Dec 22, 2012

A Giant Puzzle With Billions of Pieces

Day after day, legions of microorganisms work to produce energy from waste in biogas plants. Researchers from Bielefeld University's Center for Biotechnology (CeBiTec) are taking a close look to find out which microbes do the best job. They are analysing the entire genetic information of the microbial communities in selected biogas plants up and down Germany. From the beginning of 2013, the Californian Joint Genome Institute will undertake the sequencing required. The biocomputational analysis will be performed at CeBiTec. Not an easy task, since the data will be supplied in billions of fragments stemming in turn from hundreds of organisms. Piecing together this huge jigsaw puzzle will be painstaking work.

In Germany, there are more than 7,000 biogas plants which can supply over six million households with power. The plants are filled mostly with plant biomass like maize silage but also with agricultural waste materials like liquid manure and chicken manure. One of the key research questions is how the production of biogas can be optimised. For this reason, Bielefeld scientists Dr Alexander Sczyrba, Dr Andreas Schlüter, Dr Alexander Goesmann, Professor Dr Jens Stoye und Professor Dr Alfred Pühler want to know what microbes are responsible for the decomposition of biomass -- and which of them do it best. "We are interested in discovering the microbiology that is really behind the processes going on in a biogas plant; what micro-organisms play which role at which stage," explains Andreas Schlüter, whose research at CeBiTec is in the field of biogas production.

First genome deciphered

The researchers' work has already borne its first fruit. "At CeBiTec, we have managed to deci-pher the complete genome sequence of Methanoculleus bourgensis, a methane producer," reports Professor Pühler. By doing so, Bielefeld has sequenced the first genome for a methane-producing archaeon from a biogas plant -- a single-celled primordial bacterium which plays an important role in certain biogas plants. Now, the researchers want to go even further.

Putting the puzzle together

The project is part of the Community Sequencing Program, a public sequencing programme financed at the Joint Genome Institute by the US Department of Energy. While previous biogas studies have concentrated primarily on certain marker genes, now the entire genetic information of the microorganisms is to be studied. The American institute will produce more than one terabyte of sequence data for this, which is equivalent in volume to approximately 300 human genomes. This data will be supplied in a countless number of fragments, however, since even the most modern technology is not capable of reading all at once the millions of bases of which a microbial DNA molecule consists. Instead, the sequencing technologies supply vast quantities of overlapping sections of about 150 bases.

The DNA sequences will then be returned to Bielefeld in billions of fragments, which is where Alexander Sczyrba's Computa-tional Metagenomics team comes into play. They develop bioinformatic procedures for the reconstruction of genome sequences. Their task is to compare the data, recognise the overlaps and use them to reassemble the base sequence. "We are trying to complete a puzzle made up of billions of pieces, which also includes hundreds of different puzzles all mixed up," explains Sczyrba.

Single-cell genomics promises new insights

Quite incidentally, the Bielefeld researchers will be breaking new ground in genomics. An estimated 99 per cent of all microorganisms cannot be cultivated in the laboratory. A brand new technology, single-cell genomics, is to provide insights here by determining the genome sequence from single microbial cells. Knowledge of the identity and functions of hitherto completely unknown microorganisms is expected to be gained. During the joint project, the Joint Genome Institute will sequence approximately 100 single-cell genomes.

The researchers have scheduled roughly two years for their project, in which also Bielefeld doctoral students of the Graduate Cluster in Industrial Biotechnology (CLIB) are involved. At the end, they hope to have discovered the optimal microbial community for biogas plants -- and thus be in a position to make this process of generating energy even more efficient.

Read more at Sceince Daily

News Sceptical Award

This year I'm going to do something special for all the readers of The Magical Journey! Past years I've been making the sceptical awards myself but this year it's all up to you! What blog, podcast or sceptical news thingy do you think is deserved to be awarded this year?

If you have any suggestions, please write in the comments with a link to the page and I will look it up! The winner will be awarded with The Sceptical Award 2012!

The Winner will be announced the 29th of December 2012 so hurry up!

Danny Boston from A Magical Journey

Dec 21, 2012

Hawaiian Islands Are Dissolving from Within, Study Says

Most of us think of soil erosion as the primary force that levels mountains, however geologists have found that Oahu's mountains are dissolving from within due to groundwater.

Someday, Oahu's Koolau and Waianae mountains will be reduced to nothing more than a flat, low-lying island like Midway.

But erosion isn't the biggest culprit. Instead, scientists say, the mountains of Oahu are actually dissolving from within.

"We tried to figure out how fast the island is going away and what the influence of climate is on that rate," said Brigham Young University geologist Steve Nelson. "More material is dissolving from those islands than what is being carried off through erosion."

The research pitted groundwater against stream water to see which removed more mineral material. Nelson and his BYU colleagues spent two months sampling both types of sources. In addition, ground and surface water estimates from the U.S. Geological Survey helped them calculate the total quantity of mass that disappeared from the island each year.

"All of the Hawaiian Islands are made of just one kind of rock," Nelson said. "The weathering rates are variable, too, because rainfall is so variable, so it's a great natural laboratory."

Forecasting the island's future also needs to account for plate tectonics. As Oahu is pushed northwest, the island actually rises in elevation at a slow but steady rate. You've heard of mountain climbing; this is a mountain that climbs.

According to the researchers' estimates, the net effect is that Oahu will continue to grow for as long as 1.5 million years. Beyond that, the force of groundwater will eventually triumph and the island will begin its descent to a low-lying topography.

Undergraduate student Brian Selck co-authored the study, which appears in the journal Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta. Unfortunately for him, he joined the project only after the field work in Hawaii took place.

Instead, Selck performed the mineralogical analysis of soil samples in the lab back in Provo. The island's volcanic soil contained at least one surprise in weathered rock called saprolites.

"The main thing that surprised me on the way was the appearance of a large amount of quartz in a saprolite taken from a 1-meter depth," Selck said.

Read more at Science Daily

A New Type of Nerve Cell Found in the Brain

Scientists at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, in collaboration with colleagues in Germany and the Netherlands, have identified a previously unknown group of nerve cells in the brain. The nerve cells regulate cardiovascular functions such as heart rhythm and blood pressure. It is hoped that the discovery, which is published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, will be significant in the long term in the treatment of cardiovascular diseases in humans.

The scientists have managed to identify in mice a previously totally unknown group of nerve cells in the brain. These nerve cells, also known as 'neurons', develop in the brain with the aid of thyroid hormone, which is produced in the thyroid gland. Patients in whom the function of the thyroid gland is disturbed and who therefore produce too much or too little thyroid hormone, thus risk developing problems with these nerve cells. This in turn has an effect on the function of the heart, leading to cardiovascular disease.

