Dec 30, 2015

Social, telepresence robots revealed by scientists

Prof Nadia Thalmann (left) posing beside Nadine, a life-like social robot capable of autonomously expressing emotions and gestures.
Say hello to Nadine, a "receptionist" at Nanyang Technological University (NTU Singapore). She is friendly, and will greet you back. Next time you meet her, she will remember your name and your previous conversation with her.

She looks almost like a human being, with soft skin and flowing brunette hair. She smiles when greeting you, looks at you in the eye when talking, and can also shake hands with you. And she is a humanoid.

Unlike conventional robots, Nadine has her own personality, mood and emotions. She can be happy or sad, depending on the conversation. She also has a good memory, and can recognise the people she has met, and remembers what the person had said before.

Nadine is the latest social robot developed by scientists at NTU. The doppelganger of its creator, Prof Nadia Thalmann, Nadine is powered by intelligent software similar to Apple's Siri or Microsoft's Cortana. Nadine can be a personal assistant in offices and homes in future. And she can be used as social companions for the young and the elderly.

A humanoid like Nadine is just one of the interfaces where the technology can be applied. It can also be made virtual and appear on a TV or computer screen, and become a low-cost virtual social companion.

With further progress in robotics sparked by technological improvements in silicon chips, sensors and computation, physical social robots such as Nadine are poised to become more visible in offices and homes in future.

The rise of social robots

Prof Thalmann, the director of the Institute for Media Innovation who led the development of Nadine, said these social robots are among NTU's many exciting new media innovations that companies can leverage for commercialisation.

"Robotics technologies have advanced significantly over the past few decades and are already being used in manufacturing and logistics. As countries worldwide face challenges of an aging population, social robots can be one solution to address the shrinking workforce, become personal companions for children and the elderly at home, and even serve as a platform for healthcare services in future," explained Prof Thalmann, an expert in virtual humans and a faculty from NTU's School of Computer Engineering.

"Over the past four years, our team at NTU have been fostering cross-disciplinary research in social robotics technologies -- involving engineering, computer science, linguistics, psychology and other fields -- to transform a virtual human, from within a computer, into a physical being that is able to observe and interact with other humans.

"This is somewhat like a real companion that is always with you and conscious of what is happening. So in future, these socially intelligent robots could be like C-3PO, the iconic golden droid from Star Wars, with knowledge of language and etiquette."

Telepresence robot lets people be in two or more places at once

Nadine's robot-in-arms, EDGAR, was also put through its paces at NTU's new media showcase, complete with a rear-projection screen for its face and two highly articulated arms.

EDGAR is a tele-presence robot optimised to project the gestures of its human user. By standing in front of a specialised webcam, a user can control EDGAR remotely from anywhere in the world. The user's face and expressions will be displayed on the robot's face in real time, while the robot mimics the person's upper body movements.

EDGAR can also deliver speeches by autonomously acting out a script. With an integrated webcam, he automatically tracks the people he meets to engage them in conversation, giving them informative and witty replies to their questions.

Such social robots are ideal for use at public venues, such as tourist attractions and shopping centres, as they can offer practical information to visitors.

Led by Assoc Prof Gerald Seet from the School of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering and the BeingThere Centre at NTU, this made-in-Singapore robot represents three years of research and development.

Read more at Science Daily

Exceptionally strong and lightweight new metal

At left, a deformed sample of pure metal; at right, the strong new metal made of magnesium with silicon carbide nanoparticles. Each central micropillar is about 4 micrometers across.
A team led by researchers from the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science has created a super-strong yet light structural metal with extremely high specific strength and modulus, or stiffness-to-weight ratio. The new metal is composed of magnesium infused with a dense and even dispersal of ceramic silicon carbide nanoparticles. It could be used to make lighter airplanes, spacecraft, and cars, helping to improve fuel efficiency, as well as in mobile electronics and biomedical devices.

To create the super-strong but lightweight metal, the team found a new way to disperse and stabilize nanoparticles in molten metals. They also developed a scalable manufacturing method that could pave the way for more high-performance lightweight metals. The research was published today in Nature.

"It's been proposed that nanoparticles could really enhance the strength of metals without damaging their plasticity, especially light metals like magnesium, but no groups have been able to disperse ceramic nanoparticles in molten metals until now," said Xiaochun Li, the principal investigator on the research and Raytheon Chair in Manufacturing Engineering at UCLA. "With an infusion of physics and materials processing, our method paves a new way to enhance the performance of many different kinds of metals by evenly infusing dense nanoparticles to enhance the performance of metals to meet energy and sustainability challenges in today's society."

Structural metals are load-bearing metals; they are used in buildings and vehicles. Magnesium, at just two-thirds the density of aluminum, is the lightest structural metal. Silicon carbide is an ultra-hard ceramic commonly used in industrial cutting blades. The researchers' technique of infusing a large number of silicon carbide particles smaller than 100 nanometers into magnesium added significant strength, stiffness, plasticity and durability under high temperatures.

The researchers' new silicon carbide-infused magnesium demonstrated record levels of specific strength -- how much weight a material can withstand before breaking -- and specific modulus -- the material's stiffness-to-weight ratio. It also showed superior stability at high temperatures.

Ceramic particles have long been considered as a potential way to make metals stronger. However, with microscale ceramic particles, the infusion process results in a loss of plasticity.

Nanoscale particles, by contrast, can enhance strength while maintaining or even improving metals' plasticity. But nanoscale ceramic particles tend to clump together rather than dispersing evenly, due to the tendency of small particles to attract one other.

To counteract this issue, researchers dispersed the particles into a molten magnesium zinc alloy. The newly discovered nanoparticle dispersion relies on the kinetic energy in the particles' movement. This stabilizes the particles' dispersion and prevents clumping.

To further enhance the new metal's strength, the researchers used a technique called high-pressure torsion to compress it.

"The results we obtained so far are just scratching the surface of the hidden treasure for a new class of metals with revolutionary properties and functionalities," Li said.

The new metal (more accurately called a metal nanocomposite) is about 14 percent silicon carbide nanoparticles and 86 percent magnesium. The researchers noted that magnesium is an abundant resource and that scaling up its use would not cause environmental damage.

The paper's lead author is Lian-Yi Chen, who conducted the research as a postdoctoral scholar in Li's Scifacturing Laboratory at UCLA. Chen is now an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Read more at Science Daily

ALMA Spies Baby Stars' Planetary Workshops

This artist's impression shows the formation of massive planets in the dust gap of a transitional disk surrounding a young star.
Planetary formation remains one of the biggest puzzles in modern astronomy. Although we know that the vast majority of stars possess systems of planets — from tiny Mercury-sized rocky worlds to massive gas giants that would dwarf Jupiter — mysteries remain as to how material accretes to form small planetoids and how long it takes for these planetary embryos to plump-up into what we would consider to be planets.

Now, with the help of the awesome Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), astronomers have zoomed-in on a selection of very young stars, revealing never-before-seen detail in the planet-forming regions surrounding them. And what they found were monster planets, several times more massive than Jupiter, hiding inside the dusty planetary workshops.

When a star is born, it will often be accompanied by a protoplanetary disk. As the star settles and disk matures, small dusty particles accrete (clump together), eventually creating gravitationally-dominant protoplanets that rapidly vacuum up more and more material, growing bigger and more massive. Of particular interest to astronomers are transitional disks that have a surprising lack of dust in their centers, in the region between the disk and star.

This may not seem surprising; astronomers have explained away these features as either a consequence of stellar radiation pressure (as the star matures, its radiation blasts any nearby dust away), or massive planets could be lurking in this zone, having cleared their orbits of dust through their gravitational dominance.

