Jul 26, 2013

Rocks Can Restore Our Climate ... After 300,000 Years

A study of a global warming event that happened 93 million years ago suggests that the Earth can recover from high carbon dioxide emissions faster than thought, but that this process takes around 300,000 years after emissions decline.Scientists from Oxford University studied rocks from locations including Beachy Head, near Eastbourne, and South Ferriby, North Lincolnshire, to investigate how chemical weathering of rocks 'rebalanced' the climate after vast amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) were emitted during more than 10,000 years of volcanic eruptions.

In chemical weathering CO2 from the atmosphere dissolved in rainwater reacts with rocks such as basalt or granite, dissolving them so that this atmospheric carbon then flows into the oceans, where a large proportion is 'trapped' in the bodies of marine organisms.

The team tested the idea that, as CO2 warms the planet, the reactions involved in chemical weathering speed up, causing more CO2 to be 'locked away', until, if CO2 emissions decline, the climate begins to cool again. The Oxford team looked at evidence from the 'Ocean Anoxic Event 2' in the Late Cretaceous when volcanic activity spewed around 10 gigatonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year for over 10,000 years. The researchers found that during this period chemical weathering increased, locking away more CO2 as the world warmed and enabling the Earth to stabilise to a cooler climate within 300,000 years, up to four times faster than previously thought.

A report of the research is published in Nature Geoscience.

'Looking at this event is rather like imagining what the Earth would be like if humans disappeared tomorrow,' said Dr Philip Pogge von Strandmann of Oxford University's Department of Earth Sciences, who led the research. 'Volcanic CO2 emissions in this period are similar to, if slightly slower than, current manmade emissions so that we can imagine a scenario in which, after human CO2 emissions ceased, the planet's climate would start to recover and cool down. The bad news is that it's likely this would take around 300,000 years.'

Reconstructing a record of past chemical weathering is challenging because of how plants and animals take carbon out of the environment. To get around this the team used a recently-developed technique involving studying lithium isotopes in marine limestone (this lithium could only come from weathering and is not changed by biological organisms).

The Ocean Anoxic Event 2 is believed to have been caused by a massive increase in volcanic activity in one of three regions: the Caribbean, Madagascar, or the Solomon Islands. The event saw the temperature of seawater around the equator warm by about 3 degrees Celsius. It is thought that this warming caused around 53% of marine species to go extinct. Animals like turtles, fish, and ammonites were amongst those severely affected.

'Everyone remembers the mass extinction of land animals caused by the K-T meteorite impact 30 million years later, thought to be responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs, but in many ways this was just as devastating for marine life,' said Dr Pogge von Strandmann. 'Whilst nutrients from weathering caused a population boom of some species near the surface of the oceans, it also led to a loss of oxygen to the deeper ocean, killing off over half of all marine species and creating a 'dead zone' of decaying animals and plants. It's a scenario we wouldn't want to see repeated today.

Read more at Science Daily

Removing Complexity Layers from the Universe's Creation

Complicated statistical behaviour observed in complex systems such as early universe can often be understood if it is broken down into simpler ones. Two physicists, Petr Jizba (currently affiliated with the Czech Technical University in Prague), and Fabio Scardigli (now working at Kyoto University in Japan), have just published results in the European Physical Journal C pertaining to theoretical predictions of such cosmological systems' dynamics.

Their work focuses on complex dynamical systems whose statistical behaviour can be explained in terms of a superposition of simpler underlying dynamics. They found that the combination of two cornerstones of contemporary physics -- namely Einstein's special relativity and quantum-mechanical dynamics -- is mathematically identical to a complex dynamical system described by two interlocked processes operating at different energy scales. The combined dynamic obeys Einstein's special relativity even though neither of the two underlying dynamics does. This implies that Einstein's special relativity might well be an emergent concept and suggests that it would be worthwhile to further develop Einstein's insights to take into account the quantum structure of space and time.

To model the double process in question, the authors consider quantum mechanical dynamics in a background space consisting of a number of small crystal-like domains varying in size and composition, known as polycrystalline space. There, particles exhibit an analogous motion to pollen grains in water, referred to as Brownian motion. The observed relativistic dynamics then comes solely from a particular grain distribution in the polycrystalline space. In the cosmological context such distribution might form during the early universe's formation.

Finally, the authors' new interpretation focuses on the interaction of a quantum particle with gravity, that, according to Einstein's general relativity, can be understood as propagation in curved space-time. The non-existence of the relativistic dynamics on the basic level of the description leads to a natural mechanism for the formation of asymmetry between particles and anti-particles. When coupled with an inflationary cosmology, the authors' approach predicts that a charge asymmetry should have been produced at ultra-minute fractions of seconds after the Big Bang. This prediction is in agreement with constraints born out of recent cosmological observations.

From Science Daily

Mysterious Hum Driving People Around the World Crazy

It creeps in slowly in the dark of night, and once inside, it almost never goes away.

It's known as the Hum, a steady, droning sound that's heard in places as disparate as Taos, N.M.; Bristol, England; and Largs, Scotland.

But what causes the Hum, and why it only affects a small percentage of the population in certain areas, remain a mystery, despite a number of scientific investigations.

Reports started trickling in during the 1950s from people who had never heard anything unusual before; suddenly, they were bedeviled by an annoying, low-frequency humming, throbbing or rumbling sound.

The cases seem to have several factors in common: Generally, the Hum is only heard indoors, and it's louder at night than during the day. It's also more common in rural or suburban environments; reports of a hum are rare in urban areas, probably because of the steady background noise in crowded cities.

Who hears the Hum?

Only about 2 percent of the people living in any given Hum-prone area can hear the sound, and most of them are ages 55 to 70, according to a 2003 study by acoustical consultant Geoff Leventhall of Surrey, England.

Most of the people who hear the Hum (sometimes referred to as "hearers" or "hummers") describe the sound as similar to a diesel engine idling nearby. And the Hum has driven virtually every one of them to the point of despair.

"It's a kind of torture; sometimes, you just want to scream," retiree Katie Jacques of Leeds, England, told the BBC. Leeds is one of several places in Great Britain where the Hum has recently appeared.

"It's worst at night," Jacques said. "It's hard to get off to sleep because I hear this throbbing sound in the background … You're tossing and turning, and you get more and more agitated about it."

Being dismissed as crackpots or whiners only exacerbates the distress for these complainants, most of whom have perfectly normal hearing. Sufferers complain of headaches, nausea, dizziness, nosebleeds and sleep disturbances. At least one suicide in the United Kingdom has been blamed on the Hum, the BBC reports.

The Hum zones

Bristol, England, was one of the first places on Earth where the Hum was reported. In the 1970s, about 800 people in the coastal city reported hearing a steady thrumming sound, which was eventually blamed on vehicular traffic and local factories working 24-hour shifts.

Another famous hum occurs near Taos, N.M. Starting in spring 1991, residents of the area complained of a low-level rumbling noise. A team of researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory, the University of New Mexico, Sandia National Laboratories and other regional experts were unable to identify the source of the sound.

Windsor, Ontario, is another Hum hotspot. Researchers from the University of Windsor and Western University in London, Ontario, were recently given a grant to analyze the Windsor Hum and determine its cause.

