Jun 30, 2012

Scientists Urge New Approaches to Plant Research

You'd be amazed at how much you can learn from a plant.

In a paper published this week in the journal Science, a Michigan State University professor and a colleague discuss why if humans are to survive as a species, we must turn more to plants for any number of valuable lessons.

"Metabolism of plants provides humans with fiber, fuel, food and therapeutics," said Robert Last, an MSU professor of biochemistry and molecular biology. "As the human population grows and nonrenewable energy sources diminish, we need to rely increasingly on plants and to increase the sustainability of agriculture."

However, Last and co-author Ron Milo of the Weizmann Institute of Science point out that despite decades of plant genetic engineering, there are relatively few types of commercial products originating from this body of work.

"This is in part because we do not understand enough about the vastly complex set of metabolic reactions that plants employ," Last said. "It's like designing and building a bridge armed only with satellite images of existing bridges."

The authors say that perhaps the best approach is to bring together a variety of disciplines -- not just plant scientists -- to study how plants operate.

They also suggest looking hard at what brought plants to the place they are today -- evolution.

"We think that understanding design principles of plant metabolism will be aided by considering how hundreds of millions of years of evolution has led to well-conserved examples of metabolic pathways," Last said.

One of the amazing aspects of plant metabolism is this: It must continuously strike a balance between evolving to meet an ever-changing environment while maintaining the internal stability needed to carry on life as it knows it.

In addition, the authors point out that plants experiment with specialized (also called secondary) metabolism which can produce novel chemicals that are used to defend against pathogens and herbivores.

"Humans benefit from this 'arms race' because some of these compounds have important therapeutic properties," Last said. "Unfortunately, design principles are not so well studied in these rapidly evolving metabolic processes. Using new approaches, including considering optimality principles, will lead to advances in medicinal chemistry as well as creating more and healthier food."

Read more at Science Daily

Moderate Doses of Alcohol Increase Social Bonding in Groups

A new study led by University of Pittsburgh researchers reveals that moderate amounts of alcohol -- consumed in a social setting -- can enhance positive emotions and social bonding and relieve negative emotions among those drinking.

While it is usually taken for granted that people drink to reduce stress and enhance positive feelings, many studies have shown that alcohol consumption has an opposite effect. In a new paper titled "Alcohol and Group Formation: A Multimodal Investigation of the Effects of Alcohol on Emotion and Social Bonding," research shows that moderate doses of alcohol have a powerful effect on both male and female social drinkers when they are in a group.

The paper is published online in Psychological Science.

According to the researchers, previous alcohol studies testing the impact of alcohol on emotions involved social drinkers consuming alcohol in isolation rather than in groups.

"Those studies may have failed to create realistic conditions for studying this highly social drug," said Michael A. Sayette, lead author and professor of psychology in Pitt's Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. "We felt that many of the most significant effects of alcohol would more likely be revealed in an experiment using a social setting."

Sayette and his colleagues assembled various small groups using 720 male and female participants, a larger sample than in previous alcohol studies. Researchers assessed individual and group interactions using the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) and the Grouptalk model for speech behavior.

They concluded that alcohol stimulates social bonding, increases the amount of time people spend talking to one another, and reduces displays of negative emotions. According to Sayette, the paper introduces into the alcohol literature new measures of facial expression and speech behavior that offer a sensitive and comprehensive assessment of social bonding.

Sayette and eight colleagues took special care in the methods they employed to form the groups. Each participant was randomly assigned to a group of three unacquainted "strangers." Each group was instructed to drink an alcoholic beverage, a placebo, or a nonalcoholic control beverage. Twenty groups representing each gender composition (three males; one female and two males; two males and one female; and three females) were assigned to the three different beverage scenarios. Group members sat around a circular table and consumed three drinks over a 36-minute time span. Each session was video recorded, and the duration and sequence of the participants' facial and speech behaviors were systematically coded frame by frame.

Results showed that alcohol not only increased the frequency of "true" smiles, but also enhanced the coordination of these smiles. In other words, alcohol enhanced the likelihood of "golden moments," with groups provided alcohol being more likely than those offered nonalcoholic beverages to have all three group members smile simultaneously. Participants in alcohol-drinking groups also likely reported greater social bonding than did the nonalcohol-drinking groups and were more likely to have all three members stay involved in the discussion.

"By demonstrating the sensitivity of our group formation paradigm for studying the rewarding effects of alcohol," said Sayette, "we can begin to ask questions of great interest to alcohol researchers -- Why does alcohol make us feel better in group settings? Is there evidence to suggest a particular participant may be vulnerable to developing a problem with alcohol?"

The new research sets the stage for evaluation of potential associations between socioemotional responses to alcohol and individual differences in personality, family history of alcoholism, and genetic vulnerability.

Read more at Science Daily

Jun 29, 2012

First-Ever Changes in an Exoplanet Atmosphere Detected

An international team of astronomers using data from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has made an unparalleled observation, detecting significant changes in the atmosphere of a planet located beyond our solar system.

The scientists conclude the atmospheric variations occurred in response to a powerful eruption on the planet's host star, an event observed by NASA's Swift satellite.

"The multiwavelength coverage by Hubble and Swift has given us an unprecedented view of the interaction between a flare on an active star and the atmosphere of a giant planet," said lead researcher Alain Lecavelier des Etangs at the Paris Institute of Astrophysics (IAP), part of the French National Scientific Research Center located at Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris.

The exoplanet is HD 189733b, a gas giant similar to Jupiter, but about 14 percent larger and more massive. The planet circles its star at a distance of only 3 million miles, or about 30 times closer than Earth's distance from the sun, and completes an orbit every 2.2 days. Its star, named HD 189733A, is about 80 percent the size and mass of our sun.

Astronomers classify the planet as a "hot Jupiter." Previous Hubble observations show that the planet's deep atmosphere reaches a temperature of about 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit (1,030 C).

HD 189733b periodically passes across, or transits, its parent star, and these events give astronomers an opportunity to probe its atmosphere and environment. In a previous study, a group led by Lecavelier des Etangs used Hubble to show that hydrogen gas was escaping from the planet's upper atmosphere. The finding made HD 189733b only the second-known "evaporating" exoplanet at the time.

The system is just 63 light-years away, so close that its star can be seen with binoculars near the famous Dumbbell Nebula. This makes HD 189733b an ideal target for studying the processes that drive atmospheric escape.

"Astronomers have been debating the details of atmospheric evaporation for years, and studying HD 189733b is our best opportunity for understanding the process," said Vincent Bourrier, a doctoral student at IAP and a team member on the new study.

When HD 189733b transits its star, some of the star's light passes through the planet's atmosphere. This interaction imprints information on the composition and motion of the planet's atmosphere into the star's light.

In April 2010, the researchers observed a single transit using Hubble's Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS), but they detected no trace of the planet's atmosphere. Follow-up STIS observations in September 2011 showed a surprising reversal, with striking evidence that a plume of gas was streaming away from the exoplanet.

