Jun 22, 2013

Oddest Couple Share 250 Million Year Old Burrow

Scientists from South Africa, Australia and France have discovered a world first association while scanning a 250 million year old fossilised burrow from the Karoo Basin of South Africa.

The burrow revealed two unrelated vertebrate animals nestled together and fossilised after being trapped by a flash flood event. Facing harsh climatic conditions subsequent to the Permo-Triassic (P-T) mass extinction, the amphibian Broomistega and the mammal forerunner Thrinaxodon cohabited in a burrow.

Scanning shows that the amphibian, which was suffering from broken ribs, crawled into a sleeping mammal's shelter for protection. This research suggests that short periods of dormancy, called aestivation, in addition to burrowing behaviour, may have been a crucial adaptation that allowed mammal ancestors to survive the P-T extinction.

The international team of scientists was led by Dr Vincent Fernandez from Wits University, South Africa and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France. The other authors from Wits University include Prof. Bruce Rubidge (Director of the newly formed Palaeosciences Centre of Excellence at Wits), Dr Fernando Abdala and Dr Kristian Carlson. Other authors include Dr Della Collins Cook (Indiana University); Dr Adam Yates (Museum of Central Australia) and Dr. Paul Tafforeau (ESRF).

After many impressive results obtained on fossils, synchrotron imaging has led to revived interest in the studies of the numerous fossilised burrows discovered in the Karoo Basin of South Africa and dated to 250 million years ago. The first attempt to investigate one of these burrow-casts surprisingly revealed a world-first association of two unrelated animals.

The fossil was recovered from sedimentary rock strata in the Karoo Basin. It dates from 250 million years ago, at the beginning of the Triassic Period. At that time, the ecosystem was recovering from the Permo-Triassic mass extinction that wiped out most of life on Earth. In the Pangea Supercontinent context, what is now South Africa was an enclave in the southern half called Gondwana. It was the scene of pronounced climatic warming and increased seasonality marked by monsoonal rainfall. To survive this harsh environment, many animals, including mammal-like reptiles (mammal forerunners), developed a digging behaviour, attested by the numerous fossilised burrow casts discovered in the Karoo Basin. These casts have long been thought to enclose fossilised remains, triggering interest from palaeontologists. Early this year, an international group of scientists started to research the contents of these burrows using X-ray synchrotron computed microtomography.

Two burrow casts were selected from the collection at Wits to be scanned using the state-of-the-art facility at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF). Using the unique properties of the X-ray beam which enables non-destructive probing, the scan of the first burrow started to reveal the skull of a mammal-like reptile called Thrinaxodon, an animal previously reported in another burrow.

As the scan progressed, the three-dimensional reconstruction displayed results beyond expectations: the mammal-like reptile was accompanied by an amphibian Broomistega, belonging to the extinct group of Temnospondyl.

"While discovering the results we were amazed by the quality of the images," says lead author Fernandez, "but the real excitement came when we discovered a second set of teeth completely different from that of the mammal-like reptile. It was really something else."

Besides the pristine preservation of the two skeletons, the team focused on the reasons explaining such an unusual co-habitation. Fernandez explains: "Burrow-sharing by different species exists in the modern world, but it corresponds to a specific pattern. For example, a small visitor is not going to disturb the host. A large visitor can be accepted by the host if it provides some help, like predator vigilance. But neither of these patterns corresponds to what we have discovered in this fossilised burrow."

The scientists gathered all the information to try to reconstitute the events that led to this incredible fossil aggregation, testing scenarios one after another. "It's a fascinating scientific question: what caused the association of these two organisms in the burrow? One of the more obvious possibilities is a predator-prey interaction, but we inspected both skeletons looking for tooth marks or other evidence implying predation, ultimately finding no support for one having attempted to feed on the other," says Carlson.

His colleague, Cook, adds that the consecutive broken ribs resulted from a single, massive trauma. The amphibian clearly survived the injury for some time because the fractures were healing, but it was surely quite handicapped. According to Fernandez this Broomistega is the first complete skeleton of this rare species that has been discovered. "It tells us that this individual was a juvenile and mostly aquatic at that time of its life," he says.

The scientists eventually concluded that the amphibian crawled into the burrow in response to its poor physical condition but was not evicted by the mammal-like reptile.

Numerous Thrinaxodon specimens have been found in South Africa, many of them fossilised in a curled-up position. Abdala says: "I have always been fascinated by the preservation of Thrinaxodon fossils in a curled-up position that show even tiny bones of the skeleton preserved. It's as if they were peacefully resting in shelters at the time of death."

The shelters prevented disturbance of the skeletal remains from scavengers and weathering. "We also think it might reflect a state of torpor called aestivation in response to aridity and absence of food resources," Abdala says.

Piecing all the clues together, the team finally elucidated the enigmatic association, concluding that "the mammal-like reptile, Thrinaxodon, was most probably aestivating in its burrow, a key adaptation response together with a burrowing behaviour which enabled our distant ancestors to survive the most dramatic mass extinction event. This state of torpor explains why the amphibian was not chased out of the burrow," says Rubidge.

Both animals were finally entrapped in the burrow by a sudden flood and preserved together in the sediments for 250 million years.

Read more at Science Daily

Ancient Mayan City Discovered in Mexican Jungle

Pyramidal structures, palace remains, ballgame courts, plazas and sculpted monuments have been uncovered in the Mexican jungle, revealing one the largest sites in the Central Maya Lowlands.

Named Chactún, meaning “Red Stone” or “Great Stone,” the previously unknown Mayan city covers more than 54 acres in the southeastern state of Campeche.

According to Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), its vast size suggests the city was a seat of government between 600 and 900 A.D.

Hidden for centuries in the jungle on the north of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, Chactún is part of an area covering more than 1,150 square miles.

That region has remained a “total blank” on the Mayan archaeological map, Slovenian archaeologist Ivan Sprajc said.

Starting from 1996, the Archaeological Reconnaissance Project in Southeastern Campeche identified 80 sites using large-scale aerial photography, but Chactún was largely ignored.

More recently, the photographs of the northern part of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve were examined.

“We found many features that were obviously architectural remains,” Sprajc said.

Getting to the site wasn’t a easy task — the archaeologists led by Sprajc had to make their way through the tropical forest by cutting vegetation along a long abandoned lumberers’ trail.

They found a site rich with buildings, plazas and pyramidal structures, with the tallest one measuring more than 75 feet.

“We realized, with big surprise, that the site was even larger than we had expected. What impressed us most were the volumes of the buildings — they are not extremely high, but very massive,” Sprajc told Discovery News.

Consisting of three monumental complexes standing in the west, southeast and northeast, the site featured a large number of stelae (tall sculpted stone shafts) and altars (low circular stones).

Sprajc and his team named the city after one of the 19 stelae recovered so far.

According to a preliminary interpretation by epigrapher Octavio Esparza Olguin from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the inscription says that the ruler K’inich B’ahlam “erected the Red Stone (or  Great) in 751.”

Many of these inscribed stones were reused in later times, possibly in the late Late Classic and even Early Postclassic periods.

“These people may not have known the meaning of the monuments, as some of the stelae were found upside down,” Esparza said.

“Though they knew they were important and worshiped them: we found ceramic offerings in front of some of them,” he added.

Read more at Discovery News

What Keeps Conspiracy Theories Alive?

Conspiracy theories surrounding the crash of TWA Flight 800 in 1996 have circulated widely in recent weeks, with a former investigator claiming the plane was brought down not by an accident but instead either a terrorist attack or “a military operation that went wrong.”

Such claims have been long investigated — and debunked. “It’s just outrageous and preposterous,” said James Kallstrom, who headed up the investigation into the 1996 crash for the FBI and was quoted in an ABC News story. “It has absolutely no connection to the truth, and…will not stand the test of time and will not stand the test of experts.”

The National Transportation Safety Board issued a statement that “The TWA Flight 800 investigation lasted four years and remains one of the NTSB’s most detailed investigations. Investigators took great care reviewing, documenting and analyzing facts and data and held a five-day hearing to gather additional facts before determining the probable cause of the accident.”

So why is this coming up again, and what keeps these conspiracies alive? There are many reasons why conspiracy theories gain traction with the public, including that they tap into a widespread distrust of the government (fueled by both real and imagined transgressions such as the recent revelations about public surveillance). Here are other reasons why conspiracies don’t seem to fade away.

Conspiracies are Permanent

Conspiracy theories, by their nature, cannot be conclusively disproven since any evidence contradicting them can be dismissed or ignored as part of the conspiracy itself. Because it’s never “case closed,” the door for further discussion and inquiry is always left open.

