Jan 12, 2013

Better Wheat Bread Through Chemistry

For people who love a loaf of chewy white bread, whole wheat versions can be hard to stomach. The brown dough often carries a bitter flavor. Even the wafting smells of baking can be less appetizing when the oven contains a grainy loaf.

As part of a scientific quest to make healthy whole-grain products that taste and smell as delicious as the refined stuff, a new study zeroed in for the first time on a compound called ferulic acid, which is found in the outer layers of wheat grains. Tweaking amounts of ferulic acid, the researchers found, can alter the flavors and aromas of bread.

The discovery may pave the way for a new generation of baked goods that are both nutritious and tasty.

“This allows us to understand how to make whole grain products more desirable so people are more likely to consume them and get the health benefits from them,” said Devin Peterson, a food chemist at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. “We can be trained to eat things that are better for us, yes, but at the end of the day, flavor and acceptability are a huge part of what is human.”

After decades of dependence on refined flours, which strip wheat grains of their outer layers, companies are making more of an effort to produce foods with whole grains, which offer fiber and antioxidants that have been linked to lower risks of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer and other chronic conditions.

But the outer layers of bran and germ that remain in whole-wheat flour tend to create products that taste, smell and look less-than-appealing to many people. Even their textures can disappoint a tongue that is used to refined grains. Some products add extra sugar or salt to mask bitterness and other undesirable features, but those ingredients come with health concerns of their own.

As part of an effort to understand the chemistry that distinguishes whole-grain bread from refined-grain versions, Peterson and colleagues made bread with both kinds of flour and then analyzed the compounds in each loaf’s aroma. A panel of trained sensory analysts also sniffed samples of ground-up crust to characterize the differences.

Overall, the researchers reported in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, bread made with refined flour had a more desirable aroma profile, with hints of corn chip, caramel, and floral notes. Whole-wheat bread was richer in cucumber, fatty and earthy notes. In both cases, chemical workups agreed with the noses of the experts.

Next, the team focused on ferulic acid, which is normally bound to wheat’s cell walls but is set free during fermentation and baking. Only after it is liberated does it begin to alter the flavor and smell of bread.

When the researchers added ferulic acid to refined-grain bread, they found that its aroma resembled that of whole-wheat bread. Ferulic acid appears to suppress a compound called 2AP, which is the most important molecule behind whole-wheat bread’s unique smells.

That finding served as a sort of “proof of concept,” Peterson said, showing that ferulic acid plays a key role in producing the aroma of whole-wheat bread. Along with flavor, which he is also studying, aromas have a major impact on the way we experience food.

By minimizing the liberation of ferulic acid during baking, the new study suggests, it might be possible to alter the taste of the final result—eventually making whole-grain bread that is more satisfying to people who prefer white loaves. The findings might also apply to crackers, pasta, cookies and other products.

“Most companies are getting away from refined flour, especially bleached and highly refined flours, and they are going to a more or less whole-wheat approach,” said Keith Cadwallader, a food chemist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “But when you change from normal processed or refined wheat flour to whole-wheat, the product changes substantially.”

Read more at Discovery News

Ancient Pompeians Could Go Upstairs to Pee

The residents of the ancient city of Pompeii weren't limited to street-level plumbing, a new study finds. In fact, many in the city may have headed upstairs when nature called.

Most second floors in the Roman city are gone, claimed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii in A.D. 79. But vertical pipes leading to lost second stories strongly suggest that there were once toilets up there, according to a new analysis by A. Kate Trusler, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Missouri.

"We have 23 toilets that are connected, that are second-story preserved, that are connected to these downpipes," Trusler told LiveScience on Friday (Jan. 4) at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Seattle, where she presented her research.

Traces of toilets

Trusler became interested in Pompeii's latrines six years ago while doing fieldwork in the city. Previous researchers and works on Pompeii often stated that there was a toilet in almost every house. But Trusler found that statement confusing. Walking around the city, she said, it was clear that some spots were chock full of homes with private latrines, while other areas seemed to be toilet deserts.

"And," Trusler added, "there are all of these downpipes that are part of that picture that no one is really considering."

So Trusler decided to conduct a plumbing survey of sorts, mapping latrine and downpipe locations around the city. One residential district, known to archaeologists as Region 6, does indeed have toilets on the ground story of almost every home, she said. But other blocks have few toilets. In total, 43 percent of homes in the city had latrines on the ground floor, Trusler found.

Downpipes provide the other half of that picture. These vertical, usually terracotta pipes are concentrated in the oldest part of the city, where there were many workshops and small businesses crammed into close quarters. A total of 286 pipes run down the walls of these buildings, leading to the mostly lost second floors. In 23 cases, however, the second story remains, and the same types of pipes lead to latrines.

In addition, Trusler said, unpublished research on scrapings from the insides of the pipes revealed fecal material and traces of intestinal parasites, good signs of a toilet.

The plumbing of Pompeii

The upstairs plumbing offers a window into daily Pompeii life, Trusler said.

"The sanitation features can tell us a lot about what people are doing on upper floors and above these little shops," she said. "What they suggest is that people are living there."

Read more at Discovery News

Jan 11, 2013

Scale Model Discovered for Florence Cathedral

Italian archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a mini dome near Florence’s cathedral — evidence, they say, that the structure served as a scale model for the majestic structure designed by Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446).

Found during excavations to expand the Cathedral museum, the model measures 9 feet in circumference and it’s made of bricks arranged in a herringbone pattern.

“This building technique had been previously used in Persian domes, but Brunelleschi was the first to introduce it into Europe when he worked at the dome,” Francesco Gurrieri, professor of Restoration of Monuments at the University of Florence, told Discovery News.

“Although at the moment we cannot confirm the small dome was the demostration model for Brunelleschi’s plans, it did belong to the yard he created between 1420 and 1436, when he worked at one of the most incredible feats of engineering,” Gurrieri said.

One of the most instantly recognizable churches in the world, the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore is the highest and widest (143 feet in diameter) masonry dome in the world.

For centuries scholars have wondered how the Florentine architect could roof the huge octagonal of the Cathedral using not concrete and steel, but 25,000 tonnes of stone, timber and brick — and no scaffoldings.

Indeed Brunelleschi won the right to build the dome by saying that he wouldn’t need any internal scaffolding.

He raised sandstone and marble slabs hundreds of feet into the air and boldly constructed the huge masonry bubble without relying on a centering wooden framework.

To do so, the Renaissance genius used complex techniques — still debated by experts — and inventive brickwork which included creating a new way of sharing the weight around the dome so that it wouldn’t collapse.

Laying the bricks in the herringbone pattern was a crucial aspect as it allowed the bricks to convey the forces downward along the curving of the dome.

“The small dome could be the first example of an herringbone pattern structure in Europe,” Gurrieri said.

Roberto Cecchi, the undersecretary of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, agreed that the finding is important.

“The herringbone tecnique is very much linked to Brunelleschi and Florence. Outside the city we have only a couple of examples of this technique, and they date later to the 16th century,” Cecchi said.

Read more at Discovery News

Russians Nab First Sample of Lake Vostok

Russian drilling operations at Lake Vostok, Antarctica, have succeeded in collecting a long-sought core sample of water frozen into the borehole from the glacier-covered, 20 million-year-old lake they cracked into last year.

