Dec 31, 2014

Happy New Year

The year has come to an end. They tend to do so.

Here at A Magical Journey I want to take the time to reflect on the year that passed and on the new year that is about to begin.
There will allways be advancements in Science and there's allways time to read about them. Don't be that fool that says that science is allways wrong. Read about science and read articles about the things that you might be intrested in. It might surprise you. It might even teach you something.

With that said I want to wish everybody in the world a Happy New Year!

Here's a little song for you all!

Danny Boston from A Magical Journey

Dec 30, 2014

Children with autism who live with pets are more assertive

Dogs and other pets play an important role in individuals' social lives, and they can act as catalysts for social interaction, previous research has shown. Although much media attention has focused on how dogs can improve the social skills of children with autism, a University of Missouri researcher recently found that children with autism have stronger social skills when any kind of pet lived in the home.

"When I compared the social skills of children with autism who lived with dogs to those who did not, the children with dogs appeared to have greater social skills," said Gretchen Carlisle, research fellow at the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine. "More significantly, however, the data revealed that children with any kind of pet in the home reported being more likely to engage in behaviors such as introducing themselves, asking for information or responding to other people's questions. These kinds of social skills typically are difficult for kids with autism, but this study showed children's assertiveness was greater if they lived with a pet."

Pets often serve as "social lubricants," Carlisle said. When pets are present in social settings or a classroom, children talk and engage more with one another. This effect also seems to apply to children with autism and could account for their increased assertiveness when the children are living in a home with pets, Carlisle said.

"When children with disabilities take their service dogs out in public, other kids stop and engage," Carlisle said. "Kids with autism don't always readily engage with others, but if there's a pet in the home that the child is bonded with and a visitor starts asking about the pet, the child may be more likely to respond."

Carlisle also found that children's social skills increased the longer a family had owned a dog, yet older children rated their relationships with their dogs as weaker. When children were asked, they reported the strongest attachments to smaller dogs, Carlisle found.

"Finding children with autism to be more strongly bonded to smaller dogs, and parents reporting strong attachments between their children and other pets, such as rabbits or cats, serves as evidence that other types of pets could benefit children with autism as well," Carlisle said.

Carlisle surveyed 70 families who had children with autism between the ages of 8 and 18.The children were patients at the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Almost 70 percent of the families that participated had dogs, and about half of the families had cats. Other pets owned by participants included fish, farm animals, rodents, rabbits, reptiles, a bird and even one spider.

Read more at Science Daily

Gift-wrapped gas molecules

A group of scientists led by researchers at the Université de Versailles' Institut Lavoisier in France has worked out how to stably gift-wrap a chemical gas known as nitric oxide within metal-organic frameworks. Such an encapsulated chemical may allow doctors to administer nitric oxide in a more highly controlled way to patients, suggesting new approaches for treating dangerous infections and heart conditions with the biologically-active substance.

Not to be confused with the chemically-distinct anesthetic dentists use -- its cousin nitrous oxide (NO2), also known as laughing gas -- nitric oxide (NO) is one of very few gas molecules known to be involved in biological signaling pathways, the physiological gears that make the body tick at the microscopic level. It is very active biologically and can be found in bacteria, plant, animal and fungi cells.

In humans, NO is a powerful vasodilator, increasing blood flow and lowering vascular pressure. For this reason, gaseous NO is sometimes used to treat respiratory failure in premature infants. It also has strong antibacterial potency, owing to its molecular action as a biologically disruptive free radical, and cells in the human immune system naturally produce NO as a way of killing pathogenic invaders. Additionally, nitric oxide is believed to be the main vasoactive neurotransmitter regulating male erection, as aging nerves with reduced stimulation can inhibit the release of the molecule, thus causing erectile dysfunction. This, of course, can be mediated by taking nitric oxide supplements to achieve an erection.

While such activity would seem to make NO a prime candidate for drug design, the problem is delivery -- because it is a gas. In recent years, the gas storage capacity and biocompatibility of metal-organic-frameworks -- dissolvable compounds consisting of metal ions and rigid organic chemicals that can stably trap gas molecules -- have gained significant attention as candidates for delivering gas-based drugs. The new work extends this further than ever before, showing that these metal-organic frameworks can store and slowly deliver NO over an unprecedented amount of time, which is key for the drug's anti-thrombogenic action.

"This is an elegant and efficient method to store and deliver large amounts of NO for antibacterial purposes," said Christian Serre. "Or it can release controlled amounts of nitric oxide at the very low biological level for a prolonged period of time, in order to use it as a way to inhibit platelet aggregation." Serre is a CNRS research director at the Institut Lavoisier de Versailles, and also heads the institute's 'Porous Solids' research group.

Serre's consortium has previously reported the use of porous hybrid solids, such as metal-organic-frameworks, for the controlled delivery of nitric oxide gas. Their current paper on derivatives of iron polycarboxylates as framework candidate appears in the journal APL Materials, from AIP Publishing.

Serre and his group worked in collaboration with Russell Morris's team at the University of St Andrews in Scotland and researchers from Université de Basse-Normandie in France. The groups analyzed the NO adsorption and release properties of several porous biodegradable and biocompatible iron carboxylate metal-organic frameworks by use of infrared spectroscopy analysis, adsorption & desorption isotherms and water-triggered release tests.

Read more at Science Daily

Belize's 'Blue Hole' Reveals Clues to Maya's Demise

The ancient Mayan civilization collapsed due to a century-long drought, new research suggests.

Minerals taken from Belize's famous underwater cave, known as the Blue Hole, as well as lagoons nearby, show that an extreme drought occurred between A.D. 800 and A.D. 900, right when the Mayan civilization disintegrated. After the rains returned, the Mayans moved north — but they disappeared again a few centuries later, and that disappearance occurred at the same time as another dry spell, the sediments reveal.

Although the findings aren't the first to tie a drought to the Mayan culture's demise, the new results strengthen the case that dry periods were indeed the culprit. That's because the data come from several spots in a region central to the Mayan heartland, said study co-author André Droxler, an Earth scientist at Rice University.

Rise and decline

From A.D. 300 to A.D. 700, the Mayan civilization flourished in the Yucatan peninsula. These ancient Mesoamericans built stunning pyramids, mastered astronomy, and developed both a hieroglyphic writing system and a calendar system, which is famous for allegedly predicting that the world would end in 2012.

But in the centuries after A.D. 700, the civilization's building activities slowed and the culture descended into warfare and anarchy. Historians have speculatively linked that decline with everything from the ancient society's fear of malevolent spirits to deforestation completed to make way for cropland to the loss of favored foods, such as the Tikal deer.

The evidence for a drought has been growing in recent years: Since at least 1995, scientists have been looking more closely at the effects of drought. A 2012 study in the journal Science analyzed a 2,000-year-old stalagmite from a cave in southern Belize and found that sharp decreases in rainfall coincided with periods of decline in the culture. But that data came from just one cave, which meant it was difficult to make predictions for the area as a whole, Droxler said.

The main driver of this drought is thought to have been a shift in the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ), a weather system that generally dumps water on tropical regions of the world while drying out the subtropics. During summers, the ITCZ pelts the Yucatan peninsula with rain, but the system travels farther south in the winter. Many scientists have suggested that during the Mayan decline, this monsoon system may have missed the Yucatan peninsula altogether.

Deep history

To look for signs of drought, the team drilled cores from the sediments in the Blue Hole of Lighthouse lagoon, as well one in the Rhomboid reef. The lagoons surrounded on all sides by thick walls of coral reef.

During storms or wetter periods, excess water runs off from rivers and streams, overtops the retaining walls, and is deposited in a thin layer at the top of the lagoon. From there, all the sediments from these streams settle to the bottom of the lagoon, piling on top of each other and leaving a chronological record of the historical climate.

"It's like a big bucket. It's a sediment trap," Droxler told Live Science.

Droxler and his colleagues analyzed the chemical composition of the cores, in particular the ratio of titanium to aluminum. When the rains fall, it eats away at the volcanic rocks of the region, which contain titanium. The free titanium then sweeps into streams that reach the ocean. So relatively low ratios of titanium to aluminum correspond to periods with less rainfall, Droxler said.

