Sep 27, 2014

'Ghost' Caught on N.M. Police Video Likely an Insect

A mysterious moving object caught on camera outside a New Mexico police department last week has many people scratching their heads and wondering if it might be a ghost.

According to a report on "Good Morning America," "Police in Espanola, New Mexico, are trying to figure out what human-shaped, blurry, translucent figured was captured on camera strolling across a locked area of their station Saturday night. The video shows the figure walking through a chain link fence and slowly walking out again."

Because the outside lot is a secured area, it would be impossible for anyone to open the gate without an alarm going off, and in any event the object appears to move through objects in classic ghostly style.

Police officer Karl Romero said that at first he assumed that the moving figure in the video was an insect, probably a fly or moth. But when he looked again he saw something that made him change his mind: “Then, I saw the legs … and it was a human,” he concluded. Yet it could not be a real human because it appeared to move effortlessly through a high chain link fence. So it was “not a real human,” he concluded: “No — a ghost.”

He reported the strange sighting to his superiors, who apparently were equally puzzled ("officers cannot explain what it is," and "detectives say the video defies logic," according to "Good Morning America").

The video has gone viral, and thousands of people viewed and commented on the mystery so far. The fact that the video was captured at a police station gave it instant credibility, and no one has suggested that the incident is a prank or a hoax.

A Closer Look

Though the police seem baffled, there is enough information contained in the ghost video and news reports about it to identify the mystery object. A closer look at the video reveals that the ghostly blur doesn't go through the objects in the background as claimed (such as the fence) but instead goes over them — a sign that the "ghost" is close to the camera (such as on the camera lens), not out in the secured police yard.

Furthermore the object's scale is all wrong: Assuming — as people often report and claim — that the "ghost" is human-sized, what appears in the police video is far too small to be human. At one point when it moves over the silhouette of a metal fence post, it appears about the same size — which would be about three inches in diameter.

Because the object is out of focus its edges and exact dimensions can't be measured, but it's clearly a very small ghost — perhaps the spirit of a squirrel. Despite the claim that the object is "human-shaped," it is in fact indistinct but small and oval.

The fact that the object is out of focus is also revealing; the police surveillance camera is set up to record objects in the yard, not on its lens. Anything on the lens would appear out of focus and translucent, exactly like the ghost in the video.

Solving the Mystery

So what was captured on camera at the Espanola police department? All evidence suggests that Officer Romero's first guess about the object's identity was the correct one: it is actually a bug or insect on the camera, not a human ghost in the yard.

Another important clue to solving this mystery can be found in the way the object moves. As Officer Romero noted, the "ghost" does seem to have legs — six or eight of them, not two. The movement of the glowing mystery fuzz is smooth and even, a sign that its weight is being carried and distributed on four or more legs.

In contrast, human movement on two legs creates a distinct vertical bounce with each step as our weight shifts from one leg to another moving forward. Based on the "ghost's" movement alone (and assuming it is a living creature), it's much more likely to be an insect than a human.

There's also something important missing from the video that no one seems to have noticed suggesting its earthy origins: a shadow. The supposedly human-shaped ghost, which is relatively small but appears large and solid enough to be seen at a distance on a surveillance camera, does not cast a shadow on the ground despite floodlights from above. Shadows of other objects, such as the fence that the ghost is claimed to move through, are clearly visible on the concrete, yet the ghost casts no shadow. An insect on the camera lens, of course, would not cast a shadow in the parking lot because it's not in the parking lot.

Ironically, in the very parking lot where the ghost appeared, insects were (accidentally) captured by a local cameraman in footage broadcast on ABC's "Good Morning America" (see the bugs in the bottom left hand corner of the screen around 1:20). When filmed up close, in focus, and in daylight the insect doesn't look strange or mysterious, but it's not hard to see why a blurry, unidentifiable entity seen late at night would appear spooky.

Local ghost stories may have influenced the officers' interpretations of the fuzzy blob; if there is a pre-existing belief in ghosts — and especially if they are said to haunt the police station, as was the case in Espanola — then it's not hard to wonder if just maybe a security camera might have finally captured evidence of local spirits.

Read more at Discovery News

The Stars of Autumn's Night Sky: What to Look For

Autumn is under way in the Northern Hemisphere, and if you are an avid sky gazer you just might have noticed signs of the season's change.

Many of the striking star groups and our beautiful Milky Way galaxy, which made for great stargazing on balmy summer evenings, are still visible in the western sky. But the appearance now of the brilliant star Capella ascending above the northeast horizon in the evening hours is a promise of the chillier nights to come. And indeed, in just another few weeks the constellation Orion and his neighbors will be dominating the evening skies, reminding us of the approaching winter season.

Still very well-placed in the night sky is the "Summer Triangle," a roughly isosceles figure composed of three first-magnitude stars, Vega, Altair and Deneb. Many have asked me over the years why it is called it the "summer" triangle since it’s nearly overhead during the late-evening hours as summer transitions into fall. But during the summer months the Triangle is visible all night from dusk to dawn, whereas during autumn, as the evenings grow colder, this configuration sinks lower and lower in the west.

Watery stars in the sky

During the mid and late-evening hours, the stars of the autumn season cover much of the eastern and southern parts of the night sky. In fact, this whole area has been called the "Celestial Sea," because many of the constellations have an association with water.

For example, looking toward the south-southeast is one member of this watery fraternity; the only one whose name is attached to a popular song: "Aquarius." And yet how many who have heard the song know what the constellation Aquarius really is. This zodiacal star pattern traditionally represents a man holding a water jar (marked by an inverted Y-shaped group of four stars), which is spilling a vaguely marked stream of water southward into the mouth of another constellation: Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish.

Across southern Canada, the northern United States and much of Europe, the stars that make up Piscis Austrinus usually cannot be seen. Although above the horizon, they are too low to penetrate the horizon haze. At more southerly latitudes these stars are much higher up in the sky, though still quite dim.

The lonely star of autumn

The main star in Piscis Austrinus is all the more conspicuous: silvery-white Fomalhaut, ranked 18th brightest star in the sky and the only first-magnitude star in the whole collection of watery constellations. Indeed, Fomalhaut is the only true first magnitude star of autumn. Fomalhaut, somewhat isolated, lies in an empty region of the autumn skies, and is sometimes referred to as "The Solitary One." It can be identified by extending a line along the western (right) side of the Great Square of Pegasus about three times its own length.

It is often described in various observing books as "reddish," though it is probable that the effects of our atmosphere are responsible for this impression, as this star is always seen at a low altitude for northern observers. Fomalhaut is Arabic for "mouth of the fish." It lies at a distance of 25 light-years, a star approximately twice the diameter of the sun and 19 times more luminous.

If you look at Fomalhaut tonight, you're looking at light that left that star in 1989.

Read more at Discovery News

Sep 26, 2014

Studying nanocrystals by passing them through tiny pores

An interdisciplinary team of University of Pennsylvania researchers has now applied a cutting-edge technique for rapid gene sequencing toward measuring other nanoscopic structures. By passing nanoscale spheres and rods through a tiny hole in a membrane, the team was able to measure the electrical properties of those structures' surfaces.

Their findings suggest new ways of using this technique, known as "nanopore translocation," to analyze objects at the smallest scale.

The research was led by Marija Drndić, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in Penn's School of Arts & Sciences; Jennifer Lukes, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics in Penn's School of Engineering and Applied Science; and Christopher Murray, a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor who has appointments in both schools through the departments of Chemistry and Materials Science and Engineering. Kimberly Venta, of Drndić's lab, and Mehdi Bakhshi Zanjani, of Lukes' lab, were co-lead authors on the paper, and Xingchen Ye and Gopinath Danda also contributed to the work.

It was published in Nano Letters.

For the past several years, Drndić's lab has been exploring an approach to gene sequencing involving DNA translocation through a nanopore. The technique typically involves threading DNA, suspended in an ionic fluid, through a tiny hole in a thin membrane. Each of the four bases of a DNA sequence is expected to block different amounts of the aperture as they pass through, thus allowing a different number of ions to pass through along with them. In most nanopore sequencing, researchers attempt to identify bases by reading changes in the surrounding ion current as it passes through the nanopore.