“The first core of transparent lake ice, two meters long, was obtained on Jan. 10, at a depth of 3,406 meters (11,174.5 feet). Inside it was a vertical channel filled with white bubble-rich ice,” stated the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, part of the Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring, reported Ria Novosti.

In February last year the Russian drilling team cracked the ice over the surface of the lake using a melt drill for the final 40 feet. But no lake water was collected.

An elaborate publicity stunt on Feb. 10, 2012, in which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ceremoniously received a sample of what was billed as water from Lake Vostok was later explained to be water from the point just before the final push near the surface of the lake.

Indeed no water from the lake was collected at the time. An analysis of the ice frozen on the drill bit before they switched to the melt drill showed, perhaps as expected, no signs of life. They did find elements of drilling oil and lubricants, however.

The water that gushed into the borehole through the crack in the ice, froze in place and remained untouched until now.

“Initially, we saw completely unknown to us ice – an opaque, porous, bright white (ice),” explained Vyacheslav Martianov, the deputy head of the Russian Antarctic Expedition, to BSR Russia. “But 20 meters after that we saw transparent ice, with the white ice frozen inside of it.”

Read more at Discovery News

New Fossils Help Bring Hobbit Humans to Life

New bones attributed to Homo floresiensis -- aka the "Hobbit Human" -- along with other recent findings, are helping to reveal what members of this species looked like, how they behaved, and their origins.

The latest findings, described in a Journal of Human Evolution paper, are wrist bones unearthed on the Indonesian island of Flores. Since they are nearly identical to other such bones for the Hobbit found at the site, they refute claims that H. floresiensis never existed.

"The tiny people from Flores were not simply diseased modern humans," Caley Orr, lead author of the paper, told Discovery News.

"The new species of human stood approximately 3' 6" tall, giving it its nickname 'The Hobbit,'" continued Orr, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Anatomy at Midwestern University.

He said that they were "similar to modern humans in many respects." For example, he explained that they walked on two legs, had small canine teeth, and lived what appears to have been an iconic "cave man'" lifestyle.

"Stone tools and evidence of fire use were found in the cave, along with the remains of butchered animals, such as Stegodon (an extinct elephant relative), indicating that meat was a part of diet," Orr said.

He and his colleagues, however, also point out the differences between the Hobbit individuals and modern humans.

The Hobbits had arms that were longer than their legs, giving them a slightly more ape-like structure. Their skulls had no bony chins, so their faces had more of an oval shape. Their forehead was sloping. The inferred brain size was tiny, putting them in the IQ range of chimpanzees.

"Remarkably, the feet were also long relative to the legs, as fantasy fans might expect of a Hobbit," he added.

The Hobbit's wrist looked like that of early human relatives, such as Australopithecus, but the key ancestral candidate now is Homo erectus, "Upright Man."

It is possible that a population of H. erectus became stranded on the Indonesian island and dwarfed there over time. Orr said that "sometimes happens to larger animals that adapt to small island environments."

A problem, however, is that H. erectus is somewhat more modern looking than the Hobbit, so researchers are still seeking more clues.

Another question concerns whether or not the Hobbits ever mated with modern humans. There is evidence that happened to Neanderthals, which have left traces of their genome in modern human DNA. So far, however, conditions have not been right to extract DNA from H. floresiensis bones.

Nonetheless, the Hobbit -- which went extinct relatively recently during the Pleistocene -- is now better known due to the new discoveries.

"These fossils provide further, clear evidence that H. floresiensis is in no way a pathological modern human, or that its primitive morphology is related simply to its small body size," said Tracy Kivell, a paleoanthropologist from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. "Instead, it is clearly its own, unique and very intriguing species."

Read more at Discovery News

Huge Quasar Cluster is Largest Cosmic Structure

What’s the biggest thing in the universe?  That would be a  cluster of quasars so large it would take a vehicle traveling at the speed of light 4 billion years to cross.

The structure, known as a Large Quasar Group, or LQG, is so massive scientists say it may challenge a fundamental principle of cosmology, laid out by Albert Einstein, which states that when viewed on a sufficiently large scale, the properties of the universe are the same for all observers.

“While it is difficult to fathom the scale of this LQG, we can say quite definitely it is the largest structure ever seen in the entire universe,” astronomer Roger Clowes, with the University of Central Lancashire, said in a statement.

“This is hugely exciting, not least because it runs counter to our current understanding of the scale of the universe,” Clowes said.

At its widest point, the LQG is about 1,600 times greater than the distance between the Milky Way galaxy and its nearest neighbor, Andromeda, a span equal to about 2.5 million light-years, or 13 trillion miles.

Read more at Discovery News

Jan 10, 2013

A Snapshot of Pupfish Evolution

Chris Martin has bred more than 3,000 hybrid fish in his time as a graduate student in evolution and ecology at UC Davis, a pursuit that has helped him create one of the most comprehensive snapshots of natural selection in the wild and demonstrated a key prediction in evolutionary biology.

"We can see a surprisingly complex snapshot of natural selection driving the evolution of new specialized species," said Martin, who with Professor Peter Wainwright published a paper on the topic in the Jan. 11, 2013, issue of the journal Science.

The "adaptive landscape" is very important for evolutionary biology, but rarely measured, Martin said. He's been fascinated with the concept since high school.

An adaptive landscape takes variable traits in an animal or plant, such as jaw size and shape, spreads them over a surface, and reveals peaks of success (what evolutionary scientists call fitness) where those traits become most effective, or adaptive.

It is a common and powerful idea that influences thinking about evolution. But while the concept is straightforward, it is much harder to map out such a landscape in the wild.

For example, about 50 species of pupfish are found across the Americas. The tiny fish, about an inch or so long, mostly eat algae on rocks and other detritus. Martin has been studying species found only in a few lakes on the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas, where some of the fish have evolved different-shaped jaws that allow them to feed on hard-shelled prey like snails or, in one case, to snatch scales off other fish.

In a paper published in 2011, Martin showed that these San Salvadoran fish are evolving at an explosively faster rate than other pupfish.

Martin brought some of the fish back to the lab at UC Davis and bred hybrids with fish with different types of jaws. He created about 3,000 hybrids in all, which were measured, photographed and tagged. Martin then took about 2,000 of the fish back to San Salvador.

"It was the craziest thing I've done," Martin said. "I was leaning on the stack of them in the middle of Miami airport."

Martin released the young fish into enclosures in the lakes of their grandparents. Three months later, he returned to check on the survivors and plotted them out on the adaptive landscape.

Most of the surviving fish were on an isolated peak adapted to a general style of feeding, with another peak representing fish adapted for eating hard-shelled prey. Competition between the fish had eliminated the fish whose jaws put them in the valleys between those peaks. The scale-eating fish did not survive.

The results explain why most pupfish species in America have pretty much the same diets, Martin said. The generalists are essentially stranded on their peak -- variants that get too far out fall into the valley and die out before they can make it to another peak.

Read more at Science Daily

A Rock Is a Clock: Physicist Uses Matter to Tell Time

Ever since he was a kid growing up in Germany, Holger Müller has been asking himself a fundamental question: What is time?

That question has now led Müller, today an assistant professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, to a fundamentally new way of measuring time.

Taking advantage of the fact that, in nature, matter can be both a particle and a wave, he has discovered a way to tell time by counting the oscillations of a matter wave. A matter wave's frequency is 10 billion times higher than that of visible light.

"A rock is a clock, so to speak," Müller said.