It is well-known that patients with untreated hyperthyroidism (too high a production of thyroid hormone) or hypothyroidism (too low a production of thyroid hormone) often develop heart problems. It has previously been believed that this was solely a result of the hormone affecting the heart directly. The new study, however, shows that thyroid hormone also affects the heart indirectly, through the newly discovered neurons.

"This discovery opens the possibility of a completely new way of combating cardiovascular disease," says Jens Mittag, group leader at the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology at Karolinska Institutet. "If we learn how to control these neurons, we will be able to treat certain cardiovascular problems like hypertension through the brain. This is, however, still far in the future. A more immediate conclusion is that it is of utmost importance to identify and treat pregnant women with hypothyroidism, since their low level of thyroid hormone may harm the production of these neurons in the fetus, and this may in the long run cause cardiovascular disorders in the offspring."

Read more at Science Daily

No Doomsday! The Quick Reference Guide

Still worried about flaming space rocks inextricably falling from the sky? Losing sleep over nonsensical "killer" solar flares? Got your knickers-in-a-knot over the non-existent Planet X?

If you answered "yes," you obviously haven't been paying attention. And no, this isn't a conspiracy or some fantasy coverup, the "great" Mayan Doomsday of 2012 is a hoax, a farce, a "marketing fallacy," a pink elephant, a lie, complete and utter bullsh*t (don't take my word for it, Penn & Teller said so).

But just in case there is any shred of doubt in your mind about Dec. 21 and the end of the world, here's a quick and dirty guide (plus links for further reading) to some of the key doomsday scenarios invented by a few questionable people who have been vying to make money out of your fear. I make no apologies for my sarcasm; I've been debunking this stuff for over four years -- I'm all Apocalypsed out.

1) Did the Maya predict doomsday? NO. If the ancient Maya didn't predict doomsday, then what's all this "Mayan Doomsday" baloney? Exactly. It's all made up, invented, fabricated, a big turd.

2) What about Planet X/Nibiru? Isn't some large planetary body predicted to zoom through the inner solar system causing all kinds of carnage? In a word: No. In two words: heck no. Anyone with good eyesight or a low-end telescope would have spotted an incoming planet (or brown dwarf) in the night sky a long time ago.

3) Any marauding asteroids or comets? As far as the world's asteroid-hunting programs are concerned, 90 percent of the massive, 1 kilometer-wide, civilization-ending asteroids have been discovered. No imminent smaller asteroids (i.e. ones that could cause regional/city-wide damage) have been detected. Of course, a bus-sized space rock could flatten your house tomorrow, but really, what are the odds?

4) What about a killer zombie hamster uprising? Now you're just being silly (although it does have potential to be the cutest doomsday scenario of all doomsday scenarios).

5) OK, will the Earth flip and swap poles? No. The Earth doesn't work like that (unless it got hit by something big -- refer to #2 and #3). What about a crazy geomagnetic shift? That could cause all kinds of mayhem! Um, no, not likely. Although the magnetic poles of the Earth tend to wander and they have changed polarity in the history of our planet, there's no indication of any rapid geomagnetic change any time soon.

6) Killer solar flares -- come on, that's a realistic doomsday scenario, right? Although the sun is reaching "solar maximum" -- a period in the sun's 11-year cycle when flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are more frequent -- there's no evidence to suggest that Dec. 21 will include the eruption of a any powerful solar flare. Sure, the sun might produce a flare that could cause radio interference in our atmosphere, but this solar cycle is a comparatively weak cycle, and nothing big is forecast. Space weather is a serious concern, however, as solar activity can interfere with satellites and power grids, but it certainly cannot generate "killer" solar flares. That is a serious misconception as to how the sun works.

7) I'm getting so bored with this. I need a vacation.

8) Galactic alignment? According to many doomsayers, the solar system is passing through the center of the galactic disk right now. They've nailed it down the a specific day -- right when the Maya Long Count calendar ends! While it's true there is some wobble in the sun's orbit around the Milky way, there's no real way of knowing when we go through the "center" of the galaxy's equator. Modern astronomy cannot pin that moment down to a year, let alone a day, so how the heck did the ancient Maya do it? Yeah, they were good astronomers, but they weren't that good. Some doomsayers also profess to some divine knowledge that when the sun eclipses the supermassive black hole (Sagittarius A*) at center of the Milky Way during this alignment, some magical force will influence Earth. The fact that the sun isn't even close to eclipsing the galactic center, let alone the presence of a made-up magical force, should reveal that it's all complete bunkum.

9) About that black hole in the center of our galaxy -- it's scary right? Not at all. It's located over 20,000 light-years from Earth. It's not going to suck us in any time soon.

Time to Party, Not Worry

To be honest, there are many more crappy doomsday scenarios based around Dec. 21, but each and every one is flawed. Some may have been spawned from a shred of scientific fact, but each have blown the significance of the Maya Long Count calendar out of proportion.

However, all doomsday scenarios are born from individuals who want to make money out of people's fear. They've been writing books and making movies all with one goal in mind: to scare you into buying into the hype so they can make money. It's a sinister marketing ploy that has been used for generations, but this "2012 doomsday" has been especially viral because the Internet has aided the spread of scientific disinformation.

So, as Friday arrives and we look forward to Christmas, in the future when you hear about another doomsday, please check the science and do your own research. Do not swallow the lies of a few crazed individuals who want to profit from your fear and confusion. No one has ever prophesized the future, and no calendar end date has signified the end of the world.

Read more at Discovery News

Welcome Winter

In the very likely event that we survive Friday's rumored Mayan apocalypse, those of us in the Northern Hemisphere will at least get to experience another cosmic occasion: the winter solstice.

On Friday, Dec. 21, the sun will appear to make its lowest, quickest trek across the sky all year, resulting in the shortest day of 2012 and the official start of winter.

Earth is tilted on its axis 23.5 degrees, so it leans one way as it spins around its axis while orbiting the sun. On Dec. 21, the top half of the planet (everything north of the equator) will face away from the sun, leaving the North Pole in complete darkness.

Since the summer solstice on June 20, 2012, the altitude of the midday sun (or its height above the horizon) has been getting lower as its direct rays have been gradually migrating to the south. Technically, after the exact moment the winter solstice occurs Friday — 6:12 a.m. EST (1112 GMT) — the sun will turn around and start on its journey back north. So starting Saturday, the days will slowly start getting longer, but that doesn't mean it will start getting warmer. In fact, the coldest days are yet to come.

Daylight in the mid-latitudes lasts for around nine hours close to the winter solstice, compared with about 15 hours around the summer solstice (when the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the sun). With less sunlight energy hitting us, temperatures plummet. And even though the days will get longer during January, Northern Hemisphere oceans continue to cool in the relative lack of the sun's rays, and ocean temperatures drive much of the weather on the continents.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 20, 2012

One Day Until the Mayan Apocalypse

It's the end of the world! Or not.