This technique has its roots in a device known as a Coulter counter. Such devices have been used for decades to count and sort microscopic particles, like blood cells and bacteria. The principle is the same; particles with larger diameters block more of the aperture, reducing the electrical current measured by electrodes positioned above and below the aperture. This technique has been used on particles that are typically on the micro scale, however, whereas DNA bases are on the nano scale, a thousand times smaller.

Advances in nanotechnology have allowed researchers to make smaller and smaller pores, and early successes in using this technique with DNA suggested that it could also be applied to better measure other nanoscale structures. Spherical nanocrystals and oblong nanorods, for example, are thought to have potential uses in medicine, electronics and other fields, but their properties must be accurately measured before they can be fine,tuned for their ultimate applications.

To that end, the members of Drndić's contingent drew upon their sequencing research involving silicon nitride nanopores, which can be customized to work at various sizes between the nano and micro scales.

"A great feature of solid-state nanopores is that we can change diameters at will," Drndić said. "We can use an electron microscope to drill them in whatever size and shape we want, unlike pores in biological membranes, where we would need to find a new system each time."

For their measurement targets, the team drew on the Murray lab's expertise in making uniformly sized gold nanospheres and nanorods that are covered with ligands that give them an overall positive charge. The surface chemistry of these nanoparticles was an attractive match for the translocation technique, which relies on drawing charged objects through the pore.

"The degree of ligand coverage on the surface of nanoparticles greatly affects the nanoparticle function and quality," said Murray. "That's one reason we need to be able to measure them in more detail."

The team first used the spherical nanoparticles to calibrate their measurement system.

"For spherical nanoparticles with charged ligands on their surface," said Venta, "there is a well-known method for determining the surface charge density, and thus the surface ligand density. However, this method fails for non-spherical nanoparticles."

To get around this limitation, the team enlisted modeling expertise from Lukes' group.

"Based on the data obtained from the experiments and our computational models," Zanjani said, "we can calculate the surface charge density of the nanorods based on their diameter. Conversely, if we know their surface charge density, we can extrapolate their diameter. The same method can also be used to characterize a variety of other nanoparticles with different sizes and shapes."

In developing the model for understanding the relationship between these properties, the team also found something unexpected. As nanorods pass through the pore, they typically reduce the ionic current through the pores, as they decrease the amount of space ions can inhabit. However, sometimes an increase in ionic current through pores was recorded.

The team determined that this was another area where pore diameter was critical. On average, the pores they drilled were 20 nanometers in diameter, with some a few nanometers wider or narrower. Taking a closer look at these unusual, current-increasing measurements, they determined that, paradoxically, the narrowest pores were triggering them. This suggested that the mechanism had something to do with the proximity between the nanorod and the edge of the pore.

"There is something about the interaction between the rods and the pores that causes these 'positive' events," said Lukes. "Even though there is less space for the ions to pass through, we think that the current increases because the charged surfaces of the rods and pores attract an even higher concentration of ions than would normally be there for larger pores."

This phenomenon could potentially be exploited as different way of measuring particles passing through nanopores. Further research will provide a clearer picture of the diameter tolerances necessary for particles of different shapes. Other aspects of the pore, such as if it has a tapered, hourglass shape versus a smooth, cylindrical one, can also be investigated to see if they make a difference in the kind of signals that can be recorded.

Read more at Science Daily

Cat Hair Helps to Convict Man of Murder

For the first time ever, mitochondrial DNA from shed cat hair was accepted as evidence in a U.S. legal proceeding and helped to convict a suspect of murder.

The case, which will be outlined in the November issue of the journal Forensic Science International: Genetics, could set a precedent, such that pet hair may be more commonly introduced as evidence in U.S. trials.

"Dog hair has been used in both state and federal courts," co-author Beth Wictum told Discovery News. "Cases range from animal theft to animal cruelty, murder, sexual assault, bestiality, and pretty much anything you can think of."

Wictum, who is associate director of the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory Forensics Unit at the University of California at Davis, and her colleagues analyzed the single light orange-colored cat hair that was found in one of the victim's jean pockets. The individual, from Clay County, Missouri, was found severely beaten with his throat violently lacerated to near decapitation.

Both the victim and the primary suspect lived with cats, so the cat hair by itself did not mean much, given how frequently felines shed. As any cat owner knows, strands of cat fur seem to wind up everywhere. Prior studies have demonstrated how shed cat hair can cling to everything from curtains to clothing.

The researchers therefore obtained and sequenced mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from the single hair. This is a type of DNA that passes down from mothers to their offspring. Another type of DNA, nuclear, provides more information because it encodes for the majority of the individual's genome.

"Shed hair usually doesn't have nuclear DNA because it is in the hair follicle, so we test the mtDNA in the hair shaft," Wictum explained. "However, because cats and dogs groom themselves, we sometimes get nuclear DNA profiles from shed pet hair."

For this case, only the mtDNA was available, but the researchers were able to compare and contrast it with mtDNA from a large general database as well as from samples of fur obtained from both the victim's and the suspect's cats. That was quite a challenge, since the suspect lived with 11 cats, and 8 of those were reported to be related.

The scientists, however, were able to exclude that the hair originated from the victim's cats, but it could not be excluded from the cats living with the suspect, who claimed that the victim owned him money for carpet installation. The suspect was found guilty of first-degree murder, due to cat hair mtDNA and other evidence, and was later sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Criminal profiling expert Wayne Petherick of Bond University told Discovery News that he was not shocked that such evidence was accepted by a U.S. court, "but I was surprised it had taken as long as it had. It was really only a matter of time."

He said that human hair is more commonly presented as evidence, but he believes that as mtDNA databases increase in size, pet hair as evidence will strengthen.

Read more at Discovery News

Stone Age tools: Innovation was local, not imported, in Eurasia more than 300,000 years ago

The analysis of artifacts from a 325,000-year-old site in Armenia shows that human technological innovation occurred intermittently throughout the Old World, rather than spreading from a single point of origin, as previously thought.

The study, published today in the journal Science, examines thousands of stone artifacts retrieved from Nor Geghi 1, a unique site preserved between two lava flows dated to 200,000-400,000 years ago. Layers of floodplain sediments and an ancient soil found between these lava flows contain the archaeological material. The dating of volcanic ash found within the sediments and detailed study of the sediments themselves allowed researchers to correlate the stone tools with a period between 325,000 and 335,000 years ago when Earth's climate was similar to today's.

The stone tools provide early evidence for the simultaneous use of two distinct technologies: biface technology, commonly associated with hand axe production during the Lower Paleolithic, and Levallois technology, a stone tool production method typically attributed to the Middle Stone Age in Africa and the Middle Paleolithic in Eurasia. Traditionally, Archaeologists use the development of Levallois technology and the disappearance of biface technology to mark the transition from the Lower to the Middle Paleolithic roughly 300,000 years ago.

Archaeologists have argued that Levallois technology was invented in Africa and spread to Eurasia with expanding human populations, replacing local biface technologies in the process. This theory draws a link between populations and technologies and thus equates technological change with demographic change. The co-existence of the two technologies at Nor Geghi 1 provides the first clear evidence that local populations developed Levallois technology out of existing biface technology.

"The combination of these different technologies in one place suggests to us that, about 325,000 years ago, people at the site were innovative," says Daniel Adler, associate professor of Anthropology at the University of Connecticut, and the study's lead author. Moreover, the chemical analysis of several hundred obsidian artifacts shows that humans at the site utilized obsidian outcrops from as far away as 120 kilometers (approximately 75 miles), suggesting they must also have been capable of exploiting large, environmentally diverse territories.

The paper argues that biface and Levallois technology, while distinct in many regards, share a common pedigree. In biface technology, a mass of stone is shaped through the removal of flakes from two surfaces in order to produce a tool such as a hand axe. The flakes detached during the manufacture of a biface are treated as waste. In Levallois technology, a mass of stone is shaped through the removal of flakes in order to produce a convex surface from which flakes of predetermined size and shape are detached. The predetermined flakes produced through Levallois technology are the desired products. Archaeologists suggest that Levallois t echnology is optimal in terms of raw material use and that the predetermined flakes are relatively small and easy to carry. These were important issues for the highly mobile hunter-gatherers of the time.