We’ve been stuck at this impasse for some time; how can we tell whether this dust gap is caused by radiation pressure or planetary formation?

This ALMA image combines a view of the dust around the young star HD 135344B (orange) with a view of the gaseous material (blue). The smaller hole in the inner gas is a telltale sign of the presence of a young planet clearing the disc. The bar at the bottom of the image indicates the diameter of the orbit of Neptune in the Solar System (60 AU).
This is where ALMA comes in. The array of radio antennae are sensitive to emissions from the gas these transitional disks contain and through studies of 4 young stars, astronomers have found that inside these dust gaps, there are also gas gaps, but they are 3 times thinner. Only with ALMA’s precision observations could these gas gaps be pinpointed and they can mean only one thing.

“Previous observations already hinted at the presence of gas inside the dust gaps,” said astronomer Nienke van der Marel, of Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands. “But as ALMA can image the material in the entire disc in much greater detail than other facilities, we could rule out the alternative scenario. The deep gap points clearly to the presence of planets with several times the mass of Jupiter, creating these caverns as they sweep through the disc.”

Although we are looking at very alien star systems, it’s studies such as these that will ultimately reveal how the planets in our own solar system formed, likely clearing up many mysteries surrounding our understanding of planetary evolution. And as observatories become more sophisticated answers are likely to come sooner rather than later.

Read more at Discovery News

Prehistoric Giant Armadillo Shell Found in Argentina

A passer-by on Christmas Day found a meter-long shell on a riverbank in Argentina which may be from a glyptodont, a prehistoric kind of giant armadillo, experts said Tuesday.

A local man thought the black scaly shell was a dinosaur egg when he saw it lying in the mud, his wife Reina Coronel told AFP.

Her husband Jose Antonio Nievas found the shell beside a stream at their farm in Carlos Spegazzini, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of the capital Buenos Aires.

“My husband went out to the car and when he came back he said, ‘Hey, I just found an egg that looks like it came from a dinosaur,” she said.

“We all laughed because we thought it was a joke.”

Nievas told television channel Todo Noticias he found the shell partly covered in mud and started to dig around it.

Various experts who saw television pictures of the object said it was likely to be a glyptodont shell.

“There is no doubt that it looks like a glyptodont,” said paleontologist Alejandro Kramarz of the Bernadino Rivadavia Natural Sciences Museum.

“The animal became extinct thousands of years ago and it is very common to find their fossils in this region,” he told AFP.

Glyptodonts are the ancestors of modern armadillos. They had big round armored shells and weighed up to a ton.

They lived in South America for tens of millions of years.

Kramarz estimated the specimen found by Nievas was relatively young at 10,000 years.

From Discovery News

Dec 29, 2015

Second Form of Contagious Cancer Found in Tasmanian Devils

A newly observed form of cancer in Tasmanian devils can be spread by biting, researchers say.

With eight reported cases across southeastern Tasmania, the cancer causes large facial tumors in infected devils and can result in death within months.

This is the second transmissible cancer known to affect the species. The other form, which was first observed in 1996, is also spread via bites and results in facial tumors, but is genetically distinct.

Known as devil facial tumor disease, the parasitic cancer has been blamed for significant population declines in recent years, as devils are known to bite each other frequently during mating and feeding. In 2008, the IUCN categorized the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) as Endangered, noting that some individual populations are now a mere tenth of their original size.

Some devils are immune to devil facial tumor disease, and captive breeding programs have been initiated as a last-ditch effort to ensure the species’ long-term survival.

“Until now, we’ve always thought that transmissible cancers arise extremely rarely in nature, but this new discovery makes us question this belief,” the University of Cambridge’s Dr. Elizabeth Murchison, senior author of a new study about the cancer, remarked in a news release.

“It makes us wonder if Tasmanian devils might be particularly vulnerable to developing this type of disease, or that transmissible cancers may not be as rare in nature as we previously thought.”

Similar transmissible cancers have also been observed in dogs and soft-shell clams.

The research, from the Universities of Cambridge and Tasmania, is detailed the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

From Discovery News

U.K. Zoo Attempts to Save World's Rarest Magpie

The Javan green magpie is in trouble, critically endangered, with precious few of its kind remaining, and the U.K.’s Chester Zoo is making an effort to save it from extinction.

The zoo has taken receipt of six pairs of the stunning green birds from their native Indonesia and hopes to establish a breeding program and what it calls "safety-net" populations.

According to the zoo, there are only about 100 Javan green magpies left. Birds in Indonesia are often caged as status objects, causing millions of them to be removed from the wild over the last two decades or so. In such conditions birds like the green magpie don’t survive very long, say zoo staff interviewed by the BBC.

Recent efforts by the zoo to work with conservationists in Indonesia to breed the birds have been hindered by break-ins by thieves targeting the rare creatures.

The break-ins prompted the zoo to have the six pairs of birds flown to the United Kingdom. The U.K. breeding program will be the first ever attempted outside of the magpie’s native Indonesia.

The Javan green magpie is a corvid, in the same family as crows and ravens. Its victimization by trappers, and its loss of native habitat in the forests of Indonesia give the bird its ominous Critically Endangered designation.

“Research and informed conservation actions are now urgently needed to increase the chances of this species’s survival,” the International Union for Conservation of Nature writes of the animal on its “red list” of threatened species.

From Discovery News

Ancient Ram Statue Unearthed On Christmas Eve in Israel

Israeli archaeologists on Christmas Eve unearthed an impressive marble statue of a ram they believe may have been meant to represent the faithful, or Jesus himself.

Found in the ancient port city of Caesarea near a Byzantine church, the well-preserved statue represents a rather common image in Christian art.

“In ancient Christianity Jesus was not portrayed as a person. Instead, symbols were used, one of which was the ram,” Peter Gendelman and Mohammad Hater, directors of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in a statement.

According to the archaeologists, the statue might have been part of the decoration of a Byzantine church from the sixth to seventh centuries AD.

“By the same token it could also be earlier, from the Roman period, and was incorporated in secondary use in the church structure,” Gendelman and Hater said.

Appearing alongside the Greek gods Hermes and Mercury, the ram was often used in Roman art. It was also portrayed in Egyptian mythology as a representation of the god Amun.

In Christian imagery, the animal is often depicted carried on the shoulders of the “Good Shepherd,” that is, Jesus, and sometimes the animal is situated to the left or right of Jesus.

“It may or may not be a coincidence, but the statue was uncovered on Christmas Eve,” Gendelman and Hater said.

From Discovery News

Huge Storm May Raise North Pole Temps 50 Degrees

A deep low pressure system in the North Atlantic is expected to reach maximum intensity off Iceland by Wednesday morning, battering that country with high winds and bringing yet more rain to the United Kingdom, which is already reeling from record floods. Expected to be one of the strongest storms — if not the strongest — ever recorded in this area of the North Atlantic, it’s at least partly a continuation of the same low pressure system that helped spawn tornadoes in Dallas on Saturday.

Heading north and east, that system is now rounding Greenland, pushing warm temperatures ahead of it and drawing high winds behind it, where it seems set to clash with a pair of low pressure systems already in the Atlantic.

Intense storms off Iceland and Greenland are not uncommon during winter; but, notes climate writer Andrew Freedman at Mashable, ”in a region famous for ship-sinking waves and relentless blizzards, this storm may stand out for its sheer intensity.”

One consequence of the storm system will be a surge of warmth northward from the Atlantic deep into the High Arctic. Temperatures at the North Pole — which, it’s worth remembering, is presently enveloped in 24 hour darkness — could reach 40 degrees F, warmer than Oklahoma City, El Paso, and southern California, and fully 50 degrees warmer than the seasonal average.