Despite the failure of a multitude of doomsday prophecies over the centuries, believers are at it again, this time with an interpretation of the ancient Mayan calendar that pegs the end of the world as tomorrow, Friday, Dec. 21.

The so-called 2012 apocalypse has spawned a Hollywood film ("2012," released with questionable timing in 2009), official responses from NASA and the closure of at least one mountain in France, which officials fear will be swamped with believers looking for a trip to safety on a flying saucer on Dec. 21. Friday also happens to be the official start of winter, or the winter solstice, when the top half of the planet faces directly away from the sun.

The rumors get their start because Dec. 21 in the Western calendar likely corresponds to the end of the 13th b'ak'tun of the Mayan Long Count Calendar, one of three calendars the ancient Maya used to count time. The calendar works by counting first days, then 20-day chunks of time, then 260-day periods and 7,200-day periods. Ticking up like a car odometer, the calendar finally keeps track of 144,000-day blocks of time called b'ak'tuns.

The thirteenth b'ak'tun

Thirteen b'ak'tuns would have been seen by the ancient Maya as a completed cycle of creation, but there were absolutely no apocalyptic predictions associated with this date. Just as an old 2012 calendar will be tossed for a new 2013 model, the Mayan calendar will continue on. In fact, the Maya had units for counting even larger chunks of time than b'ak'tuns -- their calendar is capable of tracking millions of years.

Rumors of an apocalypse linked to the Mayan calendar emerged only when Westerners got their hands on the numbers. Theories blew up, largely online, making the Mayan apocalypse one of the very few grassroots doomsday predictions in history.

Apocalypse rumors eventually became so pervasive that they brought the Dec. 21 back to the attention of the modern Maya, said Robert Sitler, a professor of Latin American studies at Stetson University in Florida. Few Maya had given much thought to the calendar, as it fell out of use more than 1,000 years ago. Now, however, many Maya are giving the day its due, Sitler told LiveScience, though not as the end of the world. Most groups interpret the end of the b'ak'tun as a time of change and enlightenment.

No doomsday

Many of the apocalyptic rumors surrounding Dec. 21 have focused on astronomical theories, such as a collision between Earth and an asteroid or a rogue planet. That's brought NASA into the fray. The agency has been working overtime to quash doomsday rumors, even maintaining its own debunking website.

Among the wilder theories is the idea that the magnetic poles of the planet will suddenly flip-flop, either destroying life on Earth or sending us back to the Stone Age. Not so, according to NASA. The North and South magnetic poles do gradually change and switch places, but the key word is "gradual." The process takes place over thousands of years and has happened many times without disrupting life on the planet.

Another theory holds that a rogue "Planet X" or "Nibiru" will swoop in from the outer solar system to collide with Earth. Fortunately, there is no Planet X. And if an object were set to hit the planet by tomorrow, you can bet it'd be visible in the sky by today.

Read more at Discovery News

Human Hands Evolved for Punching

Human hands evolved so that men could make fists and fight, and not just for manual dexterity, new research finds.

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, adds to a growing body of evidence that humans are among the most aggressive and violent animals on the planet.

"With the notable exception of bonobos, great apes are a relatively aggressive group of mammals," lead author David Carrier told Discovery News. "Although some primatologists may argue that chimpanzees are the most aggressive apes, I think the evidence suggests that humans are substantially more violent."

Carrier points out that while chimpanzees physically batter each other more frequently than humans, rape appears to be less common in chimpanzees, and torture and group-against-group forms of violence, such as slavery, are not documented in the animals.

"Chimpanzees are also known to engage in raiding welfare in which one group largely eliminates a neighboring group, but this is not comparable in scope to the genocide that has characterized human history," added Carrier, a University of Utah biology professor.

For this latest study, he and co-author Michael Morgan, a medical student, conducted three experiments. First, they analyzed what happened when men, aged from 22 to 50, hit a punching bag as hard as they could. The peak stress delivered to the bag -- the force per area -- was 1.7 to 3 times greater with a fist strike compared with a slap.

"Because you have higher pressure when hitting with a fist, you are more likely to cause injury to tissue, bones, teeth, eyes and the jaw," Carrier said.

The second and third experiments determined that buttressing provided by the human fist increases the stiffness of the knuckle joint fourfold. It also doubles the ability of the fingers to transmit punching force, mainly due to the force transferred from the fingers to the thumb when the fist is clenched.

In terms of the size and shape of hand anatomy, the scientists point out that humans could have evolved manual dexterity with longer thumbs, but without the fingers and palms getting shorter.

Gorilla hands are closer in proportion to human hands than are other apes' hands, but they and no other ape -- aside from us -- hits with a clenched fist.

The researchers additionally point out that humans use fists during threat displays. There is also a difference in body size between males and females, particularly evident with hands and arms. This, Carrier said, is "consistent with the hand being a weapon."

Human males tend to be more physically violent than women, with men being ten times more likely to commit homicide than females in the U.S., Carrier said. But the research, nonetheless, applies to women as well.

"The bottom line is that women need to fight and defend themselves too," Morgan told Discovery News. "Women need to fight off attackers and defend themselves from rape."

Read more at Discovery News

Mass Shootings Have Long History

He came along with a shotgun on his shoulder while a group of children were playing in front of the school. Without warning or provocation, he raised the gun to his shoulder, took deliberate aim, and fired into the crowd of boys.

Although it sounds sadly modern, the account was published in the New York Times more than a century ago.

Dated April 10, 1891, the article described an elderly man firing a shotgun at children playing in front of St. Mary's Parochial School in Newburgh, NY.

"None of the children were killed, but several were well filled with lead," the report said.

More than a century earlier, on July 26, 1764, a teacher and 10 students were shot dead by four Lenape American Indians in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, in what is considered the earliest known U.S. mass school shooting.

Indeed, killing or trying to kill a mass of people is not a modern phenomenon. For as long as there has been history, there have been gruesome mass murders.

"The terms amok, a Malayan word, and berserk, a Norse word, have been used to describe individuals going on killing sprees. Both terms have been around for centuries, which reflects the fact that mass murder is neither a modern nor a uniquely American phenomenon," Grant Duwe,director of research at the Minnesota Department of Corrections, told Discovery News.

Defined as bloody events that occur within a 24-hour period and that involve a minimum of four victims, mass murders have occurred all over the world, in different times, societies and cultures.

Some of the earliest recorded cases include the 1893 killing with guns and swords of 11 people (including an infant) in Osaka, Japan, the 1914 shooting of 7 people in the Italian village of Camerata Cornello, not to mention the case of German spree killer Ernst August Wagner.