It is the novel combination of the shaping and flaking systems that distinguishes Levallois from other technologies, and highlights its evolutionary relationship to biface technology. Based on comparisons of archaeological data from sites in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, the study also demonstrates that this evolution was gradual and intermittent, and that it occurred independently within different human populations who shared a common technological ancestry, says Adler. In other words Levallois technology evolved out of pre-existing biface technology in different places at different times.

This conclusion challenges the view held by some Archaeologists that technological change resulted from population change during this period. "If I were to take all the artifacts from the site and show them to an archaeologist, they would immediately begin to categorize them into chronologically distinct groups," Adler said. In reality, the artifacts found at Nor Geghi 1 reflect the technological flexibility and variability of a single population during a period of profound human behavioral and biological change. These results highlight the antiquity of the human capacity for innovation.

Read more at Science Daily

The Incredible Spider That Lives Its Entire Life Underwater

“Lol you thought you were safe from us in the water,” says the diving bell spider. “Blub blub blub!”
Legend has it that none other than Alexander the Great was among the first people to plumb the ocean depths in a glass diving bell, a simple submersible that traps surface air for the diver to enjoy. Still further legend claims it was one of Alexander’s mistresses who lowered him down—but unfortunately for Alex another suitor was on board that boat. As he watched through his transparent submarine, the scoundrel wooed the woman, who eventually let go of the chain, thus leaving Alexander in a bit of an aquatic pickle.

There’s a moral lesson somewhere in that legend, perhaps something like “hell hath no fury like a woman you encumber with a ridiculously heavy diving bell while you enjoy yourself among the fishes,” but in the fresh waters of Europe and Asia swims a spider that mastered this kind of submersible millennia before Alex’s ill-fated dive: the diving bell spider. It’s the only spider on Earth that spends its entire life underwater, a lovely reminder that where life finds a niche, it fills it—oh, and that if you’re afraid of spiders you aren’t really safe anywhere at all. (Other species are flying through the air, in case you were wondering, using dangling silk threads to ride the wind in a process called ballooning.)

Just like humans and their submersibles, to become a master diver this spider must first become a master engineer. It begins by spinning a web among the underwater vegetation, according to biologist Roger Seymour of Australia’s University of Adelaide, who has established populations in the lab to study the dynamics of their novel way of getting air. Instead of expanding the web by spinning laterally, the spider adds more and more silk to the bottom, which flares until the structure indeed resembles a bell.

In addition, “there are a series of silk lines that go up from the bell toward the surface,” said Seymour. “And the spider moves along those web lines as if it’s climbing up a ladder.” At the surface, it doesn’t gulp air as you might expect, but instead pokes its butt up into the air. When it submerges again, air gets trapped by hydrophobic hairs in a bubble that encompasses the spider’s entire abdomen and turns it a beautiful shiny silver (its genus name, Argyroneta, derives from the Greek for “silver”). Holding this bubble in place with its rear legs, the spider—now far more buoyant, yet trying to dive like an antsy kid wearing floaties—climbs back down with the help of those convenient web lines and deposits the bubble in its bell.

It’s worth pausing here to talk a bit about arachnid respiration. Diving bell spiders have two systems in place: slits in their abdomen that open into “book lungs,” which look like they’re made up of pages, as well as what are known as tracheae—holes in their exoskeleton that ferry oxygen directly into tissues and organs. Because of the positioning of these book lungs and tracheae, the diving bell spider need only place its bum into the bell in order to breathe, all the better for eying potential prey through the opening (more on that later).

The diving bell spider’s characteristic silver bubble belly. It can actually breathe like this, because it pulls oxygen through its abdomen instead of its mouth, which would be a pretty neat party trick if you could have parties underwater.
Interestingly, insects have the same tracheae, which limit both groups in their potential size. The bigger they get, the longer these tracheae must be to reach their innards, which reduces their efficiency in supplying the creature with enough oxygen. When oxygen levels rise, though, this becomes less of an issue. This probably is why there were so many ridiculously enormous insects during the Carboniferous period that ended 300 million years ago, when oxygen levels were at their highest, comprising 35 percent of the air compared to 21 percent today. Thus the 6-foot-long millipede Arthropleura and the hawk-sized dragonfly Meganeura. So feel free to breathe as much oxygen as you can to keep that from happening again. Deep breaths, people. Deep breaths.

Anyway, it previously was believed that diving bell spiders had to incessantly return to the surface to replenish their supply of air, as often as once every 20 minutes. What Seymour and his colleagues found, though, is those trips are far less frequent. Thanks to a neat trick of chemistry, the diving bell spider gets so much free air that it only needs to return to the surface once a day if totally inactive (furious activity, of course, would force it to eat up more oxygen and therefore surface more frequently).

Diving bell spiders are decent swimmers, but being out in the open puts them at risk of predation by hungry fish and frogs, who are like, “Uh this is our turf. You’re a spider, for the love of Pete.”
“Because the bubble is supported by the web, most of the area of the bubble is just air-water interface between the fibers of the web,” said Seymour. “And that allows oxygen to be exchanged between the water and the bubble.” You see, just as oxygen is always entering and leaving water at the surface, so too does it move between the water and the spider’s air-filled chamber. As the spider consumes the oxygen it’s brought down from the surface, more pours in from the water through the web.

Incredibly, the spider’s web essentially mimics a fish’s gill. It’s a strange kind of convergence—two unrelated organisms arriving at the same adaptation, like birds and bats separately evolving flight—only the spider has engineered its solution, what is known as a physical gill, though technically all gills are physical but whatever. And it’s incredibly efficient. “It can supply up to eight times the amount of oxygen through the wall as originally put in the gill from the surface to fill it up,” said Seymour.

So, cozy and safe not only from the multitudinous predators at the surface (making the brave transition into the water in the first place could have been a strategy to avoid these scoundrels), the spider can hang tight in its bell all day to avoid hungry hunters. But this is no cowering arachnid. It’s a prolific hunter itself, taking down everything from small fish to crustaceans to water-borne insect larvae.

“Interestingly, while they’re waiting in the bubble,” said Seymour, “and a little fish or some other aquatic insect larva comes by and touches the silk, the spider will run out and grab it and kill it. But before eating it, it goes back to the bubble and enlarges it,” then stocks the bell with air from a few trips to the surface. With the table set, the spider then drags its victim in and chows down.

Read more at Wired Science

Sep 25, 2014

Blind Cavefish Ditches Circadian Rhythm to Save Energy

The eyeless, cave-dwelling form of the Mexican tetra fish (Astyanax mexicanus) has surrendered its circadian rhythm for the sake of saving energy in its pitch-black habitat.

The absence of a day/night cycle in the cave-dweller's metabolism has resulted in a 27 per cent saving in energy use, the scientists report today in PLoS ONE

Most animals have a clear day/night circadian rhythm to their metabolism says lead author and fish biologist Dr Damian Moran, now a senior scientist at Plant and Food Research New Zealand.

"The reason why the metabolism is ramped up for day-active animals is that they are preparing for foraging, digestion and are anticipating all these physiological processes that they need to be ready for," he says.

However the cave-dwelling, eyeless form of the tetra appears to have eliminated that cycle, and as a result, uses significantly less energy over a 24-hour period compared to its surface-dwelling counterpart.

"These cave fish are living in an environment without light, without the circadian presence of food or predators, they've got nothing to get ready for, so it looks like they've just chopped away this increase in anticipation for the day," Moran says.

Instead, the cave-dwellers exist in a more steady metabolic state that is somewhere between asleep and fully active.

"They live a demand-led life rather than an anticipation-led life."

The researchers stumbled across the discovery while investigating the energy savings associated with the absence of eyes in the fish.

To compare the energy expenditure of surface-dwelling tetra with its eyeless cave-dwelling form, Moran and colleagues placed the fish in a device known as a flume respirometer: a closed loop of water in which the fish swim and which can be regularly sampled to measure oxygen levels.

The fish's activity level was changed by varying the speed of the water movement, allowing the scientists to examine how energy use changed with activity. They also looked at how energy use changed over a 24-hour period.

