Oct 26, 2012

Penis Worms Show the Evolution of the Digestive System

A team of scientists has revealed that the enigmatic marine penis worms (priapulids) develop their intestine as humans, fish or starfish. This surprising finding shows that very different animals share a common way of forming a gut.

A research team led by Dr. Andreas Hejnol from the Sars International Centre for Marine Molecular Biology in Norway, examined the formation of the gut and the expression of genes needed to form the mouth and the anus in priapulid embryos. Priapulids are an obscure group of marine worms that live in shallow waters.

"Surprisingly, priapulids form the gut like humans, fish, frogs, starfish and sea urchins -and all of them even use the same genes. It does not mean that these penis worms are now closely related to humans. Instead the fact that different animals share a common way of forming the gut suggests that the embryological origins of the human intestine and how it develops are much older than previously thought -- most likely over 500 million years, when the first bilaterally symmetric animals appeared on Earth" remarks Hejnol.

The study, featured online on the 25th of October in the journal Current Biology, represents the first description of the entire embryonic development of these enigmatic animals.

"Priapulids are important for understanding the evolution of animals, because they are thought to be among the first bilaterally symmetric animals and have changed very little since the Earth's Cambrian Period" says first author Dr José M. Martín-Durán.

Bilaterally symmetric animals (99% of all animals) are those with a left and right body side. Historically, they have been divided into two large groups based on major differences in how the gut develops in the embryo. The intestine is an essential organ, and that is why it is present in nearly all animal species. The gut develops very early, when some cells move towards the inside of the embryo, usually at a defined region that is called the 'blastopore'.

"The important point is that in some animals this region becomes the mouth, while in others it becomes the anus. For more than a century, this difference has captivated scientists, but there is not a completely satisfactory explanation for it yet" explains Hejnol.

The work shows how important it is to study the vast diversity of animals found in the oceans.

"Priapulids still hide a lot of secrets to unravel, which will have a great influence on our understanding of the origin of other major organs, such as the brain, blood or legs" concludes Hejnol.

They reproduce in winter time, so the scientists have to travel regularly to the west coast of Sweden during the ice-cold season to get a hold of them.

Read more at Science Daily

Why is Fear Fun?

With Halloween approaching, it's hard to avoid ghosts, goblins and other spooky decorations. But some people go even further, seeking out horror movies and convoluted haunted houses that are designed to scare the living daylights out of them.

What possesses people to seek out experiences that make them tremble with fear?

Enjoyment likely comes not from the fear itself, experts say, but from the physical and emotional release that follows scary situations.

For some people, the urge to feel fear also represents one manifestation of a sensation-seeking personality drawn to adrenaline-pumping activities like skydiving, rollercoasters or even drugs. Horror may even give people an opportunity to identify with or wage battle against their own psychological monsters.

"Fear is a negative emotion that comes about when people are under siege or threat, and that is not pleasant," said Glenn Sparks, a professor of communication who studies the media's effects on people at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

"After researching this as long as I have, I have not seen any empirical evidence that people actually enjoy the emotional experience of fright," he added. "Instead, I see evidence that people are enjoying other things that go along with this experience."

The desire to be afraid is far from universal. In surveys, Sparks said, only about a third of people said they seek out scary entertainment. A third actively avoid it. And the rest occupy a middle ground where they can accept some fear if it's not too extreme and if the overall nature of the experience is interesting to them.

Even for people who like horror movies, the habit causes negative emotions that often linger. Because distressing feelings are stored in the brain's amygdala, which is particularly resistant to letting go, the scariest films can continue to spook people for a long time.

After seeing the movie Jaws for the first time, for example, many people refused to swim in the ocean. After watching Psycho, a lot of viewers couldn't take a shower without peeking behind the curtain first. And The Exorcist scared people so badly that they had to be hospitalized for psychological fall-out.

And yet, dedicated horror fans keep coming back for more. One reason is a phenomenon known as "excitation transfer." When scared, the body undergoes spikes in heart rate, breathing rate and muscle tension, among other involuntary responses. And that kind of arousal is not necessarily pleasant.

But when the extreme sense of excitement wears off, it is replaced by an equally intense sense of relief, and those positive feelings are stronger than they would have been otherwise. A sense of mastery can also come from enduring a frightening situation and emerging triumphant.

"People may remember a haunted house at Halloween or a scary movie and they think, 'I really felt good after that,'" Sparks said. "They're remembering the intense positive emotions they had afterwards, not necessarily that the enjoyed the feeling of fear at all. There was something about the experience they remember as good, even though they know there were negative things, too."

Horror also incorporates an element of sex. In a 1986 experiment, teenage boys and girls watched scary videos in pairs. Unbeknownst to the other person, one member of the pair was instructed to follow a certain script that either conformed to or rejected stereotypical gender roles.

When girls acted scared, the boys they were with found them more attractive than if they talked about how lame the movie was, the researchers found. Likewise, girls were more attracted to boys who acted brave and unfazed by frightening imagery."

"Horror movies are very huggable movies because people sit there and grab each other," said Stuart Fischcoff, a retired psychologist and screenwriter who is now the senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology. "Boys can role-play being a man and girls can role-play being a damsel in distress."

Read more at Discovery News

'Zombie Exoplanet' Back From the Dead?

An enormous alien planet that some astronomers thought was dead and buried has come back to life, a new study suggests.

A new analysis of observations from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope found that the bright nearby star Fomalhaut does indeed host a huge exoplanet, which scientists dubbed a "zombie" world in an aptly Halloween-themed video on the alien planet. This conclusion contradicts other recent studies, which determined that the so-called planet -- known as Fomalhaut b -- is actually just a giant dust cloud

"Given what we know about the behavior of dust and the environment where the planet is located, we think that we're seeing a planetary object that is completely embedded in dust rather than a free-floating dust cloud," co-author John Debes, of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, said in a statement.

The saga of Fomalhaut b began in November 2008, when Hubble astronomers announced that a planet circled Fomalhaut, which lies 25 light-years away in the constellation Piscis Austrinus. Fomalhaut b was the first alien world ever directly imaged in visible light, they said.

The planet was spotted just inside a vast debris ring surrouding but slightly offest from the star. Based on Fomalhaut b's location and mass -- estimated to be less than three times that of Jupiter -- astronomers thought the planet's gravitational pull likely explained the ring's appearance.

But other scientists subsequently cast doubt on Fomalhaut b's existence. Some have argued that the object is just a short-lived dust cloud, citing the brightness variations reported by the discovery team and the fact that NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has been unable to pick up its infrared signature.

The doubters also pointed to Fomalhaut b's apparent motion, saying it was moving in an orbit too fast and out of line with the debris disk to have sculpted it.

But the new study detects the planet all over again, in a fresh analysis of Hubble observations from 2004 and 2006. The research team spotted Fomalhaut b in three different wavelengths of visible light. The astronomers did not detect any brightness variations this time around, further bolstering Fomalhaut b's planethood case.

"Although our results seriously challenge the original discovery paper, they do so in a way that actually makes the object's interpretation much cleaner and leaves intact the core conclusion -- that Fomalhaut b is indeed a massive planet," said lead author Thayne Currie, an astronomer formerly at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and now at the University of Toronto.

The new study also pins down Fomalhaut b's orbital characteristics, finding that the planet's gravity could indeed be shaping the debris disk, researchers said.

