Oct 5, 2013

New Kind of Microscope Uses Neutrons

Researchers at MIT, working with partners at NASA, have developed a new concept for a microscope that would use neutrons -- subatomic particles with no electrical charge -- instead of beams of light or electrons to create high-resolution images.

Among other features, neutron-based instruments have the ability to probe inside metal objects -- such as fuel cells, batteries, and engines, even when in use -- to learn details of their internal structure. Neutron instruments are also uniquely sensitive to magnetic properties and to lighter elements that are important in biological materials.

The new concept has been outlined in a series of research papers this year, including one published this week in Nature Communications by MIT postdoc Dazhi Liu, research scientist Boris Khaykovich, professor David Moncton, and four others.

Moncton, an adjunct professor of physics and director of MIT's Nuclear Reactor Laboratory, says that Khaykovich first proposed the idea of adapting a 60-year-old concept for a way of focusing X-rays using mirrors to the challenge of building a high-performing neutron microscope. Until now, most neutron instruments have been akin to pinhole cameras: crude imaging systems that simply let light through a tiny opening. Without efficient optical components, such devices produce weak images with poor resolution.

Beyond the pinhole

"For neutrons, there have been no high-quality focusing devices," Moncton says. "Essentially all of the neutron instruments developed over a half-century are effectively pinhole cameras." But with this new advance, he says, "We are turning the field of neutron imaging from the era of pinhole cameras to an era of genuine optics."

"The new mirror device acts like the image-forming lens of an optical microscope," Liu adds.

Because neutrons interact only minimally with matter, it's difficult to focus beams of them to create a telescope or microscope. But a basic concept was proposed, for X-rays, by Hans Wolter in 1952 and later developed, under the auspices of NASA, for telescopes such as the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory (which was designed and is managed by scientists at MIT). Neutron beams interact weakly, much like X-rays, and can be focused by a similar optical system.

It's well known that light can be reflected by normally nonreflective surfaces, so long as it strikes that surface at a shallow angle; this is the basic physics of a desert mirage. Using the same principle, mirrors with certain coatings can reflect neutrons at shallow angles.

A sharper, smaller device

The actual instrument uses several reflective cylinders nested one inside the other, so as to increase the surface area available for reflection. The resulting device could improve the performance of existing neutron imaging systems by a factor of about 50, the researchers say -- allowing for much sharper images, much smaller instruments, or both.

The team initially designed and optimized the concept digitally, then fabricated a small test instrument as a proof-of-principle and demonstrated its performance using a neutron beam facility at MIT's Nuclear Reactor Laboratory. Later work, requiring a different spectrum of neutron energies, was carried out at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Such a new instrument could be used to observe and characterize many kinds of materials and biological samples; other nonimaging methods that exploit the scattering of neutrons might benefit as well. Because the neutron beams are relatively low-energy, they are "a much more sensitive scattering probe," Moncton says, for phenomena such as "how atoms or magnetic moments move in a material."

The researchers next plan to build an optimized neutron-microscopy system in collaboration with NIST, which already has a major neutron-beam research facility. This new instrument is expected to cost a few million dollars.

Read more at Science Daily

Once 'Extinct' Pinocchio Lizard Pokes His Nose Out

This ain't no lie: The Pinocchio lizard was thought to be extinct for 50 years, but has been rediscovered in the cloud forests of Ecuador.

After searching for the long-nosed animal for three years, a team of photographers and researchers found the lizard recently in a stretch of pristine cloud forest in the northwest part of the country, said Alejandro Arteaga, a co-founder of the educational and ecotourism company Tropical Herping, which conducted the search for the lizard.

Also called the Pinocchio anole (an anole is a type of lizard), the animal is named after a certain dishonest wooden puppet and was first discovered in 1953, Arteaga said. But wasn't seen between the 1960s and 2005, when an ornithologist saw one crossing a road in the same remote area in northwest Ecuador. This is only the third time scientists have spotted it since 2005, Arteaga added.

Scientists typically look for lizards at night when most of the animals sleep, and when their coloring becomes paler and they are less likely to scurry away, Arteaga told LiveScience's OurAmazingPlanet. One of his colleagues found a single male Pinocchio anole clinging to a branch over a stream in January. The team then kept it overnight before photographing it in the morning in its natural habitat.

"After looking for so long ... It was very thrilling to find this strange lizard," Arteaga said. The team then let the animal go.

Arteaga and his colleagues were searching for the Pinocchio anole because it was the last lizard they needed to complete their book, "The Amphibians and Reptiles of Mindo," a rural region a two-hour drive north of Quito, Ecuador's capital. The book was published this summer.

Pinocchio anoles (Anolis proboscis) are an endangered species and have been found in only four locations, mostly along a single stretch of road, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a global environmental group. They have one of the smallest ranges of any lizard in the world, Arteaga said.

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 4, 2013

Sieving Through 'Junk' DNA Reveals Disease-Causing Genetic Mutations

Scientists have revealed nearly 100 genetic variants implicated in the development of cancers such as breast cancer and prostate cancer.

The new method designed by the team, described in the journal Science, identified these variants in the under-explored regions of DNA that do not code for proteins, but instead influence activity of other genes. As even more whole genome sequences become available, this approach can be applied to find any potential disease-causing variant in the non-coding regions of the genome.

Researchers can now identify DNA regions within non-coding DNA, the major part of the genome that is not translated into a protein, where mutations can cause diseases such as cancer.

Their approach reveals many potential genetic variants within non-coding DNA that drive the development of a variety of different cancers. This approach has great potential to find other disease-causing variants.

Unlike the coding region of the genome where our 23,000 protein-coding genes lie, the non-coding region -- which makes up 98% of our genome -- is poorly understood. Recent studies have emphasised the biological value of the non-coding regions, previously considered 'junk' DNA, in the regulation of proteins. This new information provides a starting point for researchers to sieve through the non-coding regions and identify the most functionally important regions.

"Our technique allows scientists to focus in on the most functionally important parts of the non-coding regions of the genome," says Professor Mark Gerstein, senior author from the University of Yale. "This is not just beneficial for cancer research, but can be extended to other genetic diseases too."

The team used the full set of genetic variants from the first phase of the 1000 Genomes Project, together with information about the non-coding regions generated by the ENCODE Project, and identified regions that did not accumulate much variation.

Protein-coding genes play a crucial role in human survival and fitness, and are under strong 'purifying' selection, which removes variation. The team found that some non-coding DNA regions showed almost the same low levels of variation as protein-coding genes, and called these 'ultrasensitive' regions.

Within the ultrasensitive regions, they looked at specific single DNA letters that, when altered, caused the greatest disturbance to the genetic region. If this non-coding, ultrasensitive region is central to a network of many related genes, variation can cause a greater knock-on effect, resulting in disease.

They integrated all this information to develop a computer workflow known as FunSeq. This system prioritises genetic variants in the non-coding regions based on their predicted impact on human disease.

"Our method is a practical and successful way to screen for purifying selection in non-coding regions of the genome using freely available data such as those from the ENCODE and 1000 Genomes Projects," says Dr Yali Xue, author from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. "It really shows the value of these large-scale open access data-sets."

The team applied FunSeq to 90 cancer genomes including breast cancer, prostate cancer and brain tumours, and found nearly 100 potential non-coding cancer driving variants. In the breast cancer genomes, for example, they found a single DNA letter change that seems to have great impact on the development of breast cancer. This single letter change occurs in an ultrasensitive region that is central to a network of many related genes.

Read more at Science Daily

Giant Planet Seen Lurking Inside the Galactic Bulge

Astronomers have discovered a giant world orbiting a star using a quirk of Einstein’s general relativity. This “microlensing” event enabled astronomers to test a new survey technique to detect the alien world from over 25,000 light-years away, deep inside the Milky Way’s galactic bulge.

Microlensing events occur when a star passes in front of another more distant star. As the nearer star passes in front, its gravitational field — which is (according to general relativity) bending the surrounding spacetime — deflects the light from the more distant star. Like the lens in a magnifying glass, the starlight is magnified and Earth-bound observatories are able to spot a transient brightening. Information about the “lens” (the foreground star) and any planets in tow can then be deduced.

The microlensing event “MOA-2011-BLG-322″ was detected during a 2011 observing season of a collaboration of observatories. Astronomers of the Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics (MOA — New Zealand/Japan), Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (OGLE — Poland) and Wise (Israel) all reported the event. Of the 218 microlensing events detected during that season, only 80 were confirmed by all three networks. Of those 80, three showed signs of a clear “planetary anomaly.”

