Mar 8, 2014

Can Thieves Rob People Using Hypnosis?

A woman in Germany claims she was hypnotized outside of a supermarket, put into a trance, and later woke up at home having been robbed.

A news story explains, “A pair of hypnotists are being hunted by police after a victim claimed she was put in a trance before being robbed. Police in Germany are investigating a spate of crimes involving two Russian women who tell their victims they will read their fortune. In one incident 66 year-old Sarah Alexeyeva told detectives she was spoken to outside an Aldi supermarket in Elmshorn, Schleswig-Holstein. But the next thing she knew she snapped out of a trance and was sat in her armchair at home. All her jewellery and valuables had disappeared, police said.”

Though such claims are unusual, they are not unheard of. According to a 2008 BBC News story, “Police in Italy have issued footage of a man who is suspected of hypnotizing supermarket checkout staff to hand over money from their cash registers. In every case, the last thing staff reportedly remember is the thief leaning over and saying: ‘Look into my eyes’, before finding the till empty.”

There’s a certain creepy Gothic allure to the idea that a mesmerizing stranger can ask you to stare deeply into his eyes, or ask you to follow a pocketwatch swaying seductively to and fro and listen to him count backwards into a hypnotic trance. But it’s pure fiction.

Misunderstood Hypnosis

Hypnosis is a widely misunderstood psychological phenomenon, due largely to its depictions in popular culture and film. Many people believe that hypnosis is a way to access memories of traumatic events that have somehow been hidden or forgotten. In the book “Human Memory: An Introduction to Research, Data, and Theory,” Dr. Ian Neath of Purdue University notes, “The majority of studies do not find that hypnosis allows recollection of information that could not otherwise be recalled.”

In fact there is a significant danger that any information or memories that may be recalled under hypnosis may be false, created accidentally by the power of suggestion. False memories elicited using hypnosis played a role in the “Satanic Panic” scare of the 1980s and 1990s in which dozens of people were falsely accused of physically and sexually abusing children. Some people even spent years and decades in prison for crimes they did not commit based on little or no evidence other than hypnosis-derived memories.

Another common myth about hypnosis is that it can put someone into a helpless or suggestible trance-like state. To psychologists, however, this idea has no basis. If it were possible to simply stare deeply into a stranger’s eyes to induce a trance-like, compliant state, then it would happen all the time. Anyone with practice or skill in hypnosis could easily turn to a life of crime by walking into a bank, casting a hypnotic stare at a teller, and take whatever they like.

In their book “50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology,” psychologists Scott Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry Beyerstein debunk this popular myth: “Recent survey data show that public opinion resonates with media portrayals of hypnosis. Specifically, 77 percent of college students endorsed the statement that ‘hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness, quite different from normal waking consciousness.’… But research refutes these widely accepted beliefs. Hypnotized people are by no means mindless automatons.”

Many psychologists believe that hypnosis is not some special altered state of consciousness, but simply a form of deep relaxation. Stage hypnosis — such as the kind seen in Las Vegas comedy acts where “suggestible” audience members get on stage and pretend to be chickens or caught in embarrassing situations — is not true clinical hypnosis but instead a combination of showmanship and participatory comedy.

Read more at Discovery News

Comet Swarm Smash-Up Spied Around Nearby Star

A giant clump of carbon monoxide found around a nearby star hints at collisions between comets and the presence of a massive hidden planet, according to recent observations with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope in Chile.

Located a little over 63 light-years away in the southern constellation Pictor, Beta Pictoris is a young star slightly more massive and about 9 times brighter than the sun. It’s surrounded by a dusty protoplanetary disk that we see edge-on and orbited by at least one known planet — Beta Pictoris b.

Based on the behavior of an enormous ring of dust and carbon monoxide (CO) gas surrounding Beta Pictoris three times as far out as Neptune is from our sun, either multiple small, rocky planets were once present and have recently smashed into each other or, considered more likely, millions of icy comets have been gravitationally gathered into a condensed cluster by a single, massive planet and there they are currently on chaotic collision courses.

The collisions are thought to replenish the carbon monoxide in the ring, which would otherwise be quickly broken down by UV light from the star — within about a century.

“To produce the amount of gas we detect, we’re looking at the equivalent of the total destruction of a large comet every five minutes,” said Aki Roberge, an astronomer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and coauthor on the paper. ”To get this number of collisions, this would have to be a very tight, massive swarm.”

The swarm could be focused by the gravity of an as-yet undiscovered planet orbiting closer in to Beta Pictoris.

“A planet with roughly Saturn’s mass could do the job,” said Roberge.

If the comet collisions were occurring randomly throughout the entire disk, the gas observed would be evenly distributed and not in specific dense regions.

Whether there are multiple clumps of gas around Beta Pictoris or just one is still unknown — because we see the entire system edge-on it’s difficult to determine. The motion of the densest, brightest clump appears to indicate two, though.

Read more at Discovery News

Mar 7, 2014

Earth's mantle plasticity explained: Missing mechanism for deforming olivine-rich rocks

Earth's mantle is a solid layer that undergoes slow, continuous convective motion. But how do these rocks deform, thus making such motion possible, given that minerals such as olivine (the main constituent of the upper mantle) do not exhibit enough defects in their crystal lattice to explain the deformations observed in nature? A team led by the Unité Matériaux et Transformations (CNRS/Université Lille 1/Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Chimie de Lille) has provided an unexpected answer to this question. It involves little known and hitherto neglected crystal defects, known as 'disclinations', which are located at the boundaries between the mineral grains that make up rocks. Focusing on olivine, the researchers have for the first time managed to observe such defects and model the behavior of grain boundaries when subjected to a mechanical stress.

The findings, which have just been published in Nature, go well beyond the scope of the geosciences: they provide a new, extremely powerful tool for the study of the dynamics of solids and for the materials sciences in general.

Earth continuously releases its heat via convective motion in Earth's mantle, which underlies the crust. Understanding this convection is therefore fundamental to the study of plate tectonics. The mantle is made up of solid rocks. In order for convective motion to occur, it must be possible for the crystal lattice of these rocks to deform. Until now, this was a paradox that science was unable to fully resolve. While defects in the crystal lattice, called dislocations, provide a very good explanation of the plasticity of metals, they are insufficient to explain the deformations undergone by certain mantle rocks.

The researchers suspected that the solution was to be found at the boundaries between the mineral grains that make up rocks. However, they lacked the conceptual tools needed to describe and model the role played by these boundaries in the plasticity of rocks. Researchers at the Unité Matériaux et Transformations (CNRS/Université Lille 1/Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Chimie de Lille) in collaboration with researchers at the Laboratoire Géosciences Montpellier (CNRS/Université Montpellier 2) and the Laboratoire d'Etude des Microstructures et de Mécanique des Matériaux (CNRS/Université de Lorraine/Arts et Métiers ParisTech/Ecole Nationale d'Ingénieurs de Metz) have now explained this role. They have shown that the crystal lattice of the grain boundaries exhibits highly specific defects known as 'disclinations', which had hitherto been neglected. The researchers succeeded in observing them for the first time in samples of olivine (which makes up as much as 60% of the upper mantle) by using an electron microscope and specific image processing. They even went further: based on a mathematical model, they showed that these disclinations provided an explanation for the plasticity of olivine. When mechanical stress is applied, the disclinations enable the grain boundaries to move, thus allowing olivine to deform in any direction. Flow in the mantle is thus no longer incompatible with its rigidity.

Read more at Science Daily

There's No Planet X

There's no evidence for the existence of Planet X, despite a NASA space telescope’s best efforts to track it down.