Books about conspiracy theories don’t have sections on disproven conspiracy theories. A few conspiracy theories have fallen out of favor (such as the “Paul McCartney is dead” hoax/urban legend in the late 1960s), but most modern conspiracies last decades or longer.

One of the oldest conspiracy theories is the hoaxed book “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” supposedly revealing a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. It first appeared in Russia in 1905, and though the book has been discredited as a forgery, it is still in print.

Even when one part of a conspiracy theory has been definitively disproven to the satisfaction of most reasonable people, hardcore conspiracy theorists will continue in their beliefs. Rarely if ever do you hear a prominent conspiracy theorist or advocate make a public statement admitting that he (it’s almost always a male) was totally wrong about something. At best, the claim will be quietly dropped (while being careful not to acknowledge how solid the evidence for it was once claimed to be), though usually the disproven claim is simply repeated and thrown back into the mix.

Credible Believers

Most high-profile conspiracies have a handful of otherwise reputable, respected authorities (often former government officials) who endorse them.

Astronaut Edgar Mitchell, for example, has publicly stated that he believes that aliens crashed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 and that the U.S. government covered it up. A few self-described maverick scientists and engineers have claimed that their research casts doubt on what caused buildings to collapse in New York on September 11, and what caused the TWA 800 explosion.

Whether the topic is the existence of psychic powers, global warming, UFOs, or conspiracy theories, it’s always possible to find a few reputable people whose opinions contradict conclusions drawn by the vast majority of other scientists and engineers who looked at the same evidence.

This is not surprising, since in science there is no complete consensus or agreement about anything (including whether the speed of light can be exceeded). Different people — even smart, credentialed ones — can look at the same evidence and come to different conclusions; this is human nature, not evidence of a cover-up.

Recycled Information

When conspiracies resurface in the public sphere after being out of the spotlight for years, there’s always a reason for it. Usually it’s simply the result of a publicity ploy; for example it’s not uncommon for UFO promoters (or even Bigfoot believers) to call a press conference announcing that new evidence has been found (or old witnesses are now coming forward) to offer stunning, long-awaited proof of their claims. The “breaking news” invariably consists of familiar witnesses rehashing long-discredited theories with nothing to add.

Sure enough, many news stories, such as by Brian Ross of ABC News, claim that “former investigators who looked into the mysterious crash of TWA Flight 800…are breaking their silence” to reveal previously unknown information and details about the explosion. However there’s no “silence” to be broken: most of the claims being mentioned have circulated widely in conspiracy circles for over a decade.

If new, valid information has really been uncovered the National Transportation Safety Board will be happy to look at it. In a statement earlier this week the NTSB noted that “our investigations are never closed and we can review any new information not previously considered by the Board.”

Follow the Money!

One conspiracy canard is that, if you want to get to the truth of something, you need to see who benefits from promoting a given story. Who profited from faking the moon landings, staging the September 11 attacks, or faking the Sandy Hook school shootings?

Follow the money is a legitimate (if rather obvious) directive, though it can be misleading because people do things for many reasons other than to gain money or power.

Some people do things as a prank, or just for fun, boredom, or curiosity; other times — especially when drugs or mental illness is involved — there is no rational reason. And many times (such as the death of Princess Diana or the explosion of TWA Flight 800) the conspiracy-spawning event was an accident, so looking for a personal, financial or other motive behind it is pointless.

Of course the same principle cuts both ways, and there is money to be made from promoting and perpetuating conspiracy theories. Broadcasters and writers such as Alex Jones, Jim Marrs, Art Bell, George Noory, Jesse Ventura, and others have made millions of dollars mystery mongering and offering their audiences what they promise is the “real deal” behind the smokescreen of official misinformation.

Read more at Discovery News

'Supermoon' Science: Biggest Full Moon of 2013 Explained

There is more to a "supermoon" than meets the eye.

Science governs the appearance of the largest full moon of the year, and this weekend you can check out the amazing lunar sight for yourself.

On Sunday (June 23), the moon will be at its closest point to Earth — called perigee. This relatively close brush will happen as the moon enters its fullest phase, creating the cosmic coincidence known as the supermoon. At its fullest and closest, the moon will appear about 12 percent larger in the sky.

"It doesn't matter where you are, the full moon you're seeing will be the biggest for 2013," Michelle Thaller, the assistant director of science at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center said. "… That 12 percent size different can mean as much as a 30 percent change in the brightness, so this will be a particularly bright supermoon."

How to see the supermoon

Weather permitting, everybody should be able to see the supermoon. The moon will be rising from the east right around sunset, Thaller said. It will appear huge and low on the horizon before rising brightly into the sky for the night. Saturday and Sunday should both be ideal viewing opportunities.

A changing distance

Supermoons occur about once annually, and this year, the supermoon is closer than it has been in a little while, Thaller said.

The distance from the Earth to the moon varies along the rocky satellite's elliptical orbit. Perigee differs from month to month, so sometimes the supermoon is a little closer or further away, Thaller said.

"The closest the moon gets can actually vary much as much as the diameter of the Earth," Thaller said. "That seems like a pretty big number, but the moon is actually 30 times the diameter of the Earth away from us. If you line up 30 Earths, that's about the average distance of the moon away, but as it swings a little bit closer to us, that distance can vary."

The sun can be to blame for the difference in distance. In the winter, when the Earth is closest to the sun, a supermoon could be even closer and more stunning, Thaller said. The strength of the sun's gravity pulls both the moon and the Earth towards it slightly, making the moon dip closer to the planet.

Science from a supermoon

Although it might be a brilliant skywatching opportunity, not a lot of scientific research comes from the supermoon. Scientists prefer to study the moon from a closer vantage point, Thaller said.

Read more at Discovery News

Jun 20, 2013

The Brain: Now in Ultra High-Res 3D

Today, researchers have unveiled the most detailed 3-D image of the human brain ever taken. The image reveals structures as tiny as 20 microns, 50 times smaller than those created using the best MRI technology.

The image, made as part of a project called the BigBrain, is part of a larger effort to create a high-resolution computer model of the human brain that can serve as a reference point for future studies. Data from other studies can be combined with this model to allow scientists to link brain function to specific groups of nerve cells.

That information can be used to test theories about brain activity as well as lead to treatments for disease and disorders.

"When you are interested a disorder like Alzheimer's disease, you have the first ever brain model where you can look into details of the hippocampus, which is the brain region that is extremely important for memory," said Karl Zilles, one of the co-authors of the paper and senior professor of the Jülich Aachen Research Alliance in Germany.

Until now, brain scans have been made using MRI and PET technology. But these imagers can only capture structures as small as a millimeter. To understand what happens when a person gets Alzheimer's disease or epilepsy, it's necessary to study individual groups of cells. A millimeter just isn't fine enough to see them.

To create the ultra-detailed images, the scientists used a brain from a deceased 65-year-old woman. Dr. Katrin Amunts, director of the Cecile and Oskar Vogt Institute for Brain Research at the Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf in Germany, and lead author, said the woman who donated the brain didn't have any diagnosed psychiatric problems or diseases that would have affected the brain's anatomy.

Scientists then used a tool called a microtome to cut the brain into 7,400 slices, each 20 microns thick. That alone was a difficult thing to do. While pathologists often section brains, they are usually much thicker.

The sections were then stained to bring out the details and then a standard laboratory camera was used to create a high-resolution digital image of every slice. Each image was 13,000 by 11,000 pixels and by the time the researchers were done creating the images, the amount of data they compiled totaled about a terabyte. Next, they used a computer to combine the images into one large, three-dimensional computer model.

The idea is to perform computer simulations using the three-dimensional model, also called an atlas, in ways that weren't possible before, said a professor of neurology at the Montréal Neurological Institute at McGill University, and another co-author. Functional MRI scans are relatively crude.

Other scientists in the field say BigBrain could be a helpful tool. "For instance, you can perform MRIs in patients with severe traumatic injury, both with favorable and unfavorable outcome, apply the atlas and determine by which regions they differ," said Damien Galanaud, at the department of neuroradiology at Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, who studies traumatic brain injuries, and was not involved in the study.

The only down side, Galanaud added, such a study wouldn't necessarily offer a complete picture, because sometimes brain anatomy is changed when there's a severe injury. So it would require additional "smoothing" of the differences between the inured brain and the model.

Read more at Discovery News

Snails Reveal Ancient Human Migrations

Eight thousands years ago, people brought snails from Spain to Ireland, suggests a new study, which used DNA analysis to identify a snail species that lives today only in Ireland and the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain.

In both places, the snails have large, white-lipped shells. And, according to the new work, the two groups also share genetic markers that are extremely rare elsewhere in Europe.

Along with other evidence, the findings offer a new window into ancient human migrations.