A planetary anomaly is caused by a secondary mass (i.e. a planet) creating its own spacetime warping, adding detail to the microlensed starlight. Microlensing has therefore become a useful tool in the search for exoplanets orbiting distant stars. This technique contrasts greatly with the two leading techniques of exoplanet detection — the “transit” technique (the dimming of starlight caused by an accompanying exoplanet passing in front) and the “radial velocity” technique (the wobble of a star caused by the gravitational tugging of an orbiting exoplanet).

Although exoplanets have been discovered via microlensing before, this is the first planetary detection that uses only high cadence survey data after the event. Usually, when a microlensing event is detected, alerts are sent out to collaborating astronomers who then slew their telescopes toward the event and measurements are taken. In the case of MOA-2011-BLG-322, only data from the three surveys were used to estimate the star’s mass and the nature of the planetary companion. According to the researchers, this “shows that the survey data alone can be sufficient to characterize a planetary model.”

The exoplanet detected in this case has a mass of approximately eight times that of Jupiter and its star is likely an M-type star, around one third the mass of our sun. The exoplanet has an orbital distance of nearly 4 astronomical units (AU); or four-times the Earth-sun distance. From this observation, some interesting science can be done.

It would appear that MOA-2011-BLG-322′s massive planet exists in an orbit beyond its host star’s “snowline”. This is a region around any given star where protoplanetary material in the protoplanetary disk of a young star begins to freeze, making it a ripe environment for planets to form. However, this world appears to be too massive for its comparatively close orbit.

“According to the core accretion scenario, Jovian planets form beyond the snowlines of their parent stars, but massive planets around M-type stars should be rare, since their formation times are longer than the typical disk lifetime,” the researchers write. “In the disk instability planet-formation scenario massive planets do form around M stars, but at distances of over 7 AU.”

For such a large planet to be orbiting only 4 AU from its parent star, there appears to be some conflicts with existing planetary formation theories. Fortunately, microlensing is highly sensitive to detecting worlds beyond the snowlines of their stars, so with further discoveries by microlensing surveys will come better knowledge of how massive planets form or migrate from wider orbits.

Read more at Discovery News

Engraved Penises Reveal Birth Date of Italian City

Two penises engraved on a 2,000 year old stone may shed light on the foundation of the city of Aosta in northern Italy, revealing its deep connection with the Roman emperor Augustus.

Named Augusta Praetoria Salassorum by the Romans -- who captured it from the local Salassi people in 25 B.C. to control strategic mountain passes -- Aosta boasts several monuments dedicated to Augustus.

"But the newly discovered stone tells even more about Aosta’s connection with the Roman emperor. It reveals the city was built under Augustus’ sign during the winter solstice," Giulio Magli, professor of archaeoastronomy at Milan's Polytechnic University, told Discovery News.

Found covered in mud at a depth of 5 feet during excavation work at one of the town’s towers, the elaborately carved stone is still walled up in its original position on the southeast corner of the monument, known as Balivi Tower.

"Originally, the stone stood in plain view. But in the early Middle Ages the tower was probably flooded and its basis covered by alluvial material," Stella Bertarione, the archaeologist who made the discovery, told Discovery News.

Bertarione works at the Superintendency for cultural heritage and activities of the Aosta Valley autonomous region.

Carved on both sides, the block features two very clear figures on one side -- a phallus and, over it, a spade -- and some partly damaged reliefs on the other. There, a phallus is again represented. Over it, a plough and a partly eroded character which appears to be a Capricorn.

The plough and the spade openly hint to the sulcus primigenius, the original trench plowed to mark the perimeter of a new city in the Roman foundation ceremony. Related to the god Priapus, the phallic effigies most likely had an “apotropaic” function, evoking some sort of protection from evil forces.

"The chunk of mud has certainly preserved the stone from damage and censorship," Bertarione said. "In medieval times the evident phallic figures would have been erased since they were regarded as obscene pagan symbols."

Located on the northeast corner of the Roman walls, the Balivi Tower stands in the highest point of the ancient city. Looking at the carved stone, Bertarione noticed a peculiarity.

"The tips of the two phalli point to southeast, where the sun raises in the winter months," she said.

In the analysis that followed, Magli examined the original urban plan taking into account the complex natural horizon of the Alps in which Aosta’s valley is nested.

The results confirmed Aosta’s orientation to the sun rising on the winter solstice.

"We can estimate that the foundation of Aosta began on Dec. 23. On that day, the sun raises right in the direction pointed by the phalli on the stone," Bertarione said.

Read more at Discovery News

'Gravity': Science vs. Fiction

How Real Is This Orbital Blockbuster?

Director Alfonso Cuarón's visually stunning film "Gravity," in theaters today, is already being heralded as one of the year's best movies. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star as astronauts whose mission goes spectacularly wrong when a cloud of orbital debris shreds their shuttle, cuts off communication and leaves them stranded in space.

These details have already been revealed in the film's trailers, but what the previews can't convey is the impressive sense of authenticity and verisimilitude that director Cuarón brings to the big screen. Thanks to a brilliant visual design and strategic use of 3-D effects, the movie feels like being in space.

That sense of authenticity also applies to the film's depiction of the specifics of an actual NASA space mission. It's clear that the filmmakers did their homework. The movie is careful to stay within the realm of plausibility demanded by the genre of hard science fiction.

But just to be sure, we asked former NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao -- a veteran of three shuttle missions, four space walks and a six-month stint on the International Space Station -- to help us separate the science from the fiction. Warning: Several significant plot spoilers dead ahead.

Orbital Debris Causes … Complications

The crisis in the film is precipitated when the Russians blow up one of their own satellites, triggering a chain reaction that sends a cloud of lethal debris toward our heroes at around, oh, 17,000 mph. Chiao says the dangers of such a scenario are quite real and have been studied extensively.

"Just in recent history, the Chinese conducted an anti-weapons satellite test," Chiao says. "They blew up one of their old weather satellites, which created a bunch of debris."

Could such an incident really set off a chain-reaction that wipes out everything in orbit?

"It's not implausible, but it's unlikely," Chiao says. "Of course, if you have orbital debris, it can damage satellites or other spacecraft and potentially cause them to break up in turn. But the thing is, satellites are actually spaced pretty far apart. To get a cascade or chain reaction is pretty unlikely."

Houston ... We Have a Good One For You

Before everything goes haywire in orbit, the spacewalking astronauts Ryan Stone (Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (Clooney) keep it loose by casually chatting, joking with ground control in Houston and even listening to music. Is it really that casual up in space?

"Yeah, during spacewalks we're tied in with Houston and tied in with the crew inside (the shuttle), of course," Chiao says. "We have some light-hearted moments and we joke around a bit."

Can You Steal a Space Capsule?

When the debris cloud destroys the astronauts' ride back home -- that is to say, the space shuttle -- Stone is forced to improvise by breaking into an old Soyuz spacecraft docked at the International Space Station. Chiao says such orbital grand theft is quite possible, but pretty tricky.

"In order to open the outer door of the airlock you have to have the inner hatch closed and the air evacuated in between," Chaio says. "On the American airlock, you could open the pressure equalization valves, and there's a handle outside so you could definitely open the outer hatch. But the trick is, on the inside, the crew would have to have already closed that inner hatch. Otherwise you let all the air out of the station. If the crew configured it that way before they abandoned ship, then yes that could happen. It's physically possible."

Correct Use of Jargon is Critical

After the orbital debris cascade knocks out communication satellites, Stone and Kowalski lose contact with ground control. They keep transmitting, though, in hopes that someone is listening. Each message begins with the rather haunting phrase, "Transmitting in the blind..."

"Yeah, that's real phraseology and that's used in aircraft operations also," Chiao says. "You call 'in the blind' if you're not receiving them, but you think they might be receiving you. You're basically letting them know that you're not able to hear them."

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 3, 2013

New 'Bigfoot' Sighting Latest in Series of Hoaxes

A team of Bigfoot buffs called a press conference earlier this week to present what they called “definitive video and DNA evidence from the elusive Sasquatch.” Several short video clips, presented with more sincerity than credibility, turned out to be a publicity teaser for an upcoming Bigfoot movie.

Sharon Hill, a blogger who has written extensively about this story for Doubtful News.com, noted that “high definition footage of the creature known as ‘Matilda’ presented… This conference was announced via press release but honestly, those of us seriously following this fiasco assumed it would be another joke. And so it is. Not only does Matilda remarkably resemble a throw rug but the face seems eerily reminiscent of Chewbacca. The clips that were shown in the news conference were described as short and grainy. That’s kind of odd for HD footage, don’t you think?”