The team found that during the period between A.D. 800 and A.D. 1000, when the Maya civilization collapsed, there were just one or two tropical cyclones every two decades, as opposed to the usual five or six. After that, the Maya moved north, building at sites such as Chichen Itza, in what is now Mexico.

But the new results also found that between A.D. 1000 and A.D. 1100, during the height of the Little Ice Age, another major drought struck. This period coincides with the fall of Chichen Itza.

Read more at Discovery News

Venus May Have Once Been Awash With CO2 Oceans

Venus may have once possessed strange oceans of carbon dioxide fluid that helped shape the planet's surface, researchers say.

Venus is often described as Earth's twin planet because it is the world closest to Earth in size, mass, distance and chemical makeup. However, whereas Earth is a haven for life, Venusis typically described as hellish, with a crushing atmosphere and clouds of corrosive sulfuric acid floating over a rocky desert surface hot enough to melt lead.

Although Venus is currently unbearably hot and dry, it might have once had oceans like Earth. Prior research suggested that Venus possessed enough water in its atmosphere in the past to cover the entire planet in an ocean about 80 feet deep (25 meters) — if all that water could somehow fall down as rain. But the planet was probably too warm for such water to cool down and precipitate, even if the planet did have enough moisture.

Instead of seas of water, then, scientists now suggest that Venus might have once possessed bizarre oceans of carbon dioxide fluid.

Carbon dioxide is common on Venus.

"Presently, the atmosphere of Venus is mostly carbon dioxide, 96.5 percent by volume," said lead study author Dima Bolmatov, a theoretical physicist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Most familiar on Earth as a greenhouse gas that traps heat, helping warm the planet, carbon dioxide is exhaled by animals and used by plants in photosynthesis. While the substance can exist as a solid, liquid and gas, past a critical point of combined temperature and pressure, carbon dioxide can enter a "supercritical" state. Such a supercritical fluid can have properties of both liquids and gases. For example, it can dissolve materials like a liquid, but flow like a gas.

To see what the effects of supercritical carbon dioxideon Venus might be, Bolmatov and his colleagues investigated the unusual properties of supercritical matter. A great deal remains uncertain about such substances, he said.

Scientists had generally thought the physical properties of supercritical fluids changed gradually with pressure and temperature. However, in computer simulations of molecular activity, Bolmatov and his colleagues found that supercritical matter could shift dramatically from gaslike to liquidlike properties.

The atmospheric pressure on the surface of Venus is currently more than 90 times that of Earth, but in the early days of the planet, Venus' surface pressure could have been dozens of times greater. This could have lasted over a relatively long time period of 100 million to 200 million years. Under such conditions, supercritical carbon dioxide with liquidlike behavior might have formed, Bolmatov said.

"This in turn makes it plausible that geological features on Venus like rift valleys, riverlike beds, and plains are the fingerprints of near-surface activity of liquidlike supercritical carbon dioxide," Bolmatov told

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 29, 2014

2014 Skeptical Award

This years Skeptical Award has been as avery other year, a long process. Usually I start to look for candidates in the early spring and this year was no exception.

What I look for in a winner of the Skeptical Award is that they can prove themself to be true to science, true to Skeptical thinking and being able to change their mind if proven wrong. This is why no woowoos will ever win the skeptical award!

This year I have choosen an author for the skeptical award. The reason I have choosen this person is as follows:

Throughout the year, this person has been fighting religios dogma in a way that hasn't changed througout the year and is fighting for the facts that is out there. He's been writing books (Yes it's a he), writing on twitter, writing on facebook and alot of other places to make a point.
He doesn't win any money (Cuase I don't have any to give him (Unemplyed)) but he wins respect from the people who reads this blog and he has won alot of respect from me throughout the year!

This years winner of The Skeptical Award is: Michael Sherlock!

Here is where you can find him:




You can find his books on

Congratulations Michael for the award!

Yours truly
Danny Boston @ A Magical Journey

Chinese Civilization's Mysterious Disappearance Solved

An earthquake nearly 3,000 years ago may be the culprit in the mysterious disappearance of one of China's ancient civilizations, new research suggests.

The massive temblor may have caused catastrophic landslides, damming up the Sanxingdui culture's main water source and diverting it to a new location.

That, in turn, may have spurred the ancient Chinese culture to move closer to the new river flow, study co-author Niannian Fan, a river sciences researcher at Tsinghua University in Chengdu, China, said Dec. 18 at the 47th annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

In 1929, a peasant in Sichuan province uncovered jade and stone artifacts while repairing a sewage ditch located about 24 miles (40 kilometers) from Chengdu. But their significance wasn't understood until 1986, when archaeologists unearthed two pits of Bronze Age treasures, such as jades, about 100 elephant tusks and stunning 8-feet-high (2.4 meters) bronze sculptures that suggest an impressive technical ability that was present nowhere else in the world at the time, said Peter Keller, a geologist and president of the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California, which is currently hosting an exhibit of some of these treasures.

The treasures, which had been broken and buried as if they were sacrificed, came from a lost civilization, now known as the Sanxingdui, a walled city on the banks of the Minjiang River.

"It's a big mystery," said Keller, who was not involved in the current study.

Archaeologists now believe that the culture willfully dismantled itself sometime between 3,000 and 2,800 years ago, Fan said.

"The current explanations for why it disappeared are war and flood, but both are not very convincing," Fan told Live Science.

But about 14 years ago, archaeologists found the remains of another ancient city called Jinsha near Chengdu. The Jinsha site, though it contained none of the impressive bronzes of Sanxingdui, did have a gold crown with a similar engraved motif of fish, arrows and birds as a golden staff found at Sanxingdui, Keller said. That has led some scholars to believe that the people from Sanxingdui may have relocated to Jinsha.

But why has remained a mystery.

Fan and his colleagues wondered whether an earthquake may have caused landslides that dammed the river high up in the mountains and rerouted it to Jinsha. That catastrophe may have reduced Sanxingdui's water supply, spurring its inhabitants to move.

The valley where Sanxingdui sits has a large floodplain, with 4.3 miles (7 kilometers) of high terraced walls that were unlikely to have been cut by the small river that now flows through it, Fan said.

And some historical records support their hypothesis. In 1099 B.C., ancient writers recorded an earthquake in the capital of the Zhou dynasty, in Shaanxi province, Fan said. Though that spot is roughly 250 miles (400 kilometers) from the historic site of Sanxingdui, the latter culture didn't have writing at the time, so it's possible the earthquake epicenter was actually close to Sanxingdui — but it just wasn't recorded there, Fan said. Geological evidence also suggests that an earthquake occurred in the general region between 3,330 and 2,200 years ago, he added.

Around the same time, geological sediments suggest massive flooding occurred, and the later-Han dynasty document "The Chronicles of the Kings of Shu" records ancient floods pouring from a mountain in a spot that suggests the flow being rerouted, Fan said. (Around 800 years later, Jinsha residents built a wall to prevent flooding.)

Together, the findings hint that a major earthquake triggered a landslide that dammed the river, rerouting its flow and reducing water flow to Sanxingdui, Fan said.

But if so, where did the river get rerouted? The team found clues high up in the mountains in the deep and wide Yanmen Ravine, at about 12,460 feet (3,800 meters) above sea level.

The modern-day river cuts through the ravine, which was carved by glaciers about 12,000 years ago. Yet the telltale signs of that glacial erosion — bowl-shaped basins known as cirques — are mysteriously absent for a long stretch of the ravine. The team hypothesizes that an earthquake spurred an avalanche that then wiped out some of the cirques about 3,000 years ago.

Read more at Discovery News

Mars Orbiter Spies Alien Ice 'Spiders'

The Martian surface is covered with a diverse array of landscapes and features, but this is one of the weirdest.

Imaged by the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) that orbits the planet 150 miles overhead, strange spider-like formations cover this south polar region of Mars. And these are truly alien features that are found nowhere on Earth.

So what are they? Is Mars infested with arachnids? Or is it some sort of giant mold? Sadly, it’s neither, it’s actually a fascinating season-driven phenomena that HiRISE scientists call “araneiform” terrain.

Araneiform means, perhaps unsurprisingly, “spider-like” and the term applies to other features that have a “spider”, “caterpillar” or “starburst”-like shape, according to planetary scientist Candice Hansen who described the same south pole region in an earlier HiRISE image release.