Large temperature fluctuations in the Arctic are relatively common, notes Freedman, but such an anomaly is “extreme.” Indeed, according to meteorologist Bob Henson at The Weather Underground, there have been only three instances since 1948 when North Pole temperatures have hit or exceeded the freezing mark in December, and none in January through March.

Such a high, even if for a short duration, could impact the formation of winter sea ice, at a time when sea ice levels in spring, summer and fall are already at historic lows as a result of climate change.

Last week, NOAA released the latest edition of its annual Arctic Report Card, in which it noted that 10 years ago “Arctic sea ice set a new record unlike anything previously observed. The 2015 low is 350,000 square miles below that. In fact, the nine lowest Arctic sea ice extents in the satellite record have all occurred in the last nine years.” This year’s sea ice minimum was the fourth smallest on record.

Read more at Discovery News

Christmas Trees Make Perfect Gift for Fish and Goats

Your Christmas tree looks enchanting when it’s decorated with tinsel, candy canes and glittering lights in your living room. But it looks anything but enchanting when it’s lying there on the curb outside your house on the day after New Year’s, waiting to go into a landfill.

But it’s possible to have the holiday spirit and be eco-friendly as well. Numerous communities across the nation are recycling discarded Christmas trees, some of them in ways that actually turn them into an environmental asset instead of a liability.

In West Virginia, for example, the state’s Division of Natural Resources and other agencies are collecting trees that will be re-purposed to as underwater habitat for fish, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reports.

Trees are also recycled as fish habitats in Louisiana, Ohio and other states. In Missouri, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began creating such underwater Christmas tree fish shelters back in the 1980s, according to Treehugger.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, after the trees are collected, they’re bundled together into groups of four our five, and then weighted down with concrete blocks and submerged into lakes, at varying depths. The bundles create an artificial reef that extends from the shore into deeper waters. That allows the trees to be utilized as shelter by a variety of fish, ranging from young fish who stay in shallow areas, to adults who go into the deep.

The species that benefit from the Christmas trees include crappies, bluegills and bass.

“Christmas trees make cheap, but quality underwater structures,” according to the Forest Service. “They are easy to place in the ponds and lakes, and they last for several years. More importantly, their branching patterns offer something to fish of all shapes and sizes.”

But fish aren’t the only creatures who benefit from Christmas tree recycling. In San Francisco, a company called City Grazing is partnering with the city’s Fire Department to accept trees and use them as goat food.

According to, the company has a herd of 80 animals, who will chow down on 160 Christmas trees.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 28, 2015

Giant Squid Visits Harbor in Japan

Giant squid fans got a nice Christmas present, when one of the titans of the deep appeared in a Japanese harbor on Christmas Eve. Better still for those on hand, it hung around to let itself be recorded in some amazing footage, CNN reports.

The rarely seen aquatic behemoth paid a visit to Japan’s Toyama Bay, swimming near the surface among the harbor’s boats, and giving onlookers a thrill.

One of those watching the squid was a dive shop owner who leaped into the water to trail the creature. The footage above was caught by a submersible camera.

“This squid was not damaged and looked lively, spurting ink and trying to entangle his tentacles around me,” the diver told CNN.

The animal stayed in the harbor for a few hours, before the diver guided it back out to the ocean. It's likely a juvenile, as it was on the small side for the species, at about 12 feet long (adults can reach some 30 to 40 feet long).

Experts told the network that it was rare to see giant squid — normally denizens of the deepest seas — swimming so close inland among boat moors. There was no immediately clear reason why this one had done so.

Read more at Discovery News

Stem Cells May Save Northern White Rhinos

With only three northern white rhinoceroses left on Earth, conservationists are giving up on traditional breeding efforts and turning to cutting-edge science to save this subspecies.

At a meeting in Vienna from Dec. 3 to Dec. 6, researchers developed a plan to use stem cells to create fertilized rhino embryos, which will be carried by surrogate southern white rhino females.

This past year has been a sad one for northern white rhinos, a rapidly disappearing subspecies destroyed by habitat loss and poaching. There were six northern whites on the planet, all in captivity, in December 2014. That month, the second-to-last male, Angalifu, died at the San Diego Zoo. That left Sudan, a 42-year-old rhino at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, as the only northern white male rhino on Earth.

Next to go was 31-year-old Nabiré, a female who died of a ruptured cyst at the Dv?r Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic in July. An infection claimed Nola, a 41-year-old female at the San Diego Zoo, in November.

Now the only three remaining northern whites live at the Ol Pejeta reserve. Sudan still survives, but is too old to mount a female. And the two remaining females, Najin and Fatu, also have health problems that prevent them from reproducing the old-fashioned way.

So scientists plan to collect egg and sperm cells from the last living northern whites and combine them with induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells). These are cells taken from the rhino’s body and chemically induced to turn back the clock to an earlier developmental phase, when cells are capable of becoming many different types of body tissue. The hope is that scientists can reverse-engineer body cells into sperm and egg cells. Fertilized embryos could then be made by in vitro fertilization (IVF) and transferred into southern white rhinoceroses, the northern white’s nearest relative.

But there are complications to this plan: No one has ever successfully completed IVF on a rhino of any species. Every species requires its own cell-culture conditions to mimic the unique environment of the uterus, Barbara Durrant, director of reproductive physiology at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, told Live Science in June. Depending on how long it takes to make the breakthroughs necessary to create rhino embryos in a lab, the species could go extinct before scientists successfully breed new individuals.

Read more at Discovery News

Egyptian Statues Revealed in Ancient Shrines

Six rock cut statues have been discovered within 18th Dynasty shrines in Egypt, Antiquities Minister Mamdouh el-Damaty announced.

The 3,400-year-old statues were found at Gebel el Sisila, a site north of Aswan known for its stone quarries on both sides of the Nile. Blocks used in building almost all of ancient Egypt's great temples were cut from there.

The statues were carved within two of the 32 shrines erected by the officials who were in charge of quarrying the stone.

The two shrines are located about half a mile south of Gebel el Sisila’s most famous monument, the rock-cut temple known as the Speos of Horemheb. In antiquity they suffered some fracturing due to earthquakes, and erosion due to their submersion by the Nile during the flood season.

“The shrines were described as almost completely destroyed,” el-Damaty said.

On the contrary, a Swedish mission from Lund University, led by Maria Nilsson, found the chapels, known as shrine 30 and shrine 31, preserved in their entirety.

Nilsson worked in cooperation with the inspectorate of Kom Ombo under General Director Abd el Menum, and the inspectorate of Aswan under General Director Nasr Salama.

Shrine 30 featured intact architectural elements, such as the doorway with its lintel, door jamb, threshold, interior walls and ceiling.

At the back of the shrine, within a niche, the archaeologists found two life-size statues.

“They show a male and a female seated on a couch, positioned slightly towards each other in a private embrace,” Nilsson said.

The male figure, and owner of the shrine, is portrayed with enlarged and protruding ears, large nose and lips, and sunken eyes. His arms are crossed over his chest, in the so-called Osirian position, and he wears a shoulder-length hair wig.

Portrayed with equally pronounced facial features, the female statue embraces the male, one arm placed on the male’s shoulder, and the other hand in front of her chest.

“We have no clues so far about the identity of this couple. Unfortunately there is no information preserved within the hieroglyphic text,” Nilsson told Discovery News.

Nilsson’s team also found that the other monument, known as Shrine 31, had retained all its original architectural details, including its threshold, floor, door jambs and internally dressed walls.

“The shrine in fact is the best preserved of all 32 cenotaphs at Gebel el Silsila,” associate director John Ward said.

