Mar 22, 2014

Conspiracy Theories and Medicine: Why Such Bedfellows?

According to a study by two social scientists from the University of Chicago, about half of Americans endorse a medical conspiracy.

An article in the Los Angeles Times noted, "Fully 37 percent of those surveyed endorsed the belief that the FDA, under pressure from pharmaceutical companies, is suppressing natural cures for cancer and other diseases, and 31 percent said they 'neither agree nor disagree' with that idea, the researchers found.... One in five of those surveyed said they agreed that physicians and the government 'still want to vaccinate children even though they know these vaccines cause autism and other psychological disorders.'"

Many claim that HIV doesn't cause AIDS. Another widely-held conspiracy claims that AIDS was created by the CIA as a way to kill African Americans through vaccination programs. In this study, 12 percent endorsed that belief, while 37 percent neither agreed nor disagreed; only 51 percent of respondents rejected that conspiracy theory.

Filmmaker Spike Lee told Rolling Stone magazine in 1992, "I'm convinced AIDS is a government-engineered disease… they never realized it couldn't just be contained to the groups it was intended to wipe out." Actor Will Smith, in a 1998 interview in the same magazine, shared Lee's belief: "AIDS was created as a result of biological warfare testing. … Someone was messing around in a laboratory, trying to find biological weapons, and created AIDS." (More information on these and other medical conspiracy theories can be found in folklorist Patricia Turner's book "I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture.")

Though conspiracy theories come in many varieties, those involving medicine and health are among the most prevalent. In his "Encyclopedia of Urban Legends," folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand notes that "Unwarranted fears about poisonous or infectious materials are reflected in a number of legends.

For example the claim that aluminum in cookware or in some antiperspirants can cause Alzheimer's disease or another major consequence has been rejected by scientists as a 'case of neuromythology.'... Serious diseases like AIDS and SARS, but especially the Ebola virus, have been the subject of rumors and legends."

Fueling Conspiracies

Why such widespread belief in medicine-based conspiracy theories?

For one thing, peddling medical conspiracy theories can be enormously profitable. The highest-profile example is probably Kevin Trudeau, a pitchman best known for appearing in infomercials selling conspiracy-laden best-sellers like "Natural Cures 'They' Don’t Want You to Know About."

Trudeau made millions claiming to reveal important medical and dietary information kept secret by a conspiracy between the medical establishment and big drug companies. Earlier this week Trudeau was sentenced to 10 years in prison; upon sentencing, the judge called Trudeau, who had a previous conviction for fraud, "deceitful to the very core."

With so much money to be made promoting these medical conspiracies by Trudeau and other authors and talk show hosts, it's not surprising that they're so widespread. As conspiracy theory promoters are fond of saying, "Follow the money."

The Internet has also been instrumental in spreading conspiracies. Seth Kalichman, a professor at the University of Connecticut Center for HIV, writes in his book "Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy," that "AIDS denialists share much in common with 9/11 Truth groups and those who doubt that man ever landed on the moon. All conspiracy theories link a corrupt government with big business to hoax the American public."

Kalichman blames the Internet for the spread of the medical conspiracies: "The Internet has made pseudoscience as accessible, or perhaps even more accessible, than quality medical science. The most easily accessed pseudoscience is delivered by AIDS denialist journalists who often write commentaries for various online magazines, as well as maintain their own websites. Even South African president Thabo Mbeki is said to have solidified his HIV/AIDS denialist views by accessing and ultimately buying into denialist websites."

Another reason that many accept medical conspiracies is that they're plausible and seem to have a grain of truth to them. Suspicions about motives of governments and big business are legitimate and healthy.

The government does not always work in the best interest of its citizens, and huge industries ("Big Oil," "Big Pharma," etc.) are indeed motivated by making a profit (as was conspiracy peddler and convicted felon Kevin Trudeau). The U.S. government has done unethical and illegal things ranging from biomedical research to unwarranted surveillance.

It is undeniable that some doctors and some medical corporations have in the past acted unethically. Examples include shameful events like the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which hundreds of poor, illiterate black men were denied treatment for syphilis by government agencies in a medical study that spanned decades, and recently-revealed American syphilis experiments conducted in Guatemala in the late 1940s.

Read more at Discovery News

The Moon has a Dusty Atmosphere

The moon may not have any air, but that doesn’t mean it lacks atmosphere.

First results from NASA’s ongoing Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE, spacecraft show a permanent cloud of dust envelopes the moon.

“We do have an atmosphere. It’s made out of the dust particles,” Mihaly Horanyi, lead scientist for LADEE’s Lunar Dust Experiment, said at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston this week.

Scientists have been trying to detect sunlight glinting off dust since the 1969-1972 Apollo missions. LADEE, which flies low around the moon, takes a more direct approach. It can detect micrometer-sized dust particles as they smash into a specially designed instrument and vaporize.

Apparently that happens very often, roughly once or twice per minute, Horanyi said.

LADEE also has detected great bursts of dust, on the order of 300 particles per minute, which scientists believe are due to micrometeoroids hitting the moon and kicking up showers of dust.

“It’s as if you were flying through the nearby cloud of ejecta from an impact that took place right next to you,” said LADEE project scientist Richard Elphic.

Geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, the 12th and final astronaut to land on the moon, said the findings are puzzling since he noticed that rocks on the moon have fairly dust-free surfaces.

“Once in a while you’ll see some regolith that’s been thrown up on a rock, but not a covering of fine dust. I can’t in my own mind figure out a way in which you could have levitation of dust that is so precise up and down that it doesn’t get on the rocks,” Schmitt said.

LADEE detected dust bursts about every 10 days, some of which were tied to known meteoroid streams, but not all.

“Clearly, the moon’s surface is producing more or less dust as the inputs to the surface is possibly changing in time,” Horanyi said.

Read more at Discovery News

Mar 21, 2014

Maps Reveal How Immigration Transformed Boston’s Neighborhoods

A 1905 bird's eye view of Boston's harbor, the second busiest port of entry for new immigrants at the time. More than 530,000 people entered the U.S. here between 1900 and 1910.
In 1910, Boston was the fifth biggest city in the United States, with a population just over 670,000. It was the second busiest port of entry for foreigners at the time, and 240,000 of its citizens were foreign born. A new exhibit at the Boston Public Library uses maps, modern and historic photos, and census data to illustrate how waves of immigration shaped the city and its individual neighborhoods in the 20th century — and continue to shape them today.

“The idea is to look at Boston as a whole, but then to zero in on certain neighborhoods and see what those stories are,” said Michelle LeBlanc, director of education at the library’s Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, which is hosting the exhibit. “It’s sort of a microcosm-macrocosm way of looking at the city.”

Boston is a smaller city today than it was a century ago, with a population of about 636,000 in 2012, according to the Census Bureau. But its population is rebounding after dipping below 563,000 in 1980. “Over the last 10 years Boston’s population has grown, and it’s largely just because of immigration,” LeBlanc said. “We would have lost population otherwise.”

The percentage of foreign-born residents is lower than it used to be: 27 percent, compared to 36 percent in 1910. But some neighborhoods are still remarkably diverse. East Boston’s population is almost 50 percent foreign born, the highest percentage of any neighborhood in the city.

