Nov 23, 2012

Low-Cost, Finger-Nail Sized Radar

EU-funded researchers have squeezed radar technology into a low-cost fingernail-sized chip package that promises to lead to a new range of distance and motion sensing applications. The novel device could have important uses in the automotive industry, as well as mobile devices, robotics and other applications.

Developed in the 'Silicon-based ultra-compact cost-efficient system design for mm-wave sensors' (Success) project, the device is the most complete silicon-based 'system-on-chip' (SoC) package for radar operating at high frequencies beyond 100 GHz.

'As far as I know, this is the smallest complete radar system in the world,' says Prof. Christoph Scheytt, who is coordinating the project on behalf of IHP in Frankfurt, Germany. 'There are other chips working at frequencies beyond 100 GHz addressing radar sensing, but this is the highest level of integration that has ever been achieved in silicon.'

Measuring just 8 mm by 8 mm, the chip package is the culmination of three years of research by nine academic and industrial partners across Europe, supported by EUR 3 million in funding from the European Commission. The team drew on expertise from every part of the microelectronic development chain to develop the groundbreaking technology, which is expected to be put to use in commercial applications in the near future.

Operating at 120 GHz -- corresponding to a wavelength of about 2.5 mm -- the chip uses the run time of the waves to calculate the distance of an object up to around three metres away with an accuracy of less than one millimetre. It can also detect moving objects and calculate their velocity using the Doppler effect.

From a commercial perspective, the technology is also extremely cheap: manufactured on an industrial scale, each complete miniature radar would cost around one euro, the project partners estimate.

That gives it the potential to replace ultrasonic sensors for object and pedestrian detection in vehicles, to be used for automatic door control systems, to measure vibration or distance inside machines, for robotics applications and a wide range of other uses. It could even find its way into cell phones.

To develop the miniaturised radar system, the team had to overcome a range of technical challenges, not least integrating and ensuring the reliability of the tiny antenna.

'In this area, size matters a lot,' Prof. Scheytt notes. 'The main motivation for using high frequencies rather than lower ones is that the antennas can be smaller.'

While an FM radio has an antenna that's about one metre long and a WiFi router's antennas are about 10 cm in length, at mm-Wave frequencies (between 30 GHz and 300 GHz) the antennas can also be at the millimetre scale. Given the increasing miniaturisation of modern devices -- from cell phones to robotics components -- working in the millimetre range is therefore a significant advantage.

A novel substrate to solve attenuation

However, at high frequencies unwanted electromagnetic radiation and high attenuation are serious problems. 'The higher you go in frequency the more the wiring radiates: modelling this interface was a big challenge,' the project coordinator says.

The Success team addressed the issue through precise modelling, a novel technique for antenna integration, and using a polyamide substrate for the antenna.

'The project partners researched and tested a lot of different substrates for the antenna to find one that was the least lossy. Then they used a technique to print the antenna on it and connect it through solder bumps,' Prof. Scheytt explains. 'The antenna itself is planar, meaning it is mounted flat on top of the chip. This is completely different to the packaging technology of other millimetre-wave systems, which usually have bulky antennas with tube-like conductors. The advantage is that the whole "system-in-package" is a lot smaller.'

Another issue with high frequency devices is testing that they work as they are designed to. Current testing techniques are expensive and ill-suited to the high-volume testing necessary if the device is to be manufactured commercially. To address this, the Success team took the unusual step of including self-testing features built in to the chip package.

'Built-in self-testing is quite common for cell-phone chips that work at much lower frequencies, but it is something quite novel for millimetre-wave chips,' Prof. Scheytt says. 'Our industrial partners put a lot of emphasis on including this as it makes no sense to have a chip that can be manufactured for a euro and then have to spend 30 or 40 euro to test each one.'

The built-in test features enable technicians to easily and cheaply test if the antenna is connected correctly, the transmit power of the device and if it is operating in the right frequency range. And, because there is no radio frequency interface to deal with, integration onto a printed circuit board is similarly cheap and easy.

'Since all the high-frequency circuitry is in the package you have only low-frequency interfaces to work with,' Prof. Scheytt notes.

He points out that an application engineer can handle the chip, because it is a standard surface-mount package, in much the same way they would fit an ultrasonic sensor or microcontroller.

'Users can solder the chip onto their standard circuit boards and receive low-frequency signals that can be processed without difficulty,' says Prof. Thomas Zwick, head of IHE at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), a project partner.

Read more at Science Daily

Hubble Eyes a Loose Spiral Galaxy

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has spotted the spiral galaxy ESO 499-G37, seen here against a backdrop of distant galaxies, scattered with nearby stars.

The galaxy is viewed from an angle, allowing Hubble to reveal its spiral nature clearly. The faint, loose spiral arms can be distinguished as bluish features swirling around the galaxy's nucleus. This blue tinge emanates from the hot, young stars located in the spiral arms. The arms of a spiral galaxy have large amounts of gas and dust, and are often areas where new stars are constantly forming.

The galaxy's most characteristic feature is a bright elongated nucleus. The bulging central core usually contains the highest density of stars in the galaxy, where typically a large group of comparatively cool old stars are packed in this compact, spheroidal region.

One feature common to many spiral galaxies is the presence of a bar running across the center of the galaxy. These bars are thought to act as a mechanism that channels gas from the spiral arms to the center, enhancing the star formation.

Recent studies suggest that ESO 499-G37's nucleus sits within a small bar up to a few hundreds of light-years along, about a tenth the size of a typical galactic bar. Astronomers think that such small bars could be important in the formation of galactic bulges since they might provide a mechanism for bringing material from the outer regions down to the inner ones. However, the connection between bars and bulge formation is still not clear since bars are not a universal feature in spiral galaxies.

The galaxy ESO 499-G37 lies in the southern border of the constellation of Hydra, which is shared with Antlia.

ESO 499-G37 was first observed in the late seventies within the ESO/Uppsala Survey of the ESO (B) atlas. This was a joint project undertaken by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and the Uppsala Observatory, which used the ESO 1-metre Schmidt telescope at La Silla Observatory, Chile, to map a large portion of the southern sky looking for stars, galaxies, clusters, and planetary nebulae.

Read more at Science Daily

Nov 22, 2012

Handaxes of 1.7 Million Years Ago: 'Trust Rather Than Lust' Behind Fine Details

Trust rather than lust is at the heart of the attention to detail and finely made form of handaxes from around 1.7 million years ago, according to a University of York researcher.