"It's interesting to use snail genetics to find out how snails colonize, and it also maybe gives us a little insight into what humans were doing, too," said Angus Davison, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom.

"One really neat thing about this study is that, if we accept that humans transported snails, it really gives us a unique insight into an individual journey 8,000 years ago, and it gives us evidence of that from a source you might not imagine."

For more than 150 years, biologists have been puzzling over an Irish mystery: A number of wildlife species that live in Ireland are absent from the rest of Britain but are found in Iberia, the peninsula that includes modern-day Spain, Portugal and parts of France.

Research into this so-called "Irish question" has failed to produce a single theory that explains how and when various species covered hundreds of miles from one place to the other.

To see if they could add any new understanding to the Irish question, Davison and colleague Adele Grindon focused on a distinctive-looking snail that had the same one-inch long shells in both locations. According to fossil evidence, the snails first showed up in Ireland about 8,000 years ago. The mollusks had lived in southern Europe for tens of thousands of years before that.

First, the researchers enlisted volunteers to help collect nearly 900 snails from both parts of its range. Then, they extracted mitochondrial DNA, which is passed directly from mother to offspring, and they looked at specific areas of the genome that are known to vary from snail species to snail species.

The genetic material they analyzed was essentially identical between the two regional groups, the researchers report today in the journal PLOS ONE. The team was also surprised to find that they could trace the Irish population of snails directly back to a population in a specific region of the Pyrenees. The species lives nowhere in between.

The findings argue against a gradual move from one place to another, Davison said, and instead suggest that the snails migrated from Spain to Ireland in one step. He thinks it unlikely that birds transported the mollusks, partly because there are no known birds that migrate along that route that would have been large enough to carry the snails.

More likely, Davison suspects, people brought the snails with them as they moved. Ancient people may have intentionally brought the snails as a source of food on the trip. Alternatively, the snails may have hitched a ride in the grassy fodder packed for other animals.

In the early 2000s, some studies proposed a connection between Ireland and the Pyrenees, but those studies were later shown to be too small and flawed to be convincing, said Allan McDevitt, a geneticist at University College Dublin, who specializes on questions about the colonization of Ireland. The new research is far more robust.

"I think this study is important in that it does conclusively show that there is some link with Spain based on this snail," McDevitt said. "It's the most definitive proof yet that this is actually a very real migration that was happening."

Still unclear is how people made the trip. At least some of the journey would have been by sea, as Ireland was separated from the mainland by 15,000 years ago. But evidence of primitive canoe-like boats remains scant. Using new genetic tools to investigate unlikely creatures may be key to uncovering a better understanding of the past.

Read more at Discovery News

King David-Era Find May Confirm Old Testament Text

A carved pillar discovered near Bethlehem may be linked to the Biblical King of Kings, David himself, or perhaps validate the scope of wise Solomon's majestic kingdom.

If they ever get around to digging it up, that is.

Israeli tour guide Binyamin Tropper, who thought he was the first to discover the major historical artifact, was astonished to find out that authorities had known about the pillar for decades -- and had been keeping it a secret all that time.

'The Israeli Antiquities Authority told him, that's great, now shut up.'

- Binyamin Tropper

"When I realized the significance of the pillar, I told my boss who spoke with the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA)," Tropper, who works at the educational field school at Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, told FoxNews.com. "The IAA then told him, 'that's great, now shut up.'"

Tropper may have stumbled across further proof of the real-life world behind the Biblical stories related in the Old Testament. The 2,800-year-old stone pillar could help locate those legends on a map, archaeologists say, and connect the modern country of Israel with the historical roots of Judaism.

But due to the complexities of Arab-Israeli relations, the find is being ignored, experts say, hushed up to avoid a major political battle over centuries of debate concerning who has the more legitimate claim to the Holy Land.

"As the site is located in the West Bank, not within the official borders of Israel, it is more problematic to excavate there than inside Israel," Yosef Garfinkel, a professor of archeology at Hebrew University who inspected the site, explained to FoxNews.com.

In a carefully worded statement to FoxNews.com, the IAA acknowledged the discovery of the pillar but would not discuss the matter further, expressing concern over the unavoidable relationship between archeology and the Middle East conflict.

"The complex reality in Israel sometimes brings the scholarly discipline of archaeology in contact with political issues regarding the subject of historical roots and rights," the IAA told FoxNews.com in an email. "When a significant archaeological discovery requires additional research, the IAA sees that this is carried out. Such is the case in this issue: the IAA is operating in effort to carry out a full excavation of the site, which will enable thorough study of the findings and their disclosure in both popular and scholarly publications."

Tropper defied the IAA's request to stay mum on his discovery, however; he believes it's worth the political headache a proper excavation would provoke.

Tropper explained that in the last 20-30 years, an internal debate in Israel has ensued over the size and importance of King David's kingdom as described in the Bible. This pillar's design, he says, is consistent with the time period of the First Temple and would help provide concrete evidence of the Judean king's existence in Israel.

"This pillar weighs (approximately) five tons, so you can't move it," Tropper said. "Because it is so big, we know it must belong to this location."

King Solomon is credited with building the First Temple as detailed in the Old Testament. A place of worship for biblical Jews, it was said to be destroyed by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar II in 587 BCE.

Garfinkel told the Times of Israel that the pillar marks the entrance to a water tunnel of the First Temple period. The similar Siloam Tunnel in Jerusalem is near the modern-day Arab neighborhood of Silwan and is thought to be a project of the biblical king Hezekiah, used as a way to channel water into the city before the Assyrian siege in the 8th century, according to the Book of Kings.

While Tropper is reluctant to reveal the exact location of the pillar in order to prevent attracting antiquity thieves, he admits the find is all the more controversial as it currently rests on privately owned land belonging to a Palestinian.

"I think the (Arabs in the nearby town) know of the find, but they do not know how important it is," Tropper told FoxNews.com. He said opening up the site for excavation would benefit the nearby Arab-owned orchard tremendously.

"There is a spring there that if we excavate will open up and the Arabs would have the water back and it will bring them money," explained Tropper.

Read more at Discovery News

Requiem for a Weeping, Doomed Galaxy

Astronomy can be bittersweet. We’ve recently caught a glimpse of a tiny galaxy, some 54 million light-years away that is in the process of dying. As its life draws to a close, it’s weeping with tears of stars and ultraviolet light, which stream out for hundreds of thousands of light-years into the bleak emptiness of intergalactic space…

Well OK, so maybe that’s all a bit melodramatic and melancholy, but the interesting fact remains that this is possibly the first time we’ve actually witnessed the death of a galaxy in detail. It’s known as IC 3418, part of the Virgo galaxy cluster, and its death knell is important news for astronomers.

You see, extragalactic astronomy is a difficult art; looking at objects so distant and faint that it’s difficult to see them clearly can make it difficult to immediately recognize what we’re seeing out there. Couple that with the fact that we’re literally gazing out into the unknown. It’s a big universe out there, and we still understand only a very little of it. So when Jeffrey Kenney, of Yale University, recognized what he might be looking at it was an understandably exciting realization.

“We think we’re witnessing a critical stage in the transformation of a gas-rich dwarf irregular galaxy into a gas-poor dwarf elliptical galaxy — the depletion of its lifeblood,” Kenney explained. Galaxies need all of their gas to form stars. Without that gas, their star formation ceases, leaving them with a population of steadily aging stars that will eventually all die off.

Astronomers categorize galaxies by the colors of light they emit. When undergoing a healthy amount of star formation, galaxies appear blue; young, hot stars shine brightly in blue to ultraviolet wavelengths of light. Older galaxies whose star formation days are over, however, appear much more red, leading some to refer to them as “red and dead.”

But the actual transition, where a galaxy loses its gas and star formation stops (technically referred to as ‘quenching’) has been elusive to spot. “Until now, there has been no clear example of this transformation happening,” said Kenney, highlighting the importance of this discovery.

Ultraviolet Tears

Those ‘tears’ you can see in the image above actually show the way in which the galaxy is dying (incidentally, the scientists involved in this study are no less melodramatic, referring to them as fireballs). It’s undergoing a process known as ram pressure stripping.

Intergalactic space is by no means empty. Instead, it’s full of a thin plasma made up mostly of hydrogen ions, known as the intergalactic medium, buffeted about by the gravitational pull of nearby galaxies. While it may be at pressures that are unfathomably low compared to what we’re used to on Earth, it’s enough that any galaxy feels some pressure as it drifts through intergalactic space — it’s perhaps easiest to think of it as an intergalactic wind.

In the midst of galaxy clusters (containing numerous large galaxies and even more numerous dwarfs), that intergalactic plasma becomes denser — usually being referred to, technically, as ‘intracluster medium’. Heated to extreme temperatures by pure gravitational energy, this hot plasma shines brightly in x-rays. As gravity accelerates entire galaxies towards the center of these clusters, they feel this intergalactic wind more strongly.