The researchers determined that at least 1,000 tons of gas was leaving the planet's atmosphere every second. The hydrogen atoms were racing away at speeds greater than 300,000 mph. The findings will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Because X-rays and extreme ultraviolet starlight heat the planet's atmosphere and likely drive its escape, the team also monitored the star with Swift's X-ray Telescope (XRT). On Sept. 7, 2011, just eight hours before Hubble was scheduled to observe the transit, Swift was monitoring the star when it unleashed a powerful flare. It brightened by 3.6 times in X-rays, a spike occurring atop emission levels that already were greater than the sun's.

"The planet's close proximity to the star means it was struck by a blast of X-rays tens of thousands of times stronger than the Earth suffers even during an X-class solar flare, the strongest category," said co-author Peter Wheatley, a physicist at the University of Warwick in England.

Read more at Science Daily

An Astronomical Tour in the Realm of Galaxies

The summer skies aren't always the obvious time to go galaxy hunting because the combination of faint objects, bright skies and longer days can make finding them a little tricky.

However, those of you in the Northern Hemisphere prepared to stay up late until the sky properly darkens will be treated to a few galactic treasures in the skies of July and August.

Obviously placed due south during local midnight is our own galaxy, the Milky Way, making a excellent place to start our tour of deep space. We live inside the Milky Way at a distance of around 30,000 light-years from the galactic core -- this is why our galaxy appears in our sky as a band of light.

The Milky Way is believed to be a "barred spiral galaxy" around 100,000 light years across with up to 400 billion stars. Because of the obscuring dust and foreground stars, it's not easy to spot galaxies in the direction of the Milky Way so we have to look due east and west ("up" and "down" from the galactic disk) to see external galaxies.

Over in the far west are the constellations of Virgo, Coma Berenices and Canes Venatici that are home to some great galaxy clusters. There are three bright galaxies to look out for in the western sky and they can be found from the easily recognizable Plough (or "Big Dipper"), part of the much larger Ursa Major constellation.

Starting from Alkaid, the end star of the Big Dipper's handle, head no more than 5 degrees (a clenched fist at arm's length measures 10 degrees, so its half that distance) in the same direction that takes you parallel with the nearest two stars of the bowl and you will find a beautiful example of interacting galaxies called the Whirlpool Galaxy and NGC5195. From a dark site it can be just about detected in binoculars, but telescopes with 10 centimeter (4 inch) aperture or more are needed to be able to detect the spiral arms. Anything larger should show the two galaxies with ease with an increasing level of detail.

Now identify the stars at the bottom left of the bowl, Phecda and Dubhe at the upper right. Imagine a line between them and extend the line on further due north for about the same distance. There are two galaxies here; M81, which is a bright spiral galaxy easily detectable in binoculars and any telescope larger than 15 cm (6") will pick out its spiral arms. It's estimated to be 12 million light years away and is gravitationally bound with its neighbour M82. This irregular galaxy is fainter than M81 but can still be seen in binoculars in the same field of view as M82.

Turning to the north-east now and the great square of the constellation Pegasus is rising. Its north-east corner star is also the starting point for the constellation of Andromeda. Move further east by Delta Andromedae and Mirach and then up by another two fainter stars and just to the north west of Nu Andromedae is the famous Andromeda Galaxy. An easy target for the naked eye under dark skies it's the nearest major galaxy to our own. Even small telescopes reveal its two companion galaxies M32 and M110.

Read more at Discovery News

Voyager 1: The Little Spacecraft That Could

Voyager 1, the spacecraft that launched on a tour of the solar on Sept. 5, 1977, is getting ready to enter interplanetary space.

The spacecraft's journey started in 1966 when Gary Flandro, then a graduate student working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, discovered that the planets were about to align. Not just for him, but for the whole solar system.

He found that in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto would be at the right relative positions in their orbits that a spacecraft could visit each of them on a grand tour. The secret was gravity assists, using the planets' gravity to slingshot the spacecraft from one to the next.

To take advantage of the opportunity, NASA developed the twin Voyager spacecraft. Both would fly by Jupiter and Saturn, adding valuable scientific data to what was then a very scant knowledge of the outer solar system. Ground-based studies revealed the planets' most basic properties, and hinted that there were fascinating discoveries still to make.

In the early 1970s, Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 made the first flybys of the gas giants and their instruments began revealing just how complex those worlds are.

With this as the background, Voyager wasn't just a great opportunity, it was the logical next step is understanding our solar system.

Voyager 2, which was actually the first to launch on August 20, 1977, ended up with more opportunities on its trajectory. After flying by Jupiter and Saturn, it would be in the right place to continue its mission and fly by Uranus.

Voyager 1 was a little more limited. Its orientation after flying by Saturn would send it out of the ecliptic, the plane where all the planets orbit the sun.

But even without another planetary target, Voyager 1 would keep on going. It would, as the 1977 pre-launch press kit described, continue "outward from the solar system and across the boundary of the wind of charged particles (solar wind) that streams outward from the Sun, thus penetrating into interstellar space." At the time, there was no concrete plan to keep in touch with the spacecraft after it left Saturn.

On Nov. 12, 1980, Voyager 1 began its trip out of the solar system. The spacecraft was on its path "searching for the outer limit of the solar wind –- that presumed boundary... where the influence of the sun gives way," as NASA described it in a 1980 press release. It kept on going, and NASA hasn't lost touch despite arguments that its continuing budget spent on the mission every year could be put to "better use."

Currently, Voyager 1 is at the furthest reaches of our solar system more than 107 times as far as the Earth is from the sun. Data suggests that the spacecraft is in a region where the environment is changing rapidly and that the protective sphere of the sun's magnetic field -- the heliosphere -- is failing. More cosmic rays seem to be hitting the spacecraft without the cushioning effect of the heliosphere.

From the edges of the solar system, it takes a signal traveling from the spacecraft fifteen hours to reach Earth. Voyager 2 isn't too far behind. It flew by Uranus and Neptune in the 1980s before slipping below the ecliptic. Both have since returned stunning portraits of the whole solar system.

Read more at Discovery News

The Science Behind Saturday's Leap Second

This Saturday, June 30, expect a lengthier day, as an extra leap second will be added to Earthlings' clocks.

What's behind this leap second? The ever-so-slight slowing of Earth's rotation, or the 24-hour spin that brings the sun into our skies every morning.

Historically, humans based time on the average rotation of the Earth relative to other celestial bodies, with the second defined by this frame of reference. However, the invention of atomic clocks — accurate to about one second in 200 million years — brought about a definition of a second independent of Earth's rotation. Instead, they're based on a consistent signal emitted by electrons changing energy states within an atom.

Earth has been falling behind the atomic time at a rate of about 2 milliseconds per day, currently trailing the atomic time by six-tenths of a second. Every now and then a leap second must be added to atomic clocks (and thus all of our clocks) to keep in sync with Earth's oddball rotation.

This Saturday will mark the 25th time a leap second has been added since the practice started in 1972. The most recent leap second occurred in 2008 on New Year's Eve.