"What we've seen from our analysis is that the object's minimum distance from the disk has hardly changed at all in two years, which is a good sign that it's in a nice ring-sculpting orbit," said co-author Timothy Rodigas  of the University of Arizona.

Read more at Discovery News

What Happened at the OK Corral?

On Oct. 26, 1881, four men met at the corner of Fifth and Allen Streets in the bustling silver mining town of Tombstone, Arizona. They walked north on Fifth, turned left on Fremont Street and headed toward a vacant lot next to the OK Corral.

Minutes later, three men would be dead, and the four men who had walked to the corral and killed them – Tombstone marshal Virgil Earp, his brothers Wyatt and Morgan, and Wyatt’s friend Doc Holliday – had unknowingly secured their places in history.

The Gunfight at the OK Corral is arguably the single most famous incident in the Old West. But what was it about? And why has it, above all the many other gunfights that took place in the era of frontier justice, achieved such infamy?

To understand the gunfight, you have to first understand the town. Tombstone in 1881 was a thriving, bustling silver mining community.

“There’s a huge misconception about Tombstone in the 1880s: that it was a violent, dangerous place,” says local author and historian Don Taylor. “It was extremely sophisticated and massively wealthy. Thirty-seven million dollars in 1880s dollars of silver was mined here; that’s $8.25 billion today. They had everything.

“They had fresh seafood every day. They would catch it in Baja California; pack it in barrels of salt, ice and seaweed at dusk; freight it by train to Benson or Contention City, immediately pack it on to wagons and bring it here by dawn every day. It was a very opulent town. But again, people don’t understand – especially if they come today – Tombstone was open 24 hours a day.

The miners worked rotating 10 hour shifts; everything had to be open when they got off, including banks. They were also pumping 2.5 million gallons of water out of the mines every day to keep them dry; so you had all the mining activity, all the milling activity, all the water rushing down Toughnut Street, and the town open 24 hours a day. It must have been noisy as hell.”

As the mines thrived, so did all manner of supporting businesses: banks, bars, restaurants, hotels – and prostitutes, many of whom worked out of small ‘cribs’ that lined Sixth Street. The riches to be, had attracted plenty of would-be entrepreneurs -- among them Wyatt, Virgil, Morgan, James and Warren Earp, and Doc Holliday.

Both Virgil and Wyatt had been lawmen; Virgil had recently been appointed deputy marshal for the part of the Arizona Territory that included Tombstone, and although some record-keeping at the time was poor, it is possible that Wyatt may have been a deputy marshal as well.

Certainly, it appears as if all the brothers were anxious to join the list of those profiting from Tombstone’s booming business: they invested in one of the mines, James tended bar, Wyatt rode as a stagecoach guard and dealt faro – the popular card game of the time – in a local saloon.

But Tombstone’s growth and growing sophistication grated with one segment of society: the ‘cowboys’, a loose confederation of ranchers and cattle rustlers. The cowboys – who were predominantly rural, southern Confederates – eyed the primarily Yankee mercantile class that was dominating Tombstone, and which the Earps typified, with suspicion. And the feeling was mutual.

It didn’t take long after the Earps’ arrival in late 1879 for tensions between them and the cowboys to develop, particularly with Virgil and Wyatt spending time in law enforcement positions. That tension reached boiling point when Wyatt helped in the identification and arrest of some cowboy members in a pair of stagecoach robberies, and the cowboys in turn asserted that Wyatt and Holliday had in fact been the ones responsible for the holdups.

On the night of Oct. 25, 1881, one of the cowboy leaders, Ike Clanton, got into a heated, drunken argument with Holliday, and the next morning he wandered drunkenly up and down Allen Street, threatening to kill him and the Earps. A series of confrontations steadily escalated until Virgil was informed that a group of armed cowboys had gathered outside Fly’s Boarding House – where Holliday was living – in a vacant lot close to the OK Corral.

Carrying guns inside city limits was a violation of a town ordinance, and it provided Virgil, who was now town marshal, with an opportunity to arrest the cowboys. But there may also have been other considerations at play.

As the self-identified Dr. Jay, who leads historical tours of Tombstone, explains: “Ike Clanton had openly threatened to kill the Earps. And why are they in that alley? Because it’s right outside Fly’s Boarding House. So if you’re Doc Holliday, you show up and here’s a bunch of guys with guns outside your house. You might want to think about, ‘Are they going to get me tomorrow if I don’t get them today?’”

Virgil deputized his brothers and Holliday and they set off for the vacant lot.

“Throw up your hands,” shouted Virgil as they reached the alleyway’s entrance. “I mean to disarm you.”

There was a pause, and the click-click of a gun – or guns – being cocked.

“Hold on, I don’t want that!” shouted Virgil, but it was too late.

There were two shots fired simultaneously – it is uncertain by whom – and then, as Wyatt later testified, “the fight then became general.”

Ironically, Ike Clanton, who had instigated the confrontation, fled the scene, grabbing Wyatt and screaming that he was unarmed.

“The fight has commenced,” snarled Earp. “Get to fighting or get away.” Clanton promptly took off, as did another cowboy, Billy Claiborne.

Within seconds, two of the cowboys – Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton – lay mortally wounded, Virgil Earp had been shot in the calf, and Morgan Earp shot through the shoulder blades. A third cowboy, Frank McLaury, shot in the stomach, staggered into Fremont Street and leveled his gun at Holliday.

“I’ve got you now,” he said, mistakenly believing Holliday was out of ammo.

“Blaze away,” taunted Holliday. “You’re a daisy if you do.”

At that point both Holliday and Morgan Earp fired almost simultaneously; bullets from one or both of their guns struck McLaury in the head, killing him.

The entire gunfight lasted approximately 30 seconds.

The following day, the headline in the 'Tombstone Epitaph' newspaper read, “Three Men Hurled into Eternity in the Duration of a Moment.” The cowboys’ supporters insisted their men had been killed in cold blood. The Earps and Holliday stood trial for murder, but were cleared.

A hundred and thirty years later, the gunfight has been the focus of numerous motion pictures, and a part of many more – and was even pivotal to an episode in the original series of Star Trek. So we ask again: why has the slaying of three men on a misdemeanor firearms violation endured through history?

 Don Taylor offers one explanation. “In January 1881, (Tombstone mayor) John Clum joined the brand new Associated Press,” he explains. “So everything he wrote went to San Francisco, Chicago, New York. Everybody knew what was going on here.”

There was also, explains Tim Fattig, who works as a tourist guide at the OK Corral and has written a voluminous biography of Wyatt Earp, another factor: the fact that the gunfight did not mark the end of the Earp-cowboy feud.

On Dec. 28, 1881, Virgil Earp survived an assassination attempt, but lost the use of his left arm. The following March, Morgan was gunned down and killed while playing billiards.

In revenge, Wyatt, Warren Earp, Holliday and others set out on a “vendetta ride” for justice, in which they killed at least three cowboys, including the faction’s de facto leader, Curly Bill Brocius.

“It was the vendetta ride that truly elevated the gunfight in public perception,” Fattig says. “The idea of a brother gaining revenge for one brother’s murder and another being wounded is compelling.”

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 25, 2012

Ancestor Lucy Spent Time in Trees

Our closest known relative 3.3 million years ago was a half-human, half-ape species that could both walk on the ground and swing through the trees, suggests a new study.

