusters as they would have looked about 11 billion years ago.

Dr Kruijssen comments: “It is ironic to see that starbursts may produce many young stellar clusters, but at the same time also destroy the majority of them. This occurs not only in galaxy collisions, but should be expected in any starburst environment. In the early Universe, starbursts were commonplace – it therefore makes perfect sense that all globular clusters have approximately the same large number of stars. Their smaller brothers and sisters that didn’t contain as many stars were doomed to be destroyed.”

According to the simulations, most of the star clusters were destroyed shortly after their formation, when the galactic environment was still very hostile to the young clusters. After this episode ended, the surviving globular clusters have lived quietly until the present day.

The researchers have further suggestions to test their ideas. Dr Kruijssen continues: “In the nearby Universe, there are several examples of galaxies that have recently undergone large bursts of star formation. It should therefore be possible to see the rapid destruction of small stellar clusters in action. If this is indeed found by new observations, it will confirm our theory for the origin of globular clusters.”

Read more at Science Daily

New Quantum Record: Physicists Entangle 8 Photons

One of the most mind-blowing areas of quantum mechanics is entanglement: two or more particles separated in space can have physical properties that are correlated. A measurement performed on one particle will tell us the result of the same measurement taken on an entangled particle. Entanglement is important but difficult to study, both in terms of a theoretical understanding and doing experiments. While entangling relatively small groups of particles has been accomplished several times over the last 30 years (pioneered by Aspect et al. in 1982), scaling these experiments up in sizes sufficient to create quantum computers and other complex systems has eluded researchers.

A significant step forward has been accomplished by entangling eight photons (previously six had been the largest number). Researchers from Shanghai’s University of Science and Technology of China created a system where eight photons were equally likely to be polarized in a specific orientation, something known colloquially as a “Schrödinger cat” state. In a paper published in Nature Photonics, authors Xing-Can Yao et al. describe a new technique that uses ultra-bright photon sources to control for some of the problems that plagued earlier entanglement experiments.

Unpolarized light, such as that produced by lasers and many other light sources, is a mixture of all possible polarization orientations. Various types of polarizing filters (including those found in some sunglasses) select just the photons with a particular direction of polarization. When your sunglasses do this, they are actually performing a quantum measurement: before the filter, the light from a given photon is in an equal mixture — a superposition — of “horizontal” and “vertical” polarization states relative to the filter. The filter collapses the quantum state to just one of those orientations.

The basic technique used in the experiment by Yao et al. involves the excitation of beta-barium borate (BBO) with an ultraviolet laser. The photons induce a particular transition inside the crystal, which produces two new photons with polarizations that are complimentary to each other: if one is horizontally polarized, the other must be vertically polarized. Since the initial laser beam is unpolarized, we don’t know the polarization of these photons. But because their quantum states are linked — entangled — a measurement of one photon’s polarization immediately yields the value of the second’s polarization, no matter how far the photons are separated in space.

Since the photons are in an undetermined state before measurement, according to the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics, they are seen as possessing both polarization states with equal probability. This is known as a “Schrödinger cat” state, by analogy with the classic thought experiment in which the cat’s state is superposed between “living” and “dead.”

(In the original “Schrödinger’s cat” paper, the entanglement is between a macroscopic object — a cat — and a radioactive nucleus, which is a microscopic system, so photon experiments are not strictly describing the same sort of situation. However, the name has become common usage.)

The new experiment, which boosts things from two to eight photons, is very complicated, involving the control of a variety of problems that have affected earlier trials of this sort. But its outline is relatively simple:

1.Photons from a pulsed ultraviolet laser are passed through a BBO crystal to split the light into entangled beams of photons, as described above.
2.After the split, another device known as a half-wave plate (HWP) is inserted in the path of one of the polarized photon beams, which converts horizontal polarization into vertical and vice-versa. After that, the polarized beams are recombined; this ensures that every photon has the same polarization state.
3.This process is repeated four times, so that eight photon beams are produced from the initial laser pulse, each consisting only of photons with a single polarization. Because of the way they are prepared, the photons should now be in an eight-particle Schrödinger cat state.
4.The photons from two separate BBO crystals are then compared using a polarizing beamsplitter (PBS), which will only transmit them if they are horizontally polarized. By using another half-wave plate before the comparison, the experimenters can determine the polarization is of each of the photon beams simultaneously, which shows whether all eight photons were truly entangled or not.
There are 256 possible polarization combinations from eight photons, but only one of those is consistent with a fully entangled state. The experimenters discarded any events containing more than eight photons, since determining entanglement is not possible under those conditions.