Dr Penny Spikins, from the Department of Archaeology, suggests a desire to prove their trustworthiness, rather than a need to demonstrate their physical fitness as a mate, was the driving force behind the fine crafting of handaxes by Homo erectus/ergaster in the Lower Palaeolithic period.

Dr Spikins said: "We sometimes imagine that early humans were self-centred, and if emotional at all, that they would have been driven by their immediate desires. However, research suggests that we have reason to have more faith in human nature, and that trust played a key role in early human societies. Displaying trust not lust was behind the attention to detail and finely made form of handaxes."

The 'trustworthy handaxe theory' is explained in an article in World Archaeology and contrasts sharply with previous claims that finely crafted handaxes were about competition between males and sexual selection.

Dr Spikins said: "Since their first recovery, the appealing form of handaxes and the difficulty of their manufacture have inspired much interest into the possible 'meaning' of these artefacts. Much of the debate has centred on claims that the attention to symmetrical form and the demonstration of skill would have played a key role in sexual selection, as they would have helped attract a mate eager to take advantage of a clear signal of advantageous genes.

"However, I propose that attention to form is much more about decisions about who to trust; that it can be seen as a gesture of goodwill or trustworthiness to others. The attention to detail is about showing an ability to care about the final form, and by extension, people too.

"In addition, overcoming the significant frustrations of imposing form on stone displays considerable emotional self-control and patience, traits needed for strong and enduring relationships."

Handaxes, or bifaces, appeared around 1.7 million years ago in Africa and spread throughout the occupied world of Africa, Europe and western Asia, functioning primarily as butchery implements. Handaxe form remained remarkably similar for more than a million years.

Dr Spikins said: "Trust is essential to all our relationships today, and we see the very beginnings of the building blocks of trust in other apes. The implication that it was an instinct towards trust which shaped the face of stone tool manufacture is particularly significant to our understanding of Lower Palaeolithic societies. It sets a challenge for research into how our emotions, rather than our complex thinking skills, made us human.

"As small vulnerable primates in risky environments where they faced dangerous predators our ancestors needed to be able to depend on each other to survive -- displaying our emotional capacities was part of forming trusting relationships with the kind of 'give and take' that they needed."

Dr Spikins points to other higher primates, particularly chimpanzees, as well as modern human hunter-gatherers to back up her theory of trustworthiness.

"Long-term altruistic alliances in both chimpanzees and humans are forged by many small unconscious gestures of goodwill, or acts of altruism, such as soothing those in distress or sharing food," said Dr Spikins.

"As signals of trustworthiness, these contribute to one's reputation, and in hunter-gatherers reputation can be the key to survival, with the most trustworthy hunters being looked after most willingly by the others when they are ill or elderly.

Read more at Science Daily

9.2-Million-Year-Old Rhino Skull Preserved by Instant 'Cooking to Death' in Volcanic Ash

Less than 2% of Earth's fossils are preserved in volcanic rock, but researchers have identified a new one: the skull of a rhino that perished in a volcanic eruption 9.2 million years ago.

The find is described in a paper published Nov. 21 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Pierre-Olivier Antoine and colleagues from the University of Montpellier, France.

The fossil, found in Turkey, is thought to be that of a large two-horned rhino common in the Eastern Mediterranean region during that period. According to the researchers, unusual features of the preserved skull suggest that the animal was 'cooked to death' at temperatures that may have approached 500° C, in a volcanic flow similar to that of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in Italy in 79 A.D.

The rhino's grisly death was near-instantaneous, and followed by severe dehydration in the extreme heat of the eruption. As the researchers describe its end, "the body was baked under a temperature approximating 400°C, then dismembered within the pyroclastic flow, and the skull separated from body." The flow of volcanic ash then moved the skull about 30 km north of the eruption site, where it was discovered by the four member research team.

Read more at Science Daily

Legendary Italian Warrior Exhumed

Italian researchers have exhumed the tomb of Giovanni de' Medici, one of the most celebrated condottieri (mercenary soldiers) of the Renaissance, in a bid to understand the life and death of the charismatic 16th century army commander.

Also known as "Giovanni dalle Bande Nere" for the black bands of mourning he wore after the death of Pope Leo X, this member of one of the lesser branches of the wealthy Florentine Medici family is buried in the Medici Chapels in Flo rence with his wife, Maria Salviati.

The couple married in 1516, when she was 17 and he was 18. The marriage produced only one child: Cosimo I, who reigned as the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, creating the Uffizi and the magnificent Boboli Gardens as well as finishing the Pitti Palace.

On Monday, "a large rock that covered the burial chamber of the family was raised to reveal two zinc boxes with the bones of the married couple,” Florence's superintendency said.

Led by Gino Fornaciari, professor of forensic anthropology and director of the pathology Museum at the University of Pisa, the research consists of a "thorough analysis" which includes medical, paleopathological and anthropological investigations of the remains.

"We aim to better understand the cause of death and the kind of surgery carried on the Medici warrior," the superintendency said.

Although he had acquired a reputation for invincibility, Giovanni of the Black Bands (1498-1526) died at only 28 after being hit by a cannon ball in a battle in Lombardy on Nov. 25, 1526. He was fighting the Imperialist troops marching to the sack of Rome.

As the ball crashed the right leg above the knee, the condottiero was taken to the palace of marquis Luigi Alessandro Gonzaga in Mantua. Gangrene soon set in, and Gonzaga's surgeon Maestro Abramo decided to intervene by partly amputating the leg.

According to a report by the poet Pietro Aretino, Giovanni's close friend and eyewitness to the event, 10 men were summoned to hold down the warrior during the surgery.

Read more at Discovery News

Rocky Exoplanets May Be 'Squishy' Worlds

Planets beyond the solar system that are bigger than Earth but smaller than gas giants like Neptune could have oceans of liquid metal and life-protecting magnetic shields.

Under the heat and pressure that exist inside super-Earths, magnesium oxide and other minerals commonly found in the rocky mantles of the terrestrial planets, transform into liquid metals, laboratory tests show.

The research has implications for understanding conditions on super-Earths, including whether they might be favorable for supporting life.

Scientists zapped a piece of magnesium oxide with high-powered lasers to simulate the heat and pressure that would exist on planets roughly three to 10 times as massive as Earth. They discovered that the clear ceramic mineral first morphed into a solid with a new crystal structure, then completely transformed into a liquid metal.