Seated and placed within a niche, the archaeologists found four well-preserved statues, two male and two females.

“The main male figure, depicted with his arms in the Osirian position, is the owner of the shrine, Neferkhewe,” Nilsson and Ward said.

Active during the reign of Thutmosis III, Neferkhewe is described within the shrine as “the overseer of the foreign lands” and “chief of the medjay (a region in northern Sudan).”

He wears a shoulder-length wig and is also portrayed with enlarged ears, sunken eyes large nose and lips, all set within a rounded face.

Neferkhewe’s wife, Ruiuresti, sits to the far left. Boasting facial features similar to those of her husband, she is portrayed with her arm around his Neferkhewe, holding an object in her other hand.

The two remaining statues, seated on the right side, likely portray the couple’s children, a daughter and a son.

According to the archaeologists these two carvings were remodeled during antiquity due to severe damage caused by fracturing to the sandstone.

“The statues are very finely carved, but were damaged and rubbed down by the tides of the water and years of being packed under silt,” Nilsson said.

Preliminary results of the translations of the hieroglyphic texts and titles indicate that the names of the two children are not previously known.

“The identity of the son is not that of the famous son of Neferkhewe and Ruiuresti, Menkheperresonb, who is known from other sources,” Nilsson and Ward said

The archaeologists also discovered relief scenes on both the northern and the southern walls of Shrine 31.

Read more at Discovery News

Rocky Exoplanet Found Orbiting 'Most Anemic' Star

How low can you go? Astronomers have found a star with an incredibly low concentration of heavy elements that still has a sizable planet around it — the most metal-poor star ever discovered with an orbiting, rocky planet.

The planet found circling the unlikely star suggests that other Earths could be more common than once thought.

A team led by Annelies Mortier, an exoplanet researcher at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom, found the star, called HD175607, and its Neptune-size planet about 147 light-years from Earth, using the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) spectrograph in Chile. The star is a yellowish dwarf, with about 0.74 times the mass of the sun, and it contains fewer heavy elements than any other star of its kind that has rocky planets. The ratio of iron to hydrogen, for example, is only 23 percent that of the sun's.

To make planets, you need elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. In astronomical parlance, these elements are known as metals, even though they include substances like oxygen, silicon and carbon. Astronomers can measure a star's metallicity, or the ratio of heavy elements to hydrogen, by looking at the wavelengths of light coming from the star and comparing its metal content to the surrounding regions of the galaxy. The metallicity of a star also tells you what was likely in the cloud of gas and dust that formed it in the first place.

Researchers generally expect stars with high metallicity to be more likely to have giant planets like Jupiter — in fact, astronomers target such stars in order to boost the odds of seeing a planet, Mortier told in an email. But for rocky, Neptune-size planets and those that are smaller, that correlation doesn't appear to hold. That's why the HARPS is looking at low-metallicity stars to see how low that ratio can go before the star no longer has planets at all.

"For Neptunes and Earthlike planets, it is not as clear yet what the role of metallicity is," Mortier said.

In this case, the star HD175607 appears to have a planet orbiting it at a distance that's about a third of Mercury's to the sun. It completes a "year" of orbit in 29 days and weighs between 7.88 and 10.08 times as much as Earth, putting it at about two-thirds the mass of Neptune — which has a mass that's about 17 times that of Earth's.

Planets are hard to see to begin with; finding the one around HD 175607 took months of observations spread out over nine years. The researchers had a much easier time measuring the star's metallicity.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 24, 2015

Happy Holidays

I Wanted to take the time to wish everybody that reads this blog a merry Christmas and happy holidays.

I've been running this blog for almost six (6) years and it's been a journey. Without you, the readers, I wouldn't post this much as I do, so keep on reading.

Yours truly
Danny Boston

Dec 23, 2015

Crows Caught on Camera Building, Storing Tools

New Caledonian crows have been captured on video not only fashioning and using tools but also storing them for later use, the first time corvids have been recorded doing so in the wild, new research suggests.

Science has known for some time now that crows are highly intelligent, and previous videos have shown them at their tool-making work. But researchers from the University of St. Andrews and the University of Exeter say theirs is the first footage of the animals using their skills unaided, in their element.

"While fieldworkers had previously obtained brief glimpses of hooked stick tool manufacture, the only video footage to date came from baited feeding sites, where tool raw materials and probing tasks had been provided to crows by scientists," said study co-author Jolyon Troscianko in a statement. "We were keen to get close-up video of birds making these tools under completely natural conditions."

In research published today in the journal Biology Letters, Troscianko and fellow researcher Christian Rutz detail their use of tiny “spy” cameras attached to the tail feathers of 19 crows.

Poring over the footage captured on the cameras' micro-SD cards (the cameras safely detach from the birds within a few days), the scientists witnessed two instances of the birds fashioning hook tools they would use to probe tree crevices for food:

It was clear to the researchers that these tools seemed precious to the birds.

“In one scene,” said Troscianko, ”a crow drops its tool, and then recovers it from the ground shortly afterwards, suggesting they value their tools and don’t simply discard them after a single use.”

The crows (Corvus moneduloides) observed in the study live in the South Pacific, on the island of New Caledonia, and it’s thought that corvids such as these may even rival primates in the area of brain power.

They’ve honed the art of using their bills to whiddle twigs and even leaves into hooked bug-grabbers. One crow seen on the recordings only needed one minute to create its tool, before using it to probe leaves on the ground and tree hollows in search of bugs.

Read more at Discovery News

Winter Heat Messes Up Animal Sleepers

This winter’s massive El Nino hasn’t just created havoc for California surfers or East coast ski bums, Nature too is being thrown out of whack and many winter animal sleepers are rubbing their eyes and waking up to the summer-like temperatures.

Raccoons, and possums and skunks – usually dormant during cold weather – are stirring and looking for food, according to Ken Elowe, assistant regional director at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Hadley, Mass. “For them, it’s how much energy do they have to go around hunting for food. In this kind of weather when it’s warmer, it’s not hard for them to find something to eat.”

Hibernating bears will likely wake up, sniff around a bit and probably go back to sleep, Elowe said. That’s because their food supply isn’t available.

“Bears are triggered to go into their dens when food gets scarce and they expend more energy looking for food than the energy it gives them,” he said

Bears actually change their physiological processes during their winter sleep so they are breaking down the fat in their body, not the muscle. That gives them sugar and water to sustain themselves.

“They don’t have to drink anything,” Elowe said. Nor do they urinate.

The biologist noted that bears in northern and southern climes both hibernate, although bears in Florida and the Carolinas don’t sleep as long.

Woodhcucks and chipmunks bury themselves below the frost level in burrows. They slow down their metabolism to just barely keep them alive. They don’t change their physiology. They have to get up and drink water and urinate during the normal winter.

“This kind of winter makes it easier for them to do that,” Elowe said.

Bats need to remain undisturbed in caves, dead trees or old buildings or else they can use up winter food and energy stores they have built up over the summer and fall months. Even though many insects may be hatching in the warm temperatures, it’s not a good idea for bats to roust themselves and start hunting.

One positive is that the warm spell might cut down on the tick population, which needs protection of snow on top of leaf letter and soil to molt into their next stage, or instar.

“They are similar to seeds that need a frozen period to become germination ready,” Elowe said.

As to why we’re having this warm weather and how long it will last? First, blame El Nino. Second, a pressure system that has forced the jet stream south over the West (bringing in cold Arctic air), and a ridge in the East (bringing tropical air from Bermuda and the Gulf of Mexico), according to Rich Otto, meteorologist at the National Weather Service.