The Martian climate is so cold that even carbon dioxide will freeze from the atmosphere and accumulate as ice on the surface during winter. During spring, the carbon dioxide will sublimate back into the atmosphere as it is heated by a strengthening sun.

Carbon dioxide ice on Mars does not melt into a liquid state; it bypasses the liquid phase and sublimates straight from a solid into a vapor. This seasonal process therefore creates its own type of erosion on the Martian landscape.

“This particular example shows eroded channels filled with bright ice, in contrast to the muted red of the underlying ground,” writes Hansen. “In the summer the ice will disappear into the atmosphere, and we will see just the channels of ghostly spiders carved in the surface.”

Earth’s atmospheric temperature does not drop as low as Mars’, so carbon dioxide ice (or “dry ice”) does not form naturally. Therefore, there is no terrestrial analog of these alien spider channels — it is purely a Mars phenomenon.

Read more at Discovery News

Unexplained Mysteries of 2014 and Into 2015

As we head toward 2015, look back at some of the strangest mysteries of this past year, as well as some of the mysteries that remain as we enter the new year.

Keeping in mind that science is a process of continually refining a body of scientific knowledge -- that what we believe is true today may be changed by some amazing new discovery tomorrow -- here are 10 strange mysteries, both unexplained and recently explained.

For almost a century one of America's strangest mysteries has been found in remote Death Valley, California. It's there -- actually at a specific dry lakebed called Racetrack Playa -- that stones are claimed to mysteriously move on their own, when no one is looking. The phenomenon occurs in a handful of other places as well, though none are as well known as those in Death Valley. They moved very slowly, in some cases only a few inches over months or years, but their trails can clearly be seen in the dried mud behind them.

Over the years many explanations have been offered, ranging from hoaxing to aliens to some sort of localized, unknown magnetic effect.

Others have suggested that the area's strong winds might move the stones, but that doesn't explain why they'd move at different rates and sometimes in different directions. For many years the best scientific explanation was that the rocks moved due to a specific combination of wind, temperature, and water. Racetrack Playa is in a desert, but sometimes collects water from rain and melting snow, providing a slick surface over which the stones might move.

The mystery was finally solved in 2014 when a team of researchers set up cameras over the area and measured the rocks' movement patterns. They concluded that the stones moved under just the right conditions when ice formed under the rocks and moved them, usually only a little bit at a time: "moving sheets of ice tens of meters in extent but only a few millimeters thick are clearly effective at moving rocks in their path." The study, "Sliding Rocks on Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park: First Observation of Rocks in Motion" was published on Aug. 27, 2014 in the open-access journal PLoS ONE.

Volcanoes are known around the world, though most of them can be found in the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire. It's where the world's most active volcanoes are located, covering the western edge of the Americas, Hawaii, Japan and into Oceania. The volcanoes there result from the subduction of oceanic tectonic plates moving beneath lighter continental plates.

Most of Australia, however, is spared -- except for an unusual 300-mile stretch in the southeastern part of the country roughly north of Tasmania. It is the continent's only active volcanic region, but for many years no one was quite sure why. Since Australia lies well inside its own tectonic plate (called the Indo-Australian plate), it could not be caused by the same geological processes that spawned others in the nearby Ring of Fire.

A team from the Research School of Earth Sciences finally solved the mystery earlier this year. According to lead researcher Dr. Rhodri Davies, "Volcanoes in this region of Australia are generated by a very different process to most of Earth's volcanoes.... We have determined that the volcanism arises from a unique interaction between local variations in the continent's thickness, which we were able to map for the first time, and its movement...towards New Guinea and Indonesia."

The continent's drift northward creates an isolated region in its southern end which spawned the volcano. But don't stand on Australia's northern shore expecting to reach Indonesia any time soon: the continent is moving northward at about two and three-quarter inches a year. The study was published in the journal "Geology" on Sept. 24.

Water on Mars

The riddle of Mars has captivated people for generations. Dozens of artists, writers, astronomers and dreamers -- from H.G. Wells to Orson Welles, Ray Bradbury to Carl Sagan -- have speculated about what life might be like on the Red Planet.

In 2011, NASA's Curiosity Rover was launched into space, landing on Mars the following year. Mankind's amazing little mechanical scientist trooper has spent the past few years poking, plodding and examining the surface. A lot has been learned about Martian climate and geology, but in 2014 the biggest news was that Curiosity gathered evidence that a peak there, known as Mount Sharp, was created by sediments in a huge surrounding lake bed.

Yes, sediments -- which if you remember high school geology, is particulate matter carried by water or wind (in this case water). And yes, lake bed: There's no water there now, at least not on the surface, but the discovery is very strong evidence that rivers and lakes have existed periodically in Martian history. Having spent a Martian year on the planet, scientists now believe that the environmental conditions on Mars may be favorable for microbial life, and the search continues.

Missing Stars

If you're lucky enough to get away from urban light pollution and into rural areas, it's astonishing how many stars you can see; they seem to litter the sky. And, of course, only a small fraction of the stars are visible to our naked eye. But even still, there should be more of them -- many more.

One of the most enduring astronomical puzzles has been not why there are so many stars, but instead so few. According to computer models there should be an estimated 100 to 300 sextillion stars, or 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, give or take a few. It's a number so large that it defies comprehension and raises an interesting question: where are they? Why isn't the night sky positively lit up with stars? Surely the light from a small number of them (say, maybe a few hundred million or so) might be blocked from reaching us by planets or other celestial objects, but that still leaves some ridiculously large number of stars unaccounted for.

Earlier this year astronomer James Geach and his team at the University of Hertsfordshire found that "nuclear bursts of star formation are capable of ejecting large amounts of cold gas from the central regions of galaxies, thereby strongly affecting their evolution by truncating star formation and redistributing matter." In other words, the cold gases used as the raw material for stars -- and driven out during the star formation process itself -- can inhibit the creation of new stars. The article, "Stellar feedback as the origin of an extended molecular outflow in a starburst galaxy," was published in the Dec 4 issue of the journal Nature.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 28, 2014

Modern genetics confirm ancient relationship between fins and hands

Paleontologists have documented the evolutionary adaptations necessary for ancient lobe-finned fish to transform pectoral fins used underwater into strong, bony structures, such as those of Tiktaalik roseae. This enabled these emerging tetrapods, animals with limbs, to crawl in shallow water or on land. But evolutionary biologists have wondered why the modern structure called the autopod--comprising wrists and fingers or ankles and toes--has no obvious morphological counterpart in the fins of living fishes.

In the Dec. 22, 2014, issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers argue previous efforts to connect fin and fingers fell short because they focused on the wrong fish. Instead, they found the rudimentary genetic machinery for mammalian autopod assembly in a non-model fish, the spotted gar, whose genome was recently sequenced.

"Fossils show that the wrist and digits clearly have an aquatic origin," said Neil Shubin, PhD, the Robert R. Bensley Professor of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago and a leader of the team that discovered Tiktaalik in 2004. "But fins and limbs have different purposes. They have evolved in different directions since they diverged. We wanted to explore, and better understand, their connections by adding genetic and molecular data to what we already know from the fossil record."

Initial attempts to confirm the link based on shape comparisons of fin and limb bones were unsuccessful. The autopod differs from most fins. The wrist is composed of a series of small nodular bones, followed by longer thin bones that make up the digits. The bones of living fish fins look much different, with a set of longer bones ending in small circular bones called radials.

The primary genes that shape the bones, known as the HoxD and HoxA clusters, also differ. The researchers first tested the ability of genetic "switches" that control HoxD and HoxA genes from teleosts--bony, ray-finned fish--to shape the limbs of developing transgenic mice. The fish control switches, however, did not trigger any activity in the autopod.

Teleost fish--a vast group that includes almost all of the world's important sport and commercial fish--are widely studied. But the researchers began to realize they were not the ideal comparison for studies of how ancient genes were regulated. When they searched for wrist and digit-building genetic switches, they found "a lack of sequence conservation" in teleost species.