Researchers also have been investigating the Hum in Bondi, a seaside area of Sydney, Australia, for several years, to no avail. "It sends people around here crazy — all you can do is put music on to block it out. Some people leave fans on," one resident told the Daily Telegraph.

Back in the United States, the Kokomo Hum was isolated in a 2003 study financed by the Indiana city's municipal government. The investigation revealed that two industrial sites — one a Daimler Chrysler plant — were producing noise at specific frequencies. Despite noise-abatement measures, some residents continue to complain of the Hum.

What causes the Hum?

Most researchers investigating the Hum express some confidence that the phenomenon is real, and not the result of mass hysteria or hearers' hypochondria (or extraterrestrials beaming signals to Earth from their spaceships).

As in the case of the Kokomo Hum, industrial equipment is usually the first suspected source of the Hum. In one instance, Leventhall was able to trace the noise to a neighboring building's central heating unit.

Other suspected sources include high-pressure gas lines, electrical power lines, wireless communication devices or other sources. But only in a few cases has a Hum been linked to a mechanical or electrical source.

There's some speculation that the Hum could be the result of low-frequency electromagnetic radiation, audible only to some people. And there are verified cases in which individuals have particular sensitivities to signals outside the normal range of human hearing.

Medical experts are quick to point out that tinnitus (the perception of sound when no external noise is present) is a likely cause, but repeated testing has found that many hearers have normal hearing and no occurrences of tinnitus.

Environmental factors have also been blamed, including seismic activity such as microseisms — very faint, low-frequency earth tremors that can be generated by the action of ocean waves.

Other hypotheses, including military experiments and submarine communications, have yet to bear any fruit. For now, hearers of the Hum have to resort to white-noise machines and other devices to reduce or eliminate the annoying noise.

Read more at Discovery News

Sharp-Eyed Solar Telescope Snaps First Photos

Last month, a new telescope was launched into orbit to help scientists solve a long-standing mystery about why the sun’s atmosphere, called the corona, is nearly 1,000 times hotter than its surface.

There is no answer yet, but the first images from the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, or IRIS, observatory show the sun is more complicated than scientists imagined.

IRIS has 10 times the resolving power as previous solar telescopes, so the team, headed by Lockheed Martin’s Alan Title, knew they would be getting more detailed images and data. But they didn’t expect to see so many dynamic regions especially in what appeared to be relatively quiescent sections of the sun. And they don’t yet know what it means.

“We’ve seen this data only for less than a week and most of that time we’ve been trying to understand just how we ought to run this instrument,” Title, with Lockheed’s Advanced Technology Center in Palo Alto, Calif., told reporters on a conference call Thursday.

“I’m not brash enough to tell you what new and exciting things there are, but there are hints that people are very excited about,” he added.

“We’re now seeing a lot more structure than we anticipated that we would see. There are some things in these images that we had expected, but there are others that are completely new to us,” Title said.

The 4-foot long, 450-pound telescope was launched on June 27 for what is expected to be a two-year mission. Its first images were released on Thursday.

Read more at Discovery News

Jul 25, 2013

Medieval Mansion Found at U.K. Construction Site

It sounds like a case for Sherlock Holmes: a 900-year-old medieval manor mysteriously vanishes, only to be uncovered later by British archaeologists.

The ancient site has been stripped of its materials except for the foundation -- and there is no record of it ever existing.

Got chills? So do the archaeologists who discovered it.

"This is a significant find and therefore very exciting, particularly as there are no documentary records that such a site ever existed here," said Wessex Archaeology's senior buildings archaeologist Bob Davis, who participated in the excavation.

Excavators from the company arrived on April 8 at the site in Longforth Farm in Wellington, Somerset, a small agricultural county in southwest England. They planned to perform an archaeological dig prior to the construction of a housing development by Bloor Homes, as required by the Somerset Country Council.

They had no way of knowing their routine excavation would reveal a hidden series of buildings dating to the 12th through 14th century.

"This sort of thing turning up -- a large medieval building of such high status without any surviving historical records -- it's exceptionally mysterious and strange," senior historic environment officer for the Somerset Country Council Steve Membery told ThisIsCornwall.co.uk.

"It looks as if it's a previously unrecorded, undocumented, high-status, ecclesiastical manor house," Davis told the British paper. "Such things are as rare as hen's teeth."

All that remains from what appears to have been an impressive, affluent mansion is the stone foundation and a few leftover artifacts. It is expected that antiquities thieves would steal valuables from the site, but archaeologists are literally picking at scraps to find out what happened to the doors, windows, stones and other materials that are to be found in a large manor.

They were able to uncover stunningly glazed ceramic roof tiles and carefully decorated floor tiles, however, suggesting the buildings were of high status, perhaps used for religious services.

But much like the American colony of Roanoke, N.C., whomever used the buildings left no trace or record of their existence; they appear to have simply vanished.

"We do not yet know who owned or used the buildings," community and education officer for Wessex Archaeology Laura Joyner told FoxNews.com. "They appear to form a distinct complex of buildings."

The most recent discovery has helped shed some light on the use for some of the structures.

According to Wessex Archaeology, the two tiles pictured below confirm the existence of private chambers and a possible chapel at the Longforth Farm site.

The tile on the left includes a checkered agent or shield motif, which possibly relates to the family name of St. Barbe, a medieval aristocratic British family. Centuries later, Ursula St. Barbe, the daughter of Henry St. Barbe from Somerset with the same last name, was a lady in the court of Queen Elizabeth I of England in the late 1500s.

The second tile, similar to one found at Glastonbury Abbey, is a depiction of a helmeted King Richard I (1189-1199) on horseback, charging his enemy. The tile "would originally have had an opposing tile showing Saladin, Sultan of Egypt, also in a symbolic combat pose," according to Wessex Archaeology. "These two great adversaries were involved in the Third Crusade (1189–1192) and are often depicted together on this type of floor tile."

Based on the artifacts, the owners of the buildings were wealthy and powerful. So what happened to those medieval VIPs?

Read more at Discovery News

Viking Jewelry Unearthed in Denmark

Several pieces of Viking jewelry, some of which contain gold, have been uncovered at a farm site in Denmark that dates as far back as 1,300 years.

Although the Vikings have a popular reputation as being raiders, they were also farmers, traders and explorers, and the craftsmanship seen in this jewelry demonstrates their artistic skills.

Archaeologists working with volunteers used metal detectors to find the jewelry in different spots throughout a farmstead on Zealand, the largest island in Denmark. The remains of the site, which is now called Vestervang, date from the late seventh to the early 11th centuries.

Finding such lavish goods at such a modest farm site poses a puzzle, the archaeologists said. The reason why the farm site would hold such treasure may lie in a legendary site located nearby.

Heart-shaped animal head

The "most spectacular" example is 2.9 inches (73 millimeters) long and shows an image of a heart-shaped animal head with rounded ears and circular eyes, writes archaeologist Ole Thirup Kastholm, of the Roskilde Museum, in a paper published in the most recent edition of the Danish Journal of Archaeology. The piece, made of copper alloy, may be part of a necklace.