The research, published in the journal Science, sheds light on Australopithecus afarensis, the species of the well-known "Lucy" skeleton. In this case, remains of a three-year-old A. afarensis girl, named "Selam," were the focus of study. Selam represents the most complete skeleton of her kind to date.

She and other members of her species were "very human-like from the waist down -- the hip bone, the knee and the foot -- but looked ape-like above the waist -- the torso, long arms, gorilla-like scapula, jutting snout, small brain and a skull with no forehead," co-author Zeresenay Alemseged told Discovery News. "A sketchy depiction of it would be an upright walking ape."

Alemseged, curator of anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences, and David Green, an assistant professor in the Department of Anatomy at Midwestern University, made the determinations after thoroughly examining the well-preserved skeleton of Selam. In 2000, Alemseged unearthed her remains while excavating a site in Dikika, Ethiopia.

The researchers paid attention to Selam's two complete shoulder blades. These tend to be paper-thin, rarely fossilizing, so finding both "completely intact and attached to a skeleton of a known and pivotal species was like hitting the jackpot," Alemseged said.

The analysis of the shape and function of the bones revealed that A. afarensis had ape-like shoulder blades, indicating a partially arboreal lifestyle. Green explained to Discovery News that, during Selam's lifetime, A afarensis was a widespread species across East Africa that occupied a range of habitats, including wooden environments and gallery forests.

"Within this range of environments, Selam and her kin walked upright to move from one place to the other, but also had an arboreal lifestyle that enabled them to nest in trees, evade predators, and provision themselves," Green said. "This was a significant adaptation that enabled this short-statured hominin, with no sophisticated tools, to survive in a dangerous landscape filled with large felines and other carnivores."

The study reveals how apelike features in our ancestors were not merely evolutionary baggage, he continued. The traits instead reflect adaptations to habitat.

There is no question that Australopithecus afarensis is directly related to humans, according to the researchers.

"A. afarensis is clearly on the human line after the split from apes and eventually became ancestral to the genus Homo," Alemseged said. "It is currently hard to precisely talk about the exact number of species between us and A. afarensis."

Possibilities include A. africanus, Paranthropus, Homo habilis, Homo erectus and many others.

The authors also suspect that A. afarensis was not the first ancestor of humans to walk upright. This could be why Selam's bones indicate she walked with ease, at least when compared to chimpanzees that have been trained to do so. Chimps have a lumbering, awkward upright gait because they lack some important pelvic and lower limb characteristics that Selam possessed.

Read more at Discovery News

Easter Island Statues Could Have 'Walked'

The giant stone statues in Polynesia's Easter Island may have just been "walked" out of quarry, according to a controversial new theory on how the monolithic human figures were transported to every corner of the island.

In a piece of experimental archaeology, a team of local and U.S. researchers showed that the massive statues, known as moai, can be moved from side to side by a small number of people, just as one might move a fridge.

"We constructed a precise three-dimensional 4.35 metric ton replica of an actual statue and demonstrated how positioning the center of mass allowed it to fall forward and rock from side to side causing it to 'walk,'" Carl Lipo, an archaeologist at California State University, Long Beach, and colleagues wrote in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Nearly 1,000 huge statues stand on the remote Rapa Nui, the indigenous name of Easter Island. With sizes ranging from about 6 to 33 feet in height, the rock effiges feature human-like figures ending at the top of the thighs with large heads, long ears and pursed lips.

Scholars have long debated how the multi-ton statues were moved from the quarry in Rano Raraku, an extinct volcano where they were carved, throughout the island's rugged terrain.

Claims ranged from extra-terrestrial intervention to molding in situ. However, most archaeologists agree that the colossal stone statues were moved by rolling them on logs. In doing so, the statue-obsessed Rapa Nui people would have depleted the island of its forests.

But according to Lipo's team, new evidence challenges the "longstanding notions of 'ecocide' and population collapse before European contact."

The researchers looked at the statues that were successfully placed on platforms on the island's perimeter, and others that the islanders abandoned on road sides in an apparently random fashion.

According to Lipo, the position of the incomplete road moai shows that they fell over from upright positions, contradicting the theory that they were horizontally rolled on logs.

"The majority of statues are found facedown when the road slopes downhill, and often on their backs when going uphill," he said.

To test the walking hypothesis, Lipo and colleagues built a 4.35-ton concrete statue, which they say is a "precise proportionally scaled replica of an actual road moai shaped appropriately for transport."

Then they tested its upright movement at Kualoa Ranch in Hawaii.

Chanting "heave-ho," a team of 18 people managed to get the statue walking using three hemp ropes.

One was tied from behind near the top of the head at the eyes to keep the statue from falling on its face. The other two, tied to the same location at the eyes, were stretched on either side and pulled in alternating fashion to rock the statue.

"Each roll caused the statue to take a step," Lipo said. In under an hour, the statue traveled 100 meters.

Read more at Discovery News

'Space Buddha' Statue May Be a Fake

A supposed Buddhist statue allegedly carved from a meteorite 1,000 years ago may not be as ancient as suspected, according to a Buddhism expert who argues that the statue may be a 20th-century fake.

The criticisms don't target the material the statue is carved from, which is an iron- and nickel-rich meteorite from the Siberia-Mongolia border. But outside experts are questioning the statue's origins.

Achim Bayer, a Buddhism expert at Dongguk University in South Korea, argues in a new report that the Buddha statue has obvious "pseudo-Tibetan features," marking it as a European reproduction likely made between 1910 and 1970.

Among these features are European-like shoes that come to the ankles rather than boots; trousers instead of robes; tube-shaped sleeves unlike those seen on traditional Tibetan or Mongolian garb; a full beard, which is not seen on Tibetan and Mongolian deity sculptures; an unusual single earring; and a cape that resembles one worn by Romans rather than ancient Tibetan deities.

In their original paper published in the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science, Stuttgart University researcher Elmar Bucher and colleagues reported that the Buddha statue first came to Germany after a 1938-1939 Tibet expedition by zoologist and ethnologist Ernst Schäfer, who was sent to the region by the Nazi party to find the origin of Aryan language and culture. The statue then passed into the hands of a private owner.

But the researchers also warned that the estimates of the age of the statue -- which they pegged around 1,000 years -- were preliminary and welcomed comments by cultural scholars.

"I am happy to provide such information," Bayer wrote in his report, available online.

Read more at Discovery News

Dinosaurs Looking for Love Grew Alluring Feathers

Dinosaurs may have wooed potential mates with flashy feathers, peacock style. Researchers have discovered lengthy wisps on a sexually mature adult, but absent in the toddler specimen of the same dinosaur species.

These findings shed light on the origin of wings and feathered flight, scientists added.

Birds are the last living lineage of dinosaurs. Their predatory dinosaur ancestors and relatives apparently were covered in feathers as well. These downy coats probably helped to keep them warm at first.

It remains hotly debated how the ancestors of birds evolved key traits that allowed them to fly, such as long, strong feathers. To answer this mystery, researchers investigated fossils of a dinosaur called Ornithomimus edmontonicus. These included a turkey-size juvenile about a year old and about 5 feet (1.5 meters) long, and two ostrich-size adults about 10 years old and about 12 feet (4 m) long.