The Mexican tetra is a popular species among evolutionary biologists, says Moran, because the surface-dwelling and cave-dwelling forms are physically very different, but still similar enough that they can interbreed.

"Somewhere between 100,000 to one million years ago, you got surface fish somehow getting into these caves by accident or moving into them, and turning into these cave forms," says Moran.

"What's particularly cool about these fish is this happened not just once, but many times, so you've got different populations of these cave forms which have independently evolved so it's a really great tool for studying evolution."

Read more at Discovery News

No Single Missing Link Between Birds and Dinosaurs

Birds didn't evolve in one fell swoop from their dinosaur ancestors, suggests a newly constructed dinosaur family tree showing our feathery friends evolved very gradually, at first.

The new pedigree of carnivorous dinosaur evolution is the most comprehensive one ever assembled, the researchers say. The findings show that birdlike features such as wings and feathers developed slowly over tens of millions of years.

But once the bird body plan was complete, the group underwent a burst of evolution that produced thousands of species, according to the study published today (Sept. 25) in the journal Current Biology.

"It's basically impossible to draw a line on the tree between dinosaurs and birds," said study co-author Steve Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland. But after the bird body arose, "something was unlocked, and began to evolve at a supercharged rate," Brusatte told Live Science.

Scientists have long known that birds are part of the dinosaur lineage. But because the fossil record has many gaps, some scientists and members of the public thought that a "missing link" must exist between the first bird and its closest dino ancestor. But more and more feathered dinosaur fossils have been cropping up over the past two decades, particularly in China, suggesting the development of birds was more piecemeal.

Brusatte and his colleagues examined more than 850 body features in 150 extinct species of birds and their closest dinosaur relatives. By analyzing the data using statistics, the researchers constructed a complete family tree.

The tree reveals that the characteristic features of birds evolved very gradually about 150 million years ago, and the earliest birds would have been indistinguishable from their closest relatives.

The label of "bird" is somewhat arbitrary, but scientists consider the feathered fossil Archaeopteryx to be the first of the group, Brusatte said. "What probably distinguishes birds is the ability to have powered flight," he said, though it's possible that other dinosaurs could fly too.

"Dinosaurs became ever more 'birdy' over time," Brusatte said, but there was no single missing link, he added. Birds and dinosaurs are like two colors in a rainbow, he said — you can recognize each, but they bleed into each other at their borders.

Yet once the basic body plan was established, the findings show, birds began to evolve much faster than other dinosaur groups.

"It is particularly cool that it is evidence from the fossil record that shows how an oddball offshoot of the dinosaurs paved the way for the spectacular variety of bird species we see today," Graeme Lloyd, another co-author of the study and a paleontologist at the University of Oxford, in England, said in a statement.

Read more at Discovery News

Ancient Fish Remains Fertilize the Amazon Rainforest

Ancient fish from Africa help fertilize the Amazon rainforest, researchers from the UK report, as dust storms blow from the Sahara across the Atlantic.

Phosphorous in the dust is necessary for photosynthesis, and now scientists have shown the mineral comes from fossilized bones and scales from organisms a continent away.

About 5,000-10,000 years ago Megalake Chad covered north-central Africa, with a surface level 36 stories taller than it is today. Remains of the fish that swam there settled into part of the lake bed called the Bodélé Depression, which "is probably the largest single source of wind-blown dust in the world," according to NASA.

The researchers used X-rays to identify the bone and scale phosphorous from Bodélé dust.

"The Bodélé fish phosphorus is like that found in fish bone meal that gardeners use as a fertilizer," Karen Hudson-Edwards from Birkbeck, University of London told BBC News.

The organic phosphorous won't last forever, the scientists report. It's not clear how long it will take for the sediments in Lake Chad to completely erode. But when the time comes, the Amazon will come to rely on rock-based phosphorous, which may negatively affect the rainforest.

From Discovery News

Too Much Multitasking May Affect Your Grey Matter

Are you one of those master multitaskers who can text while talking or read emails while chatting on the phone? It's a highly valued skill in today's marketplace, but new research shows using multiple devices at once is linked to lower grey-matter density in one particular region of the brain.

Previous research has shown that multitasking may be associated with poor attention skills and even depression and anxiety. This is one of the first studies to show a direct link between the behavior and the physical structure of the brain.

"Media multitasking is becoming more prevalent in our lives today and there is increasing concern about its impacts on our cognition and social-emotional well-being," said neuroscientist Kep Kee Loh in a press release. "Our study was the first to reveal links between media multitasking and brain structure."

To measure possible impacts, Kep Kee Loh and Ryota Kanai, both from the University of Sussex's Sackler Center for Consciousness Science, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). They examined the brain structures of 75 adults who had answered questions about their use of media, including cell phones, computers, TVs and print media.

Independent of their individual personality traits, people who reported using more devices had lower gray matter density in the part of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The ACC is associated with cognitive and emotional processing.

Their results were published in the journal PLOS One.

It's not yet certain which is cause and which is effect — in other words, whether multitaskers were more likely to have less dense gray matter in this part of the brain or if multitasking causes a decrease in gray matter density.

Read more at Discovery News

Solar System's Water is Older Than the Sun

Next time you’re swimming in the ocean, consider this: part of the water is older than the sun.

So concludes a team of scientists who ran computer models comparing the ratios of hydrogen isotopes over time. Taking into account new insights that the solar nebula had less ionizing radiation than previously thought, the models show that at least some of the water found in the ocean, as well as in comets, meteorites and on the moon, predate the sun’s birth.

The only other option, the scientists conclude, is that it formed in the cold, intersteller cloud from which the sun itself originated.

The discovery, reported in this week’s Science, stems from the insight of lead author Lauren Ilsedore Cleeves, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, who realized that planet-forming disks around young stars should be shielded from galactic rays by the strong solar winds, dramatically altering the chemistry occurring inside the disks, said Conel Alexander, with the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

“The finding ... makes it quite hard for these regions in the disk to synthesize any new molecules. This was an 'aha' moment for us -- without any new water creation the only place these ices could have come from was the chemically rich interstellar gas out of which the solar system formed originally,” Cleeves wrote in an email to Discovery News.

“It's remarkable that these ices survived the entire process of stellar birth,” she added.

The finding has implications for the search for life beyond Earth, as water is believed to be necessary for life.

“If the sun's formation was typical, interstellar ices -- including water -- are likely common ingredients present during the formation of all planetary systems, which puts a wonderful outlook on the possibility of other life in the universe,” Cleeves said.

Read more at Discovery News

Sep 24, 2014

Clear skies on exo-Neptune: Smallest exoplanet ever found to have water vapor

Astronomers using data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and the Kepler Space Telescope have discovered clear skies and steamy water vapour on a planet outside our Solar System. The planet, known as HAT-P-11b, is about the size of Neptune, making it the smallest exoplanet ever on which water vapour has been detected. The results will appear in the online version of the journal Nature on 24 September 2014.

The discovery is a milestone on the road to eventually finding molecules in the atmospheres of smaller, rocky planets more akin to Earth. Clouds in the atmospheres of planets can block the view of what lies beneath them. The molecular makeup of these lower regions can reveal important information about the composition and history of a planet. Finding clear skies on a Neptune-size planet is a good sign that some smaller planets might also have similarly good visibility.

"When astronomers go observing at night with telescopes, they say 'clear skies' to mean good luck," said Jonathan Fraine of the University of Maryland, USA, lead author of the study. "In this case, we found clear skies on a distant planet. That's lucky for us because it means clouds didn't block our view of water molecules."

HAT-P-11b is a so-called exo-Neptune -- a Neptune-sized planet that orbits another star. It is located 120 light-years away in the constellation of Cygnus (The Swan). Unlike Neptune, this planet orbits closer to its star, making one lap roughly every five days. It is a warm world thought to have a rocky core, a mantle of fluid and ice, and a thick gaseous atmosphere. Not much else was known about the composition of the planet, or other exo-Neptunes like it, until now.