"The neck is covered by a beadlike chain," Kastholm writes. "Above the creatures forelegs, there are marked elbow joints and three-fingered paws or feet, which awkwardly grasp backwards to what might be hind legs or wings." The object probably had three similar images originally, but only one survives.

In addition to the animal image, the item, possibly a pendant, also shows three masked figures, each with a "drooping moustache." A "circular mark is seen between the eyebrows and above this, two ears or horns emerge, giving the humanlike mask an animal character," Kastholm writes.

He said that the animal image itself seems to be anthropomorphic, something not unusual in Viking age art. "Some of these anthropomorphic pictures, though, might be seen as representations of 'shamanic' actions, i.e. as mediators between the 'real' world and the 'other' world," Kastholm wrote in an email to LiveScience. He can't say for sure who would have worn it, but it "certainly (was) a person with connections to the elite milieu of the Viking age."

A golden Christian mystery

Another mysterious piece of jewelry found at Vestervang depicts a Christian cross and appears to have been created in continental Europe sometime between A.D. 500 and 750, predating the Viking-age farm site.

"The decoration consists of a central wheel cross in relief, with inlaid gold pressed into a waffle form. The waffle gold is in some areas covered with transparent red glass or semiprecious stones and forming an equal-armed cross," writes Kastholm in the paper.

How the artifact arrived at a pre-Christian Viking-age farm site is a mystery. A Christian traveler may have brought it to Vestervang, or a non-Christian person at the site may have acquired it through exchange. The item would have been used as a brooch, and Kastholm said a female of "high rank" perhaps wore it on her dress.

It "tells us about close relations and networks between Southern Scandinavia and the European continent in late Iron Age, before the time of Christianization," Kastholm wrote in the email.

Rich jewelry at a modest site

These discoveries leave researchers with a mystery. What is such rich jewelry doing at a modest agricultural settlement?

The answer may lie in a legendary site, named Lejre, which is located about 6 miles (10 kilometers) south-southeast of Vestervang, no more than three hours away by foot and boat.

"Legend has it that this was the place where the first Danish dynasty, the Scyldings, had its royal seat," writes Tom Christensen, also of the Roskilde Museum, in an article published in the book "Settlement and Coastal Research in the Southern North Sea Region" (Verlag Marie Leidorf, 2010). He notes that some members of this dynasty even appeared in the famous poem "Beowulf."

Archaeological research has revealed that Lejre appears to be a rich site. In 1850, a hoard consisting of "four silver vessels, a whetstone, a weight, a necklace and a disk-shaped silver ingot" was found in the nearby hills, Christensen noted. A monument 282 feet (86 meters) long made of rocks arranged in the shape of a ship was also reconstructed in later excavations.

The presence of this elite site close to Vestervang may explain the presence of the newly found rich jewelry, Kastholm writes. In the 1960s, there was vast residential development in the area of Vestervang, but maps that predate the development show two villages near the site with "Karleby" in their name, something that may signify that the area was given to retainers of Lejre's ruler.

"The old Scandinavian term karl, corresponding with the old English ceorl, refers to a member of the king's professional warrior escort, the hirð," Kastholm writes in the journal article.

Together, the rich jewelry finds at Vestervang, the site's proximity to Lejre and the presence of two nearby villages with the names "Karleby" reveal what life may have been like at Vestervang.

Read more at Discovery News

Bee Decline Threatens Entire Ecosystems

The widely-reported decline of bee populations worldwide is wreaking havoc in certain ecosystems, particularly since it is now known that bees can be very fickle when it comes to pollination.

A recent study reveals that if bees loyal to one plant species are removed from the system, other bee species may continue to pollinate those plants, but sometimes with the wrong pollen. Researchers Berry Brosi, Ph.D, an assistant professor at Emory University, and Heather Briggs, a graduate student at University of California, observed what happens when a main-pollinating species of bees is removed from its chosen floral target.

“We knew that scientific work done indicates plant communities are largely resilient to losing pollinator species,” Brosi said from his study site at Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in Crested Butte, CO. “If you lose one species the plant has backup, so there is redundancy built into the system.”

But much of these results came from computer models that simulated the activity in an ecosystem, Brosi said. “We wanted to see if this would hold up in real life. We hypothesized that the picture might not be quite as rosy as the computer models indicated.”

They were right. “When there are a lot of different species of bees, competition makes each species become more specialized. We thought there’s a chance when we lose a main pollinator species that remaining species might begin to generalize a little bit more and forage on more different kinds of flowers and that could be bad from a plant perspective. Plants need pollen from exact same species of plant to thrive. If a pollinator is visiting many different plant species it can transport the wrong kind of pollen to a plant.”

Using handheld nets, Brosi and Briggs removed the most abundant species of bumblebees from a meadow of larkspur plants that sat within 20 plots of wildflowers, 20 meters each. Tracking all the steps of the pollination process, they waited to see if other bumblebee species from nearby plots would properly pollinate the larkspur.

“We wanted to see how much they focused on one plant species, or if they showed floral infidelity,” said Brosi. “We looked at the pollen they carried and transferred to the flowers, and finally we looked at seed production.”

Despite computer models to the contrary, they found across all steps of pollination there was more movement between different plant species in the remaining bees. “Bees carried multiple pollen types and deposed them to the larkspur,” Brosi said. Unfortunately, this caused seed production to decrease by one-third.

The results signal two possible broad implications, Brosi said. “First, we can’t necessarily trust the results of computer simulations about pollinator species. Yes, plants still have backup, but the quality of the interaction with other species of bees goes down, which is even more reason to be concerned about loss of bee species.

Second, we’ve shown that biodiversity is important. We need multiple species in the ecosystem to promote its functioning. We focused on plant reproduction, but it’s potentially a more general mechanism for how biological diversity may help to support services that directly benefit people.”

Surprisingly little research has been done in North America on this topic, according to entomologist Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a researcher on pollinator health and honeybee health at the University of Maryland.

“This study reemphasizes the real need for a diverse pollination force,” he said. “Some of this has been looked at in the UK and Netherlands, showing relationships between the decline of pollinators and certain plant species, but we have not done a lot of comparable studies here.”

Read more at Discovery News

Centaurs: Cross-Dressing Comets That Go As Asteroids

Who’d have thought it? Cross-dressing is no longer the preserve of humans, cameleons, magnetars and wolves in sheep’s clothing. Comets are now in on the act.

New research announced today describes the finding that many of the mysterious objects that populate orbits between Jupiter and Neptune are in fact comets. Cross-dressing comets! Live and let live is what I say.

In all honesty, astronomers have always been a little dubious about these objects’ origins, hence why these objects were named “centaurs.” Centaurs in Greek mythology are part human, part horse. Celestial centaurs therefore always had some odd characteristics that fell into the comet and asteroid category.

However, at least part of the centaur debate has been settled by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE).

During the latter stages of the WISE mission, the orbiting space telescope entered the “warm” phase of its extended mission when the onboard coolant ran dry in October 2010. In an attempt to catalog previously unnoticed near-Earth objects (NEOs), WISE was used to spy out the weak infrared signal these objects emit. As part of the four-month NEOWISE mission, centaurs (and their scattered-disk object cousins) were surveyed and at least two thirds of the objects were found to be comets, not asteroids.