The hypothetical world that may or may not be orbiting the sun beyond the orbit of Pluto has inspired many a doomsday theory. In the run-up to the much anticipated “Mayan Doomsday” of Dec. 21, 2012, the marauding Planet X was scheduled to make a inner-solar system dash, sparking gravitational mayhem, triggering civilization-ending solar flares. Some doomsayers held onto the crackpot notion that Planet X could be the fictional planet “Nibiru” that is inhabited by the Annunaki, an alien race hellbent on re-claiming Earth as their own.

15 months later, we all know how that alien invasion went — apparently we won.

All this doomsday nonsense to one side, the hunt for “Planet X” actually has roots in real science. In the mid- to late-19th Century, astronomers were tracking the gravitational perturbations of the gas giant planets in an effort to track down an undiscovered world in the outermost reaches of the solar system — this hypothetical massive planet was dubbed “Planet X.” However, this fascinating trail of discovery ended at the discovery of tiny Pluto in 1930. Lacking the gravitational oomph to explain the gravitational perturbations, it turned out that Pluto wasn’t the Planet X astronomers thought it would be. After the realization that the gravitational perturbations observed were more likely observational error, Planet X became a story of legend.

The idea that the sun may have a stellar partner has also been investigated — perhaps there’s a brown dwarf (a failed star) going unnoticed out there. Nicknamed “Nemesis,” this binary partner could be evading detection.

A few oddities in the outer solar system have given astronomers pause to think that something massive might be lurking out there, however, whether it be a massive planet or sub-standard star. One strong piece of evidence laid in the discovery of the “Kuiper Cliff,” a sudden drop-off of Kuiper Belt objects in the region just beyond Pluto. Could the Cliff be caused by a previously overlooked world? Also, geological record has suggested there’s a regularity to mass extinctions on Earth linked to comet impacts — could a distant orbiting body be perturbing comets, sending them our way on a cyclical basis?

“The outer solar system probably does not contain a large gas giant planet, or a small, companion star,” said Kevin Luhman of the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Penn State University, University Park, Pa.

Luhman and his team have analyzed data from NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), a space telescope that carried out a detailed infrared survey of the entire sky from 2010 to 2011. If something big is lurking out there, WISE would easily have spotted it. Alas, WISE has turned up no Planet X candidate. Previous observations by WISE have also ruled out the Planet X-comet perturbation theory.

According to a NASA news release, “no object the size of Saturn or larger exists out to a distance of 10,000 astronomical units (AU), and no object larger than Jupiter exists out to 26,000 AU. One astronomical unit equals 93 million miles. Earth is 1 AU, and Pluto about 40 AU, from the sun.”

However, the modern search for a Planet X was never WISE’s prime mission. In a second study, the discovery of 3,525 stars and brown dwarfs within 500 light-years of the sun are detailed. In cosmic distances, these objects are right on our galactic doorstep. Both studies have been published in The Astrophysical Journal.

“Neighboring star systems that have been hiding in plain sight just jump out in the WISE data,” said WISE principal investigator Ned Wright of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Read more at Discovery News

Infrared Stellar Mystery Solved With Magnetic Fuzz

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has helped solve an infrared mystery surrounding baby star systems that has puzzled astronomers since the 1980s.

A star is born from the gravitational collapse of clouds of dust and gas. When the compressed star-forming cloud reaches a certain density, fusion reactions are triggered in the core — a young star is born. However, during this collapse, there is a natural rotation in the cloud, a rotation that is preserved by the star as it reaches maturity. Any leftovers from the stellar formation accumulates around the new star forming a spinning, flat protoplanetary disk that creates rocky bodies like asteroids and eventually planets.

During the 1980s, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) mission surveyed young star systems measuring the infrared light they emitted. The protoplanetary disk of gas and dust generates a strong infrared signal — the young star heats up the disk, which radiates in infrared wavelengths.

However, even during those early observations, astronomers noticed a discrepancy; the young star systems were generating too much infrared radiation.

Over the years, further infrared observations and more refined models have suggested that the simple “flat” structure of protoplanetary disks may need to be revisited. Revised theoretical models included a modification of the ‘classic’ protoplanetary disk, adding a halo of dusty material encapsulating the young, hot star. By doing this, more dust is heated than the disk scenario and could perhaps explain the excess in infrared radiation.

However, with the help of Spitzer and new 3-D models, astronomers think they have a more refined answer.

As the star-forming cloud collapses, the new star not only retains the angular momentum of the spinning cloud, it also collapses any magnetic fields contained within it. The magnetic field will thread through the protoplanetary disk creating huge loops, trapping gas, dust and plasma, enhancing the disk’s atmosphere. These huge arcs — like the bright coronal loops that are filled with hot plasma reaching high above the sun’s photosphere — could be what is responsible for the excess; starlight is blocked by the huge arcs, which are then heated to generate more infrared radiation.

“If you could somehow stand on one of these planet-forming disks and look at the star in the center through the disk atmosphere, you would see what looks like a sunset,” said Neal Turner of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. The disk, in this case, is not smooth or flat — the magnetic fields crate a fuzziness, forcing the starlight to heat more dust.

Read more at Discovery News

The 28-Foot Sea Monster That Can Survive Being Cut in Half

In 1973, American soldiers on the Mekong River in Laos killed and hauled ashore a massive 24-foot ribbon of a fish. It was the “Queen of the Naga,” claimed a postcard still widely circulated in Southeast Asia with the above photo, a mythical serpent thought to patrol these waters and that apparently enjoys the embrace of enlisted men.

In reality, though, the soldier had not caught a mythical beast. They weren’t even in Laos and it wasn’t even 1973. That picture with over a dozen men straining to lift the creature, one soldier so exhausted, it seems, that he had to remove his shirt and pants, was taken in 1996 near San Diego. What the men had in fact found on their early-morning jog was a stranded giant oarfish, aka “the king of the herrings,” from the Scandinavian folklore that claimed schools of the little fish dotingly followed their gargantuan leader about.

The creature’s proclivity for such strandings, and for surfacing on the open seas when sick or injured, has for thousands of years served as the likely inspiration for sea serpent legends the world over (Japanese lore says their strandings presage earthquakes and tsunamis — they don’t). Even with such history, we’re still struggling to understand this bizarre giant, which can grow to 28 feet long and, like a lizard jettisoning its tail, self-amputate up to 75 percent of its body, perhaps in anticipation of bikini season.

This could be the ocean’s most enigmatic and widely mythologized critter. One of the few people to observe a live specimen in its natural habitat, not simply stranded on a shoreline, is marine biologist Mark Benfield, who in 2013 published a paper detailing five sightings from a remotely operated underwater vehicle.

These are the first observations of healthy oarfish from an ROV. The remarkable footage, in convenient GIF format at right, captures a fish that glows almost as if lit by LEDs, thanks to a layer of guanine molecules, whose shine helps so many fish in the sea confuse and evade predators. With the oarfish, this shimmering compound will actually rub off on your hands when handling the creature, as if it’s wearing body glitter, or whatever the kids are doing to be sparkly these days.

Notice the oarfish’s famous red fins sprouting from the top of its head, which likely aid in species recognition, according to ichthyologist Tyson R. Roberts, who wrote an epic 266-page paper on the creature. (The lasers you see here and in other ROV videos, by the way, are called scalers — they allow scientists to take accurate length measurements.) The fish hovers vertically, hypnotically undulating its dorsal fin up and down, then retreats by switching to horizontal swimming, waving its whole body back and forth like an eel.