Part of the challenge in analysing the atmospheres of planets like this is their size. Larger Jupiter-like planets are easier to observe and researchers have already been able to detect water vapour in the atmospheres of some of these giant planets. Smaller planets are more difficult to probe -- and all the smaller ones observed to date have appeared to be cloudy.

The team used Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 and a technique called transmission spectroscopy, in which a planet is observed as it crosses in front of its parent star. Starlight filters through the rim of the planet's atmosphere and into the telescope. If molecules like water vapour are present, they absorb some of the starlight, leaving distinct signatures in the light that reaches our telescopes.

"We set out to look at the atmosphere of HAT-P-11b without knowing if its weather would be cloudy or not," said Nikku Madhusudhan, from the University of Cambridge, UK, part of the study team. "By using transmission spectroscopy, we could use Hubble to detect water vapour in the planet. This told us that the planet didn't have thick clouds blocking the view and is a very hopeful sign that we can find and analyse more cloudless, smaller, planets in the future. It is groundbreaking!"

Before the team could celebrate they had to be sure that the water vapour was from the planet and not from cool starspots -- "freckles" on the face of stars -- on the parent star. Luckily, Kepler had been observing the patch of sky in which HAT-P-11b happens to lie for years. Those visible-light data were combined with targeted infrared Spitzer observations. By comparing the datasets the astronomers could confirm that the starspots were too hot to contain any water vapour, and so the vapour detected must belong to the planet.

The results from all three telescopes demonstrate that HAT-P-11b is blanketed in water vapour, hydrogen gas, and other yet-to-be-identified molecules. So in fact it is not only the smallest planet to have water vapour found in its atmosphere but is also the smallest planet for which molecules of any kind have been directly detected using spectroscopy.* Theorists will be drawing up new models to explain the planet's makeup and origins.

Although HAT-P-11b is dubbed as an exo-Neptune it is actually quite unlike any planet in our Solar System. It is thought that exo-Neptunes may have diverse compositions that reflect their formation histories. New findings such as this can help astronomers to piece together a theory for the origin of these distant worlds.

"We are working our way down the line, from hot Jupiters to exo-Neptunes," said Drake Deming, a co-author of the study also from University of Maryland, USA. "We want to expand our knowledge to a diverse range of exoplanets."

Read more at Science Daily

New dinosaur from New Mexico has relatives in Alberta

A newly discovered armoured dinosaur from New Mexico has close ties to the dinosaurs of Alberta, say University of Alberta paleontologists involved in the research.

From 76 to 66 million years ago, Alberta was home to at least five species of ankylosaurid dinosaurs, the group that includes club-tailed giants like Ankylosaurus. But fewer ankylosaurids are known from the southern parts of North America. The new species, Ziapelta sanjuanensis, was discovered in 2011 in the Bisti/De-na-zin Wilderness area of New Mexico by a team from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science and the State Museum of Pennsylvania.

The U of A researchers in the Faculty of Science, including recent PhD graduate Victoria Arbour and current doctoral student Michael Burns, were asked to be part of the project because of their expertise in the diversity of ankylosaurs from Alberta.

"Bob Sullivan, who discovered the specimen, showed us pictures, and we were really excited by both its familiarity and its distinctiveness -- we were pretty sure right away we were dealing with a new species that was closely related to the ankylosaurs we find in Alberta," says Arbour.

Ziapelta is described in a new paper in PLOS ONE. It stands out from other ankylosaurs because of unusually tall spikes on the cervical half ring, a structure like a yoke of bone sitting over the neck. Ziapelta's skull also differentiates it from other known ankylosaurs.

"The horns on the back of the skull are thick and curve downwards, and the snout has a mixture of flat and bumpy scales -- an unusual feature for an ankylosaurid," notes Arbour. "There's also a distinctive large triangular scale on the snout, where many other ankylosaurids have a hexagonal scale."

Ziapelta hails from the Late Cretaceous, when a vast inland sea divided North America in two, and Alberta and New Mexico each boasted beachfront property. Ankylosaur fossils are common in several of the rocky formations of Southern Alberta, but none have yet been found in the lower part of an area called the Horseshoe Canyon Formation -- a gap in Alberta's ankylosaur fossil record.

Read more at Science Daily

Most metal-poor star hints at universe's first supernovae

A team of researchers, led by Miho N. Ishigaki, at the Kavli IPMU, The University of Tokyo, pointed out that the elemental abundance of the most iron-poor star can be explained by elements ejected from supernova explosions of the universe's first stars. Their theoretical study revealed that massive stars, which are several tens of times more immense than the Sun, were present among the first stars. The presence of these massive stars has great implications on the theory of star formation in the absence of heavy elements.

Iron-poor stars provide insight about the very early universe where the first generation of stars and galaxies formed. The recent discovery of the most iron-poor star SMSS J031300.36-670839.3 (SMSS J0313-6708) was big news in early 2014, especially for astronomers working on the so-called "Galactic archaeology."

When the universe first began, only light elements such as hydrogen and helium existed. As these first stars ended their short but wild lives, the universe became enriched with heavy elements, which are essential to form the materials found on Earth, including humans. Hence, iron-poor stars are much older than the Sun, and were born when the universe only contained trace amounts of heavy elements.

SMSS J0313-6708 is the most iron-poor star ever found. Its spectrum lacks iron absorption lines. The estimated upper limit for its iron abundance is about a ten-millionth of that of the Sun, and its iron content is about hundred times lower than the previous record for the most iron-poor star.

"We received the news of the most iron-poor star with a great excitement," Ken'ichi Nomoto at the Kavli IPMU says, "since this star may be the oldest fossil record and may elucidate the unknown nature of the first stars." The first stars, which formed in the early universe, likely had a large impact on their environments. For example, the strong ultra-violet light emitted by the first stars helped ionize the early universe. In addition, their supernova explosions ejected heavy elements that have helped form subsequent generations of stars and galaxies.

"The impact of these stars on the surrounding environment depends critically on their masses when they were born," Ishigaki says. "However, direct observational constraints of the first stars' masses are not available since most of them likely died out a long, long time ago."

Due to its unusual chemical composition, some astrophysicists have speculated that SMSS J0313-6708 was born from the gas enriched by a first star, which has a mass 60 times that of the Sun, and synthesized a small amount of calcium through a special nucleosynthesis.

On the other hand, Ishigaki's team focused on its very large carbon enhancement relative to iron and calcium. Previous studies by Nozomu Tominaga at Konan University/Kavli IPMU suggested that such a feature is consistent with a supernova in which the synthesized elements fall back. However, the question was whether this scenario can also explain the most extreme abundance pattern in SMSS J0313-6708, the most iron-poor star.

The team compared the observed abundances and theoretical calculations of the elements ejected by the supernova of first stars with masses 25 and 40 times that of the Sun. They concluded that the observed abundance pattern can be reproduced if stars with those masses undergo a special type of supernova in which most of the ejected matter falls back to the central remnant. A highly asymmetric explosion involving a jet-like feature should produce this type of supernova. As a consequence of the jet, iron and calcium, which are located deep inside massive stars, are ejected along with the jet, but a large fraction of the ejected material falls back along the equatorial plane. Because carbon is largely contained in the outer region, it is almost entirely ejected without falling back. This model successfully explains the low abundance of calcium, the non-detection of iron, and the high abundance of carbon observed in SMSS J0313-6708.

Read more at Science Daily

Is Booze Tasty, or Bitter? Your Genes Decide

Whether or not you like the taste of alcohol may be in your genes, new research suggests.

In the study, people with one version of a bitterness taste receptor gene said they found an alcoholic drink to be less bitter-tasting than those with a different version of the gene, according to the findings published today (Sept. 23) in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

"The two genes, that had been previously associated with intake, also associated with differences in the perception of ethanol," said study author Dr. John E. Hayes, of the Sensory Evaluation Center at The Pennsylvania State University in University Park. "The reason this work is significant is because it fills in this gap, because no one had shown in the lab that the alcohol actually tastes differently depending on which [version of the gene] you have."

People who find the taste of alcohol less bitter may be more inclined to start drinking, Hayes said, which could have implications for identifying those at risk of becoming problem drinkers. "It seems unlikely the taste of alcohol matters at all once someone is alcohol-dependent," Hayes said, although he noted this was speculation on his part. "Still, taste genetics may be an important risk factor before someone becomes dependent."