The exhibit includes a brochure from 1910 advertising a new planned neighborhood, “Orient Heights,” built on landfill an an area of East Boston that was once covered by marshland. “They were trying to entice immigrant families from the slums of the West End and North End because there’s open space and fresh air and all that,” LeBlanc said. Contrary to the development’s name, LeBlanc says the biggest immigrant groups at that time were Italians and Eastern European Jews. Today the biggest immigrant groups in the neighborhood are from El Salvador and Columbia.

Maps and streetscapes in the exhibit show how Boston’s Chinatown grew during the past century, but LeBlanc says the exhibit doesn’t directly confront the touchy topic of gentrification, which some advocates say is putting the squeeze on the neighborhood’s immigrant community.

Read more at Wired Science

The Incredible Critter That’s Tough Enough to Survive in Space

A color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph of a water bear, which is probably the only creature on Earth that looks like a cannon wearing wrinkled khakis.
In 1933, the owner of a New York City speakeasy and three cronies embarked on a rather unoriginal scheme to make a quick couple grand: Take out three life insurance policies on the bar’s deepest alcoholic, Mike Malloy, then kill him.

First, they pumped him full of ungodly amounts of liquor. When that didn’t work, they poisoned the hooch. Mike didn’t mind. Then came the sandwiches of rotten sardines and broken glass and metal shavings. Mike reportedly loved them. Next they dropped him in the snow and poured cold water on him. It didn’t faze Mike. Then they ran him over with a cab, which only broke his arm. The conspirators finally succeeded when they boozed Mike up, ran a tube down his throat, and pumped him full of carbon monoxide.

A scanning electron micrograph of a water bear. Like regular bears, tardigrades have claws, which help in locomotion. Unlike regular bears is everything else about tardigrades, particularly their lack of a totally crappy attitude all the time.
They don’t come much tougher than Mike the Durable, as he is remembered. Except in the microscopic world beneath our feet, where there lives what is perhaps the toughest creature on Earth: the tardigrade. Also known as the water bear (because it looks like an adorable little many-legged bear), this exceedingly tiny critter has an incredible resistance to just about everything. Go ahead and boil it, freeze it, irradiate it, and toss it into the vacuum of space — it won’t die. If it were big enough to eat a glass sandwich, it probably could survive that too.

The water bear’s trick is something called cryptobiosis, in which it brings its metabolic processes nearly to a halt. In this state it can dehydrate to 3 percent of its normal water content in what is called desiccation, becoming a husk of its former self. But just add water and the tardigrade roars back to life like Mike the Durable emerging from a bender and continues trudging along, puncturing algae and other organisms with a mouthpart called a stylet and sucking out the nutrients.

“They are probably the most extreme survivors that we know of among animals,” said biologist Bob Goldstein of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “People talk about cockroaches surviving anything. I think long after the cockroaches would be killed we’d still have dried water bears that could be rehydrated and be alive.”

“Is It Cold in Here?” Asked a Water Bear NEVER

This hibernation of sorts isn’t happening for a single season, like a true bear (tardigrades are invertebrates). As far as scientists can tell, water bears can be dried out for at least a decade and still revivify, only to find their clothes are suddenly out of style.

Mike the Durable did just fine in the freezing cold, but the temperatures the water bear endures in cryptobiosis defy belief. It can survive in a lab environment of just 1 degree kelvin. That’s an astonishing -458 degrees Fahrenheit, where matter goes bizarro, with gases becoming liquids and liquids becoming solids.

At this temperature the movements of the normally frenzied atoms inside the water bear come almost to a standstill, yet the creature endures. And that’s all the more incredible when you consider that the water bear indeed has a brain, a relatively simple one, sure, but a brain that somehow emerges from this unscathed.

Water bears also can tolerate pressures six times that of the deepest oceans. And a few of them once survived an experiment that subjected them to 10 days exposed to the vacuum of space. (While we’re on the topic, humans can survive for a couple minutes, max. One poor fellow at NASA accidentally depressurized his suit in a vacuum chamber in 1965 and lost consciousness after 15 seconds. When he woke up, he said his last memory was feeling the water on his tongue boiling, which I’m guessing felt a bit like Pop Rocks, only somehow even worse for your body.)

Anyway, tardigrades. They can take hundreds of times the radiation that would kill a human. Water bears don’t mind hot water either–like, 300 degrees Fahrenheit hot. So the question is: why? Why evolve to survive the kind of cold that only scientists can create in a lab, and pressures that have never even existed on our planet?

Water bears don’t even necessarily inhabit extreme habitats like, say, boiling springs where certain bacteria proliferate. Therefore the term “extremophile” that has been applied to tardigrades over the years isn’t entirely accurate. Just because they’re capable of surviving these harsh environments doesn’t mean they seek them out.

They actually prefer regular old dirt and sand and moss all over the world. I mean, would you rather stay in a Motel 6 in a lake of boiling acidic water or lounge around on a beach resort and drink algae cocktails? (Why this isn’t a BuzzFeed quiz yet is beyond me. It’s gold. There’s untold billions of water bears on Earth. Page views, BuzzFeed. What’s the sound of a billion water bears clicking? Boom, another quiz.)

But that isn’t to say there aren’t troubles in the tardigrade version of paradise. “If you’re living in dirt,” said Goldstein, “there’s a danger of desiccation all the time.” If, say, the sun starts drying out the surface, one option is to move farther down into the soil. But “if you go too far down, there’s not going to be much food. So they really probably have to live in a fringe where they need to get food, but there’s always danger of drying out.”

A newly hatched water bear, with DNA marked blue, which the tardigrade really shouldn’t be wearing after Labor Day.
A Tiny Superhero That Could One Day Save Your Life

And so it could be that the water bear’s incredible feats of survival may simply stem from a tough life in the dirt. But there’s also the question of how it does this, and it’s a perplexing one at that. Goldstein’s lab is researching this, and he reckons that water bears don’t just have one simple trick, but a range of strategies to be able to endure drying out and eventually reanimating.

“There’s one that we know of, which is some animals that survive drying make a sugar called trehalose,” he said. “And trehalose sort of replaces water as they dry down, so it will make glassy surfaces where normally water would be sitting. That probably helps prevent a lot of the damage that normally occurs when you dry something down or when you rehydrate it.” Not all of the 1,000 or so species of water bears produce this sugar though, he says, so there must be some other trick going on.

Ironically enough, these incredibly hardy creatures are very difficult to grow in the lab, but Goldstein has had great success where many others have failed. And, like so many great things in this world, it all began in a shed in England, where a regular old chap mastered their breeding to sell them to local schools for scientific experiments. He was so good at it, in fact, that he never needed to venture out to recollect specimens. And their descendants now crawl around Goldstein’s lab, totally unaware of how incredibly lucky they are to not be tortured by school children day in and day out.

A scanning electron micrograph of three awkwardly cuddling water bears. “You know what they say: Two’s company, three’s a crowd. We’re looking at you, Paul. Seriously though, Paul. You need to scram.”
“Some organisms just can’t be raised in labs,” Goldstein said. “You bring them in and try to mimic what’s going on outside and they just don’t grow up. So we were lucky, actually, people were having a hard time growing water bears in labs continuously. And this guy in England had figured it out.”

Thanks to this breakthrough, Goldstein and other scientists are exploring the possibility of utilizing the water bear as science’s next fruit fly, that ubiquitous test subject that has yielded so many momentous discoveries. The water bear’s small size means you can pack a ton of them into a lab, plus they reproduce quickly and have a relatively compact genome to work with. Also, they’re way cuter than fruit flies and they don’t fall into your sodas and stuff.