They traced the problem to a radical change in the genetics of teleost fish. More than 300 million years ago, after the fish-like creatures that would become tetrapods split off from other bony fish, a common ancestor of the teleost lineage went through a whole-genome duplication (WGD)--a phenomenon that has occurred multiple times in evolution.

By doubling the entire genetic repertoire of teleost fish, this WGD provided them with enormous diversification potential. This may have helped teleosts to adapt, over time, to a variety of environments worldwide. In the process, "the genetic switches that control autopod-building genes were able to drift and shuffle, allowing them to change some of their function, as well as making them harder to identify in comparisons to other animals, such as mice," said Andrew Gehrke, a graduate student in the Shubin lab and lead author of the study.

Not all bony fishes went through the whole genome duplication, however. The spotted gar, a primitive freshwater fish native to North America, split off from teleost fishes before the WGD.

When the research team compared Hox gene switches from the spotted gar with tetrapods, they found "an unprecedented and previously undescribed level of deep conservation of the vertebrate autopod regulatory apparatus." This suggests, they note, a high degree of similarity between "distal radials of bony fish and the autopod of tetrapods."

They tested this by inserting gar gene switches related to fin development into developing mice. This evoked patterns of activity that were "nearly indistinguishable," the authors note, from those driven by the mouse genome.

"Overall," the researchers conclude, "our results provide regulatory support for an ancient origin of the 'late' phase of Hox expression that is responsible for building the autopod."

Read more at Science Daily

Did Microbes Shape the Human Lifespan?

The microbes that live in and on humans may have evolved to preferentially take down the elderly in the population, a new computer model suggests.

That, in turn, could have allowed children a greater share of food and resources, thereby enabling an extended childhood. Such a microbial bias may also have kept the first human populations more stable and resilient to upheavals, the findings suggest.

"If you go back 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, there were only 30,000 to 40,000 people in the world and they were scattered over Africa, Europe, and parts of Asia," study co-author Glenn Webb, a mathematician at Vanderbilt University, said in a statement. "Are we lucky just to be here? Or did we survive because our ancestors were robust enough to handle all the environmental changes and natural disasters they encountered?"

The new findings suggest that humans survived because as a whole, ancestral human populations were tough enough to survive the environment, he said.


By some measures, the human body is more bacteria than human. The number of bacteria cells in the body outnumbers human cells by about 10 to 1. In recent years, scientists have found that this microbiome has far-reaching effects, modulating weight gain, mood and cognitive function.

Dr. Martin Blaser, a microbiologist at New York University's Langone Medical Center, began wondering about the effect of bacteria on age structure. He noticed that the stomach bacteria Helicobacter pylori, could live symbiotically in people's guts for decades, without causing them any harm, but it could also cause stomach ulcers and stomach cancer — a risk that grows with age.

"I began thinking that a real symbiont is an organism that keeps you alive when you are young and kills you when you are old. That’s not particularly good for you, but it’s good for the species," Blaser said.

It's possible that these bacteria helped reduce the number of elderly people in a population, thereby allowing the children to get a greater share of food and resources, the researchers said. In other words, the bacteria enable the extraordinarily long childhood that humans experience relative to other animals.

Modeling bacteria

To look at the microbiome's effects on people as they age, Blaser and Webb created a mathematical model to simulate an ancient hunter-gatherer population.

In their model, they assumed that the people had the same maximum life span that modern humans do, of about 120 years. (Though early hunter-gatherers had a lower life expectancy than humans that was due to other factors, such as childhood diseases, physical injuries that couldn't be healed and microbial diseases that can now be treated with antibiotics.)

The model grouped people into one of three groups: youngsters, people of reproductive age, and those past their reproductive years. Then the researchers watched how the population changed based on different fertility and mortality rates.

To capture the effects of "bacteria," they tweaked the mortality factors associated with different types of microbes.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 27, 2014

See Six Months of Earth From Space: Timelapse

If you're a fan of epic ultra high definition time-lapse videos from space -- and really who isn't — then you'll be happy to know that Christmas arrived early and Hannukah is right on time. The European Space Agency has stiched together more than five months of astronaut Alexander Gerst's time-lapse photography from the International Space Station (ISS) and made it into a six-minute video.

Gerst spent 166 days in orbit starting in late May on the ISS as one of five flight engineers, all part of the European Space Agency's aptly named mission, Blue Dot. Luckily for us mere mortals, he also had an excellent photographic eye and captured some pretty spectacular views as the ISS hurtled around the planet at 17,200 mph, making more than 15 laps each day.

Lightning from space looks like daubs of electric paint atop of clouds. Large-scale weather patterns including spinning areas of low pressure look just like they do on weather maps. The aurora takes on the appearance of a shimmering green curtain draped around the high latitudes of Earth. And day and night on the horizon of Gerst and his fellow astronaut's view, the crystaline strip of the atmosphere -- the one we're filling with greenhouse gases -- is clearly visible, separating those of us back on planet Earth from the rest of the universe.

But lest you think it's all eye candy and fodder for philosophical musings, there are also a few hidden insights into how the various apparati that ensure the ISS can sustain the astronauts that call it home. Solar panels rotate to catch the most sun and keep all systems up and running. At the 1:35 mark, a robotic arm extends to pluck a Cygnus spacecraft -- one of the commercial spacecraft that help supply the ISS -- out of, well, space. After collecting its payload, the same arm releases it on its homeward journey at the 4:50 mark. It truly looks like science fiction.

So go ahead, ratchet the video up to ultra high definition and enjoy each one of the 12,500 images it took to create it. And let it not go unnoted that the European Space Agency also found some pretty futuristic background music for the video. Hope you're taking notes, NASA.

From Discovery News

Coolest Archaeological Discoveries of 2014

1. Alexander the Great-era tomb at Amphipolis

This mosaic from the tomb depicts the abduction of Persephone.
Thanks to the careful work of archaeologists, we learned more in the past year about Stonehenge's hidden monuments, Richard III's gruesome death and King Tut's mummified erection. From the discovery of an ancient tomb in Greece to the first evidence of Neanderthal art, here are 10 of Live Science's favorite archaeology stories of 2014.

Rarely do archaeological digs attract so much attention in real time. But at Amphipolis, an ancient coastal city in northern Greece, the discovery of a lavish 2,300-year-old tomb has created a national frenzy. In August, state archaeologists broke through the entrance of a huge burial mound that's been billed as the largest of its kind in the Greek world. (Its perimeter measures about 1,600 feet, or 490 meters.)

Excavators found broken sphinxes, two female statues called caryatids, a remarkably intact mosaic floor and some skeletal material, which is awaiting analysis. It's still unclear who was buried inside the tomb, but some have speculated that it could be someone from Alexander the Great's inner circle.

2. Stonehenge's secret monuments

This aerial picture shows patchmarks believed to be "stone holes."
Capping a four-year survey of the landscape around England's Stonehenge, researchers reported that they found signs of at least 17 previously unknown Neolithic shrines. The big announcement -- which was accompanied by TV specials on the BBC and Smithsonian Channel --could change the way historians have thought of Stonehenge.

"Stonehenge is undoubtedly a major ritual monument, which people may have traveled considerable distances to come to, but it isn't just standing there by itself," project leader Vincent Gaffney, an archaeologist at the University of Birmingham, told Live Science in September. "It's part of a much more complex landscape with processional and ritual activities that go around it."

3. A shipwreck under the World Trade Center

Rings in the white oak timbers used to build the ship reveal that the vessel was built around 1773 near Philadelphia.
In the summer of 2010, archaeologists in New York discovered a school-bus-size shipwreck in an unlikely place: the site of the World Trade Center, still under construction after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. This year, tree-ring researchers who were studying the ship's fragile timbers announced that they had uncovered new details about the vessel.

The ship was likely built in 1773, or soon after, in a small shipyard near Philadelphia, according to the study, which was published in the journal Tree-Ring Research. What's more, the ship's timbers may have originated from the same white oak forest where wood was harvested to build Philadelphia's Independence Hall, the researchers said.

4. Richard III's twisted spine, kingly diet and family tree

King Richard III's skeleton, including his skull, shown here, was found during an archaeological excavation in Leicester in 2012.
Once lost to history, the skeleton of Britain's King Richard III was found under a parking lot in 2012, and, since then, the monarch's remains have been a boon for scientists who study centuries-old DNA, diet and disease. Among this year's findings, scientists reported that they found a mitochondrial DNA match between Richard and two of his living relatives, offering further confirmation that the bones really belong to the king. A model of Richard's misshapen spine showed that he suffered from adolescent idiopathic scoliosis.

