May 24, 2014

Failed dwarf galaxy survives galactic collision thanks to full dark-matter jacket

Like a bullet wrapped in a full metal jacket, a high-velocity hydrogen cloud hurtling toward the Milky Way appears to be encased in a shell of dark matter, according to a new analysis of data from the National Science Foundation's Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT). Astronomers believe that without this protective shell, the high-velocity cloud (HVC) known as the Smith Cloud would have disintegrated long ago when it first collided with the disk of our Galaxy.

If confirmed by further observations, a halo of dark matter could mean that the Smith Cloud is actually a failed dwarf galaxy, an object that has all the right stuff to form a true galaxy, just not enough to produce stars.

"The Smith Cloud is really one of a kind. It's fast, quite extensive, and close enough to study in detail," said Matthew Nichols with the Sauverny Observatory in Switzerland and principal author on a paper accepted for publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. "It's also a bit of a mystery; an object like this simply shouldn't survive a trip through the Milky Way, but all the evidence points to the fact that it did."

Previous studies of the Smith Cloud revealed that it first passed through our Galaxy many millions of years ago. By reexamining and carefully modeling the cloud, astronomers now believe that the Smith Cloud contains and is actually wrapped in a substantial "halo" of dark matter -- the gravitationally significant yet invisible stuff that makes up roughly 80 percent of all the matter in the Universe.

"Based on the currently predicted orbit, we show that a dark matter free cloud would be unlikely to survive this disk crossing," observed Jay Lockman, an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, and one of the coauthors on the paper. "While a cloud with dark matter easily survives the passage and produces an object that looks like the Smith Cloud today."

The Milky Way is swarmed by hundreds of high-velocity clouds, which are made up primarily of hydrogen gas that is too rarefied to form stars in any detectable amount. The only way to observe these objects, therefore, is with exquisitely sensitive radio telescopes like the GBT, which can detect the faint emission of neutral hydrogen. If it were visible with the naked eye, the Smith Cloud would cover almost as much sky as the constellation Orion.

Most high-velocity clouds share a common origin with the Milky Way, either as the leftover building blocks of galaxy formation or as clumps of material launched by supernovas in the disk of the Galaxy. A rare few, however, are interlopers from farther off in space with their own distinct pedigree. A halo of dark matter would strengthen the case for the Smith Cloud being one of these rare exceptions.

Read more at Science Daily

Supermassive Black Holes are Not Doughnuts!

Conventional thinking suggests that the most massive black holes possess a ringed doughnut-shaped torus of gas and dust trapped in orbit around them. But if we know one thing about black holes, they’re anything but conventional.

Now, astronomers have analyzed data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) of thousands of supermassive black holes to find that the “torus model” may be woefully inadequate when explaining what is actually going on.

Most galaxies appear to contain a supermassive black hole in their cores. With masses in the realms of millions to billions of solar masses, these objects truly are the heavyweights of our Universe. With all this mass comes a powerful gravitational field that dominates galactic cores, pulling in any matter — stars, planets, dust, gas, possibly unlucky extraterrestrials — to the black hole’s event horizon.

Interactions between infalling matter and the supermassive black holes can generate huge quantities of energy, creating what are known as active galactic nuclei, making the effects of the black hole easy to observe.

In the 1970s, astronomers developed a unified theory that could explain active supermassive black hole observations. The theory arose from the fact that some active black hole emissions could be easily seen by observatories while others seemed obscured by dust. To explain this, astronomers came up with the idea that supermassive black holes must be surrounded by a torus, or ring, of dusty material (as shown in the artistic rendering above).

Therefore, given their random orientation as observed from Earth, some rings may appear “edge on” (thereby blocking our view of the black hole) or we may be observing the ring from above (revealing the black hole).

Since this unified theory was suggested, it has generally matched observations of black holes and helped us understand how they influence the evolution of their host galaxies.

However, new analyses of WISE data — a space telescope that surveyed the infrared sky twice for a little over a year until its primary mission was complete in February 2011 — has revealed a complication to the unified theory.

As expected, after surveying 170,000 galaxies containing supermassive black holes at their cores, the WISE observations showed some black holes that could be seen, whereas others appeared obscured (in line with the torus model), but it also revealed a peculiar pattern. When looking at black holes inside massive galaxies that are clumped together as a part of galactic clusters, more supermassive black holes seemed to be obscured.

This bias toward obscured black holes in large clusters cannot be accounted for if we just consider the unified theory. Why would supermassive black holes inside galaxies that are clumped in clusters be preferentially obscured by their dusty doughnut-shaped rings?

“The main purpose of unification was to put a zoo of different kinds of active nuclei under a single umbrella,” said post-doctorate astronomer and lead researcher Emilio Donoso, of the Instituto de Ciencias Astronómicas, de la Tierra y del Espacio in Argentina. “Now, that has become increasingly complex to do as we dig deeper into the WISE data.”

Read more at Discovery News

May 23, 2014

Rapid evolution aids spread of exotic plant species

A team of Belgian biologists led by researchers at KU Leuven has provided the first genetic evidence that rapid evolution can help non-native plant species spread in new environments. Using samples of centuries-old herbaria and DNA analysis, the researchers reconstructed the genetic adaptations undergone by the Pyrenean rocket prior to its rapid spread in Belgium.

The Pyrenean rocket (Sisymbrium austriacum subsp. Chrysanthum) is a plant that grows in the mountains of southern Europe and is particularly prevalent in the Pyrenees. The species was first reported in Belgium -- 1,200 kilometres north of its native range -- in the first half of the 19th century. Seeds from the plant were most likely introduced alongside the wool industry in and around Verviers. The Pyrenean rocket took root on the banks of the River Vesdre in Verviers and later spread across the Meuse basin towards the Netherlands.

The colonization history of the Pyrenean rocket is well documented, explains postdoctoral researcher and corresponding author Katrien Vandepitte (Plant Conservation and Population Biology Research Group): "We found dried specimens of the Pyrenean rocket in herbaria from the 19th and 20th centuries and were able to isolate DNA from these samples. We then compared this DNA with the genetic profile of contemporary samples from Belgium and the Pyrenees. This gave us a unique opportunity to reconstruct when and how an exotic plant species genetically adapted to a new environment."

20 generations

"When we looked at the genetic evolution of the Pyrenean rocket, we found the greatest divergences in a set of genes that regulate flowering time, an important plant fitness trait. When we compared current individuals taken from our region and the Pyrenees, both grown under Belgian conditions, the Belgian variant bloomed later."

"Our DNA analysis shows that the Belgian variant genetically adapted quite rapidly -- in about 20 generations. This very likely helped the plant to survive and spread here."

Read more at Science Daily

Long-Lost Mummy of Pharaoh's Foster Brother Found

The mummy of the pharaoh Amenhotep II's foster brother may have been found in a former monastery, according to archival research into 19th-century documents.

The mummy, now reduced to a skeleton, is believed to be that of Qenamun, the chief steward of Amenhotep II (about 1427–1400 B.C.) who was the 7th Pharaoh of Egypt's 18th Dynasty and likely Tutankhamun's great-great-grandfather.

Qenamun was effectively Amenhotep II's foster brother, as his mother, Amenemipet, was the chief royal nurse of the future king. The two grew up together and the bond endured in adult life, with Qenamun enjoying a high and powerful status.

But the whereabouts of Qenamun's afterlife journey had remained a mystery -- no coffin nor mummy was found in his large and beautifully decorated tomb in Thebes.

"Identifying Qenamun has been like fitting together long-lost puzzle pieces," Marilina Betrò, professor of Egyptology at Pisa University, told Discovery News.

It all began two years ago when a skeleton resting in a cardboard box was found in a store room of a 14th-century monastery. Located in Calci, a village near Pisa, the monastery now houses one of the world's oldest natural history museums.

"Intriguingly, the skull bore an inscription in black ink stating it was one of the mummies brought from Egypt by Ippolito Rosellini, Europe's first Egyptology professor," Marilina Betrò told Discovery News. She holds the same chair at Pisa University that Rosellini did.

In 1828 the Pisa academic left for Egypt with Jean-Francois Champollion, the French philologist who had recently deciphered the Rosetta Stone.