In addition, Thomas Boothby, a postdoctoral scientist working under Goldstein, is conducting research into how water bears are able to survive dried out at room temperature, with a mind to apply their magic to vaccines. So much of the cost of these, you see, comes from chilling them as they’re shuttled around the world. What if the water bear could teach us how to maintain vaccines at room temperature?

Read more at Wired Science

Physicians' Desk Reference: Ancient Edition

Oldest Cancer Case
A skeleton dating back to 1,200 B.C. shows the earliest evidence of a human being who died of metastatic cancer, according to an article published earlier this week in the journal PLOS ONE.

Cancer today is among the leading causes of death, according to the World Health Organization, accounting for around 8.2 million deaths in 2012. Despite its prevalence today, few examples exist in the archaeological record of fatal instances of the disease in the ancient world. Similarly, while we have an increasing number of means of treating cancer in whatever form in might manifest, evidence is lacking as to how the disease was treated in antiquity.

While they certainly didn't have the same medical knowledge or access to pharmaceuticals or other technology, ancient medical practitioners did have their own means and methods of addressing a variety of diseases and conditions. See how doctors of antiquity treated their patients.

One of the oldest surgical procedures practiced as early as the Neolithic era is called trepanation. In case the photo isn't clear enough, trepanation is the practice of drilling holes into the skull. The intention was to treat diseases affecting the brain, such as epilepsy or mental illness. Remember: This surgical procedure was invented and practiced long before the advent of anaesthesia.

Although trepanation was performed without sterile conditions of the modern operating room and before the discovery of modern antibiotics, the survival rates of these procedures was about 60 percent, though that number is a soft estimate based on limited studies given that the procedures was practiced over many centuries and across different civilizations.

Ancient Egyptian medical practitioners were skilled enough not only to perform surgical amputations but also craft basic prostheses to substitute for missing body parts.

The world's oldest prostheses, discovered in the necropolis of Thebe near present-day Luxor, are a set of two wooden toes. One of the toes, dating back to at least 600 B.C., is made from cartonnage, a compound composed of linen, glue and plaster. The other, which traces back to between 950 to 710 B.C., was made of wood and leather, and discovered on a mummy named Tabaketenmut.

Malnutrition at Sea

For sailors at sea for months at a time, one of the biggest concerns on an extended voyage was malnutrition. Micronutrient deficiencies as a result of not getting enough fruits and vegetables could lead to diseases like scurvy, which can be fatal if left untreated.

In order to ensure adequate nutrition at sea, ancient Roman sailors appear to have been equipped with vegetable pills, based on evidence found in a medical kit in a 2,000-year-old shipwreck discovered off the coast of Tuscany. Based on DNA analysis of the contents of two of the pills, researchers discovered a mix of plants, including carrot, radish, parsley, celery, alfalfa and more. In addition to the vegetable pills, researchers also discovered a bleeding cup, surgical hook and mortar.


It's easy to complain about having to take a trip to the dentist these days, but then again having bad teeth could be fatal in the ancient world.

A 2,100-year-old Egyptian mummy reveals a wealthy man from Thebes who likely died in his late 20s or early 30s of a painful sinus infection brought on by numerous dental abscesses. While dentistry had been practiced in ancient Egypt as far back as 5,000 years ago, the number of cavities and infections in this man's mouth would have overwhelmed even a modern practitioner.

In order to provide the patient with some kind of relief, the ancient dentist used linens dipped in medicine to ease the pain and surround the largest cavities to prevent contact with food.

Read more at Discovery News

Star Survives Supernova Blast to the Face

If you think you’re having a bad day, spare a thought for the surviving star in a binary system after its stellar neighbor detonates as a powerful supernova.

Now, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and a number of ground-based telescopes have taken a close look into a supernova remnant and spied a battered star that was once part of a binary pair and, amazingly, appears to be in one piece.

The supernova remnant DEM L241 is a glowing cloud of gas and dust in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy 199,000 light-years away. Supernova remnants are expected to remain very hot for thousands of years after the supernova has occurred, making it a perfect target for Chandra to observe the nebula’s X-ray afterglow.

Once part of a binary system, one of the massive stars ran out of hydrogen fuel at the end of its life and exploded. Astrophysicists suspect that either a neutron star (the hyperdense spinning husk of a star’s core) or a black hole remains behind. If confirmed, this will be only the third ever massive star-black hole/neutron star binary system discovered after a supernova.

Through analysis of Chandra X-ray data, astronomers have found that the remnant is rich in oxygen, neon and magnesium, which suggests the pre-supernova star had a mass of between 25-40 times the mass of our sun.

Ground based observatories are now on the case, tracking orbital velocity variations of the battered remaining star in the system. It has an orbital period of only 10 days and by careful measurements of the orbital speed variations, astronomers will hopefully determine what the star is orbiting — a neutron star or black hole.

Read more at Discovery News

Mar 20, 2014

Eyes are windows to the soul -- and evolution

Why do we become saucer-eyed from fear and squint from disgust? These near-opposite facial expressions are rooted in emotional responses that exploit how our eyes gather and focus light to detect an unknown threat, according to a study by a Cornell University neuroscientist.

Our eyes widen in fear, boosting sensitivity and expanding our field of vision to locate surrounding danger. When repulsed, our eyes narrow, blocking light to sharpen focus and pinpoint the source of our disgust.

The findings by Adam Anderson, professor of human development in Cornell's College of Human Ecology, suggest that human facial expressions arose from universal, adaptive reactions to environmental stimuli and not originally as social communication signals, lending support to Charles Darwin's 19th century theories on the evolution of emotion.

"These opposing functions of eye widening and narrowing, which mirror that of pupil dilation and constriction, might be the primitive origins for the expressive capacity of the face," said Anderson. "And these actions are not likely restricted to disgust and fear, as we know that these movements play a large part in how perhaps all expressions differ, including surprise, anger and even happiness."

Anderson and his co-authors described these ideas in the paper, "Optical Origins of Opposing Facial Expression Actions," published in the March 2014 issue of Psychological Science.

Looks of disgust result in the greatest visual acuity -- less light and better focus; fearful expressions induce maximum sensitivity -- more light and a broader visual field. "These emotions trigger facial expressions that are very far apart structurally, one with eyes wide open and the other with eyes pinched," said Anderson, the paper's senior author. "The reason for that is to allow the eye to harness the properties of light that are most useful in these situations."

What's more, emotions filter our reality, shaping what we see before light ever reaches the inner eye.

"We tend to think of perception as something that happens after an image is received by the brain, but in fact emotions influence vision at the very earliest moments of visual encoding."

Anderson's Affect and Cognition Laboratory is now studying how these contrasting eye movements may account for how facial expressions have developed to support nonverbal communication across cultures.

Read more at Science Daily

Dogs Remember Our B.O. When We're Away

Dogs fondly remember us — even our B.O. — when we’re not around, suggests a new study on how dogs respond to the scent of a familiar human.

The research, published in the latest issue of Behavioral Processes, was the first brain-imaging study of dogs as they responded to smells of other dogs and people.

“It’s one thing when you come home and your dog sees you and jumps on you and licks you and knows that good things are about to happen,” project leader Gregory Berns said in a press release.

“In our experiment, however, the scent donors were not physically present. That means the canine brain responses were being triggered by something distant in space and time.”