In 1913, he stabbed to death his wife and four children in Degerloch, near Stuttgart, then drove to Mühlhausen an der Enz where he opened fire on 20 people, killing at least nine, leaving two animals dead and several buildings burned to the ground.

In 1927, South African farmer Stephanus Swart shot dead at least 8 people and injured 3 others in Charlestown, South Africa, before committing suicide.

In 1938 almost half of the population of the rural village of Kaio, near Tsuyama city in Japan, was murdered as 21-year-old Mutsuo Toi killed 30 people with a shotgun, sword and axe, injured three others and then shot himself to death.

Between 1954 and 1957, William Unek murdered a total of 57 people in two separate spree killings in the Belgian Congo.

He first killed 21 people with an axe, then shot dead ten men, eight women and eight children, slaughtered six more men with the axe, burned two women and a child, and strangled a 15-year-old girl.

More recently in the bloody timeline of shooting sprees, some of the most dramatic incidents include the 1987 Hungerford massacre in England, where gun enthusiast Michael Ryan shot 16 people dead and wounded another 15 before committing suicide, the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in Australia, where 28 year old Martin Bryant killed 35 people and wounded 21 before being caught by police, and the 1996 school shooting in the Scottish town of Dunblane.

There, failed shopkeeper Thomas Hamilton opened fire at a primary school, killing 16 children and a teacher before turning his gun on his mouth.

"I could have been one of those children," tennis player Andy Murray wrote in his autobiography, "Hitting Back."

Britain's highest ranked player, Murray was eight when Hamilton burst into the school and began shooting. He and his 10-year-old brother Jamie escaped the fire by hiding under a desk.

In the United States, two mass murder waves characterized the 20th century. One appeared in the 1920s and 30s and another in the mid-1960s, following a tranquil period in the 1940s and 50s.

The two waves, however, were qualitatively different, according to Duwe.

The author of "Mass Murder in the United States: A History," Duwe researched 909 cases of mass killing that occurred in the United States between 1900 and 1999.

"The first mass murder wave in the 1920s and 30s was comprised mainly of familicides and felony-related massacres, which, then as now, are less likely to garner extensive media coverage," Duwe said.

On the contrary, the second mass murder wave from the mid-1960s through the mid-1990s consisted of a greater number of mass public shootings, similar to the recent Aurora movie theater shooting and Newtown school shooting.

These incidents "have always captured a great deal of interest and concern," Duwe said.

Read more at Discovery News

Five Planets, One 'Habitable,' May Circle Tau Ceti

One of our solar system's nearest neighbors appears to have five planets circling the parent star, all closer than Mars orbits the sun.

One world, in particular has captured scientists' eye because it is located within the star's so-called habitable zone, a region where water, if it exists, could be in a liquid state -- a key ingredient for life as we know it.

The parent star is Tau Ceti, a sun-like star located less than 12 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Cetus.

The planet of interest is estimated to be about 4.3 times more massive than Earth. If confirmed, the planet would be the smallest yet discovered in a star's habitable zone, say scientists who will be publishing their research in an upcoming issue of Astronomy & Astrophysics.

"This discovery is in keeping with our emerging view that virtually every star has planets, and that the galaxy must have many such potentially habitable Earth-sized planets. They are everywhere, even right next door," astronomer Steve Vogt, with the University of California Santa Cruz, said in a statement.

"We are now beginning to understand that nature seems to overwhelmingly prefer systems that have multiple planets with orbits of less than 100 days. This is quite unlike our own solar system where there is nothing with an orbit inside that of Mercury. So our solar system is, in some sense, a bit of a freak and not the most typical kind of system that nature cooks up," Vogt added.

Astronomers used instruments on three telescopes to look for tiny wobbles in starlight coming from Tau Ceti caused by the slight gravitational tugging of its orbiting brood.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 19, 2012

New Dinosaur Had Unforgettable Smile

A new dinosaur unearthed in Wyoming had such large teeth that its mouth perpetually looked to be smiling a huge grin.

The dinosaur, described in the latest Journal of Systematic Paleontology, is called Kaatedocus siberi, with its name deriving from Diplodocus and the Native American Crow word for "small." Diplodocus was yet another dinosaur with a winning smile. This latest find was an early ancestor to that dino.

"Kaatedocus walked on four limbs, had a long neck and a whiplash tail, such as the famous Diplodocus did," co-author Octavio Mateus told Discovery News.

Mateus, of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa & Museu da Lourinhã, is one of the world's leading paleontologists, and is particularly known for his work on sauropods -- iconic large, plant-eating dinosaurs with long necks and tails. He has studied sauropods on four continents.

Kaatedocus was one such dino. Its herbivorous diet helps to explain its "grin."

"Kaatedocus had a set of pencil-like teeth in the front part of the muzzle," Mateus explained. "They were adapted for eating plants. As for many sauropods, because those teeth were not adapted for chewing, Kaatedocus probably ingested gastroliths or gizzard stones."

Mateus and an international team studied the well-preserved remains of Kaatedocus. Often quite a bit of artistic license is needed during reconstructions, but in this case, even the skull makes evident the dinosaur's "smiling" appearance.

Kaatedocus lived 150 million years ago, during the Late Jurassic period. A relative of Diplodocus, this dinosaur lived earlier and was smaller. The vast majority of species from this dino family come from the Jurassic Morrison Formation of the Western United States. In contrast, this new dinosaur was found further north, suggesting that subsequent generations slowly moved southward over time.

In addition to the smiling expressions, this family of dinosaurs holds another memorable distinction: they apparently weren’t too bright.

Ke-Qin Gao, a researcher at Peking University's School of Earth and Space Sciences, and colleagues reconstructed basic features of dinosaur brains based on endocraniums, or the inside surfaces of dino skulls, if these features survived in the fossil record.

Gao and his team used an Encephalization Quotient, or EQ, to speculate upon the complexity, or lack thereof, of brain activity in dinosaurs. The EQ is a ratio of brain mass to body size.

At the very bottom of the EQ ratings is Diplodocus, with a meager .05 EQ. One of the longest known dinosaurs, Diplodocus could measure around 90 feet in length. Twenty feet of that was neck, topped off with a tiny head and an even tinier brain case. Its long tail could inflict some serious damage to predators, though, as could a kick from one of its four sturdy legs.

Kaatedocus likely had a similar EQ, but it managed to survive in an environment with a lot of other formidable dinosaurs. According to Mateus, these included Barosaurus, Stegosaurus and large carnivorous Allosaurus.

In terms of the recent Wyoming discovery, Mateus said, "This species is smaller and slightly older than other dinosaurs of the same family, it is important for understanding the evolution of all Diplodocus-like dinosaurs."

