May 10, 2014

Extinct kitten-sized hunter discovered

This is a view of the palate of the new, small sparassodont from Bolivia. The front end is to the right. The scale bar is 1 cm.
A Case Western Reserve University student and his mentor have discovered an ancient kitten-sized predator that lived in Bolivia about 13 million years ago -- one of the smallest species reported in the extinct order Sparassodonta.

Third-year undergraduate student Russell Engelman and Case Western Reserve anatomy professor Darin Croft made the finding by analyzing a partial skull that had been in a University of Florida collection more than three decades.

The researchers report their finding in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

"The animal would have been about the size of a marten, a catlike weasel found in the Northeastern United States and Canada, and probably filled the same ecological niche," said Engelman, an evolutionary biology major from Russell Township, Ohio.

The researchers refrained from naming the new species mainly because the specimen lacks well-preserved teeth, which are the only parts preserved in many of its close relatives.

The skull, which would have been a little less than 3 inches long if complete, shows the animal had a very short snout. A socket, or alveolus, in the upper jaw shows it had large, canines, that were round in cross-section much like those of a meat-eating marsupial, called the spotted-tailed quoll, found in Australia today, the researchers said.

Although sparassodonts are more closely related to modern opossums than cats and dogs, the group included saber-toothed species that fed on large prey. This small Bolivian species probably fed on the ancient relatives of today's guinea pigs and spiny rats, the researchers said.

"Most predators don't go after animals of equal size, but these features indicate this small predator was a formidable hunter," Croft said.

The specimen had not been studied in detail after being collected. It was provisionally identified as belonging to a particular group of extinct meat-eating opossums, due in part to its small size. Further adding to the identity challenge, almost all small sparassodonts have been identified by their teeth and lower jaws, which this skull lacks.

Croft wanted to study the skull because its age is nearly twice that of the oldest known species of meat-eating opossum. The specimen was found in a mountainous site known as Quebrada Honda, Bolivia, in 1978, in rock layers dated 12 million to 13 million years ago.

Structurally, extinct meat-eating opossums and sparassodont skulls share a number of similarities due to their similar meat-eating diet, Engelman said.

"No single feature found in the skull was so distinctive that we could say one way or the other what it was," Croft said, "but the combination of features is unique and says this is a sparassodont."

One key was that a particular bone of the orbit, the boney socket of the eye, does not touch the nasal bone in an opossum but does in a sparassodont.

The short snout was a kind of red herring. While jaguar-sized sparassodonts had them, the smaller members of the order had fox-like faces. And this species was smaller than most of those.

These smaller sparassodonts also have gaps between their teeth that are absent in most larger species. The skull shows no gaps.

Read more at Science Daily

Our Sun's Long Lost Stellar 'Sister' Found

Stars like the sun may end up alone but they are born in stellar nurseries, with a thousand — or a hundred thousand — siblings. Over time, the family disbands, victims of gravitational nudges and other tidings after 4.5 billion years of life in the cosmos.

Astronomers have been on the hunt for solar siblings as part of a quest to learn more about how and where the sun was born and perhaps why our star became host to a life-bearing planet.

This week, a team headed by the University of Texas reports it has found a star that “almost certainly” formed from the same cloud of gas and dust that produced the sun.

The star, known as HD 162826, is about 15 percent bigger than the sun and located about 110 light-years away in the constellation Hercules.

Scientists matched the star’s chemistry — telltale concentrations of the rare elements barium and yttrium proved particularly useful — with the sun’s chemical components. They also tracked HD 162826’s past orbits around the center of the Milky Way to discover its link with the sun.

Out of 30 potential sibling stars, “only the star HD 162826 satisfies both our dynamical and chemical criteria for being a true sibling of the sun,” lead author Ivan Ramirez writes in a paper to be published in the June 1 issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

Read more at Discovery News

May 9, 2014

Rare Megamouth Shark Caught off Japan

Fishermen off the coast of Japan hauled in a rare megamouth shark recently, marking the 58th time in history one of its kind were seen or caught by man, Japanese news outlets reported.

The Japan Daily Press reported Thursday that scientists performed an autopsy on the 1,500-pound female shark in front of onlookers at the Marine Science Museum in Shizuoka City. The shark was reportedly caught from a depth of about 2,600 feet. It's unclear precisely when it was nabbed, according to the report.

The first megamouth was discovered in Hawaii in 1976, prompting scientists to create an entirely new family and genus of sharks. The megamouths are docile filter-feeders with wide, blubbery mouths.

Others megamouths — considered one of the rarest fish in the world — have been encountered in California, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, Brazil, Ecuador, Senegal, South Africa, Mexico and Australia. It's known to inhabit the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic oceans, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History.

"As with the two other filter-feeding sharks, the basking and whale sharks, this species is wide-ranging," according to a profile of the animal on the museum's website. "However, the megamouth is considered to be less active and a poorer swimmer than the basking or whale sharks."

The megamouth primarily feeds on large quantities of krill and its maximum size is at least 17 feet long. The sperm whale is its only known predator, researchers say.

Read more at Discovery News

Weather and Climate: What's the Difference?

Here’s a phrase heard often in the winter, when temperatures are, naturally, colder than at any other time of year: “Global warming? Yeah right, more like global cooling.” But that reveals a basic misunderstanding of what “weather” and “climate” are.

The difference between weather and climate comes down to time. Weather refers to the state of the atmosphere at a particular time or over a few weeks and months. Temperature, humidity, precipitation, cloud cover, windiness and other factors make up a particular time period’s weather.

Climate refers to the average weather for a place over a period of many years. Climate scientists often use 30-year intervals to define a region’s climate, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

For example, sunny, cloudless and 62 degrees Fahrenheit describes the weather this morning here in central Missouri, in other words, a perfect spring day. However, yesterday’s weather was cloudy with scattered showers, while a few days before it was 90 degrees F. These were changes in the weather, not the climate.

The weather in Missouri varies greatly from day to day and even hour to hour. However, on average, the surface temperatures here have been increasing during the past several decades. Other places, especially the polar regions, experienced more dramatic average temperature increases during the same time period.

The gradual alteration of average weather patterns defines climate change. Earth’s climate changes naturally, which is why we no longer sit under a mile of ice in Missouri, nor do we have lush jungles anymore.

However, certain human activities can influence the climate. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide. Domesticated cattle release methane when they pass gas, as do the termites that devour wood scraps left by loggers. Methane and carbon dioxide can change the climate. Those gases allow the sun’s light to pass through the atmosphere. Yet after that light strikes Earth’s surface and transforms into heat,  the gases trap that warmth, just like the glass or plastic panes of a greenhouse. Chemists define that process as the greenhouse effect.

Read more at Discovery News

Radar Pings 'Invisible' Asteroid During Earth Flyby

Asteroids are in the news a lot these days, partially because we’re getting really good at detecting the flying chunks of space rock. But also, we’re pretty good at recording the impact of large meteors that seem to have a “thing” for hitting Russia. (Not really, Russia just has a really big landmass with lots of dashcams.)

However, as calls for improved detection techniques and asteroid impact mitigation strategies intensify, there’s one particularly worrisome class of asteroid that could hit us, unawares, in our blind spot — from the direction of the sun. But a celestial radar ‘tag team’ is on the case, having bounced radio waves off an asteroid that would have been invisible to optical telescopes.

Although asteroid 2006 SX 217 has a well-known orbit, on April 23, astronomers at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico took the opportunity to transmit radar pulses at the object as it made a close approach with Earth. Although Arecibo could transmit the radar, problems with the large dish’s receiver meant that the National Science Foundation's Goldstone radio telescope, located in West Virginia, had to step in to help out.

The space rock, which measures approximately a mile wide, came as close as 3 million miles from Earth (around 10 times the Earth-moon distance), but as it was approaching from the direction of the sun, the sun’s glare would have rendered any observation attempts by optical telescopes futile. The radar campaign, however, managed to resolve fantastic detail in the asteroid’s surface features, highlighting its boulder strewn landscape.

After pinging 2006 SX 217, astronomers noticed that the asteroid was abnormally dark and larger than previous estimates suggested.

Read more at Discovery News

This Oceanic ‘Nightmare’ Suffocates Foes With Clouds of Slime

“Ahhh!” cries the hagfish as it bombards its captors with slime, “smiles … my only weakness! Also, admittedly, I’m not so good at surviving out of water.”
The most loveable ghost ever has to be Slimer, mostly because I don’t buy Casper’s overdone friendliness shtick for a second. In Ghostbusters, Slimer introduces himself to Bill Murray with a hug, leaving him with a coating of ectoplasm. Few people realize that this harmless gesture is how ghosts show affection.