When we smell the perfume or cologne of someone we love, the reaction may be immediate and emotional and not necessarily at a conscious level, Berns, who is director of the Center for Neuropolicy at Emory University, added. “Our experiment may be showing the same process in dogs. But since dogs are so much more olfactory than humans, their responses would likely be even more powerful than the ones we might have.”

If you have a dog, your unique smell could very well be the best thing that your dog has ever whiffed.

The study involved 12 dogs of various breeds. The animals had all undergone training to hold perfectly still while undergoing an fMRI scan (probably the hardest part of this study).

As the dogs were being scanned, they were presented with five different scent samples from the following five sources: the dog itself, an unfamiliar canine, a familiar canine that lived in the dog’s home, an unfamiliar person, and a person who lived in the dog’s household. The latter wasn’t the owner because those people had to serve as handlers throughout the experiment, and the researchers didn’t want the scents to come from a dog or person that would be present in the same room as the experiment was taking place.

Here’s the rather gross part. The dog scents were swabbed from the rear/genital area and the human scents were taken from armpits. This bothered the people more than the dogs, though.

“Most of the dog owners and handlers involved in the experiment were women, so most of the familiar human scent donors were their husbands,” Berns says. “We requested they not bathe or use deodorant for 24 hours before taking the sample. Nobody was too happy about that.”

The results showed that all five scents elicited a similar response in parts of the dogs’ brains (the olfactory bulb and peduncle) involved in detecting smells. The responses, however, were significantly stronger for the scents of familiar humans, followed by that of familiar dogs. Canines that had received training as service/therapy dogs displayed the most positive reactions to the human smells, perhaps due to genetics or because the connection to people had been fostered through more training.

Berns said that the reactions to familiar people “suggested that not only did the dogs discriminate the familiar human scent from the others, they had a positive association with it. While we might expect that dogs should be highly tuned to the smell of other dogs, it seems that the ‘reward response’ is reserved for their humans. Whether this is based on food, play, innate genetic predisposition or something else remains an area for future investigation.”

Read more at Discovery News

'Chicken From Hell' Was a Fowl-Looking Dinosaur

Meet the “Chicken from Hell,” a recently identified bird-like dinosaur that roamed the Dakotas with T. rex 66 million years ago.

The beaked dinosaur, Anzu wyliei, is described in the latest issue of the journal PLoS ONE. The dino was tall, measured 11.5 feet long, weighed 500 pounds and had very sharp claws.

“It was a giant raptor, but with a chicken-like head and presumably feathers,” co-author Emma Schachner of the University of Utah, said in a press release. “The animal stood about 10 feet tall, so it would be scary as well as absurd to encounter.”

Lead author Matt Lamanna of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History added, “We jokingly call this thing the ‘chicken from hell,’ and I think that’s pretty appropriate.”

The dinosaur’s remains were excavated from the uppermost level of the Hell Creek rock formation in North and South Dakota. The dino really did come from Hell (so to speak)!

Its scientific name refers to Anzu, a bird-like demon in Mesopotamian mythology, and wyliei, after a boy named Wylie, who is the dinosaur-loving grandson of a Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh trustee.

The dino is one of the earliest oviraptorosaurs, so it lived close to the dinosaur extinction event, when an asteroid struck Earth 65 million years ago, Schachner said.

She and her colleagues believe the clawed dino was an omnivore that ate vegetation, small animals and perhaps eggs while living on a wet floodplain.

The dinosaur apparently got into some scrapes (or was clumsy?), given intriguing clues revealed in its fossils.

“Two of the specimens display evidence of pathology,” Schachner explained. “One appears to have a broken and healed rib, and the other has evidence of some sort of trauma to a toe.”

“I am really excited about this discovery because Anzu is the largest oviraptorosaur found in North America,” she continued. “Oviraptorosaurs are a group of dinosaurs that are closely related to birds and often have strange, cassowary-like crests on their heads.”

Read more at Discovery News

Scientists Home In On Earth-Sized Exoplanet

Scientists are close to announcing the first Earth-sized planet in a habitable zone around its parent star.

Astronomer Thomas Barclay, with NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, culled data collected by the Kepler space telescope to ferret out a five-planet system, the outermost of which circles toward the outer edge of its star’s habitable zone, according to reports posted Wednesday on Twitter by astronomers attending the Search for Life Beyond the Solar System conference in Tucson, Ariz.

The outermost planet has a radius that is estimated to be 1.1 times as big as Earth’s, Nick Ballering, an astronomy graduate student at the University of Arizona, and scientist Jessie Christiansen, with the Ames Research Center, wrote in separate posts on Twitter.

The host star was not named, but was identified as an M1 dwarf, which is a small star that is dimmer than the sun. These types of stars, also known as “red dwarfs” comprise about 70 percent of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy.

So far, the most Earth-like planet detected by the now-defunct Kepler telescope is Kepler-62 f, which is about 1.4 times the size of Earth. Kepler-62 f receives about half as much energy from its star as Earth gets from the sun, and has an orbital period of 267 days (compared to Earth’s 365 days).

It is thought to orbit in its star’s so-called “habitable zone” where temperatures are suitable for liquid surface water.

Water is believed to be necessary for life.

The Kepler telescope was launched in 2009 specifically to look for Earth-like planets beyond the solar system.

In an email to Discovery News, Barclay declined to comment on his research until it is closer to being published in a scientific journal.

Read more at Discovery News

Mar 19, 2014

Archaeologists discover earliest complete example of a human with cancer, from 3,000 years ago

Archaeologists have found the oldest complete example in the world of a human with metastatic cancer in a 3,000 year-old skeleton.

The findings are reported in the academic journal PLOS ONE today (17 March).

The skeleton of the young adult male was found by a Durham University PhD student in a tomb in modern Sudan in 2013 and dates back to 1200BC.

Analysis has revealed evidence of metastatic carcinoma, cancer which has spread to other parts of the body from where it started, from a malignant soft-tissue tumour spread across large areas of the body, making it the oldest convincing complete example of metastatic cancer in the archaeological record.

The researchers from Durham University and the British Museum say the discovery will help to explore underlying causes of cancer in ancient populations and provide insights into the evolution of cancer in the past. Ancient DNA analysis of skeletons and mummies with evidence of cancer can be used to detect mutations in specific genes that are known to be associated with particular types of cancer.

Even though cancer is one of the world's leading causes of death today, it remains almost absent from the archaeological record compared to other pathological conditions, giving rise to the conclusion that the disease is mainly a product of modern living and increased longevity. These findings suggest that cancer is not only a modern disease but was already present in the Nile Valley in ancient times.

Lead author, Michaela Binder, a PhD student in the Department of Archaeology at Durham University, excavated and examined the skeleton. She said: "Very little is known about the antiquity, epidemiology and evolution of cancer in past human populations apart from some textual references and a small number of skeletons with signs of cancer.

"Insights gained from archaeological human remains like these can really help us to understand the evolution and history of modern diseases.

"Our analysis showed that the shape of the small lesions on the bones can only have been caused by a soft tissue cancer even though the exact origin is impossible to determine through the bones alone."

The skeleton is of an adult male estimated to be between 25-35 years old when he died and was found at the archaeological site of Amara West in northern Sudan, situated on the Nile, 750km downstream of the country's modern capital Khartoum. It was buried extended on his back, within a badly deteriorated painted wooden coffin, and provided with a glazed faience amulet as a grave good.