So if it can move like a typical fish, why bother going vertical? “We know that they feed on krill, the euphausiids, and if you’re looking for euphausiids and you’re in the ocean, then looking straight up will allow you to silhouette them against light from the surface,” said Benfield. “So that’s probably why they orient vertically. It also means that when a predator is looking downwards towards you, you’re presenting the minimal cross section to that animal.”

While the oarfish has typically been described as a deep-sea creature, Benfield suspects that it may not necessarily be sequestered to such a zone. While the specimen he filmed was 1,500 feet deep, that was during the day. That’s important because many sea creatures are vertical migrators — hanging out in the darkness of the depths by day, then moving toward the surface at night. Indeed, the oarfish’s favorite food, krill, embark on such endeavors, so the beast could be pursuing them.

You may notice that the fish Benfield filmed looks rather … abbreviated compared to the oarfish held by the soldiers. It’s a younger specimen, sure, but its proportions are definitely awry. And it could well be that the creature had at some point gone and popped its own tail right off.

Such self-mutilation, more formally known as autotomy, meaning “self-cutting,” is perhaps most famously demonstrated by lizards, which shed their tails when grasped. Not only does auto-amputation free the creature from its predator, but the wiggling tail left behind serves as a distraction. It’s a brilliant adaptation to escape predation and to terrify 8-year-old me, who didn’t mean to snap that lizard in half, honest.

Anyway, anatomically, the oarfish consists of a head and an abdomen, where all the guts are stored, followed by an enormous tail. At nearly 30 feet, the oarfish can have 416 dorsal fin rays, but one specimen in the Australian Museum has only 95 — coming up more than 300 short, according to Roberts. But the end of the thing is a “healed stump with the typical shape of the terminus,” making it unlikely that it was simply the victim of a shark attack.

This particular oarfish, says Roberts, had willingly amputated damn near the entirety of its body. He further writes that oarfish have few if any predators, noting that dead or dying specimens do not attract sharks and that no oarfish have been found in shark stomach contents, perhaps ruling out amputation by predator.

(Now’s as good a time as any to mention that the oarfish’s gelatinous, flabby meat is apparently pretty awful. Roberts cites an account from 1798 that claimed that not even “dogs would not eat the flesh either raw or boiled,” confirming that science in the 18th century consisted at least in part of cooking rarely seen species and feeding them to your pets. Even seagulls, which would probably eat your suntan lotion given the opportunity, are said to avoid oarfish corpses.)

Read more at Wired Science

Nutty Bible Quotes

Nutty bible quotes is a project started by the Swedish magician, Jakob Ståhle, who is a former christian believer. He started "Tokiga bibelord" (Nutty bible quotes) a few years ago on the web and is now making a book with the same quotes from the bible. To fund his project he needs your help. He needs $9000 to be able to pay the illustrator and the printing of the book. You don't have to contribute with much. Every little dollar counts but please hurry. There's not much time left.

Please go to Nutty Bible Quotes on Indiegogo and contribute with a few dollars so he can make this project a reality. I'll bet that you feel good in the process.

Nutty Bible Quotes on Indiegogo

Mar 6, 2014

New Dino Ranks as Europe's Largest-Ever Predator

A new dinosaur from Portugal is Europe’s largest-ever terrestrial predator and was the biggest carnivorous dinosaur of the Jurassic Period, according to paleontologists who studied its remains.

The dinosaur, named Torvosaurus gurneyi, measured close to 33 feet long and weighed over 2,200 pounds, according to a paper in the latest PLoS ONE. The predator was at the top of Europe’s terrestrial food chain roughly 150 million years ago.

“The fauna of what is now Portugal was extremely diverse in the Late Jurassic,” paleontologist Octavio Mateus of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, and co-author of the study, said in a press release. “This new species of carnivorous dinosaur is adding a little more (to the) diversity of dinosaurs of Portugal.

He added that the dinosaur lived at a time “when the Atlantic was well formed and Europe was an archipelago.”

Fossils for the dinosaur were found north of what is now Lisbon. The upper jaw retains eleven of the dinosaur’s teeth, each of which measures about 4 inches long.

The new dinosaur is the second known kind of Torvosaurus and is the European equivalent of Torvosaurus tanneri from North America. Both species were discovered in rocks of the same geological age and lived in similar environments dominated by dinosaurs. Both might have been covered with proto-feathers, and both belonged to a two-legged dino group that gave rise to birds.

The Portuguese dinosaur was a distant cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex[/i, and had more teeth than T. tanneri. T. rex still retains its “King of the Dinosaur Predators” title, though, as it was larger than both of the Torvosaurus beasts. (The most complete skeleton for a T. rex suggests it grew to about 40 feet long.)

Paleontologist and co-author Christophe Hendrickx, also of Universidade Nova de Lisboa, said, of the new Portuguese dino, “This is not the largest predatory dinosaur we know. Tyrannosaurus, Carcharodontosaurus, and Giganotosaurus from the Cretaceous were bigger animals.”

Read more at Discovery News

'Rocket Cat' Warfare Found in 16th-Century Manual

Color illustrations of rocket-propelled cats and birds have recently been found in a 16th century war manual, according to a University of Pennsylvania researcher.

Written by artillery master Franz Helm of Cologne, who likely fought against the Turks during the mid-16th century, the manual on artillery and siege warfare dates to about 1530.

Among fanciful illustrations, the text in German explains the shocking project to put timed explosives onto birds and cats in order to “set fire to a castle or city which you can’t get at otherwise.”

Called “Buch von den probierten Künsten” (Book of the tested arts) Helm’s treatise circulated widely in manuscript but was not published until 1625. It was rediscovered by Mitch Fraas, a historian and digital humanities expert at the Penn library.

Fraas began researching the war treatise after finding its unusual and disturbing illustrations on the book blog BibliOdyssey.

Among various illustrations of explosive devices, one image appeared particularly odd. ”It showed a cat and a bird propelled by rockets towards a castle,” Fraas said.

Fraas was able to track the images to Helm’s manual, whose print edition is kept in the Penn collection.

According to Fraas’s translation, in the treatise Helm explained how the poor animals could be used as explosives.

“On cats the text paints a grisly picture of attaching lit sacks of incendiaries onto the animals to have them return to their homes and set fire to them,” Fraas said.

Whether the pyrotechnic warfare technique was ever actually employed by Helm, we may never know.

“But strangely enough the idea of using cats and birds in just this way appears in historical texts from many disparate regions of the world,” Fraas said.

Read more at Discovery News

Impact Crater Origin of Mars Meteorites Discovered

Out of the thousands of craters scarring the face of Mars, one has emerged as the likely source of most of the Martian meteorites that have been recovered on Earth, a new study shows.

Researchers pinpoint Mojave Crater, a 34 mile (55 kilometer) wide basin on the planet’s equator, as the origin of the so-called “shergottites” meteorites, a family that includes about 75 percent of the roughly 150 known Martian meteorites.

The crater is located slightly north and east of Meridian Planum, where NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity landed in January 2004.

Knowing where the meteorites came from would help scientists piecing together the history and evolution of Mars, the planet most like Earth in the solar system.

With clear evidence of past surface water, Mars remains a prime candidate in the search for life beyond Earth.

Researchers homed in on Mojave Crater as the source of the shergottites for several reasons. First, its large size means it was created by an impact powerful enough to launch debris into space. Based on the amount of cosmic ray exposure the meteorites experience in space, scientists estimate the rocks spent 5 million years in interplanetary space before reaching Earth.