Read more at Discovery News

Jun 28, 2012

Maya Archaeologists Unearth New 2012 Monument With 'End Date' of Dec. 21, 2012

Archaeologists working at the site of La Corona in Guatemala have discovered a 1,300-year-old-year Maya text that provides only the second known reference to the so-called "end date" of the Maya calendar, December 21, 2012. The discovery, one of the most significant hieroglyphic finds in decades, was announced June 28 at the National Palace in Guatemala.

"This text talks about ancient political history rather than prophecy," says Marcello A. Canuto, director of Tulane's Middle American Research Institute and co-director of the excavations at La Corona.

Since 2008, Canuto and Tomás Barrientos of the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala have directed excavations at La Corona, a site previously ravaged by looters.

"Last year, we realized that looters of a particular building had discarded some carved stones because they were too eroded to sell on the antiquities black market," said Barrientos, "so we knew they found something important, but we also thought they might have missed something."

What Canuto and Barrientos found was the longest text ever discovered in Guatemala. Carved on staircase steps, it records 200 years of La Corona history, states David Stuart, director of the Mesoamerica Center at The University of Texas at Austin, who was part of a 1997 expedition that first explored the site.

While deciphering these new finds in May, Stuart recognized the 2012 reference on a stairway block bearing 56 delicately carved hieroglyphs. It commemorated a royal visit to La Corona in AD 696 by the most powerful Maya ruler of that time, Yuknoom Yich'aak K'ahk' of Calakmul, only a few months after his defeat by long-standing rival Tikal in AD 695. Thought by scholars to have been killed in this battle, this ruler was visiting allies and allaying their fears after his defeat.

"This was a time of great political turmoil in the Maya region and this king felt compelled to allude to a larger cycle of time that happens to end in 2012," says Stuart.

So, rather than prophesy, the 2012 reference places this king's troubled reign and accomplishments into a larger cosmological framework.

Read more at Science Daily

Ancient 'Cow Woman' Skeleton Called Bizarre

The skeleton of a 1,400-year-old Anglo-Saxon woman buried alongside a cow has emerged from a former children's playground near Cambridge in England, making the "cow woman" an extraordinary unique find.

Described as "hugely exciting" and "bizarre," the burial was uncovered by students from Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Central Lancashire.

The find is believed to be the only one of its kind ever found in Europe.

"Usually it is warrior men who are discovered buried with their animals. Never before have we found a woman buried alongside a cow," Faye Simpson, of the Department of History at Manchester Metropolitan University, said.

Simpson and colleague Duncan Sayer, from the University of Central Lancashire, believe the burial indicates the woman enjoyed a high social status within her community.

"A cow is symbolic of economic and domestic power. In the 5th century this animal was a very important to a community’s survival, so to sacrifice one is highly significant. Such a unique burial indicates the woman's role as regional elite," Simpson told Discovery News.

According to the researchers, the community would have wanted to give the woman something really important to show respect -- something they wouldn't have done for just anybody.

"She was buried in the late 5th century, a significant period after the Roman occupation. The burial demonstrates that the reordering of social boundaries could include important matriarchal figures," Simpson said.

Read more at Discovery News

Slug-Like Animal Resets Date of Animal Life

Researchers have found the first physical proof that animals existed 585 million years ago, which is 30 million years earlier than previously documented, according to a new paper in the journal Science.

The proof isn't much to look at for the untrained eye. It resembles a mark left behind by someone dragging a stick across the ground. But the above image actually shows a fossilized track of a primitive slug-like animal, University of Alberta geologists Ernesto Pecoits and Natalie Aubet conclude. The animal measured about 1/4 of an inch long.

The pattern of the track indicates that the prehistoric slug-ish species likely was searching for organic material to eat in silty sediment. This sediment was at the bottom of a shallow ocean in what is now Uruguay.

The primitive creature was a bilaterian. These animals are bilaterally symmetrical, with their top side  distinguishable from the bottom side.

The track was dated by studying an igneous rock that intruded into siltstone in the area where the tracks were found. Studying the track itself wasn't too complicated, but the dating process took more than two years and involved feedback from a bunch of peer review scientists. The researchers even had to travel back to Uruguay to collect additional samples of the fossilized rock. A technique called mass spectrometry permitted its analysis.

Most early animal life is known to us through such tracks, since the soft bodies of most creatures would long have eroded away.

Read more at Discovery News

Dinosaurs May Have Been Warm-Blooded

Dinosaurs may not have been the slow, sunbathing reptiles researchers used to think. In fact, they may have been warm-blooded, new research suggests.

The researchers studied the "growth lines" on animal bones, which are similar to the growth rings in tree trunks. During slow-growing times like during the winter, they are darker and narrower, while in fast-growing times the bones have lighter, wider bands.

Figuring out if dinosaurs were warm-blooded endotherms (made their own body heat) or were "cold-blooded" ectotherms that relied on outside sources of warmth could illuminate a lot about how they lived, grew and evolved. How warm an animal is has an impact on their metabolism, and therefore how quickly they can grow and have babies.

Of bones and blood

Previously, scientists had thought that growth lines showed up only on the bones of cold-blooded animals, since these animals grow in fits and starts. Warm-blooded animals, like mammals and birds, are assumed to grow continuously, because they keep their temperatures up and have high metabolic rates, continually making energy to grow.

As such, researchers took the growth lines on dinosaur bones as evidence of their cold-bloodedness. Until now.

In this study, the researchers compared the bone lines from the leg bones of more than 100 wild ruminants (warm-blooded mammals like sheep and cows that have multiple stomachs) with seasonal rainfall and temperature cycles and with the animal's core body temperature and resting metabolic rate. The researchers showed that these warm-blooded animals also have bone growth lines indicating fast, yet interrupted yearly growth that depended on how long the "unfavorable" season lasted.

Hot dinos

The growth lines they found on the ruminants were similar to those seen in previous studies of dinosaur bones — indicating that both ruminants and dinosaurs have periods of high growth punctuated by "unfavorable" seasons with limited resources and little growth. This means that dinosaurs were likely warm-blooded like the ruminants.

"The argument we are giving in our paper, rather in favor of endothermy in dinosaurs, is that between the growth and rest lines, there's always a big region of highly vascularized [infiltrated with blood vessels] tissue that indicates very high growth rates," study researcher Meike Köhler, of the Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain, told LiveScience. "This is typical in dinosaurs and very different from reptiles, which have slow growth between the rest lines."

Sauropods were the only dinosaurs where researchers haven't seen growth lines similar to those of ruminants. Previous studies of their teeth indicate they would have had high body temperatures as well, though they might have been big enough for their mass to generate that heat — what researchers call a "gigantotherm." Researchers don't know what their growth lines would have looked like, since no animals alive today are gigantotherms.

Fast growth?

This indicates that "dinosaursalso had very fast growth rates and needed to eat a lot and maintain high generation of heat internally," Kohler said, so they were most likely warm-blooded.