"The most recent ideas about Ornithomimus was that it was herbivorous," said researcher Darla Zelenitsky, a paleontologist at the University of Calgary. "They superficially resembled ostriches, with a toothless beak, large eyes, long legs, long tail, and now we know they had feathers, but these animals were not closely related to ostriches."

Downy dinosaurs

The 71-million-year-old bones were excavated from the badlands of Alberta, Canada.

"The climate in the area 71 million years ago was warm and wet, subtropical, very much like that seen today in Florida, Georgia and Louisiana. There would have been swamps and lots of water-loving conifers," said researcher François Therrien, a paleontologist at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Canada.

Famous dinosaurs in that area included predatory tyrannosaurs, the duck-billed hadrosaurs, heavily armored ankylosaurs, and horned dinosaurs known as ceratopsians. Crocodiles and turtles were also common.

All three Ornithomimus specimens were apparently covered in stringy down -- filamentlike feathers up to 2 inches (5 centimeters) long.

"These are the first feathered dinosaur specimens from the Western Hemisphere," Zelenitsky said. "They've never been found in North or South America before -- before this, they were previously almost exclusively found in northern China."

In addition, one adult also had markings on its winglike forelimbs that suggest it bore longer feathers, ones that apparently possessed stiff shafts down the middle much like the feathers found on the wings of flying birds today.

"We don't know how long the shafted feathers were on the adult 'wings,'" Therrien said. "But, based on the size of the markings, we think the 'wing feathers' would have been much longer than the filamentous feathers."

Flashing feathers

Many of the feathered dinosaurs found in China are older than Ornithomimus. However, Ornithomimus comes from a lineage of dinosaurs that arose earlier than some of those unearthed in China. As such, one can consider the "wings" seen in Ornithomimus "the most primitive occurrence of winglike structures in the dinosaurs leading to birds," Zelenitsky said.

Since the younger dinosaur apparently did not possess long feathers on its forelimbs, the investigators suggest these plumes were not used for flight -- otherwise, younger, lighter dinosaurs that were more capable of flight might have possessed them. Instead, the fact these feathers were seen only on sexually mature adults hints they may have used them for reproductive activities such as courtship or brooding, much as peacocks use their outrageously large feathers to woo females. Over time, the ancestors of birds may have adapted these long feathers for flight.

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 24, 2012

Incredible Halloween Light Show: Gotta-See Video

There's a new contender for king of the YouTube nighttime light show displays.

Edwards Landing Lights in Leesburg, Virginia has created a Gangnam Style synchronized show akin to many seen on YouTube before. Why the attention this year? The previous king of the light show was a man named Kevin Judd, but his were so popular (see below) that his Home Owner's Assocation (HOA) passed rules to prevent him putting up lights ever again. Yikes.

There's no question that Psy's Korean pop song is one of the hits of 2012, so this is apt to be a hit this Halloween. If you're in the DC, Maryland, Virginia area, stop by Leesburg and check out the show, but be respectful, it's a residential neighborhood. via Gawker

Kevin Judd of Riverside, California was one of the kings of nighttime light displays, until his HOA shut him down. Apparently, visitation of his nightly "shows" was so big the visitors would start gathering around 2pm for a 7:30pm show.

The HOA received complaints. Judd owns a company that produces light shows, and according to Judd,'s company's website, "many of our neighbors would come out to watch every night. It’s a shame that some of those same neighbors in the community now do not wish the display to remain."

Read more at Discovery News

The Great Chimp Tech Boom

Chimpanzee innovations may be low tech by human standards, but they get the job done and are gradually improving and spreading, a new study co-authored by famed primatologist Jane Goodall suggests.

The study, published in the latest issue of Current Anthropology, presents the first documented case of successful transmission of a novel cultural behavior -- ant fishing -- between wild chimpanzee communities.

"Ant fishing in this case is using twigs, leaf midribs or grass probes to extract carpenter ants from their nests in living trees or dead wood," lead author Robert O'Malley, an assistant professor of anthropology at Kenyon College, told Discovery News.

Chimps trim their twig tools at the end, with side twigs and excess bark often removed, he added.

A clever and popular female chimp named Trezia somehow figured out this technique. Trezia, from the Mitumba chimp community of Gombe National Park, was transferred to the park's Kasekela chimpanzee community, where ant fishing is now all the rage among females around her age.

"Trezia ascended the Kasekela hierarchy more quickly than most immigrants, who often remain a bit peripheral in the community after emigrating, and she was not skittish around other chimpanzees," O'Malley said. "All this suggests she would have been a viable model for younger cohorts."

The Kasekela chimps had a win-win because, in addition to gaining smart Trezia, they also had the perfect classroom to learn from her: a relaxing spot called Hilltop.

"Kasekela chimpanzees tend to take a siesta at Hilltop for a few minutes or a few hours when they pass through the area, so it provides a relaxed social context and perhaps a good learning environment," explained O'Malley.

"There is very little undergrowth so visibility is very good," he said. "Most importantly, there are multiple fishing sites in visual proximity, including at least one Camponotus (type of ant) nest in a particular place at Hilltop."

Females tend to be the chimp versions of Bill Gates or the late Steve Jobs when it comes to innovations, however low-tech. That's just because "in chimpanzees, females are the sex that will typically disperse from their natal group at sexual maturity, so any cultural transmission between communities is most likely to occur through female transfer."

Trezia is only the latest chimp to gain fame and food fortune among her own kind. A proficient nut-cracking female chimp in Liberia might have spread her know-how to others.

Then there is Imo, a Japanese macaque who learned to wash sweet potatoes.

"Imo also learned to throw scattered rice grains into the sea to separate them from sand, and a few other tricks as well," O'Malley said, adding that others within her own group observed her success and soon copied her methods.

Males also come up with their own useful techniques that appear to spread within their groups. A dramatic example concerns a male chimp living in Bossou, Guinea. He learned to deactivate snares, rescuing other chimps and setting off others before they harmed animals.

Read more at Discovery News

Hyperfast Stars Point to Black Hole Slingshot

So close, yet so far away.

The black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy is by far the nearest such supermassive gravitational monster to our sun, yet observing this space-time maelstrom is a challenge because it is 27,000 light-years away and obscured in visible light by intervening star clouds and dust lanes in the galactic plane.

The region of space profoundly warped by the black hole is a little more than a light-year across.

Astronomers have been able to closely track the swift elliptical orbits of stars trapped in the black hole's grasp. This stellar pinball offers the best evidence to date that the black hole is for real -- jamming the mass of 4 million suns into a region of space smaller than Earth's orbital radius.

Stellar forensics show that several million years ago a giant cloud of cold molecular hydrogen fell toward the black hole and flattened into a disk when it was caught in the gravitational whirlpool. An estimated 10,000 stars quickly formed within the disk, in what Jessica Lu of the University of Hawaii calls a "crazy environment."

Astronomers are now following stars on the inner edge of the disk that plunge toward the black hole in comet-like elliptical orbits.

But new insights into the core-fireworks come from the most unlikely place: by looking far outside the plane of our galaxy.

In 1940, a young blue star was found among the ancient stars inhabiting the vast halo of our Milky Way. It is barreling through the halo at speeds several times faster than the staid halo population. Astronomers first hypothesized that a runaway star was in a binary system and ejected though some sort of gravitational interaction with a third star entering the system, or perhaps propelled by a supernova explosion. In 1988 the gravitational slingshot effect from the galaxy's central black hole was hypothesized as the propulsion source.