Financed by the grand-duke of Tuscany, Leopold II, and the King of France, Charles X, the joint Franco-Tuscan expedition brought to Europe a treasure trove of ancient antiquities. At the same time, it yielded a survey of the monuments of Egypt and their hieroglyphic inscriptions, which, thanks to Champollion, were readable for the first time.

On Dec. 29, 1829, back from Egypt, Rosellini wrote a report to Grand Duke Leopold II. Attached to that letter was a list of 1878 antiquities he had packed for the journey back to Tuscany -- 660 were acquired by excavations, while 1,218 were purchased.

Rosellini stated he chose to take the best intact items, leaving behind several other objects because of shipping costs.

"Until a few years ago, only the draft of that letter was known, and it lacked the list. We found it in the National Archives in Prague, where all the documents of the Habsburg-Lorraine family are kept," Betrò said.

The list of the 660 antiquities began with the description of 11 mummies. Seven are currently on display in Florence's Egypt museum, while records about three others -- a woman, a man and a child -- reveal they were destroyed and never made to the Florence museum. The eleventh mummy remained a mystery.

In his report, Rosellini described the mummy as resting in a black varnished coffin with yellow painted hieroglyphs, "the body intact in its bandages." The elusive mummy was not mentioned in any later document.

"Something must have happened during the sea journey from Alexandria to Livorno," Betrò said.

Papers found among Rosellini's documents indicate the merchant ship Cleopatra faced a "long and stormy navigation" during which some of the antiquities were possibly damaged.

"Most likely, when the boxes were opened in Livorno, the mummy was no longer in condition to be brought to the grand duke," Betrò said.

"Rosellini possibly gave the mummy to his friend Paolo Savi, the director of Pisa's natural history museum, so that it could be useful to science at least," she said.

Anthropological analysis indicated the skeleton belonged to a rather tall male (5’ 9") who died around 30 years of age. The bone remains do not show any sign of disease but the head of one of the remains' femurs is enlarged and stretched.

"That's a peculiarity which is sometimes observed in those who were used to bumpy and speedy rides in chariots," anthropologist Francesco Mallegni and colleagues wrote in their report.

The skeleton was probably hung for display in the museum, as wires linking some bones suggest.

Meanwhile, parallel research in Florence's Egyptian museum revealed the presence of a black varnished coffin with yellow painted hieroglyphs which previous researches attributed as coming from Rosellini's expedition. Because of its condition, it lay almost forgotten in the museum's store rooms.

"It was so badly damaged that it wasn't recorded in the museum inventory," Maria Cristina Guidotti, director of the Egyptian museum, told Discovery News.

At a careful examination, the yellow painted hieroglyphs revealed the name of the coffin's owner as the "God's Father Qenamun."

"The very important title confirmed it belonged to Amenhotep II's foster brother," Betrò said.

The pharoah held Qenamun in such a great esteem that he had planned a magnificent funeral for him, with processions of Qenamun statues and singers of the Amon temples dancing and singing for him.

But such a memorable funeral might have never occurred. The reliefs in Qenamun's large Theban tomb were defaced and not a single image of him survived the chisel attacks.

"The skeleton suggests a disgraced Qenamun died young under the reign of his foster brother," Betrò said.

How the mummy was found by Rosellini's team remains a mystery.

During his expedition, the Pisa scholar discovered five intact tombs in the Theban necropolis; of these, two dated between the 18th dynasty and the beginning of the 19th dynasty.

Both burials were discovered in the absence of Rosellini and Champollion, who had left for Nubia. They had ordered that any intact tomb found while they were away should be left sealed and untouched until their return.

"This was done for one tomb only; the other was opened and emptied. In this tomb workers found the wonderful chariot that Rosellini brought to Florence," Betrò said.

Read more at Discovery News

There’s a Tarantula Version of the Westminster Dog Show

Just like dogs, tarantulas come in a variety of colors, sizes and demeanors. Just like dogs, they often have devoted (some might say obsessed) owners who prefer to think of themselves as caretakers. And just like dogs have the Westminster Dog Show, tarantulas have a hotly contested annual competition.

This week, the British Tarantula Society (yes it exists, here’s how you can join) held its 29th annual exhibition, the biggest tarantula event in the world. How they managed to have 28 of these previously without us noticing, I really don’t know. This event sounds amazing — there were something like 30,000 tarantulas there. Just close your eyes and think about that for a minute! I bet you didn’t even last 10 seconds with that image in your head.

While tens of thousands of these big spiders all in one place may be terrifying, individually they are quite beautiful. They have lots of different looks, and they live all over the planet, on the ground and in trees.

Entrants to this year’s spider competition were divided into eight categories and spent the day in clear containers being ogled by the 1,200 or so visitors and inspected by a panel of judges. The Best in Show, a beautiful Socotra Island Blue Baboon Tarantula, walked away with a trophy (or, at least its proud owner did) and a glamor shot on the society’s membership cards.

“It was unanimous amongst the four judges that this one was the Best In Show,” judge and chairman of the British Tarantula Society, Peter Kirk said in an email to WIRED.

Read more at Wired Science

The 2,500-Pound Snake That Devoured Gigantic Crocodiles

The social-media campaign for the discovery of titanoboa fell to pieces when an unidentified man wearing a backpack stood in front of their new hashtag for weeks on end–#mostersnake, it would seem, doesn’t mean a damn thing to anyone.
Long ago, legend has it, the god Thor and the giant Hymir rowed to sea in search of Jörmungandr, a snake so huge it circled the Earth. Thor dropped a line baited with an ox head, which Jörmungandr nommed on, and with his bare hands reeled the beast in. Once the serpent was at the edge of the boat, though, Hymir got all nervous and cut the line.

The moral of the story? I haven’t the slightest clue.

But what I do know is that 60 million years ago, in the swampy waters of what is now Colombia, there lurked a serpent of similar hyperbole: titanoboa, by far the biggest snake that ever lived. At nearly 50 feet long and weighing in at 2,500 pounds, it was 10 times as heavy as the average green anaconda, a giant that now rules titanoboa’s stomping grounds… or slithering grounds, I guess you’d say.

Titanoboa was so big, it pushed the boundaries of being able to exist on land and remain in accordance with the laws of physics. You, me, every cat and antelope and towering sauropod, we’ve all evolved under the constraints of gravity. Evolution got a bit carried away and produced the 100-foot blue whale, the biggest critter ever, only because gravity doesn’t affect giants as much in the sea.

Scientists reckon titanoboa must have also exploited this kind of simulated weightlessness. It was so outsized that “almost certainly it would have spent a large part of its time in water,” said David Polly, a vertebrate paleontologist at Indiana University. “And we know that both from the geology where it’s preserved but also by inference of how big it was. It just wouldn’t have been able to get around on land very well.”

Titanoboa sunning on a beach, totally unaware of the social-media catastrophe that would swirl around it in 60 million years.
Snakes, you see, are deceptively good swimmers, kinda like sloths. (Seriously, have you ever seen a sloth swim? They’re way faster in water than on land.) Titanoboa wouldn’t have had quite the agility of, say, a sea snake, but it didn’t need to dart around anyway. This was likely an ambush hunter, a constrictor of enormous proportions that relied not on venom, but on its incredible strength to squeeze the life out of its prey. Anacondas do the same, and indeed scientists believe titanoboa behaved much like them.

Lying in wait on shallow river and swamp bottoms, anacondas can hold their breath for up to 45 minutes, or simply rest with their noses poked out of the water. They dig themselves into the sediment–rotting leaves and such–and wait for a hapless capybara to amble through. Its strike is blindingly fast, its constriction unmerciful. Not only can the prey not breathe, its blood can’t even circulate.

Now scale that up 10 times. Large mammals such as the capybara (the world’s biggest rodent) hadn’t yet appeared on Earth, so instead titanoboa was hunting lungfish 7 feet long, plus huge turtles and crocodiles. The serpent, it seems, wasn’t the only giant of its time. And there’s a very good reason for that.

