Jul 5, 2014

New archaeological find could shed light on late-Roman Britain

A unique archaeological find uncovered near the site of a Roman villa in Dorset could help to shed light on the rural elite of late-Roman Britain.

The skeletal remains are thought to be unique as they are buried near the site of a Roman villa, making it likely that the five skeletons belonged to the owners and occupants of the villa -- the first time in Britain that the graves of villa owners have been found in such close proximity to the villa itself.

Five skeletons were found; two adult males, two adult females and an elderly female -- with researchers postulating that they could be the remains of three generations of the same family, who all owned the villa. The bones are thought to date from the mid-4th Century (around 350 AD).

Miles Russell, a Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at Bournemouth University and one of the archaeologists leading the dig, said, "The discovery is of great significance as it is the only time where evidence of a villa and the villa's occupants have been found in the same location in Britain. This could provide us with significant information, never retrieved before, about the state of health of the villa owners, their ancestry and where they came from."

Miles continued, "One of the big questions in South West is whether the villas in the South West were owned by Britons who have become Roman or owned by people from another part of the Empire who have come to exploit an under-developed rural area. All villas in this region in the South West are late-Roman -- and our findings should tell us more about what life was like in this period of history. This is what what can be assessed when the bones are analysed."

The discovery was made by staff and students from Bournemouth University, who are working on the Durotriges Big Dig project in North Dorset.

The villa itself was excavated last year by students working on the project, and the latest find is the final step in excavating this particular area of rich archaeological significance.

Read more at Science Daily

Chimp Sign Language 'Dictionary' Created

Chimpanzees use their hands to say "follow me," "stop that" or "take this," according to new research seeking to translate the sophisticated messages flowing back and forth.

Previous research had revealed that our nearest genetic relatives use gestures to communicate, prompting questions over whether the communication systems shared ancestry with the origins of human language.

The new study, published Thursday in the journal Current Biology, created the first-ever chimpanzee dictionary of sorts, deciphering just what the apes were saying to each other.

The researchers said the chimpanzee gestures -- they decoded 66 in total -- can be used in isolation or several can be strung together to create more complex exchanges.

And, importantly, the meaning remained consistent, regardless of which ape was making the gestures.

The messages ranged from "simple requests associated with just a few gestures to broader social negotiation associated with a wider range of gesture types," said the authors from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

The researchers studied more than 4,500 gestures within more than 3,400 interactions, all captured on film in Uganda between 2007 and 2009.

They determined that when a mother shows the sole of her foot to her baby, she means "climb on me." Touching the arm of another means "scratch me" and chewing leaves calls for sexual attention.

Read more at Discovery News

Jul 4, 2014

New specimen of Archaeopteryx reveals previously unknown features of the plumage

Paleontologists of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich are currently studying a new specimen of Archaeopteryx, which reveals previously unknown features of the plumage. The initial findings shed light on the original function of feathers and their recruitment for flight.

A century and a half after its discovery and a mere 150 million years or so since it took to the air, Archaeopteryx still has surprises in store: The eleventh specimen of the iconic "basal bird" so far discovered turns out to have the best preserved plumage of all, permitting detailed comparisons to be made with other feathered dinosaurs. The fossil is being subjected to a thorough examination by a team led by Dr. Oliver Rauhut, a paleontologist in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at LMU Munich, who is also affiliated with the Bavarian State Collection for Paleontology and Geology in Munich. The first results of their analysis of the plumage are reported in the latest issue of Nature. The new data make a significant contribution to the ongoing debate over the evolution of feathers and its relationship to avian flight. They also imply that the links between feather development and the origin of flight are probably much more complex than has been assumed up to now.

"For the first time, it has become possible to examine the detailed structure of the feathers on the body, the tail and, above all, on the legs," says Oliver Rauhut. In the case of this new specimen, the feathers are, for the most part, preserved as impressions in the rock matrix. "Comparisons with other feathered predatory dinosaurs indicate that the plumage in the different regions of the body varied widely between these species. That suggests that primordial feathers did not evolve in connection with flight-related roles, but originated in other functional contexts," says Dr. Christian Foth of LMU and the Bavarian State Collection for Paleontology and Geology in Munich, first author on the new paper.

To keep warm and to catch the eye

Predatory dinosaurs (theropods) with body plumage are now known to predate Archaeopteryx, and their feathers probably provided thermal insulation. Advanced species of predatory dinosaurs and primitive birds with feathered forelimbs may have used them as balance organs when running, like ostriches do today. Moreover, feathers could have served useful functions in brooding, camouflage and display. Indeed, the feathers on the tail, wings and hind-limbs most probably fulfilled functions in display, although it is very likely that Archaeopteryx was also capable of flight. "Interestingly, the lateral feathers in the tail of Archaeopteryx had an aerodynamic form, and most probably played an important role in its aerial abilities," says Foth.

On the basis of their investigation of the plumage of the new fossil, the researchers have been able to clarify the taxonomical relationship between Archaeopteryx and other species of feathered dinosaur. Here, the diversity in form and distribution of the feather tracts is particularly striking. For instance, among dinosaurs that had feathers on their legs, many had long feathers extending to the toes, while others had shorter down-like plumage. "If feathers had evolved originally for flight, functional constraints should have restricted their range of variation. And in primitive birds we do see less variation in wing feathers than in those on the hind-limbs or the tail," explains Foth.

These observations imply that feathers acquired their aerodynamic functions secondarily: Once feathers had been invented, they could be co-opted for flight. "It is even possible that the ability to fly evolved more than once within the theropods," says Rauhut. "Since the feathers were already present, different groups of predatory dinosaurs and their descendants, the birds, could have exploited these structures in different ways." The new results also contradict the theory that powered avian flight evolved from earlier four-winged species that were able to glide.

Read more at Science Daily

Timeline of human origins revised: New synthesis of research links changing environment with Homo's evolutionary adaptability

Many traits unique to humans were long thought to have originated in the genus Homo between 2.4 and 1.8 million years ago in Africa. Although scientists have recognized these characteristics for decades, they are reconsidering the true evolutionary factors that drove them.

A large brain, long legs, the ability to craft tools and prolonged maturation periods were all thought to have evolved together at the start of the Homo lineage as African grasslands expanded and Earth's climate became cooler and drier. However, new climate and fossil evidence analyzed by a team of researchers, including Smithsonian paleoanthropologist Richard Potts, Susan Antón, professor of anthropology at New York University, and Leslie Aiello, president of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, suggests that these traits did not arise as a single package. Rather, several key ingredients once thought to define Homo evolved in earlier Australopithecus ancestors between 3 and 4 million years ago, while others emerged significantly later.

The team's research takes an innovative approach to integrating paleoclimate data, new fossils and understandings of the genus Homo, archaeological remains and biological studies of a wide range of mammals (including humans). The synthesis of these data led the team to conclude that the ability of early humans to adjust to changing conditions ultimately enabled the earliest species of Homo to vary, survive and begin spreading from Africa to Eurasia 1.85 million years ago. Additional information about this study is available in the July 4 issue of Science.

Potts developed a new climate framework for East African human evolution that depicts most of the era from 2.5 million to 1.5 million years ago as a time of strong climate instability and shifting intensity of annual wet and dry seasons. This framework, which is based on Earth's astronomical cycles, provides the basis for some of the paper's key findings, and it suggests that multiple coexisting species of Homo that overlapped geographically emerged in highly changing environments.

"Unstable climate conditions favored the evolution of the roots of human flexibility in our ancestors," said Potts, curator of anthropology and director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. "The narrative of human evolution that arises from our analyses stresses the importance of adaptability to changing environments, rather than adaptation to any one environment, in the early success of the genus Homo."

The team reviewed the entire body of fossil evidence relevant to the origin of Homo to better understand how the human genus evolved. For example, five skulls about 1.8 million years old from the site of Dmanisi, Republic of Georgia, show variations in traits typically seen in African H. erectus but differ from defining traits of other species of early Homo known only in Africa. Recently discovered skeletons of Australopithecus sediba (about 1.98 million years old) from Malapa, South Africa, also include some Homo-like features in its teeth and hands, while displaying unique, non-Homo traits in its skull and feet. Comparison of these fossils with the rich fossil record of East Africa indicates that the early diversification of the genus Homo was a period of morphological experimentation. Multiple species of Homo lived concurrently.