In that state, the liquid mineral may be able to sustain a physics phenomenon called a "dynamo" action, which is responsible for generating magnetic fields.

"It is often thought that a planetary magnetic field protects life on a planet's surface from harmful space radiation, like cosmic rays. What we find is that magnetic fields may exist on more super-Earth planets than expected, resulting from the transformation of the planet's rocks to metals in the deep interior. This could create new environments for life in the universe," geophysicist Stewart McWilliams, with the Carnegie Institution and Howard University in Washington DC, wrote in an email to Discovery News.

"The field certainly affects the way life evolves. I think it is an open question as to whether its absence inhibits the development of life," added planetary scientist David Stevenson, with the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

"It is not easy for a terrestrial planet to generate magnetic field because the high thermal conductivity of the core material also allows heat to leak out by conduction, thus reducing the likelihood of convection. It is actually best to have a poor electrical conductor," he continued.

The discovery not only complicates models for understanding how planets form and evolve, but also blurs the distinction between a planet's core and its mantle.

"Melting in planets is very important. In planets like the Earth, melting leads to many features of the world around us -- volcanoes, and the Earth's magnetic field, for example. In the early history of planets like Earth, it is possible the entire planet was liquefied, forming a deep ocean of magma on the surface. Even today, some super-Earth planets may have these magma oceans," McWilliams said.

Read more at Discovery News

Nov 21, 2012

Chance of Thanksgiving Day Solar Flare, Aurorae?

The sun is currently a hive of magnetic activity and it has been putting on quite a show. As reported by, only a few days ago, active region (AR) 1618 was nothing more than a dot on the solar landscape -- it has since grown into a monster, spanning 10-times wider than the Earth's diameter. What's more, it has rotated across the sun's equator to point right at us.

AR1618 is currently crackling with flare activity. Yesterday, it even popped off a M1.6-class flare, generating an extreme-ultraviolet flash captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) -- pictured right. This flare, and one preceding it, may have generated a weak coronal mass ejection (CME), but the plasma from that event won't likely hit the Earth's magnetosphere until Friday.

It seems likely that AR1618 flare activity will continue through Thanksgiving, and if you live at high latitudes, you may be lucky enough to see some Thanksgiving Day aurorae. The sun is currently bathing our planet in a moderate-speed stream of solar wind. Although a full-blown geomagnetic storm isn't expected, there's a chance of some heightened auroral activity near the Arctic Circle.

This intense period of solar activity isn't unexpected; it's all part of the natural solar cycle that ebbs and flows over an approximate 11-year cycle. The peak of this cycle, called "solar maximum," is expected in 2013, but in the run-up to the crescendo, the sun has been increasingly active.

Solar max represents a period when the sun's magnetic field is at its most stressed, so magnetic features like coronal loops and prominences are often observed in the sun's atmosphere (the corona). Explosive events like CMEs and flares also become commonplace. The solar wind -- a stream of charged particles that constantly flow into interplanetary space -- also becomes amplified.

Read more at Discovery News

SETI Search for ET's Black Hole Engines

Advanced extraterrestrial civilizations will inevitably face exponentially growing energy needs to support a burgeoning population. They will likely be driven to colonize neighboring planets or asteroids as habitable frontiers. But where else could they "plug in?"

As I've written previously, a common idea has been to build a Dyson Sphere -- a habitable shell that surrounds much of a star and soaks up energy. But this is a staggering engineering task involving dismantling moons or asteroids -- something we've only seen Darth Vader do.

It's clear to astrophysicists that nature's ultimate "Energizer Bunny" is a black hole. That's especially true for well-fed supermassive black holes. Weighing up to billions of times the mass of our sun, they can blaze as brilliant beacons far across the universe. Their intense gravitational field allows for total mass-to-energy conversion. Their deep gravitational well could extract enough locked-up energy in a popcorn kernel to make a nuclear bomb blast.

An artificial black hole can conceivably be made comparatively battery-sized for a super-civilization's do-it-yourself project. Louis Crane and Shawn Westmoreland of Kansas State University calculate that a one million-ton black hole, smaller that the radius of an atom, could be fabricated in one year.

That is, if a super-civilization could first build a solar panel array having the area of Arizona to collect enough energy for building a black hole. The solar array would power a very large gamma-ray laser that would create a sphere of radiation that gains energy from its self-gravitation and then collapses. Voila! A black hole!

An entire asteroid may be needed to build such a "black hole machine," as predicted by science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke in his novel "Imperial Earth."

Once the aliens built their first black hole, they could bootstrap energy production by using the hole's raw power to fabricate any number of daughter black holes as additional power plants.

The power plant would consist of a spherical shield around the subatomic black hole that would drive heat engines. Alien technology might even find a way to construct exotic gamma ray solar cells feeding directly off of the black hole's radiation.

With such God-like power at hand, interstellar travel would become a practical spinoff for an adventurous alien empire. Crane and Westmorland write: "A civilization would be almost unimaginably energy rich. It could settle the galaxy at will."

The black hole would not be as dangerous or hard to handle as a massive quantity of antimatter -- the commonly prescribed fuel for starship propulsion. Confining antimatter is a big problem. One leak and kaboom!

But a black hole confines itself. What's more, simply making a black hole drive would require millions of times less energy than synthesizing and storing a comparable amount of antimatter.

There is any number of ways to tap the energy of the subatomic black hole to make a stardrive. High-energy gamma rays gushing from the micro black hole could be converted into electrons and positron pairs. These particles would be directed by electromagnetic fields into a collimated jet.

The black hole stardrive would have to last long enough for the interstellar mission and not evaporate away, have a mass comparable to that of the starship it is propelling, and yet be powerful enough to accelerate an exhaust to a reasonable fraction of the speed of light.

The authors dismiss the viability of other proposed stardrives based on current physics. An interstellar ramjet that sucks up tenuous hydrogen produces more drag than thrust. My favorite, laser beam propulsion transmitted from the home star, runs into the problem that the beam spreads too fast.

The authors propose that a careful search through astronomical observations of the gamma-ray sky could conceivably detect the gamma-ray exhaust from an alien starship. Even better, the black hole drive would emit high frequency gravity wave ripples in spacetime. A SETI detector could be built to look exclusively for such unique high-pitched waves (with wavelengths shorter that the size of an atom).