In a paper appearing in the Jan. 11 issue of Science, Müller and his UC Berkeley colleagues describe how to tell time using only the matter wave of a cesium atom. He refers to his method as a Compton clock because it is based on the so-called Compton frequency of a matter wave.

"When I was very young and reading science books, I always wondered why there was so little explanation of what time is," said Müller, who is also a guest scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "Since then, I've often asked myself, 'What is the simplest thing that can measure time, the simplest system that feels the passage of time?' Now we have an upper limit: one single massive particle is enough."

While Müller's Compton clock is still 100 million times less precise than today's best atomic clocks, which employ aluminum ions, improvements in the technique could boost its precision to that of atomic clocks, including the cesium clocks now used to define the second, he said.

"This is a beautiful experiment and cleverly designed, but it is going to be controversial and hotly debated," said John Close, a quantum physicist at The Australian National University in Canberra. "The question is, 'Is the Compton frequency of atoms a clock or not a clock?' Holger's point is now made. It is a clock. I've made one, it works."

Müller welcomes debate, since his experiment deals with a basic concept of quantum mechanics -- the wave-particle duality of matter -- that has befuddled students for nearly 90 years.

"We are talking about some really fundamental ideas," Close said. "The discussion will create a deeper understanding of quantum physics."

Müller can also turn the technique around to use time to measure mass. The reference mass today is a platinum-iridium cylinder defined as weighing one kilogram and kept under lock and key in a vault in France, with precise copies sparingly dispersed around the world. Using Müller's matter wave technique provides a new way for researchers to build their own kilogram reference.

De Broglie's "crazy" idea

The idea that matter can be viewed as a wave was the subject of the 1924 Ph.D. thesis by Louis de Broglie, who took Albert Einstein's idea that mass and energy are equivalent (E=mc2) and combined it with Ernst Planck's idea that every energy is associated with a frequency. De Broglie's idea that matter can act as a wave was honored with the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1929.

Using matter as a clock, however, seemed far-fetched because the frequency of the wave, called the Compton, or de Broglie, frequency, might be unobservable. And even if it could be seen, the oscillations would be too fast to measure.

Müller, however, found a way two years ago to use matter waves to confirm Einstein's gravitational redshift -- that is, that time slows down in a gravitational field. To do this, he built an atom interferometer that treats atoms as waves and measures their interference.

"At that time, I thought that this very, very specialized application of matter waves as clocks was it," Müller said. "When you make a grandfather clock, there is a pendulum and a clockwork that counts the pendulum oscillations. So you need something that swings and a clockwork to make a clock. There was no way to make a clockwork for matter waves, because their oscillation frequency is 10 billion times higher than even the oscillations of visible light."

One morning last year, however, he realized that he might be able to combine two well-known techniques to create such a clockwork and explicitly demonstrate that the Compton frequency of a single particle is, in fact, useful as a reference for a clock. In relativity, time slows down for moving objects, so that a twin who flies off to a distant star and returns will be younger than the twin who stayed behind. This is the so-called twin paradox.

Similarly, a cesium atom that moves away and then returns is younger than one that stands still. As a result, the moving cesium matter wave will have oscillated fewer times. The difference frequency, which would be around 100,000 fewer oscillations per second out of 10 million billion billion oscillations (3 x 1025 for a cesium atom), might be measurable.

In the lab, Müller showed that he could measure this difference by allowing the matter waves of the fixed and moving cesium atoms to interfere in an atom interferometer. The motion was caused by bouncing photons from a laser off the cesium atoms. Using an optical frequency comb, he synchronized the laser beam in the interferometer with the difference frequency between the matter waves so that all frequencies were referenced solely to the matter wave itself.

Compton clocks and Avogadro spheres

Müller's proposal to make a mass standard based on time provides a new way to realize plans by the international General Conference on Weights and Measures to replace the standard kilogram with a more fundamental measure. It will involve an incredibly pure crystal of silicon, dubbed an Avogadro sphere, which is manufactured so precisely that the number of atoms inside is known to high accuracy.

And what about the question, What is time? Müller says that "I don't think that anyone will ever have a final answer, but we know a bit more about its properties. Time is physical as soon as there is one massive particle, but it definitely is something that doesn't require more than one massive particle for its existence. We know that a massless particle, like a photon, is not sufficient."

Müller hopes to push his technique to even smaller particles, such as electrons or even positrons, in the latter case creating an antimatter clock. He is hopeful that someday he'll be able to tell time using quantum fluctuations in a vacuum.

Read more at Science Daily

Rat Snakes Gain Climate Change Energy Boost

Climate change may act like a strong cup of coffee to rat snakes. By making the nights warmer, the cold-blooded reptiles will be able to stay active later into the night, which could make hunting easier.

An ecologist studied rat snakes in Texas to see how serpents in Illinois would react to a warmer world. Those Illinois snakes were in turn observed to suggest how Canadian populations might react.

Climate change would "actually make the environment thermally better for them," said study leader Patrick Weatherhead of the University of Illinois in a press release. "Texas is already too hot for much of the day so it may cause them to shift to even more nocturnal foraging there and stay active at night for more of the season."

However, Weatherhead noted that a warmer climate doesn't mean rat snakes will proliferate. The snakes suffer from shrinking habitats and human cruelty.

“They are not a universally well-loved group of animals,” sad Weatherhead. “People are known to purposely swerve in the road to kill them. So, just because temperatures may become more beneficial for snakes it doesn't necessarily mean we'll have a plague of snakes. We may, however, have northern expansion of ranges.”

Killing the snakes in cold-blood isn't the wisest choice for rural Americans. As their name would imply, rat snakes eat rodent pests that destroy crops.

Rat snakes aren't limited to rodent prey. They also eat birds and their eggs. Staying active later into the night could make it easier for the snakes to get a feathered meal.

"Females are often on the nest incubating eggs or brooding the young at night," Weatherhead said. "If they are doing that during the day and a snake approaches, they rarely get caught by the snake, but at night they are much more vulnerable because snakes are very stealthy and the incubating birds don't detect the snake approaching. This is good for the snake because it gets a bigger meal.”

Read more at Discovery News

Baby Sharks Stay Still to Avoid Being Eaten

Baby sharks developing in their egg cases stay still in order to avoid to avoid being detected by predators, a new study in PLoS ONE has found.

Since the shark ability is innate and based on electrical field detectors, the discovery could soon lead to improved shark deterrents that keep the toothy creatures away from us without hurting them.

"Despite being confined to a very small space within an egg case where they are vulnerable to predators, embryonic sharks are able to recognize dangerous stimuli and react with an innate avoidance response," Ryan Kempster from the University of Western Australia, was quoted as saying in a press release.

He added, "Knowledge of such behaviors may help us to develop effective shark repellents."

It's been known for some time that adult sharks use highly sensitive receptors to detect electric fields emitted by potential prey. The current study found that embryos of some shark species employ similar means to detect potential predators and escape being eaten.

For example, even within their egg cases, brown-banded bamboo shark embryos can sense electric fields that mimic a predator. They respond by reducing respiratory gill movements to avoid detection. Even at these early stages of development, embryonic sharks can recognize dangers and instinctively try to avoid them.

Humans seem to develop such skills later. As human babies learn to crawl, their brains also lear to detect danger.

From Discovery News

Jan 9, 2013

Massive Asteroid Belts Discovered Around Vega

Vega is famous for being the fifth-brightest star in global skies, but it may soon also become famous for sporting two asteroid belts and, by extension, an entire system of exoplanets.