Eventually, it becomes too much, and as a galaxy falls towards the center of a cluster, its gas and dust are literally blown away. Only the heavier objects, like stars, are unaffected by this process, leaving a galaxy which has undergone ram pressure stripping in this way with no gas from which to form new stars.

In the case of IC 3418, those tears aren’t actually tears at all, they’re huge globules of gas that have been blown out of the galaxy. And all of that gas is still forming stars! Newly formed, orphaned stars born in intergalactic space illuminate the globules in ultraviolet. Kenney and his colleagues note this as a sign of active ram pressure stripping occurring.

However, since its collision with the Virgo cluster, this is almost certainly the last star formation that this ill fated galaxy is ever going to see. No new stars have formed in the core of IC 3418 for over 200 million years.

While poor little IC 3418 is not a new discovery by any means, the paper entitled “Transformation of a Virgo Cluster Dwarf Irregular Galaxy by Ram Pressure Stripping: IC3418 and its Fireballs” (due to be submitted to the Astrophysical Journal) is the first to argue the case that it is, in fact, doomed.

Read more at Discovery News

Jun 19, 2013

Legend of Lost City Spurs Exploration

Deep in the dense rain forests of Honduras, a glittering white city sits in ruins, waiting for discovery. The inhabitants there once ate off plates of gold; the metropolis was, perhaps, the birthplace of a god. A recent high-tech survey of the region by air reveals possible pyramids and other structures. Has the lost city of Ciudad Blanca been found? Or did it ever exist at all?

Probably not, according to archaeologists and anthropologists, who generally agree there was once something in the eastern Honduras rain forest — though likely not a city of mythical wealth and luxury. In fact, the legend of this ancient city may be a relatively new one, said John Hoopes, an archaeologist and specialist in southern Central American cultures at the University of Kansas.

"I think the media is contributing to the growth of a legend," Hoopes, who was not involved in the ruins' discovery, told LiveScience. "And it's one that has really yet to be shown to have any basis at all in the scientific reality." (20 Mythical Worlds: Science Fact or Fantasy?)

The legend could be dangerous, Hoopes warned: If people become convinced that a gold-laden city is hiding in the Honduran rain forest, it could encourage looting, he said, damaging the real archaeological sites that no doubt lurk among the tropical vegetation.

On the other hand, a legend that spurs conservation could be exactly what this threatened region needs.

A lost city, or simply a myth?

The legend of Ciudad Blanca arose from fragments and snippets of stories. In the 1520s, conquistador Hernan Cortes wrote to the Spanish Emperor Charles V of a reported wealthy province called Hueitapalan in the region. In 1544, another Spaniard, Cristobal de Pedraza, the Bishop of Honduras, claimed to have glimpsed a white city in his travels; he later wrote that his guides told him the inhabitants of the city ate from gold plates, so great was their wealth.

But only in the last century did the myth of the white city gain steam. Expeditions in the 1930s exploring the remote Mosquitia region where the legendary city supposedly sits turned up local rumors of lost cities, but no actual evidence. Perhaps the most detailed "discovery" of Ciudad Blanca appeared in 1940, when an adventurer named Theodore Morde claimed to have found extensive ruins deep in the jungle. Morde claimed that his guides told him tales of a temple dedicated to the worship of a monkey god. Today, Ciudad Blanca is also sometimes cited as the birthplace of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, despite that fact that the Mosquitia region is far from the former Aztec empire in what is today Mexico.

Unfortunately, Morde never revealed the location of his supposed discovery before his death by suicide in 1954. The death spawned conspiracy theories but no answers as to the legend of the lost city.

"It's all a bunch of little stories, and they sort of change depending who you're talking to," said Steve Elkins, a documentary filmmaker whose quest for ruins in the Mosquitia region has spurred the latest round of Ciudad Blanca fever.

Exploration and preservation
In 2012, Elkins and his colleagues announced they had discovered hints of ruins in the Mosquitia forests. Their expedition was higher-tech than those that came before: Elkins and his team flew over the rain forests in an airplane shooting laser pulses at the ground in a method called light detection and ranging (LiDAR). [In Photos: Amazing Ruins of the Ancient World]

LiDAR allows researchers to create digital maps of the terrain below the forest canopy, something that aerial photography and satellite imagery can't reveal, Elkins told LiveScience. The filmmakers later brought on Colorado State University archaeologist Chris Fisher to interpret the strange shapes they uncovered.

"It's pretty incredible," Fisher told LiveScience. The LiDAR data reveals roads, canals and mounds, which appear to cover archaeological features. There are two large settlements and about 100 smaller ones, Fisher said.

As amazing as the find may be, it has been overstated by some reports, Fisher said. "There's no gold, okay?" he said. "There's no space aliens. We don't know if this is Ciudad Blanca."

The documentary team has worded announcements of the discoveries with care — they are "utilizing LiDAR technology to seek ancient settlements and human-constructed landscapes in an area long rumored to contain the legendary city of Ciudad Blanca," as one press release puts it — but the ruins have nevertheless become linked with the legendary city, absent any evidence it really existed.

"Urbanism implies a dense and large population," Hoopes said. "We don't know how large or dense a population might have existed in eastern Honduras."

Elkins is fascinated by the local tales of Ciudad Blanca, but he's not claiming a discovery, either.

"Certainly, we're making a documentary, and that's part of the attraction," Elkins said of the legend. But there is no way to know whether the ruins he and his team have found are one and the same as the ruins reported in vague local legends and hyped-up travelogues of the early 1900s.

"How would you ever know if you'd found Ciudad Blanca?" Elkins asked. "I doubt there's a sign that says 'Welcome to Ciudad Blanca.'"

Exploration and preservation

In many ways, Hoopes said, the problem with the Ciudad Blanca media hype echoes crises at archaeological sites around the world: How do you protect a "lost" city once it's found?

Elkins and his team aren't telling the coordinates of the ruin-like shapes they've discovered, a choice Hoopes called "very responsible." Keeping sites secret makes life harder for archaeologists, however, as it's tough to critique your peers' work when you don't know where it is. Nevertheless, an area like the Mosquitia region lacks the law enforcement to deter looters, so secrecy is the best protection, Hoopes said. With satellite, GPS and other technologies just about anyone could easily find a site, and Ciudad Blanca may be at particular risk because of legends that it contained massive amounts of gold, he said.

"If people think there is gold there, they'll go searching for it and that results in the disruption of architectural features and looting," Hoopes said.

The good news for whatever ruins are in the area is that the Mosquitia region is incredibly remote, Elkins said. There are no roads, and a journey by foot and canoe would take weeks. Nevertheless, Elkins said, he worries about the publicity spawned by the Ciudad Blanca legend, too.

"It is a concern," he said. "Sometimes I go, 'Maybe I opened up a Pandora's box,' and that thought crosses my mind. But I go, 'Okay, this is what we did. It's not like we went to a place where people thought there was nothing. People are always trying to find it.'"

What's more, Elkins said, is that the Mosquitia region is in danger even without the Ciudad Blanca legend — perhaps more so. Illegal logging is eating away at the forests, he said. He hopes an archaeological expedition to the region will end up protecting it in the long run.

What's next for Ciudad Blanca?

Protection is the other side of the publicity coin, which has spurred fierce debate over how to announce discoveries like the one in the Mosquitia region.

"People can't conserve something if they don't know it's there," Fisher said. As archaeologists increasingly turn to LiDAR, revealing sites previously gone unnoticed, the problem of publicity versus secrecy will only increase, he predicted. [Images: LiDAR Reveals Ruins Near Angkor Wat]

"How do we publish them? How do we release them?" Fisher said of the LiDAR data sets. In some threatened areas, LiDAR may be the only chance to see archaeological ruins before they're destroyed by development, he said. What's more, he said, LiDAR data could help conservationists, showing, as it does, everything from natural water features to topography to the size of trees in the forest.

Fisher argues that shining a light on previously unnoticed sites is the best way to protect them. In the case of the Mosquitia ruins, the legend of a lost city may help. Since 1960, a 2,000 square mile (5,180 square kilometers) portion of the region has been designated the Ciudad Blanca Archaeological Reserve, testament to the importance of the legend in Honduran culture. Recently, Honduran president Porfirio Lobo Sosa has been supportive of the explorations, calling them good for the country, according to The New Yorker.

Read more at Discovery News

Ancient Toilet Reveals Parasites in Crusader Poop

Intestinal parasites have been found lurking in ancient poop in the toilet of a medieval castle in western Cyprus, scientists report.