In an overwhelming number of cases, the researchers found polarization values as predicted by the entanglement model. The ratio of desired outcomes (consistent with entanglement) to undesired results was 530:1 using direct polarization measurements. A second test of entanglement, which used polarization orientations other than horizontal and vertical, found a ratio of approximately 4:1.

Read more at Wired Science

A Broken Heart Could Actually Kill You

We all know that a broken heart hurts, from the stabbing shock of being dumped on Valentine's Day to the deep grief following the loss of a loved one. But there is increasing evidence that shows some people may actually die from heart failure in the wake of extremely emotional events.

British cardiologist Alexander Lyon told the Guardian newspaper yesterday that "broken heart syndrome" could be responsible for about 2 percent of the 300,000 heart attacks that occur every year in the United Kingdom. New research is helping doctors accurately diagnose broken heart syndrome, so that they can learn how common it really is.

It's thought that a massive surge of adrenaline brings on broken heart syndrome. It can be triggered by both negative and positive events, all the way from grief to winning the lottery. Doctors refer to the syndrome as "stress cardiomyopathy" or "takotsubo cardiomyopathy."

Unlike a typical heart attack, which occurs because a blockage has formed in one of the heart's arteries, preventing blood flow, no blockage occurs in broken heart syndrome. Instead, doctors believe that the adrenaline surge can cause the lower chamber of the heart to go into temporary paralysis, which forces the upper chamber to overwork, causing typical heart attack symptoms.

"Humans have always been exposed to these kinds of stresses," Lyon told the Guardian. "The only reason we know about the syndrome now is because people presenting with heart attack symptoms can have coronary angiograms very soon after their chest pain begins.

"To a cardiologist, a heart attack means a blocked coronary artery, but in this condition we find the coronary arteries are open and the blood supply is fine. We then look at the pumping chamber and it's paralyzed, plus it's taken on a unique and abnormal shape; it looks like a Japanese fisherman's octopus pot, called Takotsubo, hence its name."

Read more at Discovery News

Feb 13, 2012

Time-Lapse Starscape Videos Show Heavens in Motion

Temporal Distortion from Randy Halverson on Vimeo.

The night sky seems unchanging to the naked eye, but beauty is hidden beyond the limits of unaided human perception.

As Earth rotates, the sky moves, revealing astronomical events that only time-lapse photography -- a series of exposures lasting for minutes apiece -- can truly capture.

"There are so many things you don't normally see that you can with time-lapse," said photographer Randy Halverson, who created the video above.

Halverson's work even attracted the attention of Bear McCreary, a composer who wrote the music for TV shows Battlestar Galactica, Eureka and The Walking Dead. He scored Halverson's for fun.

The surge in amateur popularity of time-lapse videos, caused in part by cheaper access to quality technology and video services, hasn't gone unnoticed by Wired. Dim the lights, crank up the volume and watch some of our favorite clips in this gallery.

Temporal Distortion

Halverson, who recently won a time-lapse video competition with one of his Milky Way clips, photographed this sequence during the summer and fall of 2011 in South Dakota, Utah and Colorado.

"What you see is real, but you can't see it this way with the naked eye. It is the result of 20-30 second exposures, edited together over many hours to produce the time-lapse," Halverson wrote.

At 0:53 and again at 2:17, for example, meteors with persistent trails twinkle into view.

Read more and see more videos at Wired Science

The Seedy, Scandalous History of Valentine's Day

Forget roses, chocolate boxes, and candlelight dinners. On Valentine's Day, this is rather boring stuff - at least according to ancient Roman standards.

Imagine half naked men running through the streets, whipping young women with bloodied thongs made from freshly cut goat skins. Although it might sound like some sort of perverted sado-masochist practice, this is what the Romans did until 496 A.D.

Indeed, mid-February was Lupercalia (Wolf Festival) time. Celebrated on February 15 at the foot of the Palatine Hill beside the cave where according to tradition the she-wolf had suckled Romulus and Remus, the festival was essentially a purification and fertility rite.

Directed by the Luperci, or "brothers of the wolf," the festival began with the sacrifice of two male goats and a dog, their blood smeared on the faces of Luperci initiates and then wiped off with wool dipped in milk.

As thongs were cut from the sacrificed goats, the initiates would run around in the streets flagellating women to promote fertility.

Finally, in 496 Pope Gelasius I banned the wild feast and declared Feb. 14 as St. Valentine's Day.