"We can tell the species apart based on differences in the shape of their skulls, especially their face and jaws, but not on the basis of size," said Antón. "The differences in their skulls suggest early Homo divvied up the environment, each utilizing a slightly different strategy to survive."

Even though all of the Homo species had overlapping body, brain and tooth sizes, they also had larger brains and bodies than their likely ancestors, Australopithecus. According to the study, these differences and similarities show that the human package of traits evolved separately and at different times in the past rather than all together.

In addition to studying climate and fossil data, the team also reviewed evidence from ancient stone tools, isotopes found in teeth and cut marks found on animal bones in East Africa.

"Taken together, these data suggest that species of early Homo were more flexible in their dietary choices than other species," said Aiello. "Their flexible diet -- probably containing meat -- was aided by stone tool-assisted foraging that allowed our ancestors to exploit a range of resources."

Read more at Science Daily

Vatican Formally Recognizes Professional Exorcists

The Catholic Church recently formally recognized The International Association of Exorcists, a group of 250 priests worldwide who claim to drive demons and devils out of possessed individuals.

An ABC News report notes that "The International Association of Exorcists was originally founded in 1990 and one of their leaders has been housed in the Vatican for years, but this is the first time that they have been given formal approval by the highest order of the Roman Catholic Church. According to The Vatican's official newspaper 'L'Osservatore Romano', the Congregation for Clergy announced Tuesday that the Church's canon law now formally recognizes the group."

The recognition is seen as another sign that Catholic Church formally approves of exorcisms. Pope Francis has been more vocal than many of his predecessors about the reality of demons and devils, and was seen last year praying over a man said to be possessed.

Because demonic possession has never been scientifically proven, the Vatican's move lends legitimacy to a controversial practice whose victims may be better served by psychologists and other mental health professionals. Exorcisms can be dangerous, and indeed many people have died while others tried to drive real or imagined demons from their bodies.

On Aug. 22, 2003, an autistic 8-year-old boy in Milwaukee was bound in sheets and held down by church members during a prayer service held to exorcize the evil spirits they blamed for his condition. An autopsy found extensive bruising on the back of the child's neck and concluded that he died of asphyxiation.

An exorcism in 2005 at a Romanian convent resulted in the death of Maricica Irina Cornici, a 23-year-old nun who said she heard the devil telling her she was sinful. With assistance from four nuns, priest Daniel Corogeanu bound Cornici to a cross, gagged her mouth with a towel, and left her for three days without food or water. Cornici, who had a history of schizophrenia, died of suffocation and dehydration.

The Vatican accepts only a small percentage of demonic possessions as "authentic," which of course suggests that there are many unauthentic cases of possession. The Vatican issued official guidelines on exorcism in 1614 and revised them in 1999.

In addition to Catholic Church-sanctioned exorcists such as those in The International Association of Exorcists, there are countless exorcists with little or no official church affiliation.

For example, an Arizona man named Bob Larson, who claims to have conducted over 10,000 exorcisms (or about one a day) since 1982, trained his teenage daughter and her friends to conduct the ritual. Thousands of other self-styled exorcists, from Pentecostal preachers to voodoo priests, do the same thing around the world.

Author Michael Cuneo, who participated in more than 50 exorcisms while researching his book, "American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty" (2002, Broadway Books) found no reason to think that anything supernatural occurs during exorcisms. Instead, most of those deemed possessed suffered from treatable mental illness.

Read more at Discovery News

The Tiny Blood-Slurping Bird That Terrorizes the Galapagos

The vampire bird’s favorite song is Slayer’s “Raining Blood.” Its second-favorite is “A Rush of Blood to the Head” by Coldplay. The vampire bird is a pretty emotionally complex creature.
The Galapagos Islands are as beautiful as they are unforgiving. Patrick Watkins could have told you as much when his captain rudely marooned him there in 1805 for acting like an ass. According to legend, mostly coming from Watkins himself, he managed to scrape by alone on the island, trading vegetables with passing ships for grog. He’d then tie on a good drunk, and the crews that intermittently landed would find him sunburned and ragged and raving, a menace no captain in his right mind would volunteer to rescue.

Watkins, though, wasn’t the only terror on the Galapagos. You see, Wolf Island, an often brutally dry rock in the archipelago, is ruled by vampires—hordes and hordes of tiny vampires. These are the so-called vampire finches, enterprising critters in a brutal environment that have figured out how to nip at the tail feathers of other birds until they draw blood, somehow without their victim putting up much of a fight. Even though they don’t sparkle or battle werewolves or whatever, they’re marvels among the many marvels that are the famed Darwin’s finches.

If a vampire bird looks at you like this and you’re for some reason dressed up like a bird, flee immediately.
Ken Petren, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Cincinnati, landed on Wolf Island in April to study these remarkable vampires, actually a subspecies of the sharp-beaked ground finch, and didn’t even lose his mind and eventually throw his colleagues overboard. “I could say that I was pretty skeptical of the whole vampire finch thing, having heard about it and realizing that there’s not a ton of data on it, mostly just some observations,” he said.

But what he found was far more macabre than the typical recorded accounts of vampire finches pestering the living daylights out of adult boobies. “On this island they really seem to be purposefully going up to a booby chick in the nest,” Petren said, “and they peck at the base of their tail where they have oil glands, and they make it bleed and they drink the blood.”

Even more menacing, they have a habit of gathering in mobs for such endeavors, watching each other intently to learn how to be unimaginably annoying for the rest of their lives. And although Petren saw them swarming dead chicks, he hesitates to conclude that the finches were responsible for the deaths. Life in this hot, dry environment is tough, so mortality rates for seabirds are quite high as it is, and he has no direct observations of finches actively hunting the babies.

Now, these young are defenseless, but why would an adult booby not just swing around and snatch up the tiny vampire? The booby’s got plenty of blood to spare, sure, but you’d imagine it’d rather hang on to it, plus there’s obvious discomfort involved.

It could be that the vampire finches are the veritable Borgs of the Galapagos: resisting them is futile. They swarm in astounding numbers—by Petren’s reckoning, they outnumber every other finch species on all of the islands combined—so it may be that putting up a fight is simply worthless. Fight off one vampire and others will just take its place like miniature hydras.

It might also be an extension of cleaning behavior. Indeed, “we saw on this trip the finches on some of the iguanas picking off ticks,” said Petren. It may well be that the vampire finches once provided the service to seabirds, before realizing there’s a better payday in digging deeper for blood, which is quite energy-rich (just ask vampire bats or mosquitoes or Mike Tyson).

Even living in a nice shell won’t save you from the vampire finches. They’re on the lookout for eggs to steal, too. “The birds will put their head down on the ground and lift their feet up and push eggs so the eggs will roll off a cliff and break,” said Petren. “And then they go hovering in and sip up all the yolk.”

Ugh, don’t eat that. You’re going to eat that anyway aren’t you? Alright don’t say I didn’t warn you.
“And it’s funny,” he added. “As you get one that’s sitting there trying to roll an egg, all of the other ones come around and they’re watching, and they’re watching, and they’re waiting in this little crowd of vampires all waiting for the goods to be spilled. And each one will take his turn and go in there and try to roll the egg.”

Blood and eggs are just two of the many items on the vampire finch’s menu, though. It’s a generalist, also taking seeds and even drinking up the vomit of other birds, because why the hell not. The vampire’s wickedly sharp beak is perfectly adapted for this lifestyle, allowing it to not only pierce flesh but to also open up fruits and drink nectar. It has to be creative on this unforgiving island, especially during droughts, when finch populations can crash by as much as 90 percent, according to Petren.

The other finches on the islands vary greatly in the size and shapes of their own beaks, each suited to a specialty, like bigger beaks for crushing tough seeds. These birds are collectively known as Darwin’s finches, and they’re a lovely manifestation of how evolutionary time brings about adaptations to an environment. Evolve a bigger beak, say, and you can eat seeds other birds can’t, boosting your chances of survival (and earning you a fair amount of dirty looks from other species).