Pro-tip: If your high-def camera can’t distinguish between a sleeping Sasquatch and a throw rug, you need to buy lens cleaner. And why would there only be a few seconds of video? Surely the team stuck around long enough to videotape it as it woke up, if not call for additional cameras to surround it — or even a tranquilizer gun.

History of Bigfoot Hoaxes

This is only the latest of many confirmed and suspected Bigfoot hoaxes on film and video. The most famous recording of a Bigfoot is the short film taken in 1967 by Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin.

Shot in Bluff Creek, Calif., it shows a supposed female Bigfoot striding through a clearing. The film is generally considered a hoax, though to this day — nearly 50 years later — it is widely described by Bigfoot believers to be by far the best evidence for the creature.

This is of course not the first time that people have claimed to have found a Bigfoot, live or dead. The head of a prominent Bigfoot group, Tom Biscardi, appeared on the “Coast to Coast with George Noory” radio show in 2005 claiming that his group had captured a Bigfoot. It was, he said, a male standing eight feet tall and weighing over 400 pounds. Despite repeated promises to make the amazing discovery public, the whole thing turned out to be a hoax designed to drum up publicity for a Bigfoot film.

Three years later two Georgia men claimed to have found a dead Bigfoot creature towering nearly eight feet all, covered with hair, and weighing 500 pounds. They released a photograph of it inside a freezer and promised follow-up video and genetic analysis. That DNA evidence never materialized because the “Bigfoot” ended up being a rubber costume.

The history of Bigfoot evidence is full of similar audacious, high-profile hoaxes, and indeed there is no category of Bigfoot evidence that has not been widely hoaxed, including video, photographs, tracks, hair samples, blood samples and DNA samples. (One well-known sample of “Bigfoot blood” turned out to be transmission fluid.)

Dozens of people have admitted hoaxing Bigfoot prints. These days it’s easier than ever to fake Bigfoot tracks; anyone in the world can buy a cast of an alleged Bigfoot on eBay and use it to make tracks that resemble those accepted by some “experts” as authentic.

These hoaxes frustrate those in the Bigfoot research community who take the subject seriously and try to bring science and good research to the mystery. Faked evidence — sometimes created by sincere Bigfoot believers — not only casts doubt on potentially legitimate evidence, but can also waste enormous amounts of time and effort in disproving the hoax.

In one case hoaxing turned deadly; last year a man in Montana died while trying to pull off a Bigfoot hoax. Randy Lee Tenley was struck and killed by several cars; according to police he was dressed in a dark camouflage costume standing near a highway at night in an attempt to spur Bigfoot sighting reports.

Read more at Discovery News

Jewish Prayer Book Predates Oldest Torah Scroll

Scholars are calling a rare Hebrew text dating back to the 9th century the earliest known Jewish prayer book, predating the world's oldest Torah scroll.

The 50-page book is 4.3 inches tall and about 4 inches wide and is written in an archaic form of Hebrew, on pages of aged parchment. The text includes 100 Jewish blessings and discusses topics such as the apocalyptic tale of the End Times and the Passover Seder.

Carbon testing dates the prayer book to the year 840, which is 300 to 400 years before the oldest known Torah scroll from the 12th and 13th centuries.

"This find is historical evidence supporting the very fulcrum of Jewish religious life," said Jerry Pattengale, executive director of the Green Scholars Initiative, the group that announced the find. "This Hebrew prayer book helps fill the gap between the Dead Sea Scrolls and other discoveries of Jewish texts from the ninth and tenth centuries."

"This was a liturgical set of prayers, hymns and poems used for various occasions," Pattengale told the Huffington Post. "The prayer book is really what most of the Jewish community would be in touch with on a daily basis, a connection between the Bible and their daily worship."

The book is the Jewish equivalent of an early complete edition of the Christian Book of Common Prayer.

Started by the Green family of the retail chain Hobby Lobby, the Green Scholar's Initiative is the research arm of The Green Collection, one of the world's largest private collections of biblical texts and artifacts containing more than 40,000 items.

Read more at Discovery News

Lake That Turns Animals to Stone? Not Quite

Lake Natron in Tanzania is one of the most serene lakes in Africa, but it's also the source of some of the most phantasmagorical photographs ever captured — images that look as though living animals had instantly turned to stone.

The alkaline water in Lake Natron has a pH as high as 10.5 and is so caustic it can burn the skin and eyes of animals that aren't adapted to it. The water's alkalinity comes from the sodium carbonate and other minerals that flow into the lake from the surrounding hills. And deposits of sodium carbonate — which was once used in Egyptian mummification — also acts as a fantastic type of preservative for those animals unlucky enough to die in the waters of Lake Natron.

Despite some media reports, the animal didn't simply turn to stone and die after coming into contact with the lake's water. In fact, Lake Natron's alkaline waters support a thriving ecosystem of salt marshes, freshwater wetlands, flamingos and other wetland birds, tilapia and the algae on which large flocks of flamingos feed. Now, photographer Nick Brandt has captured haunting images of the lake and its dead in a book titled "Across the Ravaged Land" (Abrams Books, 2013).

Brandt discovered the remains of flamingos and other animals with chalky sodium carbonate deposits outlining their bodies in sharp relief. "I unexpectedly found the creatures — all manner of birds and bats — washed up along the shoreline of Lake Natron," Brandt wrote in his book. "No one knows for certain exactly how they die, but … the water has an extremely high soda and salt content, so high that it would strip the ink off my Kodak film boxes within a few seconds."

"I took these creatures as I found them on the shoreline, and then placed them in 'living' positions, bringing them back to 'life,' as it were," Brandt wrote, referring to the way he repositioned the animals. "Reanimated, alive again in death."

During breeding season, more than 2 million lesser flamingos (Phoenicopterus minor) use the shallow lake as their primary breeding ground in Africa. The flamingos' nests are built on small islands that form in the lake during the dry season.

Lake Natron is one of two alkaline lakes in that area of East Africa; the other is Lake Bahi. Both are terminal lakes that do not drain out to any river or sea; they are fed by hot springs and small rivers. As shallow lakes in a hot climate, their water temperatures can reach as high as 106 degrees Fahrenheit (41 degrees Celsius).

Read more at Discovery News

Fake Scientific Paper Fools 157 Journals

A spoof scientific report was recently accepted for publication in 157 journals around the world, proving how flawed some open-access publications are.

The fake paper was part of a sting operation orchestrated by John Bohannon, a contributing news correspondent to the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Science.

He wrote the paper under the fake name “Ocorrafoo Cobange,” supposedly a biologist at the Wassee Institute of Medicine in Asmara. No such institute or biologist exists.

Bohannon, in an article in the latest issue of Science, describes the fake paper as follows:

“Molecule X from lichen species Y inhibits the growth of cancer cell Z. To substitute for those variables, I created a database of molecules, lichens, and cancer cell lines and wrote a computer program to generate hundreds of unique papers.”

That might sound reasonable enough, but the study was riddled with obvious errors and contradictions that an expert in the field should have caught immediately.

Bohannon took the sting operation one step further, by slightly changing each version of the paper before he sent it out to the various journals.

“Submitting identical papers to hundreds of journals would be asking for trouble,” he explained.

To switch up the affiliations, for example, he randomly combined Swahili words and African names with generic institutional words and African capital cities.

“My hope was that using developing world authors and institutions would arouse less suspicion if a curious editor were to find nothing about them on the Internet,” Bohannon wrote.

To position himself as a foreigner writing in his non-native language (the papers were all submitted in English), he translated the paper into French with Google Translate and then translated the result back into English, correcting the worst mistranslations.

To ensure that the versions of the paper “were both fatally flawed and credible submissions,” he had two independent groups of molecular biologists at Harvard University review the paper to fine-tune the scientific flaws so that, as Bohannon described, the mistakes “were both obvious and boringly bad.”

He then submitted the versions of the paper, at a rate of about 10 per week, to 304 peer-reviewed, open-access journals around the world. Despite the paper’s incredible flaws, 157 of the journals accepted it for publication. Only 36 of the journals solicited responded with substantive comments that recognized the report’s scientific problems.

What’s more, Bohannon discovered that some of the journals are not based in the countries they claim. Although many had American or European-sounding titles, several of these publications were actually based in India.

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 2, 2013

Stone Age Bow and Arrows Uncovered in Norway

A melting patch of ancient snow in the mountains of Norway has revealed a bow and arrows likely used by hunters to kill reindeer as long ago as 5,400 years.