Bill was all bent out of shape about the whole thing, but it could have been much worse for him. He could have tangled with a real-life slimer: the hagfish, a bizarre, eel-like critter that asphyxiates the fish and sharks foolish enough to attack it by clogging up their gills with massive releases of goo. But this is no simple snot. It’s a deceptively complex substance that could one day gift us the supermaterial of our dreams.

The hagfish cruises around deep ocean bottoms, feeding primarily on polychaete worms–save for the ferocious 10-foot bobbit worm, which luckily for the hagfish inhabits shallow waters. Every once in a while, though, it takes part in one of the sea floor’s most remarkable happenings: the arrival of a whale carcass (an event known somewhat epically as a whale fall).

Whale hides are quite tough, and the hagfish has nowhere near the bite force of a shark. But hagfish have been around for at least 300 million years, and they didn’t spend all that time not developing sweet adaptations for scavenging in the deep.

When they are lucky enough to come upon a whale fall, they “grab onto it with their teeth, which are sort of like a circular set of saw blades,” said Carol Bucking, a biologist at Toronto’s York University. “And they use this to latch on to the skin, and then they twist their body to bore a hole into the carcass. Then they live inside the carcass and they essentially eat it from the inside out.”

This picture of hagfish chompers is remarkably similar to the movie poster for Tremors, starring Kevin Bacon. Therefore, the hagfish has no degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon, which is more than a lot of people can say.
If they’re having trouble ripping off flesh, they can actually tie themselves in knots, then use that as leverage to excavate meat. Hagfish are afforded such flexibility because while they have a partial skull, they have no spine to speak of (accordingly, scientists have a hell of a time classifying this ancient species). And though they may look weak and squishy, hagfish are actually burly gnawing machines. “If you try to pick one up and hold onto it,” said Bucking, “it’s essentially like holding onto a boa constrictor. It’s almost impossible to sort of dictate what it does, because it’s a very strong, enormous, nightmare of a creature.”

Once the hagfish has muscled its way inside a carcass, simply swallowing its food is not enough: They’ve actually evolved a way to pull nourishment through their skin, utilizing the same kind of nutrient “transporters,” as they’re known, that you would find in your guts. So, really, they’re an inside-out intestine with another intestine inside, like Russian nesting dolls of the deep. And as the decaying whale’s proteins break down into amino acids, the hagfish happily soaks them right up into its bloodstream.

Hagfish are particularly drawn to good lighting, so the rays can play off their skin all romantic-like.
But first the hagfish has to find its quarry in the total blackness of the deep. For that, they rely not on their rudimentary eyespots, which are almost totally worthless, but on their extremely keen sense of smell, sniffing out the slightest of odors with the barbels around their mouths. Indeed, their forebrain, which processes smells, is highly enlarged to handle all of this information.

Without any real eyesight, though, and with its face buried in rotting whale, the hagfish is an easy target for predators. But if you take a bite out of this critter, you do so at your own peril. For the hagfish makes the world’s most disgusting, most dangerous Jell-O–except for the apricot kind. Seriously, who buys the apricot kind?

Slime and Punishment

Up and down the length of the hagfish’s body are some 150 separate slime glands. When a predator like a shark bites down on a hagfish, the tiny glands near the attacker’s strike instantaneously eject the goo. As soon as this hits water, it balloons into a huge gelatinous cloud, which biologist Douglas Fudge of Ontario’s University of Guelph reckons acts to clog up the attacker’s gills.

He’s fairly confident of this because he, well, did some experiments with disembodied fish heads. Fudge first measured water flow over the gills in a normal state, then applied hagfish slime. “If this stuff evolved to clog up gills,” he said, “then you’d expect it to really reduce the flow over the gills, and that’s exactly what it did. It increased the resistance of the gills by something like 200-fold.”

While no one has yet been able to pursue a predator choking on a mouthful of hagfish slime to see if it indeed suffocated to death–quite understandably, they tend to rapidly retreat, as demonstrated somewhat hilariously in the video above–Fudge thinks that if the victim isn’t able to somehow dislodge the goo from its gills, it will perish.

How, then, does the hagfish keep from suffocating itself? They have “beautiful, almost balloon-shaped gills, and so that really restricts anything getting into them,” said Bucking. The hagfish pumps water through a series of small holes into pouches, where “there’s all these channels and chambers that spread the water out and put it in contact with blood so they can exchange oxygen.” It can also clear the slime off its body with the same technique it uses to feed, tying itself in a knot and passing itself through it.

Hagfish are extremely flexible because they lack a backbone, going so far as to tie themselves in knots in dogged pursuit of Boy Scout badges.
Those are no ordinary gills, because this is no ordinary snot. Inside each slime gland are two kinds of cells. One produces a whole lot of mucus. The other–the really interesting one for materials scientists–produces entirely remarkable threads. These are 6 inches long, intricately coiled into a single cell that’s just four-thousandths of an inch long. That, quite frankly, is insane. As a loose metaphor, it’s like packing 10,000 years’ worth of clothes into one suitcase that you’ll then, uh, break open and throw at something that’s attacking you.

When the slime glands are emptied, the fibers (25,000 in just four cups of goo) mix with the mucus and unravel in a fraction of a second. “What we think is going on is that there’s a glue that we haven’t yet identified, but we have good evidence for, that holds the fiber bundles together, and it’s a seawater-soluble glue,” said Fudge. When the glue dissolves, the fibers release like springs, providing the energy to greatly inflate the cloud. The fibers further unravel and expand the mucus as the hagfish thrashes about in the predator’s jaws.

Read more at Wired Science

May 8, 2014

Polar Scientists Drill 2,000-year-old Ice Core

Polar scientists said Thursday they had successfully drilled a 2,000-year-old ice core in the heart of Antarctica in a bid to retrieve a frozen record of how the planet's climate has evolved.

The Aurora Basin North project involves scientists from Australia, China, France, Denmark, Germany and the United States who hope it will also advance the search for the scientific "holy grail" of the million-year-old ice core.

The five-week expedition, in a hostile area that harbours some of the deepest ice in the frozen continent, over 3 kilometers (1.9-miles) thick, will give experts access to some of the most detailed records yet of past climate in the vast region.

About 2 tons of ice core sections drilled at Aurora Basin, 500 kilometers (310 miles) inland of Australia's Casey station, is now being distributed to Australian and international ice core laboratories.

They will conduct an analysis of atmospheric gases, particles and other chemical elements that were trapped in snow as it fell and compacted to form ice.

Australian Antarctic Division glaciologist and project leader Mark Curran said it will help fill a gap in the science community's knowledge of climate records.

"Using a variety of scientific tests on each core, we'll be able to obtain information about the temperature under which the ice formed, storm events, solar and volcanic activity, sea ice extent, and the concentration of different atmospheric gases over time," he said.

The team, working in temperatures of minus 30 Celsius, used a Danish Hans Tausen drill to extract the main 303-meter-long ice core, which will provide annual climate records for the past 2,000 years.

"There are only a handful of records with comparable resolution that extend to 2,000 years from the whole of Antarctica, and this is only the second one from this sector of East Antarctica," added Curran.

Additionally two smaller drills were used to take out 116 and 103-meter cores spanning the past 800 to 1,000 years.

Read more at Discovery News

Why It's Perfectly Normal to See Jesus in Toast

The man in the moon. Jesus in toast. The Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich. Faces are everywhere — even when they're not, strictly speaking, supposed to be.

Now, new research reveals the brain processes that underlie these facial false alarms, a phenomenon called "face pareidolia." The findings suggest that expectations matter. When people expect to see a face, these expectations may activate a brain region responsible for processing faces, the researchers report in the April issue of the journal Cortex.

Pareidolia is a well-known phenomenon, responsible for turning a rocky landform on Mars into a face and a water stain on a Chicago underpass into the Virgin Mary. Not all instances of pareidolia result in visions of faces. For example, in 2013, eagle-eyed Internet sleuths swore up and down that NASA's Curiosity Rover had caught a snapshot of a rat on Mars.

Tricking the brain

The neural basis of this phenomenon is less understood, however, researchers from the University of Toronto and several institutions in China report in Cortex. To study what goes on in the brain during these misidentifications, the researchers recruited 20 Chinese men and asked them to look at imagery while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. The fMRI measures changes in the magnetic properties of oxygen-rich and oxygen-depleted blood, which enables researchers to tell which areas of the brain are getting an influx of blood flow at any given time. This blood flow signals increased neuron activity in those regions.

The researchers first asked the men to look at a series of images, all of which were obscured with the kind of static-y visual "noise" you might see on a television with a bad cable connection. Two images showed male faces, one easy to discern and the other camouflaged. Two others showed letters, again with one easy to see and one difficult to spot. The final image was pure black-and-white, splotchy noise.

The face and letter experiments were done separately, a week apart for each participant, but the set-up was the same. The men were asked to push one handheld button if they saw a face (or letter) and another if they could not.