Humans have 25 genes that encode for taste receptors on the tongue that perceive bitterness, Hayes said. He and his colleagues looked at variants in two of these genes, called TAS2R13 and TAS2R38, in 93 healthy people of European ancestry, as well as variants in a gene called TRPV1, which codes for a receptor involved in perceiving "burning" or "stinging" sensations in the mouth.

The study participants rated the overall intensity of a drink that was 16 percent alcohol, which they sipped and then spit out, and also scored their taste sensations for three minutes after a cotton swab soaked with 50 percent alcohol solution was applied on the back of their tongue.

There were three places in the TAS2R38 gene where a change in the gene's code was associated with bitterness perception, the researchers found. Everyone carries two copies of the gene; in the study, those with two copies of the most sensitive version of the gene perceived the alcohol to be the most bitter, and those with two copies of the least sensitive version of the gene found it the least bitter, and other individuals fell in between.

Read more at Discovery News

Fantastically Wrong: Europe’s Insane History of Putting Animals on Trial and Executing Them

The man at right seems to be the only one here questioning the wisdom of putting animals on trial. Everyone else just seems happy with their silly hats.
On September 5, 1379, two herds of pigs at a French monastery grew agitated and killed a man named Perrinot Muet. As was custom at the time, the pigs—the actual murderers and those that had simply looked on—were tried for their horrible crime, and sentenced to death. You see, with their “cries and aggressive actions,” the onlookers “showed that they approved of the assault,” and mustn’t be allowed to escape justice.

But the monastery’s prior, Friar Humbert de Poutiers, couldn’t bear to suffer the economic loss of all those pigs. So he wrote to the Duke of Burgundy, pleading for him to pardon the onlookers (the friar would allow the three murderers to suffer their fate—he was no scofflaw, after all). The duke “lent a gracious ear to his supplication and ordered that the punishment should be remitted and the swine released.” Records don’t show just how the three pigs were executed, though it was common for offending animals to be hanged or burned alive for their crimes.

Such is Europe’s shameful and largely forgotten history of putting animal “criminals” on trial and either executing them or, for plagues of insects, ordering them to leave town not only by a certain day, but by an exact time. Such irrational barbarism is hard to fathom, but as early as 824 all the way up to the middle of the 18th century, animals were held to the same moral standards as humans, suffering the same capital punishments and even rotting in the same jails.

In the Middle Ages, Europe was positively lousy with pigs, which were implicated in a number of murders. Here one goes for a baby, which quite frankly has no business just lying around when there’s hungry pigs about.
Beasts Under Burden

Europe’s worst serial offenders, it seems, were pigs. According to E. P. Evans, in his sprawling history, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals from 1906, “The frequency with which pigs were brought to trial and adjudged to death, was owing, in a great measure, to the freedom with which they were permitted to run about the streets and to their immense number.” Evans catalogs incident after incident in which pigs chewed off ears and noses and even killed children, one swine going so far as to eat a child “although it was Friday,” a serious violation of church decree that “was urged by the prosecuting attorney and accepted by the court as a serious aggravation of the porker’s offense.” Another more mild-mannered (though no less impious) pig was hanged in France in 1394 “for having sacrilegiously eaten a consecrated wafer.”

Pretty much the entirety of the animal kingdom, though, was subject to the human rule of law. In the appendix of his book, Evans lists some 200 cases of animal executions, and these are just the ones whose records have survived Europe’s tumultuous history. There were executions of bulls, horses, eels, dogs, sheep, and, perhaps most curiously, dolphins—which he gives no information on other than they were tried and executed in Marseilles in 1596.

Usually offending animals were hanged for their crimes. Here, people—who once again don’t seem to find the happening at all strange—gather for the public execution of a pig.
There was a great range of punishments for such critters, which weren’t always sentenced to death. Rats, for instance, were often sent “a friendly letter of advice in order to induce them to quit any house, in which their presence is deemed undesirable,” writes Evans. And in one case, he adds, “a sow and a she-ass were condemned to be hanged; on appeal, and after a new trial, they were sentenced to be simply knocked on the head.”

But capital punishment often went way beyond the brutality of hanging. Even the innocent faced our wrath of judgment: When a Swiss town was gifted a moose by the great naturalist Leonhard Thurneysser in the late 1500s, townspeople “looked upon the strange animal as a most dangerous demon, and a pious old woman finally rid the town of the dreaded beast by feeding it with an apple stuck full of broken needles.” And creatures that were themselves victims, especially of bestiality, would be horrifically executed along with their offending human. In one case “a mule condemned to be burned alive together with a man guilty of buggery” was inclined to kick, so the executioner cut off its feet before setting it aflame.

On the flip side, though, Europeans were capable of compassion toward the beasts they very much relied upon for sustenance and labor. For instance, in one bestiality case in 1750, the victim, a donkey, was acquitted “on the ground that she was the victim of violence,” while a convent’s prior signed a certificate noting that he’d known her for four years and that “she had always shown herself to be virtuous and well-behaved both at home and abroad.” Given the circumstances, it’s a somewhat touching moment in the history of animal welfare.

Bugging Out

The trials of pests like locusts and weevils, though, reached a comic absurdity that’s likely unequaled in European history.

In the 16th century the insects’ most famous public defender was Bartholomew Chassenée (played by Colin Firth in 1993’s The Hour of the Pig), who had first demonstrated his prowess defending rats, which had “feloniously eaten up and wantonly destroyed the barley-crop” of the province of Autun in France. In a crafty bit of lawyering, he argued it was impossible to summon all of his furry clients to court, and they should be excused, writes Evans, “on the ground of the length and difficulty of the journey and the serious perils which attended it, owing to the unwearied vigilance of their mortal enemies, the cats, who watched all their movements, and, with fell intent, lay in wait for them at every corner and passage.”

Now, at this time animal trials were brought to ecclesiastical courts, as states were not fully developed as we would recognize them today. And the courts’ authority lay in the power of excommunication—which bars you from communion and the spiritual advantages of the church—and what is known as anathema, a sort of excommunication for beings (like animals) not belonging to the church. It was the anathema that courts tried to bring upon Chassenée’s pestilent clients, and he was very much a believer in the effects of this powerful curse. Just look at how a priest once anathematized an orchard because its fruits lured kids away from mass, he once noted, and how it lay barren until the Duchess of Burgundy ordered the curse lifted.

The weevil (Rhynchites auratus) that terrorized the French town of St. Julien in the 16th century.
This was, quite obviously, a serious sentence meant for the most pernicious insect and rodent offenders. And no pest plagued 16th-century France more than the weevil, and few towns suffered their wrath worse than St. Julien. Though it never went to trial, the first complaint against the insects was made by grape growers in 1545, resulting in a proclamation for public prayers to account for sins and thus will the weevils away. And indeed they fled.

Alas, 30 years later the weevils returned and the town was forced to take them to court. The trial began on April 13, 1587, with a lawyer named Antoine Filliol assigned as the weevils’ public defender. He argued that his clients had been placed on Earth by God, who would never have put them here without the sustenance to survive. It was just a bit unfortunate that this sustenance happened to be the town’s crops. The prosecution, however, asserted the town’s dominion over the visiting weevils, that “although the animals were created before man,” Evans writes, “they were intended to be subordinate to him and subservient to his use, and that this was, indeed, the reason of their prior creation.”

So we come to a central theological paradox of animal trials: The sins of villagers supposedly brought in the pests, but so too did God intentionally include them in his grand plan for Earth. We as humans are to hold dominion over these creatures, and to deal with them as we please. That means dragging them into court to answer for their transgressions. But is it not God who controls them? Why else would public prayers effectively drive the weevils away?