The findings paint a less than pretty picture of the health and hygiene of crusaders stationed on the Mediterranean island 800 years ago. Poor sanitation likely meant that food and water supplies were contaminated by fecal material, allowing parasitic infections to spread, the study suggests.

Short-lived latrine

Researchers from the University of Cambridge dug into the pit of dried-out waste under a latrine in the remains of Saranda Kolones (Greek for "Forty Columns") at Paphos, a city at the southwestern tip of Cyprus and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Overlooking Paphos harbor, and next to a complex of Roman villas with remarkably intact floor mosaics, Saranda Kolones was long thought to be a temple because of the granite columns that littered its ruins. But excavations in the 1950s revealed that it was actually a short-lived concentric castle.

English King Richard the Lionheart sold the island of Cyprus to the Frankish crusader Guy de Lusignan in May 1192. Archaeologists believe the Franks built Saranda Kolones to defend Paphos harbor soon after their occupation of the island began. But in 1222, the city was rocked by a powerful earthquake thought to be at least 7.0 in magnitude. Much of the fortress was left in ruins, never to be rebuilt, but the latrines on its lower floors survived.

These toilets were carved to fit the human form, with a half moon-shaped hole in the seat leading to a sewer below. Cambridge researchers Evilena Anastasiou and Piers Mitchell, who study ancient parasites, collected samples from one of those cesspools, rehydrated the waste and strained it through a micro-sieve to catch parasite eggs, each smaller than a tenth of a millimeter.

Worms in the waste

Under a microscope, the researchers saw that the samples contained the eggs of two of the world's most common and widespread intestinal parasites: whipworms (Trichuris trichiura), which cause the infection known as trichocephalus, and giant roundworms (Ascaris lumbricoides), the largest of the nematodes found in human intestines, with adults that can grow to more than 1 foot (30 centimeters) long.

People with a light load of these worms may experience no symptoms. But when whipworms and giant roundworms heavily colonize the digestive tract, they compete with their hosts for food, siphoning off the nutrients that would normally be absorbed in the intestines. Eggs of the parasites pass through the feces and spread to other hosts by ingestion (say, when a human doesn't wash their hands and spreads the parasite to food or other objects that get consumed). That means infections are most common in places with poor hygiene and sanitation as well as areas where human waste is used as fertilizer or where people defecate in the soil.

Mitchell has estimated that during a two- or three-year crusade expedition, noblemen and clergy were just as likely to die in battle as they were to succumb to malnutrition and disease. Presumably, the risk of malnutrition would have been even worse for poor foot soldiers with fewer resources. The new study suggests that parasites likely contributed to the demise of many soldiers who died of starvation or disease.

"In these circumstances is quite likely that medieval soldiers with a heavy parasite load would have been at increased risk of death from starvation during famine episodes such as long sieges or expeditions when supplies ran out," the researchers wrote. "This is because they would have had to share the limited available food with their parasites."

Read more at Discovery News

'Lost' City Found Beneath Cambodian Jungle

A lost city known only from inscriptions that existed some 1,200 years ago near Angkor in what is now Cambodia has been uncovered using airborne laser scanning.

The previously undocumented cityscape, called Mahendraparvata, is hidden beneath a dense forest on the holy mountain Phnom Kulen, which means "Mountain of the Lychees."

The cityscape came into clear view, along with a vast expanse of ancient urban spaces that made up Greater Angkor, the large area where one of the largest religious monuments ever constructed — Angkor Wat, meaning "temple city" — was built between A.D. 1113 and 1150.

In a series of archaeological mapping projects, scientists had previously used remote sensing to map subtle traces of Angkor. Even so, dense vegetation now veils much of the complex, impenetrable to conventional remote-sensing techniques, the researchers noted.

In the new study, led by the Archaeology and Development Foundation's (ADF) Phnom Kulen program, the team relied on airborne laser scanning, or LiDAR (light detection and ranging), to survey about 140 square miles (363 square kilometers) in northwestern Cambodia in 2012.

"LiDAR provides an unparalleled ability to penetrate dense vegetation cover and map archaeological remains on the forest floor," the researchers wrote in an accepted manuscript submitted to the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The survey revealed, "with exceptional clarity," traces of planned urban spaces hidden beneath the dense forest surrounding the major temples of Angkor, they wrote. In addition, the researchers confirmed the existence of "a vast, low-density urban periphery stretching far beyond the major Angkorian temples."

This low-density urban area suggests that rather than Angkor Thom being the central, walled-in city that some have suggested, it is just part of a more dispersed city with a densely populated area at its center.

"It's the same sort of configuration as Los Angeles — so, a dense middle, but it consists of huge, sprawling suburbs connected by giant roads and canals in exactly the same way as the freeways link up Los Angeles," said Roland Fletcher, of the University of Sydney.

To the north of central Angkor, the LiDAR data revealed a previously unknown city hidden beneath the forest, its roadways, temples and other urban infrastructure, etched into the surface of the holy Phnom Kulen mountain. The newfound cityscape would have existed between the eighth and ninth centuries (well before Angkor Wat) and seems to correspond to Mahendraparvata, one of the first capitals of the Khmer Empire. Until now, Mahendraparvata was known only from written inscriptions dating to A.D. 802, the researchers said.

When the LiDAR data revealed the elevation beneath Phnom Kulen's dense vegetation, the researchers knew they had found something big.

"With this instrument — bang — all of a sudden, we saw an immediate picture of an entire city that no one knew existed, which is just remarkable," Damien Evans, director of the University of Sydney's archaeological research center in Cambodia, told Australia's The Age.

The LiDAR also revealed an entirely new class of Angkorian architecture, Fletcher said.

To the south of the Angkor Wat complex and dating to the 12th century, "there is a set of absolutely unique, very strange features, which we call rectilinear coils," Fletcher told LiveScience. "They are like enormous embankments of sand with channels between them. They have no counterpart anywhere in Angkor; we've never seen the design of this sort before, and they've never been seen before in Angkorian architecture."

Read more at Discovery News

Mysterious Die-offs in Florida Lagoon

At least 111 manatees, 300 pelicans, and 46 dolphins — emaciated to the point of skin and bones — were all found dead in America’s most biologically diverse estuary.

Something is seriously wrong. The northern stretches of the Indian River Lagoon of Florida has a mass murder mystery that biologists are racing to figure out. The lagoon contains more species than anywhere else in the U.S. It is a barrier island complex stretching across 40 percent of Florida’s coast, around Cape Canaveral, and consisting of the Mosquito Lagoon, the Banana River and the Indian River Lagoon.

The lagoon has always been polluted by nutrients and fertilizers running off lawns and farms, but in recent years it appears to have reached some sort of tipping point, says Marty Baum of the Indian Riverkeeper.

“The lagoon is in a full collapse, it is ongoing,” he said.

In 2011, an algae superbloom covered 130,000 acres that killed off an unprecedented 60 percent of sea grass. A sea grass meadow serves as a shelter and spawning grounds for fish, and in terms of diversity, rates up there with tropical rainforests and reefs. It is also an important food source for manatees.

Manatees began dying in July 2012, 43 of them in just one month. A total of 111 have died, and many of their stomachs were filled with various species of macro-algae. Given their primary food source of sea grass was no longer available, their deaths could have been liked to the diet change, says Kevin Baxter, spokesman for Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC).

In August 2012, a brown tide of the algae Aureoumbra lagunensis spread through the lagoon.

The situation has not improved this year. The brown tide began in April and has crept through the water body.

People have reported between 250 and 300 dead pelicans since January to the FWCC. The birds are emaciated and have heavy parasite loads.

Since January, the number of dead bottlenose dolphins has reached 46.  Researcher Megan Stolen at the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute calls this an unusual mortality event, with numbers more than double the average recorded in previous years.

The dolphins also look emaciated, similar to the pelicans. This is not the first dolphin mortality event in the Indian River Lagoon. There were die-offs in 2001 and 2008 where the cause of death was undetermined, says Stolen. It has been difficult to isolate a cause because there may not be any one particular smoking gun, she says.

“If lots of bad things are happening all at once, we may not find a consistent cause of death,” she says.

Read more at Discovery News

Jun 18, 2013

Tiny Batteries: 3-D Printing Could Lead to Miniaturized Medical Implants, Compact Electronics, Tiny Robots

Three-dimensional printing can now be used to print lithium-ion microbatteries the size of a grain of sand. The printed microbatteries could supply electricity to tiny devices in fields from medicine to communications, including many that have lingered on lab benches for lack of a battery small enough to fit the device, yet provide enough stored energy to power them.

To make the microbatteries, a team based at Harvard University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign printed precisely interlaced stacks of tiny battery electrodes, each less than the width of a human hair.