After this initial test, the men saw another series of images and were told half contained faces (or letters). This time, however, all of the images were secretly just visual noise. The men were again asked to press a button to indicate whether they saw a face or letter in the pattern.

Your mind on pareidolia

The results revealed that priming people to look for identifiable objects in random patterns is bound to create a few hits. The participants reported seeing faces 34 percent of the time and letters 38 percent of the time, despite there being none in the images they saw.

Because the researchers asked participants about letters as well as faces, they were able to tease out differences in brain activity associated with mistaken identification of a letter and those associated with mistaken identification of faces. They found those differences in the fusiform face area (FFA), a small region on the side of the brain, behind the ear. This region has long been known to be involved in the recognition of faces, though recent research suggests that it helps people identify the differences between any objects of expertise. A birdwatcher, for example, might use the FFA to tell the difference between a sparrow and a wren.

Read more at Discovery News

What Is Gluten?

When comedian Jimmy Kimmel sent a camera crew to ask people who ate gluten-free diets what, exactly, gluten is, responses ranged from “It’s like a grain…right?” to “wheat” that should be avoided because “it makes you fat.”

“Here in L.A., it’s comparable to Satanism,” Kimmel riffed.

Actually, gluten is a combination of two proteins — and, as those who eat gluten-free diets do know, it is found primarily in wheat. The proteins (gliadin and glutenin) are also found in rye, barley, spelt, triticale, kamut, farro, and einkorn.

Gluten feeds plant embryos. If you bake wheat bread, you may buy vital wheat gluten at the grocery store: It gives wheat bread dough its elasticity, and gives wheat bread its traditional texture.

Some people avoid gluten because they have Celiac disease or because they have a lesser sensitivity that can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, headaches, and other symptoms. But most Americans who eat gluten-free diets do so because they think it will make them healthier or thinner.

While many nutritionists don’t advocate restricting diet unless necessary, they encourage people who do try it to choose naturally gluten-free foods, like fruits and vegetables. Replacing processed foods with gluten-free processed foods probably won’t give you any sort of health boost. Or help you lose weight.

When you embark on a gluten-free diet, nutritionists recommend making sure you get enough iron, calcium, B-vitamins, vitamin D, and fiber.

From Discovery News

Mind-Blowing Computer Simulation Recreates Our Universe

Astronomers have a pretty good idea how the universe began and the near-14 billion years of evolution after, but throwing all our knowledge behind one grand computer simulation has been hard. The task at hand has simply too huge for any one computer to handle.

Today, however, astronomers have announced the results of three months of computer number-crunching, combining 8,000 CPUs all running in parallel, modeling our evolving universe. If the same simulation was carried out on your office desktop computer, the simulation would take 2,000 years to recreate.

“Until now, no single simulation was able to reproduce the universe on both large and small scales simultaneously,” said Mark Vogelsberger of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and lead scientist of the study.

Previous work has either focused on a tiny portion of cosmic volume or had been too low a resolution. This study, however, has created a cube 350 million light-years across and over 13 billion years of simulated time at an unprecedented resolution. This work has been published in the May 8 edition of the journal Nature.

In the model, the effects soon after the Big Bang are considered where the hot soup of primordial matter cools to form the first stars and young galaxies. Dark matter is also included in the calculations, which dominates the “cosmic web,” anchoring clusters of galaxies at its gravitational nodes.

The effects of supernovae enriching the interstellar and intergalactic volume with increasingly heavier elements is also modeled, providing us with an insight as to the building blocks of other stars, planets and, eventually, the organic chemistry that is the foundation for life.

The most striking thing about this virtual universe is its uncanny resemblance to observations made by today’s observatories. The recreation of the array of galaxies we see deep in the furthest-most reaches of the universe form in strikingly familiar shapes and sizes.

The model only uses equations from theories constructed from decades (even centuries) of astronomical observations and allowed to evolve with time. The result is nothing short of breathtaking and it can be hard to distinguish the model from real observations.

The model, called Illustris, created a 3-D space filled with 12 billion pixels, all calculating the fundamental equations that govern normal (and dark) matter. The researchers can now zoom in on regions of interest to focus on different mechanisms as they unfold. When they kicked off the simulation 12 million simulated years after the Big Bang, some 41,000 galaxies condensed into numerous galactic cluster from the seemingly chaotic churning of matter.

Read more at Discovery News

May 7, 2014

Pinocchio Rex: T's Tough Cousin (No Lie)

Bloodthirsty T. rex had an unusual relative, nicknamed Pinocchio rex, which a new study describes as having an extremely long snout.

According to the study, published in the journal Nature Communications, the new tyrannosaur, Qianzhousaurus sinensis, lived in southern China approximately 66 million years ago.

"Although it's not definite, it's quite likely that Qianzhousaurus was around when that fireball from space so suddenly ended the age of dinosaurs," co-author Steve Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh's School of GeoSciences told Discovery News.

But before that happened, Pinocchio rex was an active predator living in a lush environment that included many different kinds of dinosaurs, lizards and other animals.

With its long snout adorned with a row of horns, Pinocchio rex likely preyed on the lizards and bird-like dinosaurs known as oviraptorosaurs.

"We suspect it wasn't the top predator in its ecosystem, but maybe a second-tier predator," Brusatte said. "But just because it was second-tier doesn't mean that it wasn't a fearsome, formidable, blood-curdling predator!"

Before this discovery, paleontologists had found a few other dino specimens with unusually long heads. At first, it seemed like the stuff of fairytales that such dinosaurs actually existed. The scientists initially suspected that the fossils represented an early growth stage in dinosaurs, or could have been deformities.

Pinocchio rex -- found largely intact and remarkably well preserved -- clarifies the matter. It's no lie: tyrannosaurs with long snouts really did exist. There appear to have been a lot of them, too.

As lead author Junchang Lü of the Institute of Geology, Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences, said: "The new discovery is very important. Along with Alioramus from Mongolia, it shows that the long-snouted tyrannosaurids were widely distributed in Asia.

"Although we are only starting to learn about them, the long-snouted tyrannosaurs were apparently one of the main groups of predatory dinosaurs in Asia."

These were lean, mean dinosaurs, so the researchers do not think that tyrannosaurs were more vulnerable to extinction than most other species of their time. Nevertheless, the fact remains that these big predators all went extinct around 66 million years ago.

"I suspect that the sudden environmental devastation caused by the impact was so severe that it killed off many, many species on land, and perhaps birds were the one dinosaur group able to make it through because they were smaller, could fly, and could grow fast," Brusatte explained, adding that it's still a mystery as to why so many bird-like feathered dinosaurs, like Velociraptor, did not survive.

Pinocchio rex, at least, lives on today in the dinosaur record books, via its well-preserved remains.

Read more at Discovery News

Margin Mystery Solved in Rare Edition of Odyssey

A kind of literary whodunit was solved recently when mysterious handwritten notations from a rare, 1504 edition of Homer's Odyssey were identified.

The epic poem was part of a collection donated to the University of Chicago Library in 2007 by a collector, and ever since the unknown notations have told the library little besides their probable dating to the 1850s.

What better way to solve a mystery than to incentivize the correct solution with a thousand bucks? That's just what the collector, M.C. Lang, did. The deal was simple: Identify the script in the margins, prove the assertion, translate some of it, and then the fun part: pocket $1,000.

Italian digital humanities student Daniele Metilli took the prize when he and a co-sleuth with a background in stenography and the French language, Giula Accetta, cracked the case.

Because there were French words mixed in with the mystery handwriting, and the legible date of April 25, 1854 was present, the duo investigated French stenographic systems that were in use during that time.

After judging a few of those systems "not guilty," Metilli and Accetta hit paydirt: The guilty party was Jean Coulon de Thévénot, creator in the late 1700s of the shorthand notation system scrawled amid the Greek text of the 1504 Homer. The decoded notes were French translations of some of the Greek wording in the classic tome.

To the untrained eye, the notation looks like the Palmer Method gone horribly wrong. But there's a method to the cryptic madness. "Every consonant and vowel has a starting shape, and they combine together to form new shapes representing syllables," said Metilli. The curious underlining of words was also key to their meaning, based on each letter's position atop or below the line.

Next up for Metilli and Accetta is to unmask the author as well as determine why the notations are only present in one place in the book.

From Discovery News

'Vampire' Skeleton Unearthed in Poland

Archaeologists in Poland say they have discovered a skeleton with a brick stuck into the mouth — evidence that the subject was believed to be a vampire.

Dated to the 16th-17th century, the grave was unearthed during excavations in the town of Kamien Pomorski, in northwestern Poland, the website reported.

In addition to the brick, which was wedged so violently into the mouth to knock out the upper teeth, the skeleton featured a leg with a hole likely made from a puncture. This would suggest the leg had been staked to the ground to prevent the individual from rising from its grave.