In recent years, more of these so-called hypervelocity stars have been found zooming far away from our galaxy. In a survey of the northern sky five especially bright short-lived hypervelocity stars have been identified. They are all under 200 million years old.

But if these wayward stars were ejected from the disk of our galaxy they would be randomly distributed on the sky. Instead they are found far above the galaxy’s northern pole and clustered in a patch about 1/8th the area of the northern sky.

A supermassive black hole "launcher" is the simplest explanation because the concentration suggests that the hypervelocity stars follow an escape trajectory, perhaps perpendicular to the plane of stars encircling the black hole. If this is true, then a survey of the southern sky for high velocity stars should uncover a mirror-image concentration on the sky.

Researchers propose that every 10,000 years our supermassive black hole knocks a hypervelocity star out of the ballpark. An idea is that one star in a binary system near the black hole loses momentum and falls toward the black hole. This momentum is transferred to the binary companion that is then accelerated to escape velocity from our galaxy. The single giant black hole propulsion theory is supported by observations that show the stars seem spaced sequentially, like a series of fired cannonballs.

Besides providing clues to the behavior of the central black hole, these stars are "test particles" for probing the gravitational field of the entire galaxy and how gravity's major source, the Milky Way's invisible dark matter halo, may be shaped.

Read more at Discovery News

Earth's Magnetic Field Made Quick Flip-Flop

Earth's magnetic field reversed extremely rapidly soon after modern humans first arrived in Europe, completely flip-flopping in less than a thousand years, new research suggests.

These findings, detailed Oct. 15 in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters, could shed light on how and why magnetic field reversals happen, and how they leave Earth vulnerable to solar and space radiation, the study scientists said.

Earth's metal core acts like a giant magnet that emanates a magnetic field with two poles, north and south. These two magnetic poles very roughly match where the planet's geographic north and south poles lie, which mark the axis on which Earth spins.

"The Earth's magnetic field is a highly dynamic feature," said researcher Norbert Nowaczyk, a paleomagnetist at the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences. "Its intensity pulsates between values 50 percent higher than today, or 90 to 95 percent lower than today."

In addition, every several hundred thousand years, Earth's magnetic field reverses — a compass that would have pointed north would instead aim south. These flips are captured by magnetically sensitive minerals in cooling lava that are literally set in stone pointing to where the poles were at that particular moment in Earth's history.

Failed reversals

Full reversals of the magnetic field usually take millennia to finish, based on those frozen rock records. However, scientists now find that 41,000 years ago, shortly after modern humans first entered Europe, the magnetic poles flipped and flipped again in less than a millennium.

Scientists analyzed data in sediment from the floor of the Black Sea and compared it with other data from the North Atlantic, the Southeast Pacific and around Hawaii. Surprisingly, they found the Earth's magnetic field took about 200 years to flip, during which time it was just one-twentieth as strong as it is today.

"Former ideas about a field reversal deal with durations of 2,000 to 5,000 years," Nowaczyk told OurAmazingPlanet.

Earth's magnetic field stayed reversed for only 440 years, during which time it was just one-quarter as strong as it is today. The magnetic poles then flipped back to approximately where they were before over the course of about 270 years. The flip-flop overall is known as the Laschamp event, after the area in France where evidence of it was first discoveredin the 1960s. These new findings reveal how quick this reversal was.

The brevity of this flip overall suggests "it might represent a so-called aborted reversal," Nowaczyk said. "This means the geomagnetic field tried to reverse, but fell back." Such aborted reversals, also known as excursions, may have happened at least a dozen times during the last 780,000 years since the last full reversal, he explained.

Magnetic field shield

Earth's magnetic field helps protect the planet from energetic particles streaking out from deep space and the sun. During the Laschamp reversal, Earth was significantly more vulnerable to radiation from space, judging by higher levels of radioactive beryllium seen in ice samples from Greenland, Nowaczyk said.

Such radiation poses a particular threat in our modern world, so understanding these reversals is helpful to better understand the threats from space.

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 23, 2012

Raw Food Not Enough to Feed Big Brains

Eating a raw food diet is a recipe for disaster if you’re trying to boost your species’ brainpower. That’s because humans would have to spend more than 9 hours a day eating to get enough energy from unprocessed raw food alone to support our large brains, according to a new study that calculates the energetic costs of growing a bigger brain or body in primates. But our ancestors managed to get enough energy to grow brains that have three times as many neurons as those in apes such as gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans. How did they do it? They got cooking, according to a study published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“If you eat only raw food, there are not enough hours in the day to get enough calories to build such a large brain,” says Suzana Herculano-Houzel, a neuroscientist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil who is co-author of the report. “We can afford more neurons, thanks to cooking.”

Humans have more brain neurons than any other primate — about 86 billion, on average, compared with about 33 billion neurons in gorillas and 28 billion in chimpanzees. While these extra neurons endow us with many benefits, they come at a price — our brains consume 20 percent of our body’s energy when resting, compared with 9 percent in other primates. So a long-standing riddle has been where did our ancestors get that extra energy to expand their minds as they evolved from animals with brains and bodies the size of chimpanzees?

One answer came in the late 1990s when Harvard University primatologist Richard Wrangham proposed that the brain began to expand rapidly 1.6 million to 1.8 million years ago in our ancestor, Homo erectus, because this early human learned how to roast meat and tuberous root vegetables over a fire. Cooking, Wrangham argued, effectively predigested the food, making it easier and more efficient for our guts to absorb calories more rapidly. Since then, he and his colleagues have shown in lab studies of rodents and pythons that these animals grow up bigger and faster when they eat cooked meat instead of raw meat — and that it takes less energy to digest cooked meat than raw meat.

In a new test of this cooking hypothesis, Herculano-Houzel and her graduate student, Karina Fonseca-Azevedo, now a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Translational Neuroscience in São Paulo, Brazil, decided to see if a diet of raw food inherently put limits on how large a primate’s brain or body could grow. First, they counted the number of neurons in the brains of 13 species of primates (and more than 30 species of mammals). The researchers found two things: one, that brain size is directly linked to the number of neurons in a brain; and two, that that the number of neurons is directly correlated to the amount of energy (or calories) needed to feed a brain.

After adjusting for body mass, they calculated how many hours per day it would take for various primates to eat enough calories of raw food to fuel their brains. They found that it would take 8.8 hours for gorillas; 7.8 hours for orangutans; 7.3 hours for chimps; and 9.3 hours for our species, H. sapiens.

These numbers show that there is an upper limit on how much energy primates can get from an unprocessed raw diet, Herculano-Houzel says. An ape’s diet in the wild differs from a modern “raw food diet,” in which humans get sufficient calories from processing raw food in blenders and adding protein and other nutrients. In the wild, other apes can’t evolve bigger brains unless they reduce their body sizes because they can’t get past the limit of how many calories they can consume in 7 hours to 8 hours of feeding per day. But humans, she says, got around that limit by cooking. “The reason we have more neurons than any other animal alive is that cooking allowed this qualitative change — this step increase in brain size,” she says. “By cooking, we managed to circumvent the limitation of how much we can eat in a day.”