Four Darwin’s finches ranked in no particular order because if you upset them they’ll stab you.
But countless years of beautiful evolution can’t prepare finches and other critters for the only force on these islands more deadly than drought: human beings. We’ve introduced countless invasive species to the Galapagos Islands, from goats to ducks to wasps, and while most native species haven’t yet faced collapse, authorities are constantly battling to keep the invaders in check. But luckily, Wolf Island, home of the vampire finch, is one of a few remaining archipelagos that’s pristine, only because scientists like Petren go through rigorous quarantine before they’re allowed to land (tourists are forbidden from stepping foot here, but are allowed to dive around the island).

Read more at Wired Science

Jul 3, 2014

Newfound Wasp Stacks Ant Skeletons in Its Home

A newly discovered wasp has been keeping a gruesome secret: It stuffs ant corpses into the walls of its home.

As far as scientists know, the behavior is unique in the animal kingdom. The new creature has been named Deuteragenia ossarium, or the "bone-house wasp," after the historical ossuaries piled high with human skeletons found in monasteries or graveyards.

"It was a totally unexpected discovery," said Michael Staab, a researcher at the University of Freiburg in Germany.

Staab had been studying the homemaking habits of cavity-nesting wasps in eastern China, and he and his colleagues had set up trap nests in the Gutianshan National Nature Reserve, a subtropical evergreen forest in the Yangtze River Basin that's home to steep cliffs and animals like clouded leopards and Asian black bears.

Cavity-nesting wasps may live in self-made holes or pre-existing tunnels in plants or pieces of wood. These cavities typically contain several brood cells — the wasp equivalent of a single hexagon in a beeswax comb — which are separated by thin walls made of bits of plant, resin or soil. Scientists have even found bits of insects in the mix.

But when Staab's team collected the trap nests, they found something unusual: In 73 of the nests, the researchers discovered an outer cell packed with the whole bodies of dead ants. The species behind the corpse houses was a spider-hunting wasp previously unknown to science. The findings were detailed today (July 2) in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

Staab said he was puzzled by the discovery until he considered the location of the carcass-filled cells. The dead ants were always found in an outer vestibular cell, a chamber built by a female wasp to close the nest after she lays eggs.

Wasp architects may favor dead ants as a building material because of the way their carcasses smell, Staab and his team suspect. Scents on the ants' bodies, even in death, might offer camouflage or protection from predators — a red flag to stay away — as many ants are fierce defenders of their nests, the researchers wrote. The ant most commonly found in walls of wasp homes was Pachycondyla astuta, an aggressive ant species with a mean sting that's abundant in the region.

Because the brood cells are where the wasps' larvae live, this strategy may help ensure the survival of their young.

Staab said he and his colleagues never directly observed the wasps building one of their bone houses, nor did they see the wasps kill ants to turn them into "bricks."

"However, due to the very good condition of all ant specimens in the ant chambers, we assume that the wasp must actively hunt the ants and not collect dead ants from the refuse piles of ant colonies," Staab told Live Science in an email.

Read more at Discovery News

Scorpions Build Mansions with Sun Rooms, Cool Beds

Scorpions are master architects, constructing homes that include both a sunning platform and a cool room that retains humidity, according to new research.

The findings, which will be presented Thursday, July 3, at the Society for Experimental Biology’s annual meeting, prove that homes built by animals other than humans can be incredibly comfy and functional, even when they're located in extreme environments.

Scorpion homes have never before been seen in detail, given that they’re located underground and require special equipment to investigate. Also, few people want to hang around scorpions for long, given their formidable stingers. But Amanda Adams, of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, was up to the challenge.

Adams and her research team began by carefully trapping large-clawed scorpions (Scorpio maurus palmatus) found in Israel's Negev Desert.

Next they prepared replica casts of the scorpions’ burrows. To do this, the researchers filled the burrows with molten aluminum. When the casts solidified, they were removed and analyzed with a 3D laser scanner and computer software. The scientists were then able to see how sophisticated the burrows were.

Each burrow began with a short, vertical entrance shaft that flattened out close to the surface. This flat area, a sunning platform, allows the scorpion to safely warm itself before going out at night to forage. (The researchers explained that scorpions are ectothermic animals, meaning they rely on energy from the environment to regulate their internal body temperature.)

Beyond the sunning platform, the burrows turned sharply downward, descending farther below ground until they reached a dead-end chamber -- a cool, humid, comfortable place for the scorpion to rest during the day, with minimal evaporative water loss.

Read more at Discovery News

'Big Bang' Scientists to Team-up With Planck Space Telescope?

When the BICEP2 collaboration announced the discovery of gravitational waves in the cosmic microwave background radiation, it seemed that one model of how the Universe was born had been confirmed. However, although cosmic inflation is still a valid theoretical model, the BICEP2 observations have been under fire since March, causing the cosmologists to admit that their results may be skewed by intervening galactic dust.

Now it seems that BICEP2, which is headed by scientists based in the US, is looking toward its ‘competitor’ for help.

According to a BBC News report, the BICEP2 scientists are in discussions with the European Planck space telescope team to form a partnership, share data and potentially publish a joint paper later this year.

“We’re still discussing the details but the idea is to exchange data between the two teams and eventually come out with a joint paper,” Planck project scientist Jan Tauber told the BBC’s Jonathan Amos.

The question of gravitational waves embedded in the cosmic microwave background, or CMB, was thrown onto the public stage when, in March, BICEP2 scientists announced they’d acquired observational evidence of these waves from their South Pole-based telescope, providing unequivocal evidence for the inflationary period immediately after the Big Bang.

According to leading theories of the genesis of our Universe nearly 14 billion years ago, inflation had to have occurred in the fraction of a second after the Big Bang. If the theory is correct, this universal expansion would have happened faster than the speed of light, out of which the entire known Universe would have condensed. Although there is indirect evidence that this happened (the CMB itself is evidence of the ‘echo’ of the Big Bang), cosmologists have been hungrily chasing down any signal of gravitational waves etched in that background echo.

Gravitational waves are still purely theoretical, but Einstein predicted their existence when he formulated his general theory of relativity a century ago. Although they are thought to pervade the entire cosmos, and thought to have been generated in abundance after the Big Bang, gravitational waves have been notoriously difficult to detect. That was until the BICEP2 scientists announced the discovery of ‘B-mode polarization’ in the radiation emitted by the CMB.

This polarized squiggle in the CMB, according to the BICEP2 team, was evidence of gravitational waves that were generated during the inflationary period and, by extension, provided tantalizing evidence for quantum gravity around the time of the Big Bang.

But a scientific storm was quickly brewing. The BICEP2 results were announced before any research had been published to a scientific journal, and many cosmologists not associated with the work voiced their concerns.

The problem, argued critics, is that the BICEP2 telescope has to look through galactic dust within the Milky Way. This dust generates its own polarization signature that could be misconstrued as B-mode polarization from the CMB. Though the BICEP2 scientists contend that they took the necessary precautions and accounted for this dust, when their work was finally published last month, the team admitted that there was a possibility of interference.

The BICEP2 team had used incomplete Planck data to account for the dusty polarization and only when the complete Planck data set is made public later this year will cosmologists be able to sufficiently account for the interference.

Now it seems that rather than competing with their European counterparts, the BICEP2 team are going to form a partnership where data is shared and a joint paper will hopefully be published.

Read more at Discovery News

Hubble Survey Spots Two New Objects Beyond Pluto

Scientists looking for targets beyond Pluto for NASA’s New Horizon’s spacecraft to visit will get more time on the Hubble Space Telescope, managers decided after a two-week pilot study revealed at least two candidate objects.

The New Horizons team had spent three fruitless years using ground-based telescopes to find a Kuiper Belt Object that will be within range of New Horizons after its July 14, 2015, flyby of Pluto. Last month, scientists got two weeks of observing time on Hubble for initial scans.

The deal was that if they found at least two candidates, they could have another 160 orbits worth of telescope time to ferret out a second suitable target for New Horizons.

The spacecraft, which was launched in 2006, is on track to become the first probe to visit the dwarf planet Pluto, located some 4.7 billion miles from Earth in the Kuiper Belt. New Horizons must fire its maneuvering engine by December 2015 to put itself on track for another Kuiper Belt Object flyby, lead scientist Alan Stern told Discovery News.

The Kuiper Belt is an area of icy bodies left over from the formation of the solar system. It is named after astronomer Gerard Kuiper, who theorized the existence of the belt in a 1951 science paper. The first Kuiper Belt Objects were found in the early 1990s. About 1,000 have been identified so far, but scientists suspect many more exist.