“Just like the mythical creatures, the centaur objects seem to have a double life,” said James Bauer of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in a JPL news release. “Our data point to a cometary origin for most of the objects, suggesting they are coming from deeper out in the solar system.” Bauer is lead author of a paper published online July 22 in the Astrophysical Journal.

52 centaurs and scattered disk objects were surveyed, 15 of which were newly discovered by NEOWISE.

Previous observations of centaurs have uncovered comet-like behavior. For example, other observatories have imaged what appeared to be halos — cometary outgassing — around individual objects in the past. But NEOWISE was able to survey dozens of centaurs and in doing so spotted a pattern.

NEOWISE was able to gather albedo data — a measure of how shiny an object is — on the surveyed centaurs. Combined with previous albedo and color data, a picture emerged.

“Comets have a dark, soot-like coating on their icy surfaces, making them darker than most asteroids,” said the study’s co-author, Tommy Grav of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz. “Comet surfaces tend to be more like charcoal, while asteroids are usually shinier like the moon.”

NEOWISE found the majority of centaurs to be dark, a tell-tail sign that they are more likely comets and not asteroids.

Read more at Discovery News

Jul 24, 2013

Death Happens More Slowly Than Thought

A new study reveals how death in organisms, including humans, spreads like a wave from cell to cell until the whole individual is dead.

The good news is that, in certain cases, scientists may be able to stop the biochemical process that leads to this death wave, reviving the individual.

It’s difficult to study such life and death matters on animals. Who would want to volunteer for a study that ended in death? So researchers instead focused their analysis on worms, which surprisingly possess mechanisms that are similar to those that are active in mammals.

The study is published in the latest issue of PLoS Biology.

A remarkable feature of worms is that, as they die, the spread of death through their bodies can easily be seen under magnification. It’s a fluorescent blue light caused by necrosis, or the cell death pathway. This, in turn, is dependent upon calcium signaling.

The source of the blue hue is a molecule called anthranillic acid.

David Gems from the Institute of Health Aging at University College London, who led the study, explained:

“We’ve identified a chemical pathway of self-destruction that propagates cell death in worms, which we see as this glowing blue fluorescence traveling through the body. It’s like a blue grim reaper, tracking death as it spreads throughout the organism until all life is extinguished.”

As a hypothetical, let’s say a worm or a person is stuck in the desert, suffering from severe dehydration. The stress and strain of that leads to cellular shock and damage, causing individual cells to die.

The entire organism doesn’t just die in an instant. The individual cell deaths trigger a chemical reaction that leads to the breakdown of cell components and a build-up of molecular debris. If this goes on unchecked, the individual is toast.

This type of damage can happen, but in a much slower way, as an individual ages.

Scientists now cannot revive every single cell in a body, once it’s aged out of commission.

But if the worm study is any indication, researchers might be able to stop the calcium signaling biochemical spread of death under other non-aging-related circumstances.

Read more at Discovery News

The Pseudoscience of Baby Gender Prediction

Now that there’s a new addition to Britain’s Royal Family, the question of whether it’s a boy or girl is over. But for the past weeks and months there have been countless predictions about the regal infant’s gender — much of it based on folklore and superstition.

A few of the classic ways to tell whether a woman will have a boy or girl include that old chestnut that if a mother is “carrying high” she will have a girl, while a baby lower in her abdomen signifies that a boy is on the way.

Some people believe that the last sexual position adopted at the time of conception influences whether it’s a boy or girl. Centuries ago it was widely believed that if a child is born while the moon is shining, it will be a male, while a baby born during a moonless night will certainly be a girl.

Others were sure that what a woman ate during her pregnancy was important: “A craving for sweets, if indulged in, is believed to influence the unborn babe to become a female,” according to Claudia de Lys’s “Giant Book of Superstitions.”

The scientific fact is that a baby’s sex is decided at the moment of conception, and basically the result of random chance. Whichever one of the millions of sperm reaches the egg first will fertilize it, and a baby’s sex is determined by the male chromosomes.

These myths are nothing new. Folklorists have long documented a wide variety of superstitions about pregnancy and babies. Curiously — and somewhat predictably given the sexism often evident in superstition and folklore — women and mothers are given an undue amount of blame for how their child turns out.

One common belief was that the fears and emotional impressions experienced by the mother would be manifested in her unborn child. For example, if a pregnant woman loved strawberries (or feared cats) her son might have a birthmark shaped like a strawberry, or a cat.

Centuries ago a baby’s birth defects were often blamed on the mother’s damaged emotional or spiritual state.

According to “The Encyclopedia of Superstitions” by Edwin and Mona Radford, an old superstition “is that if a pregnant woman meets a hare, the baby will have a hare-lip (cleft palate) … the fear inspired by such an encounter was heightened by the idea that the hare might not be the innocent animal it seemed, but instead a witch in that form.”

No discussion of dubious Royal Baby predictions would be complete without a mention of the hordes of psychics who offered their supernatural suppositions over the past nine months.

Of course there’s a 50/50 chance of correctly guessing the baby’s sex, though apparently psychics did worse than chance. According to a press release issued a few weeks ago, “62 percent of the 50 psychics surveyed at Psychic Source, the most respected psychic service provider, predicted that the royal couple will be welcoming a female heir. Representing the majority of psychics surveyed, Psychic Ricky stated matter-of-factually: “It will be a girl. At least one of her names will be Diana.”

Read more at Discovery News

LHC Discovery Maims Supersymmetry, Again

This is one discovery that will likely excite and disappoint physicists in equal measure. Large Hadron Collider (LHC) scientists have confirmed the detection of an ultra-rare subatomic decay for the first time, a decay that is predicted by the Standard Model. Unfortunately for supersymmetry proponents, that’s one hefty blow against their theory.

But before we can understand the bad news, it’s best to start with the good news.

The Good: Standard Model Glory

On its ongoing mission to explore the most primordial of matter of the Universe, the LHC slams particles (usually protons, sometimes higher-mass hadrons like lead nuclei) together at close to the speed of light. By doing this, for the briefest of moments, the energy conditions that existed shortly after the Big Bang are created. From this energetic soup, particles that were last seen buzzing around the ancient universe some 13.75 billion years ago condense from the blast of energy, like raindrops condensing inside a raincloud.

By their nature, these newly-condensed particles buzzing inside the LHC’s monstrous detectors are unstable, so they quickly decay into other particles. These decays are extremely important to physics as they provide a very privileged view into how particle interactions worked during the earliest moments of the universe and bolster decades of scientific theory.

The Standard Model of physics is the theoretical framework by how all matter should act. And in this case, the Standard Model predicts that a very, very rare decay should occur for a specific particle in a very specific way. The LHC — with its vast energies, ultra-high resolution detectors and epic computing power — is the first machine available to mankind that can probe and detect these extremely rare and specific decays.

So, after analyzing two years worth of data from the LHC, physicists from two LHC experiments, LHCb and CMS, have announced the discovery of the decay of the Bs meson into two muons. (A meson is a hadron and composed of a quark and anti-quark. Muons are the larger cousins of electrons.)