Read more at Discovery News

Welcome to the Realm of Quantum Foam

General relativity and quantum mechanics offer very different descriptions of the structure of spacetime. General relativity features a smooth, flat Euclidean geometry, but at the quantum scale -- specifically, the Planck length -- spacetime bubbles and froths like a foam.

It would be really cool if scientists could also make a measurement of the quantum foam, and even better if they could manage the feat in a tabletop experiment.

According to quantum mechanics, empty space isn’t really empty. It roils and boils with pairs of “virtual” particles and antiparticles that annihilate and disappear back into the quantum vacuum so quickly that the apparent violation of energy conservation incurred by their creation can’t be observed directly.

Alas, that means that scientists can't measure spacetime at that tiny scale exactly. In order to do so, it would require enormous energies, because the smaller the scale one wishes to probe, the higher the energy one needs to do so. And the Planck scale is very small indeed.

But there is indirect evidence, both in tiny disturbances in the electron energy levels in a hydrogen atom, and also via a phenomenon known as the Casimir effect. Take two uncharged parallel metal plates and place them very close together. Normally there would be no movement because there would be no electromagnetic charge exerting a force to pull them together. But get the plates close enough, and it's possible to measure the tiniest attractive force between them.

That tiny effect comes from virtual particle pairs, which can't get between the two plates, so there are more pairs popping into existence around the exterior of plates than there are between them. The imbalance pushes the plates together slightly. The smaller the separation between the plates, the fewer virtual pairs can get between them, and the greater the force of the inward attraction.

Now, physicist Jacob Bekenstein at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel believes he has figured out a method for directly measuring the structure of spacetime at the Planck scale, and it doesn't involve enormous energies beyond even our most powerful accelerators. Instead, Bekenstein thinks all he needs is to zap a very cold block of glass with a single photon emitted by a laser.

The idea here is to exploit conservation of momentum and measure how the center of mass within the block of glass shifts position in response the emitted photons. And Bekenstein insists such an experiment won't violate uncertainty because he would just be counting photons.

Even a single photon should impart a bit of momentum to the glass as it pushes through, moving the block a tiny bit. If that distance is smaller than the Planck length, then the photon won't be able to pass through the block. That means Bekenstein could count the photons, and if the number that pass through the block is fewer than the number predicted by classical optics, he would have a measurement of the quantum foam.

There may be other ways to search for evidence of quantum foam, such as looking in the radio signals emitted by black holes and pulsars -- at least part of this "cosmic noise" might be due to quantum foam.

Alternatively, University of Maryland physicist Igor Smolyaninov thinks he could create an analog of quantum foam in a tabletop experiment involving metamaterials, exotic substances with unusual electromagnetic and optical properties that can be used to mimic the structure of spacetime.

Read more at Discovery News

Beefing Up the Universe's Biggest Black Holes

When it comes to black holes lurking within the hearts of galaxies, there's some real monsters out there. Measured in the millions to billions of solar masses, these incredibly dense cosmic objects pack so much material into so small an area that not only can light not escape, but their gravity traps entire clusters of stars in breakneck orbits around them -- and at close proximity they even warp the very nature of physics itself.

On occasion their powerful outbursts create beacons of high-energy radiation that can be seen from clear across the Universe.

Many galaxies, if not all, are home to enormous black holes at their center -- our own Milky Way being no exception. The supermassive black hole in the heart of our galaxy, Sgr A*, is estimated to weigh in at a hefty 4 million solar masses. That may sound impressive, but even this is literally dwarfed by what astronomers have discovered with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory (along with radio data from the NSF's Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array, the Australia Telescope Compact Array and infrared data from the 2 Micron All-Sky Survey): ultramassive black holes lounging in the centers of distant galaxies, containing the equivalent masses of 10 to 40 billion suns.

Yes, I said billion.

During a survey of 18 galaxy clusters, Chandra detected enormous outbursts of energy from ten of the brightest galaxies -- such as the elliptical galaxy at the center of PKS 0745-19, seen above. These outbursts have cleared dark gaps in the hot, x-ray bright gas clouds surrounding the clusters, preventing the diffuse gas from condensing to form stars.

Because outbursts of this size would have to be fueled by the consumption of enormous amounts of material -- capable by only the most massive black holes -- scientists have calculated that these must be truly ultra-ultramassive... up to ten times more massive than earlier estimates. And if ten of these behemoths have been found in such a small collection of galaxies, it stands to reason that there must be more -- lots more.

"Our results show that there may be many more ultramassive black holes in the universe than previously thought," said study leader Julie Hlavacek-Larrondo of Stanford University.

More research and modeling will be needed to confirm the team's results, including comparison to a known ultramassive black hole in the galaxy M87, located in the nearby Virgo cluster of galaxies.

"If our results are confirmed, they will have important ramifications for understanding the formation and evolution of black holes across cosmic time," Hlavacek-Larrondo said. "I wouldn't be surprised if we end up finding the biggest black holes in the Universe."

Read more at Discovery News

America's Most Extreme Rocks Found

A soaring mountain range as tall as the Himalayas once towered over the U.S. East Coast. Some 20 miles (32 kilometers) of rock have since transformed into sand and mud, exposing an outcrop of the most extreme rocks in America.

Banded with colorful, unique garnets, the gneiss — a form of metamorphic rock — was pushed as far as rock can go before it melts, to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit (1,000 degrees Celsius), geologists report in the Dec. 13 issue of the journal Geology.

The find is the first discovery of ultrahigh temperature metamorphic rocks in the United States, said Jay Ague, a professor at Yale University and lead author of the study. The next hurdle is figuring out how they formed, he said.

"The fact that these rocks are there at all challenges all the existing models for mountain building in the area," Ague said. "These ultrahot (rocks) are becoming an important part of how we think mountain belts form," he told OurAmazingPlanet.

Walk on by
In appearance, the gneiss looks "quite ordinary," Ague said — it doesn't have the classic collection of minerals found in ultrahigh temperature rocks in Canada or other continents. In fact, Ague, who specializes in metamorphic rocks, walked over outcrops of the gneiss for nearly 20 years without recognizing its unique history. He even brought samples back to his lab at Yale, but only for the interesting minerals in veins crossing the gneiss.

Finally, in connection with a separate study, Ague and his colleagues recently examined the gneiss under a microscope.

Garnets in the gneiss had patterned inclusions of rutile, a mineral that also gives star sapphires their special appeal. "They are really quite beautiful," Ague said. "Those features in garnets are really only associated with really extreme temperature or pressure conditions, so right there we knew there was something special about these rocks," Ague said. "It was a completely serendipitous discovery."