Previously, there has only been one convincing, and two tentative, examples of metastatic cancer predating the 1st millennium BC reported in human remains. However, because the remains derived from early 20th century excavations, only the skulls were retained, thus making a full re-analysis of each skeleton, to generate differential (possible) diagnoses, impossible.

Co-author, Dr Neal Spencer from the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum, said: "From footprints left on wet mud floors, to the healed fractures of many ancient inhabitants, Amara West offers a unique insight into what it was like to live there -- and die -- in Egyptian-ruled Upper Nubia 3200 years ago."

The skeleton was examined by experts at Durham University and the British Museum using radiography and a scanning electron microscope (SEM) which resulted in clear imaging of the lesions on the bones. It showed cancer metastases on the collar bones, shoulder blades, upper arms, vertebrae, ribs, pelvis and thigh bones.

The cause of the cancer can only be speculative but the researchers say it could be as a result of environmental carcinogens such as smoke from wood fires, through genetic factors, or from infectious diseases such as schistosomiasis which is caused by parasites.

They say that an underlying schistosomiasis infection seems a plausible explanation for the cancer in this individual as the disease had plagued inhabitants of Egypt and Nubia since at least 1500BC, and is now recognised as a cause of bladder cancer and breast cancer in men.

Michaela Binder added: "Through taking an evolutionary approach to cancer, information from ancient human remains may prove a vital element in finding ways to address one of the world's major health problems."

Read more at Science Daily

Humans Wiped Out Giant New Zealand Bird

Nine species of giant, flightless birds, known as moas, suddenly went extinct within two centuries of humans’ first arrival to New Zealand. Coincidence? No, a team of geneticists, biologists and archeologists recently wrote. The scientists found evidence that moas thrived before Polynesians colonized the islands in the 13th century.

The scientists analyzed genetic remains from 281 individual birds from four species of moa. The researchers looked for signs of dwindling moa populations in the 4,000 years before humans arrived. When animal populations shrink dramatically, their genetic diversity also decreases. Instead, the moa had a healthy variety of DNA, which suggested strong populations.

For example, the 3.6 meter (12 ft.) tall South Island giant moa (Dinornis robustus) had an estimated population of 9,200 individuals that may have been growing. Although another species, the 1.5 to 1.8 meter (4.9–5.9 ft.) tall eastern moa (Euryapteryx crassus), showed signs of a major historical die-off, that reduction in numbers likely occurred more than 17,900 years ago, thousands of years before humans arrived. Euryapteryx crassus had recovered and seemed to be thriving in the eastern lowland forests of New Zealand by the time humans arrived.

“These findings point strongly toward human contact as the only factor responsible for the extinction,” wrote the scientists in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Elsewhere the situation may be more complex, but in the case of New Zealand the evidence provided by ancient DNA is now clear: The megafaunal extinctions were the result of human factors,” said lead author Mike Bunce of Curtin University in Australia in a press release. “We need to be more aware of the impacts we are having on the environment today and what we, as a species, are responsible for in the past.”

Taken from Discovery News

Noah's Ark: Did Hollywood Get It Right?

In Darren Aronofksy's forthcoming epic Noah, the vessel by which the biblical hero saves himself, his family, and pairs of animals from the apocalyptic flood appears like a huge shipping container standing some 50 feet tall and 500 feet long.

The design was inspired by "going back to what God tells Noah in the Bible," Aronofksy said in a behind-the-scenes featurette recently released by Paramount.

The problem is, Russell Crowe's Noah might have gotten the wrong instructions manual.

The original Noah's Ark was a giant round vessel, says a script on an 3,700-old clay tablet now on display at the British Museum in London.

Found in the Middle East in the late 1940s by Leonard Simmons, who then passed it to his son Douglas, the cracked smartphone-sized tablet consists of 60 lines in cuneiform. It was translated by Irving Finkel, curator of the British Museum's 130,000 Mesopotamian clay tablet collection.

The tablet turned out to be a detailed construction manual for building an ark with palm-fiber ropes,wooden ribs and coated in hot bitumen to make it waterproof.

The vessel, however, was round.

"The Babylonians of around 1750 believed the ark in the flood story was a giant version of the type of coracle that they actually used on the rivers," Finkel told Discovery News.

The coracle described in the tablet was "the largest the world had ever dreamed of, with an area of 3,600 square meters, and six-meter high walls," Finkel said.

"A round boat makes perfect sense in Mesopotamia where round boats are likely to have been used on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It would not have made much sense in the Levant where you don't have rivers like that," Elizabeth Stone, an anthropology professor at New York's Stony Brook University, told Discovery News.

Indeed, a waterproofed coracle would never sink.

"Being round isn't a problem -- it never had to go anywhere: all it had to do was float and keep the contents safe: a cosmic lifeboat," Finkel wrote in his British Museum blog.

Over the centuries, the ark has been depicted in many ways. Although the Bible specifies its dimensions -- 300 cubits (about 450 feet) long, 50 cubits(about 75 feet) wide, and 30 cubits(about 45 feet) high -- it doesn't provide any clue about what it looked like.

Biblical creationists imagined Noah's ark like a large, box-like vessel similar to the version shown in Aronofksy's $130 million epic movie. Other designs added a sloping roof, and matched the ships of the days, from square-rigged caravels to long vessels with pointy bows.

The most elaborate depiction of the ark was produced in the 17h century by the German Jesuit scholar and polymath Athanasius Kircher. He calculated the number of animals that could fit in the ark and conceived a three-storied box with a double-pitched roof, a door and a window. He placed quadrupeds on the bottom, birds and humans on the top, serpents in the bilge, while food and water was stored in the middle.

His design fit popular imagination and set the standard for children's story books. There, the ark is often depicted as a large house on a boat, with a pair of giraffes sticking out of the roof.

According to Genesis, after the flood killed nearly everything on Earth, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat in Eastern Turkey.

Read more at Discovery News

Simulation Gives Glimpse into Supernova's Chaotic Guts

Supernovae are the deaths of massive stars that give birth to heavy elements, more stars, planets and, ultimately, life. These most violent explosions are the foundation for all the stuff we see in the Universe, but for such a fundamental phenomenon we know very little about how and why they ‘blow.’

In a new study by an international team of astrophysicists, a sophisticated computer simulation has been created in an effort to understand the 3-dimensional complexities inside a supernova. As expected, the dynamics in the guts of a collapsing star are complex, but this new model gives scientists the best ever look at how matter mixes when the supernova detonates, potentially explaining observations of supernovae that haven’t quite fitted our understanding of how we thought these gargantuan explosions worked.

In 1987, a supernova (1987A) detonated in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a nearby dwarf galaxy only 168,000 light-years away. This event caused some confusion in the astronomical community — like many cosmic phenomena, the observation didn’t quite match with our theoretical expectations. When studying the expanding cloud of supernova debris, astronomers noticed that material freshly ejected from the explosion was mixing with material the progenitor star had ejected some time before. This mixing was unexpected, suggesting that theoretical models needed refining.

Existing models assume a concentric, ‘shell-like’ structure of differentiated elements inside a star that is about to go supernova. As the massive star collapses under gravitational contraction (after exhausting its fusion fuel in the core), copious amounts of neutrinos are generated, rapidly leaching energy from the star’s interior. This has the effect of speeding up the contraction, accelerating the heating.

“It heats up and burns faster, making more neutrinos and speeding up the process until you have a runaway situation,” said W. David Arnett, of Astrophysics at the University of Arizona.