Analysis of an initial 200 Hubble images, taken between June 16 and June 26, showed that at least two Kuiper Belt Objects might be within range of New Horizons.

“I am delighted that our initial investment of Hubble time paid off,” Matt Mountain director of the Space Telescope Science Institute that oversees Hubble science observations, said in a statement.

A more detailed search is scheduled to begin this month and conclude in August.

From Discovery News

Jul 2, 2014

New Beetle Species Found in Deepest Known Cave

There's a new beetle in town, and its name is Duvalius Abyssimus, a resident in good standing of the planet's deepest known cave.

Researchers from two universities in Spain announced in the journal Zootaxa that they had collected two specimens -- a male and a female -- of the new beetle living deep in Krubera cave, in Russia's Western Caucasus.

The Krubera is deeper than any cave we know about, spanning more than 7,000 feet between its entrance and its deepest known point. Just reaching its greatest explored depth requires diving skills to get past flooded underground chambers.

As for the new beetle, it's certainly in the right family tree for cave-dwelling. Most species in its Duvalius genus are experienced in the subterranean ways.

But this newest genus member doesn't have all of the accouterments of the super-serious grotto resident. That's because it has something many highly specialized deep-cave dwellers don't: eyes.

The new species was found by researchers Ana Sofía Reboleira, from the Universities of Aveiro and La Laguna, and Vicente M. Ortuño, from the University of Alcalá.

"The discovery of the new beetle provides important data on species that co-exist in these almost unknown ecosystems, even more so when they are found in a geographical area that is very difficult to access," said Ortuño. "Such is the case with this cave."

From Discovery News

First Birds Valued Fashion Over Flight

Archaeopteryx, the iconic early bird that lived around 150 million years ago, sported feathered “trousers” on its hind limbs as well as other decorative feathers, and researchers now believe at least some non-avian dinosaur and bird feathers evolved for flashy display before they were later recruited for flight.

That's the conclusion of a new study, published in the journal Nature, which describes a remarkable new specimen of Archaeopteryx that includes extensive feather preservation.

“The excellent preservation of the feathers in the new specimen helps to clarify many contentious issues,” senior author Oliver Rauhut of Ludwig-Maximilians University Munich told Discovery News. “The specimen not only shows the wing and tail feathers in great detail, but also body plumage and feathers along the hind limbs…(which are) similar to the feather ‘trousers’ found in many modern birds of prey.”

The researchers determined that quill-like feathers covered Archaeopteryx’s entire body up to its head. Its hind limb feathers were symmetrical, indicating they didn't help with flight.

Its tail feathers were extremely long -- more than 60 percent of the length of its bony tail -- with some being asymmetrical and therefore useful in flight. Its wing feathers were also suitable for flight, and appear to have been just as strong as those seen in modern flying birds.

“There are a number of indications that Archaeopteryx was capable of aerial locomotion, but just how well it could fly remains debated,” Rauhut said, adding that the jury is still out as to whether Archaeopteryx was a non-avian dinosaur or a bird. That’s because the transition from one to the other happened gradually.

Current evidence does, however, suggest that Archaeopteryx was a representative of the main evolutionary lineage going toward birds. The evidence also suggests that Archaeopteryx and its dinosaur predecessors were colorful and flashy.

Rauhut shared that “it is very likely that dinosaurs could see colors, and many animals that have this capability tend to be colorful.” Prior studies support this theory.

He and his team suspect that, like modern birds, the colorful feathers likely were used in displays, such as for mating.

It appears that proto-feathers originally evolved for regulating body temperature. The quill-like contour feathers, on the other hand, could have first evolved for show.

“Once present, these feathers could then be adapted for many other functions, such as balance during fast running, protecting and shading the eggs during breeding, and flight,” Rauhut said.

“This is a fine and important piece of work on a great new specimen,” said Mark Norell, division chair and curator-in-charge of the American Museum of Natural History’s Division of Paleontology. “It clearly shows that the evolution of hind limb feathers is very complex and the evolution of feathers as a whole is de-coupled from flight.”

Read more at Discovery News

'Bigfoot' Cases Solved, But a New Mystery Surfaces

Genetic analysis of hair attributed to Bigfoot found no support for that claim, but hairs linked to the Yeti were determined to belong to a mysterious bear species that may not yet be known to science.

The research, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, marks a rare intersection of peer-reviewed science and cryptozoology, which is the search for, and study of, animals whose existence or survival is disputed or unsubstantiated.

The study solely focused on hair samples, and did not address the footprints, photographs, recorded sounds and other “evidence” purportedly linked to Bigfoot, the Yeti and similar supposedly human-like creatures.

“The whole thrust of the project and this paper is that the ‘other evidence’ may convince believers, but has not convinced anyone else,” lead author Bryan Sykes, professor of human genetics at the University of Oxford, told Discovery News. “It is evidence of a sort, but very poor.”

A total of 57 hair samples obtained from museum and individual collections underwent examination, with 36 of the samples selected for genetic analysis based on their provenance or historic interest.

The supposed Bigfoot hairs were found to belong to the following: a raccoon, sheep, American black bear, North American porcupine, wolf, coyote, dog, white-tailed deer, mule deer, horse, cow and human.

Hairs attributed to Russian Almas (aka “wild men”) belonged to a brown bear, horse, cow, American black bear, brown bear and a raccoon.

Hairs attributed to an Orang Pendek (aka “short person”) belonged to a Malaysian tapir.

Hairs linked to the Yeti belonged to a serow, (a goat antelope), and to the mysterious bear.

“The paper refers to two Himalayan samples attributed to yetis and which turned out to be related to an ancient polar bear,” Sykes explained. “This may be the source of the legend in the Himalayas.”

He continued, “Since I found two of these bears at either end of the Himalayas, it is reasonable to imagine there are others. We are planning an expedition to find one in the wild and study its behavior.”

Based on the Himalayan accounts, the mysterious bear could behave more aggressively toward humans than known indigenous bear species. The hairs were golden-brown and reddish-brown in color.

Sykes and his team hesitate to put the nail in the coffin of the Bigfoot legend, but the case for this mythical, 7 to 10-foot-tall man beast has weakened yet again.

Prior research found that supposed roars and screeches from “Bigfoot” were calls of coyotes, which vocalize in complex ways, and Barred owls. The latter’s hooting call, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, sounds like someone saying, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”

In a commentary published in the same journal, Norman MacLeod of London’s Natural History Museum writes, “Cryptozoologists must now either accept the findings of the Sykes team or show where they are in error. Mainstream zoologists must also now recognize that, in the case of hair samples, the claims of the cryptozoological community are now amenable to scientific testing and potential verification.”

Read more at Discovery News

Viking 'Hammer of Thor' Unearthed

Danish archaeologists have solved the mystery over the significance of the Mjöllnir amulets worn by the Vikings. Indeed, they represented Thor’s hammer, the researchers said.

More than 1,000 intricately carved pendants shaped like hammers have been found across Northern Europe since the first millennium A.D.

Although it was widely believed these amulets were hammers, a debate remained over their true meaning. The objects’s unusual shape, featuring a short handle and a symmetrical head, raised doubts whether they represented something else entirely.

Now a 10th-century Viking amulet unearthed in Købelev, on the Danish island of Lolland, has provided a definitive answer.

“Hmar x is,” runes inscribed on the tiny amulet stated. Translated into modern English, it reads: “This is a hammer.”

“This is the only hammer-shaped pendant with a runic inscription. And it tells us that (the pendants) in fact depict hammers,” Henrik Schilling, a spokeperson at the National Museum of Denmark, told Discovery News.

Cast in bronze, and likely plated with silver, tin and gold, the 1,100-year-old pendant shows that Thor’s myth deeply influenced Viking jewelry.

A warrior god of thunder, Thor appears throughout Norse mythology holding the powerful hammer Mjolnir, which he uses to protect Asgard, the celestial fortress of the gods, from giants.

It is now clear that Viking men and women wore Thor’s hammer for protection.

“It was the amulet’s protective power that counted,” Peter Pentz, an archaeologist at the National Museum of Denmark, said.

“Often we see torshammere (Thor’s hammer) and Christian crosses appearing together, providing double protection,” he added.