A page from Evans’ The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals showing confirmed animal trials and executions. What I wouldn’t give to know what exactly those dolphins did to deserve capital punishment.
Beyond the courtroom, the citizens of St. Julien sought a compromise by providing a tract of land near town where the weevils could freely congregate. A suitable spot was selected and officially deemed weevil territory, though according to Evans the citizens reserved “the right to pass through the said tract of land, ‘without prejudice to the pasture of the said animals,’ and to make use of the springs of water contained therein, which are also to be at the service of said animals.” But back in court, the weevils’ attorney couldn’t in good conscience accept the offer of land from the townspeople, notes Evans, “because the place was sterile and neither sufficiently nor suitably supplied with food for the support of the said animals.” This the prosecution roundly rejected, noting that the spot is perfect for the weevils, “being full of trees and shrubs of divers kinds.”

Then, an incredible 8 months after the trial began, the judge handed down a decision sadly lost to history. According to Evans, the last page of the court records has since been destroyed by, no joke, “rats or bugs of some sort.” He adds ever so cheekily: “Perhaps the prosecuted weevils, not being satisfied with the results of the trial, sent a sharp-toothed delegation into the archives to obliterate and annul the judgement of the court.” Based on other similar trials, though, if found guilty the weevils were likely ordered to quit the town by a certain date and time under pain of anathema.

Read more at Wired Science

Sep 23, 2014

Brain Wave Could Prove What People Have Seen

What if a brain wave test could prove whether you’d walked down the street carrying a yellow umbrella?

New research suggests it could: Scientists have pinpointed a specific brain wave that responds to details it has encountered. That could have big implications for courtrooms (if a criminal had been carrying a pink umbrella, for example, a brain scan could help exonerate the suspect carrying the yellow umbrella).

Electroencephalography (EEG) recordings show that the brain wave, known as P300, lights up when a person recognizes something meaningful among a list of random items.

“Perhaps the most surprising finding was the extent to which we could detect very trivial details from a subject’s day, such as the color of umbrella that the participant had used,” lead researcher John B. Meixner of Northwestern University said in a press release.

“This precision is exciting for the future because it indicates that relatively peripheral crime details, such as physical features of the crime scene, might be usable in a real-world [investigation.]”

In order to mimic how P300 could be used in investigations, 24 college students agreed to wear clip-on video cameras for four hours, and then look at a series of descriptions in a lab the next day.

Half of the students were given descriptions that contained some details of scenarios they had encountered the previous day, whereas the others were given descriptions that they had no knowledge of. As expected, the authors wrote in Psychological Science, the P300 brain wave was larger only for the details that someone had actually seen.

Read more at Discovery News

Big-Nosed Dino Might Have Attracted Mates With Shnoz

A new dinosaur with a huge nose has been unearthed in Utah and now the question is: what did it do with its enormous shnoz?

The dinosaur, Rhinorex condrupus aka “King Nose,” could have used its namesake body part for a variety of functions, according to Terry Gates, who co-discovered the dino with colleague Rodney Sheetz.

“The purpose of such a big nose is still a mystery,” Gates, a joint postdoctoral researcher with NC State and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, said in a press release. “If this dinosaur is anything like its relatives then it likely did not have a super sense of smell; but maybe the nose was used as a means of attracting mates, recognizing members of its species, or even as a large attachment for a plant-smashing beak.”

“We are already sniffing out answers to these questions, added Gates, who co-authored a paper on the dinosaur that is published in the latest issue of the Journal of Systematic Paleontology.

Gates and Sheetz came across the dinosaur’s remains in storage at the Brigham Young Museum of Paleontology, where Sheetz is based. First excavated in the 1990’s from Utah’s Neslen formation, Rhinorex was initially of interest because of its well-preserved skin impressions.

When Gates and Sheetz recently reconstructed its skull, they realized that they were looking at a new dinosaur species.

“We had almost the entire skull, which was wonderful,” Gates said, “but the preparation was very difficult. It took two years to dig the fossil out of the sandstone it was embedded in–it was like digging a dinosaur skull out of a concrete driveway.”

The reconstruction and analysis of the fossils reveal that the dinosaur lived approximately 75 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous. It measured about 30 feet long and weighed over 8,500 pounds.

Read more at Discovery News

Gravitational Waves Could 'Pump Up' Star Brightness

Gravitational waves are hard to observe, but they could have a dramatic effect on stars that we could possibly detect.

In a new paper published by the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, researchers suggest that an overlooked component of Einstein’s famous theory of general relativity may be responsible for propagating gravitational waves giving stars a short boost in energy output.

“It’s pretty cool that a hundred years after Einstein proposed this theory, we’re still finding hidden gems,” said Barry McKernan, a research associate in the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Astrophysics and the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics.

Gravitational waves are ripples in space-time and act like ripples on the surface of a pond. Generated massive objects moving through or colliding in space, the universe is thought to be buzzing with gravitational waves.

Gravitational wave experiments such as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) have set out to detect the slight change in laser phase as a gravitational wave slightly alters space-time, but have yet to turn up definitive evidence of these ripples passing through local space.

There are, however, indirect means to detect gravitational waves. For example, astronomers have detected the slight slowdown of orbiting white dwarf star binaries; as the stars orbit one another, they stir up space-time, producing gravitational waves. These waves carry energy away from the binary system, thus slowing their orbits down.

In this new study, another indirect means of detection has been proposed: if a star is oscillating at the same frequency as a gravitational wave propagating through it, the two may interact and the gravitational wave may dump its energy into the star, giving it a transient boost in brightness.

“It’s like if you have a spring that’s vibrating at a particular frequency and you hit it at the same frequency, you’ll make the oscillation stronger,” said McKernan. “The same thing applies with gravitational waves.”

This has led to some interesting ideas.

In the case of two colliding black holes for example, the two masses may orbit one another very rapidly, slowly getting closer and closer before they merge. During this time, the orbiting black holes may generate gravitational waves of increasing frequency as their orbital distance decreases. As different gravitational wave frequencies will interact with stars of different oscillation frequencies at different times, one could imagine a cluster of stars with different masses (and therefore different oscillation frequencies) becoming “pumped up” and brightening at different times as the black holes’ emitted waves shift in frequency over time.

This would be an interesting observational campaign to see stars inexplicably brighten and then dim over time. We may eventually derive a method to detect these transient brightenings and then map the propagation of gravitational waves throughout star clusters. Perhaps, as we develop sophisticated observational techniques, we could also watch slight stellar brightenings in neighboring galaxies ripple through galactic disks over the many years it would take for the waves to travel (gravitational waves travel at the speed of light).

Read more at Discovery News

It's Always a Windy Day Around This Baby Star

T Tauri stars are young stars not so dissimilar to what our sun would have looked like when it was an infant, approximately 4.5 billion years ago. These stellar objects are often easy to identify as they emit a very specific type of radiation, but some T Tauris buck the trend and generate a very strange signature of infrared light.

Now, astronomers using the powerful Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in the Atacama Desert, Chile, think they’ve worked out why some of these T Tauris are oddballs — they have some pretty wild space weather.

“The material in the disk of a T Tauri star usually, but not always, emits infrared radiation with a predictable energy distribution,” said astronomer Colette Salyk, of the National Optical Astronomical Observatory (NOAO) in Tucson, Ariz. “Some T Tauri stars, however, like to act up by emitting infrared radiation in unexpected ways.”

Like our young sun, T Tauris are enshrouded in a dusty protoplanetary disk and are not visible in optical light. ALMA can cut through the dust and analyze the properties of the radiation they produce.

While studying AS 205 N, a T Tauri star located 407 light-years from Earth in a star-forming region in the constellation Ophiuchus, Salyk’s team discovered what may be causing the anomalous infrared signal that some T Tauri’s generate. ALMA was used to track the distribution of carbon monoxide gas, which is easily identifiable by ALMA and can be used as a tracer for the gas and dust blowing from the star in a stellar wind.

After careful analysis, the astronomers found that AS 205 N’s strange signal is probably being caused by its binary star partner, AS 205 S, which is itself a binary star. This multi-star configuration appears to be pulling material from AS 205 N, producing a powerful stellar wind where material is being dragged from its surface rather than being blown away by the young star.

Read more at Discovery News

Sep 22, 2014

Skeleton Couple Still Holding Hands After 700 Years

The skeletal remains of two lovebirds were uncovered, after being locked in a romantic embrace for the past 700 years.

Archeologists found the happy couple holding hands in an earthen grave during an excavation of a "lost" chapel in Leicestershire, England, researchers reported Thursday (Sept. 18).