Isotopes locked in Richard's teeth and bones revealed that the king ate (and drank) quite well during his two years at the throne. And, after a much-delayed autopsy, researchers also determined this year that Richard likely died a quick death on the battlefield; they found two wounds on the back of Richard's skull that were likely candidates for the fatal blow.

5. A teenager in a "black hole"

Using photography, videography, three dimensional modeling and minimal sampling, researchers studied the skeleton of a teenage girl without removing it from its watery grave.
At the bottom of an underwater cave called Hoyo Negro (Spanish for "Black Hole") in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, divers discovered a near-complete skeleton of a teenage girl. Dubbed "Naia," the girl was found alongside unlikely gravemates: saber-toothed cats, pumas, sloths and bears. Researchers think Naia and the animals likely fell to their deaths 12,000 to 13,000 years ago, before the pit filled with water when the world's glaciers started melting.

Scientists also found that DNA from Naia's remains resembled modern Native American DNA. The discovery, which was reported in May in the journal Science, could help solve the long-standing debate over the identity of the first Americans.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 26, 2014

Egg and sperm race: Scientists create precursors to human egg and sperm

Scientists at the University of Cambridge working with the Weizmann Institute have created primordial germ cells - cells that will go on to become egg and sperm - using human embryonic stem cells. Although this had already been done using rodent stem cells, the study, published today in the journal Cell, is the first time this has been achieved efficiently using human stem cells.

When an egg cell is fertilised by a sperm, it begins to divide into a cluster of cells known as a blastocyst, the early stage of the embryo. Within this ball of cells, some cells form the inner cell mass - which will develop into the foetus - and some form the outer wall, which becomes the placenta. Cells in the inner cell mass are 'reset' to become stem cells - cells that have the potential to develop into any type of cell within the body. A small number of these cells become primordial germ cells (PGCs) - these have the potential to become germ cells (sperm and egg), which in later life will pass on the offspring's genetic information to its own offspring.

"The creation of primordial germ cells is one of the earliest events during early mammalian development," says Dr Naoko Irie, first author of the paper from the Wellcome Trust/Cancer Research UK Gurdon Institute at the University of Cambridge. "It's a stage we've managed to recreate using stem cells from mice and rats, but until now few researches have done this systematically using human stem cells. It has highlighted important differences between embryo development in humans and rodents that may mean findings in mice and rats may not be directly extrapolated to humans."

Professor Surani at the Gurdon Institute, who led the research, and his colleagues found that a gene known as SOX17 is critical for directing human stem cells to become PGCs (a stage known as 'specification'). This was a surprise as the mouse equivalent of this gene is not involved in the process, suggesting a key difference between mouse and human development. SOX17 had previously been shown to be involved in directing stem cells to become endodermal cells, which then develop into cells including those for the lung, gut and pancreas, but this is the first time it has been seen in PGC specification.

The group showed that PGCs could also be made from reprogrammed adult cells, such as skin cells, which will allow investigations on patient-specific cells to advance knowledge of the human germline, infertility and germ cell tumours. The research also has potential implications for understanding the process of 'epigenetic' inheritance. Scientists have known for some time that our environment - for example, our diet or smoking habits - can affect our genes through a process known as methylation whereby molecules attach themselves to our DNA, acting like dimmer switches to increase or decrease the activity of genes. These methylation patterns can be passed down to the offspring.

Read more at Science Daily

Putting bedbugs to bed forever

The world owes a debt of gratitude to Simon Fraser University biologist Regine Gries. Her arms have provided a blood meal for more than a thousand bedbugs each week for five years while she and her husband, biology professor Gerhard Gries, searched for a way to conquer the global bedbug epidemic.

Working with SFU chemist Robert Britton and a team of students, they have finally found the solution--a set of chemical attractants, or pheromones, that lure the bedbugs into traps, and keep them there.

This month, after a series of successful trials in bedbug-infested apartments in Metro Vancouver, they have published their research, "Bedbug aggregation pheromone finally identified," in Angewandte Chemie, a general chemistry journal.

They're working with Victoria-based Contech Enterprises Inc. to develop the first effective and affordable bait and trap for detecting and monitoring bedbug infestations. They expect it to be commercially available next year.

"The biggest challenge in dealing with bedbugs is to detect the infestation at an early stage," says Gerhard, who holds an NSERC-Industrial Research Chair in Multimodal Animal Communication Ecology.

"This trap will help landlords, tenants, and pest-control professionals determine whether premises have a bedbug problem, so that they can treat it quickly. It will also be useful for monitoring the treatment's effectiveness."

It's a solution the world has been waiting for.

Over the last two decades the common bedbug (Cimex lectularius), once thought eradicated in industrialized countries, has reappeared as a global scourge. These nasty insects are infesting not just low-income housing but also expensive hotels and apartments, and public venues such as stores, movie theatres, libraries and even public transit.

And while these blood-sucking pests were previously not considered a carrier of disease, scientists have recently discovered they can transmit the pathogen that causes Chagas disease, which is prevalent in Central and South America. Yet until now, tools for detecting and monitoring these pests have been expensive and technically challenging to use.

The research was funded with a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada industry grant in partnership with Contech Enterprises Inc.

Backgrounder: The research story--180,000 bedbug bites later

The Gries' began their research eight years ago when Gerhard, who is internationally renowned for his pioneering work in chemical and bioacoustic communication between insects, began searching for pheromones that could lure and trap bedbugs.

Regine worked with him, running all of the lab and field experiments and, just as importantly, enduring 180,000 bedbug bites in order to feed the large bedbug colony required for their research. She became the unintentional "host" because, unlike Gerhard, she is immune to the bites, suffering only a slight rash instead of the ferocious itching and swelling most people suffer.

The Gries' and their students initially found a pheromone blend that attracted bedbugs in lab experiments, but not in bedbug-infested apartments. "We realized that a highly unusual component must be missing--one that we couldn't find using our regular gas chromatographic and mass spectrometric tools," says Gerhard.

That's when they teamed up with Britton, an expert in isolating and solving the structure of natural products, and then synthesizing them in the lab. He used SFU's state-of-the-art NMR spectrometers to study the infinitesimal amounts of chemicals Regine had isolated from shed bedbug skin, looking for the chemical clues as to why the bedbugs find the presence of skin so appealing in a shelter.

It was like looking for a needle in a haystack.

After two years of frustrating false leads, Britton, his students and the Gries duo finally discovered that histamine, a molecule with unusual properties that eluded identification through traditional methods, signals "safe shelter" to bedbugs. Importantly, once in contact with the histamine, the bedbugs stay put whether or not they have recently fed on a human host.

Read more at Science Daily

Dec 24, 2014

Happy Holidays

I Wanted to take the time to wish everybody that reads this blog a merry Christmas and happy holidays.

I've been running this blog for almost five (5) years and it's been a journey. Without you, the readers, I wouldn't post this much as I do, so keep on reading.

Yours truly
Danny Boston

Imagination, Reality Look Different in the Brain

"Turn off your mind, relax, and float down stream..."

Maybe John Lennon was onto something when he wrote those words for the Beatles' song "Tomorrow Never Knows."

It turns out that that reality and imagination flow in different directions in the brain, researchers say. The visual information from real events that the eyes see flows "up" from the brain's occipital lobe to the parietal lobe, but imagined images flow "down" from the parietal to the occipital.

"There seems to be a lot in our brains and animal brains that is directional — that neural signals move in a particular direction, then stop, and start somewhere else," said Dr. Giulio Tononi, a psychiatry professor and neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and one of the study's co-authors. "I think this is really a new theme that had not been explored."

The finding, published in the November issue of the journal NeuroImage, may lead to a better understanding of how the brain processes short-term memories and how memory is connected to imagination, the researchers said.

By "flow," the scientists are referring to the general direction of electrical signaling of neurons in the brain. This direction is oriented against the various lobes of the brain.