“A piece of debris brick in the mouth and a pierced thigh indicate this is a vampiric burial,” Slawomir Gorka, the archaeologist who led the dig, said.

People feared that those accused to be vampires would rise from their graves like zombies. In some cases, to kill the undead creatures, they placed a stone or brick into the mouth so that the vampire would starve to death.

According to Gorka, such vampire-slaying rituals were common in local graves between the 13th and 17th centuries.

Indeed, it’s not the first time that “deviant burials” have been unearthed in Poland and across eastern Europe.

Last year, Polish archaeologists found a grave near the town of Gliwice filled with skeletons whose severed heads were placed atop their legs.

Such burials appear to be common in Slavic regions for people accused of vampirism, although alternative hypothesis suggested the skeletons were simply victims of an execution.

Deviant burials are often linked to Black Death-related cemeteries and to medieval ignorance of how diseases spread.

Mass graves were often reopened to bury corpses during epidemics, exposing bloated bodies with blood seeping out of the mouth and with a hole in the shroud used to cover their face.

Read more at Discovery News

Egyptian Mummy Find Sheds Light on Lesser Royals

Dozens of smashed and broken mummies were discovered in a rock-hewn tomb during recent excavations in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. Hailed as exceptional, the finding helps answer a key question: Who had the privilege to be buried in the desert valley on the west bank of the Nile River?

Princesses, children, infants and also foreign ladies were among those entombed in the exclusive gateway to the afterlife that once held most of the treasures of Egypt.

The valley became important about 3,500 years ago, when New Kingdom rulers chose it as their final resting place. So far, 65 tombs, built over a period of nearly 500 years from the 16th to 11th century B.C., have been unearthed. Often numbered in the order of their discovery, they are labeled from KV1 (built for Ramses VII) to KV65, an unexcavated, possible tomb whose discovery was announced in 2008.

But not all burials were meant for mummy pharaohs.

“Over two-thirds of the tombs in the valley were not prepared for kings, but very little is known about the the identity of those for whom they were made,” Susanne Bickel, professor of Egyptology at the University of Basel, told Discovery News.

Bickel led a Swiss-Egyptian team at KV 40, a tomb that was first discovered and opened in 1899 by French archaeologist Victor Loret, who did not publish any report about the finding.

“Up to now, nothing was known about the layout of the tomb, nor for whom it was built and who was buried there,” Bickel said.

As the archaeologists cleared the 20-foot-deep shaft that provided access to the tomb, they stumbled into five subterranean chambers, filled with fragments of funerary equipment and the mummified remains, mostly decimated by grave robbers, of at least 50 people.

Based on inscriptions on storage jars, Bickel and colleagues were able to identify and name over 30 people related to the families of 18th Dynasty Pharaohs Thutmose IV and Amenhotep III, who are also buried in the Valley of Kings.

The hieratic inscriptions name at least eight hitherto-unknown royal daughters, four princes and several foreign ladies. Most interestingly, carefully mummified children were also found.

“The find does confirm that the Valley of the Kings was used for the burials of members of the immediate entourage of the pharaoh, their large families, to which probably the foreign ladies also belonged,” Bickel said.

Whereas there are burials of royal children and court ladies from the 19th and 20th Dynasties, little is known about the composition of the pharaonic court of the 18th Dynasty, whose most famous members include Tutankhamun, queen-pharaoh Hatshepsut and the “heretic pharaoh” Akhenaten, with his queen, Nefertiti.

Spanning from around 1500 B.C. to 1300 B.C., the 18th Dynasty was the first of the New Kingdom, the pharaonic empire that lasted until around 1000 B.C. and made its capital in Thebes, the present day city of Luxor, about 300 miles south of Cairo.

Bickel believes foreign princesses ended up in KV40 as a result of the diplomatic marriages with which the kings sealed political alliances. Such princesses were sent to the Egyptian courts along with large numbers of accompanying ladies, who probably lived with them.

“We know, for example, that Tuthmosis III had at least three wives, probably from the Syrian region, who were buried together in a cliff-tomb south of the Valley of the Kings,” Donald Ryan, an archaeologist at the Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., told Discovery News.

“Rameses II had two Hittite wives who were sent to Egypt in the aftermath of a peace treaty,” he added.

Ryan directed many expeditions in the Valley of the Kings, including excavations at KV60, whose mummy was identified as that of Hatshepsut in 2007.

According to the archaeologist, among Bickel’s most important findings are the inscriptions with names unearthed in the multi-chambered tomb.

“They have discovered names and it adds to the growing evidence of how the Valley of the Kings was not just the burial place for Egypt's rulers, but many others as well, all with special status, of course,” Ryan said.

But the valley still keeps many secrets.

There are many New Kingdom royal-family members and close associates whose tombs have never been identified.

“The Valley of the Kings contains around three dozen relatively simple undecorated tombs, most of which were heavily looted or damaged by flooding. Such conditions, and the tombs' blank walls, can make it very difficult to identify their owners,” he added.

Read more at Discovery News

Space Telescope Reveals Weird Star Cluster Conundrum

We thought we had star formation mechanisms pinned down, but according to new observations of two star clusters, it seems our understanding of how stars are born is less than stellar.

When zooming in on the young star clusters of NGC 2024 (in the center of the Flame Nebula) and the Orion Nebula Cluster, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory teamed up with infrared telescopes to take a census of star ages. Conventional thinking suggests that stars closest to the center of a given star cluster should be the oldest and the youngest stars can be found around the edges.

However, to their surprise, astronomers have discovered that the opposite is true.

“Our findings are counterintuitive,” said Konstantin Getman of Penn State University, lead scientist of this new study. “It means we need to think harder and come up with more ideas of how stars like our sun are formed.”

It is thought that stars form after the gravitational collapse of vast clouds of dust and gas, or nebulae. The densest material can be found at the nebula’s center and, as the thinking goes, will be ripe for the first stars in that nebula to appear. After the first stars in the nebula’s center burst to life with fusion burning cores, the leftover gases in the less dense portions of the nebula will generate stars later on.

After using Chandra data to gauge the stars’ masses and brightnesses, and then combining that data with infrared observations, stellar ages could be calculated. In the case of NGC 2024, the researchers noticed that the stars in the cluster’s core were 200,000 years old, but the stars on the outer edges were much older — around 1.5 million years old. Likewise, the Orion Nebula Cluster hosts stars in its core that are 1.2 million years old and the ones around the edge were 2 million years old.

This discovery has caught astrophysicists on the hop and may turn our understanding of star forming regions on its head.

“A key conclusion from our study is we can reject the basic model where clusters form from the inside out,” said coauthor Eric Feigelson, also of Penn State. “So we need to consider more complex models that are now emerging from star formation studies.”

So what’s going on? Is our understanding of stellar mechanics really that wrong? Not necessarily, but star cluster evolution models will certainly need some tweaking.

The researchers have several possible answers to the conundrum. First, it could be that there’s simply more gas in the center of the star-forming nebula that allows stars to be born long after stars have finished forming in the depleted edges of the cluster. That would make it appear that there are older stars at the edges than in the core. Secondly, stars that formed first in the cluster’s center have more time to gravitationally interact with other stars, causing them to be slingshotted to the cluster’s edges, leaving younger stars behind.

Read more at Discovery News

May 6, 2014

'Somersault Spider' Backsprings Through the Desert

A newly discovered spider has just entered the animal record books by becoming the only known somersaulting spider.

The new species, Cebrennus rechenbergi, is described in the latest issue of the journal Zootaxa. It’s a nocturnal spider that lives in the Erg Chebbi desert of southeastern Morocco.

Check out its impressive, super fast backsprings!

While somersaulting, the spider moves over 6.5 feet per second, according to a press release issued by the Senckenberg Natural History Museum in Frankfurt. In Germany, the arachnid is known as the “flic-flac spider.” Flic-flac, aka flip-flop in English, also is a term referring to back handsprings.

The spider spends most of its time living in a custom-made home crafted out of sand and silk, according to the study, which was led by spider expert Peter Jäger. The cozy domicile is tube-shaped and sits beneath the desert surface, thereby protecting the spider from the sun and predators.

The spider has to leave to hunt and for other reasons. When it does, somersaulting can permit a speedy getaway should a predator try to pounce. Threats to the spider include scorpions, other spiders like the camel spider, and even humans.

The spider moves faster by somersaulting than it would if it were running. There is less friction to contend with and the vaulting motion creates its own momentum.

The spider is such a good athlete that it can do backsprings both up and down tall sand dunes.

As you might imagine, all of this can be exhausting and uses up a lot of energy, so the spiders can keel over if they have to do a somersault escape anywhere between 5 and 10 times a day.

Even with that limitation, scientist Ingo Rechenberg of the Technical University of Berlin was so impressed by the spider’s gymnastics that he built a tiny robot, called The Tabbot, mimicking the agile spider’s moves. “Tabacha” means “spider” in the Berber language.