The outcrops discovered so far stretch along Interstate 84 through northeast Connecticut toward the Massachusetts border. They are from the Brimfield Schist, part of the Acadian metamorphic belt. One quarry in the region uses the rock for road gravel, Ague said. Hikers along the Nipmuck Trail might also find a piece.

"The rocks are not super unique-looking, so the possibility exists that there is a lot more of this out there to find," Ague said.

How do they get so hot?

The researchers now plan to figure out when the rocks formed — their current guess is about 400 million years ago — and what drove them to such extreme temperatures.

Their origin lies in the Acadian orogeny, when a chain of volcanic islands collided with North America.

"We can see back through all that history to unravel the earliest beginnings of how this rock formed," Ague said. "These rocks began as basically muds on ancient ocean floors in very chilly conditions. Then they were buried and completely recrystallized up to 1,000 degrees (Celsius), and then subject to two more metamorphic and deformational events, then ultimately brought back to the surface so we can see them here today."

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 18, 2012

Tracking the Origins of HIV

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) may have affected humans for much longer than is currently believed. Alfred Roca, an assistant professor in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois, thinks that the genomes of an isolated West African human population provide important clues about how the disease has evolved.

HIV is thought to have originated from chimpanzees in central Africa that were infected with simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), a retrovirus. "If you look at the diversity present across SIV in chimpanzees, it suggests that they have had it for tens of thousands of years," Roca said.

HIV-1 Type M, which accounts for 90 percent of human infections, is believed to have crossed the species barrier into human populations between 1884 and 1924. Roca said that it may have crossed much earlier and many times, selecting for genetic resistance in isolated rural populations while remaining undetected.

"Some of the scientific literature suggests that the persistence of HIV in humans required population densities typical of the larger cities that appeared in West Central Africa during the colonial era," he said.

Perhaps an even more important factor is that, before modern medicine and vaccinations, infectious diseases such as smallpox killed large numbers of people. People with compromised immune systems may have succumbed first, preventing the immunodeficiency virus from spreading.

If HIV crossed the species barrier many times, it is possible that selection favored protective genetic variants in the affected populations. Roca and his co-investigators looked for evidence of this selection in the Biaka genomes.

The Biaka are a human community that inhabits forests in the range of the chimpanzee subspecies believed to be the source of the current HIV pandemic. The researchers compared Biaka genomes with the genomes of four other African populations who live outside the chimpanzee's range.

Biaka genotypes were available through the Human Genome Diversity Project, which collected biological samples from 52 different population groups across the world. The project genotyped these diverse human communities for single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, pronounced "snips"), or genomic variation, at around 650,000 locations across the genome.

Previous research that used cell lines made in the 1980s from individuals who had AIDS or were believed to be at risk for it had identified 26 genomic locations as being involved in resistance to HIV. Kai Zhao, a graduate student working in Roca's laboratory, examined these locations.

Zhao ran all 10 possible pairwise comparisons for the five human populations and looked for selection signatures. Specifically, selection for a genetic trait tends to reduce diversity in the surrounding genomic region within the affected population, increasing the differences between populations.

The researchers looked at the genomic regions that contain genes known to have a protective effect against HIV to see if there was any overlap with the selection signatures. Eight of the comparisons found overlap. Seven involved the Biaka.

They identified four genes in these overlaps that code for proteins affecting either the ability of HIV to infect the host cell or the disease progression. The researchers also found that for several genes, SNPs associated with protection against HIV-1 were common among the Biaka.

Roca cautions that these results should not be considered definitive. It is not possible to rule out false positives.

"You may detect a signature of selection, but it doesn't necessarily mean that selection has caused it. It's just a good sign that selection may have occurred," he said. Also, the signature of selection may span several genes, of which only one is actually protective against HIV-1.

However, he said that the results are intriguing and indicate that this line of research is worth pursuing.

"If additional studies confirm that these genes have undergone selection and that human populations in the region have some genetic resistance to HIV-1, one could try to find additional genes in the population that may also be protective against HIV but have not yet been identified," he said.

Read more at Science Daily

Ancient Pharaoh's Throat Was Slashed

Ramesses III, Egypt's last great pharaoh, had his throat slashed in a royal coup led by his son and one of his wives, according to new forensic analysis.

Computed tomography (CT) imaging revealed a serious wound in the throat of pharaoh's mummy, just beneath the larynx.

Possibly caused by a sharp knife or a blade, the injury was about 2.75 inches wide and extended almost to the spine, cutting all the soft tissue on the front of the neck.

"Accordingly, all organs in this region, such as the trachea, oesophagus, and large blood vessels, were severed," a team of Egyptian and European researchers led by Albert Zink, a paleopathologist at the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman of the European Academy of Bolzano in Italy, wrote in the current issue of the British Medical Journal.

"The extent and depth of the wound indicated that it could have caused the immediate death of Ramesses III," they added.

The second Pharaoh of the 20th dynasty, Ramesses III ruled from about 1188 to 1155 B.C. He was the last significant king of the New Kingdom.

Ancient documents describe him as the "Great God" and a military leader who defended Egypt from repeated invasion of an ethnic group that the Egyptians called the Sea Peoples.

He was about 65 when he died, but the cause of his death has never been clear.

Ancient documents including the Judicial Papyrus of Turin clearly state that in 1155 B.C. members of Ramesses III's harem attempted to murder him as part of a palace coup to change the line of succession.

According to the documents, the coup failed, but it is less clear whether the assassination was successful. Some some texts says it was, while other accounts imply that the king survived the attack, at least for a short while.

The Judicial Papyrus tells of four separate trials and lists the punishments reserved to those involved in the conspiracy, which included queen Tiye, one of the king's two known wives, and her son Prince Pentawere.

To resolve the 3,000-year-old puzzle, Zink and colleagues carried anthropological and forensic cold case analysis on the mummy of Ramesses III and the unidentified remains of a younger man buried nearby in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.

Called man E, or Screaming Mummy for its open mouth and contorted face, the mummy was believed to be the pharaoh's son Pentawere.

CT scans and DNA tests on the mummies, which are now kept at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, produced important results.

The researchers could see a Horus eye amulet embedded in Ramesses III's wound. The charm symbolized royal power, protection, and good health.

"Most probably, the ancient Egyptian embalmers tried to restore the wound during mummification by inserting the amulet, generally used for healing purposes, and by covering the neck with a collar of thick linen layers," the researchers said.

Although it is possible that the throat was cut after his death, the Zink and colleagues believe this is highly unlikely.

"A treatment in which the throat was cut by the embalmers has not been described in any other Egyptian mummy," they said.

DNA analysis showed that Ramesses III and unknown man E shared the same Y chromosome and 50 percent of their genetic material, strongly suggesting that they were father and son.

According to the Judicial Papyrus of Turin, Pentawere was found guilty at trial, and then took his own life.