Read more at Discovery News

Evil-Thwarting 'Rattles' Found in Prehistoric Infant's Grave

Tiny figurines that may have been used as rattling toys or charms to ward off evil spirits were discovered in the grave of an infant dating back 4,500 years, archaeologists say.

The burial was discovered on the northwest shore of Lake Itkul in the Minusinsk basinin Russia. The infant’s remains, which were found in what appears to be a birchbark cradle, suggest he or she was less than a year old at death. On the infant’s chest, archaeologists found “eight miniature horn figurines representing humanlike characters and heads of birds, elk, boar and a carnivore,”wrote archaeologists Andrey Polyakov and Yury Esin, in an article published recently in the journal Archaeology, Ethnology & Anthropology of Eurasia.

The intricately carved figurines were likely made from deer antlers and have traces of red paint on them. “Some of [the figurines] have internal cavities and, upon coming in contact with each other, could produce noisy sounds like modern rattles,” wrote Polyakov, of the Institute for the History of Material Culture in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and Esin, of the Khakassian Research Institute of Language, Literature and History.

The figurines would have been attached in some way to the cradle, the researchers say. They could have functioned as toys and may also have protected the infant from evil powers. “Various apotropaic charms are a necessary element of cradle decoration in the traditional cultures,” Polyakov and Esin wrote.

Archaeologists cannot rule out the possibility that the figurines have “no relation to the cradle, and placed into the burial to ensure successful transition of the deceased child to the next world,” they wrote.

The infant also had some interesting headgear. The infant’s head was turned toward the southwest, and, on the skull, archaeologists found 11 small copper plaques, 10 of which were made from a thin oval copper plate no more than a half inch (1.5 centimeters) across, the archaeologists said.

Each of the plaques had two fastening holes, where thin leather laces would’ve been threaded through to attach them to one another. The cap could then be placed on the infant’s head. Remains of those laces were also found in the burial.

One of the plaques, located at the top of the infant’s headgear, was made of two metallic cones that would have been sewn together. “Probably these were adornments of the child’s cap,” Polyakov and Esin wrote. They note that an earring was also found to the left of the infant’s skull.

The infant was buried along with several other people in a burial mound called a kurgan. The people buried in the mound were part of what modern-day archaeologists call the Okunev culture.

Although writing had not yet spread to this part of the world, “the Okunev people had mastered processing of copper and bronze manufacture from which they cast blades, daggers, axes and spear-heads, fishing hooks and other tools and ornaments,” Esin told Live Science in an email. In addition to metal, these people continued to use tools made of stone and bone, Esin added.

Read more at Discovery News

Space Junk Reenters Atmosphere, Dazzles Las Vegas

A mysterious ball of light soared over the Las Vegas skyline Tuesday evening, and before you ask — no, it wasn’t the same object the NORAD will be tracking later this week.

In a Facebook post, the United States Strategic Command explains that the flash of light was actually a Russian SL-4 rocket body burning up as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.

The flaming junk, which first appeared around 6:00 p.m. local time, was visible across parts of Nevada and California. Dazzled stargazers throughout the region took to social media to share their accounts of the unexpected show.

There are more than 21,000 pieces of space debris larger than 4 inches across currently orbiting Earth. As part of its initiative, the USSC maintains a comprehensive database of 16,000 of these “on-orbit cataloged objects,” tracking their movement until they burn up.

“That service is a key element of our commitment to provide space situational awareness for spaceflight safety,” the agency explains.

Little can be done about the debris currently in orbit; space agencies around the planet are actively investigating ways to minimize the amount of orbital debris that future missions leave behind.

From Discovery News

The Littlest, Most Adorable-est Seahorse Fits on Your Fingernail

Because they were a bit gullible, the Ancient Greeks believed a tiny race of humans known as the pygmies did eternal battle with cranes—which, in fairness, can be pretty jerky. Today, “pygmy” lives on in zoology to describe any number of species smaller than their peers, things like pygmy hippos, pygmy goats, and even pygmy killer whales. The most magical among the pygmies, though, is a miniscule creature that’ll punch you right in the face with cuteness, given you can even find it: It’s the charming, fantastically camouflaged pygmy seahorse.

For my money, this is the most confounding camo in the sea. While plenty of ocean critters blend in with their surroundings—the aptly named stonefish, for instance, looks much like a fish, and even more like a stone—and the cuttlefish famously changes its skin color and texture on the fly to match its surroundings, the pygmy seahorse goes about things differently. As a young ‘un, it’ll settle on coral, then adopt one of a number of colors to match and live the rest of its life in that outfit. That’s really, really weird for an animal.

Swimming the reefs of Australia and Southeast Asia are seven species of pygmy seahorse measuring between a half inch and an inch long, small enough to fit on your fingernail. But from here on out when I say “pygmy seahorse” I’m referring to just two, Bargibant’s and Denise’s pygmy seahorses, which stick to coral sea fans known as gorgonians. The other species are great and all, but these two are the most spectacular.

Gorgonians come in a range of colors, and this presents a problem for the seahorses. If, say, they were pink and could only find orange gorgonians instead of pink gorgonians, their camo would be worthless. So when a pygmy seahorse lands on a gorgonian as a black-hued juvenile, it begins an incredible transformation. “It lives on some gorgonians that are kind of warty and branched, and some that are smooth and a little bit darker red, or more pale,” says Steinhart Aquarium biologist Matt Wandell, who was the first to breed pygmy seahorses. “And so it’ll adapt to that color and that texture,” warts and all, over the course of a few days.

Wandell’s seahorses were orange because that’s what color they wanted to be and if you can’t handle that I don’t know what to tell you.
That transformation appears to be permanent, as opposed to the cuttlefish’s on-demand camouflage. To test this, Wandell dropped already-transformed seahorses into tanks with gorgonians of a different color to see if they’d re-adapt, but nothing doing. “It seems like, as far as we know, it’s a one-time switch,” Wandell says. “You can think of it maybe like language in that sense for a child, where it’s a one-time period where it can adapt to a certain type of gorgonian.”

The cuttlefish’s camouflage trick is easy to figure—it’s covered with cells called chromatophores (as are other cephalopods like octopuses and squids), which rapidly expand or contract to flash certain colors. But how the pygmy seahorse is pulling off its color change, scientists haven’t a clue. It does appear, though, that the seahorse is using visual cues as opposed to something like nomming on the gorgonian to assume its color (since the pygmy perfectly imitates the coral’s warts as well).

It’s baffling. From an evolutionary perspective, the development of camouflage is simple: Individuals that look more like their surroundings have a better chance of avoiding predators and surviving to pass down their genes for this effective camo. Over time, a species accumulates these changes into something epic like the satanic leaf-tailed gecko looking exactly like a leaf … and only mildly like Satan. But why would the pygmy seahorse opt to “choose” the appropriate camo for its surroundings when other animals are born with theirs? Mysteries abound.

What is clear, though, is that the camouflage is legit. Divers have reported just a few instances of predation on pygmies, and humans didn’t even find the things until 1969, and it was an accident at that. It was only when a scientist carted a gorgonian back to his dissection table did he notice a pair of pygmies. A no doubt confused pair of pygmies.

“Hey Hon, You Up for Some Role-Playing?”

By this point in your life you’ve probably learned that seahorse sex is backwards, with the male role-playing as a female to give birth to their young. And that’s true to a certain degree. “In pygmy seahorses, the males are the ones that get ‘pregnant,’ and I put pregnant in quotes because it’s not quite like the way we think of pregnancy,” Wandell says.