The occipital lobe sits in the lower, back part of the brain. Containing the visual cortex, this lobe's primary function is to process visual information. The parietal lobe lies above the occipital lobe, and its primary function is to integrate sensory information, such as vision, but also touch and sound. In doing so, the parietal lobe assembles elementary building bricks from so-called "lower-order" brain regions to create concepts, said Daniela Dentico, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and lead author on the report.

A leading theory in image processing "posits that our visual mental images are not stored somewhere in the brain, but get actively reconstructed," Dentico told Live Science. The brain does this, she said, by reversing the order it uses for visual perception. She described this as the "top-down" direction, which starts from the big concept and moves back toward the smaller elements.

"Our study represents the first direct measure of the prevalence of top-down signal flow during imagery," Dentico added.

To determine the flow of neural firing, the Madison researchers, along with scientists at University of Liege in Belgium, asked study participants who were hooked up to an electroencephalography (EEG) machine to watch videos or to imagine fantastical scenes, such as traveling on a magic bicycle. EEG is an established technique that uses sensors on the scalp to measure underlying electrical activity.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 23, 2014

Series of Earthquakes Threaten Michelangelo's David

More than 250 tremors have been rattling Florence and the Chianti region since Friday, raising concerns over the safety of Michelangelo’s David.

According to Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, the two major shocks that hit the wine-growing region measured 3.8. and 4.1 on the Richter scale, while several others reached 3.0 to 3.5, scaring people but leaving no one injured.

Minor tremors are continuing at the moment, sparking alarm over the national art treasure, with the focus on Michelangelo’s statue of David. Earlier this year, experts found David at risk of crumbling down under its own weight because of tiny fractures in its ankles.

Italy’s ministry of culture Dario Franceschini announced on Sunday that the 17-foot high statue will be given a special, anti-seismic platform worth $250,000. The support is expected to be ready for use by the end of 2015.

“The recent earthquakes make this project urgent,” Franceschini said in a statement. “A masterpiece like David must not be left to any risk.”

Representing the biblical hero who killed Goliath, the sculpture marked a watershed in Renaissance art and established Michelangelo as the foremost sculptor of his time at the age of 29.

The towering sculpture, acclaimed for its depiction of male physical perfection, was displayed for the first time beside the main doorway of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence on Sept. 8, 1504.

David remained in its original location, at the mercy of the elements, until 1873, when it was moved to its present location in the Galleria dell’Accademia, where it attracts 1.25 million visitors a year.

Indeed, the micro fractures on David’s ankles are the result of a long-lasting, small forward inclination of about 5 degrees during the statue’s time in Piazza della Signoria.

Tests by the National Research Council and Florence University suggested that the 6-ton marble statue would break under its own weight if standing at an inclination higher than 15 degrees.

“There is a real risk that David collapses under an earthquake,” Fernando De Simone, an expert in underground engineering, said.

According to De Simone, the anti-seismic platform will not fully protect the masterpiece from earthquakes.

“It will protect it from vibrations, but could not prevent the ceiling from crumbling over the statue,” De Simone said.

Read more at Discovery News

Antarctic Seals May Navigate by Earth's Magnetic Field

Does Antarctica's Weddell seal come standard with internal navigation capabilities keyed on Earth's magnetic field? That's the working hypothesis of a team of researchers working with the support of the National Science Foundation. If their ideas can be proven, it would mark the first evidence of the capability in a marine mammal.

Randall Davis, from the Department of Marine Biology at Texas A&M University; Terrie Williams, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz; and Lee Fuiman, associate director of the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, have long studied Weddell seals, their research going back to the 1990s.

The group marveled at the animal's navigating skills. Weddell seals excel at deep diving when they hunt, but like all mammals they need oxygen, so when it's time to come up for air they know exactly how to locate holes in the ice in time to breathe again, before they drown. The researchers observed the seals finding holes in the ice with incredible precision.

How did the seals know how far from holes they could swim before they needed to turn around and head for the surface? Plans are underway to learn the answer.

As their notion of a magnetic-field-based navigation system is at this point a hypothesis, the team plans to spend the next three years observing a group of seals that will be rigged with video and data recording gear. The animals will be set loose in three areas of McMurdo Sound. Their release points in the sound will correspond with places where the scientists have in great detail mapped the magnetic field.

The team will track the seals' behavior when they encounter different magnetic fields. Once they marry the seals' dive data with the magnetic locations, they hope to have a more definitive understanding of whether or not the creatures are employing the magnetic field to hunt, navigate, and, in effect, survive.

From Discovery News

TV Medical Show Claims Not Backed by Science

Most people know that they can’t believe everything they see on TV, though many assume that talk shows featuring well-known medical doctors are giving them valid health information.

However a new article in the British Medical Journal examining the medical advice given on TV talk shows finds that many of the claims are unproven or unsubstantiated. The researchers examined 40 randomly-selected episodes for each of the two most popular medical shows, The Dr. Oz Show and The Doctors, to examine and rate their content. From those episodes they randomly selected 80 of the stronger recommendations from each show and researched what evidence was available in the published, peer-reviewed literature to support those recommendations.

The results are sobering for anyone who heeds advice from these shows:
“We could find at least a case study or better evidence to support 54% of the 160 recommendations (80 from each show). For recommendations in The Dr Oz Show, evidence supported 46%, contradicted 15%, and was not found for 39%. For recommendations in The Doctors, evidence supported 63%, contradicted 14%, and was not found for 24%.”

Dr. Oz and the Magic Beans

Perhaps the most famous example of the sort of problems that the study describes emerged in 2012 when celebrity TV doctor Mehmet Oz endorsed green coffee bean extract as a “magic weight-loss cure” on his show. Oz was reprimanded by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., on Capitol Hill for promoting dubious and discredited supplements and treatments. Dr. Oz acknowledged of the products he features and promotes on his show: “I recognize that oftentimes they don’t have the scientific muster to present as fact.”

The example of coffee bean extract was raised: “Green coffee bean extract, which Dr. Mehmet Oz promoted on his show as a ‘magic weight-loss cure,’ had one scientific study backing up the extract’s purported effects … When asked specifically about the green coffee bean extract, Oz cited a study that found people who took the supplements did lose weight. However, that study was funded by the product’s manufacturer,” according to

Scientific consensus, of course, cannot be built on a single study, no matter how well designed. For doctors to determine that a drug or therapy should be used by patients — it is safe and effective, its benefits can be demonstrated beyond placebo and outweigh its side effects, and so on — dozens of studies should be consulted.

Any single clinical study, or even handful of studies, may be wrong for any number of reasons ranging from poor research design to faulty statistical analysis. The fact that the single study demonstrating the efficacy of green coffee bean extract in weight loss was funded by its manufacturer does not, by itself, discredit its results. Many perfectly valid studies are paid for by companies with a financial interest in the results. But it does mean that any potential conflicts should be noted — which they were not.

Read more at Discovery News

Could Dwarf Planet Ceres Support Alien Life?

A NASA probe is about to get the first up-close look at a potentially habitable alien world.

In March 2015, NASA's Dawn spacecraft will arrive in orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Ceres is a relatively warm and wet body that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the Jovian moon Europa and the Saturn satellite Enceladus, both of which may be capable of supporting life as we know it, some researchers say.

"I don't think Ceres is less interesting in terms of astrobiology than other potentially habitable worlds," Jian-Yang Li, of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, said Thursday (Dec. 18) during a talk here at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

Life as we know it requires three main ingredients, Li said: liquid water, an energy source and certain chemical building blocks (namely, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogren, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur).

The dwarf planet Ceres — which is about 590 miles (950 kilometers) wide — is thought to have a lot of water, based on its low overall density (2.09 grams per cubic centimeter; compared to 5.5 g/cubic cm for Earth). Ceres is likely a differentiated body with a rocky core and a mantle comprised of water ice, researchers say, and water-bearing minerals have been detected on its surface.

Indeed, water appears to make up about 40 percent of Ceres' volume, Li said.

"Ceres is actually the largest water reservoir in the inner solar system other than the Earth," he said. However, it's unclear at the moment how much, if any, of this water is liquid, he added.

As far as energy goes, Ceres has access to a decent amount via solar heating, since the dwarf planet lies just 2.8 astronomical units (AU) from the sun, Li said. (One AU is the distance between Earth and the sun — about 93 million miles, or 150 million km). Europa and Enceladus are much farther away from our star — 5.2 and 9 AU, respectively.