About 18-20 years old, the mummy of man E had a very strange, reddish color and was covered by a goat skin, a material regarded as ritually impure.

"He was badly treated for a mummy," Zink said.

Moreover, the young man had unusual compressed skin folds and wrinkles around his neck as well as an inflated chest.

According to the researchers, this may suggest he was strangled to death.

Read more at Discovery News

Knight in Baked Armor Found at 'Pompeii of Japan'

The remains of a high-caste man wearing armor who was buried by hot ash -- possibly as he tried to calm the wrath of an erupting volcano -- have been found in an area known as the "Pompeii of Japan."

Archaeologists say they have unearthed the well-preserved body of a sixth-century man who had apparently turned to face a flow of molten rock as it gushed through his settlement.

"Under normal circumstances, you would flee if pyroclastic flows are rushing toward you and bringing waves of heat. But this person died facing it," said Shinichiro Ohki, of Gunma Archaeological Research Foundation.

"Maybe, if he were someone of a high position, he might have been praying, or doing something in the direction of the volcano and attempting to appease its anger," Ohki told AFP on Monday.

The remains, along with a part of an infant's skull, were found in the Kanai Higashiura dig in Gunma prefecture, roughly 110 kilometers (70 miles) northwest of Tokyo, at the site of the volcanic Mount Haruna.

The find comes from an area known to enthusiasts as the "Pompeii of Japan" a reference to the Roman city near modern-day Naples buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79.

The body is clad in a relatively sophisticated kind of armor made by craftsmen who bound small iron plates with thin leather strips, which would have represented the latest technological import from the Korean Peninsula.

It may have been brought to Japan after the practice of horse riding was introduced in the late fifth century, Ohki said, adding that the armor was much more sophisticated than the single-plate type common in the period.

Read more at Discovery News

Earthquake That Killed A King Ruptured Ground

In 1255, before the modern study of earthquakes shed light on some of their inner workings, a major quake ruptured in the Himalayas, killing the king of Nepal. Scientists who have studied the historic quake had originally thought the temblor didn't rupture the Earth's surface, but a new study suggests it did.

These findings reveal that investigators may one day find more evidence of past earthquakes in the Himalayas, shedding light on the risks these disasters pose in one of the most densely populated earthquake-prone zones in the world.

The Himalayas, which are home to the highest mountain peaks in the world, are the result of the tectonic plate that hosts the Indian subcontinent slamming into the plate that holds the rest of Asia. As the plates continue to mash into each other, this titanic activity reshapes the face of the planet, and earthquakes result — a fact that places many at risk, given how the population density along the front of the Himalayas is similar to that of New York City.

Although massive earthquakes have rocked the region — quakes in 1897, 1905, 1934 and 1950 all had magnitudes between 7.8 and 8.9, each causing tremendous damage — oddly, none were known to have ruptured Earth's surface. Without evidence of past earthquakes visible at the surface, it becomes difficult to know when precisely they occurred or how powerful they might have been, limiting what researchers can say about what hazards people in the area might face in the future.

 Now scientists have uncovered evidence of not one but two great Himalayan quakes breaking the Earth's surface.

To discover these past ruptures, scientists looked at old aerial photos of the region and visited the most promising areas during four one-month-long field trips. The researchers discovered river deposits in Nepal that had shifted due to movements along the main seismic fault in the earth that currently marks the boundary between the Indian and Asian tectonic plates.

Using radiocarbon dating, the investigators found these shifts were apparently caused by great earthquakes in 1255 and 1934, showing that both quakes ruptured the surface. When it comes to the 1255 quake, historical records mentioned that many houses and temples in Nepal collapsed and that one-third of the population of the Kathmandu Valley was killed. "The incumbent king, Abhaya Malla, too, was killed due to the same earthquake," researcher Laurent Bollinger, a seismotectonician at France's Commissariat on Atomic Energy, told OurAmazingPlanet.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 17, 2012

Russians Lost in Wilderness 'Ate Companion'

Two Russians who were rescued in November after four months lost in the taiga wilderness of the Far East ate the corpse of a companion in order to survive, reports said Monday.

A group of four men had disappeared in August on a river-fishing expedition to the vast Yakutia region in the Russian Far East, one of the most remote and inhospitable places in the world.

Only two of the men were finally helicoptered to safety at the end of November and the discovery of fragments of a human corpse at their campsite prompted investigators to open a murder case amid rumors of cannibalism.

The two survivors have not been arrested but are being treated as witnesses in the murder case. However it appears investigators are now certain cannibalism took place.

"During questioning, one of the witnesses testified that cannibalism did indeed take place," a source in the investigation told the Komsomolskaya Pranda daily.

"It was not murder.

"They ate the man after he died from being unable to cope with the conditions."

Yakutia newsite also quoted local investigators as saying that the fisherman named Alexander Abdullayev confessed that he and the other survivor Alexei Gorulenko ate the corpse of Andrei Kurochkin.

"According to Abdullayev, Kurochkin died a natural death -- he froze to death -- and he and Alexei Gorulenko fed themselves with his flesh for weeks," said.

Investigators from Yakutsk, the capital of Yakutia, confirmed officially for the first time last week that they were looking at cannibalism as a possible explanation.

The local branch of the Investigative Committee (SK) said they had flown out one of the fishermen -- apparently Abdullayev -- last week to look for the fourth man named as Viktor Komarov.

They found the fishermen's UAZ jeep -- in which they had driven deep into the taiga -- half submerged in a frozen river but the "corpse of the fourth fisherman was not found."

Read more at Discovery News

Sabertooth Cat Lived in Vegas

Las Vegas, home of casinos and decadent night life, was also once home to sabertooth cats, as evidenced by the remains of one such animal recently unearthed in the hills just north of the bustling Nevada city.

These wild big felines existed from 42 million to 11,000 years ago. The recent discovery, reported in the Las Vegas Review Journal, marks the first sabertooth cat from the Upper Las Vegas Wash, a fossil-rich region that many hope will soon become a protected national monument.

This particular sabertooth cat lived 15,590 years ago. (These animals are sometimes referred to as sabertoothed, saber-tooth, sabre-tooth).

The find confirms what paleontologists have long suspected. The iconic feline predator was once at the top of the local food chain there, stalking mammoths, camels, bison and other prey.

A team from California's San Bernardino County Museum made the discovery.

"We knew it had to be there," Kathleen Springer, senior curator for the museum, told the Las Vegas Review Journal. "There was all this amazing lunch everywhere."

"Lunch," in this case, refers to all of the fossilized prey bones littered around the site.

"The sabertooth cat is right up there with the T. rex. That's the one everyone recognizes," Springer added.