This discovery was made by astronomers using data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and ESA's Herschel Space Observatory -- both orbital telescopes that observe the Universe in infrared light.

During observations of Vega, that is located 25 light-years away in the constellation Lyra, it became apparent that the star plays host to a warm inner belt of asteroids and an outer, cool belt ten-times further out from the star, separated by a gap. This may sound familiar -- our solar system possesses an inner belt of asteroids (the Asteroid Belt that can be found between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter) and, ten-times further away, an outer belt of asteroids and cometary nuclei (the Kuiper Belt beyond the orbit of Neptune). This conforming 1:10 ratio is very interesting to astronomers.

Although there are similarities between Vega and the solar system, there are a couple of key differences. First, the Vega system is 4-times the size of the solar system and the star itself is twice the mass of our sun. Second, the star is only a fraction of the age of or sun -- approximately 600 million years old (as compared with the sun's age of over 4 billion years) -- and therefore burns hotter and brighter.

The young Vega system is, by its nature, thick with dust and debris from the recent frenzy of star formation. The solar system on the other hand is much older and has had time to "settle"; dust has coalesced to form larger chunks of debris (asteroids, comets, planets). But the gap between the two asteroid belts is possibly the most fascinating discovery -- that could be a zone where young planets roam.

"Our findings echo recent results showing multiple-planet systems are common beyond our sun," said Kate Su, an astronomer at the Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Su, lead author of a paper accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal, announced her findings at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Long Beach, Calif. on Tuesday.

Spitzer and Herchel were able to see the two belts of rocky debris from the dust they produce -- asteroids bump, grind and collide, kicking up dust. The radiation from the star then heated the dust, which, in turn, glows in infrared light.

Read more at Discovery News

Rip-Roaring Weather Spotted on Failed Star

Astronomers have mapped out the weird and wild weather of a so-called "failed star" in unprecedented detail.

Using NASA’s Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes, researchers documented the windy, cloud-covered weather of a brown dwarf -- a strange celestial object too big to be a planet but not massive enough to undergo fusion reactions like a star. The new results were presented at the American Astronomical Society meeting at Long Beach, Calif. on Tuesday (Jan. 8).

Like the objects themselves, brown dwarf weather is odd and intriguing, researchers said.

"Unlike the water clouds of Earth or the ammonia clouds of Jupiter, clouds on brown dwarfs are composed of hot grains of sand, liquid drops of iron and other exotic compounds," study co-author Mark Marley, of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., said in a statement. "So this large atmospheric disturbance found by Spitzer and Hubble gives a new meaning to the concept of extreme weather."

The two spacecraft monitored a brown dwarf with the clunky name of 2MASS J22282889-431026. Spitzer and Hubble used different wavelengths of light to monitor the ways its clouds moved at any given time, spotting storms the size of Earth swirling through the brown dwarf's atmosphere.

Although such observations are new for odd objects such as brown dwarfs, weather patterns like this have been observed elsewhere in the universe.

"What we see here is evidence for massive, organized cloud systems, perhaps akin to giant versions of the Great Red Spot on Jupiter," co-author Adam Showman of the University of Arizona said in a statement.

"These out-of-sync light variations provide a fingerprint of how the brown dwarf’s weather systems stack up vertically," Showman added. "The data suggest regions on the brown dwarf where the weather is cloudy and rich in silicate vapor deep in the atmosphere coincide with balmier, drier conditions at higher altitudes — and vice versa."

While they're cooler than bona fide stars, brown dwarfs are still extremely hot. The brown dwarf the team studied has an estimated temperature between 1,100 and 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit (600 to 700 degrees Celsius).

Read more at Discovery News

Why Skin Wrinkles When Wet

Fingers and toes become wrinkled after being in water for long periods, and now new research explains why. The transformed skin improves our grip on wet objects.

Aside from answering why we get the wrinklies after bathing, swimming and hand-washing dishes, the discovery- published in the latest Biology Letters- provides an intriguing clue as to how our ancestors lived.

Clearly they spent a fair amount of time in water, possibly wading around to get fish and plants. Our skin must have evolved to improve the outcome of such tasks, with the wrinkling still useful to us today.

“We have shown that wrinkled fingers give a better grip in wet conditions," co-author Tom Smulders of Newcastle University was quoted as saying in a press release. "It could be working like treads on your car tires, which allow more of the tire to be in contact with the road and gives you a better grip."

“Going back in time, this wrinkling of our fingers in wet conditions could have helped with gathering food from wet vegetation or streams," he continued. “And as we see the effect in our toes too, this may have been an advantage as it may have meant our ancestors were able to get a better footing in the rain.”

The old theory was that skin on our digits wrinkled when wet due to water passing into the outer layer of skin, making it swell.

Now it's known that the distinctive wrinkling is caused by blood vessels constricting below the skin. This is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which handles bodily processes such as breathing, heart rate and perspiration.

For the study, people picked up marbles of different sizes with normal hands or with wrinkled fingers after having soaked their hands in warm water for 30 minutes. The test subjects were faster with the wet marbles if their fingers were wrinkled. However, wrinkled fingers made no difference for moving dry objects. Wrinkled fingers and toes therefore serve the function of improving our grip on wet objects. (Sex wasn't mentioned in the study, so I'll refrain from taking the story in that direction...)

Read more at Discovery News

Heap of Cattle Bones May Mark Ancient Feasts

A metric ton of cattle bones found in an abandoned theater in the ancient city of Corinth may mark years of lavish feasting, a new study finds.

The huge amount of bones -- more than 1,000 kilograms (2,205 pounds) -- likely represent only a tenth of those tossed out at the site in Peloponnese, Greece, said study researcher Michael MacKinnon, an archaeologist at the University of Winnipeg.

"What I think that they're related to are episodes of big feasting in which the theater was reused to process carcasses of hundreds of cattle," MacKinnon told LiveScience. He presented his research Friday (Jan. 4) at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Seattle.

From theater to butcher shop

A theater may seem an odd place for a butchery operation, MacKinnon said, but this particular structure fell into disuse between A.D. 300 A.D. and A.D. 400. Once the theater was no longer being used for shows, it was a large empty space that could have been easily repurposed, he said.

The cattle bones were unearthed in an excavation directed by Charles Williams of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. They'd been discarded in that spot and rested there until they were found, rather than being dragged to the theater later with other trash, MacKinnon said.

"Some of the skeletal materials were even partially articulated [connected], suggesting bulk processing and discard," MacKinnon said.

MacKinnon and his colleagues analyzed and catalogued more than 100,000 individual bones, most cattle with some goat and sheep. The bones of at least 516 individual cows were pulled from the theater. Most were adults, and maturity patterns in the bones and wear patterns on the teeth showed them all to have been culled in the fall or early winter.

"These do not appear to be tired old work cattle, but quality prime stock," MacKinnon said.

Annual feasting?

It's impossible to say how quickly the butchering episodes took place, MacKinnon said, though it could be on the order of days or months. The bones were discarded in layers, likely over a period of 50 to 100 years, he said.

The periodic way the bones were discarded plus the hurried cut marks on some of the bones suggest a large-scale, recurring event, MacKinnon said. He suspects the cattle were slaughtered for annual large-scale feasts. Without refrigeration, it would have been difficult to keep meat fresh for long, so may have been more efficient for cities to take a communal approach.