But who was St. Valentine? Mystery surrounds the identity of the patron saint of lovers.

Indeed, such was the confusion that the Vatican dropped St. Valentine's Day from the Catholic Church calendar of saints in the 1960s.

There were at least three men by the name Valentine in the A.D. 200s and all died of a horrible death.

One was a priest in the Roman Empire who helped persecuted Christians during the reign of Claudius II. As he was imprisoned, he restored the sight of a blind girl, who fell in love with him. He was beheaded on Feb. 14.

Another was the pious bishop of Terni, also torturted and beheaded during Claudius II's reign.

A third Valentine would have secretly married couples, ignoring Claudius II's ban of marriage. When the priest of love was eventually arrested, legend has it that he fell deeply in love with his jailer's daughter.

Before his death by beating and decapitation, he signed a farewell note to her: “From your Valentine.”

Apart from legend, the first connection between romance and February 14 goes back to Geoffrey Chaucer (1340?-1400), the English poet and author of The Canterbury Tales.

In his poem Parliament of Fowls (1382) Chaucer suggested that St. Valentine's Day was the time on which birds chose their mates.

"For this was Seynt Valentyne's Day. When every foul cometh ther to choose his mate," he wrote.

Some 33 years later, Duke Charles of Orleans wrote what is considered the oldest known valentine in existence.

Imprisoned in the Tower of London after being captured by the English, in 1415 Charles wrote his wife Bonne d’Armagnac a rhyming love letter, which is now part of the manuscript collection in the British Library in London.

Read more at Discovery News

'Woolly Mammoth' Video a Hoax

Last week, a new video surfaced claiming to show a live woolly mammoth — an animal scientists think has been extinct for at least four millennia — crossing a river in Russia. The suspiciously blurry footage was allegedly "caught by a government-employed engineer last summer in the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug region of Siberia," according to a story in The Sun newspaper.

The video became an Internet sensation, making headlines around the world. Some Bigfoot believers and Loch Ness Monster lovers murmured their tentative approval, hoping it proved that large unknown (or assumed extinct) animals still exist in Earth's remote wilds.

While most people didn't believe that the animal in the video was really a woolly mammoth as claimed, viewers were sharply divided about what exactly it was.

Some suspected the video is an outright hoax — a computer-generated mammoth digitally inserted into a real river scene. Many others, however, were convinced that the animal was real: not a mammoth, but instead a bear with a large fish hanging from its mouth. That would explain its relatively small size, the shape of the "trunk" on its head, and the color. Experts cast doubts on the video's authenticity; Derek Serra, a Hollywood video effects artist, concluded that it "appears to have been intentionally blurred."

Serra isn't the only expert who can shed some light on this mystery: another person is Ludovic Petho. His name may not be familiar to most people, but his work has been seen by millions; he filmed the mammoth footage at the Kitoy River in Siberia's Sayan Mountains in the summer of 2011.

He's not an anonymous government engineer, but instead a writer and videographer. Petho filmed the river scene during a 10-day solo hike in the mountains as part of a video project he's working on about his grandfather's escape from a Siberian POW camp in 1915 and his walk across Siberia to Budapest, Hungary. The footage may end up being used in a documentary film — but there's one big difference between the video he shot and the woolly mammoth video.

Read more at Discovery News

Milky Way Humming with Microwave Mystery

A European space observatory has discovered something peculiar about our galaxy: it's humming in microwaves and, for the moment, the source of the radiation is a complete mystery. Also, the Milky Way is home to previously unknown "islands" of cold carbon monoxide gas, helping astronomers uncover the distribution of star-forming regions.

The Planck space observatory was launched in 2009 to analyze small fluctuations in the ubiquitous cosmic microwave background (CMB) -- complementing data gathered by NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. To understand the structure of the CMB is to open a window on the conditions immediately after the Big Bang. This extremely faint radiation is the ancient "echo" of the creation of the Universe over 14 billion years ago.

However, Planck's toolkit isn't restricted to measuring ancient microwaves from the dawn of time, it is also building an all-sky map of our own galaxy. To remove the microwave radiation being emitted from the Milky Way, a very accurate survey of microwave sources within our cosmic backyard needs to be carried out.

And it is this survey that's turning up some surprises.

On Monday, at an international conference in Bologna, Italy, Planck scientists have presented the intermediate results from the mission ahead of its first cosmological dataset expected to be released in 2013.

"The images reveal two exciting aspects of the galaxy in which we live," said Planck scientist Krzysztof M. Gorski from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and Warsaw University Observatory in Poland. "They show a haze around the center of the galaxy, and cold gas where we never saw it before."