“Stay in school, kid,” says the crocodile in a somewhat muffled manner.
As you probably learned from the poor classroom garter snake you and your friends tortured as kids, reptiles need an external source of heat to power their metabolism and slither away from your tiny grabby hands. They’ll grow continuously their whole lives–reaching a plateau eventually and slowing down, sure, but they’re always expanding. And, among other things, what puts a maximum size cap on snakes is their ambient temperature.

Unfortunately for titanoboa’s prey, “the climate in the Paleocene when this animal lived was much warmer than it is today,” said Polly. “And that would have allowed for bigger reptiles, and indeed not only is there titanoboa, but even in the same site there are crocodiles and turtles that are a lot larger than any living today.”

Imagine 5 feet in length for the turtles and 20 feet for the crocs. Still, they were no match for titanoboa, an apex predator among apex predators (though the larger saucer-shaped turtles, in a sort of final statement, would have left the snakes with fairly comical bulges). And doubly unfortunate for those lower on the food chain was that across the world around this time, there were any number of snakes super-sized by warming climates, the second largest after titanoboa being gigantophis at 33 feet long.

Now, typically for endothermic–so-called “warm-blooded”–critters, the opposite trend is true. Larger body sizes, such as that of the polar bear, are better suited for frigid environments because the bigger you are, the lower your surface-area-to-volume ratio, and thus the better you retain heat. This is known as Bergmann’s rule.

Mammals have sweat glands to cool themselves if they overheat, but snakes have no such luxury. And a humongous snake smack in the middle of the tropics could find itself very toasty indeed. So how did it keep from cooking? Polly reckons that its aquatic lifestyle would have done well to regulate its body temperatures. Cool too much, and titanoboa could emerge to sunbathe. Thus these oversized reptiles could manage their temperature in the unrelenting tropical heat like finicky old folks in Florida shuffling in and out of pools.

Read more at Wired Science

May 22, 2014

The Weird, Wild World of Citizen Science Is Already Here

Up and down the west coast of North America, countless numbers of starfish are dying. The affliction, known as Sea Star Wasting Syndrome, is already being called the biggest die-off of sea stars in recorded history, and we’re still in the dark as to what’s causing it or what it means. It remains an unsolved scientific mystery. The situation is also shaping up as a case study of an unsung scientific opportunity: the rise of citizen science and exploration.

The sea star condition was first noticed by Laura James, a diver and underwater videographer based in Seattle. As they began washing up on the shore near her home with lesions and missing limbs, she became concerned and notified scientists. Similar sightings started cropping up all along the West Coast, with gruesome descriptions of sea stars that were disintegrating in a matter of days, and populations that had been decimated. As scientists race to understand what’s happening, they’ve enlisted the help of amateurs like James, to move faster. Pete Raimondi’s lab at UC Santa Cruz has created the Sea Star Wasting Map, the baseline for monitoring the issue, to capture the diverse set of contributors and collaborators.

The map is one of many new models of citizen-powered science–a blend of amateurs and professionals, looking and learning together–that are beginning to emerge. Just this week, NASA endorsed a group of amateur astronomers to attempt to rescue a vintage U.S. spacecraft. NASA doesn’t have the money to do it, and this passionate group of citizen scientists can handle it.

Unfortunately, the term “citizen science” is terrible. It’s vague enough to be confusing, yet specific enough to seem exclusive. It’s too bad, too, because the idea of citizen science is thrilling. I love the notion that I can participate in the expanding pool of human knowledge and understanding, even though the extent of my formal science education is a high school biology class. To me, it seemed a genuine invitation to be curious. A safe haven for beginners. A license to explore.

Not everyone shares my romantic perspective, though. If you ask a university researcher, they’re likely to explain citizen science as a way for the public to contribute data points to larger, professionally run studies, like participating in the galaxy-spotting website Zooniverse or taking part in the annual Christmas Bird Count with the Audubon Society. It’s a model on the scientific fringes; using broad participation to fill the gaps in necessary data.

There’s power in this diffuse definition, though, as long as new interpretations are welcomed and encouraged. By inviting and inspiring people to ask their own questions, citizen science can become much more than a way of measuring bird populations. From the drone-wielding conservationists in South Africa to the makeshift biolabs in Brooklyn, a widening circle of participants are wearing the amateur badge with honor. And all of these groups–the makers, the scientists, the hobbyists–are converging to create a new model for discovery. In other words, the maker movement and the traditional science world are on a collision course.

To understand the intersection, it helps to know where each of those groups is coming from.


The maker movement is an easy chart to plot. Over the past few years, it’s become increasingly clear that makers are not slowing down. They’re busy rewriting the rules of manufacturing and production. Fueled by digital fabrication tools, crowdfunding platforms, and the falling costs of sensors, microcontrollers and miniature linux computers, they’re making everything imaginable. If the market size is greater than one, it’s safe to assume that someone, somewhere will be taking on the challenge of making it. And when they take aim, the results are usually an order of magnitude drop in cost (see: drones, 3D Printers, phonesats, et al). The same research tools that used to require a hefty grant from the National Science Foundation are quickly becoming off-the-shelf parts. An exciting trend that shows no signs of slowing.


Then there’s the analogue hobbyists: the birders, the sidewalk astronomers, the native-wildlife gardeners. Amateurs in the deepest sense of the word.  Whatever their systems lack in technical sophistication, they more than make up for in enthusiasm and coordinated participation. For example, the Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, which started in the year 1900, annually draws thousands of contributors over the course of the month-long event, with sightings numbering in the tens of millions. That data becomes essential to ornithology research. Throw in a smartphone and invite them to identify any species, all year long, and you’ve got iNaturalist, an easy-to-use digital interface that channels the enthusiasm into foundational ecology data. That’s just one of dozens of apps that are are turning your smartphone into the connected field journal of the 21st Century.


On the other side of the fence, scientists and researchers are looking for any advantage they can find. The federal budget sequestration was hard on everyone, especially science. And even though there was a slight easing of the expected cuts, the writing is on the wall: expect to do more with less. This doesn’t bode well for the swelling number of researchers stuck in post doc purgatory whose career prospects were already facing dismal odds.

There’s also the quiet reality that science is growing a collective blind spot in regards to public communication. Over the past 30 years, the place of science in the public discourse of America has evolved into a privileged background discussion. Many scientists know they need to bridge the various cultural divides (see: climate science, ocean science, et el.) but lack the resources, time or skills to do so. Citizen science offers a glimmer of hope. By including anyone and everyone in the process, the method becomes the message.

Read more at Wired Science

Target of Weather Conspiracy Theories Powers Down

A scientific research program based in Alaska is shutting down, much to the relief of many conspiracy theorists who believe it has been used as a global super-weapon.

According to an article in the Anchorage Daily News:
“The U.S. Air Force gave official notice to Congress Wednesday that it intends to dismantle the $300 million High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program in Gakona this summer. The shutdown of HAARP, a project created by the late Sen. Ted Stevens when he wielded great control over the U.S. defense budget, will start after a final research experiment takes place in mid-June, the Air Force said in a letter to Congress Tuesday…. Built at a cost of more than $290 million, the site has 180 antennas on 30 acres that are used to direct energy into the ionosphere, which is 55 miles to 370 miles above the Earth, and monitor changes in the flow of charged particles.”

HAARP Conspiracies

The program had become a favorite subject of conspiracy theories suggesting it had some sinister purpose. Nick Redfern, in his book “Keep Out! High Security Facilities, Underground Bases, and Other Off-Limits Areas,” asks rhetorically:
“Is such technology already being secretly utilized on a planet-wide scale, in order to instill fear in, and exert control over, the world’s population, and also exert military control and influence over areas of strategic interest? Many conspiracy theorists say yes… Those who see HAARP as having a distinctly covert agenda point to what they consider the project’s darkest of all secrets: The earthquake in Haiti.”

 Redfern suggests that the January 2010, 7.0 magnitude earthquake — which leveled much of Haiti’s urban areas and killed at least 100,000 people — “was a deliberate HAARP-induced event, designed to provide the United States government with a reason to make its presence strongly felt in an area in which it had special interests.”

In classic follow-the-money-not-the-facts conspiracy thinking, the specific special interests in this case is oil. Redfern states that “HAARP can be secretly utilized to find underground and undersea oil reserves.