Read more at Discovery News

Birds Descended from Gliding Dinosaurs

Evidence is mounting that modern birds descended from gliding, feathered non-avian dinosaurs.

Two dinosaurs could be candidates for the bottom of the bird family tree, and each helps to reveal how feathers first evolved.

"The oldest known feathered dinosaurs would be Anchiornis (155 million years ago) and Epidexipteryx (between 152 million and 168 million years ago)," Yale University paleontologist Nicholas Longrich told Discovery News. "Feathers seem to have appeared initially for insulation. Basically they start out as down, and later are used to make wings."

For a study published in the latest Current Biology, Longrich and colleagues Jakob Vinther and Anthony Russell examined fossils of Anchiornis huxley and of Archaeopteryx lithographica, a Jurassic species that could be the world's oldest known bird.

"Where dinosaurs end and birds begin is a bit arbitrary," Longrich explained. "There's no clear cutoff that separates one from the other. That's the nature of evolution; things gradually change from one thing into another."

The scientists found that the wing feathers of Archaeopteryx and Anchiornis were similar, but not identical. The variations between the two appear to represent early experiments in the evolution of the wing.

Archaeopteryx had multiple layers of long flight feathers. In contrast, the dinosaur Anchiornis had an abundance of simple, strip-like feathers that overlap, somewhat similar to the feathers on penguins.

The design and arrangement of Anchiornis and Archaeopteryx wing feathers probably hindered liftoff. Multiple overlapping layers of long wing feathers would have complicated feather separation, minimizing the bird's ability to overcome drag on the upstroke. By contrast, the wings of modern flying birds typically have a single primary layer of easily separated long feathers overlain by short feathers.

"Modern birds have the ability to separate their wing feathers sort of like a Venetian blind," Longrich said. "This allows them to raise the wing rapidly, and seems to be critical to flapping flight at low speeds."

"The feather arrangement in Archaeopteryx and Anchiornis wouldn't let them do this," he added, "so it may have made takeoff from the ground and flapping at low speeds more difficult."

Gliding, however, must have been a lifesaver back in the dinosaur day, when huge terrestrial carnivores were stomping around.

"Gliding is a fast way to move from tree-to-tree. Instead of climbing down one tree and running up the next, you just glide quickly from one to the other," Longrich explained.

"I would imagine that the dinosaurian ancestors of birds were living in the trees," he noted, "probably to find food-like insects, lizards and mammals, and to avoid becoming food for other dinosaurs."

Longrich and his colleagues believe that the wing feather arrangement seen in modern birds may have evolved within a period spanning a few tens of millions of years and then remained largely unchanged for the past 130 million years.

In terms of this short versus long timescale, Longrich compared it to the evolution of human-constructed aircraft, which started with some years of experimentation before settling into a basic design that's just been fine-tuned during more recent years.

"Birds hit on a workable design about 130 million years ago, and it's been difficult to improve upon it," he said.

Birds benefitted from both this and their small size 65 million years ago, when the larger non-avian dinosaurs bit the dust.

Read more at Discovery News

The Rise of a Zombie Nebula

Feast your eyes on this gorgeous planetary nebula that has been "re-animated."

Abell 30, as astronomers call it, glows in X-ray light (shown in purple) and optical (green, blue, and orange). How did such a complex nebula form?

A planetary nebula signals the quiet death of a star that is not large enough to produce a supernova. Instead, as the star's core runs out of hydrogen for nuclear fusion, the outer layers puff up and cool down, making the star a red giant. Strong stellar winds blow material from the outer layers into a shell or some other strange shape, such as an hourglass. The stellar core becomes a hot white dwarf star, giving off plenty of ultraviolet radiation that causes the surrounding gas to glow.

But sometimes, the dead star doesn't quite stay dead.

In a "born again" planetary nebula, as described in the literature as early as 1983, nuclear fusion reignites some of the helium in the white dwarf star, making carbon and oxygen and creating a new phase of stellar winds.

According to the observations using the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope, XMM-Newton, and telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory, the initial planetary nebula shell was ejected from the star 12,500 years ago, and the re-animation event occurred only 850 years ago. The stellar winds from the central white dwarf are now powering the diffuse x-ray emission (purple above) as the faster moving wind shocks the slower moving, older material, and it is sculpting the knots seen in the inset (where orange indicates oxygen-rich gas).

There is also a point-source of x-ray emission that coincides with the central star of the planetary nebula. Though several hypotheses have been considered to explain the presence of such a point source, it is not yet clear how the x-rays are caused. This is an usual system with stellar winds of different speeds from different epochs all interacting and driving the evolution of this peculiar object.

On a historical note, I was a bit confused at the name of this planetary nebula. Usually, when we talk about an object that has been named after the astronomer George Abell, it is for a galaxy cluster. However, he also produced a catalog of planetary nebula using the Palomar Sky Survey plates made with the 48" Schmidt Telescope. These happened to be in the field of view and were discovered (some, re-discovered) upon closer inspection and were cataloged in 1966.

Read more at Discovery News

Nov 20, 2012

Does Anyone Really Believe in the Mayan Apocalypse?

John Scillitani does not want to be seen as a fanatic. As the proprietor of, one of the top Google hits for searches on the Mayan apocalypse, he'd be easy to paint in that way: His site features pictures of nuclear explosions, images of meteors hitting Earth and a variety of less-pleasant predictions from the darker parts of the Bible.

But over the phone, Scillitani comes across as friendly and likable. He has a family and a job -- he's a real estate agent in California -- and although he worries about the way the world is going, he says, he's not cowering in a bunker waiting for the end of the world to come.

"I'm just reading stuff and seeing some coincidences that are kind of eerie," Scillitani told LiveScience. He said he put together his site during "a phase" of intense reading about 2012 apocalypse predictions.

"I just love the mythology of it, and you watch a couple shows … then you start doing research and going, 'Oh my god, there's this' and 'Oh my god, there's that,' and you start taking the numerology and trying to match stuff up," he said.

Scillitani is not alone in his fascination with 2012 prophecies. The crux of these prophecies is the Maya Long Count calendar. An important cycle of this calendar draws to a close on Dec. 21, 2012. But while most media have painted Mayan apocalypse believers as misguided doomsday prophets, the reality is not quite so simple.