The shergottites that have cosmic ray exposures of only about 1 million years broke apart during transit, exposing fresh surfaces and new interiors to radiation, planetary scientist Stephanie Werner, with the University of Oslo in Norway, theorizes in a paper published in this week’s Science.

Second, Mojave Crater is relatively young, formed from an impact that took place less than 5 million years ago on terrain that is roughly 4.3 billion years old. That's the same age, the researchers say, as when the shergottites originally crystallized.

The third and final piece of evidence comes from a chemical analysis of the crater made from data collected by instruments aboard Europe’s Mars Express and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter satellites. Scientists found telltale chemical fingerprints of pyroxene and olivine in and around the crater, two minerals commonly present in the Martian meteorites.

“Only Mojave Crater combines the appropriate site mineralogy, size, and the young crater-formation age of less than 5 million years,” Werner wrote in an email to Discovery News.

“Additionally, the shergottite meteorites are igneous rocks which have formed at the depth of up to a few kilometers, thus most volcanic provinces can be excluded,” Werner added.

Not everyone agrees with the scientists’ conclusions.

Read more at Discovery News

Hubble Witnesses Mysterious Breakup of Asteroid

Hubble has observed some weird things since it was launched in 1990, but this is probably one of the strangest.

In September 2013, the Catalina and Pan-STARRS sky surveys spotted a mysterious object in the asteroid belt, a region of rocky debris that occupy the space between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Follow-up observations by the Keck Observatory in Hawaii resolved three separate objects within the fuzzy cloud. It was so strange that Hubble mission managers decided to use the space telescope to get a closer look.

And what they saw has baffled and thrilled astronomers in equal measure.

Hubble resolved the slow-moving debris of an asteroid that is in the process of breaking up. The asteroid, designated P/2013 R3, hasn’t hit anything, as the fragments are moving too slow — it just seems to be falling apart. This is unprecedented, never before has an asteroid been seen disintegrating to this degree in the asteroid belt.

“This is a rock. Seeing it fall apart before our eyes is pretty amazing,” said David Jewitt of the University of California, Los Angeles, who led the investigation.

Comets are often seen fragmenting in this way, particularly when they drift too close to the sun; ices sublimate, creating a violent out-gassing of vapor, causing the cometary structure to rupture and break apart. A recent example of a cometary breakup is that of Comet ISON that got shredded by the sun’s extreme heating and powerful tidal forces during Thanksgiving last year.

While analyzing Hubble data, Jewitt’s team could actually see ten separate chunks of asteroid slowly drifting apart — at only 1.5 kilometers per hour (the speed of a slow walk). Four of the largest chunks are around 400 meters wide, roughly four times the length of a football field.

“This is a really bizarre thing to observe — we’ve never seen anything like it before,” said co-author Jessica Agarwal of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Germany, in a Hubble news release. “The break-up could have many different causes, but the Hubble observations are detailed enough that we can actually pinpoint the process responsible.”

So what could possibly be causing this asteroid to just fall apart?

With the collision scenario already eliminated, could the break-up be down to ices trapped in the rock heating up and outgassing, causing fragmentation in a similar way to how comets disintegrate? This is unlikely, as there isn’t a significant heat source in the asteroid belt and the asteroid is far away from the sun.

The leading theory for the breakup of P/2013 R3 is a bizarre Yarkovsky–O’Keefe–Radzievskii–Paddack (YORP) effect. As the sun’s radiation heats up one side of a space rock, that heat is radiated away as the asteroid rotates. The infrared radiation that is emitted from the dark side of the asteroid gives the asteroid a tiny kick. Over millions of years, this tiny acceleration effect can cause the asteroid to “spin up.” Should the spinning become faster than the structure of the asteroid can hold itself together, centrifugal forces can literally rip it apart.

As many asteroids are believed to be loose collections of rocks and dust — known as “rubble piles” — the impact of the YORP effect can be pretty dramatic, as P/2013 R3 can attest.

“This is the latest in a line of weird asteroid discoveries, including the active asteroid P/2013 P5, which we found to be spouting six tails,” says Agarwal. “This indicates that the sun may play a large role in disintegrating these small solar system bodies, by putting pressure on them via sunlight.”

Read more at Discovery News

Mar 5, 2014

Prequel outshines the original: Exceptional fossils of 160-million-year-old doahugou biota

Over the last two decades, huge numbers of fossils have been collected from the western Liaoning Province and adjacent parts of northeastern China, including exceptionally preserved feathered dinosaurs, early birds, and mammals. Most of these specimens are from the Cretaceous Period, including the famous Jehol Biota. However, in recent years many fossils have emerged from sites that are 30 million years earlier, from the Middle-Upper Jurassic Period, providing an exceptional window on life approximately 160 million years ago. A new paper published in latest issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology shows that several of these Jurassic sites are linked together by shared species and can be recognized as representing a single fossil fauna and flora, containing superbly preserved specimens of a diverse group of amphibian, mammal, and reptile species.

This fossil assemblage, newly named the Daohugou Biota after a village near one of the major localities in Inner Mongolia, China, dates from a time when many important vertebrate groups, including our own group, mammals, were undergoing evolutionary diversification. The Daohugou Biota makes an immense contribution to our understanding of vertebrate evolution during this period, with such notable creatures as the oldest known gliding mammal, another early mammal that may have swum with a beaver-like tail, the oldest dinosaurs preserved with feathers, and a pterosaur that represents an important transitional form between two major groups. As described by Dr. Corwin Sullivan, lead author of the study, "The Daohugou Biota gives us a look at a rarely glimpsed side of the Middle to Late Jurassic -- not a parade of galumphing giants, but an assemblage of quirky little creatures like feathered dinosaurs, pterosaurs with 'advanced' heads on 'primitive' bodies, and the Mesozoic equivalent of a flying squirrel."

Almost more impressive than the diversity of the biota is the preservation of many of the vertebrate specimens, including complete or nearly-complete skeletons associated with preserved soft tissues such as feathers, fur, skin or even, in some of the salamanders, external gills. Dr Yuan Wang, co-author of the study, explained, "The Daohugou amphibians are crucially important in the study of the phylogeny and early radiation of modern amphibian groups."

Read more at Science Daily

Bizarre Organic Quasicrystal Accidentally Made in Lab

Quasicrystals have teased and intrigued scientists for three decades. Now, this already strange group of materials has a bizarre new member: a two-dimensional quasicrystal made from self-assembling organic molecules.

This odd quasicrystal is flat, made from a single layer of molecules with five-sided rings. The molecules form groups within the layer as weak hydrogen bonds link them together. These molecular groups are assembled in a way that forces other molecules in the layer into shapes including pentagons, stars, boats, and rhombi. If this were a regular old crystal, you’d expect to see these groups and shapes repeated over and over throughout the layer in a predictable way. But in this quasicrystal, you’ll see the same shapes over and over in the layer, but not in any organized pattern.

The things that set these quasicrystals apart from all the others, scientists say, are its organic materials and self-assembling parts.

“They’re markedly different from just about everything else out there,” said physical chemist Alex Kandel, whose lab at the University of Notre Dame described the material today in Nature. Previously known quasicrystals are mostly metallic, and tied together by strong ionic bonds rather than the weaker hydrogen bonds that can be found in complex organic molecules like DNA.

As their name suggests, quasicrystals have a structure that’s part crystalline, part disorganized. In other words, they are something in between a structure with repeating, symmetric units, and one with completely random building blocks. Their atomic units are locally symmetric, but are not regularly repeated over longer distances. Because of these arrangements, quasicrystals are slippery and have been used in things like non-stick frying pans.