To see this Bs decay, however, you need to be patient — the particle only decays into two muons three times out of every billion decays. For a particle collider that produces hundreds of millions of collisions every second, that’s countless trillions of particle interactions that need to be analyzed to weed out the desired Bs decays to any statistical significance.

“Finding particle decays this rare makes hunting for a needle in a haystack seem easy,” the LHC physicists said in this morning’s news release (July 24).

In short, the detection of Bs meson decaying into two muons at the exact rate predicted is a huge triumph for the Standard Model of physics. Add that to the recent confirmed discovery of the Higgs boson that appears to exist at exactly the energy predicted by the Standard Model.

This model may have its restrictions, but it has once again proven that it’s a very good “recipe book” for how the universe works on a subatomic level.

The Bad: Supersymmetry Woes

But it’s not all good news. In fact, it rather depends on your definition of “good.”

Physicists have long been concerned by the Standard Model’s inability to account for gravity, dark matter and dark energy. So, as the Standard Model is pushed to its limits by particle accelerators like the LHC, physicists have been carefully watching for any slight oddities in particle collision data. In the hope that supersymmetry theory (or “SUSY”) may help explain dark matter, for example, they’ve been expecting small signatures of supersymmetry revealing itself in experimental results. SUSY should skew the Bs decay rate slightly, but, as this most recent discovery has once again proven, the Standard Model isn’t budging and there’s no sign of any experimental evidence for supersymmetry — the Bs meson decay rate is spot-on.

“Measurements of this very rare decay significantly squeeze the places new physics (i.e. SUSY) can hide,” said Val Gibson, leader of the Cambridge particle physics group and member of the LHCb experiment. “It is the dedication of our students and post-docs that make such measurements possible. The UK LHCb team are now looking forward to the LHC returning at even higher energy and to an upgrade to the experiment so that we can investigate why new physics is so shy.”

While this isn’t the end for supersymmetry, it is a blow for our understanding of what lies beyond the Standard Model.

The Ugly: A Dark Dilemma

Understanding the nature of dark matter and dark energy are two of the biggest challenges for all of physics, from the quantum world to cosmology. Supersymmetry — which predicts that for every particle of “normal” matter there’s a “superpartner” particle — may help explain why 95 percent of the mass-energy of the universe is invisible. (Dark matter has been detected indirectly by its gravitational impact on normal matter and dark energy is the invisible force that has been indirectly observed as the force that accelerates the expansion of the universe.)

But if we cannot detect any evidence of supersymmetry, what the heck is dark matter and dark energy? Let alone gravity; that ‘everyday’ force remains as mysterious as ever.

Read more at Discovery News

Red Planet, White Christmas: It Once Snowed on Mars

First it was fresh toboggan tracks on Mars, now it’s evidence that it snowed there, albeit a billion years ago.

Rather than water bubbling up from the ground or raining down in drops, a new study based on Hawaiian precipitation patterns supports the idea that the water came down as snow and then melted and ran off to create the branching valley networks that remain visible on Mars today.

Those valley networks are old news, of course, but the source of the water has never been settled. This new study, which appears in Geophysical Research Letters, points to four particular locations where the valleys appear to have been caused by runoff from what’s called orographic precipitation. That’s snow or rain that is squeezed out when moist air has to rise (therefore cool and lose capacity to hold water) over a mountain or range of mountains.

The new study was led by geology graduate student Kat Scanlon of Brown University, who studied meteorology in Hawaii were the orographic precipitation makes the islands habitable. What you see on every island is an eastern, lush tropical wet side where the easterly winds hit the islands and drop their moisture, and a western desert side where the wrung-out air continues on its journey across the ocean.

So Scanlon looked for similar patterns on Mars that might be fossilized signs of the same sort of thing happening on early Mars.

“That’s what immediately came to mind in trying to figure out if these valleys on Mars are precipitation related,” she said in Brown University press release.

The researchers, including professor Jim Head (the man behind Mars glaciers studies), found four locations where the valleys were carved along high mountain ridges or crater rims. Then they worked out the ancient prevailing wind directions at each location using a new general circulation model (GCM) for Mars. Finally, they applied another model to see if orographic precipitation would be likely to happen in those locations.

Read more at Discovery News

Jul 23, 2013

Louisiana 'Black Panther' Mystery Solved

Earlier this month, a family in Acadiana, La., saw and photographed a large, mysterious black cat. Believing they might have seen a panther or other feral cat, they contacted wildlife officials, who told them that while cougars do exist in the area, they are not all black.

According to a news report by Hope Ford of KLFY-TV, at around 7:30 pm, a large black animal was spotted in the field behind a home.

“You could see it from the fence and it was pretty big,” said Karen Fory, whose brother-in -law first noticed the animal. “So, I came back to the truck and got the binoculars,” Fory explained.

Cathy Irwin, who lives in the home, said Fory called her over immediately to see what they considered to be a black panther. “We were standing about 100 feet away and you could see it,” Irwin said. “It was very large.”

Fory took several photographs of the animal before it wandered behind some trees.

“It’s a very dangerous animal, and anything can happen at any given time with that, especially with the children in these neighborhoods,” Irwin told the TV station. So she called Wildlife and Fisheries agents, who came to investigate but found no trace of the feline, nor were there any other reports of the creature.

The cat does indeed look unusually large in the photographs Fory provided to the news media and wildlife officials. But it’s important to note the image was shot on a high-definition camera, which means it can be greatly enlarged, and that she used a telephoto lens, which magnifies the size of the image.

Even small and medium-sized objects can appear very large when photographed through zoom lenses and enlarged. This doesn’t suggest that the image is hoaxed or staged in any way, just that when most people see the image they may not realize how small the cat is compared to the rest of the scene.

In order to help judge the size of the mysterious feline in the photographs, wildlife officials followed up by bringing with them a life-size silhouette of a puma, and photographed it in the same location (a short video analysis can be found on YouTube). The conclusion: The “black panther” was much smaller than the eyewitnesses estimated — and than the photographs made it appear — and was likely a large domestic house cat prowling for bugs and rodents.

This is not the first time that a large domestic cat has been sighted and mistaken for a big cat. Last year a “lion” was reported and photographed in Essex, England. It caused a brief panic as police were called and children were warned to stay indoors lest they be mauled by the ferocious beast. However a woman identified her Maine Coon house cat (which is one of the world’s largest domestic breeds) named Teddy Bear as the “Essex Lion” that briefly terrorized the area.

Read more at Discovery News

$36 Million in Silver Hauled From WWII Shipwreck

A British merchant ship sunk by the Nazis has given up a haul of 61 tons of silver, worth about $36 million, according to Odyssey Marine Exploration, a U.S.-based underwater archaeology and salvage company

The treasure, consisting of 1,574 silver ingots and weighing a total of about 1.8 million ounces, was retrieved from the SS Gairsoppa, a 412-foot steel-hulled British cargo ship that sank on Feb. 17, 1941, after being torpedoed by a Nazi U-boat.

The intact wreck was found in 2011 about 300 miles off the coast of Ireland, laying deeper than the Titanic at a depth of nearly 3 miles.

“We have accomplished a world-record recovery at a depth never achieved before,” Mark Gordon, Odyssey’s president and chief operating officer, said.