These cats had foot-long fangs, a bobbed tail, and a sleek body that was somewhat like a huge version of today's housecats.

Eric Scott, the museum's curator of paleontology, first found the site nine years ago. It's taken time for Scott and his colleagues to fully analyze the bones collected from there.

As for the sabertooth cat remains: "They just looked funky," he said. "I saw them on the prep table, and I got a little impatient."

He thought they might belong to a moutain lion, but "they were way too big."

Read more at Discovery News

Myth, Hype and Nonsense: Days Before 'Doomsday'

NASA has released a video intended to put the world's mind at rest about Dec. 21, 2012 -- the much hyped end-date of the Mayan "Long Count" calendar. Titled "Why the World Didn't End Yesterday," the video does a sound debunking of the misinformation being bandied about by doomsayers trying to make a fast buck out of people's fears.

But why did the space agency bother releasing a video intended for Dec. 22 (i.e. one day after "doomsday") a week early?

The ever watchful Alan Boyle at NBC News' Cosmic Log questioned NASA on this oddity and received a, well, very rational answer. Kinda.

"The teaser for the video explains everything: 'NASA is so confident that the world is not coming to an end on Dec. 21, that they have already released a video for the day after,'" Tony Philips, writer and editor for the excellent NASA Science and websites, told Boyle.

Philips attributed the video as his idea, adding: "I felt it was a lighter and more creative way to approach the topic than some of the other treatments we've seen. Some people have been confused by it, but not all. The unorthodox approach is definitely a conversation-starter, which was our goal all along." (emphasis added)

While this may seem to make sense, I was left banging my head on the desk. I keep hearing confused voices: "If NASA was that confident that the world wasn't coming to an end on Dec. 21, why didn't they release a Dec. 22 video on... Dec. 22? Does NASA know something we don't?"

Handling The End Of The World

Until now, NASA has handled the "Mayan doomsday" nonsense excellently. The agency first went on the record denouncing various doomsday scenarios during the sinister marketing ploys employed by the production company of the movie doomsday-disaster movie "2012" in 2009. Since then they have knocked down each flawed cosmological theory in turn.

David Morrison, NASA scientist based at NASA Ames, has been combating the doomsday misinformation for many years via questions submitted to his "Ask an Astrobiologist" website (an excellent summary of the questions fielded by Morrison can be found here). Morrison attributes the public's fear of this doomsday to "cosmophobia" -- a growing trend that's based on people's fear of the cosmic unknown.

Doomsday scenarios such as a marauding Planet X (or Nibiru), killer solar flare, weird galactic alignments and polar/geomagnetic shifts fall firmly in under "cosmophobia," and doomsayers that stand to make money out of doomsday books and website advertising use this phenomenon to great effect.

Also, the idea that there is some kind of grand conspiracy (i.e., the government or some secret society has some privileged information about the end of the world) is another strong factor. To many, NASA debunking various doomsday scenarios from their ivory towers of science is "proof" that something weird is going on. To those people, no amount of debunking or logic will stop them believing in doom and gloom, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Google: "Mayan + Doomsday"

Since I began debunking the "Mayan doomsday" in 2008, I've not only acquired a fascination for archaeology and the ancient Mayan culture, I've also been confounded by the psychology behind society's fascination with the end of the word. Every day, through Google Alerts, I receive tidbits of news from around the globe about tales of doom and gloom and how people are "prepping" for the "Mayan prophesy."

Today, I've read about how a Chinese businessman has been building expensive spherical doomsday shelters; guides on how to discuss doomsday fears with your kids; news about an obscure region of France that is rumored to be "protected" from impending doom (there's a Turkish refuge too); and warnings about disturbances in a Chicago school district, to name just a handful of strange goings on around the world.

But what about the Mayan descendents currently living in Central America? Well, they're bewildered. They're approaching Dec. 21 with positivity, because this is a time of celebration and renewal for the Maya culture -- not a time of dread, fear and foreboding. It seems the Western "messianic thinking" is in full flow -- a marketing fallacy indeed!

"For us, this Dec. 21 is the end of a great era and also the beginning of a new era. We renew our beliefs. We renew a host of things that surround us," said José Manrique Esquivel, a descendent of the ancient Maya. Esquivel blames a few profiteering individuals for misrepresenting his culture, turning this highly spiritual event into a doomsday circus. Sounds familiar, right?

One More Week Of Silliness

So, we have just one more week of the doomsday silliness, but there are many people who are genuinely concerned about this Friday. For those, the "what if?" factor is strong. But this "what if?" has been fabricated by a few profit-making schemers -- not by the Mayans who never predicted doomsday. In fact, they didn't even allude to it. It's a scam, a con, a hoax. Nothing more, nothing less. Hell, the Dec. 21 "end date" isn't even set in stone! There's some ambiguity as to when the Long Count calendar even ends.

Sadly, the human mind has a tendency to attach some prophesy or superstition to coincidental dates. The logic goes like this: Dec. 21, 2012 is the darkest day of the year (for the Northern Hemisphere -- it's the winter solstice), it may as well be the Apocalypse too.

And so, back to NASA's new video. Although I admire the effort, releasing a Dec. 22 video early does little to calm the individuals who hold a genuine concern for Dec. 21. 'What if' NASA is covering something up? 'What if' they released that video a week early because they know they wont get a chance to air it on Saturday? You don't have to take my word for it, you just have to scroll through the 2000+ comments on the video's YouTube page to see a few people are asking these questions. Sure, the majority of people "get it," but those aren't the people who we should be concerned about.

Read more at Discovery News

Drilling for a 2,000-Year-Old Ice Core

Australia announced plans to drill a 2,000 year-old ice core in the heart of Antarctica in a bid to retrieve a frozen record of how the planet has evolved and what might be in store.

The Aurora Basin North project involves scientists from Australia, France, Denmark and the United States who hope it will also advance the search for the scientific "holy grail" of the million-year-old ice core.

The project, in an area that harbors some of the deepest ice in the frozen continent, over three kilometers (1.9-miles) thick, will give experts access to some of the most detailed records yet of past climate in the vast region.

Australian Environment Minister Tony Burke on Saturday said such drills were critically important to understanding how the climate has naturally varied to help predict future responses to global climate change.

"Ice cores provide the written history of our atmosphere and our water," he said in announcing the project which will start with a French team traversing the site in December next year.

The eight-week drill through 400 meters (1,312 feet) of ice, 600 kilometers inland from Australia's Casey Station in the continent's east, will follow soon after.

"Seeking ice cores from this new area where there is much higher snow fall than other inland sites provides a massive increase in the level of detail which lives within the ice," Burke added.

"We have had information that is 2,000 years old before, but we have never had access to this sort of detail which we believe lies deep within this part of the ice."

Read more at Discovery News