When a pair comes together, the female transfers her eggs to a pouch on the male’s belly, perhaps whispering now let’s see how YOU like it. He fertilizes them, and the eggs develop inside him and hatch into tiny seahorses, which he pops out one by one, as many as 70 of them (at least in Wandell’s experience with captive seahorses—in the wild it could be different). The kiddos, which sport spikes that will eventually turn into those warty bumps, seem to be attracted to light, and will make their way to the surface to feed on plankton—stuff like fish eggs and creatures so tiny they’re at the mercy of the current—for two or three weeks, dispersing far and wide. Then they’ll head down to a reef, snuggle up with a gorgonian, and begin their transformation.

Here the pygmy waits for food to come to it, or, more specifically, to the gorgonian, which is made up of individual tentacled polyps that snag plankton. “The plankton has hundreds of thousands of different animals in it,” Wandell says. “So we assume there’s this sort of amalgamation of gunk sticking to the polyps, and the seahorses are eating that.”

And indeed, this exploitation may have been what drove to pygmy seahorse to evolve to be so tiny. “One thing we know about evolution in general is that any time there’s a niche where energy can be derived and exploited, something will fill that niche,” Wandell says. “And that coral surface was something that wasn’t exploited by any other animals.”

Read more at Wired Science

Dec 22, 2015

Neutrons offer guide to getting more out of solid-state lithium-ion batteries

Although they don't currently have as much conductivity, solid-state electrolytes designed for lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) are emerging as a safer alternative to their more prevalent--sometimes flammable--liquid-electrolyte counterparts.

However, a new study conducted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Spallation Neutron Source (SNS), a Department of Energy Office of Science user facility, has revealed promising results that could drastically boost the performance of solid-state electrolytes, and could potentially lead to a safer, even more efficient battery.

Using neutron diffraction techniques via the VULCAN instrument, SNS beam line 7, lead instrument scientist Ke An and his team recently concluded an in-depth study probing the entire structure evolution of doped garnet-type electrolytes during the synthesis process to unravel the mechanism that boosts the lithium-ionic conductivity. Their findings were recently published in the journals Chemistry of Materials and the Journal of Materials Chemistry A.

"The question we want to answer is how can we correlate the material's structure with its performance," An said. "Finding an answer to this will be very useful to the materials community, particularly in the field of electrochemical devices like batteries."

The problem with liquid electrolytes, says An, is that while they can produce high levels of conductivity--which is good--in some cases, they become flammable under high voltages or high temperatures, causing the battery to "explode"--which is obviously very bad.

In general, solid electrolyte-based LIBs consist of two electrodes, a positive and a negative, and an electrolyte in the middle, forming the battery's core, which facilitates the movement of ions traveling back and forth between the electrodes. In order to achieve a desired level of conductivity in the electrolyte, ions require vacancies in the crystal structure, or tunnels for the ions to "hop" to and from--kind of like connecting the dots.

Lithium lanthanum zirconates, or materials based on Li7La3Zr2O12 with a garnet structure, are favorable for application as electrolytes because they promote fast lithium transport. However, explained An, synthesized garnets often develop unwanted low-conductivity secondary phases, which in some cases can be detrimental to electrolytic performance. Essentially what that means is that useful vacancies for ions to "hop" don't always develop where designers want them to.

During synthesis, myriad chemical reactions take place as the material goes through several different phases, beginning with the mixing of chemicals or materials, then annealing, or heating the structure for desired performance and consistency, followed by a cool down period in which the structure is hardened. Analyzing what's going on during each phase would be next to impossible without the use of special instruments and techniques.

"Getting better performance out of the electrolyte can't be done without first understanding what's going on inside the structure. We need to understand what the mechanisms are that drive the synthesis process," said materials scientist and lead author Yan Chen, a postdoctoral research associate at SNS. "VULCAN enables us to perform in situ experiments, visualizing the structure's evolution in real time without disturbing the garnet synthesis process."

With VULCAN's help they monitored the low-conductivity phases' formation during the thermal process, and found that it could be mitigated by doping the material--adding trace amounts of various elements that have high valences, or an affinity to create bonds, to reduce the effect. Being able to both suppress the formation of those unwanted phases and increase the number of useful vacancies for ion transport proved to be the key to unlocking garnets with high electrolytic performance.

"By tracking the lithium vacancies as functions of temperature and dopants, we found a common rule that the different dopants obey, and how they redistribute the vacancies in the framework of the garnets," Chen said. "Furthermore, a comprehensive analysis of neutron diffraction results revealed how the dopants tune vacancy quantity, control vacancy distribution, and alter the charge carrier pathways in solid electrolytes."

Read more at Science Daily

Twisted magnetic fields give new insights on star formation

Using new images that show unprecedented detail, scientists have found that material rotating around a very young protostar probably has dragged in and twisted magnetic fields from the larger area surrounding the star. The discovery, made with the National Science Foundation's Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope, has important implications for how dusty disks -- the raw material for planet formation -- grow around young stars.

The scientists studied a young protostar about 750 light-years from Earth in the constellation Perseus. Their observations, made in 2013 and 2014, measured the alignment, or polarization, of radio waves emitted by material, mostly dust, falling into a burgeoning disk orbiting the young star. The polarization information revealed the configuration of magnetic fields in this region near the star.

"The alignment of magnetic fields in this region near young stars is very important to the development of the disks that orbit them. Depending on its alignment, the magnetic field can either hinder the growth of the disk or help funnel material onto the disk, allowing it to grow," said Leslie Looney, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

As material from the envelope of dust and gas surrounding the young star falls inward toward the rotating disk, it is likely to drag magnetic field lines with it. Because of this, the structure of the magnetic field near the star will become different from the field's structure farther away.

"Our VLA observations are showing us this region, where the change in shape of the magnetic field is taking place," said Erin Cox, also of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The observations, she added, produced the first images at wavelengths of 8 and 10 millimeters to show the polarization near a protostar.

The observations also indicated that millimeter- to centimeter-sized particles are numerous in the disk surrounding the young star. Since the protostar is only about 10,000 years old -- very short in astronomical timescales -- this may mean that such grains form and grow quickly in the environment of a still-forming star.

Read more at Science Daily

Oetzi the Iceman Has World's Oldest Tattoos

Oetzi, the Tyrolean Iceman entombed beneath an alpine glacier some 5,300 years ago, is the oldest tattooed human, according to a new study.

The mummy boasts tattoos grouped across 19 body parts. Earlier this year, Marco Samadelli and colleagues from the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, Italy, spotted a new tattoo on the mummified body, bringing the total count of the Iceman’s skin markings up to 61.

Published in the February 2016 edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, the research reveals how an error in reading radiocarbon data wrongly attributed the record to an unidentified South American mummy.

The mummy, sporting dotted mustache-like markings across the upper lip, was one of 96 bodies recovered in 1983 from El Morro, Chile. Researchers identified the naturally mummified remains as belonging to a Chinchorro male who died between 35–40 years of age.

They named the mummy “Mo-1 T28 C22.”

The mustache-like tattoo simply consisted of eight black dots across the upper lip to the left side of the nose and four dots to the right side.

The South American mummy belonged to the Chinchorro, a preceramic fishing society that lived in the coastal regions of southern Peru and Chile between 9,000 and 3,100 years ago. Their burials feature both natural and artificial mummification, making them the oldest known human mummies.

The reported age of the mummy was around 4000 B.C., making his dotted tattoos the oldest known.

But while radiocarbon dates for Oetzi have been extensively carried out, confirming the Iceman died between 3370 and 3100 B.C., the age of the Chinchorro mummy comes from a series of errors reading the radiocarbon data.

“It is the result of confusing the date of 3830 ± 100 radiocarbon years BP,” prehistoric archaeologist Aaron Deter-Wolf, who teaches the anthropology of tattooing at Middle Tennessee State University, and colleagues, wrote.