Both Europa and Enceladus possess stores of internal heat, which is generated by tidal forces. This heat keeps the ice-covered moons' subsurface oceans of liquid water from freezing up, and also drives the eruption of water-vapor plumes on Enceladus (and probably Europa as well; researchers announced last year that NASA's Hubble Space Telescope spotted water vapor erupting from the Jupiter moon in December 2012).

Intriguingly, scientists announced the discovery of water-vapor emission from Ceres — which may also possess a subsurface ocean — earlier this year.

Ceres' plumes may or may not be evidence of internal heat, Li said. For example, they may result when water ice near Ceres' surface is heated by sunlight and warms enough to sublimate into space.

"Right now, we just don't know much about the outgassing on Ceres," Li said.

Dawn should help bring Ceres into much clearer focus when it reaches the dwarf planet this spring. The spacecraft, which orbited the huge asteroid Vesta from July 2011 through September 2012, will map Ceres' surface in detail and beam home a great deal of information about the body's geology and thermal conditions before the scheduled end of its prime mission in July 2015.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 22, 2014

Orangutan in Argentina Zoo Wins Right to Freedom

A female orangutan got cleared to leave a Buenos Aires zoo she has called home for 20 years, after a court ruled she was entitled to more desirable living conditions, lawyers said Sunday.

The 29-year-old orangutan, named Sandra, has been living in a zoo enclosure for two decades, which animal rights lawyers said was against her comfort.

Argentina's Association of Professional Lawyers for Animal Rights (AFADA) filed a "habeas corpus" writ -- a form of legal redress against unlawful imprisonment -- arguing she was "suffering an unwarranted confinement."

The lawyers said that while Sandra was not identical to humans biologically, she is in fact like humans emotionally, and would be happier living in a semi-wild habitat.

"She has lived in captivity for 20 years and the point of today's measure is for her to overcome having been held in captivity and depression, for her to be in semi-free conditions in a sanctuary," AFADA lawyer Andres Gil Dominguez told TN television.

If the ruling is not appealed, she could be moved to a semi-wild sanctuary in Brazil.

Lawyers had argued that under Argentine law, Sandra should be considered closer to a "person" than a "thing."

"If humanity's development centers on on our broadening reasoning, than Sandra is subject to law," Dominguez said.

"It's a very basic recognition."

Sandra was born in a German zoo in 1986 and moved to Argentina in 1994.

Read more at Discovery News

Global Warming Blamed for Pacific Coral Bleaching

The Marshall Islands is experiencing its worst-ever coral bleaching as global warming threatens reefs across the entire northern Pacific, scientists said Monday.

Marine researchers said an El Nino weather pattern had been developing in recent months, raising ocean temperatures and stressing delicate coral reefs.

"The worst coral bleaching event ever recorded for the Marshall Islands has been occurring since mid-September," Karl Fellenius, a Majuro-based marine scientist with the University of Hawaii told AFP.

C. Mark Eakin, manager of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Watch programme, said recent observations showed the problem was widespread across the vast waters of the northern Pacific.

"Major bleaching was seen in Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, the northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI), the Marshall Islands, and Kiribati," he said.

"Thermal stress levels set new record highs in CNMI and the NWHI and we saw the first widespread bleaching event in the main Hawaiian Islands."

Fellenius said coral bleaching was a naturally occurring phenomenon but not on the scale currently being seen.

"While bleaching can occur on very hot days in pools of water with little circulation (such as) very low tides on reef flats, it has become a global problem due to greenhouse gas emissions causing elevated temperatures under climate change."

He said sea surface temperatures had been on average half to a full degree Celsius higher than normal for months, adding: "This does not seem like a lot but it makes a big difference to corals."

Fellenius said the last major bleaching event was in 1997, when an exceptionally strong El Nino system affected about a quarter of the world's coral reefs.

He said indications were that the latest episode had affected up to 75 percent of smaller corals and 25 percent of the larger varieties at some sites in the Marshalls.

He said the bleached coral was becoming covered with algae, hindering its chances of recovery.

Read more at Disocvery News

NASA's Black Hole X-Ray Hunter Could Solve Solar Mystery

What’s the sun got in common with distant black holes? Well, at first glance, not a lot. But as this psychedelic solar portrait shows, there is one trait that the sun and black holes do have in common — the emission of high-energy X-rays.

Now NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, has turned its gaze from distant black holes and focused on our sun, producing the most sensitive measurement of high-energy solar X-rays ever achieved.

Long before NuSTAR was even launched in 2012, solar physicist David Smith, of the University of California, Santa Cruz, approached the NASA NuSTAR mission team to request that the space telescope spend some of its observing time looking toward our nearest star.

Shifting focus from the high-energy X-rays generated by supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies millions of light-years away to the sun may seem strange, but only NuSTAR has the capability of sensing the faint high-energy X-ray flashes generated by small-scale solar flares — known as nanoflares — deep inside the sun’s atmosphere, or corona.

“At first I thought the whole idea was crazy,” said NuSTAR principal investigator Fiona Harrison of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. “Why would we have the most sensitive high energy X-ray telescope ever built, designed to peer deep into the universe, look at something in our own back yard?”

Staring at the sun is as an unhealthy proposition for space telescopes as it is for the human eye. NASA’s Chandra X-ray space telescope, for example, would be blinded if it turned its gaze toward the sun as our nearest star generates a broad spectrum of low-energy to high-energy X-rays — Chandra is sensitive to all X-rays. But NuSTAR is unique in that it only detects the highest energy X-rays (blocking out low-energy X-rays) that are generated by powerful relativistic processes surrounding black holes.

And it is high-energy X-rays, which the sun very weakly radiates, that Smith is interested in. But why?

Solar physicists and space weather forecasters have been puzzled for decades as to why the sun’s corona is so hot. On comparison with the sun’s ‘surface’ — the photosphere — which has a temperature of a few thousand degrees Fahrenheit, the corona is (on average) 1.8 million degrees Fahrenheit (1 million Kelvin). That doesn’t make sense in our everyday experience; it would be like the air surrounding a light bulb being hotter than the bulb’s glass, a situation that completely violates basic thermodynamic laws — normally it gets cooler the further you step away from a heat source, not hotter!

So in an effort to explain this mysterious coronal heating phenomenon, solar physicists have arrived at two key theories that have some observational evidence. Magnetohydrodynamic waves — basically waves that travel from the sun’s interior and through the magnetized corona — are thought to resonate with the energetic coronal plasma, causing a heating effect. Another theory suggests that tiny ‘reconnection’ events in the magnetic field of the corona cause rapid heating of the coronal plasma, generating nanoflares. If these nanoflares occur throughout the corona, perhaps they act as sparks that maintain coronal heating to millions of degrees.

Nanoflares are predicted to generate high-energy X-rays, but they have so far proven illusive as we haven’t had the instrumentation to filter out all the noise.

“NuSTAR will give us a unique look at the sun, from the deepest to the highest parts of its atmosphere,” said Smith, who is also a member of the NuSTAR team. “NuSTAR will be exquisitely sensitive to the faintest X-ray activity happening in the solar atmosphere, and that includes possible nanoflares.”

Read more at Discovery News

Dust Devils' Powerful Updrafts Could Drive Mars Climate

Mars’ atmosphere is often viewed as frigid and unchanging, but in studies of the red planet’s aeolian processes, nothing could be further from the truth — particularly where Martian dust devils are concerned.

Aeolian, or wind-blown, processes dominate the Martian landscape; from space, aeolian features such as vast dune fields have fascinated planetary scientists. But another dominant atmospheric phenomenon studied by robotic missions in Mars orbit and on the ground is the dust devil, which often leaves its mark as dark curved paths in the dust.

Scientists are now beginning to understand how these swirling dusty vortexes are able to beef-up to the size of tornadoes we find on Earth and how they could impact the Martian climate.

“To start a dust devil on Mars you need convection, a strong updraft,” said atmospheric science graduate Bryce Williams, of the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in San Francisco last week.