Read more at Discovery News

Skeletal 'Nessie' Discovered in Our Galaxy

Just as there are bones in your arms, there are bones in our galaxy's arms as well -- and researchers using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope have shared the x-rays to prove it.

Alright, they're not actually x-rays but rather images made from observations in infrared light, which Spitzer is specifically designed to detect. (One does need to clarify such things in astronomy.) Orbiting Earth over 172 million kilometers away, Spitzer can see infrared radiation that isn't visible from the ground, radiation that's emitted from anything in the Universe warmer than zero Kelvin.

The image above, looking into the plane of the galaxy, shows a long thin strand of dark, cold material stretching between two brighter regions in the lower half -- this is a segment of what's being called a "bone" of the Milky Way, a part of the vast skeletal structure that forms its framework.

It's the first image of such a structure within our own galaxy.

"This is the first time we've seen such a delicate piece of the galactic skeleton," said Alyssa Goodman, lead author of the study from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Goodman presented the discovery during the 221st meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Long Beach, Calif. on Jan. 8.

The bone -- nicknamed "Nessie" during Spitzer research in 2010 -- has been found to be much longer than once thought, stretching over 300 light-years (but only 1 to 2 light-years wide.) The image above only shows a portion of it; see the full length of Nessie below:

(...and check out a super high-resolution image of the region here.)

The infrared-dark molecular gas that makes up this galactic bone may look wispy and insubstantial in these images but it's estimated to contain the equivalent mass of 100,000 suns -- although stretched across 300 light-years (that's 3,000 trillion kilometers!) it's still not very dense at all. As bones go, it's a thin one.

Read more at Discovery News

Jan 8, 2013

Genes Help Some Corals Handle the Heat

A key to saving coral from climate change may be hidden in the DNA of different populations of the same species of coral.

Nature prepared one population for stress more than the other. A Standford University team of biologists analyzed the genes of two populations and identified 60 DNA sequences activated in the hardy variety, but not the other. The biologists found the activated sequences when the corals were stressed under conditions that cause bleaching, the heat-induced epidemic that reduces coral reefs around the world to pale skeletons.

Two groups of the species, Acropora hyacinthus, on Ofu Island, American Samoa lived in different environments. The group that resided in waters that changed dramatically in temperature, pH, and oxygen levels were able to cope with conditions that killed their cousins. These stress-resistant corals were able to withstand temperatures up to 34 degrees Celsius (93 F) and daily fluctuations of 6 degrees C (10.8 F).

The biologists suggested in their paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that surviving such dramatic natural changes on a daily basis may give this group an advantage in dealing with climate change. Understanding what genes allow them to survive could help save other coral.

The 60 genes they identified in the hardy coral related to heat shock proteins, antioxidant enzymes, cell death regulation, tumor suppression, innate immune response, and cell adhesion. Along with hardy genes, the coral were also found to have a more heat tolerant form of the symbiotic algae, Symbiodinium that feed the coral with the products of photosynthesis in trade for inorganic nutrients that the coral provide.

From Discovery News

Jurassic Ecosystems Were Similar to Modern: Animals Flourish Among Lush Plants

CO2 levels in fossil soils from the Late Jurassic confirm that climate, vegetation and animal richness varied across the planet 150 million years ago, suggesting future human changes to global climate will heavily impact plant and animal life.

In modern ecosystems, it's widely known that animals flourish in regions where the climate and landscape produce lush vegetation.

A new study set out to discover whether that same relationship held true 150 million years ago during the Late Jurassic when dinosaurs roamed Earth.

"The assumption has been that ancient ecosystems worked just like our modern ecosystems," said paleontologist and lead author Timothy S. Myers, Southern Methodist University, Dallas. "We wanted to see if this was, in fact, the case."

To test the theory, Myers analyzed fossil soils from the Late Jurassic by measuring the ratios of carbon isotopes. His analysis indicated that the Jurassic soils contained high levels of CO2 from vegetation.

From that, Myers was able to infer the presence of lush plant life in certain regions during the Jurassic. The soils came from locales where scientists previously have gathered animal fossils -- North America, Europe and Africa. Combining the data with the known fossil sampling allowed Myers to confirm that the modern relationship between animals and vegetation held true even millions of years ago.

"Our analysis represents the first time that anyone has tried to apply ecological modeling to this relationship in the fossil record," Myers said.

Relatively few places in the world are well-sampled for terrestrial fossils, so Myers' discovery of a new use for an already existing method represents a useful tool, he said. The new use allows scientists to tap the geochemical data of soils from anywhere in the world and from other geologic time periods to infer the relative abundance of plants and animals, particularly for areas where fossils are lacking.

"This not only provides a more complete picture of the ancient landscape and climate in which ancient animals lived," Myers said. "It also illustrates that climate and biota have been ecologically connected for many millions of years and that future human-caused changes to global climate will have profound impacts on plant and animal life around the world."

Myers and his co-researchers reported the findings in Paleobiology, "Estimating Soil pCO2 Using Paleosol Carbonates: Implications for the Relationship Between Primary Productivity and Faunal Richness in Ancient Terrestrial Ecosystems."

Co-authors were SMU sedimentary geochemist Neil J. Tabor and paleontologists Louis L. Jacobs, SMU, and Octávio Mateus, New University of Lisbon, Portugal.

"Devising new and creative methods to understand how Earth and life have functioned together in the past is the foundation for predicting the future of life on our planet," said Jacobs, a vertebrate paleontologist and professor in SMU's Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences. "It is the only approach that provides a long enough perspective of what is possible."

New method applied to old hypothesis confirms regional variability

Typically researchers count the number of animal species discovered in a region to determine how many different types of animals once lived there. Scientists call that a measure of faunal richness.

Myers took a different approach. Using a traditional method typically used to estimate carbon dioxide in the ancient atmosphere, Myers instead applied it to estimate the amount of CO2 in ancient soils.

Measurements were taken from nodules of calcite that form in soil as a result of wet and dry seasons. These nodules take on the isotopic signature of the CO2 gas around them, which is a mixture derived from two sources: the atmosphere, which leaves a more positive isotopic signature, and plants decaying in the soil, which leave a more negative isotopic signature.

A higher volume of CO2 from plants indicates a lusher, wetter environment.

"There's a lot more litter fall in an environment with a lot of plants, and that produces a lot of organic material in the soil, creating CO2. So we see more soil-produced CO2, displacing the atmospheric CO2. These are established relationships," Myers said.

"Our method can be used to infer relative levels of richness for areas where soils have been preserved, but where fossils are lacking because conditions were unsuitable for their preservation," he said.

The research demonstrates creative use of existing geological data, said co-author Tabor, an expert in ancient soil in SMU's Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences.

"Vertebrate paleontologists have been accumulating information about vertebrate fossils in the Jurassic for well over 100 years. In addition, geochemists have been systematically sampling the composition of ancient soils for several decades," Tabor said. "In these respects, the data that are the foundation of this study are not extraordinary. What is remarkable, though, is combining the paleontology and geochemistry data to answer large-scale questions that extend beyond the data points -- specifically, to answer questions about ancient ecosystems."

Data from Morrison Formation, Central Africa and Portugal

Myers tested Upper Jurassic soil nodules collected from the Morrison Formation in the western United States. The formation extends from Montana to New Mexico and has been the source of many dinosaur fossil discoveries.