The first quasicrystal of any sort was also accidentally made in the lab, in 1982, by materials scientist Daniel Schechtman who won a Nobel Prize for the discovery in 2011. Up until that point, scientists thought the semi-organized structure of quasicrystals was an impossibility. Now, we know that’s not true. Not only can quasicrystals be grown in the lab, they can also grow in nature. In 2012, Princeton University physicist Paul Steinhardt showed that quasicrystals found in eastern Russia had fallen to Earth in a meteorite.

Kandel’s group discovered the organic quasicrystal accidentally. Instead of trying to make the thing, they were actually hoping to study how electrons are distributed in ferrocenecarboxylic acid, the molecule the quasicrystal is built from. To do that, the team needed to build a stable, linear group of molecules. But when the scientists tried, they produced a two-dimensional quasicrystal instead.

“The first images were quite a shock,” Kandel said. “Certainly, 2-D quasicrystals aren’t easy to make, which is why we’re only seeing very recent reports of them now, some 30-odd years after the first quasicrystalline materials were discovered.”

Wolf Widdra of Germany’s Martin Luther University, who made the first 2-D quasicrystal, reported in October 2013, is a bit skeptical of the new research. He doesn’t think there’s enough evidence yet to prove quasicrystal structure over a large enough area.

Read more at Wired Science

Distant Black Hole Spins at Half the Speed of Light

Back when the universe was half its present age, supermassive black holes were feeding from a steady and plentiful diet of neighboring galaxies, the first measurement of a distant supermassive black hole’s spin shows.

Taking advantage of a naturally occurring zoom lens in space, astronomers analyzed X-rays streaming from near the mouth of a supermassive black hole powering a quasar about 6 billion light years from Earth.

“The ‘lens’ galaxy acts like a natural telescope, magnifying the light from the faraway quasar,” University of Michigan astronomer Rubens Reis explains in a paper published in this week’s Nature.

Analyzing four magnified images created by the lens galaxy -- an elliptical galaxy about 3 billion light years away -- Reis and colleagues found that the quasar’s black hole is spinning at half the speed of light.

The spin rate directly relates to how black holes feed and grow: The steadier the diet, the faster the spin, computer models show.

“If the mass accretion was more messy it would suggest that the black hole would have a lower spin,” astronomer Mark Reynolds, also with University of Michigan, told Discovery News.

“What we found in this system is that it’s spinning very rapidly,” Reynolds said, consuming mass equivalent to about one sun per year.

That suggests that the quasar, known as RX J1131-1231, is growing primarily by what is known as “coherent accretion” such as what might happen when two galaxies merge, producing lots of gas that can funnel down toward the black hole very efficiently, Reynolds said.

Until astronomers measure the spin rates of other and even more distant supermassive black holes they won’t know if RX J1131 is an odd bird or not.

“This is the first time that we’ve been able to push out to this type of distance by using the gravitational lensing effect. We hope ... to carry out similar studies on other (more distant) galaxies. Then we can begin to really start relating the black hole to the actual galaxy it’s in, how many mergers happened and things like that,” Reynolds said.

Spin rates may evolve over time, reflecting changes in evolution of galaxies.

“Different theories of galaxy evolution predict a different rate of mergers, and a different process of gas inflow into the center of galaxies,” Guido Risaliti, with the INAF Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory in Florence, Italy, wrote in an email to Discovery News.

“These processes, in turn, determine the final black hole spin. So knowing the distribution of supermassive black hole spins is a way to constrain the way they were formed, and so, ultimately, the way their host galaxies formed and evolved,” Risaliti wrote.

Read more at Discovery News

Lightning, Stars, and Aurorae Shine in Epic Time-Lapse

When the sun sets, the show begins: night after night of incredible weather, shimmering aurorae, and stunning starry vistas over the rugged and rural landscapes of South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming are captured in “Huelux,” the latest time-lapse film from photographer Randy Halverson.

Shot over seven months, Huelux presents the night sky in a way only time-lapse photography — and a skilled artist — can. Lightning storms flash, clouds speed by, the Northern Lights dance and, behind it all, the grand vista of the Milky Way makes its stately arc across the heavens. Human activity is reduced to mere flickers at these time scales, as the meteor-like flashes of commercial jet planes and communications satellites show.

“I came up with the title Huelux, which comes from hue (a color property), and lux which is Latin for light. Some of the aurora and Milky Way were difficult to color correct, so I spent a lot of time with the hue settings, white balance, etc. during the month and a half edit. The low aurora on the horizon were often yellow, while closer (higher in the sky) aurora were green. If I adjusted the yellow aurora on the horizon green, it threw the rest of the colors, such as grass, way off and made the whole image too blue.”

Fantastic work — truly a testament to the beauty of the night sky, as well as a haunting exhibition of a slightly more ponderous passage of time.

Taken from Discovery News

Mar 4, 2014

Every Red Dwarf Hosts at Least One Exoplanet

Red dwarf stars may be small, but they could be critical in the continuing hunt for exoplanets and the possibility of finding habitable alien worlds. In a new study, an international team of astronomers have estimated that every red dwarf in our galaxy hosts at least one exoplanet and that one quarter host super-Earths orbiting within their habitable zones.

The field of exoplanetary science has blossomed in recent years with the mind blowing discoveries by the Kepler space telescope and ever-increasing sophistication of ground-based observatories. Last week, Kepler’s exoplanetary haul skyrocketed with the announcement of 715 new confirmed worlds. But this is only the tip of the exo-iceberg. With improved observation techniques, more refined models and increasingly precise analytical tools, we can expect the steady stream of discoveries to turn into a deluge in the coming years.

And there’s one particularly intriguing target for astronomers — the lowly red dwarf.

These cool, dim, small stars are less than half the mass of our sun, but for what they lack in stellar energy they make up for in longevity. As they burn through hydrogen in their cores at a more pedestrian rate than their larger siblings, red dwarfs can persist for tens of billions or even trillions of years. Should a habitable world in orbit around a red dwarf spawn life, it would have billions of years to evolve.

Needless to say, this factor alone has inspired many theories about the potential for vastly intelligent lifeforms persisting far longer than our sun could ever support.

Signals in the Wobble

Now, astronomers from the UK and Chile have analyzed data from two high-precision exoplanet surveys — the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) at the La Silla Observatory and Ultraviolet and Visual Echelle Spectrograph (UVES) at the Very Large Telescope, both operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and located in Chile.

Although both surveys are prolific exoplanet hunters in their own right, this new study combines data from both projects to tease out extremely faint signals of exoplanets that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. A healthy dose of statistical analysis was applied to tease out the exoplanet orbits from the noise.

Both projects detect the slight “wobble” exerted on a star as an unseen exoplanet orbits around it. The gravitational tug as the world orbits creates a tiny shift in the star’s position, a shift that can be detected in the starlight received by the instruments. As expected, high-mass worlds that orbit close to the star will create a strong signal, whereas small worlds orbiting further away will have a weaker signal. This method is known as the “radial velocity” technique for detecting exoplanets and it differs from Kepler’s “transit” method technique as it doesn’t require the exoplanet to pass in front of the star — thereby causing a slight ‘dip’ in brightness — to be detected.

Although Kepler is tailored to hunt for small worlds, that doesn’t mean ground-based instruments like HARPS and UVES can’t get in on the act; it just takes some ingenuity when analyzing the data.

“We were looking at the data from UVES alone, and noticed some variability that could not be explained by random noise,” said lead astronomer Mikko Tuomi, of the University of Hertfordshire. “By combining those with data from HARPS, we managed to spot this spectacular haul of planet candidates.”