"Not only did we demonstrate for the first time that we can 3-D-print a battery, we demonstrated it in the most rigorous way,"said Jennifer Lewis, Ph.D., senior author of the study, who is also the Hansjörg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), and a Core Faculty Member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. Lewis led the project in her prior position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in collaboration with co-author Shen Dillon, an Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering there.

The results were published in today's online edition of Advanced Materials.

In recent years engineers have invented many miniaturized devices, including medical implants, flying insect-like robots, and tiny cameras and microphones that fit on a pair of glasses. But often the batteries that power them are as large or larger than the devices themselves -- which defeats the purpose of building small.

To get around this problem, manufacturers have traditionally deposited thin films of solid materials to build the electrodes. However, due to their ultrathin design, these solid-state micro-batteries do not pack sufficient energy to power tomorrow's miniaturized devices.

The scientists realized they could pack more energy if they could create stacks of tightly interlaced, ultrathin electrodes that were built out of plane. For this they turned to 3-D printing. 3-D printers follow instructions from three-dimensional computer drawings, depositing successive layers of material -- inks -- to build a physical object from the ground up, much like stacking a deck of cards one at a time. The technique is used in a range of fields, from producing crowns in dental labs to rapid prototyping of aerospace, automotive, and consumer goods. Lewis' group has greatly expanded the capabilities of 3-D printing. They have designed a broad range of functional inks -- inks with useful chemical and electrical properties. And they have used those inks with their custom-built 3-D printers to create precise structures with the electronic, optical, mechanical, or biologically relevant properties they want.

To print 3-D electrodes, Lewis' group first created and tested several specialized inks. Unlike the ink in an office inkjet printer, which comes out as droplets of liquid that wet the page, the inks developed for extrusion-based 3-D printing must fulfill two difficult requirements. They must exit fine nozzles like toothpaste from a tube, and they must immediately harden into their final form.

In this case, the inks also had to function as electrochemically active materials to create working anodes and cathodes, and they had to harden into layers that are as narrow as those produced by thin-film manufacturing methods. To accomplish these goals, the researchers created an ink for the anode with nanoparticles of one lithium metal oxide compound, and an ink for the cathode from nanoparticles of another. The printer deposited the inks onto the teeth of two gold combs, creating a tightly interlaced stack of anodes and cathodes. Then the researchers packaged the electrodes into a tiny container and filled it with an electrolyte solution to complete the battery.

Next, they measured how much energy could be packed into the tiny batteries, how much power they could deliver, and how long they held a charge. "The electrochemical performance is comparable to commercial batteries in terms of charge and discharge rate, cycle life and energy densities. We're just able to achieve this on a much smaller scale," Dillon said.

Read more at Science Daily

Aspirin May Fight Cancer by Slowing DNA Damage

Aspirin is known to lower risk for some cancers, and a new study led by a UC San Francisco scientist points to a possible explanation, with the discovery that aspirin slows the accumulation of DNA mutations in abnormal cells in at least one pre-cancerous condition.

"Aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which are commonly available and cost-effective medications, may exert cancer-preventing effects by lowering mutation rates," said Carlo Maley, PhD, a member of the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, and an expert on how cancers evolve in the body over time.

In the study, published June 13 in the online journal PLOS Genetics, Maley, working with gastroenterologist and geneticist Brian Reid, MD, PhD, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, analyzed biopsy samples from 13 patients with a pre-cancerous condition called Barrett's esophagus who were tracked for six to 19 years. In an "observational crossover" study design, some patients started out taking daily aspirin for several years, and then stopped, while others started taking aspirin for the first time during observation. The goal was to track the rate of mutations in tissues sampled at different times.

The researchers found that biopsies taken while patients were on an aspirin had on average accumulated new mutations about 10 times more slowly than biopsies obtained during years when patients were not taking aspirin.

"This is the first study to measure genome-wide mutation rates of a pre-malignant tissue within patients for more than a decade, and the first to evaluate how aspirin affects those rates," Maley said.

Gender and ethnic distribution of study patients reflected the known demographics of esophageal cancer, which predominantly affects, white, middle-aged and elderly men, he said. Barrett's esophagus only occasionally progresses to esophageal cancer.

Cancers are known to accumulate mutations over time much more rapidly than normal tissue, and different mutations arise in different groups of cells within the same tumor. The acquisition of key mutations ultimately allows tumor cells to grow out of control, and diversity within a tumor may foster drug resistance, a phenomenon that is a major focus of Maley's research.

Maley plans to test a hypothesis that may explain the results -- that aspirin's lowering of mutation rates is due to the drug's effect of reducing inflammation. Inflammation, a response of the immune system, in recent years has been recognized as a hallmark of cancer. Maley said that less inflammation may result in less production within pre-cancerous tissue of oxidants known to damage DNA, and may dampen growth-stimulating signaling.

For the duration of the study, the rate of accumulation of mutations measured in the biopsied tissue between time points was slow, even when patients were not taking aspirin, with the exception of one patient. While mutations accumulated at a steady rate, the vast majority of mutations arose before the abnormal tissue was first detected in the clinic, the researchers concluded.

These findings are consistent with the fact that although Barrett's esophagus is a significant risk factor for esophageal cancer, the vast majority of cases do not progress to cancer, Maley said.

In the one patient who later went on to develop cancer, a population of cellular "clones" with a great number of mutations emerged shortly before he started taking aspirin.

More studies are needed to further explore the link between non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, mutation rates and the development of invasive cancer, Maley said. He plans to continue studying Barrett's esophagus and esophageal cancer, and to expand his research to investigate lung cancer.

Read more at Science Daily

Psychic Ordered to Pay $7 Million for False Claims

The owners of a Texas ranch raided by police based on a psychic’s bogus information about a massacre have sued the psychic, winning a $6.8 million judgment.

The case began on June 6, 2011, when a psychic using the name “Angel” (later determined to be a woman named Presley Gridley) called police and described a horrific scene of mass murder: dozens of dismembered bodies near a ranch house about an hour outside of Houston, Texas. There were rotting limbs, headless corpses and, chillingly, children in a mass grave.

Deputies from the Liberty County Sheriff’s office went to investigate and soon dozens of officials from the Texas Department of Public Safety, the FBI and the Texas Rangers were on the scene — not to mention cadaver dogs, news helicopters and gawkers.

It all turned out to be a false alarm. There were no dead bodies. The psychic was wrong — or lying. Though the incident became a national embarrassment, police refused to apologize, saying that procedures were followed and that the severity of the claims warranted an investigation. Whether a tip comes from an ordinary citizen, an anonymous informant or a self-proclaimed psychic, information about mass murders cannot be ignored.

Suing the Psychic

The ranch owners, Joe Bankson and Gena Charlton, were not so understanding and filed a lawsuit. According to the Houston Chronicle, “A self-described psychic who triggered a media frenzy when she told authorities a Liberty County couple had a mass grave on their property has been ordered to pay the couple $6.8 million. A Dallas County judge issued the judgment May 7 against Presley “Rhonda” Gridley, the sole remaining defendant in a lawsuit filed a year ago.”

Other defendants originally named in the suit included six major media outlets, as well as the police, though claims against all the others were dropped. The lawsuit blamed the sheriff’s office for repeating Gridley’s claims to reporters, and stated: “Over the course of the day, media defendants began to exaggerate and eventually make up facts about Plaintiffs, including that a mass grave existed on the property, including the bodies of children.”

District Court Judge Carl Ginsberg found that Gridley had made defamatory statements about Bankston and Charlton when she falsely reported the massacre to the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office. Ginsberg found that Gridley’s statement injured the reputation of Bankston and Charlton, exposing them to public hatred, ridicule and financial loss. The plaintiffs stated that their house was trashed in the police raid, and that they had lost friends as a result of the psychic’s false claims.

That a psychic gave police wrong information about a serious crime is unremarkable. In fact, following high-profile missing persons cases, police often receive dozens or even hundreds of tips from psychics. Psychic information often wastes police departments’ time and resources following up on false leads. Despite popular belief and claims to the contrary, there is not a single documented case of a missing person being found or recovered due to psychic information. Psychics have consistently failed to find missing persons, including high-profile disappearances like Natalee Holloway and Holly Bobo, the Tennessee woman abducted in April 2011 who remains missing despite efforts by dozens of psychics.

Sometimes the information scares and inconveniences the public as well. In 2004 a psychic told the TSA that a bomb was aboard a Dallas-bound American Airlines flight. The psychic’s bomb report resulted in a search by the TSA and Port Authority police. Despite a thorough examination with both equipment and bomb-sniffing dogs, nothing suspicious was found. Yet the flight was still cancelled.