This microwave "haze" is being emitted from a region surrounding the Milky Way's core. Usually, this kind of emission would be expected from regions that have experienced supernova activity. However, the microwaves detected have a "harder" spectrum, basically meaning the microwave emission is unusually energetic. When compared with the microwave radiation elsewhere in our galaxy, the galactic core's emission is a real oddity.

What could possibly be generating this emission?

"Theories include higher numbers of supernovae, galactic winds and even the annihilation of dark-matter particles," said Greg Dobler, Planck collaborator from the University of California in Santa Barbara, Calif.

The microwave emission appears to have the characteristics of synchrotron radiation, when particles emit energy as they interact with powerful magnetic fields. However, dark matter -- the stuff that is thought to make up 83 percent of all the mass in our universe -- could be the culprit.

Although dark matter often seems to be the "go-to" explanation for weird cosmic behavior, the annihilation of clouds of dark matter accumulating around the galactic core may generate the energy needed to explain this microwave phenomenon.

In addition to the microwave anomaly, Planck's ability to survey the entire sky has resulted in a map of cold interstellar clouds of carbon monoxide (CO), shown above. Astronomers seek out the microwave emission associated with CO so that vast clouds of invisible hydrogen molecules may be revealed.

Read more at Discovery News

Feb 12, 2012

How to Observe Gemini, the Heavenly Twin Constellation

If you head outside around 10:30 p.m. local time this week and look straight up, you'll be looking directly at Gemini, the Twin Brothers.

The heads of the Gemini twins are the bright stars Pollux (yellowish) and Castor (white; a bit dimmer than Pollux). According to Greek mythology, the twins were the sons of Zeus and Leda and brothers of Helen of Troy.

Ancient mariners regarded Pollux and Castor as the patrons of seafarers, and in Elizabethan times they were also considered the protectors of all at sea. The expression "by Jiminy!" — an exclamation of surprise or awe —has been said to be a popular corruption of ancient swears by these patrons ("by Gemini!"). In addition, the twins were often billed as adventurers, warriors and famous navigators.

Most of the other stars that compose the constellation figures' arms and bodies are noticeably fainter than those in their heads and feet. A second-magnitude star known as Alhena marks one of Pollux's feet (on the astronomers' brightness scale of magnitudes, the lower the number, the brighter the star).

In places where light pollution hides many of the fainter stars, only Pollux, Castor and Alhena may be visible, forming a long wedge with its point aimed straight at Orion, the Mighty Hunter.

Multi-star systems

Castor is actually a system of six stars, forming one of the most remarkable examples of a multiple star in the heavens. Pollux, too, may have faint companions, though we now know that none of them are physically related to this bright star.

Zeta Geminorum is a pulsating Cepheid star, its brightness changing nearly a full magnitude down from 4.4 and back in about 10 days. Propus is a complex system, a visual binary of magnitudes 3.3 and 6.5, with a period of about 500 years; the brighter member is a semi-regular variable, with an average period of 233 days. Additionally, an unseen companion star also periodically eclipses this star at intervals of 2,983 days.

Just above and to the right of Propus lies No. 35 in Charles Messier's catalog of bright objects in the heavens.

Located just off the trailing foot of Castor, Messier 35 can just be seen with the unaided eye on dark transparent nights. In low-power binoculars it may look like a dim, fairly large unresolved interstellar cloud, but look again. Even through light-polluted suburban skies, 7-power binoculars reveal at least a half dozen of the cluster's brightest stars against the whitish glow of about 200 fainter ones. M35 has been described as a "splendid specimen" whose stars appear in curving rows, reminding one of the bursting of a skyrocket.

Walter Scott Houston (1912-1993) wrote the Deep-Sky Wonders column in Sky & Telescope magazine for nearly half a century.  He called M35 "one of the greatest objects in the heavens; a superb object that appears as big as the Moon and fills the eyepiece with a glitter of bright stars from center to edge."

Newfound comet?

Also located less than half a degree southwest from M35 is an unusual object that has brought a brief surge of excitement to countless numbers of amateurs over the years.

In a 6-inch telescope, it's a faint, circular cloud of light, which initially appears to the uninitiated as a possible new comet. The object, in fact, is the faint open star cluster NGC 2158. The compilers of many of the more popular star atlases had to draw a cutoff line as to what deep-sky objects to include, and not to include. Unfortunately, NGC 2158 fell just below the cutoff in most cases, which is why it is usually not mentioned and why many amateur astronomers have grown up knowing nothing of it.