He also analyzed Upper Jurassic soil nodules from Portugal, another location well-sampled for dinosaur fossils. The region's paleoclimate was broadly similar to that of the Morrison Formation.

In addition, Myers tested a small Upper Jurassic core sample from Central Africa, where there's no evidence of any major terrestrial life. Unique minerals in the rocks indicate that the region had an arid environment during the Late Jurassic.

Based on their hypothesis, the researchers expected to see regional variations in plant productivity -- the amount of new growth produced in an area over time, which is an indirect measure of the amount of plant life in an environment. Forests, savannas and deserts all have different amounts of plant productivity, although those specific ecosystems can't be identified on the basis of plant productivity alone.

The researchers expected to see higher plant productivity for Portugal than for the Morrison Formation, with the lowest productivity in Central Africa.

"Essentially that's what we found," Myers said. "We understand it's tenuous and not a trend, but few places in the world are well-sampled. However, it's still a useful tool for places where all we have are the soil nodules, without well-preserved fauna."

Soil nodules are fairly common, Myers said. They form as a result of seasonally dry conditions and may be preserved in all but the wettest environments. Since they harden into mineralized clods, they are easy to spot and sample as they weather out of ancient soil profiles.

Read more at Science Daily

Ancient Remedies Found in Shipwreck

An ancient doctor likely knew the composition of the medicines loaded aboard a doomed ship preparing to sail into the Mediterranean. But it would be another approximately 2,200 years until anyone else learned the ingredients of the six grey pills, which were lost beneath the waves along with the rest of the ship, known as the "Relitto del Pozzino."

A team of Italian archeologists, chemists and biologists deciphered the chemical clues to the composition of an ancient medicine packed in the cargo of a ship sunk in 18 meters (59 feet) of water off the coast of Tuscany.

The six flat disks were held in a tin container which was probably once held in a larger wooden box that rotted away. Other medical implements of the time were found nearby.

Discovery News reported on an earlier study that discovered the medicine contained a mixture of mineral and plant materials, but not exactly which chemicals.

The most abundant ingredients were zinc compounds. Zinc compounds, called "calmina," were popular in ancient medicine just as they are today in the form of calamine lotion, or zinc oxide.

The tablets also contained pollen from a variety of insect-pollinated plants, which suggested a bee product was included in the medine. Bees also contributed the wax used in making the pills.

Other ingredients included iron oxide, starch, pine resin, and a mixture of plant and animal lipids, the building blocks of fats.

The researchers deduced that these tablets may have been an eye medicine, since their shape and ingredients are consistent with ancient descriptions of ocular unguents.

Read more at Discovery News

Black Hole Unleashes Supermassive Belch

While innocently surveying the Cosmos, astronomers serendipitously stumbled across a particularly uncouth galaxy. NGC 660 unleashed an epic belch, an event that we could see 44 million light-years distant.

This event emanated from the galaxy's core, around the likely location of a supermassive black hole.

To determine that the event was in fact triggered by NGC 660's central supermassive black hole and not a supernova, astronomers used the High Sensitivity Array (HSA) -- a global network of radio telescopes including the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), the Arecibo Telescope, the National Science Foundation's 100-meter Green Bank Telescope, and the 100-meter Effelsberg Radio Telescope in Germany. They found five bright spots of radio emissions near the galaxy's core and not an expanding ring of material that would be synonymous with an exploding star.

"The discovery was entirely serendipitous. Our observations were spread over a few years, and when we looked at them, we found that one galaxy had changed over that time from being placid and quiescent to undergone a hugely energetic outburst at the end," Robert Minchin, of Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, said in a statement.

"High-resolution imaging is the key to understanding what's going on," added Emmanuel Momjian, of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). "We needed to know if the outburst came from a supernova in this galaxy or from the galaxy's core. We could only do that by harnessing the high-resolution imaging power we get by joining widely-separated radio telescopes together."

The HSA employs the help of many radio antennae across the globe, all working in concert -- as an interferometer -- to gain incredibly high-resolution imagery deep inside the core of the galaxy. For example, in the above image, the radio insert represents just a single pixel of the optical image of NGC 660.

So why did the supermassive black hole in the galaxy's core belch? As we've learned from observations of the black hole behemoth in the center of the Milky Way, black holes consume anything that strays too close. Any dust, gas, planets, aliens or stars that fall into the black hole's gravitational well will be ripped apart and pulled into a violent accretion disk surrounding the black hole's event horizon.

Through processes that aren't fully understood, some of this matter is accelerated and ejected from the black hole's poles at relativistic speeds, generating superheated streams of gas. In the case of NGC 660, its black hole is likely feeding, erupting huge streams of radio-emitting gas, but the pattern of ejected gas isn't a simple case of two hot spots blasting from two poles; there appears to be five hot spots.

Read more at Discovery News

Jan 7, 2013

'Super Predator' Terrorized Jurassic Europe

Paleontologists have identified one of the world's oldest known "super predators," meaning carnivores that can feed on prey that's as large, or larger, than themselves.

The toothy beast, described in the latest issue of the Journal of Systematic Paleontology, was a marine crocodile that looked part shark and part sinister dolphin. Its scientific name is Tyrannoneustes lythrodectikos, or "Tyrant Swimmer."

"Tyrannoneustes lythrodectikos is the oldest known metriorhynchid macrophage -- an animal that was adapted to feeding on large-bodied prey," lead author Mark Young of the University of Edinburgh's School of Biological Sciences told Discovery News.

He explained that the term "metriorhynchid" refers to a group of marine crocodiles that were superficially similar to living dolphins.

"They lacked bony armor, had flipper-like forelimbs and had a tail fluke," he said.

This animal evolved from related species "that were opportunistic predators of small, fast moving prey." These marine hunters had narrow snouts and multiple teeth, but the teeth weren't serrated like those of Tyrant Swimmer, which also could open its mouth very wide.

Young and his colleagues studied the remains of Tyrant Swimmer, found in the Oxford Clay Formation. This is a Jurassic marine sedimentary rock formation underlying much of southeast England. The remains have been in storage for some time at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow.

The super predator made the rounds outside of what is now the U.K. too.

"Tyrannoneustes is known from shallow marine deposits across Europe (England, France and Poland)," Young, who also works at the University of Southhampton's National Oceanography Centre, explained. "During the Middle Callovian 165 million years ago, much of Europe was covered by a shallow sea, creating a chain of large to small islands. Tyrannoneustes lived in this shallow sea, along with numerous other marine reptiles."

These reptiles included pliosaurs, plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs. Giant pliosaurs were even larger than the Tyrant Swimmer, so they might have feasted on the formidable species. As its name suggests, however, Tyrant Swimmer would have been swift in the water, so it likely could have out-swam possible predators and used the swimming prowess to capture its own prey.

As of now, no stomach contents for the Tyrant Swimmer have been located, so what it precisely ate remains a mystery.

The Middle Jurassic gave rise to other huge predators in both the sea and on land. One of the most bloodthirsty dinosaurs of the time was Allosaurus, known for its massive toothy skull on a short neck. Some dinosaurs of this genus could grow up to 28 feet long.

As for ecosystems today, the presence of such big hunters usually indicates a healthy food chain, with many animals down the line for predators to prey upon. When keystone species begin to decline, usually the entire ecosystem is in trouble.