"We have seen similar skeletons before from Leicester where a couple has been buried together in a single grave," Vicki Score, University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) project manager, said in a statement.

Double graves are not that unusual. But it's surprising that the two bodies were buried at the so-called "lost" chapel of St Morrell, only recently discovered by a local historian and a team of researchers, instead of at the local church.

"The main question we find ourselves asking is why were they buried up there? There is a perfectly good church in Hallaton," Score said. "This leads us to wonder if the chapel could have served as some sort of special place of burial at the time."

For example, the site may have served as a place of pilgrimage in Hallaton, a village in east Leicestershire, during the 14th century, the researchers said. Or, the couple may have been buried at the Chapel of St Morrell, and not in the main church, because they were criminals, foreigners or diseased.

ULAS archaeologists and local volunteers have spent the past four years uncovering the lost chapel of St Morrell, near the village of Hallaton. The team has found evidence that the use of the hillside extends back to Roman times, more than 2,000 years ago.

For instance, a square ditch at the site indicates that the hilltop may have once held a Roman temple. The team also found an Iron Age shrine with thousands of coins and silver artifacts, such as a Roman cavalry helmet.

Excavations now show the chapel's walls and tiled floor, along with pieces of stone masonry, wall plaster, tiles, lead from the windows and a nearby cemetery. Archaeologists have also found money among the ruins, including several silver pennies. These coins, which date back to between the 12th and 16th centuries, have helped researchers determine the chapel's most active years.

Read more at Discovery News

Greek Tomb's Female Sculptures Fully Revealed

The two female statues guarding the massive burial complex in Amphipolis, in Greece's northeastern Macedonia region, can now be seen in all their glory from head to toe.

Pictures released by Greece's Culture Ministry on Sunday show the 7.45-foot-tall statues standing on a marble pedestal with high-soled red and yellow shoes.

"Their toes have been sculpted in great detail," the Greek ministry of culture said.

Carved in high relief of Thassos marble, the imposing twin statues, known as Caryatids, stand between two marble pillars supporting a beam. They were "buried" in the ground, sandwiched between two walls, one sealing the statues off and the other closing another chamber.

Wearing a long chiton -- a sleeveless garment from the Archaic period -- and earrings, the statues feature long, thick hair covering their shoulders. While the face of one Caryatid survives almost intact, the other is missing, but archaeologists have found some fragments of the face, as well as some pieces of their missing hands.

The sculptures appear to slightly lift their chitons with the corresponding hand. As for the figures's alternated raised arms, the archaeologists have interpreted them as a sign to symbolically prevent anyone attempting to enter the grave.

The distance between the two pedestals on which the Caryatids stand is 5.5ft, which is the same as the door opening at the tomb's entrance. This is guarded by two headless, wingless sphinxes.

The excavation has so far uncovered three chambers in the tomb. Earlier today, the secretary of the Ministry of Culture Lina Mendoni said there might be a fourth chamber in the mysterious burial.

From Discovery News

What Marks the Start of Fall

On Monday (Sept. 22), the Earth will have nearly equal amounts of light and darkness, as summer ends and a new fall season begins. Depending where you live, the changing colors of leaves or a sudden briskness in the air may have made it seem like the seasons had already shifted, but the equinox on Monday signals the official start of autumn.

The upcoming autumnal equinox will occur at 10:29 p.m. EDT on Monday (0229 Tuesday, Sept. 23 GMT), according to the National Weather Service (NWS) Forecast Office. Sometimes the autumnal equinox falls on Sept. 23 or 24 because of irregularities in the calendar and Earth's orbit.

In addition to the autumnal equinox in late September, the Earth undergoes the vernal, or spring, equinox in March; in both cases, the Earth's axis is not tilted toward or away from the sun, NWS officials said. At those times, the lengths of day and night are almost equal across the world.

During each equinox, the sun is exactly over the equator at noon. As the world turns, the sun's rays are refracted, or bent to make it look like the sun is above the horizon for a longer period of time, even though it is not, NWS officials said in a statement. Though this happens with every sunset, it's longer during the equinox. Also, the days last longer at places farther from the equator because the sun takes longer to rise and set.

Though the word "equinox" translates to "equal" (aequus) and "night" (nox) in Latin, the days and nights aren't precisely equal. On the equinox and the days just before and after it, the day will last roughly 12 hours and six minutes, as the sun passes directly over the equator.

As autumn progresses, higher latitudes receive fewer hours of daylight and longer nights. This seasonal change happens because of Earth's 23.5-degree tilt. The fall and winter seasons happen at those latitudes when the Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun. In contrast, the Southern Hemisphere experiences spring and summer during that time because they're tilted toward the sun.

But, people living at the equator will see little difference, as those parts of the world experience less seasonal change because of the planet's tilt, the NWS said.

The change from summer to fall can be difficult for some people. As the sun sets earlier, between 1 percent and 10 percent of the population experience seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Symptoms include weight loss or gain, daytime sleepiness, irritability, withdrawing from friends and family, and lack of energy.

Read more at Discovery News

Planck Reveals Dusty Problem for BICEP2's Gravitational Waves

The likelihood that a South Pole-based telescope detected elusive gravitational waves earlier this year has just taken another nosedive.

According to a new and highly-anticipated galactic dust map released by the European Planck space telescope today, the region of sky studied by the BICEP2 telescope appears to contain significant quantities of interstellar dust; dust that may be obscuring the primordial light in which BICEP2 apparently detected the signal of gravitational waves. And this is bad news; the possible detection of gravitational waves may have been a false alarm all along.

In a nutshell, last March, astrophysicists led by John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., announced the potentially historic discovery that their experiment had, for the first time, detected the signal of gravitational waves etched into the ancient ‘glow’ of the Big Bang — a ubiquitous radiation seen at the outermost reaches of the observable Universe known as the cosmic microwave background, or simply CMB.

The discovery of gravitational waves would be historic in itself, but the ramifications of seeing gravitational waves in the CMB would be far-ranging. These gravitational waves would have their origins just after the Big Bang during a rapid period of expansion known as “inflation.” This would therefore provide captivating evidence for one of the leading theories of cosmic birth. Also, as the gravitational waves would have been generated when the universe was very tiny, it would raise questions about a quantum gravity origin and provide evidence for the existence of the hypothetical graviton.

In short, the discovery of ancient gravitational waves could tie up some of the most fundamental questions of the quantum and cosmological nature of our Universe.

BICEP2 is a very sensitive telescope built with the intent to spot a specific type of polarization theorized to be caused by the presence of gravitational waves in the CMB known as “B-mode polarization.” In the March announcement, the excited BICEP2 team were so sure of their findings that they announced the discovery before their results were published in a peer-reviewed journal. Almost immediately, the astronomy community criticized the BICEP2 announcement, suggesting that insufficient consideration for interstellar dust may be interfering with the CMB polarization signal.

Our galaxy is known to be filled with interstellar dust, so any astronomical observations beyond our galaxy have to peer through that dust. Therefore, corrections for the polarizing effects by the dust needs to be made. Planck, which was launched to the Earth-sun L2 point (in the Earth’s shadow) in 2009, has been gradually surveying the whole sky in an effort to map the dust so its effects can be better understood.

Although the BICEP2 team contested that they did take the dusty interference into account before the March announcement, the dust data they used as a reference was incomplete and, as it turns out, woefully underestimated the quantity of dust along BICEP2′s line of sight.

In the long-awaited Planck dust maps described today in a paper published by the arXiv preprint service, it appears that although the region of sky studied by BICEP2 is by no means the most dusty part, it is still obscured by a significant quantity of dust — certainly enough to interfere with any CMB signal.

“The level of dust in the BICEP2 region is clearly significant, and also higher than pre-Planck estimates,” Jamie Bock, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and BICEP2 team member, told Nature News. According to critics, this new map casts the original BICEP2 results into serious doubt — the majority of the CMB polarization was therefore likely caused by the intervening galactic dust and not gravitational waves. Though there may still indeed be a gravitational wave signal in the BICEP2 results, its effect would be minuscule when compared with this dusty interference.

Read more at Discovery News