In fact, the cult of Maya enthusiasts is much more varied -- and much more adaptable -- than the media have given them credit for. While it's true that some fear the end of the world, many others look forward to Dec. 21 as a day of transformation and spiritual awakening. Predictions are as numerous as believers, and have even seeped back into modern Maya culture.

"There are all kinds of lines of thought," said Dirk van Tuerenhout, an anthropologist and curator of "Maya 2012: Prophecy Becomes History," an exhibit ongoing at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Who believes

It's impossible to quantify how many people believe something notable will happen on Dec. 21, and equally impossible to determine how many think that "something" will be apocalyptic. The online world of the Mayan apocalypse is chaotic and anarchic. Dueling interpretations and infighting appear common, and it can be difficult to tell who truly believes in the prophecy and who is a huckster looking to draw in the gullible.

The basic beliefs, however, all stem from the Maya Long Count calendar, one of three calendars used by the ancient Maya of Central America. On Dec. 21, 2012, our modern calendar coincides with the end of a 144,000-day cycle, or b'ak'tun. Two ancient carvings, one discovered this year, reference the date. The first, which dates back to about A.D. 669 and which was found in Tortuguero, Mexico, mentions the return of a deity associated with calendar changes on that day. The second, found in Guatemala, dates back to about A.D. 696. In that text, a struggling king attempts to shore up his rule by linking it to the 13th b'ak'tun that ends this year.

Historians, archaeologists and Maya experts are quick to point out that neither carving is apocalyptic. Nor did the Maya see the end of the calendar as the end of time itself.

"It's absolutely not the end," van Tuerenhout told LiveScience. "This is just one calendar being exchanged for another."

Maya civilization peaked and collapsed before about A.D. 1000, though descendents of the empire still populate Central America. Westerners exposed to the concept of the Maya calendar imbued it with their own traditions, often drawn from the apocalyptic predictions of the Bible.

"It's that world of the ancient Maya colliding with the Western world, which has all kinds of religious traditions firmly anchored in these end-of-the-world types of beliefs," van Tuerenhout said.

Much of the current Maya concern traces back to a 1966 book "The Maya" (Thames & Hudson) by Yale University anthropologist Michael Coe, who briefly suggests the Long Count calendar might have been used to predict Armageddon. Other Maya experts contest this claim, but the fiery story has mutated and grown online.

For example, Azerbaijani-American author Zecharia Sitchin, who believed humans arose from extraterrestrials, also formulated the idea of planet Nibiru, an undiscovered body orbiting in a huge elliptical path in our solar system. This idea was later picked up by Nancy Lieder, the proprietor of, who says she channels the messages of benign aliens. In 2003, Lieder warned that Planet X or Nibiru would sweep by the Earth, killing most life on the planet.

That didn't happen, of course, but the idea of a deadly planetary collision stuck. A collision with Nibiru is one common theory of how the world will end on Dec. 21.

Not the end, but a beginning

Other believers don't expect a fiery death, but a beautiful rebirth. The spiritual organization Foundation for the Law of Time, for example, believes Dec. 21 will usher in a new age.

"It's a time when there is an opportunity for spiritual rebirth and a transformation of consciousness, which has to do with the identification of the metaphysical realities, which will help manifest a global culture of peace," John Hoopes, an anthropologist at the University of Kansas who has tracked the online surge in 2012 apocalypse theories, said of the group's beliefs.

New Age subcultures are major drivers of 2012 Maya beliefs, Hoopes told LiveScience. The demographic is "spiritual, but not religious," Hoopes said.

People "are putting together their own practices that draw from Tibetan Buddhism and Tantrism and yoga, but also alchemy, astrology and tarot," he said. "It's what other authors have referred to as the invention of a sacred tradition, but it's very eclectic and pulls on stuff from around the world."

Not only that, but the modern world is chaotic and confusing, said Robert Sitler, a professor of Latin American studies at Stetson University in Florida and author of "The Living Maya: Ancient Wisdom in the Era of 2012" (North Atlantic Books, 2010).

People worry about climate change, species' extinction and environmental degradation, Sitler said.

"There is, I think, an attraction in looking back to cultures that we imagine had a better way of doing things," he told LiveScience.

What the Maya think

Of course, Maya culture still exists -- even if the empire is long gone. Sitler has interviewed a number of Maya people on their thoughts on the 2012 phenomenon, starting about six years ago. At first, he said, it was a bit like asking the average American about important dates in the Julian calendar, the calendar that Europeans stopped using in 1582.

"When I first started going, nobody knew what I was talking about, nobody had ever heard of it," Sitler said. "That's because that calendar fell into disuse a thousand years ago."

But intense media attention brought the calendar back to the Maya's attention, Sitler said. Out of 100 Maya, he said, "99 of them could care less about any of it," because they're busy with their daily lives. But because that culture sees ancestors as a source of wisdom, many Maya welcomed the import of their own history with open arms.

"There are Maya celebrations scheduled all over Mexico and Guatemala" on Dec. 21, Sitler said.

Read more at Discovery News

Turkey on Your Table -- Not Like Its Ancestors

The estimated 45 million turkeys that many Americans eat on Thanksgiving are genetically distinct from their wild turkey ancestors.

"Ancient turkeys weren't your Butterball," Rob Fleischer, head of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute's Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics, said in a press release. "We set out to compare the genetic diversity of the domestic turkeys we eat today with that of the ancestral wild turkey from South Mexico. Some of what we found surprised us."

He and his colleagues determined that the domestic turkey that ends up on the dinner table has less genetic variation than not only its ancestral wild counterparts, which were first domesticated in 800 B.C., but also than other livestock breeds, such as domestic pigs or chickens.

The genetic traits affected by the variation are body size and breast muscle development -- features that can help determine the likelihood of a consumer buying a turkey.

"Few people know that the commercial turkeys served at Thanksgiving descended from Mexico, where they were discovered during the Spanish Conquest and transported to Europe," said Julie Long, senior author of the study and research physiologist with USDA's Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Md.

"During the next 100 years, Europeans created many different varieties of the domesticated turkey. It's important to assess the differences between ancient and modern domesticated turkeys in the event that some unforeseen problem might threaten the stability of the commercial turkey lines."