How, exactly, a technology designed for studying the ionosphere — which extends high above the earth’s surface — is also used for detecting underground oil reserves or causing earthquakes is never explained.

Crass desire for oil as a reason to kill hundreds of thousands of people and devastate an already poor country might be more plausible if the United States wasn’t already one of the world’s top oil producers – getting most of the balance from Canada and South America. It would also be more likely if devastating a country’s infrastructure could somehow help instead of greatly impede the ability to access oil underneath it, and if America hadn’t donated over $1.4 billion in earthquake recovery aid.

Four and a half years later there seems to be little or no evidence of the urgent oil exploration that was presumably the whole point of the ruthless top-secret HAARP conspiracy project.

Of course it’s not just the Haiti earthquake. Conspiracy theorists suspect HAARP of causing the 2011 earthquake and the resulting tsunami that led to the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. Why would the U.S. government want cause an earthquake in, and irradiate part of, a close ally’s country? Oil, of course.

Read more at Discovery News

The Science of Misheard Song Lyrics

There is an actual official term for when you hear "excuse me while I kiss the sky" in Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" as "excuse me while I kiss this guy." Your meaningful misheard lyrics are called "mondegreens," and their study can have real psychological significance.

The Mondegreens

We've all had those awkward moments. A group of friends is singing in a car, and suddenly, someone says the wrong word. And everyone looks at each other, wondering how that person heard the wrong song lyrics, or whether they themselves are wrong.

These little misunderstandings are common, but most people don't know that there is an official title for them. It came from a popular essay by writer Sylvia Wright, where she recalled when her mother read a certain book of poems to her. One of the verses was as follows:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,

Oh, where hae ye been?

They hae slain the Earl o' Moray,

And Lady Mondegreen.

Readers will be glad to know that Lady Mondegreen was spared the slaughter, but only because she never existed. The actual last line of the verse was, "And laid him on the green." Wright christened these misheard lyrics, which often make the poem or song better for the listener, "mondegreens." The title caught on.

Mondegreens and What They Mean

Sometimes the mondegreens make more sense than the original lyrics, but such a happy coincidence is a rare event. What's interesting is everyone has an explanation of their particular mondegreen.

I heard "I can feel it coming in the air tonight," as "I can hear it coming in the yellow night," well into my college years, and thought Phil Collins was just being poetic. A friend of mine claims both her parents, independently, heard Creedence Clearwater Revival's "There's a bad moon on the rise," as "There's a bathroom on the right."

She had to be born, grow up, listen to the song herself, and correct them before they even considered that they were wrong. When she asked them how they thought the lyrics were directions to the bathroom, her father answered, "I just figured they were stoned." Which is as good an explanation as any.

Mondegreens are often measures of experience. (This is why we all kept an eye on my brother when he heard the doo-wop song "Who Wrote the Book of Love" as "Who Let the Great Horse Die." It was probably an innocent mistake but we didn't want an amateur production of Equuson our hands.) This is why the signature phrases of most songs are misinterpreted.

The lyrics that defy cliche and break new ground are most likely to get misunderstood. "Excuse me, while I kiss this guy" might have still been outré in the 1960s when "Purple Haze" was written, but it was still more familiar than kissing the sky. We cobble together a semi-plausible lyric because we lack the experience to understand the real one. The people who are most likely to do this are the ones most lacking in experience.

Kids learn by ear, and they know that they're still learning words, so they are particularly vulnerable to mondegreens. One class of children, when asked to copy out the lyrics to "The Star-Spangled Banner," wrote, "Oh say can you see, by the donzerly light."

Children, Language Learners, and Mondegreens

Children group words together, the way they hear them, in a stream of continuous syllables. They assume the meaning of "donzerly" will come later, when they hear a few more examples of the word.

We enunciate for small babies, but as children grow, they are expected to pick up individual words, many of which they've never been exposed to, in a stream of noise. Language learners also have difficulty distinguishing one word from another, which can run them into real trouble in business or medical settings.

Read more at Discovery News

Wormhole Time Travel 'Possible' (If You're a Photon)

The idea of traversable wormholes has been science fiction fodder since Einstein first theorized their existence with the formulation of his general theory of relativity, but do wormholes even exist in nature? Actually, we have no idea if they exist or not, but if they do, theoretical physicists have proposed that they could act as portals into the future and the past or connect two distant regions of space.

But before you grab your Grays Sports Almanac and get ready for some temporal mischief, there’s one huge caveat to this idea — only photons may travel… and even photons may be too much of a stretch for the hypothetical shortcut through spacetime.

In a paper published to the arXiv preprint service (and submitted to the journal Physical Review D), theoretical physicist Luke Butcher of the University of Cambridge has revisited wormhole theory and potentially found a way to bridge these notoriously unstable entities.

In the late 1980s, physicist Kip Thorne, of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), theorized that to make a wormhole ‘traversable’ — as in to actually make these spacetime shortcuts stable enough to travel through — some form of negative energy would be required. In the quantum world, this negative energy could come in the form of Casimir energy.

It is well known that if two perfectly smooth plates are held very close together in a vacuum, quantum effects between the plates will have a net repulsive (or attractive, depending on the plate configuration) effect between the two. This is caused by waves of energy being too large to fit between the plates, causing a net negative energy between the plates when compared with the surrounding “normal” space.

As realized by Thorne and his Caltech team, this Casimir energy could be applied to the neck of a wormhole, potentially holding it open long enough for something to pass through.

Alas, we are talking about quantum-sized wormhole throats, meaning Marty McFly’s speeding DeLorean will be left revving in the 1985 parking lot, unable to squeeze through. But even if some quantum-sized traveler could pass through the wormhole’s neck, the wormhole would still likely collapse very quickly.

On reevaluating this scenario, Butcher has identified some more stable wormhole configurations and, in certain situations, the wormhole collapse could be prevented for an “arbitrarily long time.” But for this to happen, the wormhole needs to be very long and have a very narrow throat. In this case it seems possible that photons could traverse the wormhole.

“(T)he negative Casimir energy does allow the wormhole to collapse extremely slowly, its lifetime growing without bound as the throat-length is increased,” writes Butcher. “We find that the throat closes slowly enough that its central region can be safely traversed by a pulse of light.”

Butcher admits that although it’s not clear from his calculations whether the light pulse will be able to complete its journey from one end to the other, there is a tantalizing possibility for sending signals faster than the speed of light or even back in time.

Read more at Discovery News

May 21, 2014

Violent stellar explosion: Stellar behemoth self-destructs in a Type IIb supernova

Our Sun may seem pretty impressive: 330,000 times as massive as Earth, it accounts for 99.86 percent of the Solar System's total mass; it generates about 400 trillion trillion watts of power per second; and it has a surface temperature of about 10,000 degrees Celsius. Yet for a star, it's a lightweight.

The real cosmic behemoths are Wolf-Rayet stars, which are more than 20 times as massive as the Sun and at least five times as hot. Because these stars are relatively rare and often obscured, scientists don't know much about how they form, live and die. But this is changing, thanks to an innovative sky survey called the intermediate Palomar Transient Factory (iPTF), which uses resources at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) and Energy Sciences Network (ESnet), both located at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), to expose fleeting cosmic events such as supernovae.

For the first time ever, scientists have direct confirmation that a Wolf-Rayet star -- sitting 360 million light years away in the Bootes constellation -- died in a violent explosion known as a Type IIb supernova. Using the iPTF pipeline, researchers at Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science led by Avishay Gal-Yam caught supernova SN 2013cu within hours of its explosion. They then triggered ground- and space-based telescopes to observe the event approximately 5.7 hours and 15 hours after it self-destructed. These observations are providing valuable insights into the life and death of the progenitor Wolf-Rayet.

"Newly developed observational capabilities now enable us to study exploding stars in ways we could only dream of before. We are moving towards real-time studies of supernovae," says Gal-Yam, an astrophysicist in the Weizmann Institute's Department of Particle Physics and Astrophysics. He is also the lead author of a recently published Nature paper on this finding.

"This is the smoking gun. For the first time, we can directly point to an observation and say that this type of Wolf-Rayet star leads to this kind of Type IIb supernova," says Peter Nugent, who heads Berkeley Lab's Computational Cosmology Center (C3) and leads the Berkeley contingent of the iPTF collaboration.