The discovery highlights the worrying effects of climate change, said study author Martin Callanan, an archaeologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

"It's actually a little bit unnerving that they're so old and that they're coming out right now," Callanan told LiveScience. "It tells us that there's something changing."

Locked in snow

Callanan and his colleagues spend every summer hiking up the Trollheim and Dovre mountains a few hours south of Trondheim, Norway, to study the snow patches in the area, track snow melt and look for archaeological artifacts. The mountains stretch 6,200 feet (1,900 meters) above sea level, and at the highest elevations, only rocks and snow prevail year-round.

In 2010 and 2011, a patch of snow melted, revealing an ancient bow and several arrows that had been locked in the snow for centuries. The bow was made from a common type of elm that grows at lower altitudes along the coast. The arrows were tipped in slate and set in different types of wood.

Dating revealed the Neolithic bow was about 3,800 years old, while the oldest of the arrows were 5,400 years old.

Ancient Stone Age hunters probably used the bow and arrows to kill reindeer, which spend summer days at high altitudes. The mountain retreat would have allowed the animals a respite from pesky insects, while standing on snow patches would have helped the shaggy creatures keep cool, Callanan said. Those predictable habits likely made them easy prey for ancient hunters.

No one knows exactly who left these ancient hunting instruments, but the bow and arrows have a design that's strikingly similar to those found thousands of miles away in other frigid landscapes, such as the Yukon, Callanan said.

"The people in Norway, they didn't have any contact with people in the Yukon, but they have the same type of adaptation," Callanan said. "Across different cultures, people have acted in the same way."

Decomposing artifacts

Finding such well-preserved tools is rare, said E. James Dixon, an archaeologist and director of the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico, who was not involved in the study.

"It's one of the rare glimpses that we have into this Neolithic-period archery technology," Dixon said.

Read more at Discovery News

Tiny Primate Fossil May Link Asia to Africa Move

The fossilized jaw of a pint-size primate that lived about 35 million years ago in Asia has been unearthed in Thai coal mines.

The new species, dubbed Krabia minuta, after the Krabi coal mines where it was found, was an ancient, extinct member of a group of primates called anthropoids, which includes the ancestors to all monkeys and apes, including humans. Even so, the creature showed peculiar features, including its distinct molars, not seen in other members of this primate group.

The tiny primate emerged during a mysterious period when primates somehow moved across a vast sea from Asia to Africa.

"The Asian anthropoids were probably more diversified than what we know today and also probably played a more important role in the origin of the modern crown anthropoids than we suspected," said study co-author Jean-Jacques Jaeger, a paleontologist at the Université de Poitiers in France.

Simian evolution

Though humans came from Africa, anthropoids, precursors to monkeys and humans, likely emerged from Asia. Fossil anthropoids have been found in China dating to 45 million years ago and in Southeast Asia as far back as 40 million years, yet similar species only appear in Libya in Africa around 38 million years ago.

Scientists have been perplexed by how these ancient simians made it out of Asia to Africa — an impressive journey considering that, at the time, Africa was separated from Asia by the Tethys Sea, which was bigger than the Mediterranean Sea, said Christopher Beard, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, who was not involved in the study.

One hypothesis is that ferocious cyclones ripped out whole chunks of land and trees in Asia — complete with primates and rodents clinging to the branches — and set those mini-islands adrift at sea. Those islands eventually floated to Africa, and the few tree-dwellers that survived then colonized the new continent, Beard said.

Yet Asian fossils that could help test this hypothesis have been hard to come by.

"The problem for paleontologists is that when you've got so much foliage everywhere, like a jungle, it's almost impossible to find fossils," because the foliage covers up earth where the fossils would be exposed, Beard told LiveScience.

Coal mine find

Jaeger and his colleagues excavated in the Krabi coal mine in Thailand, where the earth was already exposed. Paleontologists have discovered a trove of fossils from the area, including a 20-lb. (9 kilograms) anthropoid known as Siamopithecus.

The team unearthed part of a jaw and teeth from a tiny creature that likely weighed just half a pound. Based on the tooth geometry, the creature was definitely an anthropoid, though one very different from any other kinds previously known.

"The molar teeth of Krabia are very peculiar and indicate a diversified food made of soft fruits and or gum. This diet is very different from the other known southeast Asian anthropoids," who ate either insects or hard foods such as nuts, Jaeger said.

The team hypothesizes that the little simian is a (albeit odd) member of a group called amphipithecids, an extinct group of anthropoids that lived in Southeast Asia.

But because so little of the creature's body was preserved, Beard isn't certain of that classification.

"Reasonable people could disagree about what this fossil is and where it fits on the family tree of primates," Beard said.

That doesn't detract from the fossil's significance.

"It's one of a very few number of fossils that have come from there, and we have reason to think that Southeast Asia was a real epicenter for primate evolution at that time," Beard said.

Read more at Discovery News

Flowers May Have Lived Existed With First Dinos

Newfound fossils hint that flowering plants arose 100 million years earlier than scientists previously thought, suggesting flowers may have existed when the first known dinosaurs roamed Earth, researchers say.

Flowering plants are now the dominant form of plant life on land, evolving from relatives of seed-producing plants that do not flower, such as conifers and cycads.

"Flowering plants were the last group of plants appearing in Earth's history," said Peter Hochuli, a paleobotanist at the University of Zürich's Paleontological Institute and Museum and a co-author of the new study. "They are an extremely successful group on which all terrestrial ecosystems today depend, including the existence of humanity."

Flowering plants, or angiosperms, became the dominant plants about 90 million years ago, when the dinosaurs still roamed the Earth. However, the exact time when these plants originated remains hotly debated.

Now, scientists have unearthed ancient pollen grains with microscopic features typically seen in flowering plants. These well-preserved fossils, discovered in two core samples drilled in northern Switzerland, are about 245 million years old, dating back to the earliest known dinosaur in the Middle Triassic period.

"Our findings suggest that the origin of flowering plants is rooted much deeper than originally thought," Hochuli told LiveScience.

Pollen grains are small, robust and numerous. This makes them easier to find in the fossil record than comparably large and fragile leaves and flowers. After analyzing the structure of these grains, the researchers suggested that the associated plants were pollinated by insects -- most likely beetles, as bees did not evolve until about 100 million years later.

Six different types of pollen were found in the ancient samples, revealing that flowering plants back then may have been considerably diverse. The researchers have seen these pollen grains in both Switzerland and the Barents Sea, north of Scandinavia. However, back in the Middle Triassic, both areas were located in the subtropics, and the region that is now Switzerland was much drier than the Barents Sea region, suggesting the flowering plants spanned a broad range of environments.

The fossil record of flowering plants is continuous, dating back 140 million years. Until now, the fossil record of flowering plants suggested they dominated the planet rather quickly after their earliest appearance. "This sudden appearance has bothered scientists ever since Darwin, who called the origin of flowering plants an 'abominable mystery,'" Hochuli said.

These newfound fossils reveal that flowering plants may have existed more than 100 million years longer than previously thought. This increased span of time might help explain how flowering plants spread, diversified and prevailed on land.

The ancestors of flowering plants currently remain a mystery, and scientists aren't sure what kind of events or conditions might have spurred their origin.

Read more at Discovery News

Strange Planet Has 'Plasma' Water Atmosphere

A nearby alien planet six times the size of the Earth is covered with a water-rich atmosphere that includes a strange "plasma form" of water, scientists say.

Astronomers have determined that the atmosphere of super-Earth Gliese 1214 b is likely water-rich. However, this exoplanet is no Earth twin. The high temperature and density of the planet give it an atmosphere that differs dramatically from Earth.

"As the temperature and pressure are so high, water is not in a usual form (vapor, liquid, or solid), but in an ionic or plasma form at the bottom the atmosphere — namely the interior — of Gliese 1214 b," principle investigator Norio Narita of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan told SPACE.com by email.

Using two instruments on the Subaru Telescope in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, scientists studied the scattering of light from the planet. Combining their results with previous observations led the astronomers to conclude that the atmosphere contained significant amounts of water.

A wellspring of exotic water

Located 40 light-years from the solar system in the constellation Ophiuchus, the planet orbits its cooler, low-mass M-type star once every 38 hours, 70 times closer than Earth is to the sun.

Its close proximity means that its temperatures reach up to 540 degrees Fahrenheit (280 degrees Celsius). Six times as massive as Earth, Gliese 1214 b is less than three times as wide, falling between the Earth and the solar system's ice giants Uranus and Neptune in size.