This study shows “that an ape could not achieve a brain as big as in recent humans while maintaining a typical ape diet,” Wrangham says.

Paleoanthropologist Robert Martin of The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, agrees that the new paper does “provide the first evidence that metabolic limitations” from a raw food diet impose a limit on how big a primate’s brain — or body — can grow. “This could account for small brain sizes of great apes despite their large body sizes.” But “the jury is still out” on whether cooking was responsible for the first dramatic burst of brain growth in our lineage, in H. erectus, Martin says, or whether our ancestors began cooking over a fire later, when the brain went through a second major growth spurt about 600,000 years ago. Hearths show up in the archaeological record 800,000 years ago and the regular use of fire for cooking doesn’t become widespread until more recently.

Read more at Wired Science

Oldest Writing Nearly Deciphered

The world's oldest undeciphered writing system is close to being cracked thanks to a new technology and online crowdsourcing, Oxford University researchers have announced.

Called proto-Elamite, the writing has its roots in what is now Iran and dates from 3,200 to 3,000 B.C. So far, the 5,000-year-old writing has defied any effort to decode its symbols impressed on clay tablets.

Now a high-tech imaging device developed at the Universities of Oxford and Southampton in England might provide the necessary insight to crack the code once and for all.

Comprising a dome with 76 lights and a camera positioned at the top of the dome, the Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) is able to capture extremely high quality images of ancient documents.

As the object is placed in the center of the dome, 76 photos are taken each with one of the 76 lights individually lit.

The 76 images are then joined in post-processing so that researcher can move the light across the surface of the digital image and use the difference between light and shadow to highlight never before seen details.

"The quality of the images captured is incredible. I have spent the last ten years trying to decipher the proto-Elamite writing system and, with this new technology, I think we are finally on the point of making a breakthrough," Jacob Dahl, from Oxford University’s Oriental Studies Faculty, said.

Dahl noted that overlooking differences barely visible to the naked eye may have prevented scholars from deciphering the writing.

"Consider for example not being able to distinguish the letter i from the letter t," he said.

The images are now been made available online for free public access on the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative website.

As high definition images of the clay tablets are shared with scholars around the world, it is hoped that the enigmatic right to left writing will be finally deciphered.

Indeed, a few features of the writing system are already known: the scribes had loaned or possibly shared some signs from or with the Mesopotamians, such as the numerical signs and their systems and symbols for objects like sheep, goats, cereals.

In the past 10 years, Dahl himself has deciphered 1,200 separate signs, but he admits this is almost nothing compared to the complexity of the system.

About 80-90 percent of the signs are maddening puzzle and even basic words as "cow" or "cattle" remain undeciphered.

"Looking at contemporary and later writing systems, we would expect to see proto-Elamite use only symbols to represent things, but we think they also used a syllabary -- for example 'cat' would not be represented by a symbol depicting the animal, but by symbols for the otherwise unrelated words 'ca' and 'at,'" Dahl said.

According to the researcher, half of the signs used in this way seem to have been completely invented for the sounds they represent.

Read more at Discovery News

Bigfoot Vandalizes a Winnebago

A Pennsylvania man who accused Bigfoot of vandalizing his 1973 Winnebago earlier this month is just one of a long history of people who have blamed the hairy humanoid for attacking personal property and dwellings.

John Reed, a Bigfoot enthusiast, claims that during a camping trip he and his girlfriend saw a tall, dark, hairy figure walk past their camper window at night. According to one news story, Reed said the Bigfoot "threw rocks at his mobile home's outside light to escape discovery."

This explanation doesn't make sense; if the Bigfoot didn't want to be noticed, it presumably wouldn't have walked right past the Winnebago's window with two people inside, nor thrown rocks at the camper. The creature could simply have avoided the campsite, or kept walking into the darkness if it did not want to be detected, instead of standing and throwing rocks at an exterior light.

Perhaps the strangest part of the story is that Reed, who founded a Bigfoot hunting group and claims to have seen it twice before, did not photograph the creature.

Reed is not alone

As odd as this story seems, Reed is not the first to claim to find traces and evidence of what they assume must have been a Bigfoot, though not clearly seeing or photographing it at the time. The logic goes like this: I don't know what else it might have been, so it must have been Bigfoot.

It is well known that wild animals attack vehicles such as car and RVs — especially if they can smell food inside. And many animals, including bears and raccoons, can be very clever and persistent in trying to get into vehicles and other containers. Trashcans in national parks have specially designed latching mechanisms to thwart feral intruders.

There have been other cases where unknown creatures attack vehicles, though those attacks have typically occurred at night and/or while the occupants were away. Strangely, Bigfoot are never credibly accused of attacking people; just about every other animal in the world has been known to attack humans at some point, including cats, dogs, deer, moose, bear, boar, elk, cougar, birds, fish, and so on. Not so for Bigfoot — a fact that raises suspicion among many skeptics.

Bigfoot have been claimed to vandalize not only dwellings but also trees. In October 2011, Bigfoot researcher and biologist John Bindernagel visited western Siberia to examine evidence of the Yeti (the Russian version of Bigfoot). He claimed to have found evidence that the creature broke trees and branches. "Twisted trees like this have also been observed in North America and they could fit with the theory that Bigfoot makes nests," Bindernagelsaid in an interview with the British tabloid "The Sun."

In another mysterious incident that some attribute to Bigfoot or another unknown creature, in 2008 a South Carolina couple claimed that something vandalized their vehicle, leaving mysterious bite marks and ripping out part of the fender on their 2002 Dodge Grand Caravan.

Famous 1924 Bigfoot Attack

The most famous case of a Bigfoot attack allegedly occurred at a place called Ape Canyon, near Mount St. Helens, Washington. In 1924, a group of five miners working at the site were besieged by a group of "ape men." One of the miners, a man named Fred Beck, claimed that they sighted a group of Bigfoot high above them on the edge of the canyon. The miners then spent a terrified night holed up in their cabin, during which the Bigfoot bombarded the cabin with rocks, and, they claimed, even tried to break the door in. The miners couldn't get a good look at the Bigfoot—partly because it was dark and partly because they could only see outside through small cracks in the door and walls.

The incident was cited for years in Bigfoot lore as a classic Bigfoot attack, and the details were exaggerated with each retelling. For example a few dozen fist-size rocks that rained down on the roof and walls became "giant boulders" in some versions of the story. Later research found that the famous Ape Canyon Bigfoot attack was not a hoax — but nor was it real: it was instead a combination of a prank and misperceptions.

Read more at Discovery News

Galaxy's Giant Black Hole Jet a Cosmic Afterburner

A humongous jet of material ejected from the center of a distant galaxy looks strikingly similar to the afterburner flow of a fighter jet, and scientists say it may have formed in a similar way.

Except, in this case a supermassive black hole is subbing in for the jet engine.

The extragalactic jet is a stream of material extending more than 2 million light-years, making it larger than our entire Milky Way galaxy. The jet, known as PKS 0637-752, was recently captured in a new image by the Australia Telescope Compact Array in New South Wales, Australia.

Jets like this are common throughout the universe, and are thought to be formed when large amounts of matter fall into the giant black holes occupying the centers of many galaxies. Material in such jets races outward at nearly the speed of light, and they are some of the largest objects in the universe.