Read more at Discovery News

Jun 27, 2012

New Planet-Weighing Technique Found

Although there have been about 800 extra-solar planets discovered so far in our galaxy, the precise masses of the majority of them are still unknown, as the most-common planet-finding technique provides only a general idea of an object's mass. Previously, the only way to determine a planet's exact mass was if it transits -- has an orbit that periodically eclipses that of its host star. Former Carnegie scientist Mercedes López-Morales has, for the first time, determined the mass of a non-transiting planet.

The work will be published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Knowing a body's mass is essential first to confirm it is a planet and if so, to determine whether it is rocky and possibly habitable or large and gassy. Until now, only the masses of transiting planets have been measured. Transiting planets are also the only type of extra-solar objects on which atmospheres have been detected.

López-Morales, along with her colleagues Florian Rodler and Ignasi Ribas of the Institute of Space Sciences, ICE (CSIC-IEEC, in Barcelona, Spain) measured the exact mass of a non-transiting planet. They did this using a new method that involves studying the carbon monoxide signature of the planet's atmosphere -- detecting, in the process, the atmosphere of this non-transiting planet.

The planet is called Tau Boo b, located in the constellation of Bootes, and it orbits a star about 50 light years from Earth that's bright enough to be visible to the naked eye. The planet is similar in size to Jupiter and is so close to its star (only 8 stellar radii), that a year for this planet asts only 3.3 Earth days. Furthermore, its surface temperature reaches 1,500 ° C, making it inhospitable to life.

Discovered in 1996, Tau Boo b was one of the first planets originally detected by the radial velocity method. This planet does not transit, but its presence and characteristics were initially determined by the wobble of its host star. This technique only provides a rough indication of a detected planet's mass.

In June 2011, López-Morales' team conducted five hours of observations at near infrared wavelength (2.3 microns). They obtained data from the high-resolution spectrograph CRIRES, an instrument mounted on one of the four 8.2m Very Large Telescopes (VLT) of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile.

The observations and subsequent data analysis revealed the presence of carbon monoxide in the planet's atmosphere. In addition, by studying the planet's orbital motion through the displacement of spectral lines of carbon monoxide, the team was able to calculate its exact mass -- 5.6 times Jupiter -- a first using this particular method, and also a first for a non-transiting planet.

An independent study conducted by researchers at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands obtained a similar result for the same planetary system, confirming the potential of this technique.

"This method represents a strong advance in the field of exoplanets," said Lopez-Morales. "It opens a new path to determine masses of exoplanets and the composition of their atmospheres"

Read more at Science Daily

Ancient Human Ancestors Had Unique Diet

When it came to eating, an upright, 2 million-year-old African hominid had a diet unlike virtually all other known human ancestors, says a study led by the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and involving the University of Colorado Boulder.

The study indicated that Australopithecus sediba -- a short, gangly hominid that lived in South Africa -- ate harder foods than other early hominids, targeting trees, bushes and fruits. In contrast, virtually all other ancient human ancestors tested from Africa -- including Paranthropus boisei, dubbed "Nutcracker Man" because of its massive jaws and teeth -- focused more on grasses and sedges, said CU-Boulder doctoral student Paul Sandberg, a co-author on the new study.

The A. sediba diet was analyzed using a technique that involved zapping fossilized teeth with a laser, said Sandberg. The laser frees telltale carbon from the enamel of teeth, allowing scientists to pinpoint the types of plants that were consumed and the environments in which the hominids lived. The carbon signals from the teeth are split into two groups: C3 plants like trees, shrubs and bushes preferred by A. sediba, and C4 plants like grasses and sedges consumed by many other early hominids.

The teeth from the two A. sediba individuals analyzed in the study had carbon isotope values outside the range of all 81 previously tested hominids. "The lack of any C4 evidence, and the evidence for the consumption of hard objects, are what make the inferred diet of these individuals compelling," said Sandberg.

"It is an important finding, because diet is one of the fundamental aspects of an animal, one that drives its behavior and ecological niche. As environments change over time because of shifting climates, animals are generally forced to either move or to adapt to their new surroundings," said Sandberg of CU-Boulder's anthropology department.

The researchers concluded from their scientific tests that bark and other fracture-resistant foods were at least a seasonal part of the A. sediba diet. While bark and woody tissues had not been previously documented as a dietary component of any other ancient African hominids, such foods are consumed by many contemporary primates and contain both protein and soluble sugars. The diet of A. sediba may have been similar to that of today's African savanna chimpanzees, Sandberg said.

One unique aspect of the project was the analysis of microscopic, fossilized particles of plant tissue known as phytoliths trapped in ancient tooth tarter, a hardened form of dental plaque, said corresponding study author Amanda Henry of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

"The fact that these phytoliths are preserved in the teeth of 2 million-year-old hominids is remarkable and speaks to the amazing preservation at the site," said Sandberg. "The phytolith data suggest the A. sediba individuals were avoiding the grasses growing in open grasslands that were abundant in the region at the time."

A third, independent line of study -- analyzing microscopic pits and scratches on A. sediba teeth, which reveal what they were eating at the time just prior to death -- also confirmed that at least one of the hominids was eating harder foods, said Sandberg.

A paper on the subject was published online by Nature on June 27. Other paper authors included Professor Matt Sponheimer of CU-Boulder, Peter Ungar of the University of Arkansas, Benjamin Passey of Johns Hopkins University, Lloyd Rossouw of the Bloemfontein National Museum in Bloemfontein, South Africa, Lee Berger and Marion Bamford of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa and Darryl de Ruiter of Texas A&M University.

A. sediba is particularly intriguing to anthropologists. The first two individuals discovered -- a juvenile male and an adult female from the Malapa Cave site roughly 30 miles north of Johannesburg in 2008 --apparently had fallen into a hidden pit in the cave and died. With an upright posture and long arms, the curious creature appears to have characteristics of both primitive and modern hominids, including a human-like ankle, short fingers and a long thumb for possible precision gripping and a relatively complex brain compared to earlier hominids, according to researchers.

The jury is still out on exactly where these hominids land on the family tree. A. sediba may have been a descendant of A. africanus, which was spawned by A. afarensis, a hominid represented by "Lucy" who lived about three million years ago and is considered by many to be the matriarch of the human family.

The A. sediba remains at Malapa were dated to 2 million years by scientists, a precise number obtained by measuring the decay of isotopes of uranium into lead that occurred in a type of mineral deposit known as flowstone that capped the fossil-bearing layer.

Paleontological evidence, including pollen and phytoliths, shows that the region around Malapa likely was a mix of abundant grassland and woody vegetation about 2 million years ago, said Sandberg. The team's carbon isotope research on the ancient teeth of rodents and hooved mammals that inhabited the region at the time indicated they had a strong affinity for C4 grasses and sedges.

Read more at Science Daily

New View of Exoplanets Will Aid Search for E.T.

Astronomers have developed a new method to probe the atmospheres of extrasolar planets, which should greatly expand the search for planets that have the right temperature and composition for life.