The high temperatures of the planet may affect the hydrogen and carbon chemistry, which could produce a haze in the atmosphere. But determining if the weather is clear or perpetually overcast on Gliese 1214 b would be difficult, as differences in the two atmospheres are small.

"At high pressure and high temperature, the behavior of water is quite different from that on the Earth," Narita said. "At the bottom of the water-rich atmosphere of Gliese 1214 b, water should be a super-critical fluid."

Unlike terrestrial planets, the super-Earth doesn't have a solid surface, making the height of the atmosphere difficult to define. Instead, atmospheric scientists introduce a concept called the scale height, a height determined by changes in the increase or decrease of atmospheric pressure by a set amount. On Earth, the scale height is about 6 miles (10 kilometers), while on Gliese 1214 b it is three times deeper, according to Narita.

"We predict that ionic or plasma water can be seen deep inside the planet," Narita said. "However, we may not be able to find hot 'ice' — high pressure-ices — inside of Gliese 1214 b."

Originally discovered in by the MEarth Project, which tracks more than 2,000 low-mass stars in search of planets, Gliese 1214 b was confirmed by the European Space Agency's High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher in Chile.

As a planet travels across the face of its star, or transits, it blocks the star's light slightly, allowing scientists to determine characteristics about it based on how much the light dims.

Though water is often considered a necessary ingredient for life by scientists, Narita doesn't think that the super-Earth will be promising due to its close orbit, which lies within the star's habitable zone, the region where liquid water can exist.

"Although water vapor can exist in the atmosphere, liquid water — namely oceans — would not exist on the surface of this planet," he said. "So unfortunately, we do not think this planet would be habitable."

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 1, 2013

First Cloud Map of a Planet Beyond Our Solar System

Astronomers using data from NASA's Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes have created the first cloud map of a planet beyond our solar system, a sizzling, Jupiter-like world known as Kepler-7b.

The planet is marked by high clouds in the west and clear skies in the east. Previous studies from Spitzer have resulted in temperature maps of planets orbiting other stars, but this is the first look at cloud structures on a distant world.

"By observing this planet with Spitzer and Kepler for more than three years, we were able to produce a very low-resolution 'map' of this giant, gaseous planet," said Brice-Olivier Demory of Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Demory is lead author of a paper accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. "We wouldn't expect to see oceans or continents on this type of world, but we detected a clear, reflective signature that we interpreted as clouds."

Kepler has discovered more than 150 exoplanets, which are planets outside our solar system, and Kepler-7b was one of the first. The telescope's problematic reaction wheels prevent it from hunting planets any more, but astronomers continue to pore over almost four years' worth of collected data.

Kepler's visible-light observations of Kepler-7b's moon-like phases led to a rough map of the planet that showed a bright spot on its western hemisphere. But these data were not enough on their own to decipher whether the bright spot was coming from clouds or heat. The Spitzer Space Telescope played a crucial role in answering this question.

Like Kepler, Spitzer can fix its gaze at a star system as a planet orbits around the star, gathering clues about the planet's atmosphere. Spitzer's ability to detect infrared light means it was able to measure Kepler-7b's temperature, estimating it to be between 1,500 and 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit (1,100 and 1,300 Kelvin). This is relatively cool for a planet that orbits so close to its star -- within 0.06 astronomical units (one astronomical unit is the distance from Earth and the sun) -- and, according to astronomers, too cool to be the source of light Kepler observed. Instead, they determined, light from the planet's star is bouncing off cloud tops located on the west side of the planet.

"Kepler-7b reflects much more light than most giant planets we've found, which we attribute to clouds in the upper atmosphere," said Thomas Barclay, Kepler scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. "Unlike those on Earth, the cloud patterns on this planet do not seem to change much over time -- it has a remarkably stable climate."

The findings are an early step toward using similar techniques to study the atmospheres of planets more like Earth in composition and size.

"With Spitzer and Kepler together, we have a multi-wavelength tool for getting a good look at planets that are trillions of miles away," said Paul Hertz, director of NASA's Astrophysics Division in Washington. "We're at a point now in exoplanet science where we are moving beyond just detecting exoplanets, and into the exciting science of understanding them."

Kepler identified planets by watching for dips in starlight that occur as the planets transit, or pass in front of their stars, blocking the light. This technique and other observations of Kepler-7b previously revealed that it is one of the puffiest planets known: if it could somehow be placed in a tub of water, it would float. The planet was also found to whip around its star in just less than five days.

Explore all 900-plus exoplanet discoveries with NASA's "Eyes on Exoplanets," a fully rendered 3D visualization tool, available for download at http://eyes.nasa.gov/exoplanets. The program is updated daily with the latest findings from NASA's Kepler mission and ground-based observatories around the world as they search for planets like our own.

Other authors include: Julien de Wit, Nikole Lewis, Andras Zsom and Sara Seager of Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Jonathan Fortney of the University of California, Santa Cruz; Heather Knutson and Jean-Michel Desert of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena; Kevin Heng of the University of Bern, Switzerland; Nikku Madhusudhan of Yale University, New Haven, Conn.; Michael Gillon of the University of Liège, Belgium; Vivien Parmentier of the French National Center for Scientific Research, France; and Nicolas Cowan of Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill. Lewis is also a NASA Sagan Fellow.

The technical paper is online at http://www.mit.edu/~demory/preprints/kepler-7b_clouds.pdf .

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. For more information about Spitzer, visit: http://spitzer.caltech.edu and http://www.nasa.gov/spitzer .

Read more at Science Daily

Ancient Kingdom Discovered Beneath Mound in Iraq

In the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq archaeologists have discovered an ancient city called Idu, hidden beneath a mound.

Cuneiform inscriptions and works of art reveal the palaces that flourished in the city throughout its history thousands of years ago.

Located in a valley on the northern bank of the lower Zab River, the city's remains are now part of a mound created by human occupation called a tell, which rises about 32 feet (10 meters) above the surrounding plain. The earliest remains date back to Neolithic times, when farming first appeared in the Middle East, and a modern-day village called Satu Qala now lies on top of the tell.

The city thrived between 3,300 and 2,900 years ago, said Cinzia Pappi, an archaeologist at the Universität Leipzig in Germany. At the start of this period, the city was under the control of the Assyrian Empire and was used to administer the surrounding territory. Later on, as the empire declined, the city gained its independence and became the center of a kingdom that lasted for about 140 years, until the Assyrians reconquered it.

The researchers were able to determine the site's ancient name when, during a survey of the area in 2008, a villager brought them an inscription with the city's ancient name engraved on it. Excavations were conducted in 2010 and 2011, and the team reported its findings in the most recent edition of the journal Anatolica.

"Very few archaeological excavations had been conducted in Iraqi Kurdistan before 2008," Pappi wrote in an email to LiveScience. Conflicts in Iraq over the past three decades have made it difficult to work there. Additionally archaeologists before that time tended to favor excavations in the south of Iraq at places like Uruk and Ur.

The effects of recent history are evident on the mound. In 1987, Saddam Hussein's forces attacked and partly burnt the modern-day village as part of a larger campaign against the Kurds, and "traces of this attack are still visible," Pappi said.

Ancient palaces

The art and cuneiform inscriptions the team uncovered provide glimpses of the ancient city's extravagant palaces.

When Idu was an independent city, one of its rulers, Ba'ilanu, went so far as to boast that his palace was better than any of his predecessors'. "The palace which he built he made greater than that of his fathers," he claimed in the translated inscription. (His father, Abbi-zeri, made no such boast.)

Two works of art hint at the decorations adorning the palaces at the time Idu was independent. One piece of artwork, a bearded sphinx with the head of a human male and the body of a winged lion, was drawn onto a glazed brick that the researchers found in four fragments. Above and below the sphinx, a surviving inscription reads, "Palace of Ba'auri, king of the land of Idu, son of Edima, also king of the land of Idu."

Another work that was created for the same ruler, and bearing the same inscription as that on the sphinx, shows a "striding horse crowned with a semicircular headstall and led by a halter by a bearded man wearing a fringed short robe," Pappi and colleague Arne Wossink wrote in the journal article.

Even during Assyrian rule, when Idu was used to administer the surrounding territory, finely decorated palaces were still built. For instance, the team discovered part of a glazed plaque whose colored decorations include a palmette, pomegranates and zigzag patterns. Only part of the inscription survives, but it reads, "Palace of Assurnasirpal, (king of the land of Assur)." Assurnasirpal refers to Assurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.), the researchers said, adding that he, or one of his governors, must have built or rebuilt a palace at Idu after the Assyrians reconquered the city.