Before Present, or BP, is a time scale used in radiocarbon dating, where “Present” is AD 1950. The date reported in the 1980s radiocarbon dating was 3830 ± 100 BP, the equivalent of 1880 ± 100 BC.

But this correct date was misread as being 3830 ± 100 BC, thus generating errors that were repeated in subsequent studies.

According to the researchers, the original radiocarbon dates clearly identify Oetzi as “the oldest tattooed human remains discovered to date, predating the Chinchorro mummy Mo-1 T28 C22 by at least 500 years.”

The research team, which included Benoît Robitaille, Lars Krutak, at the National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Institution, and Sébastien Galliot, at the Centre de Recherche et de Documentation sur l’Océanie at Aix-Marseille Université, double checked their data by cataloging of all known tattooed human mummies.

The result was a list which included sites spanning the world and a period between around 3370 B.C. and 1600 A.D. To date, the tattoos on the Iceman’s body are the oldest.

Markings were noticed on Oetzi ever since his discovery in 1991 in a melting glacier in the Oetztal Alps (hence the name). Recent non-invasive multispectral photographic imaging techniques at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, investigated the tattoos.

Produced by fine incisions into which charcoal was rubbed, they consisted mainly of lines running parallel to each other, between 2 mm (0.07 inches) and 8 mm (0.3 inches) apart.

Ranging from 1 mm (0.03 inches) to 3 mm (0.1 inches) in thickness and between 7 mm (0.2 inches) and 40 mm (1.5 inches) in length, the markings concentrated in the lower section of the legs.

Read more at Discovery News

World's Oldest Gorilla Turns 59

Colo, a western gorilla in residence at the Columbus Zoo, has added yet another candle to her birthday cake. Now 59 years old, she continues to be the oldest living gorilla in human care.

On Tuesday morning, Colo’s habitat was filled with colorful construction paper chains and enrichment toys to mark the occasion. She will celebrate the day with a clementine, tomato and cupcake feast with her family.

Age isn’t slowing down the feisty matriarch; zoo officials report that, apart from arthritis, her health is “fantastic.”

“We embrace every single birthday we have with her,” Columbus Zoo assistant curator Audra Meinelt said in a statement.

“It’s not yet the big 6-0, but it’s the big 5-9! Because she is so old, every single day with her, not just her birthday, is a gift. We are lucky for every moment we get to spend with her.”

Colo has exceeded the life expectancy for gorillas both in the wild and in human care; a gorilla in a zoo will live less than four decades on average. Wild gorillas continue to be threatened by poaching and the spread of infectious diseases, such as Ebola, which often prevent them from reaching old age.

Her 1956 birth marked the first instance of a gorilla being born into human care. She earned the distinction of being the world’s oldest known gorilla in 2012, when 55-year-old western lowland gorilla Jenny passed away.

From Discovery News

Dec 21, 2015

Some Birds Tune Color, Never Fade With Age

Many birds have the ability to instantaneously adjust their color so their coloration never loses its vividness with age, new research finds.

The natural tech could someday be applied to more eco-friendly paints and to clothing so they would never fade.

“Current technology cannot make color with this level of control and precision — we still use dyes and pigments,” co-author Andrew Parnell of the University of Sheffield said in a press release.

“Now we’ve learned how nature accomplishes it, we can start to develop new materials, such as clothes or paints, using these nanostructuring approaches. It would potentially mean that if we created a red jumper (sweater) using this method, it would retain its color and never fade in the wash.”

Bird feathers are made of a nanostructured spongy keratin material, which is exactly the same kind of material human hair and fingernails are made from. As a result, researchers for many years thought that bird feathers were just colored with chemical pigments known as melanins. These are what color human hair.

Prior research on feathers has since showed that many have structural color in addition to coloration from natural pigments. Similar to how a clear prism can appear multi-hued due to refraction of light, so too can feathers appear colorful just due to their structure.

For the new study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, Parnell and his team used X-ray scattering at the ESRF facility in France to examine the feathers of a blue jay. They determined that the birds could fine-tune their hues all along the length of a single feather. They do this by manipulating the size of holes in the sponge-like keratin material.

The scientists explained that when light hits a feather, the size of the holes determines how the light is scattered and therefore the color that is reflected. Larger holes mean a broader wavelength reflectance of light, creating the color white. A more compact structure results in the color blue.

Unless a bird with structural color was grey to begin with, this means that such birds never go grey with age. The process also prevents color changes due to diet.

Birds without much structural coloration, such as seagulls, have less adjustable colors as a result. Seagulls that eat a lot of farm-raised salmon, for example, actually start to turn light pink over time. The salmon are fed artificial carotenoid sources, which transfer over to the birds. These chemicals, called carotenoids, can lead to brightly hued feathers.

The jay, macaws, peacocks and other birds with structural coloration are not as vulnerable to color changes, which is exactly the property most of us want when buying products like house paint and clothing.

Co-author Daragh McLoughlin of the AkzoNobel Decorative Paints Material Science Research Team said, “This exciting new insight may help us to find new ways of making paints that stay brighter and fresher-looking for longer, while also having a lower carbon footprint.”

Read more at Discovery News

Anti-Demonic Burial Found in Poland

Evidence of “anti-demonic” funerary practices, with sickles placed around the throats of the deceased possibly to ward off demons, has been found in a 400-year-old cemetery in Poland.

Researchers examined more than 250 human skeletons which were excavated since 2008 from a post Medieval cemetery in Drawsko, a rural settlement site in northwestern Poland.

Dating to the 17th and 18th centuries, the remains represented individuals of all ages and both sexes and included five unique interments with sickles.

“In four of these burials the sickles were placed on the bodies of the dead with the cutting edge tightly against the throat, while the fifth was located on the pelvis,” Marek Polcyn, a visiting scholar at Lakehead University in Canada, and Elzbieta Gajda, of the Muzeum Ziemi Czarnkowskiej, wrote in the current issue of the journal Antiquity.

The skeletons with the sickles around the throat were those of an adult male who died between 35–44 years of age, two adult females who died around 30–39 years of age, and an adolescent female who at around 14–19 years old.

There was also an adult female aged 50–60 years interred with a large, arch-curved sickle placed across her hips. A stone was placed directly on top of the throat, while a coin was found in her toothless mouth.

Previously, it was suggested these people were buried as “vampires.” In this view, the sickle placed across the throat was intended to remove the head, should the vampire attempt to rise from the grave.

But Polcyn and Gajda argue these burials should be rather interpreted as “anti-demonic.” They noted the sickle burials have none of the characteristics of so-called anti-vampiric practices.

They were interred in sacred ground following conventional Christian burial patterns, with the head placed towards the west, and their graves did not appear to have been desecrated.

“Confining the deceased in the grave by means of a sickle may have been a measure to prevent the demonized soul threatening the living, or could have been a reference to biblical symbolism in an attempt to prevent the soul from becoming demonized,” Polcyn and Gajda wrote.

Vampires were not the only mythical creatures feared in Poland in the 17th century. As wars, hunger, pestilence, and poverty devastated the country, Slavic pagan faiths resurrected.

“The development of the Counter-Reformation was a significant turning point as it brought cultural and intellectual regression, religious fanaticism and a growing climate of terror, deliberately stoked by Catholic clergy spreading fear of the devil and witchcraft,” the researchers wrote.

Evidence of “anti-demonic” funerary practices, with sickles placed around the throats of the deceased possibly to ward off demons, has been found in a 400-year-old cemetery in Poland.

Researchers examined more than 250 human skeletons which were excavated since 2008 from a post Medieval cemetery in Drawsko, a rural settlement site in northwestern Poland.