"When I identified the first example of a Type IIb supernova in 1987, I dreamed that someday we would have direct evidence of what kind of star exploded. It's refreshing that we can now say that Wolf-Rayet stars are responsible, at least in some cases," says Alex Filippenko, Professor of Astronomy at UC Berkeley. Both Filippenko and Nugent are also co-authors on the Nature paper.

Elusive Signatures Illuminated in a Flash of Light

Some supermassive stars become Wolf-Rayets in the final stages of their lives. Scientists find these stars interesting because they enrich galaxies with the heavy chemical elements that eventually become the building blocks for planets and life.

"We are gradually determining which kinds of stars explode, and why, and what kinds of elements they produce," says Filippenko. "These elements are crucial to the existence of life. In a very real sense, we are figuring out our own stellar origins."

All stars -- no matter what size -- spend their lives fusing hydrogen atoms to create helium. The more massive a star, the more gravity it wields, which accelerates fusion in the star's core, generating energy to counteract gravitational collapse. When hydrogen is depleted, a supermassive star continues to fuse even heavier elements like carbon, oxygen, neon, sodium, magnesium and so on, until its core turns to iron. At this point, atoms (even subatomic particles) are packed in so closely that fusion no longer releases energy into the star. It is now solely supported by electron degeneracy pressure -- the quantum mechanical law that prohibits two electrons from occupying the same quantum state.

When the core is massive enough, even electron degeneracy won't support the star and it collapses. Protons and electrons in the core merge, releasing a tremendous amount of energy and neutrinos. This, in turn, powers a shockwave that tears through the star ejecting its remains violently into space as it goes supernova.

The Wolf-Rayet phase occurs before the supernova. As nuclear fusion slows, the heavy elements forged in the star's core rise to the surface setting off powerful winds. These winds shed a tremendous amount of material into space and obscure the star from prying telescopes on Earth.

"When a Wolf-Rayet star goes supernova, the explosion typically overtakes the stellar wind and all information about the progenitor star is gone," says Nugent. "We got lucky with SN 2013cu -- we caught the supernova before it overtook the wind. Shortly after the star exploded, it let out an ultraviolet flash from the shock wave that heated and lit up the wind. The conditions that we observed in this moment were very similar to what was there before the supernova. "

Before the supernova debris overtook the wind, the iPTF team managed to capture its chemical light signatures (or spectra) with the ground-based Keck telescope in Hawaii and saw the telltale signs of a Wolf-Rayet star. When the iPTF team performed follow-up observations 15 hours later with NASA's Swift satellite, the supernova was still quite hot and strongly emitting in the ultraviolet. In the following days, iPTF collaborators rallied telescopes around the globe to watch the supernova crash into material that had been previously ejected from the star. As the days went by, the researchers were able to classify SN 2013cu as a Type IIb supernova because of the weak hydrogen signatures and strong helium features in the spectra that appeared after the supernova cooled.

"With a series of observations, including data I took with the Keck-I telescope 6.5 days after the explosion, we could see that the supernova's expanding debris quickly overtook the flash-ionized wind that had revealed the Wolf-Rayet features. So, catching the supernova sufficiently early is hard -- you've got to be on the ball, as our team was," says Filippenko.

"This discovery was totally shocking, it opens up a whole new research area for us," says Nugent. "With our largest telescopes you might have a chance of getting a spectrum of a Wolf-Rayet star in the nearest galaxies to our Milky Way, perhaps 4 million light years away. SN 2013cu is 360 million light years away -- further by almost factor of 100."

And because the researchers caught the supernova early -- when the ultraviolet flash lit up the progenitor's stellar wind -- they were able to take several spectra. "Ideally, we'd like to do this again and again and develop some interesting statistics, not just for supernovae with Wolf-Rayet progenitors but other types as well," says Nugent.

Pipeline Upgrade Leads to Unexpected Discoveries

Since February 2014, the iPTF survey has been scanning the sky nightly with a robotic telescope mounted on the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope at Palomar Observatory in Southern California. As soon as observations are taken, the data travel more than 400 miles to NERSC in Oakland via the National Science Foundation's High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network and the Department of Energy's ESnet. At NERSC, the Real-Time Transient Detection Pipeline sifts through the data, identifies events to follow up on and sends an alert to iPTF scientists around the globe.

The survey was built on the legacy of the Palomar Transient Factory (PTF), designed in 2008 to systematically chart the transient sky by using the same camera at Palomar Observatory. Last year Nugent and colleagues at Caltech and UC Berkeley made significant modifications to the transient detection pipeline for the iPTF project. Working with NERSC staff, Nugent upgraded the pipeline's computing and storage hardware. The iPTF team also made improvements to the machine learning algorithms at the heart of the detection pipeline and incorporated the Sloan Digital Star Survey III star and galaxy catalogs so the pipeline could immediately reject known variable stars.

Read more at Discovery News

Mysterious Fairy Circles Not Caused by Termites

"Fairy circles" that form in the arid grasslands of Namibia have baffled scientists for decades. In the latest attempt to explain the cause of these mysterious circular patches, a group of researchers turned to aerial images.

From the aerial images, the scientists discovered that fairy circles are distributed in surprisingly regular patterns, which might rule out the popular theory that termites are the creators.

"The occurrence of such patterning in nature is rather unusual," study researcher Stephan Getzin, of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig, Germany, said in a statement. "There must be particularly strong regulating forces at work."

Fairy circles are barren patches, typically surrounded by a ring of thriving vegetation. They can grow to be 65 feet (20 meters) in diameter and can linger for as long as 75 years.

For the past several years, scientists have offered up a variety of hypotheses for why these rings form in the arid grasslands transitioning into the Namib Desert. Their explanations have ranged from grass-killing seeps of hydrocarbons to carnivorous ants to termite feeding patterns.

One biologist recently conducted a census of organisms at fairy circles. His results, detailed in the journal Science last year, revealed a species of sand termite, Psammotermes allocerus, lived at the majority of patches. He concluded that the insects seemed to be feeding on the grass roots, creating the characteristic rings.

Getzin and his colleagues, however, say termites are typically distributed in irregular clusters in the wild; they argue that the insects couldn't create patterns as consistent as the ones they observed in their aerial photos.

"There is, up to now, not one single piece of evidence demonstrating that social insects are capable of creating homogenously distributed structures on such a large scale," Getzin said in a statement.

Read more at Discovery News

180-Million-Year-Old Fossils Revealed in Jurassic Sea

Ancient fossils now reveal that the deep sea may be the origin of many lineages of sea creatures found closer to the surface, such as a number of sea stars, sea urchins and snails, researchers say.

These new findings suggest the deep sea has played a much greater role in producing and preserving diversity in marine life than once thought, scientists added.

The deep sea was long thought to be a lifeless desert. Intense research in the last few decades, however, has revealed that it actually supports one of the highest levels of biodiversity on Earth.

There were few known fossils of deep-sea life older than about 100 million years. Due to the paucity of ancient records of deep-sea life, scientists often suggested that deep-sea communities originated from colonies in shallower waters.

Now, with the help of amateur paleontologist Gero Moosleitner, scientists have discovered fossils of 180-million-year-old deep-sea animals in the Austrian Alps. These now shed light on the surprising history of deep-sea life.

"People always assume that biodiversity starts in shallow waters and moves to the deep sea, but these findings are evidence that the deep sea may be a neglected source of biodiversity,"said lead study author Ben Thuy, an invertebrate paleontologist at the National Museum of Natural History of Luxembourg.

A landslide in Glasenbach Gorge near the city of Salzburg in Austria exposed the fossils. Then, over the course of a decade, Moosleitner collected the fossils, alerting Thuy and his colleagues of the treasure trove there.

"The slopes of the gorge we got fossils from were quite steep, which made work a bit difficult, but it was also quite fun," Thuy told Live Science. "We dug up the rock, put it in a sieve, and washed [the rocks] in the brook downslope to get fossils. It was a bit like panning for gold."

The scientists deduced that these fossils came from deep-sea deposits from the absence of fossils of light-dependent organisms, as well as from physical similarities between the rock surrounding the fossils with modern deep-sea rock. The 2,500 or so fossils included the oldest-known members of a number of groups of deep-sea creatures alive today.