A hero facing a griffon

Another intriguing artifact, which may be from a palace, is a cylinder seal dating back about 2,600 years. When it was rolled on a piece of clay, it would have revealed a vivid mythical scene.

The scene would have shown a bow-wielding man crouching down before a griffon, as well as a morning star (a symbol of the goddess Ishtar), a lunar crescent (a symbol of the moon god) and a solar disc symbolizing the sun god. A symbol called a rhomb, which represented fertility, was also shown.

"The image of the crouching hero with the bow is typical for warrior gods," Pappi wrote in the email. "The most common of these was the god Ninurta, who also played an important role in the state religion, and it is possible that the figure on the seal is meant to represent him."

Future work

Before conducting more digs, the researchers will need approval from both the local government and the people of the village.

"For wide-scale excavations to continue, at least some of these houses will have to be removed," Pappi said. "Unfortunately, until a settlement is reached between the villagers and the Kurdistan regional government, further work is currently not possible."

Read more at Discovery News

Antarctica's Salt-Loving Microbes Swap DNA

Microbes living in Antarctica's saltiest lake swap huge chunks of genetic material as a means of surviving their harsh environment, a new study finds.

The single-celled organisms, called haloarchaea for their salt-loving ways, are biologically distinct from bacteria, algae and other tiny creatures that can thrive in extreme settings.

Their Antarctic home is a deep lake in the Vestfold Hills severed from the ocean more than 3,000 years ago. Appropriately named Deep Lake, the basin sits 50 meters (165 feet) below sea level. Deep Lake is so salty that it's never been known to freeze, even at temperatures below minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 20 degrees Celsius).

Little else lives in Deep Lake except haloarchaea. For years, scientists have been analyzing the microbes to see what makes them thrive in the strange environment, and for clues to possible life on other planets.

One unusual survival technique has now been found: The handful of haloarchaea species in Deep Lake exchange DNA, according to a study published yesterday (Sept. 30) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Though each species is specialized and has its own niche, such as eating proteins or sugars, they come together and trade chunks of DNA, some as long as 35,000 letters of code, a team led by Rick Cavicchioli, a microbiologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, discovered.

"Our research shows these (haloarchaea) swap much more genetic material with each other than has been observed in the natural environment before. Long stretches of virtually identical DNA are exchanged between different genera, not just species," Cavicchioli said in a statement. "Despite this rampant gene swapping, the different species are maintained and can co-exist because they have evolved to exploit different niches and consume different food sources." (Genus is the classification above species.)

Another consequence of life in the cold zone is slowed reproduction. The lake haloarchaea reproduce only six times a year, the researchers found.

Read more at Discovery News

Can Intelligence Really Be Measured?

Every year, the MacArthur Foundation bestows large financial grants on a group of people who are doing exceptionally creative or important work.

MacArthur fellowships are often called “genius grants,” and grant-winners tend to be unusually motivated, passionate and forward thinking. But are they geniuses? The annual conversation that ensues raises questions about what it means to be intelligent and whether that’s something that can be cultivated, measured or even defined.

Despite decades of research into how different brains work, experts said, there are no easy answers. Scientists now know that there are multiple types of intelligence. There's a strong genetic component to certain aspects of intelligence. And scores on intelligence tests are tightly linked to school performance, future income level, health and more.

But IQ scores are far from the only factor that determines how well people do in life. Also, conversations about innate differences in intelligence continue to make people uneasy, probably because there is a long history of racism, classism, sexism and even religious discrimination tied up in discussions about who is smarter than whom.

“The field is just fraught with controversy after controversy,” said Randall Engle, a psychologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. “There are group differences all over the place in intelligence measures and that just adds to the controversy. It’s hard for the field to come to grips with what’s understandable about this in the midst of all this craziness.”

Researchers have been interested in understanding the nature of intelligence since at least the 1800s, but early studies were hampered by complications.

Part of the problem was that intelligence tests were designed before anyone had come up with a specific definition of what they were trying to measure, Engle said. What’s more, British scientist Sir Francis Galton, who was the first to use statistics to test whether intelligence could be inherited, was also a eugenicist, and beliefs that good traits were inborn led to forced sterilizations and other terrible outcomes.

In the early 1900s, French psychologist Alfred Binet developed a test to identify children who might need extra help in school, and his work was incorporated into the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales, which originally focused on verbal skills. That and other modern IQ tests have changed over the years as new research changes our understanding of what intelligence is.

Generally, Engle said, different IQ tests correlate well with each other and scores tend to be linked to real-world outcomes. Compared to people who score lower on the tests, for example, people with the highest IQs file more patents, publish more academic papers, and earn higher incomes.

But scoring well on an IQ test doesn’t predict success, nor does a relatively average or lower score predict a life of misery.

That’s because having a high IQ is like owning a car with a big engine, said David Lubinksi, psychologist and co-director of the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

“If there’s no gas in your car you’re not going to go anywhere. If road conditions are bad, you’re not going to go anywhere,” he said. In the case of intelligence, you need good health, hard work and motivation to take advantage of inherent brainpower.

Another complication is that intelligence comes in many forms. One category is crystallized intelligence, Engle said, which measures how much knowledge a person has acquired and that is highly correlated to education level.

On the flip side is fluid intelligence, which is the ability to reason and solve new problems. Studies of twins show that fluid intelligence is largely genetic. Identical twins are much more similar to each other on measures of fluid intelligence than fraternal twins are.

But, according to recent research, that is true only for people with high socioeconomic status, at least in the United States, where access to education varies by zip code. In other words, genes only kick in to influence IQ when people are already getting a relatively good education.

As scientists learn more about the components of intelligence, they are developing new ways to assess nuances in the way people think.

Traditional IQ tests have long focused on math and verbal skills, Lubinksi said. Now, though, it’s becoming clear that the ability to think spatially and rotate shapes in the mind’s eye is essential for pilots, orthopedic surgeons, architects and other occupations. Some newer tests evaluate those visualization skills.

Even as testing gets more refined, debates continue about whether IQ tests should be used at all. The military has used intelligence testing as a way to place people in the toughest posts, and experts said that evaluations can be useful in professional and educational settings, too -- as long as they’re used responsibly and sensitively.

For kids who are struggling in school, for instance, IQ tests can help determine whether they’re so intelligent that they’re bored or if they have cognitive deficits that require special attention. Determining mental strengths and weaknesses can also help teachers tailor education and steer students towards jobs that best fit their skills.

On the other hand, experts said, it wouldn’t be a good idea to test every child’s IQ and announce the number because that would unnecessarily and unfairly shape expectations.

Read more at Discovery News

Sep 30, 2013

Traces of Immense Prehistoric Ice Sheets Discovered

Geologists and geophysicists of the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), discovered traces of large ice sheets from the Pleistocene on a seamount off the north-eastern coast of Russia. These marks confirm for the first time that within the past 800,000 years in the course of ice ages, ice sheets more than a kilometre thick also formed in the Arctic Ocean.

The climate history for this part of the Arctic now needs to be rewritten, report the AWI scientists jointly with their South Korean colleagues in the title story of the current issue of the scientific journal Nature Geoscience.

AWI geologist Dr. Frank Niessen and colleagues had already discovered the first signs of conspicuous scour marks and sediment deposits on the ocean floor north of Wrangle Island (Russia) on a Polarstern expedition in 2008. However, they were unable to gather extensive proof until last year, during an Arctic expedition on the South Korean research vessel Araon. "After we had analysed the bathymetric and seismic data from our first voyage, we knew exactly where we needed to search and survey the ocean floor with the swath sonar of the Araon on the second expedition," said Frank Niessen, the first author of the study.

The result of this research is a topographic map of the Arlis Plateau, a seamount on which deep, parallel-running furrows can be discerned on the upper plateau and the sides -- and over an area of 2500 square kilometres and to an ocean depth of 1200 metres. "We knew of such scour marks from places like the Antarctic and Greenland. They arise when large ice sheets become grounded on the ocean floor and then scrape over the ground like a plane with dozens of blades as they flow. The remarkable feature of our new map is that it indicates very accurately right off that there were four or more generations of ice masses, which in the past 800,000 years moved from the East Siberian Sea in a north-easterly direction far into the deep Artic Ocean," says Frank Niessen.