The technique allowed researchers to precisely calculate the mass of a planet named Tau Bootis b for the first time since its discovery 15 years ago.

“The coolest thing about this technique is we basically can now see the planet itself and its orbital movement,” said astronomer Simon Albrecht of MIT, who co-authored a paper describing the method and the Tau Bootis b findings, which appeared June 28 in Nature.

Researchers have several ways of learning about exoplanets. One of the most common and useful methods is used by the Kepler space telescope, which watches to see if the brightness of a star periodically dips, indicating that a planet is passing in front and eclipsing its light. When the exoplanet is just at the star’s edge, starlight can seep through the planet’s atmosphere, carrying a fingerprint of the atmospheric composition when it arrives at telescopes on Earth. Researchers can also sometimes block out a star’s light and directly image an exoplanet, but only when it is farther from its star than Pluto is from our sun.

Alternatively, astronomers closely observe a star to see if it wobbles slightly, signifying that a planet is gravitationally tugging on its host star. With this technique, no light from the planet is typically observed. Albrecht, working with a team led by astronomer Matteo Brogi of Leiden University in the Netherlands, tweaked this later method to get new information about the planet orbiting the star Tau Bootis, a yellow-white star slightly larger and hotter than our sun located 51 light-years away in the constellation Bootes. Since 1996, astronomers have known that Tau Bootis hosts a Jupiter-mass planet that flies around the host star every three days.

By looking carefully at the light coming from Tau Bootis, the researchers were able to tease out certain wavelengths of light that were changing in a characteristic way.

For a day and a half, the wavelengths would get longer, or redshifted, as the planet moved away from us. Then the wavelengths would grow shorter, or blueshifted, for the same amount of time, precisely matching up with the known orbit of the exoplanet. This is known as the Doppler effect, occurring because the frequency of a light or sound wave changes when it’s moving, such as when an ambulance’s pitch increases as it gets closer.

These wobbling wavelengths allowed the team to accurately trace the planet’s orbit, thereby measuring its mass, which is now known to be about six times that of Jupiter. The method also provided information about the planet’s atmosphere, indicating that it contained carbon monoxide.

Soon, the team hopes to look for other molecules, such as methane and hydrogen, and is already applying their technique to probe planets around other stars, said Albrecht. With better telescopes, they may be able to pick up biosignatures such as carbon and oxygen in the atmospheres of Earth-like planets.

“In the future, it will be one of the ways that we can search for these molecules of life,” said Albrecht.

Since only about 1 in 100 exoplanets transit their host star, “we can increase our list of potential targets by a factor of 10 or more,” said planetary scientist Heather Knutson of Caltech, who was not involved in the work. “It really opens up the door for a whole range of exciting measurements.”

But the information gleaned about Tau Bootis’s exoplanet came from one of the most favorable and nearby exoplanets and represents the limit of current telescopes, said astronomer David Charbonneau of Harvard, who was also not involved in the new work.

Read more at Wired Science

Dolphins, Humans Share 'Brainy' Genes

A close look at the dolphin genome reveals striking similarities between dolphins and humans.

The new study, published in the latest Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggests that certain genetic features have led to the convergent evolution of large brains and complex cognition in a handful of species, including dolphins and humans.

“It has long been realized that dolphins rank among the most intelligent mammals, and they can do many things that great apes can do such as mirror self-recognition, communication, mimicry, and cultural transmission,” lead author Michael McGowen told Discovery News, adding that dolphin brains are also “distinct and different.”

McGowen is a researcher in the Center for Molecular Medicine and Evolution at Detroit's Wayne State University School of Medicine. He and colleagues Lawrence Grossman and Derek Wildman compared approximately 10,000 protein coding genes culled from the dolphin genome with comparable genes from 9 other animals: a cow, horse, dog, mouse, human, elephant, opossum, platypus and chicken. Out of that group, cows are most closely related to dolphins. The two animals are separated by 70 million years of history, however.

Similarities immediately became evident between dolphins, humans and elephants. All are animals known for their big brains and intelligence.

First, the scientists determined that the big brained trio have genes supporting a slow molecular rate. McGowen explained that this feature “has been connected to mammals with similar life histories, such as species with large generation times, large parental investment, and small effective population size. It happens that many of these species also have large brains, such as apes, elephants and cetaceans.”

The researchers also found that these brainy animals had an adaptive evolution of their nervous system genes, proving that quality and not just quantity is important. In other words for brain function, size isn’t everything. McGowen said that, in the brain, “folding, number of synapses, ratio of white matter to gray matter,” and other factors appear to be predictable measures of intelligence.

The scientists also identified molecular signatures of metabolic evolution. This leads to a chicken and egg-type question: Which came first, the big brain or the changes to metabolism?

McGowen believes the latter evolved first.

“The big brain needs fuel, so we would guess that the changes to metabolism enabled the evolution of a big brain,” he explained. “It’s interesting that we are seeing the same modifications to the same groups of genes in lineages with large brains—primates, cetaceans, elephants. These include metabolic genes that provide the fuel for a brain, seeing as nervous tissue requires a lot more energy than other cells.”

Dolphins additionally were discovered to have genes involved in human intellectual disorders and sleep. The former strongly suggests that those same genes are tied to intelligence, and “could be involved in the amazing cognitive capacity of dolphins,” McGowen said.

As for sleep, the scientists found that a particular gene shared with humans and involved in wakefulness is altered in dolphins.

“Dolphins have an unusual form of sleep, in which only one side of the brain goes to sleep at a time, and during this state they continue to swim and have some awareness,” he said. “This is exciting that we found a gene that could be related to this unusual distinctive feature.”

Read more at Discovery News

Jun 26, 2012

Astronomers Discover Galaxy They Thought Couldn’t Exist

Astronomers have spotted one of the rarest and most extreme galaxy clusters in the universe and, behind it, an object that shouldn’t exist.

Galaxy clusters are collections of galaxies that orbit one another and are the most massive objects in the universe. The newly discovered cluster, first detected by the Hubble space telescope, is over 500 trillion times the mass of the sun. It is located approximately 10 billion light-years away. Because looking out into the distant cosmos means also looking back in time, the cluster formed during an era when the universe was a quarter its present age.

The cluster, named IDCS J1426.5+3508, is extreme because during this period in cosmic history, massive collections of galaxies were just beginning to form. Only one other cluster of comparable size has been seen at this distance and it is a lightweight compared to IDCS J1426.5+3508.

Adding to the object’s strangeness, a mysterious arc of blue light was seen just behind the galaxy cluster. Astronomers think this indicates another massive star-forming galaxy located even further away at an even earlier epoch.

Light from this more distant — and yet unnamed – galaxy has been highly distorted by an effect known as gravitational lensing. The gargantuan mass of the galaxy cluster bends and twists light coming from the distant galaxy, creating the strange blue arc.

The farther galaxy is estimated to be 10 to 13 billion light-years away and have a mass approximately 70 trillion times the sun.