"Massive jets like this one have been studied for decades, since the beginning of radio astronomy, but we still don't understand exactly how they are produced or what they're made of," study leader Leith Godfrey, of the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research in Australia, said in a statement.

The new jet photo reveals regularly spaced bright spots similar to the brighter diamond-shaped areas seen in jet engine afterburners.

"One intriguing possibility is that the pattern we see in this cosmic jet is produced in the same way as the pattern in the exhaust from fighter jet engines," Godfrey said.

"If the brighter patches are caused by the same process in astronomical jets as they are in earthly jet engines, then the distance between them can give us important information about the power of the jet and the density of the surrounding space," he added.

The researchers hope the new findings could help them better understand the nature of black hole jets and the ways they affect their host galaxies.

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 22, 2012

Fuller Picture of Human Expansion from Africa

A new, comprehensive review of humans' anthropological and genetic records gives the most up-to-date story of the "Out of Africa" expansion that occurred about 45,000 to 60,000 years ago.

This expansion, detailed by three Stanford geneticists, had a dramatic effect on human genetic diversity, which persists in present-day populations. As a small group of modern humans migrated out of Africa into Eurasia and the Americas, their genetic diversity was substantially reduced.

In studying these migrations, genomic projects haven't fully taken into account the rich archaeological and anthropological data available, and vice versa. This review integrates both sides of the story and provides a foundation that could lead to better understanding of ancient humans and, possibly, genomic and medical advances.

"People are doing amazing genome sequencing, but they don't always understand human demographic history" that can help inform an investigation, said review co-author Brenna Henn, a postdoctoral fellow in genetics at the Stanford School of Medicine who has a PhD in anthropology from Stanford. "We wanted to write this as a primer on pre-human history for people who are not anthropologists."

This model of the Out of Africa expansion provides the framework for testing other anthropological and genetic models, Henn said, and will allow researchers to constrain various parameters on computer simulations, which will ultimately improve their accuracy.

"The basic notion is that all of these disciplines have to be considered simultaneously when thinking about movements of ancient populations," said Marcus Feldman, a professor of biology at Stanford andthe senior author of the paper. "What we're proposing is a story that has potential to explain any of the fossil record that subsequently becomes available, and to be able to tell what was the size of the population in that place at that time."

The anthropological information can inform geneticists when they investigate certain genetic changes that emerge over time. For example, geneticists have found that genes for lactose intolerance and gluten sensitivity began to emerge in populations expanding into Europe around 10,000 years ago.

The anthropological record helps explain this: It was around this time that humans embraced agriculture, including milk and wheat production. The populations that prospered -- and thus those who survived to pass on these mutations -- were those who embraced these unnatural food sources. This, said Feldman, is an example of how human movements drove a new form of natural selection.

Populations that expand from a small founding group can also exhibit reduced genetic diversity -- known as a "bottleneck" -- a classic example being the Ashkenazi Jewish population, which has a fairly large number of genetic diseases that can be attributed to its small number of founders. When this small group moved from the Rhineland to Eastern Europe, reproduction occurred mainly within the group, eventually leading to situations in which mothers and fathers were related. This meant that offspring often received the same deleterious gene from each parent and, as this process continued, ultimately resulted in a population in which certain diseases and cancers are more prevalent.

Read more at Science Daily

A Whale With a Distinctly Human-Like Voice

For the first time, researchers have been able to show by acoustic analysis that whales -- or at least one very special white whale -- can imitate the voices of humans. That's a surprise, because whales typically produce sounds in a manner that is wholly different from humans, say researchers who report their findings in the October 23 issue of Current Biology, a Cell Press publication.

"Our observations suggest that the whale had to modify its vocal mechanics in order to make the speech-like sounds," said Sam Ridgway of the National Marine Mammal Foundation. "Such obvious effort suggests motivation for contact."

It all started in 1984 when Ridgway and others began to notice some unusual sounds in the vicinity of the whale and dolphin enclosure. As they describe it, it sounded as though two people were conversing in the distance, just out of range of their understanding.

Those unusually familiar sounds were traced back to one white whale in particular only some time later when a diver surfaced from the whale enclosure to ask his colleagues an odd question: "Who told me to get out?"

They deduced that those utterances came from a most surprising source: a white whale by the name of NOC. That whale had lived among dolphins and other white whales and had often been in the presence of humans.

In fact, there had been other anecdotal reports of whales sounding like humans before, but in this case Ridgway's team wanted to capture some real evidence. They recorded the whale's sounds to reveal a rhythm similar to human speech and fundamental frequencies several octaves lower than typical whale sounds, much closer to that of the human voice.

"Whale voice prints were similar to human voice and unlike the whale's usual sounds," Ridgway said. "The sounds we heard were clearly an example of vocal learning by the white whale."

That's all the more remarkable because whales make sounds via their nasal tract, not in the larynx as humans do. To make those human-like sounds, NOC had to vary the pressure in his nasal tract while making other muscular adjustments and inflating the vestibular sac in his blowhole, the researchers found. In other words, it wasn't easy.

Read more at Science Daily

Two Months Until the Mayan Doomsday Nonevent

For some reason, people really want to remind the world that today (Oct. 21) marks two months before the biggest nonevent in recent history. Even more perplexing is the fact that others seem to really want the world to end in 61 days time.

If the doomsayers are to be believed, on Dec. 21, 2012, the Universe will unleash a maelstrom of inexplicable fiery carnage on our planet. At best, we'll undergo some kind of rapid planetary change; at worst, a weird cosmic alignment will cause the sun to turn the planet, and all of civilization with it, into toast.

Why do these strange individuals want us to believe in this nonsense? Some have a book to sell, while others have a horribly-edited YouTube video they want to share. Others are just plain odd. But regardless of the intent, the result is confusion and fear. Sadly, it is often people who would have otherwise gotten on with their lives peacefully who have swallowed the doomsday nonsense and become needlessly worried about the end of the world.

The current 2012 doomsday nonsense focuses on an ancient civilization that somehow had the divine ability to predict the future. I am, of course, referring to the Mayans, who had a wonderfully complex culture throughout Central America that peaked between A.d. 250-900. They had a calendar, you may have heard about it, called the "Long Count." Apart from being an ingenious means of recording dates, it has another, rather odd attribute -- it "runs out" this year.

But like any calendar, many Mayan scholars agree that the Mayan civilization, if it existed today, would have probably begun a new calendar cycle. Unfortunately we're not going to find out as the Mayans, as a civilization, disappeared centuries ago. Archaeologists have even found evidence deep in the Guatemalan rainforest that the ancient Mayans mentioned dates after Dec. 21, 2012, in texts. Although there are a handful of mentions of the calendar end date, there's no reference to the end of the world. If you ask me, that's a pretty rubbish "prophesy."

But wait! There are still Mayan descendents who live in Central America. Are they currently digging bunkers and stocking up on canned "Apocalypse-ready" baked beans? Um, no. Why's that then?

The Mayans never predicted doomsday! The end of a calendar cycle doesn't mean it's doomsday. The calendar wasn't a magic calendar, it was just a way to document time, remember future dates and record past events. That's what calendars do. Lacking a culture to renew the Long Count, it looks like the final cycle -- the 13th bak'tun -- will come to an end... and that's about it.