The scientists sequenced the genomes of domestic turkeys from seven commercial lines and compared them to those of three South Mexican turkeys collected in 1899 from Chihuahua, Mexico. The ancient turkey samples came from specimens at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

"It is often the case that selection in domestication reduces the level of variation," Fleischer said. "What did surprise us, however, is how well the ancient DNA from the three museum specimens worked to generate the genome sequences needed to determine the genetic variation and structure. These data and this approach show great promise for determining what genes were involved in the process of turkey domestication."

Read more at Discovery News

LHC Spots Mysterious Y(4140) Particle

For all the neatness of the Standard Model, particle physics can be a messy business. It's difficult enough to keep track of just the major players -- the huge family of quarks, neutrinos, electrons, photons, leptons, bosons and so forth -- without worrying about a bewildering extended "family" of X and Y particles that don't seem to fit the usual paradigm for how quarks and anti-quarks combine to make matter.

One of those was discovered in 2009 by physicists at Fermilab's CDF experiment. Dubbed Y(4140), the particle first showed up in B meson decays and joins a handful of other exotic particles observed in accelerator experiments around the world over the past decade.

Now physicists at the Large Hadron Collider's CMS collaboration think they have spotted this elusive object in their own data, confirming that Y(4140) is a real structure -- even if they're not quite sure what, exactly, it is. All they know for sure is that its mass is 4140 MeV and that there is less than a 1 in 3.5 million chance that the bump in the data is due to a random statistical fluctuation.

There are six different "flavors" of quarks: top, bottom, charm, strange, up and down. Most elementary particles are the result of quarks and antiquarks combining to make mesons (quark-antiquark pairs) or baryons (made up of three quarks).

Y(4140) has the same basic building blocks, but doesn't fit into either the meson or baryon category -- a characteristic it shares with similar strange particles like X(3872) -- discovered in 2003 -- and Y(2460), discovered in 2005.

"Apparently there are a lot more ways of putting things together than we thought," Syracuse University's Sheldon Stone told National Geographic back in 2009.

One possibility is that these unusual X and Y particles are hybrids, perhaps four quarks bound together. They might be more akin to molecules than standard subatomic particles. In much the same way that hydrogen and oxygen atoms combine to form water (H2O), two mesons, for example, might briefly combine to form Y(4140). Or they might be something entirely new.

Read more at Discovery News

Monster 'Super-Jupiter' Discovered

Neil deGrasse Tyson may have helped DC Comics in the search for Superman's homeworld Krypton, but one can't help but wonder what kind of superhero would live on a newly discovered "super-Jupiter" orbiting the star Kappa Andromedae.

As announced by scientists using the High Contrast Instrument for the Subaru Next Generation Adaptive Optics (HiCIAO) and the Infrared Camera and Spectrograph (IRCS) mounted on the Japanese Subaru Telescope atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii, this newly discovered exoplanet is likely a little exotic. Weighing-in at a whopping 13 Jupiter masses, there is some ambiguity as to whether it's a massive planet or a small, failed star -- although spectroscopic analysis of the light it generates suggests it is composed of similar gases as other gas giant exoplanets orbiting other stars.

Failed stars, commonly known as brown dwarfs, are the runts of the stellar litter. They may be big, but they're not big enough to sustain nuclear fusion in their cores. A star can't shine without fusion, so these celestial oddballs are often considered to be the "bridge" between planets and stars.

But that's not to say that brown dwarfs don't shine their own special kind of light.

During formation, heat is trapped inside the body of brown dwarfs and released as infrared radiation. Larger brown dwarfs may even generate heat from low levels of deuterium fusion in their cores. Therefore, infrared-sensitive instruments like Subaru's IRCS are needed to directly image them.

Kappa Andromedae -- located in the constellation of Andromeda, some 170 light-years away -- is also an interesting star. It is 2.5 times the mass of our sun and is very bright and young. Astronomers estimate Kappa Andromedae at only 30 million years old (the sun is geriatric in comparison -- 5 billion years old). This means that Kappa Andromedae b (as the exoplanet is called) is also very young.

Some theories suggest that stars that are young and massive, like Kappa Andromedae, are unlikely to produce planets from their protoplanetary disks (the disks of dusty material that form around young stars). But the very existence of Kappa Andromedae b in an orbit a little larger than the solar system's Neptune makes this the largest planetary body in orbit around such a massive star to be directly imaged.

Whether the world is big enough to be considered to be a massive exoplanet or brown dwarf, it appears that it was spawned from the protoplanetary disk of Kappa Andromedae, making exoplanetary formation theories even more complex as they are fascinating.

As per the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) press release:

In recent years some observers and theoreticians have argued that large stars like Kappa Andromedae are likely to have large planets, perhaps conforming to a simple scaled-up model of our own solar system. Other experts suggest that there are limits to extrapolating from our own solar system; if a star is too massive, its powerful radiation may disrupt the "normal" planet formation process that would otherwise occur in the disk surrounding a star, its circumstellar disk. The discovery of the super-Jupiter around Kappa Andromedae demonstrates that stars as large as 2.5 solar masses are still fully capable of producing planets within their circumstellar disks.

Read more at Discovery News

Nov 19, 2012

Apes Have Midlife Crises

Across many cultures, people report a dip in happiness during their late-40s, a time when they generally feel less satisfied with their lives than they do in their younger and older years.

Apes, too, experience a kind of midlife crisis, found a new study. The surprising result suggests that the middle-aged blues may be a result of biology, not culture, and its evolutionary roots run deep.

"It was an astounding thing for us to find this pattern, to be honest," said Andrew Oswald, an economist and behavioral scientist at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. "It may be that the midlife crisis is driven by primate biology in a way we don 't understand, and if that 's the case, we all have to learn how to deal with it."

"I think it 's helpful for people to understand this dip," he added. "With luck, this could people them see that this is completely normal and that could help them get through it."

Studies in more than 50 countries over the past 20 years have revealed a near-universal pattern. Over the course of life, happiness tends to follow a U-shaped curve, with people ranking their sense of well-being higher in the first and last decades of life than in the middle.

The low point generally strikes between age 45 and 50 for both men and women, and the pattern crosses economic and demographic lines.

Most theories for the midlife dip involve money, promotions, marriage and other social facets of modern life, Oswald said. To see if there might be another explanation, he and colleagues compiled data that had been collected on more than 500 orangutans and chimpanzees living in about 60 zoos around the world.

For each animal, zookeepers, researchers or caretakers answered four questions about the well-being of their primate friends, including whether the apes seemed to be in good or bad moods. The humans also ranked how happy they thought they 'd be if they were to become the animal for a week. They had spent time with the animals for at least two years and knew them well.