The astronomers who spotted the blue arc calculated that the odds of finding such a massive galaxy so distant in the universe are practically nil: “For the observed magnitudes we expect to find no arcs over the entire sky as bright,” the team writes in one of three papers outlining their findings, published online in The Astrophysical Journal June 26.

Read more at Wired Science

Mysterious Structures Found in Syrian Desert

An ancient landscape of stone circles, alignments and possible tombs lies out in the Syrian Desert, according to a Royal Ontario Museum archaeologist who has dubbed the mysterious structures "Syria's Stonehenge."

"These enigmatic arrangements are not especially imposing, they are not megaliths or anything like that, but they are very intriguing and clearly deliberately aligned," Robert Mason of Canada's Royal Ontario Museum told Discovery News.

Uncovered in 2009 near the monastery of Deir Mar Musa (Saint Moses the Abyssinian) some 50 miles north of Damascus, the strange features are likely to remain a desert mystery since the conflict tearing apart the Middle Eastern nation is preventing archaeologists from investigating the site.

Analysis of fragments of stone tools scattered in the area may date the formations to the Neolithic Period or early Bronze Age-- 6,000 to 10,000 years ago.

According to Mason, the stones are arranged to stand out from the empty landscape.

"There is nothing that seems to exhibit evidence of occupation - no houses or occupation at all. This is unusual for the Neolithic in that typically people lived where they buried their dead and worshipped," Mason said.

"As such it may reflect the development of the concept of a 'land of the dead' distinct from a 'land of the living' which has been hypothesised for Neolithic ritual sites in Europe. However it may also reflect a seasonal population that left very limited occupation evidence," he added.

The only building in the area is the monastery, which was built in the late 4th or early 5th century and decorated with 11th and 12th century frescoes depicting Christian scenes and Judgment Day.

According to Mason, the monastery was originally a Roman watchtower that was partially destroyed by an earthquake and then rebuilt.

The archaeologist was looking for lost Roman watchtowers when he stumbled across the strange features.

"The centre of the complex that I found is a natural rock formation that had been the site of quarrying for chert," Mason said.

Built against the quarry face were corbelled constructions about 7 feet across that would have been originally closed over in beehive-like structures.

"These have every appearance of being tombs. Radiating out from this rock were alignments of stones -- nothing big, but deliberately aligned and typically ending in one or more corbelled structure," Mason said.

He noticed that those distal tombs were associated with small circles of stones, about  20 feet across.

"Desert kites" -- walls used to corral and trap migrating gazelle - were also present in the area.

"It looked like one of the corbelled structures had been robbed of stone for construction of the kite. This would possibly suggest three phases on the site: quarry, tombs and alignments, and kite," Mason said.

Similar structures have been found near Palmyra and Northern Syria in the desert, but researchers could not find any associated dating evidence.

Read more at Discovery News

The Universe: No God Required

Those trouble-making physicists are at it again.

During a panel discussion at the SETIcon II conference in Santa Clara, Calif., over the weekend, scientists discussed the Big Bang and whether there was a requirement for some divine power to kick-start the Universe 13.75 billion years ago.

Unsurprisingly, the resounding answer was: No.

"The Big Bang could've occurred as a result of just the laws of physics being there," said astrophysicist Alex Filippenko of the University of California, Berkeley. "With the laws of physics, you can get universes."

However, Filippenko, a speaker on the "Did the Big Bang Require a Divine Spark?" panel, stopped short of saying there is no god -- he's merely pointing out that the birth of the Universe didn't require an intervening omnipotent being to get the whole thing started. The laws of physics, pure and simple, sparked universal creation.

He then meandered into a classic chicken-and-egg argument: "The question, then, is, 'Why are there laws of physics?' And you could say, 'Well, that required a divine creator, who created these laws of physics and the spark that led from the laws of physics to these universes, maybe more than one.'

"The 'divine spark' was whatever produced the laws of physics. And I don't know what produced that divine spark. So let's just leave it at the laws of physics."

British astrophysicist and author Stephen Hawking, on the other hand, cares little for society's belief in supernatural beings (or subtlety for that matter). In his 2010 book, "The Grand Design," Hawking said, "Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist."

A "spontaneous Big Bang" is something SETI Institute astronomer Seth Shostak, also a speaker at the SETIcon II panel, agrees with.

"Quantum mechanical fluctuations can produce the cosmos," said Shostak. "If you would just, in this room, just twist time and space the right way, you might create an entirely new universe. It's not clear you could get into that universe, but you would create it.

"So it could be that this universe is merely the science fair project of a kid in another universe. I don't know how that affects your theological leanings, but it is something to consider."

Whenever leading scientists get embroiled in the debate about the existence of God or a god's involvement in the Big Bang, I cringe. There's little doubt that there's a debate to be had, but until physicists stumble across a bona fide theory of everything, or theologists find physical proof of a god, discussions such as this get stuck in an infinite feedback loop.

Last year, Hawking went "all in" and sparked a wave of controversy when he said that there is no God and there is no heaven.

In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Hawking didn't hold back: "I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark."

Filippenko is deliberately vague on whether or not god (or, indeed, heaven) exists. "I don't think you can use science to either prove or disprove the existence of God," he said.

Hawking would likely disagree.

Read more at Discovery News

Highest Man-Made Temperature: 4 TRILLION Degrees

The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Laboratory doesn't have anywhere near the name recognition of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. But for the time being, it can lay claim to its own impressive achievement: it's just been recognized by Guinness World Records for achieving the "Highest Manmade Temperature." Go, RHIC!

The honor comes courtesy of the STAR (Solenoidal Tracker at RHIC) collaboration, designed to study the formation and characteristics of the quark-gluon plasma (QGP), a state of matter believed to have existed for ten-millionths of a second after the universe's birth.

In those first fractions of a second, the universe was so hot that no nuclei could exist. Instead, there was the QGP, made of quarks and gluons (the massless particles that "carry" the force between quarks). But making this exotic plasma in a laboratory requires enormous energies.

That's where RHIC comes in. In RHIC's 2.4-mile-long ring, gold ions whip around the ring in both directions at once, further accelerated by strategically placed coils of wire that emit radiofrequency radiation. There are six different sites around the ring where collisions can occur.

When those gold nuclei collide head-on, a hot, dense plasma of quarks and gluons forms -- or, more accurately, something akin to a near-frictionless liquid (a very surprising result, needless to say).

The folks at Guinness are right: It is the hottest temperature yet created by mankind: 4 trillion degrees Celsius, 250,000 times hotter than the center of the sun.

And here's the fascinating bit: physicists have now observed the same "near perfect liquid" state of matter at temperatures near absolute zero.

That's a whopping ten million trillion times colder than RHIC's quark-gluon plasma, according to Brookhaven physicist Steve Vigdor. "This is just one among many unexpected connections we've found between RHIC physics and other scientific forefronts," he told the Bits and Bytes blog. "The unity of physics is a beautiful thing!"

As impressive as this achievement is, RHIC has some pretty stiff competition coming down the pike, by the name of ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment). ALICE is one of the other major collaborations at the LHC. Unlike ATLAS and CMS, which are focused on hunting for the Higgs boson, ALICE is focused on studying the QCP and other conditions in the primordial universe.