But if you get a chance to train a telescope on M35 and come across this small, faint patch of nebulosity a short distance away, at least now you won't be making the "comet mistake" that so many others have made. Houston himself fell into this trap, later calling NGC 2158 his "lasting monument to my early, somewhat careless, years of observing."

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Watery Alien Planets Might Be Stripped Dry by Gravity

Alien planets might experience tidal forces powerful enough to remove all their water, leaving behind hot, dry worlds like Venus, researchers said.

These findings might significantly affect searches for habitable exoplanets, scientists explained. Although some planets might dwell in regions around their star friendly enough for life as we know it, they could actually be lifelessly dry worlds.

The tides that we experience on Earth are caused by the gravitational pull of the moon and sun. Our tides are nothing compared to what we see elsewhere in the solar system — the gravitational pull Europa experiences from Jupiter leads to tidal forces roughly 1,000 times stronger than what Earth feels from our moon, flexing and heating Europa.

Heat is a major factor in how capable a planet might be of supporting life as we know it. What scientists call the habitable zone of a star is defined by whether liquid water can survive on its surface, given that life exists virtually wherever there is liquid water on Earth.

Too far from a star, and the lack of light makes a world too cold, freezing all its water; too close to a star, and all that blazing heat makes a world too hot, boiling all of its water off in what is known as a runaway greenhouse effect.

Venus is often thought to have experienced a runaway greenhouse effect. Eventually, solar radiation broke up all of Venus's vaporized water into hydrogen and oxygen, which leaked away from the planet entirely.

Now scientists find that stellar heat is not the only thing that can trigger a runaway greenhouse climate catastrophe. Tidal heating can too, for what they call "tidal Venuses."

"This has fundamentally changed the concept of a habitable zone," said researcher Rory Barnes, a planetary scientist and astrobiologist at the University of Washington. "We figured out you can actually limit a planet's habitability with an energy source other than starlight."

Tidal Venuses could not occur around stars like our sun because the effects of tides fall off rapidly with distance, Barnes noted. For a planet to experience tidal heating from a star like our sun, it would have to be so close in that heat from its light would render it uninhabitable even without any tidal heating.

However, tidal Venuses could occur around dimmer and much less massive bodies — main-sequence stars less than a third the mass of our sun, for instance, or failed stars known as brown dwarfs, or dead stars such as white dwarfs. These bodies have been of interest to astrobiologists because their dim nature means their habitable zones are theoretically very close. Planets near their stars eclipse them more often, making them easier to detect than planets that are farther away  — as such, researchers had thought dim, low-mass stars could be ideal places to find habitable worlds.

After a tidal Venus loses all its water and becomes uninhabitable, the tides could alter its orbit so that it no longer experiences tidal heating. As such, it might no longer appear like a tidal Venus, but look just like any other world in its star's habitable zone, fooling researchers into thinking it is potentially friendly for life, even though it has essentially been sterilized.

As terrestrial worlds are found around dim bodies, factoring these findings into searches for habitable exoplanets could result in scientists wasting less time on dry worlds. "As candidates for habitable worlds are found, tidal effects need careful attention," Barnes said. "You don't want to waste time on desiccated planets."

Barnes noted that more work needed to be done analyzing how the effects of tidal heating might actually manifest themselves. "In our solar system, the largest amount of tidal heating is with Jupiter's moon Io, which experiences 2 watts per square meter on its surface," Barnes said. "We're trying to see if tidal heating can generate 300 watts per square meter on a planet's surface, and it's still unclear if planets will actually behave this way — maybe there's a saturation point where tidal heating can't reach tidal Venus levels. Planets are complicated beasts, and it's not always obvious how they will act."

"We'll have to be careful when assessing objects that are very near dim stars, where the tides are much stronger than we feel on present-day Earth," said planetary scientist Norman Sleep at Stanford University, who did not take part in this research."Even Venus now is not substantially heated by tides, and neither is Mercury."

"The only good example of this we might have had like this in the solar system is Earth early in its history soon after the moon-forming impact, where tidal heating from the moon was significant for 10 million years or so, enough for a brief runaway greenhouse," Sleep added. "Eventually the moon moved far enough away for tidal heating to decrease."

It could be that instead of triggering a runaway greenhouse effect, tidal heating might actually warm otherwise frigid planets enough for them to have liquid water on their surface, Sleep added. "Whether or not something could stay habitable or not through this mechanism is unclear to me," he cautioned.

Read more at Discovery News