Indeed, an underwater robot used in the preliminary salvage operations took three and a half hours to descend to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

The robot-captured video footage showed a unique view into the rusty ship, revealing a ladder leading to the forecastle deck, a stern compass and even an intact toilet.

The torpedo hole in the hull, which featured the red-and-black colors used by the British Indian Steam Navigation Company, was also clearly visible.

Bearing all the recovery costs, Odyssey has so far retrieved 2,792 silver ingots or more than 99 percent of the insured silver reported to be aboard the ship. The silver was worth about $630,000 when the Gairsoppa went down and is valued around $36 million at current prices.

The precious metal, which adds to 1,218 ingots of high quality silver retrieved last year, has been transported to a secure facility in the United Kingdom.

The catch sets a new record for the deepest and largest precious metal salvage from a shipwreck.

“This was an extremely complex recovery,” said Greg Stemm, Odyssey’s chief executive officer. “The remaining insured silver was stored in a small compartment that was very difficult to access,” he added.

En route from India to Liverpool, England, the Gairsoppa was in service of the Ministry of War Transport. She was laden with tea, iron and tons of silver.

Because of bad weather and insufficient coal, the merchant steamship was forced to break away from the military convoy off the coast of Ireland.

As the captain re-routed in emergency for Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, the Gairsoppa and its crew of 86 men were hit by a torpedo from a Nazi U-boat. She sank in icy seas within 20 minutes.

The crew boarded three lifeboats. While two boats soon disappeared, a third lifeboat managed to sail for 13 days. Only one person, second officer Richard Ayres, survived the long journey to shore.

“Sources, including Lloyd’s record of War Losses, indicate additional uninsured government-owned silver may have been aboard the SS Gairsoppa when she sank, but to date no uninsured silver has been located,” Odyssey said in a statement.

Read more at Discovery News

Stone Coffin to Be Opened at Richard III Site

Archaeologists are set to lift the lid on a stone coffin discovered at the site of the English friary where Richard III's remains were found.

Excavators suspect the tomb — billed as the only intact stone coffin found in Leicester — may contain the skeleton of a medieval knight or one of the high-status friars thought to have been buried at the church.

Richard III, the last king of the House of York, ruled England from 1483 to 1485, when was killed in battle during the War of Roses, an English civil war. He received a hasty burial at the Grey Friars monastery in Leicester as his defeater, Henry Tudor, ascended to the throne. Grey Friars was destroyed in the 16th century during the Protestant Reformation, and its ruins became somewhat lost to history.

A dig beneath a parking lot in Leicester last summer revealed the remains of Grey Friars and a battle-ravaged skeleton later confirmed to be that of Richard III. Excavators also found a handful of other graves, including this coffin, which the researchers think was put in the ground more than 100 years before Richard's burial.

This month, the team from the University of Leicester started a fresh excavation at the site. Now in their final week of digging, the researchers plan to open the coffin in the days ahead.

They think it might contain the remains of the knight Sir William de Moton of Peckleton, who died between 1356 and 1362, or one of two heads of the Grey Friars order in England, Peter Swynsfeld or William of Nottingham.

"Stone coffins are unusual in Leicester — and this is the first time we have found a fully intact stone coffin during all our excavations of medieval sites in the city," site director Mathew Morris, of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS), said in a statement. "I am excited that it appears to be intact.

Read more at Discovery News

Corpse Flower in its Death Throes

A corpse flower in its death throes doesn't smell like a corpse at all.

A titan arum (or "corpse flower") housed at the U.S. Botanic Garden Conservatory has been smelling up its exhibition hall to the delight of thousands of visitors since the tropical flower finally went into full bloom on Sunday (July 21), but its time in bloom is quickly coming to a close.

A corpse flower's rare malodorous bloom only lasts for 24 to 48 hours, after which time it closes up and collapses.

"We've already reached that stage where the plant is showing signs of beginning to pack it in," Ari Novy, a plant scientist and public programs manager at the U.S. Botanic Garden, said. "Over the course of the next several days, the whole plant will essentially fall apart."

'Really, really unpleasant'

Although the line to get in to see the blooming corpse flower stretched around the block when the building opened at 10 a.m. EDT, the corpse flower did not live up to its smelly moniker.

Instead of the rotting flesh odor that is typical of a blooming corpse flower, visitors were greeted with the smells emitted by other fans of the stinky plant. Body odor and perfume were the prevailing aromas dominating the corpse flower's hall today (July 23).

During the earlier part of the week, however, the plant was in peak form.

"On Sunday night -- I was here at about 10:30 at night -- I came in. It was really, really smelly. I could smell it before I got into that room," Novy told LiveScience's OurAmazingPlanet. "Then once you get into that room, it really hits you pretty hard. It reminded me of a dead deer on the side of the road in the Florida Everglades with a big pile of really soggy, moldy laundry next to it. It was really, really unpleasant."

The foul smell given off by the corpse flower -- scientifically named Amorphophallus titanium -- has a very specific purpose. The plant uses its rotten aroma to attract flesh-eating critters like carrion beetles and flies that will carry its pollen to potentially cross pollinate other corpse flowers.

The titan arum stretches to an impressive 8 feet (2.4 meters) in height, and the plants have been known to grow to be as much as 12 feet (3.7 m) tall. The titan arum is native to the rain forests of central Sumatra in western Indonesia.

The D.C. plant was about 4 feet (1.2 m) tall when it was put on display in the greenhouse. While in its current enclosure, the plant grew 5 to 8 inches (13 to 20 centimeters) per day, reaching its full 8-foot height in less than a week and a half, Novy said.

A titan arum can bloom more than once, however, these are fickle plants. This is the first time this particular corpse flower has bloomed, and it is the first to bloom in Washington, D.C., since 2007. The 2007 flower was part of a Smithsonian collection.

"These plants can be long-lived and there are absolutely records in botanic gardens or other horticultural institutions of these plants blooming multiple times in their life spans, but it's unpredictable," Novy said. "They can take as little as two or so years between blooms and there are recordings of them taking as many as 20 years between blooms."

'Freak of nature'

Despite the fact that the corpse flower's famous stench has dissipated, the bloom was still a sight to behold for many visitors.

Cormac Jensen, a 10-year-old visiting the gardens with his father, wasn't disappointed that the flower had already stopped giving off its odor.

"It doesn't really matter [that it doesn't smell]," Cormac told LiveScience. "It's still wonderful. It's a freak of nature."

Read more at Discovery News

Binary Stars Could Give Alien Life a Boost

Planets with two parent stars face a double whammy of radiation, a situation that would seemingly make them far less suitable for life than single-star systems.

But appearances can be deceiving.

New research suggests that the gravitational arm-wrestling by a pair of suitably positioned parent stars should carve out a magnetically protected habitable zone for an orbiting brood.

“We need to be more open-minded when thinking about habitability of a significant fraction of the stars in the galaxy that are in binary systems that could provide enhanced habitability conditions,” astronomer Jorge Zuluaga with the Institute of Physics at the University of Antioquia in Colombia, told Discovery News.