All the hype surrounding marauding celestial bodies (Planet X, Nibiru, errant asteroids and comets), weird cosmic occurrences (killer solar flares and galactic alignments) and crazy Earth-shattering events (polar/geomagnetic shift), is just that, hype. They're about as real as the tooth fairy.

The Mayans, on the other hand, are real and their descendents are planning on having a big party on Dec. 21. It is a reason for celebration, a time to remember the last cycle of a wonderful calendar system that represents the last breath of an ancient civilization.

There are many mysteries in this universe and many unexplained phenomena, but don't let that fact cloud your judgement when it comes to Dec. 21; science really does have this covered.

There are no cataclysmic events predicted to happen. There are no coverups. I am not covering up the coverups of some large government coverup. No, NASA isn't hiding anything. No doubt that Dec. 21 will have its fair share of turmoil, but there's no more turmoil predicted to happen on that date than on Dec. 22. Or tomorrow, or next week, or a week next Thursday. The Mayans were advanced for their time and had wonderful astronomy skills, but they did not foretell doom and gloom hundreds of years into the future.

Read more at Discovery News

Biblical Trees Survive After 900 Years

Olive trees in the Jerusalem garden where Jesus Christ prayed before he was crucified have "miraculously" lived through the past nine centuries bacteria-free, according to a molecular research presented last week at the Vatican Radio in Rome.

Carried by a team of researchers from Italy's National Research Council (CNR) and various Italian universities, the three-year study investigated eight gnarled olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane, one of the holiest sites of Christendom.

The research found that three of the eight healthy trees (the only ones on which it was technically possible to carry out the dating) come from the middle of the 12th century, although the roots underground are certainly much older.

"These olives are among the oldest broad-leaved trees in the world. Plants of greater age are not reported in the scientific literature," lead researcher Antonio Cimato of the CNR's Tree and Timber Institute in Florence, said.

Carbon dating showed that the trees come from the years 1092, 1166 and 1198, a period when the Crusaders, engaged in the reconstruction of the great churches of the Holy Land, re-built the Basilica of Gethsemane in Jerusalem.

According to the researchers, it is likely that during the construction of the church, the olive garden was rearranged and renovated.

Indeed, olive trees can grow back after being cut down or even burnt.

DNA analysis of the eight trees revealed they were all related to a single, older tree.

"All eight trees have similar genetic profiles, meaning they are olive 'twins,' all children of a single specimen," Cimato said.

According to the researcher, this means the olives were not spontaneous trees, but were deliberately planted.

Why did the Crusaders choose one single tree, among the thousands growing in Jerusalem? Were they trying to preserve a specific, meaningful lineage? Are the olives linked to the very trees under which, according to the gospel of Luke, Jesus sweat drops of blood as he prayed?

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 21, 2012

'Gospel of Jesus' Wife' Faces Authenticity Tests

The "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" papyrus, which may or may not be a forgery, seems to be in limbo, as the Harvard Theological Review has pulled the scientific article describing the discovery from their January 2013 issue.

This withdrawal, however, doesn't mean the journal will never publish the scientific paper by Harvard historian Karen King on the supposed lost Gospel. "Harvard Theological Review is planning to publish Professor King's paper after testing is concluded so that the results may be incorporated," Kit Dodgson, director of communications at Harvard Divinity School, wrote in an email to LiveScience.

Even so, the announcement has garnered both anger and elation.

Hershel Shanks of the Biblical Archaeology Society writes that the withdrawal of the paper is "shameful." (Shanks is founder and editor of the society's Biblical Archaeology Review.)

Meanwhile, another scholar applauds the Harvard Theological Review for making King's study available online, if not yet published in their journal.

"My personal opinion is that Karen King and Harvard Theological Review have significantly improved the traditional peer review process by utilizing the Internet," Oxford University graduate Andrew Bernhard told LiveScience. "In fact, this could potentially be a watershed moment in the history of scholarship where the academic process becomes more open and transparent."

The business-card-size papyrus at the center of the controversy, described as "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife," by King on Sept. 18, was supposedly from the fourth century and written in Coptic, the language of a group of early Christians in Egypt.

King and her collaborators believed the scrap, the first ancient evidence of Jesus speaking of a wife, was authentic. Two Coptic scholars — AnneMarie Luijendijk of Princeton University and Roger Bagnall of New York University — considered the text authentic and dating back to the fourth century, according to the Biblical Archaeology Society's Shanks. Bagnall declined to comment about the postponement of the journal article, until more information was available.

Even so, in weeks following the announcement, skeptical scholars voiced their concerns the papyrus was a fake.

For instance, Bernhard, author of the book "Other Early Christian Gospels" (T & T Clark, 2006), pointed out an eerie resemblance to another online translation of a Gospel. Bernhard, in a paper published online, found similarities such as grammatical errors and line breaks that have been found only in the online translation of the Gospel of Thomas.

The Gospel of Jesus' Wife, Bernhard found, seems to be the work of an amateur who pieced together individual words and phrases from Michael Grondin's "Interlinear Coptic-English Translation of the Gospel of Thomas."

To get to the bottom of the papyrus's authenticity, several analyses will be conducted.

"The owner of the papyrus fragment has been making arrangements for the next round of analysis of the fragment, including testing by independent laboratories with the resources and the specific expertise necessary to produce and interpret reliable results," Dodgson wrote. "This next phase is likely to take several weeks, if not months."

While Shanks says he has no issue with such scientific debate, including questions surrounding the papyrus (such as its date, authenticity and relationship with other texts), he does object to the journal's withdrawal of the paper.

"When a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, backed up by two experts from Princeton and NYU who declare the text to be authentic, presents the case—and tentatively at that—that should be enough for HTR to publish King's article, not to cowardly suspend its decision to publish. Instead, HTR has cringed because there will now be a dispute as to authenticity," Shanks writes on the society's Bible History Daily website.

Read more at Discovery News

Fish Break Law of Physics, Become Invisible

Silver-colored fish, such as herrings, sardines and sprat, are breaking a basic law of physics, according to a new study published in Nature Photonics. The ability allows the fish to become invisible to predators.

The physics law has to do with how light reflects.

As researchers Tom Jordan and Julian Partridge from Bristol University explain, reflective surfaces polarize light, a phenomenon that fishermen or photographers overcome by using polarizing sunglasses or polarizing filters to cut our reflective glare.

Jordan and Partridge, however, found that silvery fish have overcome this basic law of reflection.

The fish's skin contains multilayer arrangements of reflective guanine crystals. (Here's a factoid: guanine is also one of the key components of guano, aka bird and fish poop. The terms originate from an ancient word for dung, "wanu.") It was previously thought that fish skin would fully polarize light when reflected. As the light becomes polarized, there should then be a drop in reflectivity.

But that's not what always happens, as it turns out.

The researchers found that the skin of sardines and herring contain not one but two types of guanine crystal. Each has different optical properties. By mixing these two types, the fish's skin doesn't polarize the reflected light and maintains its high reflectivity.

The result is an optical illusion that can make the fish at times seem invisible to other marine dwellers.

"We believe these species of fish have evolved this particular multilayer structure to help conceal them from predators, such as dolphin and tuna," Roberts was quoted as saying in a press release. "These fish have found a way to maximize their reflectivity over all angles they are viewed from. This helps the fish best match the light environment of the open ocean, making them less likely to be seen."

In future, fish skin might inspire inventors to create better optical devices.

Read more at Discovery News