Dust devils, on Earth, are minor meteorological curiosities when the landscape is heated by sunlight. As the surface warms the air above it, the heat rises through the cooler upper layers. This convection can start to form a swirling vortex a couple of hundred meters high during an otherwise windless day. But their Mars cousins can dwarf their terrestrial counterparts, often becoming long-lived features reaching up to 12 miles high.

Now, Williams and supervisor Udaysankar Nair have been able to show how these fascinating funnels of air and dust are able to become super-sized.

“We looked at the ratio between convection and surface turbulence to find the sweet spot where there is enough updraft to overcome the low level wind and turbulence,” said Williams. “And on Mars, where we think the process that creates a vortex is more easily disrupted by frictional dissipation — turbulence and wind at the surface — you need twice as much convective updraft as you do on Earth.”

This conclusion was reached after studying meteorological data from Australian dust devils and comparing that with observations by NASA’s Viking Lander mission. The researchers were able to create a 1-dimensional “planetary boundary layer model” that could identify the ideal conditions for dust devil formation in the Martian atmosphere and, as it turned out, for a dust devil to form on Mars, more powerful convection currents were needed at the surface layers.

This study is much more than just a curiosity about Martian dust devils, however. Considering the Martian atmosphere is, on average, less than one percent the pressure of Earth’s atmosphere (at sea level), dust has a significant impact on the planet’s climate. As dust devils provide a mechanism for kicking substantial quantities of dust into Mars’ atmosphere, they could act as a global climate control of sorts.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 21, 2014

New, tighter timeline confirms ancient volcanism aligned with dinosaurs' extinction

A definitive geological timeline shows that a series of massive volcanic explosions 66 million years ago spewed enormous amounts of climate-altering gases into the atmosphere immediately before and during the extinction event that claimed Earth's non-avian dinosaurs, according to new research from Princeton University.

A primeval volcanic range in western India known as the Deccan Traps, which were once three times larger than France, began its main phase of eruptions roughly 250,000 years before the Cretaceous-Paleogene, or K-Pg, extinction event, the researchers report in the journal Science. For the next 750,000 years, the volcanoes unleashed more than 1.1 million cubic kilometers (264,000 cubic miles) of lava. The main phase of eruptions comprised about 80-90 percent of the total volume of the Deccan Traps' lava flow and followed a substantially weaker first phase that began about 1 million years earlier.

The results support the idea that the Deccan Traps played a role in the K-Pg extinction, and challenge the dominant theory that a meteorite impact near present-day Chicxulub, Mexico, was the sole cause of the extinction. The researchers suggest that the Deccan Traps eruptions and the Chicxulub impact need to be considered together when studying and modeling the K-Pg extinction event.

The Deccan Traps' part in the K-Pg extinction is consistent with the rest of Earth history, explained lead author Blair Schoene, a Princeton assistant professor of geosciences who specializes in geochronology. Four of the five largest extinction events in the last 500 million years coincided with large volcanic eruptions similar to the Deccan Traps. The K-Pg extinction is the only one that coincides with an asteroid impact, he said.

"The precedent is there in Earth history that significant climate change and biotic turnover can result from massive volcanic eruptions, and therefore the effect of the Deccan Traps on late-Cretaceous ecosystems should be considered," Schoene said.

The researchers used a precise rock-dating technique to narrow significantly the timeline for the start of the main eruption, which until now was only known to have occurred within 1 million years of the K-Pg extinction, Schoene said. The Princeton group will return to India in January to collect more samples with the purpose of further constraining eruption rates during the 750,000-year volcanic episode.

Schoene and his co-authors gauged the age of petrified lava flows known as basalt by comparing the existing ratio of uranium to lead given the known rate at which uranium decays over time. The uranium and lead were found in tiny grains -- less than a half-millimeter in size -- of the mineral zircon. Zircon is widely considered Earth's best "time capsule" because it contains a lot of uranium and no lead when it crystallizes, but it is scarce in basalts that cooled quickly. The researchers took the unusual approach of looking for zircon in volcanic ash that had been trapped between lava flows, as well as within thick basalt flows where lava would have cooled more slowly.

The zircon dated from these layers showed that 80-90 percent of the Deccan Traps eruptions occurred in less than a million years, and began very shortly -- in geological terms -- before the K-Pg extinction. To produce useful models for events such as the K-Pg extinction, scientists want to know the sequence of events to within tens of thousands of years or better, not millions, Schoene said. Margins of millions of years are akin to "a history book with events that have no dates and are not written in chronological order," he said.

"We need to know which events happened first and how long before other events, such as when did the Deccan eruptions happen in relation to the K-Pg extinction," Schoene said. "We're now able to place a higher resolution timeframe on these eruptions and are one step closer to finding out what the individual effects of the Deccan Traps eruptions were relative to the Chicxulub meteorite."

Vincent Courtillot, a geophysicist and professor at Paris University Diderot, said that the paper is important and "provides a significant improvement on the absolute dating of the Deccan Traps." Courtillot, who is familiar with the Princeton work but had no role in it, led a team that reported in the Journal of Geophysical Research in 2009 that Deccan volcanism occurred in three phases, the second and largest of which coincides with the K-Pg mass extinction. Numerous other papers from his research groups are considered essential to the development of the Deccan Traps hypothesis. (The Princeton researchers also plan to test the three-phases hypothesis, Schoene said. Their data already suggests that the second and third phase might be a single period of eruptions bridged by smaller, "pulse" eruptions, he said.)

The latest work builds on the long-time work by co-author Gerta Keller, a Princeton professor of geosciences, to establish the Deccan Traps as a main cause of the K-Pg extinction. Virginia Tech geologist Dewey McLean first championed the theory 30 years ago and Keller has since become a prominent voice among a large group of scientists who advocate the idea. In 2011, Keller published two papers that together proposed a one-two punch of Deccan volcanism and meteorite strikes that ended life for more than half of Earth's plants and animals.

Existing models of the environmental effects of the Deccan eruptions used timelines two to three times longer than what the researchers found, which underestimated the eruptions' ecological fallout, Keller explained. The amount of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide the volcanoes poured out would have produced, respectively, a long-term warming and short-term cooling of the oceans and land, and resulted in highly acidic bodies of water, she said.

Read more at Science Daily

Top 10 Winter Holiday Myths


 With Thanksgiving and Hanukkah behind us and Christmas and New Year's Day still ahead, the holiday season is in full swing.

Given the mix of stories and superstitions that constitute holiday preparations and celebrations, seasonal myths can carry over year to year along with the traditions themselves. Consider those myths debunked.

Holiday Travel

Anyone flying home for the holidays last week probably saw a familiar sight at the airport: frantic passengers, long lines at the security screening and a cramped seat on a plane. The day before Thanksgiving certainly does feel like the busiest air travel time of the year.

Except it's not. In fact, some years it's not even in the top 10. In 2006, it was the 36th busiest and 55th in 2007.

The busiest travel days of the year aren't anywhere near the winter holiday season, but rather take place in the summer, on Friday in June, July and August.

Savory Dreams

 If you're still recovering from that food-induced coma you received on Thanksgiving, don't blame the tryptophan in your turkey. Despite the widespread belief that the amino acid triggers sleepiness, it's actually not the turkey's fault for causing drowsiness after a Thanksgiving meal.

Rather, it's the massive amount of carbohydrates and often alcohol that lead to that inevitable post-meal nap.

Traditional Thanksgiving?

Despite celebrating in what we believed the fashion of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Thanksgiving today in no way resembles similar occasions that would have been held in the 17th century. Such events weren't organized or ritualized, according to a religious scholar at Davidson University.

When clergy did find occasion to call together parishioners to give thanks to God, Puritans didn't spend all day feasting, but rather sitting in church.

Our modern conception of Thanksgiving can be credited to a 19th-century magazine editor named Sarah Hale, who saw the holiday as a means of uniting Americans during a time of increasing factionalism.

In the Dark

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can lead to the winter blues, affecting some 5 percent of Americans. But the dark days of winter aren't as big a driver of depression in others, despite the lack of light being cited as a leading cause. Stress, sickness and other sources are more likely to blame.

Suicide Spike

Suicides don't spike during the holiday season, a grim myth with no statistical support. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate is at its lowest in December. It's actually at its highest in the spring and fall.

Read more at Discovery News