Zuluaga and colleagues focused on the impact a pair of orbiting stars would have on each others’ rates of rotation, which in turn affects how magnetically active they are. The specifics depend on how big and how far apart the two stars are, but generally computer simulations showed there could be magnetically quiet regions around binary stars, a finding that greatly expands their so-called "habitable zones" -- orbits where water could exist on a planet's surface.

Water is believed to be necessary for life, but it’s not the only factor. For example, in our solar system Venus and Mars, though situated in the sun’s habitable zone, presently do not have life-friendly atmospheres.

Increased solar activity from a very young sun may be partly or wholly to blame for why Venus and Mars evolved so differently from Earth. The new research suggests that if the sun had a suitably positioned partner star, its early, violent outbursts may have been tempered.

“Habitability is not just a matter of being inside a star’s habitable zone. You need to consider other factors. For example, the magnetic activity of the star, the magnetic protection of the planets and the emission of a higher level of radiation at the beginning of the stellar life,” Zuluaga said.

Read more at Discovery News

Jul 22, 2013

Ancient Ice Melt Unearthed in Antarctic Mud: 20-Meter Sea Level Rise, Five Million Years Ago

Global warming five million years ago may have caused parts of Antarctica's large ice sheets to melt and sea levels to rise by approximately 20 metres, scientists report today in the journal Nature Geoscience.

The researchers, from Imperial College London, and their academic partners studied mud samples to learn about ancient melting of the East Antarctic ice sheet. They discovered that melting took place repeatedly between five and three million years ago, during a geological period called Pliocene Epoch, which may have caused sea levels to rise approximately ten metres.

Scientists have previously known that the ice sheets of West Antarctica and Greenland partially melted around the same time. The team say that this may have caused sea levels to rise by a total of 20 metres.

The academics say understanding this glacial melting during the Pliocene Epoch may give us insights into how sea levels could rise as a consequence of current global warming. This is because the Pliocene Epoch had carbon dioxide concentrations similar to now and global temperatures comparable to those predicted for the end of this century.

Dr Tina Van De Flierdt, co-author from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, says: "The Pliocene Epoch had temperatures that were two or three degrees higher than today and similar atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to today. Our study underlines that these conditions have led to a large loss of ice and significant rises in global sea level in the past. Scientists predict that global temperatures of a similar level may be reached by the end of this century, so it is very important for us to understand what the possible consequences might be."

The East Antarctic ice sheet is the largest ice mass on Earth, roughly the size of Australia. The ice sheet has fluctuated in size since its formation 34 million years ago, but scientists have previously assumed that it had stabilised around 14 million years ago.

The team in today's study were able to determine that the ice sheet had partially melted during this "stable" period by analysing the chemical content of mud in sediments. These were drilled from depths of more than three kilometres below sea level off the coast of Antarctica.

Analysing the mud revealed a chemical fingerprint that enabled the team to trace where it came from on the continent. They discovered that the mud originated from rocks that are currently hidden under the ice sheet. The only way that significant amounts of this mud could have been deposited as sediment in the sea would be if the ice sheet had retreated inland and eroded these rocks, say the team.

The academics suggest that the melting of the ice sheet may have been caused in part by the fact that some of it rests in basins below sea level. This puts the ice in direct contact with seawater and when the ocean warms, as it did during the Pliocene, the ice sheet becomes vulnerable to melting.

Carys Cook, co-author and research postgraduate from the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial, adds: "Scientists previously considered the East Antarctic ice sheet to be more stable than the much smaller ice sheets in West Antarctica and Greenland, even though very few studies of East Antarctic ice sheet have been carried out. Our work now shows that the East Antarctic ice sheet has been much more sensitive to climate change in the past than previously realised. This finding is important for our understanding of what may happen to the Earth if we do not tackle the effects of climate change."

Read more at Science Daily

Beach-Hopping Turtle Moms Threatened

A single sea turtle mother may lay eggs on multiple beaches from Florida to Alabama in a single breeding season. The mobility of the mothers put them at risk from shrimp boats and fossil fuel drilling operations.

Biologists once believed that the loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) only laid eggs on one beach each year, but a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) turtle-tracking project observed that turtle moms may travel several hundred miles during the nesting season and lay eggs on distant beaches.

“The satellite data and our observations on the ground tell the same story: loggerheads in this subpopulation nest at multiple beaches, sometimes hundreds of miles apart,” said lead author Kristen Hart, a USGS research ecologist in a press release. “Some of the females we captured and tagged on beaches in Alabama traveled over 250 miles to nest in Florida, where we recaptured them. Likewise, we also captured some females in Alabama that had previously been tagged at the Florida site in earlier breeding years.”

Loggerhead sea turtles are listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

The waters the turtle moms swim through hold many dangers, such as flipper-trapping fishing nets, speeding boats and toxic oil spills. As females move from one site to the other, it increases the chances of a tragic interaction with humans.

“These data show it is not sufficient to just protect habitat around high-density nesting beaches, such as the St. Joseph Peninsula, because many turtles that nest on the Peninsula use the entire region from the eastern Florida Panhandle to Louisiana,” said co-author and USGS biologist Meg Lamont in a press release.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service proposed the protection of 739 square miles of loggerhead nesting beaches, according to the Office of the Federal Register. The proposed protected beaches stretch across six states and includes 36 distinct sites.

In at least one area, loggerheads nesting season 2013 has been a success, reported the French Tribune. Along a 35-mile stretch of Florida beach, 1,365 turtle nests have been counted so far this year by the Mote Marine Laboratories Sea Turtle Patrol. Although nesting numbers decreased from last years record of 2,462, nest sites have still increased compared to 2010.

Read more at Discovery News

How Long-Forgotten Seawall Fended Off Sandy

A buried and forgotten seawall built in 1882 may have significantly weakened Hurricane Sandy's grip on one New Jersey town, new research shows.

Bay Head — a beach town located along the northeast shores of New Jersey — lay directly in the violent path of Hurricane Sandy when the storm barreled toward the Eastern Seaboard last October. And yet only one house from the town was lost to the storm. The neighboring town of Mantoloking, on the other hand, lost more than a quarter of its houses.

To figure out how Bay Head thwarted Sandy's blow, a team of coastal engineers from Virginia Tech visited the region within two weeks of the storm to survey the area. They found what they believe to be their answer in a 4,000-foot-long (1,200 meters) wall of rocks that many residents hadn't even known was there, they reported earlier this month in the journal Coastal Engineering.

"Once we got there, we immediately saw the seawall," Jennifer Irish, an engineer at Virginia Tech and a co-author of the study, said in a statement. The team noted that dunes along the beaches of both Mantoloking and Bay Head likely helped beat back some waves, but that the seawall provided a clear advantage for Bay Head.

"The beach and dunes did their job to a certain point, then the seawall took over, providing significant dampening of the waves. It was the difference between houses that were flooded in Bay Head and houses that were reduced to piles of rubble in Mantoloking."

Two towns

The team examined satellite imagery and beach data from the two regions to assess whether other factors could have played a role, but found nothing that stood out as strongly as the seawall.

"Because of (the towns') close proximity, and based on our survey, I feel confident that the conditions that they were exposed to were virtually identical," Irish told Livescience.