“We are clearly probing a highly abundant population of low-mass planets, and can readily expect to find many more in the near future — even around the very closest stars to the Sun.”

Galactic Doorstep

In their paper to be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS), Tuomi’s team identified eight new exoplanets orbiting nearby red dwarf stars, three of which are ‘super-Earth’ sized worlds that orbit within their stars’ habitable zones. The habitable zone around any given star is the orbital distance at which a rocky planet could possess liquid water on its surface — the world is neither too hot or too cold for water to exist in a liquid state. Liquid water is required by life as we know it to evolve.

All of these new discoveries orbit red dwarfs between 15 and 80 light-years from our solar system, so on cosmic scales, they are on our galactic doorstep. They have orbital periods ranging from 4 days to 9 years, which equates to orbital distances of 0.05 to 4 times the sun-Earth distance.

The astronomers have also identified another ten exoplanetary candidates that require further investigation before they can be confirmed.

Read more at Discovery News

Jurassic Fossil Find Has Feathered Dinos, Airborne Mammals

A veritable Jurassic paradise is providing an exceptional window on life approximately 160 million years ago.

The fossil assemblage, called the Daohugou Biota, is described in the latest issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. The fossils, all found in and around what is now Inner Mongolia, China, date from a time when many important animal groups, including our own (mammals), were undergoing noteworthy evolutionary changes.

The collection features such memorable creatures as the oldest known gliding mammal, another early mammal that may have swum with a beaver-like tail, the oldest dinosaurs preserved with feathers and a pterosaur that represents an important transitional form among these now extinct, warm-blooded flying reptiles.

“The Daohugou Biota gives us a look at a rarely glimpsed side of the Middle to Late Jurassic — not a parade of galumphing giants, but an assemblage of quirky little creatures like feathered dinosaurs, pterosaurs with advanced heads on primitive bodies, and the Mesozoic equivalent of a flying squirrel,” lead author Corwin Sullivan, an associate professor at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, was quoted as saying in a press release.

The collection also includes complete, or nearly complete, skeletons associated with preserved soft tissues such as feathers, fur, skin or even, in some of the salamanders, external gills. Preserved anatomy like that, according to co-author Yuan Wang, helps to reveal how very early amphibians and other animal groups evolved, spread out, and diverged into additional species.

Paul Barrett, a dinosaur researcher at the Natural History Museum, London, said, “Daohugou is proving to be one of the key sites for understanding the evolution of feathered dinosaurs, early mammals and flying reptiles, due largely to the fantastic levels of preservation. Many of the fossils are stunning and offer vast amounts of information.”

The treasure trove of fossils, all from approximately the same time period and region, date to 30 million years before yet another fossil collection, known as the Jehol Biota. The latter consists of feathered dinosaurs, early birds and mammals that were collected from the western Liaoning Province and adjacent parts of northeastern China. It has shed incredible light on what animal life was like during the Cretaceous Period.

Read more at Discovery News

Giant Virus Resurrected from Permafrost After 30,000 Years

A mysterious giant virus buried for 30,000 years in Siberian permafrost has been resurrected.

The virus only infects single-celled organisms and doesn't closely resemble any known pathogens that harm humans.

Even so, the new discovery raises the possibility that as the climate warms and exploration expands in long-untouched regions of Siberia, humans could release ancient or eradicated viruses. These could include Neanderthal viruses or even smallpox that have lain dormant in the ice for thousands of years.

"There is now a non-zero probability that the pathogenic microbes that bothered [ancient human populations] could be revived, and most likely infect us as well," study co-author Jean-Michel Claverie, a bioinformatics researcher at Aix-Marseille University in France, wrote in an email. "Those pathogens could be banal bacteria (curable with antibiotics) or resistant bacteria or nasty viruses. If they have been extinct for a long time, then our immune system is no longer prepared to respond to them."

(A "non-zero" probability just means the chances of the event happening are not "impossible.")

Giant viruses

In recent years, Claverie and his colleagues have discovered a host of giant viruses, which are as big as bacteria but lack characteristic cellular machinery and metabolism of those microorganisms. At least one family of these viruses likely evolved from single-celled parasites after losing essential genes, although the origins of other giant viruses remain a mystery, Claverie said.

In the researchers' hunt for more unknown pathogens, they took a second look at permafrost samples collected from Kolyma in the Russian Far East in 2000. Because the permafrost was layered along steep cliffs, drillers could extract samples from 30,000 years ago by drilling horizontally into the ice, thereby avoiding contamination from newer samples.

The team then took samples of this permafrost and put them in contact with amoebas (blob-like single-celled organisms) in Petri dishes. The researchers then waited to see what happened.

Some of the amoebas burst open and died. When the scientists investigated further, they found a virus had killed the amoebas.

The ancient virus infects only amoebas, not humans or other animals. This pathogen belongs to a previously unknown family of viruses, now dubbed Pithovirus, which shares only a third of its genes with any known organisms and only 11 percent of its genes with other viruses. Though the new virus resembles the largest viruses ever found, Pandoraviruses, in shape, it is more closely related to classical viruses, which have an isocahedral shape (with 20 triangular-shaped faces), Claverie said.

Pathogens reawakened?

The findings raise the possibility that other long-dormant or eradicated viruses could be resurrected from the Arctic. As the climate warms and sea ice and permafrost melt, oil and mining companies are drilling many formerly off-limit areas in Russia, raising the possibility that ancient human viruses could be released.

or instance, Neanderthals and humans both lived in Siberia as recently as 28,000 years ago, and some of the diseases that plagued both species may still be around.

"If viable virions are still there, this is a good recipe for disaster," Claverie said. "Virions" is the term used for the virus particles when they are in their inert or dormant form.

But not everyone thinks these viruses spell potential doom.

"We are inundated by millions of viruses as we move through our everyday life," said Curtis Suttle, a marine virologist at the University of British Columbia in Canada, who was not involved in the study. "Every time we swim in the sea, we swallow about a billion viruses and inhale many thousands every day. It is true that viruses will be archived in permafrost and glacial ice, but the probability that viral pathogens of humans are abundant enough, and would circulate extensively enough to affect human health, stretches scientific rationality to the breaking point."

Read more at Discovery News

Elephants Landscaped Ice Age Europe Into a Park

Extinct long-tusked elephants, rhinos and other giant plant-eaters may have landscaped prehistoric Europe into a mixture of open park-like spaces and clumps of forests, until humans came on the scene, new research finds.

Ecologists recently examined beetle fossils for hints of hungry mega-gardeners’ influence on the environment, along with signs that the ecosystem radically changed when humans expanded into Europe.

During one of the warm periods between Ice Ages, known as an interglacial period, animals and plants recolonized the thawed north. In that ecosystem, elephants and other huge herbivores may have devoured tender saplings, spread grassland seeds into forests and otherwise halted trees’ territorial ambitions.

The resulting landscape held a fertile mosaic of woodlands and grasslands for grazing, suggested ecologists in the most recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS).

Dung beetles gave scientists the dirt on interglacial ecology. Dung beetles prefer to live in open, sunny environments with plenty of poo from plant-eaters. Other types of beetles prefer the deep shade of a heavy forest canopy. By counting the number of dung beetles in the fossil record of Great Britain compared to other beetle species, the ecologists were able to piece together the layout of this ancient landscape.

During the interglacial period from 132,000 to 110,000 years ago, dung beetle fossils abounded, which implied plenty of unshaded, treeless territory. Giant animals likely served as natural landscapers in this ecosystem. During the interglacial period, more than half of the sites examined by the study held beetle species found in mixed woodland and pasture landscape.