In an effort to understand this process, astrophysicists have turned to supercomputers for help. Often, because of technological restrictions, researchers will create a 1-D or 2-D model and make assumptions on the other dimensions. While this is effective, it often leads to a smooth transition between the layers inside the supernova. But this only tells half the story.

Arnett is working with Casey Meakin and Nathan Smith, also at at the University of Arizona, and Maxime Viallet of the Max-Planck Institut fur Astrophysik, Germany, to develop a fully 3-dimensional model of a supernova. Their work now provides us with an even more violent and chaotic view of how a supernova detonates.

“We still have the concentric circles, with the heaviest elements in the middle and the lightest elements on top, but it is if someone put a paddle in there and mixed it around,” said Arnett. “As we approach the explosion, we get flows that mix the materials together, causing the star to flop around and spit out material until we get an explosion.

“That’s what see in supernova remnants, we see those ejections of star material, and how they mix with material expelled from the star during its final explosion. Other models cannot explain this,” he said.

Read more at Discovery News

Mar 18, 2014

'Hogzilla' Returns: 500 lb. Monster Boar Killed

If you’re looking for a reason not to wander the woods at night, this story is for you: A hunter recently shot a monstrous wild pig weighing in at 500 pounds.

According to a CNN story:

“Jett Webb killed the massive animal last month in eastern North Carolina. When the amazing pictures of the animal and hunter recently circulated on the Internet, Webb started fielding calls from the media….’They were blown away. It’s not every day you see something that size,’ Webb said. ‘They can’t believe something that big is running around the woods of eastern North Carolina.’ Webb and a few other of his fellow hunters at the White Oak Ranch Hunting Club had been tracking the massive hog since January on surveillance cameras they have placed throughout their hunting grounds.”

Webb shot the beast with a .308-caliber AR-10 assault rifle. The meat, Webb noted, provided so much pork that it filled his deep freezer and he gave a lot of it away to friends and neighbors. Wild boars are considered an invasive species in the region and are hunted year round.

When photos of the big pig were shared on social media last week, many suspected a hoax. But wild hogs can grow surprisingly large, and the animal is real. This is only the latest of several so-called “Hogzillas” that have surfaced over the years.

The Original Hogzilla

The original Hogzilla, a monstrous beast said to be 12 feet long and tip the scales at 1,000 pounds, was shot and killed on a Georgia hunting reserve in 2004. Photos spread of the “mutant” pig with huge, razor-sharp tusks that could easily disembowel anyone who dared to get close enough. The story made international news and was accompanied by photographs that, while not exactly faked, definitely exaggerated the animal’s size, as the mythbusting web site noted.

Photographs of these huge boars — like photographs of prize fish — are often made to appear larger than they really are using a simple camera trick of forced perspective. By having the trophy animal close to the camera lens and those posing with it slightly farther back, genuinely large beasts appear all the more gigantic.

A team of scientists with National Geographic studied Hogzilla and debunked some of the more outlandish claims about it. First of all, Hogzilla was not a “mutant.” It was in fact a hybrid of a domestic pig and a wild boar — because both belong to the biological family Suidae, interbreeding is not only possible by fairly common. Secondly, the beast was about 800 pounds instead of 1,000.

Read more at Discovery News

Sea Anemone Is Both Animal and Plant

Sea anemones are classified as being animals, but two new genetic studies have found that these water-dwelling creatures are technically half plant and half animal.

The discovery does not change the classification of sea anemones, but the studies -- both published in the latest issue of the journal Genome Research -- reveal just how interconnected life on Earth is.

"All animals living now, including humans, are equally distant (i.e. distantly related) to plants," project leader Ulrich Technau told Discovery News. "However, the sea anemones are representatives of an animal lineage called the cnidarians (corals, sea anemones, jellyfish and hydras), which branched off very early and appear to have retained many ancestral traits."

Technau, an evolutionary and developmental biologist at the University of Vienna, and his teams determined that, remarkably, cnidarians use a plant-like system to control animal genes.

For the studies, the researchers focused on gene expression, which is the process by which information from a gene is used in the synthesis of a functional gene product, such as proteins or large biological molecules known as RNA.

Gene expression involves at least two main steps: transcription and translation. Transcription is the process of making an RNA copy of a gene sequence. Translation is the process of translating the sequence of a messenger RNA molecule to a sequence of amino acids during protein synthesis.

The scientists determined that regulation of transcription for sea anemones is comparable to that for other animals. On the other hand, the second level of regulation for sea anemones, translation, is much more plant-like.

"Since sea anemones have branched off very early, we assume that they have retained this plant-like mode from a common ancestor, hence, in terms of the regulation of gene expression, they are somewhat mixed," Technau said.

The basic animal aspects of gene expression, which we share with them, evolved a very long time ago.

Co-author Michaela Schwaiger explained, "Since the sea anemone shows a complex landscape of gene regulatory elements similar to the fruit fly or other model animals, we believe that this principle of complex gene regulation was already present in the common ancestor of human, fly and sea anemone some 600 million years ago."

While sea anemones branched off, still retaining some of their plant-like ways, the common ancestor of insects and vertebrates (including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fishes) either lost these genetic ways of plants, or drastically modified them.

Technau suspects that the common ancestor of sea anemones, humans and flies was "a simple-looking pear or worm-shaped" creature with a basic nervous system, an oral opening and a gut.

Read more at Discovery News

Zzzap! Lightning Tech Could Predict Strikes

A system being developed by University of Alabama researchers could help forecast lightning, potentially saving lives and preventing horrific burn injuries. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration records, lightning killed on average 53 people a year in the United States between 1982 and 2011.

The system’s designers hope to forecast lightning storms 30 to 45 minutes before the first bolt strikes. Currently, meteorologists can give only a 10- to 15-minute warning.

“A lot of the basic research in lightning prediction has been done, but weather service forecasters haven’t been getting the benefit from that work,” said John Mecikalski, project co-director and associate professor in University of  Alabama-Huntsville’s Atmospheric Science Department. ”One of our major goals is to increase the lead time that forecasters have for predicting which clouds are most likely to produce lightning and when lightning will start.”

The new system will combine several existing tools. Data from National Aeronautic and Space Administration satellites will be combined with radar observations. The satellite and radar data will then be analyzed by numerical models to monitor clouds as they swell into lightning-hurling thunderstorms.

Taken from Discovery News

Newborn Stars Blast Gas Inside a Monkey's Head

The bright young stars and glowing wisps of gas and dust in the image above are part of NGC 2174, the Monkey Head Nebula, located 6,400 light-years away in the constellation of Orion. The infrared data making up the stunning image were acquired with the Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) instrument from Feb. 7-23, and released in celebration of Hubble’s 24th year in orbit.

In other words, it may be Hubble’s birthday but we all get the gift!

The fantastic shapes of the enormous cloud-like structures are the result of powerful stellar winds streaming out from the newborn stars visible along the right side of the image. Ultraviolet radiation from the stars plows into the cold banks of dust and hydrogen gas surrounding the region, causing them to glow in infrared wavelengths and carving out billowing pillars, some nearly a light-year or more in length.

Hubble had previously imaged the same area in 2001 in visible light; these new infrared observations show much more intricate details of the nebula.

The region seen here is about six light-years across and shows the “eye” of the nebula’s  profiled “monkey head.” Watch a video zooming in to the region here.