Read more at Discovery News

Tibetans Are Related to a Now-Extinct Human Species

Tibetans retain DNA from a species of human that they ironically helped push to extinction, according to a new study published in the journal Nature.

The gene allows Tibetans to adapt to high altitudes of 15,000 feet or more, researchers found.

“We have very clear evidence that this version of the gene came from Denisovans,” said principal author Rasmus Nielsen, a Berkeley professor of integrative biology, in a press release. Denisovans were a mysterious human relative that went extinct 40,000-50,000 years ago, around the same time as the more well-known Neanderthals, under pressure from modern humans.

“This shows very clearly and directly that humans evolved and adapted to new environments by getting their genes from another species,” Nielsen said.

That’s significant because it means we are all probably mutts, descended from more than one species of human. Homo sapiens didn’t just evolve and somehow lead to all modern humans today. Homo sapiens instead interbred with other species seemingly wherever they met, from Africa to Europe to, in this case, Asia.

What’s new and particularly interesting about this study is that it’s the first time a gene from another species of human has been shown unequivocally to help modern humans adapt to their environment.

The gene variant allows Tibetans to survive low-oxygen levels at high elevations that would cause others to develop thick blood, leading to cardiovascular problems. The gene passed down from Denisovans, called EPAS1, activates when oxygen levels in the blood drop, triggering production of more hemoglobin, which is the red-colored protein responsible for transporting oxygen in blood.

Too much hemoglobin thickens blood, which can result in heart attacks and death. The gene only leads to slight increases of hemoglobin — just enough to counter the oxygen reduction experienced on mountaintops.

“We found part of the EPAS1 gene in Tibetans is almost identical to the gene in Denisovans and very different from all other humans,” Nielsen said. “We can do a statistical analysis to show that this must have come from Denisovans. There is no other way of explaining the data.”

The researchers made this determination after conducting blood tests on Tibetans. Previously, researchers sequenced a Denisovan bone found in a Siberian cave, so Nielsen and his team were able to match the Denisovan gene to the one found in Tibetans’ blood.

Read more at Discovery News

Jul 1, 2014

Big Quakes Double in 2014, But They're Not Linked

If you think there have been more earthquakes than usual this year, you're right. A new study finds there were more than twice as many big earthquakes in the first quarter of 2014 as compared with the average since 1979.

"We have recently experienced a period that has had one of the highest rates of great earthquakes ever recorded," said lead study author Tom Parsons, a research geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Menlo Park, California.

But even though the global earthquake rate is on the rise, the number of quakes can still be explained by random chance, said Parsons and co-author Eric Geist, also a USGS researcher. Their findings were published online June 21 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

With so many earthquakes rattling the planet in 2014, Parsons actually hoped he might find the opposite — that the increase in big earthquakes comes from one large quake setting off another huge shaker. Earlier research has shown that seismic waves from one earthquake can travel around the world and trigger tiny temblors elsewhere.

"As our group has been interested in the ability of an earthquake to affect others at a global scale, we wondered if we were seeing it happening. I really expected we would see evidence of something we couldn't explain by randomness," Parsons told Live Science's Our Amazing Planet in an email interview.

The new study isn't the first time researchers have tried and failed to link one earthquake to another in time and across distance. Earlier studies found that the biggest earthquakes on the planet — the magnitude-8 and magnitude-9 quakes — typically trigger much smaller jolts, tiny magnitude-2 and magnitude-3 rumblers. Yet, no one has ever proven that large quakes unleash other large quakes. Finding a statistical connection between big earthquakes is a step toward proving such connections takes place.

But despite the recent earthquake storm, the world's great earthquakes still seem to strike at random, the new study found.

The average rate of big earthquakes — those larger than magnitude 7 — has been 10 per year since 1979, the study reports. That rate rose to 12.5 per year starting in 1992, and then jumped to 16.7 per year starting in 2010 — a 65 percent increase compared to the rate since 1979. This increase accelerated in the first three months of 2014 to more than double the average since 1979, the researchers report.

The rise in earthquakes is statistically similar to the results of flipping a coin, Parsons said: Sometimes heads or tails will repeat several times in a row, even though the process is random.

"Basically, we can't prove that what we saw during the first part of 2014, as well as since 2010, isn't simply a similar thing to getting six tails in a row," he said.

But Parsons said the statistical findings don't rule out the possibility that the largest earthquakes may trigger one another across great distances. Researchers may simply lack the data to understand such global "communication," he said.

"It's possible that global-level communications happen so infrequently that we haven't seen enough to find it among the larger, rarer events," Parsons said.

Read more at Discovery News

Rome's Colosseum a Condominium in Medieval Times

Forget gory shows and gladiatorial combat. In the late Middle Ages, Rome's Colosseum was a huge condominium, says the latest archaeological investigation into Rome's most iconic monument.

Archaeologists from Roma Tre University and students from the American University of Rome unearthed evidence showing that ordinary Romans lived within the Colosseum from the ninth century until at least 1349, when the building was seriously damaged by an earthquake.

During a three-week excavation beneath some of the arched entrances that lead into the arena, the archaeologists discovered terracotta sewage pipes, potsherds and the foundations of a 12th-century wall that once enclosed one of the properties.

"This excavation has allowed us to identify an entire housing lot from the late medieval period," Rossella Rea, the director of the Colosseum, said.

The unusual medieval condo also included stables and workshops. Square feet inside the Colosseum were rented out as areas of housing by friars of the nearby Santa Maria Nova convent, who had taken control of the monument.

All houses and workshops opened onto the central arena where gladiators once fought.

"Indeed, that area was used as a common space," Riccardo Santangeli Valenzani, professor of medieval archaeology at Roma Tre University and the director of the dig, said.

Acting as huge courtyard, the arena buzzled with people, animals and goods. There, the archaeologists found cooking pottery and an intriguing object: a figurine of a tiny monkey carved in ivory. Most likely, it was used as a pawn in a chess game.

An iconic symbol of imperial Rome, the Colosseum was built in A.D. 72 by the Flavian emperor Vespasian on the marshy bed of a drained lake.

Seating up to 50,000 spectators, the amphitheater was opened in A.D. 80 by Vespasian's son Titus with a festival that lasted 100 days and included gladiatorial combats, fights with wild beasts and naval battles, for which the arena was flooded.

Over the centuries, the Colosseum has survived three major earthquakes and disastrous fire. After the emperor Honorius prohibited the bloody gladiatorial combats in 404, the building fell into disuse and decay.

It was known that medieval Romans used it as a garbage dump and a stone quarry for the construction of such buildings as Saint Peter's Basilica.

The recent excavation has revealed another piece of the monument's history. And more has yet to be discovered.

Read more at Discovery News

Acupuncture Can Spread Tuberculosis, Researchers Warn

A new study has found an unusual risk in acupuncture: tuberculosis, which kills over 1 million people each year. While pulmonary tuberculosis is the best known and most common form, the infection can also be spread through skin contact.

Acupuncture, the traditional Chinese treatment of placing of needles in the body, is said to cure people of various ailments. Proponents believe that the needles control energy fields in the human body and treat medical issues. However, the energies that acupuncturists claim to manipulate have never been proven to exist and cannot be detected by any scientific instrument.

The article was published last week on the open-access journal PLoS-ONE and titled "Analysis of 30 Patients with Acupuncture-Induced Primary Inoculation Tuberculosis." In it the researchers described "Seven confirmed and 23 suspected, total 30 patients (13 male and 17 female) with primary inoculation tuberculosis were selected from the same clinic in Wenzhou City, China that specialized in treatment of muscle and soft tissue pain and osteoarthritis of the knee.... Patients ages ranged from 31 to 71 years... had all undergone acupuncture and electrotherapy, administered by the same clinician, once every two days for about two weeks for the treatment of neck, back, elbow, wrist, hip, knee and ankle pain. The procedures took place between May 2011 and August 2011."

About half of the patients came down with fevers, night sweats and other symptoms; several had open sores and skin lesions. The researchers were unable to pinpoint the exact route of transmission, whether the infections were the result of dirty needles, electrotherapeutic pads or other equipment. However, acupuncture was clearly the common factor; all patients received treatment and have since recovered.

Acupuncture: Risks Versus Benefits

This is not the first time that acupuncture has been implicated in the spread of disease. A 2010 study published in the British Medical Journal found that dirty acupuncture needles have caused dozens of serious infections, including hepatitis B and C.