Apes live to be about 50 or 55 years old and, just like in people, results showed a drop in happiness that reached its lowest point about halfway through the animals ' lives, the researchers report today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The magnitude of the dip was on par with the dips in happiness that people experience in their middle age, Oswald said. He compared the difference between the apes ' highs and lows to the loss in well-being that people report with marital separation.

The new findings help rule out some theories for midlife slumps in humans, said Arthur Stone, a psychologist in the psychiatry department at Stony Brook University in New York. For example, a whole generation of people can end up feeling less happy at a certain time in their lives simply because of some external historical situation. But that is unlikely to happen in societies of apes.

Read more at Discovery News

Scrappy Mammal Survived Dinosaur Extinction

A scrappy family of mammals with unusual, mismatched features moved underground and, like living in a perpetual bomb shelter, managed to survive the mass extinction event 65 million years ago that wiped out the world's non-avian dinosaurs.

We know this thanks to new research on the fossil mammal Necrolestes patagonensis, whose name translates to "grave robber," referring to its burrowing and underground lifestyle. The animal, described in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, had an upturned snout, a sturdy body structure, and short, wide legs.

It lived 16 million years ago, long after the dinosaur demise. But it was found to be related to another fossil mammal, Cronopio, which belonged to the Meridiolestida, a little-known group of extinct mammals from the Late Cretaceous and early Paleocene (100–60 million years ago) of South America. 

Cronopio and Necrolestes share a number of features in common, including the fact that they are the only known mammals to have single-rooted molars. Most mammals have double-rooted molars.

The animals were so odd and puzzling, at least to modern eyes, that they mystified scientists for years.

"Necrolestes is one of those animals in the textbooks that would appear with a picture and a footnote, and the footnote would say 'we don't know what it is,'" co-author John Wible of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History said in a press release.

For a long time it was thought that "grave robber" was a marsupial. Further analysis, however, found that Necrolestes actually belonged in a completely unexpected branch of the evolutionary tree believed to have died out 45 million years earlier than the time of Necrolestes.

This is an example of the Lazarus effect, in which a group of organisms is found to have survived far longer than originally thought. ("Lazarus" comes from the Bible story about how Jesus raised a man from the dead.)

"It's the supreme Lazarus effect," said Wible. "How in the world did this animal survive so long without anyone knowing about it?"

A good example of the Lazarus effect is the ginkgo tree, thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered growing in China in the 17th century.

The researchers believe that Necrolestes’s supreme burrowing adaptations are exactly what enabled it to survive for 45 million years longer than its relatives.

Read more at Discovery News

LHC Results Do Battle with Supersymmetry

There's been a bit of buzz this past week about the latest results from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, announced at the Hadron Collider Physics Symposium in Kyoto, Japan. Much of the focus has been on the Higgs boson, or the recently discovered particle that looks an awful lot like the Higgs boson -- and a fairly conventional Standard Model version, at that.

But there's been just as much buzz about a new measurement by an experiment called LHC beauty (LHCb), designed to study b-hadrons (heavy particles containing a bottom quark) in hopes of explaining the matter-antimatter asymmetry in the universe (CP violation).

LHCb scientists identified an unusual decay signature for a so-called strange beauty particle made up of a beauty antiquark bound to a strange quark because it decays so quickly into various other particles. It's a solid 3.5-sigma result, strong enough to constitute "evidence" but shy of the five-sigma threshold usually required for claims of "discovery."

This analysis looked for one particular rare decay pattern: the production of a positive muon and a negative muon. The Standard Model of particle physics predicts such a decay pattern should only occur roughly three times in a billion, which is precisely what the LHCb data showed. So yay for the Standard Model, which continues to hold up remarkably well.

So why aren't physicists just ecstatic over the smashing success of the Standard Model? Well, they were hoping for something a bit less vanilla, something surprising that hints at new exotic physics -- an unexpected particle, a new force, hidden extra dimensions, a Higgs that wasn't quite in line with predictions... and evidence for supersymmetry, which predicts the existence of "shadow particles" -- heavy versions of all the particles currently included in the Standard Model.

Physicists -- some of them, anyway -- would like to find evidence of supersymmetry in part because it offers one explanation for dark matter, namely, the most likely versions of supersymmetry predict the existence of a particle dubbed the "neutralino."

This is not the only candidate for dark matter, of course, but it would be among the more intriguing options beyond the Standard Model.

From a purely theoretical standpoint, supersymmetry also helps resolve physics at the very small scale of particles (quantum physics) and physics at the very large scale (general relativity) by offering ways to fuse the two into a Grand Unified Theory (GUT), whereby, at extremely high energies (above 1016 GeV), the electromagnetic, weak nuclear, and strong nuclear forces are fused into a single unified field.

Mix and Match

It's worth taking a moment to talk about what physicists mean by "symmetry," and why it matters to formulation of a GUT. For instance, quantum chromodynamics (QCD) describes the strong nuclear force and the way various quarks interact with each other. There are quarks of three different "colors" that can be randomly interchanged, just like a shell game, so those quarks share a similar internal symmetry.

Supersymmetry extends this interchangeable shuffling to incorporate all subatomic particles. See, not all potential couplings are feasible in the current standard model.

Fermions (the particles that make up matter) and bosons (messenger particles that carry fundamental forces) can't mix at all because they have such vastly different properties.

Supersymmetry allows us to interchange a fermion with a boson. But it requires the existence of hypothetical super "shadow" partners, called sparticles: squarks, sleptons, photinos, selectrons, and neutralinos.

Each fermion is paired with a super-boson partner, and each boson has a super-fermion partner. Now they can be mixed via their super partners, but the price is a doubling of the number of subatomic particles.

The reason physicists haven't yet observed sparticles might be because they are so much heavier than their normal sister particles, so they decay far too quickly. That heavy mass also means it takes even larger amounts of energy to produce them -- the kinds of energy only a machine as powerful as the LHC is capable of generating.

It's Not Dead Yet!

That rare decay pattern of the strange beauty particle announced last week is an especially sensitive indicator of the possible existence of unknown particles and forces -- like sparticles. Unfortunately, the data from LHCb is not good news for fans of supersymmetry because it fits so neatly within the Standard Model predictions.