Previously, the oldest-known fossils of a number of modern groups of deep-sea organisms were found in shallow-water deposits. This suggested that these modern deep-sea creatures evolved from immigrants from shallow waters. The newfound fossils Thuy and his colleagues analyzed, which predate earlier findings by more than 25 million years, instead suggest that these ancient shallow-water animals may have actually evolved from deep-sea ancestors.

Moreover, when the researchers compared deep-sea fossils with shallow-water fossils of the same age, they found significantly more biodiversity in the deep sea than in shallow seas for at least some of the groups of animals. This suggests that the deep sea can be more successful at sheltering animals from extinction than shallow coastal seas.

Read more at Discovery News

Alien Life Discovery Could Happen Within 20 Years

Curious about whether there is life beyond Earth? The answer should come within 20 years, astronomers told members of a Congressional science committee on Wednesday.

A three-way race is under way to learn if life exists elsewhere in the solar system or beyond, Seth Shostak, senior astronomer with the California-based SETI Institute, said during a hearing before the House Science and Technology Committee.

So far, most efforts -- and funding -- to find extraterrestrial life have focused on Mars and potential life-bearing moons in the outer solar system.

“At least a half-dozen other worlds (besides Earth) that might have life are in our solar system. The chances of finding it, I think, are good, and if that happens, it’ll happen in the next 20 years, depending on the financing,” Shostak said.

A second initiative scans the atmospheres of distant planets for telltale signs of oxygen or methane, gases which, on Earth, are mostly tied to life. These searches likewise could yield results in the next two decades, Shostak added.

The third project hunts for technologically advanced aliens that are sending radio or other signals out into space. The idea behind the Search of Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, is to eavesdrop on signals that are deliberately or accidentally leaked from another world.

“That makes sense because in fact even we, only 100 years after ... the invention of practical radio, already have the technology that would allow us to send bits of information across light years of distance to putative extraterrestrials,” Shostak said.

Humans’ first television broadcasts, including “I Love Lucy,” and “The Ed Sullivan Show,” have passed 10,000 stars, noted SETI hunter Dan Werthimer, with the University of California, Berkeley.

“The nearby stars have seen 'The Simpsons.' If we’re broadcasting, maybe other civilizations are sending signals in our direction -- either leaking signals the way that we unintentionally send off signals, or maybe a deliberate signal,” Werthimer told legislators.

“The fact that we haven’t found anything means nothing,” Shostak added. “We’ve only just begun to search.”

Though there is no proof of any life beyond Earth, circumstantial evidence is mounting. Results from NASA’s Kepler space telescope and other hunts for planets beyond the solar system have shown that at least 70 percent of the 200 billion to 400 billion stars in the Milky Way have planets, many well-positioned for liquid water, which is believed to be necessary for life.

More recent results from the ongoing Curiosity rover mission on Mars proved there are habitats beyond Earth suitable for microbial life.

Read more at Discovery News

May 20, 2014

Lost 'Nightsnake' Rediscovered on Volcanic Island off Mexico

A mysterious species of snake has been rediscovered lurking in volcanic rocks on an island off Mexico.

The elusive, nocturnal Clarion nightsnake was first discovered more than 80 years ago on Clarion Island, but was then lost to science.

"The rediscovery of the Clarion nightsnake is an incredible story of how scientists rely on historical data and museum collections to solve modern-day mysteries about biodiversity in the world we live in," lead author Daniel Mulcahy, a researcher at the National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C., said in a statement. "Proper identification is the first step toward conserving this snake, and we plan to continue monitoring this species to learn more about the role it plays in the delicate Clarion Island ecosystem."

In 1936, naturalist William Beebe first unearthed a lone nightsnake, dubbed Hypsiglena ochrorhyncha unaocularus, on Clarion Island, which is one of the four Revillagigedo Islands in the Pacific Ocean. The reptile's speckled, brownish-black camouflage blended in with the black lava rock on the island, making it difficult to spot.

That single snake specimen was tagged and kept in the collections of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, but because no other researchers had seen the snake since, its existence as a separate species was questioned. In part, the snake, which grows to about 18 inches (45 centimeters) long, has remained hidden for decades because of its coloration — dark spots on its head and neck act as camouflage — and secretive behavior; the island itself is so remote that biologists can only access it with a military escort, limiting how many scientists actually searched for these reptiles.

But in 2013, Mulcahy and colleagues at the Instituto de Ecología in Mexico set out on a quest to the Revillagigedo Islands to find the missing species.

The team uncovered 11 of the elusive snakes, all on the volcanic island of Clarion. DNA testing confirmed the snakes were a distinct species from mainland nightsnakes.

Read more at Discovery News

Giant Dinosaurs Unearthed in Argentina

The bones of seven huge dinosaurs that each weighed more than a dozen elephants and had femurs bigger than a human adult have been discovered in Argentina, scientists announced.

The plant-eating beasts plodded across South America 95 million years ago, during the Mesozoic Era, and they may represent a new species. The creatures may even be the biggest dinosaurs known, outshining their long-tailed, long-necked titanosaur cousins like Argentinosaurus, said the paleontologists who excavated the bones.

Using jackhammers, shovels and even bulldozers, researchers of the Museum of Paleontology Egidio Feruglio in Argentina's Patagonia region removed the fossils from a site in the center of Chubut province, about 160 miles (260 kilometers) from the city of Trelew. A farm worker first discovered dinosaur bones there in 2011. So far, scientists have found more than 200 fossils at the site, including leg bones, vertebrae, teeth and tail bones.

The amazing state of preservation of the bones is rare. The animals, all adults, appear to have died around the same time. The researchers speculate that they they succumbed to dehydration or got stuck in the mud while gathering around small pools of water to drink. In this deadly graveyard, the reptiles may have become food for scavengers like carnivorous dinosaurs in the Tyrannotitan genus.

Read more at Discovery News

'Magical' 18th-Century Artifacts Found in Caribbean

Archaeologists working on two small Caribbean islands have found artifacts intentionally buried beneath two 18th-century plantation houses.

They appear to have been placed there for their spiritual power, protecting the inhabitants against harm, said John Chenoweth, a professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, in an interview with Live Science.

The discoveries were made recently in the British Virgin Islands, an overseas territory of the United Kingdom.

On one island archaeologists found "grape shot" — iron balls less than an inch (2 centimeters) in diameter meant to be shot from a cannon — buried in two postholes under a sugar plantation house. At this time on the British Virgin Islands "weapons were in short supply, so these bullets would have been likely relatively important," Chenoweth said. Why someone would bury them in postholes is a mystery, as one would need to dig up the house's foundation to access the iron balls, not to mention the balls would corrode over time, Chenoweth said.

That ammunition likely served a spiritual or magical purpose, he said. Supporting that idea, researchers Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud write in the "Dictionary of English Folklore" (Oxford University Press, 2002) that "the power of iron to repel evil is very well attested in Englishfolklore, and throughout Europe — all sorts of domestic objects, and even lumps of scrap iron, were placed in homes, stables and cowsheds as defenses against witchcraft and harmful fairies, or used in counter-spells."

Chenoweth believes that this ammunition was used like a counterspell. Grape shot was intended for warfare and therefore could be magically used to stop violence. "Following the idea of 'like cures like' the grape shot may have beenburied to keep violent attack away," he said in a follow-up email.

The inhabitants of the two-room plantation house had plenty of potential violence to worry about, as historical records show the island government continually warned London the colony was short of weapons and ammunition and was vulnerable to a Spanish attack or slave uprising, Chenoweth said. The fact that the plantation homeowners buried this scarce ammunition makes the find all the more remarkable.

"When they placed them there they had a good reason for doing so," Chenoweth said.

The quarters for the plantation slaves have not yet been found.

On another small island, in postholes of another two-room plantation house, Chenoweth's team discovered a whelk shell plugged so that it could be used as a container. Next to it they found fish bones, pins and the bones of a Puerto Rican racer snake.