Read more at Discovery News

Shipwreck Yields Bonanza of Gold Bars & Coins

In 1857, during the dwindling years of the California Gold Rush, a steamship loaded with some 30,000 pounds (13,600 kilograms) of gold was ensnared in a hurricane and sunk off the coast of South Carolina, banishing gold bars and freshly minted coins to the bottom of the sea. Last month, during a reconnaissance expedition to the wreckage of the so-called "Ship of Gold," more than 60 lbs. (27 kg) of the lost treasure was recovered.

Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc., a company that specializes in deep-ocean exploration, retrieved five gold bars and two gold coins — one from 1850 that was minted in Philadelphia, and the other from 1857 that was minted in San Francisco — from the sunken ship known as the SS Central America.

The precious artifacts were recovered during a reconnaissance dive to the shipwreck site on April 15. Odyssey Marine Exploration researchers are in the process of documenting the underwater site, and they eventually plan to conduct a full archaeological excavation of the shipwreck, according to company officials.

The remains of the SS Central America were first located in 1988 by the Columbus-America Discovery Group. The ship was found at a depth of 7,200 feet (2,200 meters), about 160 miles (257 kilometers) off the coast of South Carolina.

From 1988 to 1991, recovery operations managed to retrieve gold from approximately 5 percent of the total shipwreck site, historians have said. Odyssey Marine Exploration now has an exclusive contract to excavate and recover the rest of the SS Central America's treasure.

Experts say the shipwreck could still contain a commercial shipment of gold that was valued in 1857 at $93,000, company officials said. A "substantial amount of passenger gold," valued in 1857 at between $250,000 and $1.28 million, could also be locked within the ship's sunken remains, according to Odyssey Marine Exploration.

Still, the treasure's true worth remains to be seen. "The ultimate value of the recovery can only be determined once the total quantity, quality and form of the recovered gold is known," company officials said in a statement.

Last month, the Odyssey Marine Exploration's remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV), named Zeus, became the first to visit the famous shipwreck in decades.

"This dive confirms for me that the site has not been disturbed since 1991, when I was last there," Bob Evans, chief scientist and historian for the Recovery Limited Partnership, which legally owns the shipwreck, said in a statement.

Besides the gold bars and coins, the two-hour expedition also uncovered a bottle, a piece of pottery, a sample of the shipwreck's wooden structure and part of a scientific experiment that had been left at the site 20 years ago, company officials said.

"The skill exhibited and results achieved during the initial reconnaissance dive reinforces our belief that the Odyssey team was the absolute best choice for this project," Craig Mullen, director of operations for the Recovery Limited Partnership, said in a statement.

Read more at Discovery News

Space Telescope Spies Galaxy's Magnetic 'Fingerprint'

If you live in or have ever visited a place with clear, dark skies, you have likely seen the hazy band of the Milky Way stretching across the night sky. Now a European space telescope has looked deeper into the Milky Way’s light, revealing our galaxy’s unique ‘fingerprint’ created by vast magnetic fields.

The Milky Way’s faint glow comes from the light of billions of distant stars inside the plane of our disk-shaped galaxy. But that’s only the visible light that our eyes can detect — the Milky Way shines brightly in many other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, as does the entire universe. And it’s in these hidden wavelengths that European Space Agency’s Planck spacecraft observes our galaxy — and beyond — mapping the leftover light from the birth of the cosmos, before even the very first stars formed.

In order to best determine which light originates from the Big Bang and which is from  much closer and younger sources, like the stars and dust in our own home galaxy, scientists have to know how to filter out one from the other. Using Planck, the Milky Way is observed across a wide range of the electromagnetic spectrum and its specific pattern emerges, revealing not just light but also its magnetic “fingerprint,” created by polarized light from tiny interstellar dust grains aligned with magnetic fields.

The dust grains, part of the interstellar medium that pervades the entire galaxy, are very, very cold but still emit light in the infrared and microwave portion of the spectrum, light Planck is designed to detect. As these tiny grains spin they tend to emit more radiation along their longest axis, creating a preferential direction to the light — an effect known as polarization.

If you have polarized sunglasses you can easily appreciate this effect, as film inside the lenses specifically blocks reflected horizontally-aligned light and remove distracting glare.

In the new Planck visualization above, made with a technique called line integral convolution (LIC), polarized light emitted by dust particles traces out swirling linear patterns, not unlike the unique pattern of loops and whorls in a human fingerprint. The wavy lines are created by complex magnetic fields weaving throughout the Milky Way, which align the rotations of the interstellar dust particles and thus shape the net polarization of their radiation.

Darker regions correspond to stronger polarized emissions, and where there’s just a dark line running through the center is the densest part of the plane of the Milky Way, and strong parallel patterns have overlapped in three dimensions.

Read more at Discovery News

Could We Soon Detect Alien 'Plant' Life on Exoplanets?

Now we’re detecting dozens of exoplanets within the habitable zones of their stars — and even one world that has similar characteristics as Earth — the next big question will be: do any of these promising worlds host life?

Unfortunately, the answer will remain elusive for some time to come, but that hasn’t stopped scientists from formulating plans to seek out alien biomarkers that could be ripe for detection.

In a new paper submitted to the arXiv preprint service, astrophysicists Timothy Brandt and David Spiegel of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, New Jersey, focused on the hunt for the chemical signature of oxygen, water and chlorophyll in the atmospheres of Earth-like exoplanetary atmospheres. Oxygen and water are essential for life as we know it, and chlorophyll is a biomolecule vital for photosynthesis on Earth. Photosynthesis is the extraction of energy from sunlight, a process employed by plants and some microbes, such as cyanobacteria.

So the logic goes: If we can detect these molecules on an Earth-sized alien world, there could be some not-so-unfamiliar form of extraterrestrial life that has evolved to produce chlorophyll to extract energy from their star.

But the challenges to detect such signals are overwhelming, at least for the technology we have today. So the researchers have constructed some computer models in an effort to create hypothetical “second Earths” and the chemical signatures we may detect from afar.

The key issue facing any future space telescope set up to search for “Earth 2.0″ is that of contrast. Although analyzing the spectroscopic signature of large exoplanets has been done, often these worlds have wide orbits (well outside the habitable zone) or they are very large (like “hot-Jupiters”). Extracting a spectroscopic signal from a small world within the habitable zone of their star is tough, as the light from the star will overwhelm any reflected starlight signal from the exoplanet. The signal-to-noise ratio will be, basically, horrible.

This is where sophisticated models come in handy; if you can model an exoplanetary atmosphere with components similar to that of Earth, we know what chemical fingerprints to look for in observational data.

Brandt and Spiegel’s models created an ice world, a desert world and a world not so dissimilar to Earth (including oceans and vegetation). All their models assumed cloud cover of 50 percent. Then they simulated what chemical fingerprints could be detected in the spectroscopic signal. By far the easiest signal to detect would be that of water, a goal that could be achieved with technology we have today. But the detection of oxygen would be hard. But what of chlorophyll?

“Finally, we show that the ‘red edge’ of chlorophyll absorption … will be extremely difficult to detect, unless the cloud cover is much lower and/or the vegetation fraction is much higher than on Earth,” the researchers write. “Assuming extraterrestrial chlorophyll to have the same optical properties as the terrestrial pigments, and assuming Earth-like cloud and vegetation coverings, detecting chlorophyll will require a SNR (signal-to-noise ratio) 6 times higher than for diatomic oxygen…”

They point out that chlorophyll will only have as strong a signal as oxygen if the cloud cover is zero or if the planet has a higher proportion of its landmass covered in vegetation.

Although we may be waiting for some time until we can overcome the technological challenges to detect chlorophyll on an alien planet’s surface, it’s fascinating to think that the first hint of alien life could be through the detection of the signature of something that resembles terrestrial flora.

Read more at Discovery News

May 5, 2014

History to blame for slow crop taming, study shows

It's been about 10,000 years since our ancestors began farming, but crop domestication has taken much longer than expected -- a delay caused less by genetics and more by culture and history, according to a new study co-authored by University of Guelph researchers.

The new paper digs at the roots not just of crop domestication but of civilization itself, says plant agriculture professor Lewis Lukens. "How did humans get food? Without domestication -- without food -- it's hard for populations to settle down," he said. "Domestication was the key for all subsequent human civilization."

The study appears this the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Lukens and Guelph PhD student Ann Meyer worked on the study with biologists at Oklahoma State University and Washington State University.

Examining crop domestication tells us how our ancestors developed food, feed and fiber leading to today's crops and products. Examining crop genetics might also help breeders and farmers looking to further refine and grow more crops for an expanding human population.

"This work is largely historical, but there are increasing demands for food production, and understanding the genetic basis of past plant improvement should help future efforts," he said.

The Guelph team analyzed data from earlier studies of domesticated cereal crop species, and the American scientists also performed field tests.