The team believes that the combination of the hard seawall — which stands about 5 feet (1.5 m) above the sand — and overlying soft sand dune likely accounts for the structure's effectiveness.

"A seawall on its own is detrimental to the beach," said Patrick Lynett, an engineer at the University of Southern California who was a co-author on the study. By deflecting waves seaward, seawalls increase the amount of wave energy hitting beaches and cause more sand to wash away, he explained. "The seawall is good at protecting the town from being flooded, but for an extreme storm, it's not good."

The sand on top of the seawall provided extra cushioning, dampening the energy channeled back to the beach.

Extreme erosion

Other structures, like jetties that run perpendicular to beaches and breakwaters that sit underwater near shores, can also help prevent erosion, but usually not under extreme conditions like Hurricane Sandy. The team thinks that the combined seawall and dune could provide a good model for other beach towns looking to prevent erosion. But every beach is different and should be assessed on a case-by-case basis, Lynett said.

Read more at Discovery News

What's That Tiny Dot Next to Saturn? That's Earth

Very few images can summarize the entirety of our planet’s existence better than a photo from a spacecraft orbiting another planet nearly 900 million miles away. But that’s exactly what NASA’s Cassini Solstice mission did on Friday — now the first raw images of this interplanetary photobombing effort have been released.

The first “Pale Blue Dot” photograph, of course, came courtesy of Voyager 1 at the suggestion of Carl Sagan in 1990. As the probe was 3.7 billion miles away, 13 years into its solar system odyssey, the probe turned its camera to Earth. That moment was as historic as it was profound. For the first time we could see Earth as a pale blue dot — a mere speck in Voyager’s field of view. As Sagan put it in his famous Cosmos episode, everything we’ve ever known is “on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

But now, as we see more robotic missions exploring the solar system, an increasing number of Pale Blue Dot photographs are becoming available. But they are no less profound than Sagan’s original Voyager observation.

So, on Friday, NASA’s Cassini mission team commanded the probe to begin taking a series of photos from Saturn. The best thing about this feat was that the citizens of Earth were notified ahead of time and invited to “Wave at Saturn” at the time of the photo op. The result was the biggest portrait ever taken.

As an added bonus, NASA’s MESSENGER probe that’s currently in orbit around Mercury was also taking snapshots of Earth — the result was two robotic probes taking our portrait from opposite ends of the solar system.

Ahead of the fully-processed Cassini photo of Earth hanging in the background of Saturn’s majestic rings (that will likely be released in the coming weeks), some of the raw imagery has been processed by Discovery News and Universe Today blogger Jason Major. The first shows Earth as a bright dot below Saturn’s rings (shown top) and the second shows a star-like Earth with the moon in tow (pictured right). Read Jason’s blog on Universe Today to find out more about the raw images.

Read more at Discovery News

Jul 21, 2013

40 Years Since Bruce Lee's Death Marked

Hailed as cinema's first martial arts hero and a cinematic bridge between the cultures of East and West, Bruce Lee helped put Hong Kong on the movie world map.

So why are some in the city marking the 40th anniversary of his death in a toilet?

"In 1958, Bruce Lee was a student at St Francis Xavier's (College)," Wong Yiu-keung, chairman of the Bruce Lee Club, explains. "One day, he was caught in a fight in a washroom by one of the fathers.

"But the priest also boxed back in his home country. So, he didn't punish him. Instead, he invited him to the boxing classes. Lee later participated in an interschool competition and won."

The incident was significant for Lee and he decided to tunnel his love of martial arts into something positive. Lee died from swelling of the brain at just 32 years old.

A short time afterwards, he opened a martial arts school in the United States, where he was born.

Fans of Lee will visit his Hong Kong alma mater this weekend as one of several stops on an unofficial "Bruce Lee trail" in Hong Kong, where the star spent his childhood.

Other points on the walk include Lee's statue on the Avenue of the Stars and the Bruce Lee Club house, both in the Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood of the southern Chinese city, which is without a permanent museum dedicated to the screen legend.

Fans will also take in a monastery in the New Territories which featured in perhaps his most famous movie, "Enter the Dragon."

A five-year exhibition at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, featuring memorabilia from his life and films -- including his iconic yellow jumpsuit -- was due to be opened Saturday by his daughter Shannon Lee.

"The way I know my father is not through media. The way I know my father is in number of different ways," Lee, who was four when her father died, said Friday.

"It's through the people who knew him well, his friends, my family. It's also through his own words, because he wrote voluminously. I have all of his library books, thousands of books and he would underline in them and write notes in the margins, so I know him from them."

Some of those notebooks, poetry and family photos are among 600 items that will be showcased at the museum until 2018.

A 20th-century cultural icon who founded Jeet Kune Do, Lee's untimely death in Hong Kong in 1973 left fans around the world reeling.

"I remember the funeral in Hong Kong primarily, because it was just so chaotic. There were so many people," his daughter said. "It was hot, humid, and it was just sort of like this whirlwind. And there was so much going on and so much sadness and as a little kid, I just sort of remember being dragged through that whole process and the feeling of the chaos all around me."

Lee's legacy lived on, inspiring a new generation of actors such as Jackie Chan and breaking down barriers for Asian actors in Hollywood.

"He won his fame from Kung Fu, which does not need language to deliver," Lee's biographer Roger Lo said. "Just like dance and music. You can watch it whoever you are. It is like Charlie Chaplin whose silent movies were borderless.

"Lee was also a bridge between the cultures of East and West. He was educated both in Hong Kong and the United States. He appeared on American televisions and also Chinese movie theaters," he added.

Chaplin Chang, the author of a new biography "The Bruce Lee They Knew," published this month, says that Lee's real-life personality, not just screen persona, are part of his enduring appeal. "People may give him god-like status. But he is just a human," he said.

Read more at Discovery News

Iberian Lynx Doomed by Climate Change?

The lynx of Southern Europe is in trouble, and those trying to save them are missing the boat, say researchers who predict climate change will finish what the drop in the lynx’s food supply started, unless there’s a new plan.

The lynx, to Americans, is a kind of bobcat. Iberian lynx numbers have been in freefall largely because humans have been over hunting their primary food, which is rabbits.

But that might not be what pushes the Iberian lynx to extinction, said Miguel Araújo of the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid, Spain. Climate change could be the death knell for the lynx in the second half of this century. If so, the current conservation efforts will not help them, but only slow their demise.

A new plan is needed to help the rare cats overcome the food scarcity, as well as anticipated climate changes to their habitat in southern Europe, the researchers say.

Araújo and his colleagues used ecological models that included anticipated climate change to investigate the combined effects on prey and conservation efforts for the survival of the Iberian lynx.

“We show that anticipated climate change will rapidly and severely decrease lynx abundance and probably lead to its extinction in the wild within 50 years, even with strong global efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions,” wrote Araújo and his colleagues in the July 21 edition of the journal Nature Climate Change.

They found that climate change will exceed the cats’ ability to adapt or to reach other areas with a more suitable climate and more prey. They also found that this will be the case whether or not efforts succeed to lower greenhouse gas emissions. It’s not a pretty picture.

But that’s not to say there is no hope.

Read more at Discovery News