These new findings overturn the traditional textbook view of the history of Arctic glaciations. "Previously, many scientists were convinced that mega-glaciations always took place on the continents -- a fact that has also been proven for Greenland, North America, and Scandinavia. However, it was assumed that the continental shelf region of North-eastern Siberia became exposed in these ice ages and turned into a vast polar desert in which there was not enough snow to enable a thick ice shield to form over the years. Our work now shows that the opposite was true. With the exception of the last ice age 21,000 years ago, ice sheets formed repeatedly in the shallow areas of the Arctic Ocean. These sheets were at least 1200 metres thick and presumably covered an area as large as Scandinavia," says Frank Niessen.

The AWI scientists still cannot say for certain, however, under what climate conditions these ice sheets formed and when exactly they left their marks on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean. "We theorize that the East Siberian ice sheets arose during various ice ages when the average global temperature was around five to eight degrees Celsius cooler than what it is today. But evidently this relatively minor temperature difference was often sufficient to allow initially thin ocean ice to grow into an immense ice cap. An example that shows just how sensitively the Arctic reacts to changes in the global climate system," says the geologist.

In a next step, the AWI researchers now want to try collecting soil samples from deeper layers of the ocean floor with a sediment core drill and thus learn more details about the prehistoric ice sheets. "Our long-term goal is to reconstruct the exact chronology of the glaciations so that with the aid of the known temperature and ice data, the ice sheets can be modelled. On the basis of the models, we then hope to learn what climate conditions prevailed in Eastern Siberia during the ice ages and how, for example, the moisture distribution in the region evolved during the ice ages," says Frank Niessen. This knowledge should then help predict possible changes in the Arctic as a consequence of climate change more accurately.

Frank Niessen and his colleagues are anticipating a great number of surprising discoveries in the Arctic Ocean in the future. "As the Arctic Ocean sea-ice cover continues to shrink, more formerly unexplored ocean area becomes accessible. Today less than ten percent of the Arctic Ocean floor has been surveyed as thoroughly as the Arlis Plateau," says the AWI geologist. And this study would not have succeeded were it not for the outstanding cooperation of the AWI scientists with researchers of the South Korean Polar Research Institute KOPRI. "We complemented each other perfectly in this research. Our South Korean colleagues had the expedition and ship time, we knew the coordinates of the area in which we now found the evidence of the mega-glaciations," says Frank Niessen.

Read more at Science Daily

Fossil Poo Reveals Where Ancient Giant Bird Ate

Being 12 feet tall and weighting 500 pounds didn’t save the giant moa (Dinornis robustus) from extinction, along with 11 smaller moa species on the islands of New Zealand. The ancient Maori, who may have hunted the massive flightless birds to extinction, probably knew well the moas’ favorite habitats.

But, for modern biologists, how moa’s used and shared the environment remained a mystery. Now poop has helped scientists decipher the mysterious movements of the moa.

Researchers analyzed pollen and other clues in fossilized feces from four species of the extinct bird. Each species’ feces contained different mixtures of plant remains. By matching the fossil plant species mixture with modern habitats, the researchers traced where the birds spent their time, before they disappeared in the early 1400s.

The giant moa (Dinornis robustus) fed in the transition zone between forests and grassland.

A smaller bird, the upland moa (Megalapteryx didinus), ate a more generalist diet with a mixture of foods from both woods and fields.

The bush moa (Anomalopteryx didiformus) grew to 1.3 meters (4.3 feet) tall while feeding mostly in the forest.

The heavy-footed moa (Pachyornis elephantopus) trod the grasslands of ancient New Zealand while it ate.

Read more at Discovery News

Human Hair Confirmed in Prehistoric Hyena Feces

Human hair found in fossilized hyena poop suggests that our ancestors satisfied the hunger of others during prehistoric times.

The fossilized dung, part of a “hyena latrine,” will be described in the upcoming October issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science. The latrine was first found a few years ago at Gladysvale cave in the Sterkfontein Valley of South Africa, but it recently went through an additional barrage of testing.

Our ancestors there lived around a literally wild bunch about 257,000 years ago.

“Based on the fossil hairs identified here, this research has established that brown hyenas shared the Sterkfontein Valley with hominins, warthog, impala, zebra and kudu,” authors Phillip Taru and Lucinda Backwell of the University of the Witwatersrand wrote.

They continued, “Apart from humans, these animals are associated with savanna grasslands, much like the Highveld environment of today.”

It sounds like there are three ways in which the hairs could have wound up where they did:

1. The hyena ate a person(s). This happens even today, so it’s very possible.

2. The hyena scavenged a dead person’s body.

3. Somehow the hyena consumed a blob of human hair. Hey, you never know. If the hyena were hungry enough, it might have sampled all kinds of weird things.

What’s clear, at least, is that humans were at the site.

As the researchers wrote, “Hair provides evidence of inland occupation by archaic Homo sapiens or modern humans.”

The hair lacked scales, which could provide yet another useful clue.

“A lack of hair scales has been documented in human hair subject to pathology, a condition observed when studying our diabetic colleague’s hair as part of the human comparative sample,” Taru and Backwell explained.

Read more at Discovery News

Climate Report: Everything You Wanted to Know

Published today, “Climate Change 2013: The Physical Basis” is the first of a series of reports that will be finalized and released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) over the next 12 months, and this is the one that will garner the most attention.

Officially known as the Working Group I Contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report, each assessment comes along roughly every six years (the last was in 2007), and each volume of each assessment contains many hundreds of pages of distilled research — compiling the evidence of how much the climate is changing and modeling future climate change scenarios.

Wait? It’s Released Today? So Why All the Coverage on Friday?

Fortunately for those of us who aren’t climate scientists or who don’t have the wherewithal to read through hundreds upon hundreds of pages, each Working Group report comes with a “Summary for Policymakers,” which is significantly shorter (at approximately 30 pages) and focuses on the bare essentials of the larger report. It was the summary report that was released on Friday and which spawned so much media coverage.

Who or What Is the IPCC?

The IPCC, or Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was established in 1988 by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), “to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts.” It has a relatively small secretariat, housed in WMO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. The IPCC itself does not conduct any research, not does it monitor climate-related data. What it does do is call upon the services and expertise of hundreds of scientists across the globe, who work to review and assess the most recent scientific, technical and socio-economic information produced worldwide related to climate science, and to produce these syntheses. The report published today has over 200 principal authors.

OK, So What Does the Report Say?

There are plenty of specifics, as is to be expected from a 2,000 page report. But generally speaking, Daryl Frears summed it up fairly succinctly in The Washington Post:

Some key findings were that the planet is warming at an accelerated pace without any doubt, that humans are causing it with 95 percent certainty and that the past three decades have been the hottest since 1850. Carbon concentrations in the atmosphere have increased 40 percent since then, and carbon, methane and nitrous oxide are at levels unprecedented in at least 800,000 years. Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have steadily lost mass in two decades, and glaciers are shrinking worldwide. Sea-level rise could reach three feet by 2100.

In other words: yes, there is warming; the pace of the warming is increasing; the warming that is taking place is exerting noticeable effects; this warming is associated with extremely elevated levels of greenhouse gases; and humans are almost certainly responsible for it.

Does It Contain Anything New?

It depends what you mean by new. If you are a regular peruser of climate  science, then you likely are familiar with at least the broad parameters of what the report includes. What is exceptionally helpful, however, are the ways in which the IPCC synthesizes thousands of studies in an comparatively comprehensible way, allowing climate scientists to de facto speak as one voice. And IPCC material can be easily further condensed for amplification: witness, for example, this handy post from Climate Central, which takes five of the key graphics from the IPCC report to highlight the extent of the changes that have taken place and are potentially yet to come.

Furthermore, it is instructive to compare the conclusions of this assessment report with previous ones and see how increased evidence has led to increased certainty about both present-day climate change, but also its significance in the historical record. For example, in 2001, the IPCC noted that the last few decades were likely the warmest in the northern hemisphere for 1,000 years; six years later, that had been extended to 1,300 years; in the most recent report, it now stands at 1,400 years.

Additionally, the IPCC’s projections of sea-level rise are now higher than they were in 2007, there is an understanding than the Greenland ice sheet is less stable than was presumed six years ago, and projections of the earliest ice-free Arctic Ocean summers have been  moved forward from the end of the century to the middle of it.

And the IPCC feels able to make its statements with a greater degree of confidence as time goes on. For example, in 2007, it stated that ”Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely (90 percent confidence) due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations”; six years later, the relevant paragraph reads that, ”It is extremely likely (95 percent confidence) more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together.” (Emphasis added.)

Wait. 95% Confident? So They’re Not Certain Then?

Non-scientists may look at that figure and think, “So there is some doubt,” especially if they’re inclined to be skeptical about anthropogenic climate change. Similarly, because scientists refer to climate change being caused by human activities as a theory (as they do, for that matter, evolution), to laypeople’s ears it can connote speculation rather than fact. But this is scientific terminology that means something entirely different to those who use it.