Read more at Discovery News

Odd, Ancient Bird Had Sharp Teeth

The fossil skeleton of a bird with strange teeth that lived 125 million years ago has been discovered in China. The bird had bizarre ridges on its teeth that may have enabled it to crack open hard-shelled insects and snails, the researchers said.

The unusual fossil, described in the January issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, was so well preserved that some of its stomach contents were still present. The new find sheds light on the range of foods Earth's earliest birds ate during the dinosaur era.

"The teeth are weird and there are some stomach contents, which is unusual," said paleontologist Gareth Dyke, of the University of South Hampton in the U.K., who was not involved in the study. "It's more evidence for the uniqueness and range of ecological specialization that are seen in these particular Mesozoic birds."

Teeming with life

The new species' specimen was unearthed in the Liaoning province in China, where many fossils from the Cretaceous Period (the period from 145 million to 65 million years ago that was the end of the Mesozoic Era) have been found over the last 15 years, said study author Luis Chiappe, director of the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. The primeval forest was teeming with ancient life, from pterodactyls and dinosaurs such as the microraptor to primitive lizards and various trees. The skies were also filled with birds, he said.

"This was clearly a hotspot of ancient bird biodiversity," Chiappe told LiveScience.

Toothy bird

The newly discovered bird, a robin-size creature called Sulcavis geeorum, lived between 121 million and 125 million years ago. Sulcavis geeorum belonged to a class of extinct toothed birds called Enantiornithines, which were the most numerous birds during the age of dinosaurs. The diminutive creature looked somewhat similar to modern-day songbirds, with a key difference: the bird had some very strange teeth.

The teeth of this tiny flier had sharp, pointy crowns. In addition, the fossil found by Chiappe's team had preserved tooth enamel that formed serrated ridges. Those serrated ridges probably enabled the birds to crack open the hard exoskeletons of insects, crabs or snails, Chiappe said.

The strange teeth may shed light on a prehistoric mystery of sorts: No one knows exactly why early birds had teeth. It's also unclear why they have lost their teeth at least four times since they first emerged in the fossil record. In fact, modern-day birds still have genes for teeth, but the genes are turned off, Chiappe said.

Read more at Discovery News

Earth-Sized Alien Worlds Orbit One in Six Stars

Four years ago, NASA launched the Kepler space telescope in an attempt to learn just how common Earth-sized worlds are in the Milky Way galaxy.

On Monday, scientists unveiled part of the answer: About 17 percent -- one in six -- of Kepler's target stars have Earth-sized worlds orbiting closer to their parent stars than where Mercury orbits the sun.

With about 100 billions stars in the Milky Way galaxy, that means there's approximately 17 billion Earth-sized worlds, conclude astronomers who presented the research at the American Astronomical Society conference in Long Beach, Calif.

More work is needed to determine how many extrasolar 'Earths' orbit farther away from their parent stars in so-called "habitable zones" where temperatures are suitable for water to exist in a liquid state on the planet's surface. Water is necessary for life as we know it.

Overall, scientists determined that 17 percent of Kepler's target stars have a planet 0.8 to -1.25 times the size of Earth in an orbit of 85 days or less. In comparison, Mercury orbits the sun in 88 days. Earth is positioned at a 365-day orbit.

About 25 percent of Kepler's stars have a super-Earth that is 1.25 to twice as big as Earth in orbits of 150 days or less. The same percentage of stars have a mini-Neptune that is twice to four times as big as Earth in orbits up to 250 days long, reports astronomer Francois Fressin, with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Bigger planets are much more rare. Three percent have large Neptune-class planets four to six times as big as Earth and five percent have gas giants six to 22 times Earth's mass in orbits of 400 days or less.

Fressin and colleagues also determined that except for gas giants, planets form around all types of stars, including red dwarfs, the most common type of star in the galaxy.

"When you get into the subject of habitability, which is a very sticky subject, then it might matter that you're around a red dwarf instead of a sun-like star," California Institute of Technology astronomer John Johnson told Discovery News.

"It could be that the 20 or 30 factors that go into habitability that we know of on the Earth might not be met on other planets at all, he said. For example, it might be very rare to have a planet like Earth that is only partially covered with water, instead of completely submerged or with no water at all.

"That's something that we can't even begin to address right now," Johnson said.

The Kepler telescope works by looking for a slight dimming in light coming from 160,000 target stars that is due to a planet passing by, or transiting, relative to the telescope's point of view.

Planets closer to their parent stars are easier to find because they transit more frequently. In time, astronomers intend to determine how many Earth-sized worlds are in Earth-like orbits.

Read more at Discovery News

When Is the Next Doomsday (Not) Going to Happen?

Take a deep breath; Dec 21, 2012 is behind us. The Mayan calendar end-of-world debacle is over: zip, zilch, gone!

The silliness, anxiety, and paranoia leading up to the predicted end of times was so bad that on Dec. 21st -- the appointed doomsday -- a worried citizen left a message on my office phone that accused me of skipping town to escape Armageddon.

If history is any example, the next cosmic doomsday prediction is always right around the corner. The Mayan blowout was just the latest in many centuries of bad calls by prognosticators who have the audacity to think they can divine the End of Everything.

So, to be a little preemptive, let's look at just three cosmic events that might start another pop culture panic. Thankfully these aren't born out of mythology, psychics, and misinterpreted archeoastronomy. They are real events that will inevitably be embellished by the imaginations of modern day soothsayers.

The Comet of the Century

Last September, the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON) near Kislovodsk, Russia, discovered comet C/2012 S1 (ISON). Though its closest approach to Earth is a year away, the celestial visitor is already billed as the "comet of the century." That's because it may be a first-time visitor to the solar system that will warm and then erupt with a lot of outgassing from pristine ices.

On Nov. 28, 2013 the comet will skim above the sun's surface at a distance slightly greater than the separation of the Earth and moon. Not doubt there will be pseudoscience predictions of the comet wreaking havoc by raising tides on the sun. The exact opposite will be the case. The sun's tidal pull could tear apart the comet into small pieces, as has been the case for previous sungrazer-class comets.

Comet ISON is due to pass within 37 million miles of Earth in January 2014. I'm expecting to see all types of outrageous claims that the object's feeble gravity will yank on Earth to trigger volcanoes and earthquakes.

Comet ISON has been compared with the Great Comet of 1680 (in above illustration) which, according to contemporary accounts, caused New Yorkers to be "overcome with terror at a sight in the heavens such as has seldom greeted human eyes." A day of fasting and humiliation was set-aside in order that "the wrath of God might be assuaged."

Likewise, soothsayers will quickly note that the comet will be at it brightest one month before Christmas 2013. "This comet, if it lives up to its billing, certainly could point to the glorious soon coming of the Lord Jesus Christ from heaven!" predicts one religious website.

The fact that the comet is anticipated to get as bright as the moon will only fuel religious and mystical speculation about its timing and significance as an omen. Chill out folks, it's just another 4 billion year-old primeval chunk of ice from the solar system's deep freeze, the Oort cloud.

Asteroid Apophis

NASA keeps cataloging more Earth-threatening asteroids every year. But the asteroid Apophis, named after the Egyptian spirit of evil and destruction, is legendary because it will be a record-breaker.

On April, Friday the 13th of 2029 Apophis will skim below the orbits of communication satellites and briefly be a naked-eye object scooting over the mid-Atlantic ocean.

Earth's gravity will deflect the comet's trajectory. The worst-case scenario is that the chances of it striking Earth on its return on April 13, 2036 will increase to 1 in 5,500.