Of course all medical treatments involve risks, so the question becomes one of a cost/benefit analysis: Do the benefits of acupuncture outweigh the risks? The fact is that there is real question in the medical community about whether acupuncture is effective at all.

Consumer advocate Dr. Steven Novella of the Science-Based Medicine website explains that the scientific evidence for acupuncture is inconsistent. Some studies show some small effect for a limited number of conditions (such as pain relief and anxiety), but many others don't. Furthermore, the conditions that acupuncture is most effective for are those that respond well to the placebo effect.

In other words, acupuncture is no more or less effective than a sugar pill with no active ingredient. Patients feel slightly better because they expect to feel better, not because needles were inserted into special points on their skin to redirect unknown energies. When a drug or treatment works no better than a placebo, in the field of medicine that means it doesn't work.

Read more at Discovery News

Gliese 832c: Life-Roasting 'Super-Venus' Discovered

One of the key incentives behind hunting down exoplanets is to find alien worlds with qualities similar to Earth. But in the case of a newly-discovered exoplanet orbiting a star only 16 light-years away, although astronomers may call it ‘habitable’ and a ‘super-Earth,’ it’s likely anything but.

Gliese 832c orbits a red dwarf star and it was discovered by the international Anglo-Australian Planet Search team led by Robert Wittenmyer of the University of New South Wales, Australia. The discovery has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.

Red dwarfs are small, dim stars that generate far less energy than our sun. Therefore, for a red dwarf-orbiting planet to maintain water in a liquid state on its surface, it must orbit much closer to the star. In the case of Gliese 832, its ‘habitable zone’ is very compact and Gliese 832c has an orbital period of just under 36 days. The possibly-rocky world, which is around 5 times the mass of Earth, is therefore considered ‘habitable.’ In fact, Gliese 832c is considered to be the third-most habitable world known so far on the Earth Similarity Index (ESI).

But don’t go having dreams of blue skies, opal oceans and lush, alien forests — this world would likely choke any life (well, life as we know it).

“Given the large mass of the planet, it seems likely that it would possess a massive atmosphere, which may well render the planet inhospitable,” said co-investigator Chris Tinney, also of UNSW. “A denser atmosphere would trap heat and could make it more like a super-Venus and too hot for life.”

Like Venus, Gliese 832c is probably enduring intense warming caused by a runaway greenhouse effect. In this case, although the planet’s orbital location should allow liquid water to persist, any water would likely be ripped apart on a molecular level by intense atmospheric heating and ultraviolet light from the star, a process known as dissociation.

Of course, the astronomers have no idea what chemicals are contained within Gliese 832c’s atmosphere. The world was discovered through its gravitational pull on its parent star, so no information about its atmosphere (if it indeed has one) and any water it contains is known. The wobbling effect (which can be detected through precise radial velocity measurements) was detected by combining observations by the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) at Siding Spring Observatory, Australia, the 6.5 meter Magellan Telescope and the European Southern Observatory’s 3.6 meter telescope (both located in Chile).

Read more at Discovery News

Jun 30, 2014

Have We Been Interpreting Quantum Mechanics Wrong This Whole Time?

A droplet bouncing on the surface of a liquid has been found to exhibit many quantum-like properties, including double-slit interference, tunneling and energy quantization.
For nearly a century, “reality” has been a murky concept. The laws of quantum physics seem to suggest that particles spend much of their time in a ghostly state, lacking even basic properties such as a definite location and instead existing everywhere and nowhere at once. Only when a particle is measured does it suddenly materialize, appearing to pick its position as if by a roll of the dice.

This idea that nature is inherently probabilistic — that particles have no hard properties, only likelihoods, until they are observed — is directly implied by the standard equations of quantum mechanics. But now a set of surprising experiments with fluids has revived old skepticism about that worldview. The bizarre results are fueling interest in an almost forgotten version of quantum mechanics, one that never gave up the idea of a single, concrete reality.

The experiments involve an oil droplet that bounces along the surface of a liquid. The droplet gently sloshes the liquid with every bounce. At the same time, ripples from past bounces affect its course. The droplet’s interaction with its own ripples, which form what’s known as a pilot wave, causes it to exhibit behaviors previously thought to be peculiar to elementary particles — including behaviors seen as evidence that these particles are spread through space like waves, without any specific location, until they are measured.

Particles at the quantum scale seem to do things that human-scale objects do not do. They can tunnel through barriers, spontaneously arise or annihilate, and occupy discrete energy levels. This new body of research reveals that oil droplets, when guided by pilot waves, also exhibit these quantum-like features.

To some researchers, the experiments suggest that quantum objects are as definite as droplets, and that they too are guided by pilot waves — in this case, fluid-like undulations in space and time. These arguments have injected new life into a deterministic (as opposed to probabilistic) theory of the microscopic world first proposed, and rejected, at the birth of quantum mechanics.

“This is a classical system that exhibits behavior that people previously thought was exclusive to the quantum realm, and we can say why,” said John Bush, a professor of applied mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has led several recent bouncing-droplet experiments. “The more things we understand and can provide a physical rationale for, the more difficult it will be to defend the ‘quantum mechanics is magic’ perspective.”

Magical Measurements

The orthodox view of quantum mechanics, known as the “Copenhagen interpretation” after the home city of Danish physicist Niels Bohr, one of its architects, holds that particles play out all possible realities simultaneously. Each particle is represented by a “probability wave” weighting these various possibilities, and the wave collapses to a definite state only when the particle is measured. The equations of quantum mechanics do not address how a particle’s properties solidify at the moment of measurement, or how, at such moments, reality picks which form to take. But the calculations work. As Seth Lloyd, a quantum physicist at MIT, put it, “Quantum mechanics is just counterintuitive and we just have to suck it up.”

When light illuminates a pair of slits in a screen (top), the two overlapping wavefronts cooperate in some places and cancel out in between, producing an interference pattern. The pattern appears even when particles are shot toward the screen one by one (bottom), as if each particle passes through both slits at once, like a wave.
A classic experiment in quantum mechanics that seems to demonstrate the probabilistic nature of reality involves a beam of particles (such as electrons) propelled one by one toward a pair of slits in a screen. When no one keeps track of each electron’s trajectory, it seems to pass through both slits simultaneously. In time, the electron beam creates a wavelike interference pattern of bright and dark stripes on the other side of the screen. But when a detector is placed in front of one of the slits, its measurement causes the particles to lose their wavelike omnipresence, collapse into definite states, and travel through one slit or the other. The interference pattern vanishes. The great 20th-century physicist Richard Feynman said that this double-slit experiment “has in it the heart of quantum mechanics,” and “is impossible, absolutely impossible, to explain in any classical way.”

Some physicists now disagree. “Quantum mechanics is very successful; nobody’s claiming that it’s wrong,” said Paul Milewski, a professor of mathematics at the University of Bath in England who has devised computer models of bouncing-droplet dynamics. “What we believe is that there may be, in fact, some more fundamental reason why [quantum mechanics] looks the way it does.”

Riding Waves

The idea that pilot waves might explain the peculiarities of particles dates back to the early days of quantum mechanics. The French physicist Louis de Broglie presented the earliest version of pilot-wave theory at the 1927 Solvay Conference in Brussels, a famous gathering of the founders of the field. As de Broglie explained that day to Bohr, Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg and two dozen other celebrated physicists, pilot-wave theory made all the same predictions as the probabilistic formulation of quantum mechanics (which wouldn’t be referred to as the “Copenhagen” interpretation until the 1950s), but without the ghostliness or mysterious collapse.

The probabilistic version, championed by Bohr, involves a single equation that represents likely and unlikely locations of particles as peaks and troughs of a wave. Bohr interpreted this probability-wave equation as a complete definition of the particle. But de Broglie urged his colleagues to use two equations: one describing a real, physical wave, and another tying the trajectory of an actual, concrete particle to the variables in that wave equation, as if the particle interacts with and is propelled by the wave rather than being defined by it.

For example, consider the double-slit experiment. In de Broglie’s pilot-wave picture, each electron passes through just one of the two slits, but is influenced by a pilot wave that splits and travels through both slits. Like flotsam in a current, the particle is drawn to the places where the two wavefronts cooperate, and does not go where they cancel out.