Read more at Discovery News

Mar 17, 2014

1,500-Year-Old Antarctic Moss Brought Back to Life

Moss frozen on an Antarctic island for more than 1,500 years was brought back to life in a British laboratory, researchers report.

The verdant growth marks the first time a plant has been resurrected after such a long freeze, the researchers said. "This is the very first instance we have of any plant or animal surviving [being frozen] for more than a couple of decades," said study co-author Peter Convey, an ecologist with the British Antarctic Survey.

There is potential for even longer cryopreservation, or survival by freezing, if mosses are blanketed by glaciers during a long ice age, the researchers think. Antarctica's oldest frozen mosses date back more than 5,000 years.

The findings were published today (March 17) in the journal Current Biology.

Antarctic cryogenics

The moss comes from Signy Island, a small, glacier-covered island in the Drake Passage offshore of the Antarctic Peninsula. On Antarctic islands and the continent's coastline, thick, lush moss banks thrive on penguin poop and other bird droppings. The moss acts like tree rings, with layer upon layer of fuzzy clumps recording changing environmental conditions, such as wetter and drier climate shifts.

The moss resurrection came about after Convey and his colleagues noticed that old moss drilled out of permafrost on Signy Island looked remarkably fresh. The deeper layers didn't decay into brown peat (a type of decaying organic matter), as they would in warmer spots.

"In North America, you've got living moss on top of a dead peat base. It's black, wet sticky stuff," Convey told Live Science. "If you look at these cores [from Signy Island], the base is very well-preserved. They've got a very nice set of shoots."

To test whether the Antarctic moss would regrow, the researchers punched into the permanently frozen soil beneath the living moss, removing cores that contained frozen soil, ice and plants. To prevent contamination, they quickly wrapped the mossy cylinders in plastic and shipped them back to Britain at freezing temperatures. In the laboratory, the team sliced up the core and grew new moss in an incubator, directly from shoots preserved in the permafrost. They also carbon-dated the different layers, which provided an age estimate for revived moss shoots.

The oldest moss in the core first grew between 1,697 and 1,533 years ago, when the Mayan empire was at its height and the terror of Attila the Hun was ending in Europe and Central Asia. In the lab, this moss sent out new shoots from its rootlike "rhizoids," the researchers report. Because the growth comes directly from the preserved moss, and is the same species, it's unlikely that spores from elsewhere contaminated the samples, Convey said. (Antarctic mosses don't make spores.)

"We can't be certain there is no contamination, but we have very strong circumstantial evidence," he said. "Under a microscope, you can see the new shoot growing out of the old shoot. It is very firmly connected."

Survival on ice

Many species other than mosses have unique survival strategies for the cold, such as hibernation in bears or bugs with built-in antifreeze — proteins that prevent destructive ice crystal growth. Others, including plants, simply endure freezing. Microbes and plant genetic material have been resurrected from ancient Siberia permafrost, more than 20,000 years old. But until now, scientists had hard evidence only of creatures surviving about 20 years without water or warmth, Convey said.

Read more at Discovery News

Big Bang, Inflation, Gravitational Waves: What It Means

On Monday, astronomers announced a profound discovery. Etched into the most ancient radiation that pervades the entire universe and created — literally — at the dawn of time, gravitational waves have been directly observed, giving us a glimpse as to the nature of the inflationary period that is theorized to have caused the rapid growth of our universe just after the Big Bang.

Finding further observational evidence for cosmic inflation should be discovery enough, but the fact that astronomers now have observational evidence for the existence of gravitational waves makes this St. Patrick’s Day a very special Red Letter Day for Cosmology.

Firstly, what are gravitational waves? These are theorized to be ripples through spacetime and are generated by the motion of anything massive through space. Imagine throwing a ball into a pool — the ripples created will propagate away from the point of impact and bounce around the pool’s surface. Gravitational waves are very similar, but instead of rippling across a ‘surface,’ they propagate at the speed of light through 3-dimensional space. They are theorized to be generated by the collisions of black holes and are thought to have been generated in abundance by the inflationary period just after the Big Bang nearly 13.8 billion years ago.

Einstein’s equations of general relativity predict their existence and there has been some indirect observational evidence of gravitational waves leaching orbital energy from binary star systems. As we are spacetime entities, we should also be able to detect their presence as they pass through local spacetime. Multi-million dollar experiments like Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Louisiana and Washington have been built to directly detect gravitational waves propagating through Earth. However, their detection has so far proven to be frustratingly illusive.

But in an effort to detect the propagation of gravitational waves at the dawn of time, astronomers using a sophisticated instrument located near the South Pole have detected a very specific signal that betrays the presence of gravitational waves embedded in the ancient cosmic microwave background radiation.

Cosmic microwave background, or CMB, is a well-known artifact of the Big Bang. Considered to be the “echo” of the creation of the Universe, these slight temperature fluctuations observed at the furthest-most edge of the observable universe has been studied extensively by space-borne telescopes such as NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) and Europe’s Planck observatory. These observatories specifically measure the slight temperature perturbations (known as anisotropies) in the CMB to reveal information about the conditions just after the Big Bang and even the age of the Universe.

The rapid inflationary period is theorized to have caused our universe to expand 100 trillion trillion times in a fraction of a second. Fascinatingly, any quantum-sized perturbation that existed at that time will have been rapidly inflated as the universe grew and astronomers have theorized that those tiny structures can be observed today as vast gravitational wave perturbations. But until the use of BICEP2, they thought these waves would be too weak to detect. It turns out that they were wrong.

“This has been like looking for a needle in a haystack, but instead we found a crowbar,” said BICEP2 project collaborator Clem Pryke, of the University of Minnesota.

“The implications for this detection stagger the mind,” said project co-leader Jamie Bock, physicist at Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “We are measuring a signal that comes from the dawn of time.”

Located in the arid atmospheric conditions of Antarctica, BICEP2 has a very clear view of the cosmos. The instrument has the ability of measuring the polarization of the weak signal from the CMB radiation. On Earth, sunlight can become polarized if it reflects off a mirror or when filtered by polarized sunglasses (thus reducing the glare). The radiation from the ancient CMB can also become polarized and gravitational waves have the ability to manipulate the polarization of the incoming radiation. The specific type of polarization, known as ‘B-mode polarization,’ is what BICEP2 has been looking for. And now, with a high degree of certainty, astronomers have found it.

“The swirly B-mode pattern of polarization is a unique signature of gravitational waves,” said Chao-Lin Kuo, of Stanford University and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, co-leader of the project. “This is the first direct image of gravitational waves across the primordial sky.”

Today’s announcement is being touted as the “discovery of the century,” and although the two papers that were announced today have yet to go to print, the high certainty that backs these results is a huge hint that astronomers may have struck gold. Not only does this finding support the theory of cosmic inflation and the first strong observational evidence of gravitational waves, it could tie in to one of the most perplexing problems in modern quantum physics: What role does gravity play with the quantum world?

Read more at Discovery News

Big Bang's Smoking Gun Found

For the first time, scientists have found direct evidence of the expansion of the universe, a previously theoretical event that took place a fraction of a second after the Big Bang explosion nearly 14 billion years ago.

The clue is encoded in the primordial cosmic microwave background radiation that continues to spread through space to this day.

Scientists found and measured a key polarization, or orientation, of the microwaves caused by gravitational waves, which are miniature ripples in the fabric of space.

Gravitational waves, proposed by Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity nearly 100 years ago but never before proven, are believed to have originated in the Big Bang explosion and then been amplified by the universe’s inflation.