Delicate Balance: Requesting Tips But Screening Hoaxes

The case brings up interesting issues about responsibility for providing accurate information to police. Making a false report of a crime is itself a crime in many places, though prosecutions tend to be rare unless it’s a costly and blatant hoax. Part of the reason is that police don’t want to discourage potentially helpful tips from the public. As the famous post-9/11 slogan says, “If you see something, say something.” Because real terror threats are rare, by definition most reports of suspicious packages and activities are false alarms. Police don’t want to prosecute people who sincerely suspect something is amiss, but they also don’t want to waste time and resources on hoaxes and misinformation.

Read more at Discovery News

Quirky Four-Quark Quantum Monster Discovered

While looking for a strange state of matter in two particle accelerators, another, totally unexpected, particle has been discovered. Say hello to the Zc(3900) particle, a particle that physicists had no clue could exist.

The hunt for the Higgs boson is one of the most fundamental quests in physics history. Entire particle accelerators have been built, at least in part, to detect the elusive particle that mediates mass in the quantum world, thereby shoring up the last missing piece of the Standard Model. But don’t be fooled into thinking that just because the Higgs has been found — or, at least, something that looks like the Higgs has been found — there’s nothing left in the subatomic realm to be discovered. On the contrary.

Enter the Zc(3900) — an odd particle containing four quarks. This is the first time a four-quark particle has ever been discovered in the wild. Usually, quarks combine in groups of twos and threes creating common particles known as hadrons. Protons and neutrons are ‘everyday’ examples of three-quark hadrons (baryons); pions and kaons are ‘not-so-everyday’ examples of two-quark hadrons (a.k.a. mesons).

But the Zc(3900) seems to be a trendsetter. It appears it has gathered together four quarks — one “charm” and one “anti-charm quark,” plus one “down” and one “anti-down quark” — to create a jumbo hadron. Technically, this particle is a ‘tetraquark’ — a four-quark meson — that has until now has just been a hypothetical form of matter.

The discovery was made independently by two particle accelerators; the Belle experiment in Japan and the BESIII experiment in China. However, neither were looking for, or even predicted, the Zc(3900).

Of interest was another odd quantum creature called the Y(4260). During experiments at both institutions, they were making attempts at studying the Y(4260) that was first discovered in 2005. It is a subatomic oddball that seems to contain a “charmed” quark, an “anti-charmed” quark and an extra gluon. Gluons are bosons that mediate the strong force, which binds atomic nuclei together. Therefore, any hadron will contain a gluon, binding component quarks. But Y(4260) is carrying some extra baggage (i.e. the extra gluon).

During the Belle and BESIII particle collisions, spawning the creation of Y(4260) particles, physicists noticed an “excess” or “spike” in the debris of the collision at an energy level of 3.9 gigaelectronvolts (GeV). As it turns out, this energy is approximately four-times the mass of a proton and suggestive of a new, exotic particle containing four quarks.

Although physicists from both teams are aware that the signal at 3.9 GeV may be some other quantum effect (it could be two different particles containing two quarks bonding in a novel way for a short period of time, for example), the 460 detections of Zc(3900) that have been measured so far strongly suggests a new type of matter has been discovered.

Read more at Discovery News

Jun 17, 2013

Time to Plan for a Mission to Alpha Centauri

Late last year a team of European astronomers announced that they had found a planet located in the nearest star system to our sun, Alpha Centauri.

At 4.6 light-years away, it’s just a stone’s throw on the cosmic yardstick. The system is reachable within a human lifetime at velocities of one-tenth the speed of light. We don’t need warp drive to magically travel there at superluminal speed.

But now another team of astronomers says they don’t see the telltale signature of the planet in their measurements. They too looked for any small wobble in the companion star Alpha Centauri B that would be induced by the gravitational tug of an unseen world, but didn’t see a signature.

The small planet, if real, is unobservable because it is too close to the star and only one-ten billionth as bright as the star.

These kind of debates over the reproducibility of an observation are the bedrock of science inquiry. They are especially common for planet searches that have to tease out an extraordinarily faint signal from the “noise” of a star’s own idiosyncrasies — or those of the detector on the telescope.

“Hold Off on the Alpha Centauri Trip,” The New York Times announced in its story last week about the doubtful planet.

But this question really misses the point. There has been a paradigm shift from a decade ago when astronomers wondered how many other stars had planets. The question today is where are the planets located around a star? How big are they, and what is the evolution of the planetary system?

The impressive planet inventory take by NASA’s Kepler space observatory, combined with other research, has taken us down the road to concluding that, on average, every star in the Milky Way galaxy has at least one planet. What’s more, Earth-sized planets are far more common than giant Jupiters.

If we ever convinced ourselves that Alpha Centauri doesn’t have any planets, that would indeed be quite a shocker and worthy of front-page news in the New York Times.

Even if the Alpha Centauri B planet doesn’t exist, there is very little doubt that other planets will be discovered there. It’s only a matter of time. Perhaps all three members of the triple system of two sunlike stars and a diminutive red dwarf star possess planets.

So I will boldly predict that the Alpha Centauri system has a number of planets and at least one should be habitable. The details of this system will be exciting and extraordinary in the same way European explorers marveled at the New World.

The system is so old that, under the right planetary conditions, Darwinian evolution has kicked in and there is an alien world that is covered with an extraterrestrial Serengeti of multi-celled creatures that make Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park look like a petting zoo.

Could intelligent life be there too? Unfortunately, in a lousy coincidence, the star system is too far south to be observed by the powerful Arecibo radio antenna in Puerto Rico, or the new Allen Telescope Array in northern California, that can easily look for any artificial radio transmissions.

Nevertheless, It’s not too early to think about the a millennium-long project to visit and colonize the star system. I cannot imagine a bolder step for the evolution of mankind. The project will cost untold trillions of dollars spent across many generations. But it will establish us as an interstellar species, that is for all practical purposes, immortal. This would be an evolutionary step as profound as when Earth’s first sea creatures ventured onto land.

As always, the devil’s in the details. It would be unethical to take over an inhabited planet — even if it didn’t have intelligent life. Even if our distant descendants took a cold-hearted Interstellar Manifest Destiny attitude, colonists would have to deal with alien microbes and some pretty fierce predatory creatures I imagine. (I’m reminded of the hellish organisms in the 2007 film version of Stephen King’s, The Mist.)

But uninhibited planets or moons in the Alpha Centauri system could be terraformed. Pre-born Earth colonists might be genetically engineered to adapt to the planned alien environments.

What’s more, presuming there’s an asteroid belt, artificial worlds could be constructed. We might co-exist inside the system with its indigenous life. Astro-paleontologists and astrobiologists might cautiously visit the inhabited planets to study life’s evolution across a completely independent track from Earth’s. Per “Star Trek”s Prime Directive, we would avoid contact with intelligent life for fear of derailing their cultural evolution.

Read more at Discovery News

Sibling Aggression Linked to Poor Mental Health

"It's not fair!" " "You're not the boss of me." "She hit me!" "He started it." Fights between siblings -- from toy-snatching to clandestine whacks to being banished from the bedroom -- are so common they're often dismissed as simply part of growing up. Yet a new study from researchers at the University of New Hampshire finds that sibling aggression is associated with significantly worse mental health in children and adolescents. In some cases, effects of sibling aggression on mental health were the same as those of peer aggression.

"Even kids who reported just one instance had more mental health distress," says Corinna Jenkins Tucker, associate professor of family studies at UNH and lead author of the research, published in the July issue of the journal Pediatrics. "Our study shows that sibling aggression is not benign for children and adolescents, regardless of how severe or frequent."

The study, among the first to look at sibling aggression across a wide age and geographic range, is unique in its size and scope. Tucker and her co-authors from UNH's Crimes against Children Research Center -- center director and professor of sociology David Finkelhor, professor of sociology Heather Turner, and researcher Anne Shattuck -- analyzed data from the center's National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV), a national sample of 3,599 children, ages one month through 17.

The study looked at the effects of physical assault with and without a weapon or injury, property aggression like stealing something or breaking a siblings' things on purpose, and psychological aggression such as saying things that made a sibling feel bad, scared, or not wanted around.

The researchers found that of the 32 percent of children who reported experiencing one type of sibling victimization in the past year, mental health distress was greater for children (1 month to age 9) than for adolescents (age 10 -- 17) who experienced mild sibling physical assault, but children and adolescents were similarly affected by other psychological or property aggression from siblings.

Their analyses also showed that, while peer aggression like bullying is generally thought to be more serious than sibling aggression, sibling and peer physical and psychological aggression had independent effects on mental health. The mental health of those experiencing property and psychological aggression, whether from siblings or peers, did not differ.