After 110,000 years ago, ice conquered Europe once again, then re-thawed approximately 15,000 years ago. However during the warm period from 10,000 to 5,000 years ago, there were few dung beetles, possibly because another species had moved north as the glaciers retreated.

Modern Homo sapiens migrated north as they hunted elephants. That predatory pressure from humans may have stopped the lumbering landscapers from pruning the edges of the forest, suggested the authors of the PNAS study. In this period, called the early Holocene, forest beetle species dominated more than half of the sites.

Read more at Discovery News

That's Hot! Genome May Lead to Even Spicier Peppers

Scientists have sequenced the genome of the pepper plant, revealing the genes responsible for pepper's spiciness.

The new genome, detailed today (March 3) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could pave the way for even more mouth-numbingly hot peppers.

"The findings will provide foundation for further developing molecular makers and research on related pepper agronomy traits, and help breeders accelerate the research of new breeds by molecular biology techniques," said study co-author Cheng Qin, a researcher at Sichuan Agricultural University in China.

Peppers were first domesticated by Native Americans in the tropics of South America as far back as 8,000 years ago, from a wild variant known as Chiltepin annuum (variant glabriusculum). The pepper, which is part of a family that includes the tomato and the potato, soon spread from the New World after Columbus arrived in the Americas.

After hundreds of years of breeding, chili peppers now come in a dizzying array of colors and flavors, from the bland Anaheim pepper to the scorching Scotch bonnet. More than 34.6 million tons of the peppers were harvested in 2011.

In recent years, hot pepper aficionados have used old-fashioned breeding to amp up the heat-producing compound, called capsaicin, to make ever more insanely hot peppers. Some of the resulting peppers, including the Carolina Reaper and the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, can be 100,000 times as spicy as the humble pimento pepper, and researchers have calculated that 2.7 pounds of the spice from these peppers would be enough to kill a human. (For comparison, a Trinidad Moruga Scorpion contains about the same amount of capsaicin as a shot-glass of law enforcement-grade pepper spray.)

Genome sequenced

To learn more about the pepper, Qin and his colleagues sequenced the genome of a pepper cultivated at their institution, known as Zunla-1, along with its wild counterpart.

The team found that the pepper diverged from tomatoes and potatoes about 36 million years ago. In addition, about 81 percent of the plant's genome was made up of transposons, or so-called jumping genes that can move to other places within the genome. These genes were inserted about 300,000 years ago.

In addition, the team scanned the genomes of 18 cultivated peppers to compare differences between wild and cultivated varieties. The team found several genes associated with how long the seeds stay dormant, resistance to pests and longer shelf life.

Read more at Discovery News

Mar 3, 2014

Talking Neanderthals challenge the origins of speech

We humans like to think of ourselves as unique for many reasons, not least of which being our ability to communicate with words. But ground-breaking research by an expert from the University of New England shows that our 'misunderstood cousins,' the Neanderthals, may well have spoken in languages not dissimilar to the ones we use today.

Pinpointing the origin and evolution of speech and human language is one of the longest running and most hotly debated topics in the scientific world. It has long been believed that other beings, including the Neanderthals with whom our ancestors shared Earth for thousands of years, simply lacked the necessary cognitive capacity and vocal hardware for speech.

Associate Professor Stephen Wroe, a zoologist and palaeontologist from UNE, along with an international team of scientists and the use of 3D x-ray imaging technology, made the revolutionary discovery challenging this notion based on a 60,000 year-old Neanderthal hyoid bone discovered in Israel in 1989.

"To many, the Neanderthal hyoid discovered was surprising because its shape was very different to that of our closest living relatives, the chimpanzee and the bonobo. However, it was virtually indistinguishable from that of our own species. This led to some people arguing that this Neanderthal could speak," A/Professor Wroe said.

"The obvious counterargument to this assertion was that the fact that hyoids of Neanderthals were the same shape as modern humans doesn't necessarily mean that they were used in the same way. With the technology of the time, it was hard to verify the argument one way or the other."

However advances in 3D imaging and computer modelling allowed A/Professor Wroe's team to revisit the question.

"By analysing the mechanical behaviour of the fossilised bone with micro x-ray imaging, we were able to build models of the hyoid that included the intricate internal structure of the bone. We then compared them to models of modern humans. Our comparisons showed that in terms of mechanical behaviour, the Neanderthal hyoid was basically indistinguishable from our own, strongly suggesting that this key part of the vocal tract was used in the same way.

"From this research, we can conclude that it's likely that the origins of speech and language are far, far older than once thought."

Taken From Science Daily

Strange Signal From Galactic Center Is Looking More and More Like Dark Matter

The more that scientists stare at it, the more a strange signal from the center of the Milky Way galaxy appears to be the result of dark matter annihilation. If confirmed, it would be the first direct evidence for dark matter ever seen.

Dark matter is a mysterious, invisible substance making up roughly 85 percent of all matter in the universe. It floats throughout our galaxy, but is more concentrated at its center. There, a dark matter particle can meet another dark matter particle flying through space. If they crash into one another, they will annihilate each other (dark matter is its own antiparticle) and give off gamma rays.

To search for a dark matter signal, astronomers use NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Telescope to map the gamma radiation throughout the galaxy. Then, they try to account for all known sources of light within this map. They plot the location of gas and dust that could be emitting radiation and subtract that signal from their gamma-ray map. Then they determine where all the stars are and subtract out that light, and so on for every object that might be emitting radiation. Once all those sources are gone, there remains a tiny excess of gamma radiation in the data that no known process can account for.

“The more we scrutinize it, the more it looks like dark matter,” said astrophysicist Dan Hooper of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, co-author of a paper that appeared Feb. 26 on arXiv, a website that hosts scientific papers that have yet to go through peer-review.

Since 2009, Hooper has been claiming that this bright signal is evidence of dark matter. According to his team’s latest data, the gamma radiation could be produced by dark matter particles with a mass of 30 to 40 gigaelectronvolts (GeV) crashing into one another. A proton is roughly 1 GeV for comparison.

But the galactic center is a tricky place. There are many other gamma ray sources that could be mimicking a dark matter signal as well as yet undiscovered phenomena that might account for the radiation. For the most part, few other researchers have been convinced of Hooper’s data. One oft-used counterargument is that the excess gamma ray signal could come from millisecond pulsars — dead star cores that spin extremely fast and beam out a huge amount of energy. Astronomers don’t yet have a good understanding of how these objects work.

“If you need to explain something weird in the galactic center, you wave your hands and say, ‘Millisecond pulsars,’” said astronomer Doug Finkbeiner of Harvard, another co-author of the new work.

Finkbeiner has long been a skeptic that the excess Fermi telescope signal represents dark matter annihilation. He knows that the galactic center is a strange place full of unexpected phenomena, having discovered in 2010 two gigantic structures spanning 50,000 light-years emanating from the Milky Way, which had gone unnoticed until then. But a more careful look at Hooper’s data has started to convince Finkbeiner that there might be something there.

When a galaxy forms, gravitational attraction brings together a huge mass that begins spinning. As they spin, large galaxies cool down and flatten out like a pizza, forming the familiar spiral shape seen in many telescope images. Dark matter, which actually makes up the bulk of a galaxy’s mass, can’t flatten out because it doesn’t interact with the electromagnetic force, which would allow it to radiate away thermal energy. It stays in a spherical halo circling the galaxy. So any dark matter signal should come not just from within the galactic plane, but also from above and below it, where stars are few and far between but dark matter is abundant.