Apophis is the length of over three football fields. It packs enough kinetic energy to wipe out 10 million people with the power of 100,000 Hiroshima sized atomic bombs. Even in this worst case scenario a direct hit would not obliterate all life on the planet. But it certainly would not be a good day for the human race.

People will get very squeamish over the possibility of Apophisgeddon despite the best low-probability collision estimate from astronomers. Parallels no doubt will be drawn to Biblical prophecy. This is especially true because the potentially destructive path of the asteroid crosses Middle East. South America and the west coast of Africa are also along the ground track.

Congress might even debate if steps should be taken to deflect the asteroid. But given that so many legislators are tone-deaf to global warming, I wouldn’t expect any preemptive actions to be funded.

Planetary Grand Alignment

Like clockwork so-called planetary grand alignments have taken place in 1962, 1982, and 2000. This does not mean that the planets line up like pearls on a string. But they sort of gang up on one side of the sun within an angle of roughly 10 to 30 degrees -- so the definition is a but mushy.

The uneventful year 1128 A.D. saw one of the tightest planetary alignments. The doomsday best seller The Jupiter Effect in 1982 spelled out an improbable chain of events that would be triggered by the planets' tug-of-war with the sun: tides raised on the sun's surface would increase sunspot activity, build up the solar wind, that would effect Earth's weather, and subsequently, Earth's spin rate, which would then trigger earthquakes.

No geological disasters happened in 1982 short of a 6.0 magnitude earthquake that killed 1,500 people in Dhamar, northern Yemen. In fact the celestial alignment allowed for NASA to pull off the Voyager 2 "grand tour" of the four outer gas giant planets from 1979 to 1989.

Jupiter contains more mass than all the other planets combined, and yet it is still less than 1 percent of the sun's mass. Therefore Jupiter's influence on the sun is inconsequential.

Alien astronomers could measure Jupiter's gravitational tug as an insignificant 270 mile-per-hour cyclic change in the sun's radial velocity over the planet's 12-year orbital period. Only if Jupiter was moved so close to the sun that its orbital period was measured in days, would some serious tidal effects be seen. This is observed with so-called "hot Jupiters," the exoplanet WASP-18 being the most extreme case.

Read more at Discovery News

Jan 6, 2013

Famed Roman Shipwreck Could Be Two

A dive to the undersea cliff where a famous Roman shipwreck rests has turned up either evidence that the wreck is enormous — or a suggestion that, not one, but two sunken ships are resting off the Greek island of Antikythera.

"Either way, it's an exciting result," said study researcher Brendan Foley, an archaeologist at Woods Hold Oceanographic Institution who presented the findings Jan. 4 at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Seattle.

The Antikythera wreck is famed for the massive number of artifacts pulled from the site over the past century. First discovered in the early 1900s by local sponge divers, the wreck is most famous for the Antikythera mechanism, a complex bronze gear device used to calculate astronomical positions (and perhaps the timing of the Olympic games). Numerous bronze and marble statues, jars and figurines have also been pulled from the wreck. The ship went down in the first century B.C.

Remote wreck

The wreck is perched on a steep undersea cliff in water too deep for standard scuba gear. The undersea landscape also makes deploying remotely operated submersibles impossible, Foley said. In 1976, Jacques Costeau led a diving expedition to the site. Since then, it has been unexplored, thanks in part to its remote location in the strait between Crete and Peloponnese.

"This place is absolutely unspoiled," Foley said.

Led by Aggeliki Simossi, the director of the Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, Foley and colleagues from Greece and Woods Hole watched footage and pored over logs from the 1976 dive. With so many artifacts already taken from the site, they knew there would be little evidence of the shipwreck exposed on the ocean floor. They'd have to match the underwater geology to find the wreck.

In October, diving with technical scuba gear and diver propulsion vehicles that look like underwater fans, the team found the sweet spot, marked by a scattering of amphora, or large curved jars.

Intact artifacts from the wreck were spread over a huge area, about 197 feet (60 meters) long at depths ranging from 114 feet to 197 feet (35 to 60 m), Foley said. That's large for an ancient shipwreck, Foley said, suggesting either a huge ship or perhaps more than one wreck. The findings are preliminary, Foley said, but the team may have ultimately been excavating 984 feet (300 m) away from the site explored by Cousteau. If that's the case, he said, they may have found a separate wreck — likely part of the same fleet as the original wreck that went down in the same storm.

More secrets

One reason for the researchers' uncertainty is the fact that they used Costeau's Antikythera expedition videos to gauge where to anchor their boat. Since some of the shots in the video were almost certainly staged, the researchers can't be sure they weren't diving at a site hundreds of yards away from the site explored in 1976.

Either way, the wreck site has many more artifacts to offer, the researchers found. They pulled one jar to the surface, which will undergo DNA testing to determine its contents. They also recovered two components of a lead anchor, which itself was resting on top of other artifacts, suggesting it was on deck when the ship went down.

"What else could be down there?" Foley said. "Are there more pieces of the known Antikythera mechanism? Is there another mechanism down there?"

The researchers plan to return to the area next year and will use metal detectors to check the site almost 1,000 feet away where Costeau's team may have really been, he said. There are no artifacts visible on the ocean floor other than the spot that Foley and his colleagues explored, but metal detectors should pick up on any remnants under the sand at the other site if there are in fact two wrecks.

Read more at Discovery News

Secret to Fish's Waterfall-Climbing Ability Found

A waterfall-climbing fish in Hawaii uses the same muscles to both rise and feed, researchers have discovered.

Scientists looked at the Nopoli rock-climbing goby (Sicyopterus stimpsoni), also known in Hawaiian as o'opu nopili. This plant-eating fish is found throughout Hawaii, and was once greatly relished as food, apparently being a favorite snack among priests.

Many gobies can inch their way up waterfalls with the aid of a sucker on their bellies formed from fused pelvic fins. The Nopoli rock-climbing goby, on the other hand, can climb waterfalls as tall as 330 feet (100 meters) with the aid of a second mouth sucker, which develops after their mouthparts move from a forward-facing position to under the body during a two-day-long metamorphosis into adulthood.

"For a human to go the equivalent distance based on body size, it'd be like doing a marathon, some 26 miles (42 kilometers) long, except climbing up a vertical cliff-face against rushing water," researcher Richard Blob, an evolutionary biomechanist at Clemson University in South Carolina, told LiveScience. Indeed, an old Hawaiian saying is that as the Nopili clings, so will luck.

The goby, which can grow up to 7 inches (18 centimeters) long as an adult, feeds by cyclically sticking the tip of its upper jaw against rock to scrape food off surfaces. This behavior is quite distinct from other Hawaiian gobies, which feed by sucking in food from the water. Given the apparent similarity of the climbing and feeding behaviors of the S. stimpsoni species, researchers thought one might have developed from the other.

"The fish gave us an opportunity to see how unusual behaviors evolved," Blob said.

To see if these behaviors really were as similar as they looked, the scientists captured Nopoli rock-climbing gobies from a stream on the island of Hawaii by net while snorkeling and kept them in aquaria. They next filmed the gobies' jaw-muscle movements as the fish climbed and ate, either scraping food off glass microscope slides or climbing up angled plastic boards. They found that overall movements were indeed similar during both activities.

It remains uncertain whether feeding movements were adapted for climbing, or vice versa.

Read more at Discovery News