So far it doesn't show any unusual effects, and thus contradicts many of the most likely supersymmetry models. Those results should make supersymmetry antagonists happy, even as it disappoints the fans -- feelings tend to run strong on either end of the spectrum.

"Supersymmetry is not ruled out by our measurement, but it is strongly constrained," LHCb spokesperson Pierluigi Campana told the CERN Bulletin. LHCb scientist Chris Parkes was a bit less circumspect, telling BBC News, "Supersymmetry may not be dead, but these latest results have certainly put it into hospital."

But it's still a rough measurement, and might change as physicists refine those results.

Read more at Discovery News

Developing a Color Code for Habitable Exoplanets

There's a growing number of exoplanets being found inside the habitable zones around their stars -- the "sweet spot" where temperatures would allow for liquid water oceans on Earth-sized worlds.

These planets have largely been identified by detecting their ghostly silhouette caused by passing in front of their stars, or their invisible gravitational pull on their parent star. But determining if these worlds are inhabited (or, indeed, truly habitable) will require teasing out and dissecting the anemic amount of starlight filtered through a planet's atmosphere, or reflected off of its surface. That's a tall order.

Siddharth Hegde of The Max Plank Institute for Astronomy, and colleagues, propose a "quick and dirty" way to sort out possibly inhabited worlds. His approach is to look at a planet's reflected light through different colored filters. This is simpler than the more arduous task of spreading out a planet's light into a spectrum. Such detailed spectroscopy of Earth-sized planets will have to wait for futuristic huge space telescopes.

The catch is that the target planets have to be largely cloudless and have rocky surfaces -- not be smothered in thick atmospheres like Venus.

For starters, Hegde says that we should even consider environmental conditions where only extremophiles -- microbes that can deal with extreme temperature, radiation, high salinity and acidity -- can survive. "Extremophiles provide us with the minimum known envelope of environmental limits for life on our planet," he writes.

Extremophiles on Earth live in environmental niches as long as there is liquid water, an energy source for metabolism, and a source of nutrients that helps in building and maintaining cellular structures. They dwell in Earth’s sand deserts, ice deserts and salt flats like the nearly bone dry Atacama Desert in Chile. They live inside rocks like sandstone that protect the organisms by filtering out destructive ultraviolet radiation.

But a challenge is that Earth's extremophiles often live under the surface, so any telltale evidence of alien extremophiles' presence could be blocked out.

Looking at reflected colors collected from Earth-orbiting environmental reconnaissance satellites, Hegde studied three specific types of extremeophiles that would the color light to be reddish: lichens, bacterial mats and red algae in acid mine drainage. From that he built a model of Earth's color signature as it would look to aliens using a similar scientific observations as us. By contrast, barren water, snow, sand and salt flats have little or no color for all practical purposes.

What's more, previous interplanetary spacecraft observations of Earth have revealed a unique reddish tinge where plants using chlorophyll reflect a lot of near-infrared light back into space. This signature, called the "red edge" only became apparent on Earth 500 million years ago with the onset of multi-celled land organisms.

Any number of alien astronomers might use their own Kepler-like planet-hunting space telescopes to catalog Earth's size, orbit, and density, among that of countless other terrestrial planets. If aliens applied a similar color study to Earth they might conclude that our planet has surface microorganisms. But that would only be convincing if the extraterrestrials also had photosynthetic carbon-based organisms.

Read more at Discovery News

Nov 18, 2012

Twinkie R.I.P. (1930-2012)

With the announcement Friday that Twinkies manufacturer Hostess will go out of business, snack cake enthusiasts streamed into stores and cleared shelves to grab what will be the last boxes of an iconic American brand.

Crowds even gathered outside one Hostess bakery in what was described as a scene akin to "a preview of Black Friday." Opportunists have also stocked up Twinkies and are selling them for jacked up prices online, raising the cost of a box that once sold for $5 to hundreds of dollars.

How did such a small snack cake grow to mean so much to so many Americans?

Invented in 1930, the Twinkie has long been a junk food favorite. The Twinkie first exploded in popularity following a change in its recipe necessitated by World War II. The original Twinkie was filled with banana cream, but the war brought a banana shortage in the 1940s, vanilla cream took its place. The switch proved popular among consumers. Limited edition runs of the banana cream Twinkie occasionally returned to store shelves, but the vanilla cream version was there to stay.

In the 1950s, Twinkies' manufacturer Hostess sponsored the popular children's program, the Howdy Doody Show, a move that would cement the snack cake's popularity with an entire generation of kids.

Twinkies are also famously the product of modern chemistry. As a result, ever since the 1960s, they have spawned a number of urban legends about the snack cake's shelf life and its supposed ability to survive nuclear exposure.

Over the decades, the enduring popularity of Twinkie is continuously reinforced by a steady stream of product placements in well-known movies and television shows. The snack cake has been featured in Ghostbusters, Wall-E, Die Hard, The Simpsons, Family Guy and Zombieland, just to name a few.

Despite the Twinkie's popularity, its reputation as quintessential junk food contributed to its downfall, with those same baby boomers who enthusiastically embraced it as children deciding against passing the food on to their children, as explained by USA Today's Bruce Horovitz. In addition to citing the union strike as a reason for the company's downfall, Hostess also noted how changing consumer preferences toward healthy, natural foods made it harder for them to sell their snack products.

Read more at Discovery News

Amazing Time-Lapse Video Features Ever-Changing Earth and Sky

Heaven meets the Earth in this moving time-lapse video showing gorgeous landscapes underneath an ever-changing night sky.

“Within Two Worlds” was created by photographer Brad Goldpaint. The film features shooting comets, a giant tilting Milky Way, and glowing purple and pink auroras peeking over the horizon. Stunning sequences watch day turn to night and night to day, as overhead stars shine their beautiful light above mountains, forests, and waterfalls.

“This time-lapse video is my visual representation of how the night sky and landscapes co-exist within a world of contradictions. I hope this connection between heaven and earth inspires you to discover and create your own opportunities, to reach your rightful place within two worlds,” Goldpaint wrote on his Vimeo page.

Below you can see some of striking images from the movie, including screenshots of the Geminid meteor shower over Castle Lake in California and auroras over Crater Lake National park in Oregon.

Geminid meteor shower over Castle Lake

The Milky Way soars over Crater Lake as a Lyrid meteor flies overhead.

Star trails over Mount Shasta in California

More at Wired Science