The problem is that the galactic center is extremely bright. Its billions of stars give off an incredible amount of light that shines far above and below the plane of the Milky Way. Showing that the gamma ray signal comes from dark matter and nothing else requires extremely precise mapping. But the Fermi telescope’s data also happens to be a little blurry at the energy ranges where the dark matter signal shows up. Working with physicist Tracy Slatyer of MIT, Finkbeiner combed through the Fermi data and found a way to throw out the blurriest parts. This left a very sharp map showing exactly that the excess gamma ray signal was coming from areas where few stars should exist.

“The answers just got a lot better,” said Finkbeiner. “It looked more like dark matter and less like pulsars.”

The newly sharpened data is making other researchers take notice. “We may in the future say this was when dark matter was discovered,” said theoretical physicist Neal Weiner of New York University.

A particle mass of 30 to 40 GeV would make this form of dark matter quite interesting, he added, because it is something that could have shown up at the Large Hadron Collider. The fact that it didn’t might suggest that dark matter is more complicated than our simplest models predict.

Read more at Wired Science

Pompeii Walls Crumble Under Rain and Red Tape

An emergency meeting has been called for tomorrow by Italy’s culture minister after a series of collapses this weekend have raised concerns about the fate of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii.

Preserved under volcanic ash from a devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., and rediscovered in the 18th century, Pompeii is now crumbling — threatened by red tape and heavy rain.

An arch supporting the Temple of Venus, the Roman goddess of beauty, crumbled during a rainstorm on Saturday, followed by the collapse on Sunday of the wall of a tomb around 5.5 feet high and 11.5 feet long in the necropolis of Porta Nocera and another wall about 8 feet high and 13 feet long in Via di Nola, the major road.

All the affected areas have been closed to the public.

“Right when Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘The Great Beauty’ won the Academy Award for best foreign language film, walls tumbled down in Pompeii,” culture minister Dario Franceschini said.

“It’s a warning. We must believe in the beauty of our country and preserve it with pride,” he added.

Franceschini, who was appointed last month in the new government of prime minister Matteo Renzi, called for an emergency meeting on Tuesday to assess the damage, verify routine maintenance as well as the progress of the EU-backed Great Pompeii Project to restore the archaeological site.

Visited by more than two million visitors per year, Pompeii has been decimated by continuous collapses.

“For every crumbling that is reported, there are another nine that do not make news,” Antonio Irlando, president of the Cultural Heritage Observatory, told reporters.

In 2010 the collapse of the House of Gladiators caused an international outcry, raising doubt about Italy’s ability to properly protect its archaeological heritage.

The accident prompted a EU-backed 105 million-euro project to save the ancient city.

Read more at Discovery News

Asteroid Hunter Discovers Comet 'Weirdo'

NASA’s reinvigorated Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) spacecraft has discovered its first previously unknown comet since its reboot last year. But it turns out that this particular "dirty snowball" is a little… different.

“This comet is a weirdo,” said NEOWISE principal investigator Amy Mainzer, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “It is in a retrograde orbit, meaning that it orbits the sun in the opposite sense from Earth and the other planets.”

C/2014 C3 (NEOWISE) was spotted by the mission on Feb. 14 when it was approximately 143 million miles from Earth. To give a sense of scale, that’s nearly five times the distance from Earth to Mars when the planets are at their closest points in orbit. NEOWISE was able to track the "new" comet six times over half a day before the object moved out of the mission’s field of view. The discovery was then confirmed through observations by the Near Earth Object Observation project, Spacewatch, in Tucson, Ariz. three days later.

Although this is the first comet discovery of the new NEOWISE mission, the infrared space telescope discovered 21 other comets during its primary mission between 2009 and 2011 before its cryogenic hydrogen depleted. In September, the mission was switched back on to asteroid- (and now comet-) hunting duties — a task it can easily fulfill without the ultra-low temperatures its onboard coolant provided.

NEOWISE is a critical tool in discovering new asteroids and comets, as well as characterizing known objects — a population of near-Earth objects that stray close to Earth.

Taken From Discovery News

Mar 2, 2014

Competition breeds new fish species, study finds

Competition may play an important role during the evolution of new species, but empirical evidence for this is scarce, despite being implicit in Charles Darwin's work and support from theoretical studies.

Dr Martin Genner from Bristol's School of Biological Sciences and colleagues used population genetics and experimental evidence to demonstrate a role for competition that leads to the differentiation of new species within the highly diverse cichlid fishes of Lake Tanganyika in East Africa.

They found that the cichlid fish Telmatochromis temporalis shows two genetically distinct ecomorphs (local varieties of a species whose appearance is determined by its ecological environment), that strongly differ in body size and the habitat in which they live.

Dr Genner said: "We found large-sized individuals living along the rocky shoreline of Lake Tanganyika and, in the vicinity of these shores, we found small-sized individuals, roughly half the size of the large ones, that live and breed in accumulations of empty snail shells found on sand."

According to the study, the bigger fish outcompete the smaller ones, driving them away from the preferred rocky habitats and into the neighbouring sand, where the smaller fish find shelter for themselves and their eggs in empty snail shells.

"In effect, big and small fish use different habitats; and because of this habitat segregation, fish usually mate with individuals of similar size. There is virtually no genetic exchange between the large- and small-bodied ectomorphs," Dr Genner commented.

Speciation occurs when genetic differences between groups of individuals accumulate over time. In the case of Telmatochromis there are no obvious obstacles to the movement and interaction of individuals. But, the non-random mating between large- and small-bodied fish sets the stage for the evolutionary play.

Dr Genner said: "The relevance of our work is that it provides experimental evidence that competition for space drives differential mating in cichlid fish and, in time, leads to the formation of new species. Nature has its ways -- from body size differences to the formation of new species. And clearly, size does matters for Telmatochromis and for fish diversity."

Taken from Science Daily

How Earth might have looked: How a failed Saharan Atlantic Ocean rift zone sculped Africa's margin

Break-up of the supercontinent Gondwana about 130 Million years ago could have lead to a completely different shape of the African and South American continent with an ocean south of today's Sahara desert, as geoscientists from the University of Sydney and the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences have shown through the use of sophisticated plate tectonic and three-dimensional numerical modelling.

The study highlights the importance of rift orientation relative to extension direction as key factor deciding whether an ocean basin opens or an aborted rift basin forms in the continental interior.

For hundreds of millions of years, the southern continents of South America, Africa, Antarctica, Australia, and India were united in the supercontinent Gondwana. While the causes for Gondwana's fragmentation are still debated, it is clear that the supercontinent first split along along the East African coast in a western and eastern part before separation of South America from Africa took place. Today's continental margins along the South Atlantic ocean and the subsurface graben structure of the West African Rift system in the African continent, extending from Nigeria northwards to Libya, provide key insights on the processes that shaped present-day Africa and South America.

Christian Heine (University of Sydney) and Sascha Brune (GFZ) investigated why the South Atlantic part of this giant rift system evolved into an ocean basin, whereas its northern part along the West African Rift became stuck.

"Extension along the so-called South Atlantic and West African rift systems was about to split the African-South American part of Gondwana North-South into nearly equal halves, generating a South Atlantic and a Saharan Atlantic Ocean," geoscientist Sascha Brune explains. "In a dramatic plate tectonic twist, however, a competing rift along the present-day Equatorial Atlantic margins, won over the West African rift, causing it to become extinct, avoiding the break-up of the African continent and the formation of a Saharan Atlantic ocean."

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