Read more and see video at Discovery News

Jun 25, 2012

Hubble Views Globular Cluster M10

Like many of the most famous objects in the sky, globular cluster Messier 10 was of little interest to its discoverer. Charles Messier, the 18th century French astronomer, cataloged over 100 galaxies and clusters, but was primarily interested in comets. Through the telescopes available at the time, comets, nebulae, globular clusters and galaxies appeared just as faint, diffuse blobs and could easily be confused for one another.

Only by carefully observing their motion -- or lack of it -- were astronomers able to distinguish them: comets move slowly relative to the stars in the background, while other more distant astronomical objects do not move at all.

Messier's decision to catalog all the objects that he could find, and that were not comets, was a pragmatic solution which would have a huge impact on astronomy. His catalog of just over 100 objects includes many of the most famous objects in the night sky. Messier 10, seen here in an image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, is one of them. Messier described it in the very first edition of his catalog, which was published in 1774 and included the first 45 objects he identified.

Messier 10 is a ball of stars that lies about 15,000 light-years from Earth, in the constellation of Ophiuchus (The Serpent Bearer). Approximately 80 light-years across, it should therefore appear about two thirds the size of the moon in the night sky. However, its outer regions are extremely diffuse, and even the comparatively bright core is too dim to see with the naked eye.

Hubble, which has no problems seeing faint objects, has observed the brightest part of the center of the cluster in this image, a region which is about 13 light-years across.

This image is made up of observations made in visible and infrared light using Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys. The observations were carried out as part of a major Hubble survey of globular clusters in the Milky Way.

Read more at Science Daily

Complex Thinking Behind the Bow and Arrow

University of Tübingen and South African researchers have revealed sophisticated design and technology developed by early humans.

The bow and arrow have long been regarded as a possible indicator of culture in prehistoric times. Bows and arrows appear to have been in use for some 64,000 years, given evidence from South Africa. Until recently, their significance in human cognitive ability was unclear. Now two researchers have been able to decode the conceptual foundations of the bow and arrow. The results of the study, by Miriam Haidle of the Heidelberg Academy's ROCEEH project (sponsored by the Senckenberg Research Institute) and the University of Tübingen and Marlize Lombard of the University of Johannesburg, appear in the latest edition of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.

Using archaeological finds and ethnological parallels, the two researchers reconstructed the steps needed to make a bow and arrows. These are complimentary tools -- separate, but developed interdependently. The bow is the controlling element, while the arrows can be used more flexibly and are interchangeable. About 2.5 million years ago, humans first used tools to make other tools then to make tools assembled from different parts to make a unit with particular qualities, such as wooden spears with stone spearheads (ca. 200,000-300,000 years ago.) The bow and arrow and other complementary tool sets made it possible for prehistoric humans to greatly increase the flexibility of their reactions.

There are many basic complementary tool sets: needle and thread, fishing rod and line, hammer and chisel. The bow and arrow are a particularly complex example. The reconstruction of the technique shows that no less than ten different tools are needed to manufacture a simple bow and arrows with foreshafts. It takes 22 raw materials and three semi-finished goods (binding materials, multi-component glue) and five production phases to make a bow, and further steps to make the arrows to go with it. The study was able to show a high level of complexity in the use of tools at an early stage in the history of homo sapiens.

The Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities project "The Role of Culture in Early Expansions of Humans" (ROCEEH) incorporates archaeologists, paleoanthropologists, palaeobiologists and geographers, working together to find out where the first humans arose, where they moved to in Africa and Eurasia, and why. The project covers the time between three million years ago and the last glacial maximum 20,000 years ago.

Read more at Science Daily

Creative Individuals Travelled to the South Swedish Inland 9,000 Years Ago

Despite its good ecologic status, there were no permanent settlements in the south Swedish inland 9,000 years ago. Yet the area was visited by people who wanted to express their individuality and creativity and thereby gain status. This is found in a new doctoral thesis from the University of Gothenburg.

Carl Persson's doctoral thesis in Archaeology is based on archaeological material discovered in connection with the construction of the E4 highway by Markaryd, Sweden. The finds consisted of a few very small pieces of flint that had been left behind in connection with visits to what used to be a small island in the outlet of a long-gone lake. The wear marks on the flint fragments reveal that they were used to carve meat, bone, wood and horn. The wear marks combined with computer-aided analyses of the phosphate levels in the ground and the distribution of the finds has yielded a detailed account of people's visits to the site some 9,000 years ago.

'It is generally believed that conclusions about Stone Age life require large amounts of archaeological finds, but the results in my thesis contradict that notion,' says Persson.

To put the site in a larger context, Persson reconstructed the Mesolithic landscape through computer-aided analyses. It turns out that the landscape has changed dramatically -- 9,000 years ago the now brown lakes were clear and full of nutrients and had a high pH level. The average temperature was much higher than today and the dense forests were full of lush broad-leaved trees.

'Yet despite the good ecologic conditions, the area didn't attract many people in the first millennia after the Ice Age. Analyses show that the inland probably wasn't permanently inhabited during the Mesolithic period (10,000-4,000 BC), but that people did come to visit,' says Persson.

Traces from the inland visits are almost always found near waterways and lakes, and analyses of the finds indicate that different groups have travelled to the inland with different ambitions. The visits are probably due to the fact that people moved across very large areas 9,000 years ago. The extensive travel had to do with the extremely low population density -- in order to meet other people you had to travel far and have broad social networks.

Read more at Science Daily

Rome Icon Actually Younger Than the City

The icon of Rome's foundation, a life-size bronze statue of a she-wolf with two human infants suckling her, is about 1,700 years younger than its city, Rome's officials admitted on Saturday.

The official announcement, made at the Capitoline Museums, where the 30 inch-high bronze is the centerpiece of a dedicated room, quashes the belief that the sculpture was adopted by the earliest Romans as a symbol for their city.

"The new dating ranges between 1021 e il 1153," said Lucio Calcagnile, who carried radiocarbon tests at the University of Salento's Center for Dating e Diagnostics.

Recalling the story of a she-wolf which fed Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome, and his twin brother, Remus, after they had been thrown in a basket into the Tiber River, the so called "Lupa Capitolina" (Capitoline she-wolf) was donated to the museum in 1471 by Pope Sixtus IV.

The sculpture was thought to be either the product of an Etruscan workshop in the 5th century B.C. or the masterpiece of the 6th century B.C. Etruscan sculptor Vulca of Veii.

Considered the archetypal symbol of Rome, as potent as the Colosseum, St Peter's Basilica and the Trevi Fountain, the Capitoline she-wolf was used in the poster of the 1960 Rome Olympics and is one of the most popular items among souvenir sellers in Rome.

With her defiant stance and raised eyebrows, the Lupa Capitolina was also one of the favored images of Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator, who considered himself the founder of the New Rome.