De Broglie could not predict the exact place where an individual particle would end up — just like Bohr’s version of events, pilot-wave theory predicts only the statistical distribution of outcomes, or the bright and dark stripes — but the two men interpreted this shortcoming differently. Bohr claimed that particles don’t have definite trajectories; de Broglie argued that they do, but that we can’t measure each particle’s initial position well enough to deduce its exact path.

In principle, however, the pilot-wave theory is deterministic: The future evolves dynamically from the past, so that, if the exact state of all the particles in the universe were known at a given instant, their states at all future times could be calculated.

At the Solvay conference, Einstein objected to a probabilistic universe, quipping, “God does not play dice,” but he seemed ambivalent about de Broglie’s alternative. Bohr told Einstein to “stop telling God what to do,” and (for reasons that remain in dispute) he won the day. By 1932, when the Hungarian-American mathematician John von Neumann claimed to have proven that the probabilistic wave equation in quantum mechanics could have no “hidden variables” (that is, missing components, such as de Broglie’s particle with its well-defined trajectory), pilot-wave theory was so poorly regarded that most physicists believed von Neumann’s proof without even reading a translation.

At the fifth Solvay Conference, a 1927 meeting of the founders of quantum mechanics, Louis de Broglie (middle row, third from right) argued for a deterministic formulation of quantum mechanics called pilot-wave theory. But a probabilistic version of the theory championed by Niels Bohr (middle row, far right) won the day.
More than 30 years would pass before von Neumann’s proof was shown to be false, but by then the damage was done. The physicist David Bohm resurrected pilot-wave theory in a modified form in 1952, with Einstein’s encouragement, and made clear that it did work, but it never caught on. (The theory is also known as de Broglie-Bohm theory, or Bohmian mechanics.)

Later, the Northern Irish physicist John Stewart Bell went on to prove a seminal theorem that many physicists today misinterpret as rendering hidden variables impossible. But Bell supported pilot-wave theory. He was the one who pointed out the flaws in von Neumann’s original proof. And in 1986 he wrote that pilot-wave theory “seems to me so natural and simple, to resolve the wave-particle dilemma in such a clear and ordinary way, that it is a great mystery to me that it was so generally ignored.”

The neglect continues. A century down the line, the standard, probabilistic formulation of quantum mechanics has been combined with Einstein’s theory of special relativity and developed into the Standard Model, an elaborate and precise description of most of the particles and forces in the universe. Acclimating to the weirdness of quantum mechanics has become a physicists’ rite of passage. The old, deterministic alternative is not mentioned in most textbooks; most people in the field haven’t heard of it. Sheldon Goldstein, a professor of mathematics, physics and philosophy at Rutgers University and a supporter of pilot-wave theory, blames the “preposterous” neglect of the theory on “decades of indoctrination.” At this stage, Goldstein and several others noted, researchers risk their careers by questioning quantum orthodoxy.

When a droplet bounces along the surface of a liquid toward a pair of openings in a barrier, it passes randomly through one opening or the other while its “pilot wave,” or the ripples on the liquid’s surface, passes through both. After many repeat runs, a quantum-like interference pattern appears in the distribution of droplet trajectories.
A Quantum Drop

Now at last, pilot-wave theory may be experiencing a minor comeback — at least, among fluid dynamicists. “I wish that the people who were developing quantum mechanics at the beginning of last century had access to these experiments,” Milewski said. “Because then the whole history of quantum mechanics might be different.”

The experiments began a decade ago, when Yves Couder and colleagues at Paris Diderot University discovered that vibrating a silicon oil bath up and down at a particular frequency can induce a droplet to bounce along the surface. The droplet’s path, they found, was guided by the slanted contours of the liquid’s surface generated from the droplet’s own bounces — a mutual particle-wave interaction analogous to de Broglie’s pilot-wave concept.

In a groundbreaking experiment, the Paris researchers used the droplet setup to demonstrate single- and double-slit interference. They discovered that when a droplet bounces toward a pair of openings in a damlike barrier, it passes through only one slit or the other, while the pilot wave passes through both. Repeated trials show that the overlapping wavefronts of the pilot wave steer the droplets to certain places and never to locations in between — an apparent replication of the interference pattern in the quantum double-slit experiment that Feynman described as “impossible … to explain in any classical way.” And just as measuring the trajectories of particles seems to “collapse” their simultaneous realities, disturbing the pilot wave in the bouncing-droplet experiment destroys the interference pattern.

Droplets can also seem to “tunnel” through barriers, orbit each other in stable “bound states,” and exhibit properties analogous to quantum spin and electromagnetic attraction. When confined to circular areas called corrals, they form concentric rings analogous to the standing waves generated by electrons in quantum corrals. They even annihilate with subsurface bubbles, an effect reminiscent of the mutual destruction of matter and antimatter particles.

In each test, the droplet wends a chaotic path that, over time, builds up the same statistical distribution in the fluid system as that expected of particles at the quantum scale. But rather than resulting from indefiniteness or a lack of reality, these quantum-like effects are driven, according to the researchers, by “path memory.”Every bounce of the droplet leaves a mark in the form of ripples, and these ripples chaotically but deterministically influence the droplet’s future bounces and lead to quantum-like statistical outcomes. The more path memory a given fluid exhibits — that is, the less its ripples dissipate — the crisper and more quantum-like the statistics become. “Memory generates chaos, which we need to get the right probabilities,” Couder explained. “We see path memory clearly in our system. It doesn’t necessarily mean it exists in quantum objects, it just suggests it would be possible.”

The quantum statistics are apparent even when the droplets are subjected to external forces. In one recent test, Couder and his colleagues placed a magnet at the center of their oil bath and observed a magnetic ferrofluid droplet. Like an electron occupying fixed energy levels around a nucleus, the bouncing droplet adopted a discrete set of stable orbits around the magnet, each characterized by a set energy level and angular momentum. The “quantization” of these properties into discrete packets is usually understood as a defining feature of the quantum realm.

As a droplet wends a chaotic path around the liquid’s surface, it gradually builds up quantum-like statistics.
If space and time behave like a superfluid, or a fluid that experiences no dissipation at all, then path memory could conceivably give rise to the strange quantum phenomenon of entanglement — what Einstein referred to as “spooky action at a distance.” When two particles become entangled, a measurement of the state of one instantly affects that of the other. The entanglement holds even if the two particles are light-years apart.

In standard quantum mechanics, the effect is rationalized as the instantaneous collapse of the particles’ joint probability wave. But in the pilot-wave version of events, an interaction between two particles in a superfluid universe sets them on paths that stay correlated forever because the interaction permanently affects the contours of the superfluid. “As the particles move along, they feel the wave field generated by them in the past and all other particles in the past,” Bush explained. In other words, the ubiquity of the pilot wave “provides a mechanism for accounting for these nonlocal correlations.” Yet an experimental test of droplet entanglement remains a distant goal.

Subatomic Realities

Many of the fluid dynamicists involved in or familiar with the new research have become convinced that there is a classical, fluid explanation of quantum mechanics. “I think it’s all too much of a coincidence,” said Bush, who led a June workshop on the topic in Rio de Janeiro and is writing a review paper on the experiments for the Annual Review of Fluid Mechanics.

Quantum physicists tend to consider the findings less significant. After all, the fluid research does not provide direct evidence that pilot waves propel particles at the quantum scale. And a surprising analogy between electrons and oil droplets does not yield new and better calculations. “Personally, I think it has little to do with quantum mechanics,” said Gerard ’t Hooft, a Nobel Prize-winning particle physicist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. He believes quantum theory is incomplete but dislikes pilot-wave theory.

Many working quantum physicists question the value of rebuilding their highly successful Standard Model from scratch. “I think the experiments are very clever and mind-expanding,” said Frank Wilczek, a professor of physics at MIT and a Nobel laureate, “but they take you only a few steps along what would have to be a very long road, going from a hypothetical classical underlying theory to the successful use of quantum mechanics as we know it.”

“This really is a very striking and visible manifestation of the pilot-wave phenomenon,” Lloyd said. “It’s mind-blowing — but it’s not going to replace actual quantum mechanics anytime soon.”