To study the historical effects of interactions between genes and between genes and the environment, they looked at genes controlling several crop plant traits.

Domestication has yielded modern crops whose seeds resist shattering, such as corn whose kernels stay on the cob instead of falling off. Early agriculturalists also shortened flowering time for crops, necessary in shorter growing seasons as in Canada.

Domestication traits are known to have developed more slowly than expected over the past 10,000 years. The researchers wondered whether genetic factors hindered transmission of genes controlling such traits. Instead, they found that domestication traits are often faithfully passed from parent to progeny, and often more so than ancestral traits, said Lukens.

Read more at Science Daily

Infusion of young blood recharges brains of old mice

Something -- or some things -- in the blood of young mice has the ability to restore mental capabilities in old mice, a new study by Stanford University School of Medicine investigators has found.

If the same goes for humans, it could spell a new paradigm for recharging our aging brains, and it might mean new therapeutic approaches for treating dementias such as Alzheimer's disease.

In the study, to be published online May 4 in Nature Medicine, the researchers used sophisticated techniques to pin down numerous important molecular, neuroanatomical and neurophysiological changes in the brains of old mice that shared the blood of young mice.

But they also conducted a critical experiment that was far from sophisticated, said Tony Wyss-Coray, PhD, the senior author of the study and a professor of neurology and neurological sciences. The scientists simply compared older mice's performance on standard laboratory tests of spatial memory after these mice had received infusions of plasma (the cell-free part of blood) from young versus old mice, or no plasma at all.

"This could have been done 20 years ago," said Wyss-Coray, who is also senior research career scientist at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System. "You don't need to know anything about how the brain works. You just give an old mouse young blood and see if the animal is smarter than before. It's just that nobody did it."

Wyss-Coray has co-founded a biotechnology company, Alkahest, to explore the therapeutic implications of the new study's findings. He serves as the director of Alkahest's scientific advisory board.

The study's lead author, Saul Villeda, PhD, now has an active lab of his own as a faculty fellow in anatomy at the University of California-San Francisco. Villeda was a graduate student at Stanford and, briefly, a postdoctoral scholar under Wyss-Coray's direction when the bulk of the work was performed.

"We've shown that at least some age-related impairments in brain function are reversible. They're not final," Villeda said.

Previous experiments by Wyss-Coray, Villeda and their colleagues, described in a paper published in 2011 in Nature, had revealed that key regions in the brains of old mice exposed to blood from young mice produced more new nerve cells than did the brains of old mice similarly exposed to blood from old mice. Conversely, exposing young mice to blood from old mice had the opposite effect with respect to new nerve-cell production, and also reduced the young mice's ability to navigate their environments.

But that earlier work didn't directly assess the impact of young mouse blood on older mice's behavior. This time, the researchers checked both for changes within nerve circuits and individual nerve cells and for demonstrable improvements in learning and memory. First, they examined pairs of mice whose circulatory systems had been surgically conjoined. Members of such pairs, known as parabiotic mice, share a pooled blood supply.

Wyss-Coray's group paid special attention, in these parabiotic mice, to a brain structure called the hippocampus. In both mice and humans, this structure is critical for forming certain types of memories, notably the recollection and recognition of spatial patterns. "That's what you need to use when, for example, you try to find your car in a parking lot or navigate around a city without using your GPS system," Wyss-Coray said.

Experience alters hippocampal activity and anatomy. Studies have found, for instance, that a veteran London cabdriver's hippocampus is larger than it was when the driver was first hired, and larger than the average person's. The hippocampus is also extremely vulnerable to the normal aging process, showing early erosion in function as people grow older. In dementias such as Alzheimer's disease, this hippocampal deterioration is accelerated, leading to an inability to form new memories.

"We know that detrimental anatomical and functional changes occur in the hippocampus as mice and people get older," said Villeda. "This is just from natural aging. We're all heading in that direction."

When the investigators compared hippocampi from old mice whose circulatory systems had been conjoined with those of young mice to hippocampi from old mice that had been paired with other old mice, they found consistent differences in a number of biochemical, anatomical and electrophysiological measures known to be important to nerve-cell circuits' encoding of new experiences for retention in the cerebral cortex.

The hippocampi of older mice that had been conjoined to younger mice more closely resembled those of younger mice than did the hippocampi of older mice similarly paired with old mice. The old mice paired with young mice made greater amounts of certain substances that hippocampal cells are known to produce when learning is taking place, for example. Hippocampal nerve cells from older members of old-young parabiotic pairs also showed an enhanced ability to strengthen the connections between one nerve cell and another -- essential to learning and memory.

"It was as if these old brains were recharged by young blood," Wyss-Coray said.

Villeda, Wyss-Coray and their associates next subjected regular older mice to a test in which the mice were trained to quickly locate a submerged platform in a water-filled container. The mice had to speedily orient themselves using memory cues provided by their surroundings. The investigators injected old mice intravenously with plasma from young or old mice and ran them through the test. Typically, untreated older mice did poorly compared to young mice, as they did when injected with plasma from old mice. But if they were infused with young mice's plasma they did much better.

This was likewise the case on another test in which mice were trained to freeze in fear when plunked into a particular environment. The better they recognized that environment, the longer they would freeze. Older mice typically freeze for a shorter period of time than younger ones do. Again, "freezing" times for older mice given young plasma, but not old plasma, increased significantly.

Read more at Science Daily

Is the 'Gospel of Jesus's Wife' a Fake After All?

The "Gospel of Jesus's Wife," a papyrus written in Coptic and containing text that refers to Jesus being married, is looking more and more like it is not authentic, research is revealing.

A growing number of scholars have denounced the business card-sized papyrus as a fake, with recent op-eds appearing in The Wall Street Journal and on CNN. Meanwhile, Harvard University, which announced the papyrus' discovery, has fallen silent on the artifact, not responding to requests for comment on new developments suggesting the find is a forgery.

The discovery of the Gospel of Jesus's Wife was first announced by Karen King, of Harvard University, in September 2012. Its owner, who reportedly gave the papyrus to King, has insisted on remaining anonymous, and King has not disclosed the person's identity.

The fragment contains the translated line, "Jesus said to them, 'My wife …'" and also refers to a "Mary," possibly Mary Magdalene. If authentic, the papyrus suggests some people in ancient times believed that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married.

At the time of the discovery, King tentatively dated the papyrus to the fourth century A.D., saying it may be a copy of a gospel written in the second century in Greek. Recent radiocarbon dating suggests that the papyrus may date to between the sixth and ninth centuries A.D.

Documents provided by the anonymous owner published in an essay by King recently in Harvard Theological Review say that the Gospel of Jesus's Wife was purchased from Hans-Ulrich Laukamp in 1999 and he, in turn, obtained it in Potsdam, in what was East Germany, in 1963.

A Live Science investigation published last week revealed that Laukamp was co-owner of ACMB-American Corporation for Milling and Boreworks in Venice, Florida. The man listed as representative of Laukamp's estate in Sarasota County, Florida, Rene Ernest, said that Laukamp didn't own this papyrus, didn't collect antiquities, didn't have an interest in old things and was living in West Berlin in 1963 — as such, Laukamp couldn't have reached Potsdam across the Berlin Wall to purchase this papyrus. Laukamp died in 2002.

Axel Herzsprung, who was another co-owner of ACMB-American Corporation for Milling and Boreworks, also said Laukamp didn't own this papyrus and didn't collect antiquities.

Additionally, since the investigation was published, Live Science has been in contact with an agency in Berlin that issues permits for the exportation of antiquities. Representatives of that agency said they could find no record that a papyrus like this had been exported from their office. It's possible that the Gospel of Jesus's Wife papyrus was exported from elsewhere in Germany or from the European Union.

Just recently, Christian Askeland, a research associate with the Institut für Septuaginta-und biblische Textforschung in Wuppertal Germany, revealed new information that casts further doubt on the papyrus' authenticity. His work is set to be published in the journal Tyndale Bulletin and is currently posted on a blog.

Askeland analyzed a second papyrus that, according to documents published in the Harvard Theological Review, was also purchased by the anonymous owner from Laukamp. It was presented to Harvard as a papyrus believed to be genuine.

This second papyrus, which has writing on two sides, includes text from the Gospel of John — and is a fake, writes Askeland, its lines being copied from a papyrus published in 1924. In addition, the researcher notes this papyrus has similar handwriting and ink to the Gospel of Jesus's Wife, making it likely that the Jesus's wife papyrus is also fake.

This second papyrus, which was carbon dated to between the seventh and ninth centuries A.D., is very similar to a Gospel of John papyrus, written and published by Egyptologist Sir Herbert Thompson in 1924, Askeland noted. In fact, the line breaks (the places where the text begins) are identical to those from Thompson's text. This is illustrated in an image of one side of the papyrus alongside Thompson’s 1924 text posted by Mark Goodacre of Duke University on his blog and republished on Live Science.