By way of illustration, Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press asked a variety of scientists what 95 percent certainty about warming meant to them. He reported:

Top scientists from a variety of fields say they are about as certain that global warming is a real, man-made threat as they are that cigarettes kill. They are as sure about climate change as they are about the age of the universe. They say they are more certain about climate change than they are that vitamins make you healthy or that dioxin in Superfund sites is dangerous.

Earth is a complex system with a great deal of natural variation, and science is an inherently skeptical and self-correcting enterprise. But when it comes to climate change, the degree of uncertainty about the cause is very low. Continued Borenstein: “Climate change ‘is not as sure as if you drop a stone it will hit the Earth,’ Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer said. ‘It’s not certain, but it’s close.’

What Does This Report Say About the Future?

Quite a lot, and it isn’t encouraging. The IPCC notes that, “Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.” For the first time, it quantifies a global ‘carbon budget,’ calculating that for global mean temperature increases to be held below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6°F), a level that has been described as a ‘prescription for disaster,’ total global carbon emissions would have to remain below 1,000 billion tons. Human activities have already released approximately half that amount. Additionally, it is also likely that more than 20 percent of emitted CO2 will remain in the atmosphere for more than 1,000 years, as a result of which a large part of anthropogenic climate change will be “irreversible on a human timescale” unless means are found to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere.

Read more at Discovery News

Sep 29, 2013

Wagon-Wheel Pasta Shape for Better LED Lights

One problem in developing more efficient organic LED light bulbs and displays for TVs and phones is that much of the light is polarized in one direction and thus trapped within the light-emitting diode, or LED. University of Utah physicists believe they have solved the problem by creating a new organic molecule that is shaped like rotelle -- wagon-wheel pasta -- rather than spaghetti.

The rotelle-shaped molecule -- known as a "pi-conjugated spoked-wheel macrocycle" -- acts the opposite of polarizing sunglasses, which screen out glare reflected off water and other surfaces and allow only direct sunlight to enter the eyes.

The new study showed wagon-wheel molecules emit light randomly in all directions -- a necessary feature for a more efficient OLED, or organic LED. Existing OLEDs now in some smart phones and TVs use spaghetti-shaped polymers -- chains of repeating molecular units -- that emit only polarized light.

"This work shows it is possible to scramble the polarization of light from OLEDs and thereby build displays where light doesn't get trapped inside the OLED," says University of Utah physicist John Lupton, lead author of a study of the spoked-wheel-shaped molecules published online Sunday, Sept. 29 in the journal Nature Chemistry.

"We made a molecule that is perfectly symmetrical, and that makes the light it generates perfectly random," he adds. "It can generate light more efficiently because it is scrambling the polarization. That holds promise for future OLEDs that would use less electricity and thus increase battery life for phones, and for OLED light bulbs that are more efficient and cheaper to operate."

Lupton emphasizes the study is basic science, and new OLEDs based on the rotelle-shaped molecules are "quite a way down the road."

He says OLEDs now are used in smart phones, particularly the Samsung Galaxy series; in pricey new super-thin TVs being introduced by Sony, Samsung, LG and others; and in lighting.

"OLEDs in smart phones have caught on because they are somewhat more efficient than conventional liquid-crystal displays like those used in the iPhone," he says. "That means longer battery life. Samsung has already demonstrated flexible, full-color OLED displays for future roll-up smart phones." Lupton says smart phones could produce light more efficiently using molecules that don't trap as much light.

The large rotelle-shaped molecules also can "catch" other molecules and thus would make effective biological sensors; they also have potential use in solar cells and switches, he adds.

The study was funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, the German Chemical Industry Fund, the David and Lucille Packard Foundation and the European Research Council.

Lupton is a research professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Utah and also on the faculty of the University of Regensburg, Germany. He conducted the study with Utah physics graduate student Alexander Thiessen; Sigurd Höger, Vikas Aggarwal, Alissa Idelson, Daniel Kalle and Stefan-S. Jester of the University of Bonn; and Dominik Würsch, Thomas Stangl, Florian Steiner and Jan Vogelsang of the University of Regensburg.

Freeing Trapped Light

While conventional LEDs use silicon semiconductors, OLEDs in some of the latest cell phones and TVs are made with "pi-conjugated polymers," which are plastic-like, organic semiconductors made of a chain of repeating molecular units.

"Conjugated polymers are a terrible mess," Lupton says. "They now make only mediocre OLEDs, although people like to claim the opposite."

For one thing, three-quarters of the light energy is in a state that normally is inaccessible -- a problem addressed by another recent University of Utah study of OLEDs. Lupton says his study deals with another problem, which exists even if the other problem is overcome: the polarization of light in pi-conjugated polymers that leads to the "trapping" or loss of up to 80 percent of the light generated.

"Light is an oscillating field like a wave, and a wave moves in a certain direction," Lupton says. "We call this direction of oscillation a polarization."

Because polymers are long molecules like spaghetti, when an electrical current is applied to a polymer, "the electrons can only flow in one direction and that generates the light waves," Lupton says. "Because those light waves only oscillate in one direction, the light can get trapped inside the OLED, which is a little bit like an optical fiber."

That, he adds, is why even with the latest OLED smart phones, "your battery is dead in two days because the display uses a lot of the electricity."

"The rotelle -- technically called oligomers -- are basically wrapped-up polymers," Lupton says. "They all have the same shape, but they do not emit polarized light because they are round. They generate waves that vibrate in all directions. The light doesn't have a fixed polarization; it doesn't vibrate in a fixed direction. It always can get out."

Lupton compares the ability of the wagon-wheel molecules to emit unpolarized light in all directions to what happens when a pencil is balanced perfectly on its tip and falls in a different, random direction each time.

Cooking up a Wagon Wheel-Shaped Molecule

The international team of physicists and chemists set out to make molecules that generate light waves in all directions rather than in a fixed direction. In the new study, they report how the created the spoked-wheel molecules, made images of them and did single-molecule experiments, including looking at photons, or light particles, emitted one at a time from a single molecule. In those experiments, they shined an ultraviolet light on the rotelle-shaped molecules to generate visible light photons.

"We showed that every photon that comes out has a scrambled polarization, the polarization changes randomly from photon to photon," Lupton says.

The emitted light is blue-green, Lupton says, but images accompanying the paper -- taken with a scanning tunneling electron microscope -- show the rotelle- and spaghetti-shaped molecules with a false yellow-brown color to provide good contrast.

Each wagon-wheel molecule measures only six nanometers wide, which is large for a molecule but tiny compared with the 100,000 nanometer width of a human hair.

Read more at Science Daily

Comparing Risk: Plane Crashes vs Climate Change

Climate scientists reported Friday that they are more than 95 percent certain humans are influencing Earth’s climate systems and triggering warming.

They are also more than 66 percent certain that global temperatures will rise by between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees Celsius (3.6° to 8.1°F) if the levels of carbon in the atmosphere doubles above pre-industrial levels. The findings were published in the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The language of probability, confidence and uncertainty scientists use to explain the links between carbon and climate can require mental gymnastics. To many of us, a probability of 66 percent may not be particularly worrisome. And by extension, the risk (which is the probability of an event happening multiplied by its consequence) of climate change might seem acceptable.

But is it?

The Sweden-based Global Challenges Foundation has come out with a Global Risk and Opportunity Indicator or GROI to help us better understand climate probabilities.

The GROI compares the probability of a climate change scenario against other scenarios, for example a plane crash or being struck by lightning.

For instance, at 400 parts per million of carbon, the IPCC computes a 22 percent probability we will see temperatures rise by 2 degrees Celsius (3.6°F). Scientists argue that 2 degrees Celsius is the threshold beyond which the world will careen into dangerous climate impacts. We are already hovering near 400 ppm of carbon.

To understand these numbers, consider fatal flight accidents. The probability of a plane crash is 0.0001 percent or about 30 accidents a year.

If the probability were to increase to 22 percent, there would be 6,648,000 accidents every year. That’s 759 accidents every hour.

That’s a really high risk few of us would be willing to accept when it comes to flying. So why are we okay with accepting the risk when it comes to the future livability of our planet?

The IPCC report states that we need to limit carbon emissions to 1000 gigatons (about 480 ppm) of carbon to have a 66 percent chance global temperatures will not rise beyond 2 degrees Celsius.

In terms of flight accidents, that probability would give us 2,483 accidents every hour.

Read more at Discovery News