Scholars had long established that the bronze figures of Romulus and Remus were added in the Renaissance, in accordance to the legend of Rome's foundation. Yet the sculture's link to antiquity wasn't seriously questioned until the 1997 restoration.

At that time, restorer Anna Maria Carruba  noticed that the she-wolf was cast as a single unit, a technique typically used in the Middle Ages.

On the contrary, ancient bronzes were cast in separate parts, and then brazed together. First used by the Greeks and then adopted by Etruscan and Roman artists, the technique basically consisted of brazing the separate joints using bronze as welding material.

After much discussion, Rome's officials decided to carry more in-depth tests to clear any doubt.

Using accelerator mass spectrometry, the researchers extracted, analyzed and radiocarbon dated organic samples from the casting process. The results revealed with an accuracy by 95,4 percent that the sculpture was crafted between the 11th and 12th century AD.

"The new thesis is that it is a medieval copy of an original Etruscan work," Rome’s municipality supervisor for culture, Umberto Broccoli, said.

He remarked that the Etruscan attribution was first made by 18th-century German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann on the basis of how the wolf’s fur was represented.

Read more at Discovery News

Jun 24, 2012

Googly-Eyed Talisman Discovered

A newly identified googly-eyed artifact may have been used by the ancient Egyptians to magically protect children and pregnant mothers from evil forces.

Made of faience, a delicate material that contains silica, the pale-green talisman of sorts dates to sometime in the first millennium B.C. It shows the dwarf god Bes with his tongue sticking out, eyes googly, wearing a crown of feathers. A hole at the top of the face was likely used to suspend it like a bell, while a second hole, used to hold the bell clapper, was apparently drilled into it in antiquity.

Carolyn Graves-Brown, a curator at the Egypt Centre, discovered the artifact in the collection of Woking College, the equivalent of a high school for juniors and seniors. The college has more than 50 little-studied Egyptian artifacts, which were recently lent to the Egypt Centre at Swansea University where they are being studied and documented.

Graves-Brown told LiveScience in an interview that at first she didn't know what the object was. It wasn't until she learned of a similar artifact in the British Museum that she was able to determine that it is a faience Bes bell, one of a very few known to exist.

"If you try to rattle it much it would (have) broken easily," she said.

However, while faience is breakable, it held magical properties. "Faience is very often used for objects that have a magical or religious significance in ancient Egypt," Graves-Brown said.

Making the find more intriguing is the quirky character of Bes himself. A dwarf god and protector of pregnant mothers and young children, Bes may look goofy to us with his tongue sticking out, however, his appearance, tongue and all, had a purpose. Graves-Brown explained that he would sometimes bare sharp teeth and "it's assumed, but it's not known, that this [appearance] was supposed to scare off evil spirits and evil entities." That may well have been the intent of this object. Flinders Petrie, an archaeologist who encountered items similar to this, wrote in 1914 in his book "Amulets" (Constable and Company, 1914) that bells like these were probably "worn by children against the evil eye."

Read more at Discovery News

See the Big Dipper in the Summer Night Sky

If you step outside and look skyward as soon as darkness falls on these summer evenings, chances are you'll be able to pick out one of the most prominent and recognizable celestial patterns: the Big Dipper.

If you live in the Northern Hemisphere you only need to look high toward the northwest sky to find the seven bright stars that make up the famous Big Dipper. For most stargazers, the Big Dipper is probably the most important group of stars in the sky.

For anyone at the latitude of New York (41 degrees north) or all points northward, the Big Dipper never sinks below the horizon. It is one of the most recognizable star patterns in the sky and therefore one of the easiest for the novice to find.

In other parts of the world, these seven stars are known not as a Dipper, but as some sort of a wagon.

In Ireland, for instance, it was recognized as "King David's Chariot," from one of the island's early kings; in France, it was the "Great Chariot." Another popular name was Charles' Wain (a wain being a large open farm wagon). And in the British Isles, these seven stars are widely known as "The Plough." There is even a reference in the Bible: Amos 5:8 refers to it as "the seven stars."

The Drinking Gourd

The Big Dipper is not a constellation in itself, but rather only a part of a much larger group of stars that is officially recognized as a constellation: Ursa Major, the Great Bear. The origin of the Big Dipperitself has been a source of frustration to some constellation historians. Where exactly did this name come from?

Nobody seems to know. Some believe that it may have originated from Africa, where it was sometimes seen as a drinking gourd.

In America during the latter half of the 19th century, runaway slaves would "follow the Drinking Gourd" to the north and freedom. It was during this time that astronomy books began making reference to the "Great Dipper." Sometime during the early 20th century, the word "Big" replaced "Great" in most astronomy textbooks.

A Guide to the North Star

Of greatest importance is the ability to use the Big Dipper to locate Polaris, the North Star. This is made possible by the two bright stars that mark the outer edge of the bowl of the Big Dipper.

These two stars -- Dubhe and Merak — are known as the Pointers, because they always point to Polaris. To find the North Star, just draw an imaginary line between these two stars and prolong it about 5 times; the line will ultimately hit a moderately bright star, which is Polaris.

Older than the Average Bear

The fact that the Big Dipper also formed a bear to American Indians and to cultures of the Old World and Siberia suggests that our Ursa Major is a very ancient star pattern.

Long ago, when the forms of animals and heroes were pictured against the stars, a large bear was represented in this particular region, a bear with a surprisingly long tail (because the Dipper has a long handle). In fact, it is a piece of Stone Age culture that is probably at least 8,000 to 12,000 years old, which is the estimated era of the last migration from Siberia to North America across the Bering Strait.

In fact, the far-northern region of the world, where this starry figure wheels high in the heavens, came to be known as the Arctic region — the abode of Arktos, which in Greek literally meant "bearish."

Star Spangled Banner

The Big Dipper also graces a state flag in the United States. We can thank a 13-year-old boy, John Bell "Benny" Benson, with the celestial design that now adorns the Alaska state flag. Benson, who lived in the village of Chignik, entered a contest sponsored by the Alaska Department of the American Legion in 1926.

The prize — a $1,000 trip to Washington, D.C. and a gold watch engraved with the flag — was awarded to Benson in 1927. But because his father was ill and then-President Calvin Coolidge was out of the country, Benson never made the trip. Instead, the $1,000 was put toward his education instead. The Territorial Legislature adopted the flag in May 1927 as Alaska's official flag, and when Alaska entered the Union in 1959, the territorial flag was adopted for official state use.

Young Benson's design was selected for its simplicity, originality and symbolism. The flag's blue field represents the Alaska's evening sky, the blue of the sea and of mountain lakes, as well as the state's wildflowers.

Emblazoned on the flag are eight gold stars: seven of which belong to the constellation of Ursa Major, and form the Big Dipper. The eighth star incorporated into the flag is Polaris, the North Star.

Ursa Major was chosen because it was considered to be the most conspicuous constellation in the northern sky, while Polaris is the ever-constant star for the mariner, the explorer, hunter, trapper, prospector, woodsman and the surveyor.

Read more at Discovery News