"Seventeen of 17 line breaks are the same. This defies coincidence," writes Askeland.

The John fragment is written in a dialect of Coptic called Lycopolitan, which had died out by the seventh century A.D., which would seem to confirm the fragment's inauthenticity, Askeland said.

Tests carried out by James Yardley and Alexis Hagadorn of Columbia University found that the ink from the Gospel of Jesus's Wife and the John fragment are similar but not quite the same. The handwriting style, however, from the John fragment is similar to that of the Gospel of Jesus's Wife, Askeland noted.

Given the similar handwriting and ink, and the identical owner, Askeland, and a large number of other scholars who have written online about Askeland's finds, argue that the Gospel of Jesus's Wife is likely also fake.

Live Science contacted two Egyptologists who have examined the Gospel of Jesus's Wife firsthand to get their opinions. Malcolm Choat, of Macquarie University, who published an analysis of the writing of the Gospel of Jesus's Wife recently in Harvard Theological Review, says that he needs time to investigate Askeland's findings before he can comment. Similarly, Roger Bagnall, the director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University (the Gospel of Jesus's Wife was examined there at one point) said that he needs time to analyze Askeland's findings and those of other scholars before he can comment.

If Laukamp did own both the Gospel of Jesus's Wife and the John papyrus, as the documents from the anonymous owner indicate, then this makes him an even more interesting and daring man.

He would have had to cross the Berlin Wall in 1963, at the height of the Cold War, to obtain the Jesus' wife papyrus from Potsdam (and if caught, he would have to explain to East German police that the Jesus' wife papyrus was just an ancient manuscript and not a coded message). He also would, at some point, have obtained a fake Coptic papyrus of the Gospel of John that had very similar handwriting and ink to the Jesus' wife papyrus.

He then would have hidden his collecting habits from Ernest (his estate representative in Sarasota County, Florida) and Axel Herzsprung, his closest business partner.

The two Egyptologists who can verify any part of this story, Gerhard Fecht and Peter Munro, died in 2006 and 2009, respectively. Additionally, Laukamp didn't have any children and doesn't appear to have any relatives still alive. And if the papyrus was exported from Berlin at some point, antiquities officials there have no record of it.

Biblical scholars have made numerous comments arguing that the Gospel of Jesus's Wife is a fake.

"If the Gospel of Jesus's Wife fragment is genuine, this already involves a pile-on of unusual and suspicious features that amounts to us having won the lottery," writes James Davila, a professor at the University of St. Andrews, on his blog. "Now another manuscript from the same cache written in the same hand again presents us with another pile-on of similarly suspicious features. At what point do we stop claiming another lottery win and just accept that the whole thing is a forgery?"

Read more at Discovery News

Eye to Eye With Michelangelo's Moses Creates Emotional Peak

They are stony eyes, but they can arouse a rush of emotions in those staring at them.

An eye-to-eye meeting with Michelangelo's Moses triggers the highest emotional responses, says a study which measured the emotional and cognitive engagement during the observation of a sculpture masterpiece.

Previous researchers have investigated the emotional impact produced by great works of art, but such studies were all based on surveys and lab experiments.

"Our research is the first ever that collects brain activity during the observation of a sculpture in its original setting," Fabio Babiloni, professor of physiology at the University of Rome Sapienza, told Discovery News.

To assess the cerebral and emotional reactions a sculpture can trigger, Babiloni and colleagues examined a group of 20 healthy subjects. For each onlooker, the researchers, in collaboration with the university spin-off Brainsigns, simultaneously collected the neuroelectrical brain activity (through EEG), heart rate (HR) and galvanic skin response (GSR), which basically measures the skin's sweat gland activity.

"While the emotional engage is described by mixing the HR and GSR, the cognitive factors are indexed by the estimation of the EEG asymmetry over the prefrontal cortex," the researchers wrote in a paper which will be presented in August at the International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society in Chicago.

Basically, relatively greater left frontal activity indicates a propensity to engage a stimulus, while relatively greater right frontal activity shows disposition to withdraw from it.

It emerged that cognitive and emotional responses triggered by the contemplation of Moses vary in relation to the different points from which the sculpture is viewed.

"Emotions raise to very high levels when observers meet the statue's eyes," Babiloni said.

Part of Pope Julius II's tomb in the basilica of St. Peter in Chains in Rome, Moses is an imposing marble statue carved in a niche. Michelangelo, who worked on the tomb project for 40 years, between 1505 and 1545, considered it his most accomplished, life-like creation.

Legend has it that the sculpture produced deep emotions in the artist himself.

As he finished it, Michelangelo is said to have struck the right knee with a hammer and said, "Now speak!"

The sculpture was particularly suitable for Babiloni's experiments as Moses's face is not oriented toward the observer, but looks to the left.

The subjects, half of whom had never seen the masterpiece before, were asked to contemplate the statue from three different points of view, each one revealing different details.

"Interestingly, we observed a dissociation between cognitive and emotional responses," Babiloni said.

The highest cognitive appreciation was achieved when the subjects were placed in front of the sculpture, with Moses not meeting their eyes, at a distance of about 32 feet. The strongest emotions were aroused when the observers stood on the right of the statue at a distance of about 16 feet, directly toward Moses's face.

No significant cognitive and emotional responses were collected when the subjects were positioned in front of Moses, at a distance of about 16 feet.

"An eye-to-eye interaction with Moses triggers the highest emotional response. On the other hand, cortical appreciation is achieved when the subject stands in a position which allows a full view of the sculpture, albeit not fully showing Mose's face," Babiloni said.

Artworks are known to produce intense reactions. Previous studies even suggested that David, another Michelangelo's masterpiece, may cause mind-bending symptoms in overly sensitive onlookers.

The condition is similar to a dizzying and disorientating state known as "Stendhal Syndrome." Named after the French writer, its most famous victim, after he was overwhelmed by the frescoes in Florence's Church of Santa Croce in 1817, the phenomenon causes symptoms ranging from heavy perspiration, rapid heartbeat and dizziness to even exaggerated reactions such as temporary panic attacks, aggressive feelings and hallucinations.

Read more at Discovery News

May 4, 2014

Jupiter's moon Ganymede may harbor 'club sandwich' of oceans and ice

The largest moon in our solar system, a companion to Jupiter named Ganymede, might have ice and oceans stacked up in several layers like a club sandwich, according to new NASA-funded research that models the moon's makeup.

Previously, the moon was thought to harbor a thick ocean sandwiched between just two layers of ice, one on top and one on bottom.

"Ganymede's ocean might be organized like a Dagwood sandwich," said Steve Vance of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., explaining the moon's resemblance to the "Blondie" cartoon character's multi-tiered sandwiches. The study, led by Vance, provides new theoretical evidence for the team's "club sandwich" model, first proposed last year. The research appears in the journal Planetary and Space Science.

The results support the idea that primitive life might have possibly arisen on the icy moon. Scientists say that places where water and rock interact are important for the development of life; for example, it's possible life began on Earth in bubbling vents on our sea floor. Prior to the new study, Ganymede's rocky sea bottom was thought to be coated with ice, not liquid -- a problem for the emergence of life. The "club sandwich" findings suggest otherwise: the first layer on top of the rocky core might be salty water.

"This is good news for Ganymede," said Vance. "Its ocean is huge, with enormous pressures, so it was thought that dense ice had to form at the bottom of the ocean. When we added salts to our models, we came up with liquids dense enough to sink to the sea floor."

NASA scientists first suspected an ocean in Ganymede in the 1970s, based on models of the large moon, which is bigger than Mercury. In the 1990s, NASA's Galileo mission flew by Ganymede, confirming the moon's ocean, and showing it extends to depths of hundreds of miles. The spacecraft also found evidence for salty seas, likely containing the salt magnesium sulfate.

Previous models of Ganymede's oceans assumed that salt didn't change the properties of liquid very much with pressure. Vance and his team showed, through laboratory experiments, how much salt really increases the density of liquids under the extreme conditions inside Ganymede and similar moons. It may seem strange that salt can make the ocean denser, but you can see for yourself how this works by adding plain old table salt to a glass of water. Rather than increasing in volume, the liquid shrinks and becomes denser. This is because the salt ions attract water molecules.

The models get more complicated when the different forms of ice are taken into account. The ice that floats in your drinks is called "Ice I." It's the least dense form of ice and lighter than water. But at high pressures, like those in crushingly deep oceans like Ganymede's, the ice crystal structures become more compact. "It's like finding a better arrangement of shoes in your luggage -- the ice molecules become packed together more tightly," said Vance. The ice can become so dense that it is heavier than water and falls to the bottom of the sea. The densest and heaviest ice thought to persist in Ganymede is called "Ice VI."