Chenoweth thinks the shell, which would have held the bones and pins, had a spiritual purpose of sorts. It appears to have been inserted into the foundations around 1740 during a remodeling. Similar objects, called "witch's bottles," have been found at sites in England and America. "It has a long history in England and something that seems to be connected to pre-Christian spiritual practices," he told Live Science.

Objects like these are "seen as an effort to protect the house against bad magic basically, spirits and spells that might seek to harm some of the occupants of the house," Chenoweth said.

Placing the snake bone, which symbolizes something negative, in the shell could have magically canceled out the negative power that the creature represents, he noted.

This plantation was in use from 1720 until about 1780. The slave village is about 150 feet (46 meters) away and would have held no more than 20 slaves. This plantation produced mainly cotton, and, curiously, historical records indicate its owner was a member of the "Religious Society of Friends," also known as Quakers, a group that tended to stay away from rituals and ritual objects.

The two islands are located a few miles from Tortola, the seat of the British Virgin Islands government. The plantations are now part of private property, and the landowners prefer the name of the islands not be released.

Read more at Discovery News

'Byzantine iPad' Found in Ancient Shipwreck

Turkish archaeologists excavating a harbor site on the European side of the Bosphorus have unearthed a 1,200-year-old wooden object which they claim is the ancient equivalent of a tablet computer. The device was a notebook and tool — in one.

The Byzantine invention was found within the remains of one of the 37 ships unearthed in the Yenikapi area of Istanbul, a site which has been at the center of excavations for the past 10 years.

Also known as Theodosius Port, it was built in the late 4th century during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I and become the city's most important commercial port.

Probably belonging to the ship's captain, the wooden object, whose cover is finely carved with decorations, is the size of a modern seven-inch tablet, but it's much thicker.

It consists of a set of five overlaid rectangular panels carved with frames and covered with wax. Notes could be taken on those panels, as shown by writing in Greek which is still visible on the wax.

A primitive "app" is hidden on the bottom panel: a sliding lid revealing a hidden plate with carved spaces.

"When you draw the sliding part, there are small weights used as an assay balance," Ufuk Kocabaş, director of Istanbul University’s department of marine archeology and the Yenikapi Shipwrecks Project, told Hurriyet Daily News.

Since it was a merchant ship, the tool was likely used to assess the value of some items. Assay balances were used to determine the metal content in ore or the kind of precious metal in an alloy.

The notebook could have been easily carried. Each panel features four holes -- they were drilled in two pairs in order to bind the notebook together, probably by leather straps.

"Yenikapı is a phenomenon with its 37 sunken ships and organic products. I think these organic products are the most important feature of the excavations," Kocabaş said.

The sunken ship upon which the "Byzantine iPad" was found, has been dated to around the 9th century A.D.

Read more at Discovery News

May 19, 2014

Earth organisms survive under Martian conditions: Methanogens stay alive in extreme heat and cold

New research suggests that methanogens -- among the simplest and oldest organisms on Earth -- could survive on Mars.

Methanogens, microorganisms in the domain Archaea, use hydrogen as their energy source and carbon dioxide as their carbon source, to metabolize and produce methane, also known as natural gas. Methanogens live in swamps and marshes, but can also be found in the gut of cattle, termites and other herbivores as well as in dead and decaying matter.

Methanogens are anaerobic, so they they don't require require oxygen. They don't require organic nutrients and are non-photosynthetic, indicating they could exist in sub-surface environments and therefore are ideal candidates for life on Mars.

Rebecca Mickol, a doctoral student in space and planetary sciences at the University of Arkansas, subjected two species of methanogens to Martian conditions: Methanothermobacter wolfeii and Methanobacterium formicicum. Both species survived the Martian freeze-thaw cycles that Mickol replicated in her experiments.

The species were tested for their ability to withstand Martian freeze-thaw cycles that are below the organisms' ideal growth temperatures: 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) for M. formicicum and 55 degrees Celsius (131 degrees Fahrenheit) for M. wolfeii.

"The surface temperature on Mars varies widely, often ranging between minus 90 degrees Celsius and 27 degrees Celsius over one Martian day," Mickol said. "If any life were to exist on Mars right now, it would at least have to survive that temperature range. The survival of these two methanogen species exposed to long-term freeze/thaw cycles suggests methanogens could potentially inhabit the subsurface of Mars."

Mickol conducted the study with Timothy Kral, professor of biological sciences in the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences and lead scientist on the project. She is presenting her work at the 2014 General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, being held May 17-20 in Boston.

The two species were selected because one is a hyperthermophile, meaning it thrives under extremely hot temperatures, and the other is a thermophile, which thrives under warm temperatures.

"The low temperature on Mars inhibited their growth, but they survived," Mickol said. "Once they got back to a warm temperature, they were able to grow and metabolize again. I wanted to see if these cold temperatures would kill them, or if they were able to survive and adapt."

Read more at Science Daily

Human Albino Gene Found in Dogs

Dogs and people have more in common than a love of Frisbees and long walks on the beach. A new study finds that certain dogs, just like certain humans, carry a gene mutation that causes albinism — a condition that results in little or no pigment in the eyes, skin and hair.

The study by researchers at Michigan State University identifies the exact genetic mutation that leads to albinism in Doberman pinschers, a discovery that has eluded veterinarians and dog breeders until now. Interestingly, the same mutated gene that causes albinism in this dog breed is also associated with a form of albinism in humans.

"What we found was a gene mutation that results in a missing protein necessary for cells to be pigmented," study co-author Paige Winkler, a doctoral student in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, said in a statement.

Winkler said the gene mutation found in Doberman pinschers is responsible for a condition known as oculocutaneous albinism, which also affects humans. The condition expresses certain characteristics in both humans and dogs.

"With an albino Doberman, you see a white or lighter-colored coat, pink noses and lips, along with pale irises in the eyes," Winkler said. "These traits are very similar to the characteristics humans display with this particular condition, causing light-pigmented skin and hair, along with eye discoloration and vision disturbances."

Just as people with this type of albinism experience skin sensitivity to sunlight, which can result in an increased vulnerability to skin tumors, canines with the mutated gene were also found to be at higher risk for developing skin tumors, the researchers said.

"We knew that albino Dobermans typically developed these types of tumors, much like humans, but we wondered what the actual increase in prevalence was between a 'white' dog and a regular-colored Doberman," said Joshua Bartoe, an assistant professor in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences at Michigan State University, who co-led the study. "What we found was a significant increase in risk for development of melanoma-like tumors in the albino dogs."

These findings were based on a study of 40 Dobermans pinschers — 20 albino dogs and 20 "regular-colored" dogs. The researchers found that more than half of the albino dogs had at least one tumor, while only one of the regular-colored dogs had a tumor.

Bartoe and Winkler said their study could serve as a valuable resource for Doberman breeders around the world, particularly because the American Kennel Club, a registry of purebred dog pedigrees in the United States, doesn't allow the registration of albino dogs.

Read more at Discovery News

Witch Doctors in East Africa Arrested in Albino Killing

Last week an albino woman in a rural area of the East African country of Tanzania was murdered for her body parts. Two witch doctors have been arrested in connection with the death, though it’s not clear whether the pair committed the crime themselves or hired others to mutilate the woman.

According to a news report from Australia’s Skynews:

“Munghu Lugata, 40, was killed after attackers hacked off her left leg above the knee and chopped off three fingers on Monday… Charles Mkumbo, police chief of the Simiyu region in northwestern Tanzania, said a man and a woman, Gudawa Yalema and Shiwa Masalu, had been arrested.” Under the Same Sun, a foundation created to help albino victims in Africa, issued a statement adding that “‘Her grossly mutilated body was discovered outside of her home by her own niece’ and that ‘more than 70 albinos have been killed since 2000, with a similar number suffering violent attacks.’”

In Africa, witch doctors are consulted not only for healing diseases, but also for placing (or removing) magic curses or bringing luck in love or business. The belief and practice of using body parts for magical ritual or benefit is called muti. Muti murders are particularly brutal, with knives and machetes used to cut and hack off limbs, breasts, and other body parts from their living victims.