An important implication of this research, Tucker says, is that parents and caregivers should take sibling aggression seriously. "If siblings hit each other, there's a much different reaction than if that happened between peers," she says. "It's often dismissed, seen as something that's normal or harmless. Some parents even think it's beneficial, as good training for dealing with conflict and aggression in other relationships." This research indicates that sibling aggression is related to the same serious mental health effects as peer bullying.

Read more at Science Daily

Snowflake the Albino Gorilla Was Inbred

A famous albino gorilla that lived for 40 years at the Barcelona Zoo got its white coloring by way of inbreeding, new research shows.

Snowflake was a male Western lowland gorilla. He was born in the wild and captured in 1966 by villagers in Equatorial Guinea. As the only known white gorilla in the world, Snowflake was a zoo celebrity until his death of skin cancer in 2003.

A few studies had attempted to get to the bottom of what caused Snowflake's color-free complexion, but the exact genetic mutation had never been found. Now, Spanish researchers have sequenced the gorilla's entire genome, revealing that Snowflake was probably the offspring of a pairing between an uncle and a niece.

Explaining albinism

In humans, four genetic mutations are known to cause albinism, a syndrome marked by a lack of skin, eye and hair pigment. People with albinism are at high risk for vision problems and skin cancers because of this missing pigment.

Using frozen blood from Snowflake, researchers led by Tomas Marques-Bonet of the Institut de Biologia Evolutiva at the University of Pompeu Fabra sequenced the entire genome of the late ape. Comparing that sequence with those of humans and nonalbino gorillas, Marques-Bonet and his colleagues narrowed down the cause of Snowflake's albinism to a single gene, known as SLC45A2. Snowflake inherited a mutant form of this gene from both of his parents.

The gene has previously been linked to albinism in mice, horses, chickens and a species of fish.

Next, the researchers combed through Snowflake's genome looking for stretches of DNA that were identical due to inbreeding. They found that 12 percent of the genes from Snowflake's mom and pop matched, a number that points to an uncle and niece mating as the most likely parentage for Snowflake.

Inbreeding threat?

No one else has reported inbreeding in Western lowland gorillas, Marques-Bonet told LiveScience, though some other gorilla subspecies with small populations have been known to turn to family to mate. And with habitat loss, gorillas may struggle to find a place to disperse from their original family.

"If we are reducing much more the space that they have now, it is more likely that they will be forced to stay in the group and that will increase the consanguinity," or shared blood, Marques-Bonet said.

Read more at Discovery News

Building Block for Life Found in Mars Meteorite

Scientists have found a potential building block for life in a Martian meteorite recovered from Antarctica.

Parts of the rock contain rich concentrations of boron, which biochemists suspect played a key role in the development of ribonucleic acid, or RNA.

“I had read how important boron could have been in the origins of life, stabilizing a part of RNA,” biologist James Stephenson, with the NASA Astrobiology Institute at the University of Hawaii told Discovery News.

RNA is a biological molecule, which scientists believe was the stepping stone for life on Earth. It, like deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, which evolved later, can store and transmit information to cells.

RNA is comprised of three basic components: phosphate, a ribose, which is a five-carbon sugar, and a nucleobase. Both phosphates and nucleobases have been found in meteorites previously. Ribose has never been found beyond Earth.

“Of the three parts that make RNA, the ribose is the tricky part. We haven’t been able to explain how it could form naturally,” Stephenson said.

In 2004, chemist Steven Benner, with the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, Fla., proposed that ribose’s secret helper was boron.

“If one thinks that life originated with RNA that formed pre-biotically, we know of no other way of getting ribose in adequate amounts other than to use borate,” Benner wrote in an email to Discovery News.

“It’s the unique size of the boron which is able to stabilize the ribose ring structure. No other element has been shown to have that effect,” Stephenson added.

After reading Benner's paper, Stephenson asked a geologist colleague if any of the Mars meteorites recovered on Earth had been analyzed for boron. They hadn’t, so Stephenson arranged a study.

The team hit the boron lottery in the final hours of their assigned time on a highly specialized ion microprobe at the University of Hawaii.

“We had four days on this very expensive machine and the first 3.5 days we hadn’t found any reasonable amounts of boron. We tried different meteorites and we tried different places in this Mars meteorite. It was only in the last hours that suddenly the boron concentrations jumped up from 2- to 3 parts per million up to 200 parts per million,” Stephenson said.

Read more at Discovery News

Jun 16, 2013

Mystery of X-Ray Light from Black Holes Solved

It is a mystery that has stymied astrophysicists for decades: how do black holes produce so many high-power X-rays?

In a new study, astrophysicists from The Johns Hopkins University, NASA and the Rochester Institute of Technology conducted research that bridges the gap between theory and observation by demonstrating that gas spiraling toward a black hole inevitably results in X-ray emissions.

The paper states that as gas spirals toward a black hole through a formation called an accretion disk, it heats up to roughly 10 million degrees Celsius. The temperature in the main body of the disk is roughly 2,000 times hotter than the sun and emits low-energy or "soft" X-rays. However, observations also detect "hard" X-rays which produce up to 100 times higher energy levels.

Julian Krolik, professor of physics and astronomy in the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, and his fellow scientists used a combination of supercomputer simulations and traditional hand-written calculations to uncover their findings. Supported by 40 years of theoretical progress, the team showed for the first time that high-energy light emission is not only possible, but is an inevitable outcome of gas being drawn into a black hole.

"Black holes are truly exotic, with extraordinarily high temperatures, incredibly rapid motions and gravity exhibiting the full weirdness of general relativity," Krolik said. "But our calculations show we can understand a lot about them using only standard physics principles."

The team's work was recently published in the print edition of Astrophysical Journal. His collaborators on the study include Jeremy Schnittman, a research astrophysicist from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and Scott Noble, an associate research scientist from the Center for Computational Relativity and Gravitation at RIT. Schnittman was lead author.

As the quality and quantity of the high-energy light observations improved over the years, evidence mounted showing that photons must be created in a hot, tenuous region called the corona. This corona, boiling violently above the comparatively cool disk, is similar to the corona surrounding the sun, which is responsible for much of the ultra-violet and X-ray luminosity seen in the solar spectrum.

While the team's study of black holes and high-energy light confirms a widely-held belief, the role of advancing modern technology should not be overlooked. A grant from the National Science Foundation enabled the team to access Ranger, a supercomputing system at the Texas Advanced Computing Center located at the University of Texas in Austin. Ranger worked over the course of about 27 days, over 600 hours, to solve the equations.

Noble developed the computer simulation solving all of the equations governing the complex motion of inflowing gas and its associated magnetic fields near an accreting black hole. The rising temperature, density and speed of the inflowing gas dramatically amplify magnetic fields threading through the disk, which then exert additional influence on the gas.

The result is a turbulent froth orbiting the black hole at speeds approaching the speed of light. The calculations simultaneously tracked the fluid, electrical and magnetic properties of the gas while also taking into account Einstein's theory of relativity.

Read more at Science Daily

Sugar Overload Can Damage Heart

Too much sugar can set people down a pathway to heart failure, according to a study led by researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).

A single small molecule, the glucose metabolite glucose 6-phosphate (G6P), causes stress to the heart that changes the muscle proteins and induces poor pump function leading to heart failure, according to the study, which was published in the May 21 issue of the Journal of the American Heart Association. G6P can accumulate from eating too much starch and/or sugar.

Heart failure kills 5 million Americans a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The one-year survival rate after diagnosis is 50 percent and there are 550,000 new patients in the United States diagnosed with heart failure each year.

"Treatment is difficult. Physicians can give diuretics to control the fluid, and beta-blockers and ACE inhibitors to lower the stress on the heart and allow it to pump more economically," said Heinrich Taegtmeyer, M.D., D.Phil., principal investigator and professor of cardiology at the UTHealth Medical School. "But we still have these terrible statistics and no new treatment for the past 20 years."

Taegtmeyer performed preclinical trials in animal models, as well as tests on tissue taken from patients at the Texas Heart Institute who had a piece of the heart muscle removed in order to implant a left ventricle assist device by O.H. "Bud" Frazier, M.D., and his team. Both led to the discovery of the damage caused by G6P.

"When the heart muscle is already stressed from high blood pressure or other diseases, and then takes in too much glucose, it adds insult to injury," Taegtmeyer said.

The study has opened doors to possible new treatments. Two drugs, rapamycin (an immunosuppressant) and metformin (a diabetes medication) disrupt signaling of G6P and improved cardiac power in small animal studies.

"These drugs have a potential for treatment and this has now cleared a path to future studies with patients," Taegtmeyer said.

The study was supported in part by grants from the National Institutes of Health (R01 HL061483, TL1RR024147, R21 HL102627 and R01 HL08972).

From Science Daily