By modeling these processes using computers, the team came up with an ocean sandwiched between up to three ice layers, in addition to the rocky seafloor. The lightest ice is on top, and the saltiest liquid is heavy enough to sink to the bottom. What's more, the results demonstrate a possible bizarre phenomenon that causes the oceans to "snow upwards." As the oceans churn and cold plumes snake around, ice in the uppermost ocean layer, called "Ice III," could form in the seawater. When ice forms, salts precipitate out. The heavier salts would thus fall downward, and the lighter ice, or "snow," would float upward. This "snow" melts again before reaching the top of the ocean, possibly leaving slush in the middle of the moon sandwich.

"We don't know how long the Dagwood-sandwich structure would exist," said Christophe Sotin of JPL. "This structure represents a stable state, but various factors could mean the moon doesn't reach this stable state.

Sotin and Vance are both members of the Icy Worlds team at JPL, part of the multi-institutional NASA Astrobiology Institute based at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

The results can be applied to exoplanets too, planets that circle stars beyond our sun. Some super-Earths, rocky planets more massive than Earth, have been proposed as "water worlds" covered in oceans. Could they have life? Vance and his team think laboratory experiments and more detailed modeling of exotic oceans might help find answers.

Read more at Science Daily

Two Suns Could Boost Odds of Habitable 'Exomoons'

Moons in close binary solar systems have a better chance of hosting life than those in single-star systems, new research has shown.

Binary stars dampen each other's solar radiation and stellar winds, thereby creating a more hospitable environment for life and increasing the habitable zone around such solar systems, according to research presented at the 223rd American Astronomical Society meeting in January.

"The two stars calm each other down in terms of activity," said Paul Mason, an astrophysicist at the University of Texas at El Paso in an interview with Astrobiology Magazine.

Mason presented the results of a study, which used data collected by NASA's Kepler spacecraft mission to discover potentially habitable exoplanets in our region of the Milky Way galaxy.

Stretching the habitable zone

Although more than a thousand planets have been found outside of the solar system, as well as a host of candidates waiting for follow-up observations, no moons have yet been confirmed. Scientists like Mason are performing theoretical calculations to determine which solar systems might be better for hosting potentially habitable moons.

Violent and active young stars spin rapidly, emitting radiation and stellar winds that could interfere with the habitability of planets and moons nearby. A close binary system of stars can help to dampen these effects, as the two stars synchronize their spins.

Binary stars exist in a range of configurations. Some are widely separated, so that a planet in orbit around one functions much like a planet around a single sun, while the companion is so distant that it appears as point-like as any other star. Others may be extremely close together, synching together to keep each other rapidly spinning for billions of years.

Mason's research focuses on pairs of stars that orbit each other between 10 and 60 Earth-days, with a planet in orbit around both suns. These are known as circumbinary systems. The paired stars exert tidal forces on one another that cause a slowdown in spin, weakening the radiation and stellar wind of the pair faster than they would suffer as single stars. Fast-moving stellar winds can strip a moon or planet of its atmosphere, leaving it open to heavy radiation bombardment that can interfere with the development of life.

At the same time, the combined light from the duo pushes the edge of the region where water can exist, commonly termed the "habitable zone," farther back than it would lie around a single star. Moving the entire zone a greater distance from its sun further reduces the negative effects from the stars.

"The habitable zone in a binary system is a little bit farther away, simply because you have the light from two stars rather than the light from one," Mason said.

This distance is important because, if a planet orbits too close to its parent star, its moon can be stripped away completely.

"The closer a planet is to the star, the smaller its gravitational sphere of influence," said David Kipping and astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in an interview with Astrobiology Magazine.

"Essentially, the star will rip off the moon if it gets too close," he said.

Kipping, who was not involved in the research, searches for exomoons and is the principle investigator of The Hunt for Exomoons with Kepler project.

Pushing exomoons farther away also has ramifications for red dwarfs, the most populous stellar type in the galaxy. The habitable zone around these smaller, long-lived stars is so close to its parent star that stellar activity made many astronomers consider habitable planets around them unlikely to even exist, though recent research has increased the potential. In a binary system, the pushed-back habitable zone would decrease many of the negative effects that limit habitability around the plentiful stars.

According to Mason, if the sun had a companion star, the makeup of the solar system would change significantly. The water stripped from the atmosphere of Venus would likely still be present, making it potentially habitable. Earth itself could have been a very different environment.

"Earth would be a wetter planet if we were orbiting a binary star," Mason said.

Twin suns

When it comes to potentially habitable exomoons, sun-like stars are always better.

"The ideal circumstance is solar twins," Mason said.

Simply adding a sun-like star to the mix improves the chances for life.

"Solar-type stars with companions work really well," Mason said. "They work better than our own solar-type star without a companion."

Still, in a circumbinary system, it is not the type of star that matters nearly as much as how often they orbit one another. As long as the pair of stars dance around between once every 10 and 60 Earth-days, they increase the chances of the habitability of their moons and planets. (The exception is massive, giant stars, which burn through their fuel and die quickly, giving life little to no chance to evolve.)

Still, if at least one of the two stars in a binary system is sun-like, it provides a very wide habitable zone with plenty of room for water, a situation that Mason says he's most excited about.

A wider habitable zone means a better chance of hosting planets capable of sustaining life, as well as exomoons that could support it.

"There's plenty of room for several habitable planets," Mason said. "These may be places where many worlds in system could be habitable."

Unfortunately, systems with multiple planets make finding exomoons more challenging at the moment.

The hunt for exomoons

Astronomers hunt for distant moons essentially the same ways that they hunt for distant planets. They might watch for the planet and its moon to cross between their sun and the Earth. As a single planet crosses, it causes a dip in brightness; if a moon precedes or follows it, that dip is preceded or followed by a smaller dip as just the moon blocks the stellar light.

They can also watch a planet for a small wobble as the moon gravitationally tugs its host ever-so-slightly. A moon might also slightly change how quickly a planet orbits its sun.

In a multi-planet system, however, other planets can also cause the wobbles and velocity changes, making them "kind of a pain for looking for exomoons," according to Kipping.

Kipping and his team have pared down the list of almost 5,000 planetary candidates detected by NASA's Kepler spacecraft to approximately 250 bodies considered the best targets for hosting an exomoon.

Originally, he hoped to target Jupiter-size and larger planets. In the solar system, the only moons considered potentially habitable orbit gas giants. Earth-sized moons could lay outside of the habitable zone of a star but still hold liquid water due to tidal heating from their planet. Such moons would be minimally affected by their orbit around a binary star system instead of a single star.

But it was not to be.

"One of the most staggering discoveries from Kepler is that Jupiter-like planets are rare," Kipping said. "This is kind of a shame for the exomoon hunt, because those are the planets easiest to find a moon around."

Instead, Kipping and his team have turned to the slightly less massive sub-Neptunes, which abound in Kepler's field of view.

Although moons around Earth-sized planets may not be habitable by themselves, they could have an enormous impact on their parent body. Born of a collision early in the life of the solar system, Earth's moon is far larger by comparison to its planet than other moons in the solar system. The collision might have kicked off volcanism and plate tectonics on the early Earth, while the moon stabilizes the planet's tilt and controls the tides. Biologists consider all four actions important to the evolution of life.

"There are many beneficial qualities to having a big moon nearby," Kipping said. "If we find Earth 2.0, one of the first things we'll be asking is if it has a Moon 2.0."

Because our moon is unique in the solar system, scientists don't yet understand whether its formation was what Kipping called "a freak event" or something that's very common. Detecting different kinds of moons in a variety of orbits will help scientists narrow down how unique the solar system and the Earth-moon system are.

As scientists have used Kepler to hunt for exoplanets, they have learned a great deal about the variety of planetary systems in the galaxy. According to Kipping, circumbinary systems were once thought to be "the more exotic type" of binary systems. But Kepler revealed several cases, showing them to be fairly common.

Though the mission goal is to detect planets, Kepler is an important tool when it comes to looking for moons outside of the solar system.

"Kepler is really the ideal instrument for detecting exomoons," Kipping said.

He pointed out that while NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, to be launched in October 2018, will be ideal for follow-up observations, it will be in too high of a demand by the astronomical community to stare at a patch of sky for years on end the way Kepler did. If Kepler's second run, K2, is funded, it will stare at a different region of the sky than the original Kepler mission, and will provide greater insight into planet populations.

Though he expressed excitement about the exoplanet discoveries that will come from both upcoming missions, he said, "My feeling is that Kepler is still probably the best resource for discovering exomoons."

As to how long it might be before the first exomoon is confirmed around a distant planet, Kipping said that it depends on how common larger moons are.

"If Nature builds big moons—Earth-sized moons—very frequently throughout the cosmos, then they're in the Kepler data," he said. "They're lurking there, and we will find them in the next year or two."

Read more at Discovery News