Vicky Ntetema, a Tanzanian journalist who went undercover for a 2008 BBC News investigation into this practice, explained that the murdered albinos’ “bodies are left limbless and sometimes with a huge hole in the neck, from where blood would have been drained. Families not only grieve because of the loss of their loved ones but are also shocked at the state in which the bodies are left by these murderers. As if that is not enough, they have to bury their dead in the house, guard the graves on their farm and or build them with stones, metal bars and cement to prevent the killers from stealing the body parts.”

Though the two witch doctors accused of Lugata’s death have been arrested, many Africans believe that police, politicians and judges are hesitant to pursue muti murders because belief in witchcraft is so widespread. It’s possible that some of the judges believe they gained their positions in part because of magic.

Read more at Discovery News

Experiment to Turn Light Into Matter

Scientists have worked out an easy way of turning light into matter, a process thought to be impossible when first proposed 80 years ago.

The proposed experiment, reported in the journal Nature photonics, would recreate events that occurred in the first 100 seconds of the big bang, as well as in cosmic rays and gamma ray bursts.

In 1934, scientists Gregory Breit and John Wheeler suggested light can be converted into matter by smashing two photons together to create an electron and its antimatter counterpart, a positron.

Breit and Wheeler's calculations were correct, but they never expected anyone to physically demonstrate their prediction.

"The Breit-Wheeler process is one of the simplest interactions of light and matter and one of the purest demonstrations of E=mc2," said the study's lead author Oliver Pike of Imperial College London.

"However, Breit-Wheeler pair production has never been observed. The experimental design we propose can be carried out with relative ease and with existing technology."

Just add gold

The photon collider would convert light directly into matter by using an extremely powerful high intensity laser to fire electrons at almost the speed of light into a slab of gold. This created a beam of photons a billion times more energetic than visible light.

The next step involves firing a separate high energy laser onto the surface of a tiny gold cylinder called a vacuum hohlraum (German for hollow cavity), to create a thermal radiation field of photons.

The researchers would then direct the photon beam from the gold slab through the center of the hohlraum, causing the photons from the two sources to collide and create electrons and positrons, which could be detected as they beamed out of the device.

Matter was first created out of pure energy in 1997 at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center when a powerful electron beam was fired into a laser beam of photons.

Occasionally an electron collided with a photon pushing it into other photons with enough force to produce an electron and a positron.

"There was not enough energy at Stanford to observe the Breit-Wheeler process, instead a much more complex process was observed -- high-energy photons interacted with multiple low-energy photons in a strong laser field," said Pike.

"In our work, there are no massive particles present. Our scheme would therefore represent the first proof-of-principle of a pure photon-photon collider."

Easier way

Associate Professor Martin Sevior, an experimental particle physicist at the University of Melbourne, agrees.

"This new method won't require such high energy electron beams as those used by Stanford," said Sevior, who was not involved in the research.

"The Stanford experiment used the world's most intense and highest energy electron beam. This new system will work with a much lower energy electron beam, and it has a much greater photon yield for the same amount of energy."

Read more at Discovery News

May 18, 2014

Lighting the way to graphene-based devices

Graphene continues to reign as the next potential superstar material for the electronics industry, a slimmer, stronger and much faster electron conductor than silicon. With no natural energy band-gap, however, graphene's superfast conductance can't be switched off, a serious drawback for transistors and other electronic devices. Various techniques have been deployed to overcome this problem with one of the most promising being the integration of ultrathin layers of graphene and boron nitride into two-dimensional heterostructures. As conductors, these bilayered hybrids are almost as fast as pure graphene, plus they are well-suited for making devices. However, tailoring the electronic properties of graphene boron nitride (GBN) heterostructures has been a tricky affair, involving chemical doping or electrostatic-gating -- until now.

Researchers with Berkeley Lab and the University of California (UC) Berkeley have demonstrated a technique whereby the electronic properties of GBN heterostructures can be modified with visible light. Feng Wang, a condensed matter physicist with Berkeley Lab's Materials Sciences Division and UC Berkeley's Physics Department, as well as an investigator for the Kavli Energy NanoSciences Institute at Berkeley, led a study in which photo-induced doping of GBN heterostructures was used to create p-n junctions and other useful doping profiles while preserving the material's remarkably high electron mobility.

"We've demonstrated that visible light can induce a robust writing and erasing of charge-doping in GBN heterostructures without sacrificing high carrier mobility," Wang says. "The use of visible light gives us incredible flexibility and, unlike electrostatic gating and chemical doping, does not require multi-step fabrication processes that reduce sample quality. Additionally, different patterns can be imparted and erased at will, which was not possible with doping techniques previously used on GBN heterostructures."

Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice. Boron nitride is a layered compound that features a similar hexagonal lattice -- in fact hexagonal boron nitride is sometimes referred to as "white graphene." Bound together by the relatively weak intermolecular attraction known as the van der Waals force, GBN heterostructures have shown high potential to serve as platforms not only for high-electron-mobility transistors, but also for optoelectronic applications, including photodetectors and photovoltaic cells. The key to future success will be the ability to dope these materials in a commercially scalable manner. The photo-induced modulation doping technique developed by Wang and a large team of collaborators meets this requirement as it is comparable to the photolithography schemes widely used today for mass production in the semiconductor industry. Illumination of a GBN heterostructure even with just an incandescent lamp can modify electron-transport in the graphene layer by inducing a positive-charge distribution in the boron nitride layer that becomes fixed when the illumination is turned off.

"We've shown show that this photo-induced doping arises from microscopically coupled optical and electrical responses in the GBN heterostructures, including optical excitation of defect transitions in boron nitride, electrical transport in graphene, and charge transfer between boron nitride and graphene," Wang says. "This is analogous to the modulation doping first developed for high-quality semiconductors."

Read more at Discovery News

Herpes-loaded stem cells used to kill brain tumors

Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital have a potential solution for how to more effectively kill tumor cells using cancer-killing viruses. The investigators report that trapping virus-loaded stem cells in a gel and applying them to tumors significantly improved survival in mice with glioblastoma multiforme, the most common brain tumor in human adults and also the most difficult to treat.

The work, led by Khalid Shah, MS, PhD, an HSCI Principal Faculty member, is published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Shah heads the Molecular Neurotherapy and Imaging Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Cancer-killing or oncolytic viruses have been used in numerous phase 1 and 2 clinical trials for brain tumors but with limited success. In preclinical studies, oncolytic herpes simplex viruses seemed especially promising, as they naturally infect dividing brain cells. However, the therapy hasn't translated as well for human patients. The problem previous researchers couldn't overcome was how to keep the herpes viruses at the tumor site long enough to work.

Shah and his team turned to mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) -- a type of stem cell that gives rise to bone marrow tissue -- which have been very attractive drug delivery vehicles because they trigger a minimal immune response and can be utilized to carry oncolytic viruses. Shah and his team loaded the herpes virus into human MSCs and injected the cells into glioblastoma tumors developed in mice. Using multiple imaging markers, it was possible to watch the virus as it passed from the stem cells to the first layer of brain tumor cells and subsequently into all of the tumor cells.

"So, how do you translate this into the clinic?" asked Shah, who also is an Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School.

"We know that 70-75 percent of glioblastoma patients undergo surgery for tumor debulking, and we have previously shown that MSCs encapsulated in biocompatible gels can be used as therapeutic agents in a mouse model that mimics this debulking," he continued. "So, we loaded MSCs with oncolytic herpes virus and encapsulated these cells in biocompatible gels and applied the gels directly onto the adjacent tissue after debulking. We then compared the efficacy of virus-loaded, encapsulated MSCs versus direct injection of the virus into the cavity of the debulked tumors."

Using imaging proteins to watch in real time how the virus combated the cancer, Shah's team noticed that the gel kept the stem cells alive longer, which allowed the virus to replicate and kill any residual cancer cells that were not cut out during the debulking surgery. This translated into a higher survival rate for mice that received the gel-encapsulated stem cells.

"They survived because the virus doesn't get washed out by the cerebrospinal fluid that fills the cavity," Shah said. "Previous studies that have injected the virus directly into the resection cavity did not follow the fate of the virus in the cavity. However, our imaging and side-by-side comparison studies showed that the naked virus rarely infects the residual tumor cells. This could give us insight into why the results from clinical trials with oncolytic viruses alone were modest."

Read more at Science Daily