“This detection is cosmology’s missing link,” physicist Marc Kamionkowski, at Johns Hopkins University, told reporters during a webcast press conference on Monday.

“It’s something that we thought should be there, but we weren’t really sure. It has been eagerly sought now for close to two decades,” he said.

Because gravitational waves squeeze space as they travel, they imprint a specific pattern in the cosmic microwave background. Like light waves, gravitational waves have “handedness” that correlates to left- and right-skewed polarizations.

Using a special telescope located at the South Pole, scientists not only detected gravitational waves in the universe’s fossil radiation; they also found that the telltale polarization signals are much stronger than expected.

“This has been like looking for a needle in a haystack, but instead we found a crowbar,” team co-leader Clem Pryke, with the University of Minnesota, said in a press release.

In addition to providing the first direct evidence of the universe’s inflation, the measurements can be used to date the process and determine how much energy it took.

“This is not something that’s just a home run, but a grand slam. It’s the smoking gun for inflation. It hints at unification of the fundamental forces at energies 10 trillions of times higher than those accessible at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN,” Kamionkowski said.

Computer models indicate that the universe expanded by 100 trillion trillion times in .0000000000000000000000000000000001 (10 to the minus-34) seconds after the Big Bang explosion 13.8 billion years ago.

The telescope used to detect the gravitational waves is called Bicep, short for Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization.

Read more at Discovery News

Active Volcanoes Revealed on Venus

Scientists have long suspected that volcanoes played a huge role in the evolution of cloud-shrouded Venus, the second planet from the sun.

Now, images from Europe's Venus Express orbiter are showing that volcanic eruptions may not just be a thing from the past.

Scientists discovered transient bright spots in a relatively young rift zone known as Ganiki Chasma, which was observed 36 times by the spacecraft's Venus Monitoring Camera.

"We constructed orbit-wise mosaics … and computed the maps of relative surface brightness," planetary scientist Eugene Shalygin, with the Max-Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany, wrote in a synapsis of research to be presented on Monday at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston.

"Analyzing these maps one can see several bright features that are present at the same locations in several consequent orbits and disappear afterwards," Shalygin writes.

The scientists suspect the bright spots are caused by lava, lava gas or some combination of the two at or just above the planet's surface.

"We are searching for similar events in other rift zones," Shalygin added.

The scientists said that the discovery of present-day volcanic activity on Venus would have "major implications" for understanding processes in the planet's interior, surface and atmosphere.

More details about the research are expected after the scientists present their findings Monday afternoon.

Taken from Discovery News

Mar 16, 2014

Understanding how mountains and rivers make life possible

Favorable conditions for life on Earth are enabled in part by the natural shuttling of carbon dioxide from the planet's atmosphere to its rocky interior and back again. Now Stanford scientists have devised a pair of math equations that better describe how topography, rock compositions and the movement of water through a landscape affects this vital recycling process.

Scientists have long suspected that the so-called the geologic carbon cycle is responsible for Earth's clement and life-friendly conditions because it helps regulate atmospheric concentrations of CO2, a greenhouse gas that acts to trap the sun's heat. This cycle is also thought to have played an important role in slowly thawing the planet during those rare times in the past when temperatures dipped so low that the globe was plunged into a "snowball-Earth" scenario and glaciers blanketed the equator.

"Our equations suggest that different landscapes have different potentials for regulating the transfer of carbon dioxide," said Kate Maher, assistant professor of Geological and Environmental Sciences who developed the equations along with her colleague, Environmental Earth System Science professor Page Chamberlain. The research, which was supported by the National Research Foundation, is described in the March 14 issue of the journal Science.

The geologic carbon cycle begins when volcanoes release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Some of the CO2 mixes with rainwater and falls back to Earth as carbonic acid. On land, the carbonic acid chemically erodes, or "weathers," silicate rocks exposed at Earth's surface to produce bicarbonate and release elements such as calcium and magnesium that eventually wash into the ocean. Over millions of years, these elements are transformed into rocks such as limestone. When plate tectonics push the carbonate-loaded seafloor down into Earth's mantle, the carbon is released again as CO2, which is vented back into the atmosphere through volcanic eruptions, thereby completing the cycle.

The equations developed by Maher and Chamberlain address the weathering component of the geologic carbon cycle. The amount of weathering that occurs depends on several factors. One is the makeup of the soil: older soils that have already been weathered dissolve more slowly compared to soils made of fresh rock. "As you weather soil and sediment over time, they become less and less chemically reactive," Maher said. "Physical erosion, which is often associated with mountainous regions, replenishes the soil with reactive minerals."

Another consideration is the length of time that water spends flowing through the soil, a variable that scientists call the "fluid travel time." The more time rainwater spends flowing through soils, the more weathering that occurs. The fluid travel time is in turn affected by the topography of the landscape-water tends to flow more slowly across a flat surface than down an incline.

In the real world, these different factors interact in complex ways. They might work together to speed up the weathering process, or they could oppose each other to slow the process down. For example, consider precipitation falling onto a mountain. Because of gravity, the corrosive water may flow more quickly through the mountain, thus reducing the fluid travel time. However, the soils in mountainous regions also tend to be younger and thus richer in elements such as calcium and magnesium, and as a result are more reactive and easily weathered. The competition between the flow of water and the reactivity of the soils limits how much weathering can occur. Maher and Chamberlain argue that these limits are important for maintaining CO2 levels within an acceptable range to maintain temperatures suitable for life.

Read more at Science Daily

The Incredible Shrinking Mercury

The planet Mercury is the solar system's shrunken head.

The scorched first rock from the sun has contracted into itself even more than previously thought -- losing 7 kilometers (more than 4 miles) of elevation in some parts, according to new research using data from NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft.

"It solves a mystery that's been lingering for a while," commented planetary scientist William McKinnon of Washington University in Saint Louis. "Mariner 10 (in the 1970s) first saw these giant cliffs. So we knew it was shrinking." But it didn't appear to have shrunk enough.

The researchers knew the small planet was shrinking because Mercury was conforming to a theory of mountain building that was first applied (incorrectly) to our own planet about 200 years ago. In that theory, the Earth's mountains were thought to be a lot like the wrinkles that form on an apple's skin when it dries out and shrinks. But the idea just didn't fit the geology of Earth particularly well. Now a modern theory -- plate tectonics -- explains our planet's features far more accurately.

Mercury, on the other hand, has only one solid shell for a crust, rather than Earth's many plates that shift about. As Mercury's molten iron core has cooled over the billions of years since the planet formed, it has contracted and the shell of rock surrounding it has cracked and shifted to accommodate the smaller size. Today, the signs of those changes are written all over the face of Mercury.

"Some of these things are really, really big," said Paul Byrne of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the Lunar and Planetary Institute. "There are some truly gargantuan cliffs on Mercury." Bryne is the lead author of a paper presenting the results in the March 16 issue of the journal Nature Geoscience.

The greater shrinkage corresponds to a model of the planet with a much larger iron core, said McKinnon.

"It's really a giant iron planet" with a thin rock crust, McKinnon said.

As for when all this shrinking happened, that's harder to figure out, said Byrne. Craters now seen on Mercury correspond to what scientists call the Late Heavy Bombardment -- a violent time in the history of the solar system that ended about 3.8 billion years ago. Any shrinkage features that happened before that were likely wiped out by asteroid impacts during that time.

Read more at Discovery News