In its current, immature state, the pilot-wave formulation of quantum mechanics only describes simple interactions between matter and electromagnetic fields, according toDavid Wallace, a philosopher of physics at the University of Oxford in England, and cannot even capture the physics of an ordinary light bulb. “It is not by itself capable of representing very much physics,” Wallace said. “In my own view, this is the most severe problem for the theory, though, to be fair, it remains an active research area.”

Pilot-wave theory has the reputation of being more cumbersome than standard quantum mechanics. Some researchers said that the theory has trouble dealing with identical particles, and that it becomes unwieldy when describing multiparticle interactions. They also claimed that it combines less elegantly with special relativity. But other specialists in quantum mechanics disagreed or said the approach is simply under-researched. It may just be a matter of effort to recast the predictions of quantum mechanics in the pilot-wave language, said Anthony Leggett, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and a Nobel laureate. “Whether one thinks this is worth a lot of time and effort is a matter of personal taste,” he added. “Personally, I don’t.”

On the other hand, as Bohm argued in his 1952 paper, an alternative formulation of quantum mechanics might make the same predictions as the standard version at the quantum scale, but differ when it comes to smaller scales of nature. In the search for a unified theory of physics at all scales, “we could easily be kept on the wrong track for a long time by restricting ourselves to the usual interpretation of quantum theory,” Bohm wrote.

Read more at Wired Science

Chimps Reveal Their Taste in Music

If you ever run into a group of chimpanzees in a record store, you may find them congregating around the Indian classical section.

That's according to a new study that tested the musical tastes of humans' primate cousins. The researchers found that while chimpanzees shun the steadily strong beats common in Western genres, they like Indian ragas and Akan tunes from West Africa.

"Our objective was not to find a preference for different cultures' music," study co-author Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University in Atlanta, said in a statement. Rather, the researchers used music from Africa, India and Japan to test how the primates reacted to specific acoustic characteristics, such as the ratio of strong to weak beats (or stressed to unstressed beats).

De Waal and colleagues said that similar studies in the past only tested how chimpanzees reacted to Western music. But even though the sounds of Western pop and classical might seem different to the casual listener, they share similar rhythmic patterns and intervals. Musical traditions from other cultures, however, may have fundamentally different properties. While a typical Western song might have one strong beat for every one to three weak beats, an Indian raga (or series of notes in a classical composition) might have one strong beat for every 31 weak beats in a long rhythmic cycle.

Previous studies that focused on Western tunes found that primates preferred silence over any kind of human music. One study, published in the journal Cognition in 2007, found that marmosets and tamarins would rather listen to no music than Mozart or a lullaby. For the new study, the researchers looked outside the Western canon and used Indian ragas, Japanese taiko and music from the Akan culture in West Africa.

Every morning for 12 days, the researchers played 40 minutes of music in the outdoor enclosures of 16 adult chimpanzees at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta. They discovered that chimps spent more time in areas where they could best hear the African and Indian music, but they fled to the quietier parts of their enclosure when the researchers played Japanese taiko music, which uses regular strong beats like Western music.

These apparent preferences could have something to do with the chimps' own music-making.

Read more at Discovery News

Tiny Elephant Shrew Is Smallest of Its Kind

A new, tiny species of elephant shrew, also called a round-eared sengi, has been discovered in the Namib Desert in Africa, scientists say.

The newbie, now called Macroscelides micus, is the smallest member of the scientific order Macroscelidea, which now includes 19 known sengis. Like other sengi, the creature sports a narrow, trunk-like snout.

One of the study researchers, Michael Griffin of the Namibia Ministry of Environment and Tourism, collected the first representative of this newfound species around the ancient Etendeka volcanic formation, which is an arid area inland from the coastal Namib Desert between the Ugab and Hoanib rivers. At first, the researchers thought the creature was a known species from Namibia, Macroscelides flavicaudatus.

"We knew that it looked a little odd, but it was the genetic analyses that suggested that it was really very different," researcher John Dumbacher, curator of ornithology and mammalogy at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, told Live Science in an email. "Once we got back to the field and saw several live individuals, it was clear that they differed from M. flavicaudatus in many ways, and that this wasn't just an 'odd' individual."

For instance, not only is the newbie smaller than any other sengi — at just 7.5 inches, or 190 millimeters, from nose-tip to tail-tip — it also has redder fur and lighter skin, particularly noticeable on the ears and feet, Dumbacher said.

"They also have a very large scent gland on their tail, which is probably important in signaling other members of their species in order to find mates and mark territories," Dumbacher added.

Subsequent trips taken by the team revealed the newfound sengi lives throughout this ancient volcanic region, which is about 136 miles (220 kilometers) long and about 62 miles (100 km) wide, Dumbacher said. The creature likely evolved its red fur as an adaptation to blend into the region's red soil.

"We hope to learn more about this in coming field seasons, where we plan to radio-collar some of these small sengis and study their activities and spatial movements," Dumbacher said.

From Discovery News

NASA's 'Flying Saucer' Test Flight a Huge Success

New NASA gear that could help humanity set up an outpost on Mars has gotten its first test flight.

The space agency launched its Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) test vehicle Saturday (June 28) from Hawaii. Although the first part of the test went well, the vehicle's huge parachute apparently failed to deploy properly — but LDSD engineers are pleased anyway.

"We are thrilled about yesterday's test," Mark Adler, LDSD project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement Sunday (June 29). "The test vehicle worked beautifully, and we met all of our flight objectives. We have recovered all the vehicle hardware and data recorders and will be able to apply all of the lessons learned from this information to our future flights."

Saturday's test — which lifted off from the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility on the island of Kauai at 2:45 p.m. EDT (1845 GMT; 8:45 a.m. local Hawaii time) — was designed to help NASA engineers get their first good look at how equipment designed to slow the descent of heavy spacecraft through the Red Planet's atmosphere performs at high speeds in Mars-like conditions.

The flight was originally scheduled for June 3, but poor weather conditions pushed it back multiple times, causing a delay of nearly a month.

New Tech's First Flight

The LDSD project is developing and testing a 100-foot-wide (30.5 meters) parachute — the biggest supersonic chute ever flown — and two saucer-like devices called Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerators, or SIADs.

One SIAD is 20 feet (6 m) wide, while the other measures 26 feet (8 m) across. Both devices are built to fit around the rim of atmospheric entry vehicles like the one that carried NASA's Mars rover Curiosity in August 2012, slowing them down by increasing their drag.

During Saturday's test, a huge balloon carried the 7,000-lb. (3,175 kilograms) test vehicle, which was equipped with the big chute and the 20-foot SIAD, up to an altitude of 23 miles (37 kilometers). The balloon dropped the craft at that point, and its onboard rocket motor kicked on, boosting it to Mach 4 (four times the speed of sound) and 34 miles up (55 km) if all went according to plan.

The thin air at such heights is a good analog for the Martian atmosphere, which is just 1 percent as dense as that of Earth at sea level, researchers said.

If the test had gone perfectly, the SIAD would have inflated and slowed the test vehicle down to Mach 2.5, at which point the chute would have deployed and taken the craft down to a soft splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

But things did not go perfectly. The balloon dropped the test vehicle at 5:05 p.m. EDT (2105 GMT), and the rocket appeared to fire properly. The SIAD seemed to inflate as planned, but data indicate that the parachute didn't deploy correctly, officials said. More information will become available later, after engineers have had a chance to analyze data from the test.

The LDSD vehicle splashed down in the Pacific Ocean at 5:35 p.m. EDT (2135 GMT), NASA officials said. The craft and the big parachute were retrieved later Saturday by a recovery boat.

Getting Big Payloads Down on Mars

At 1 ton, the SUV-size Curiosity rover is the biggest spacecraft ever to touch down on Mars. The robot landed softly thanks to a bold and complicated scheme that involved a 51-foot-wide (15.5 m) parachute and a rocket-powered sky crane, which lowered Curiosity down to the surface on cables.

The sky crane can (and probably will) be used again to put payloads down on Mars. But new gear such as bigger chutes and SIADs will likely have to be included to slow really heavy stuff down enough for the sky crane to finish the job, Clark said. And that's where the LDSD project comes in.

"With the science and the technologies that we're testing here, we think we could double the mass that we land on Mars, which would go from something like the 1-ton Curiosity rover to something twice that," Clark told reporters during a pre-launch briefing in early June, adding that the gear could also help put payloads down more accurately and at higher elevations on the Red Planet than is currently possible.

Read more at Discovery News