Dating to the 17th and 18th centuries, the remains represented individuals of all ages and both sexes and included five unique interments with sickles.

“In four of these burials the sickles were placed on the bodies of the dead with the cutting edge tightly against the throat, while the fifth was located on the pelvis,” Marek Polcyn, a visiting scholar at Lakehead University in Canada, and Elzbieta Gajda, of the Muzeum Ziemi Czarnkowskiej, wrote in the current issue of the journal Antiquity.

The skeletons with the sickles around the throat were those of an adult male who died between 35–44 years of age, two adult females who died around 30–39 years of age, and an adolescent female who at around 14–19 years old.

There was also an adult female aged 50–60 years interred with a large, arch-curved sickle placed across her hips. A stone was placed directly on top of the throat, while a coin was found in her toothless mouth.

Previously, it was suggested these people were buried as “vampires.” In this view, the sickle placed across the throat was intended to remove the head, should the vampire attempt to rise from the grave.

But Polcyn and Gajda argue these burials should be rather interpreted as “anti-demonic.” They noted the sickle burials have none of the characteristics of so-called anti-vampiric practices.

They were interred in sacred ground following conventional Christian burial patterns, with the head placed towards the west, and their graves did not appear to have been desecrated.

Read more at Discovery News

King Tut's Wet Nurse May Have Been His Sister

An archaeologist said Sunday that Maia, Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun's wet nurse, may have actually been his sister Meritaten, reviving speculation about the identity of the mother of the boy king.

DNA tests have proved that the pharaoh Akhenaten was the father of Tutankhamun, but the identity of his mother has long been a mystery.

On Sunday, Egyptian officials and French archaeologist Alain Zivie unveiled Maia's tomb to journalists ahead of its opening to the public next month.

The tomb was discovered by Egyptologist Zivie in 1996 in Saqqara, a necropolis about 20 kilometres (12 miles) south of Cairo.

Maia was the wet nurse of Tutankhamun, whose mummy was found in 1922 by renowned British Egyptologist Howard Carter in the Valley of Kings in Luxor along with a treasure trove of thousands of objects.

"Maia is none other than princess Meritaten, the sister or half-sister of Tutankhamun and the daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti," Zivie told AFP.

He said his conclusion was based on the carvings of Tutankhamun and Maia on the walls of Maia's tomb.

"The extraordinary thing is that they are very similar. They have the same chin, the eyes, the family traits," he said.

"The carvings show Maia sitting on the royal throne and he is sitting on her" lap, said Zivie, director of the French Archaeological Mission of Bubasteion.

Similar carvings were in Akhenaten's tomb at the Tel el-Amarna archaeological site in modern-day Minya province where the pharaoh had his capital city, he said.

A DNA analysis in 2010 revealed that Tutankhamun was the son of Akhenaten, who temporarily converted ancient Egypt to monotheism by imposing the cult of sun god Aton.

The tomb of Akhenaten has carvings showing the death of princess Maketaten -- the second daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, Zivie said.

"In these scenes there is a woman who is breast-feeding a baby, and this woman shown as a wet nurse is princess Meritaten, the eldest daughter of Akhenaten," he said.

The mummy of Meritaten has not been found, but Antiquities Minister Mamduh al-Damati said on Sunday it could be in a secret chamber in Tutankhamun's tomb.

Archaeologists are currently scanning Tutankhamun's tomb in the Valley of Kings after British archaeologist Nicholas Reeves claimed that it has a secret chamber.

Read more at Discovery News

Earth's Extreme Tilt Marks the Winter Solstice

A Bolivian indigenous man raises his hands to receive the first beam of the rising sun during the winter solstice ceremony in Tiahunaco.
The winter solstice is a vampire's delight. No other night is longer and no day shorter. But it also means the subsequent days get longer.

This year's winter solstice will occur at 11:48 p.m. ET Monday (04:49 GMT Tuesday). At that moment, the sun will be directly overhead at 23.5 degrees south latitude, and the Earth's axial tilt will be as far from the sun as possible.

When the celestial fireball finally makes its appearance in the northern hemisphere it keeps a low profile. On the winter solstice the sun follows the lowest path of the year in the sky of the northern hemisphere.

The Earth is illuminated by the sun on the day of winter solstice in the northern hemisphere.
For modern city-dwellers, the solstice is little more than a curiosity, but in ancient times it was of vital importance.

In the northern hemisphere, knowing when the dark days of winter would start to lengthen could give hope to people trying to make the harvest of the previous year stave off starvation for a few more months.

The day was so important, that some of humanity's earliest monumental structures were aligned with the rising or setting of the sun on the winter solstice. Stonehenge in England, for example, is lined up with the winter solstice.

Festivals both ancient and modern marked the winter solstice.

The Romans celebrated Saturnalia around the time of the solstice with revelry and a social switcheroo in which masters served the slaves.

Further north, Germanic and Norse tribes celebrated Yule by burning a massive log in honor of Thor, a tradition some still observe.

The modern Christian holiday of Christmas occurs near the winter solstice, and some have suggested that assigning Dec. 25 as the birth of Jesus of Nazareth related to ancient celebrations of that day, such as the Roman Sol Invictus, or Invincible Sun, festival.

From Discovery News

Dec 18, 2015

Shrimp-Like Creature Shows Earliest Brood Care in Fossil Record

New analysis of a shrimp-like, 508-million-year fossil in Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum has resulted in a surprising find: embryos with eggs preserved in its body. Scientists say that makes the remains the earliest evidence of brood care in the fossil record.

The brood-caring critter was an early arthropod called Waptia fieldensis. It was found in the renowned Burgess Shale deposit in Canada, and the remains had rested quietly in the museum for about 100 years before museum scientists, alongside researchers from the University of Toronto and France’s National Center for Scientific Research, took a new look.

“As the oldest direct evidence of a creature caring for its offspring, the discovery adds another piece to our understanding of brood care practices during the Cambrian Explosion, a period of rapid evolutionary development when most major animal groups appear in the fossil record,” said Jean-Bernard Caron, curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum and associate professor at the University of Toronto, in a statement.

An illustration of Waptia fieldensis (middle Cambrian) shows eggs brooded between the inner surface of the carapace and the body.
Waptia fieldensis, from the same group as lobsters and crayfish, had a two-part structure — a bivalved carapace, or hard shell — covering the front segment of its body. Scientists think the structure was key to the creature’s care of the eggs.

“Clusters of egg-shaped objects are evident in five of the many specimens we observed, all located on the underside of the carapace and alongside the anterior third of the body,” said Caron.

The researchers observed at most 24 eggs carried by each animal, the clusters of eggs grouped in single layers on either side of its body.

Researchers say their find opens a new window on the different approaches taken to brood care by early arthropods.

“The relatively large size of the eggs and the small number of them, contrasts with the high number of small eggs found previously in another bivalved arthropod known as Kunmingella douvillei,” said the study’s co-author, Jean Vannier, of the National Center for Scientific Research.

“And though that creature predates Waptia by about seven million years,” Vannier added, “none of its eggs contained embryos.”

Read more at Discovery News

Darwin's Finch Species Threatened by Parasitic Flies

A species of Darwin’s finch could face extinction in as little as four decades because of a parasitic fly, new mathematical models show.

In a study that will be published December 18 in the Journal of Applied Ecology, University of Utah researchers forecast turbulent flying ahead for the medium ground finch (Geospiza fortis), one of the most common of the dozen-plus species of Darwin's finch. (They're named for the man who first collected them, naturalist Charles Darwin, who used observations of the finches' adaptations to inform his work on natural selection. They're also known as Galapagos finches, for the islands they call home.)

The fly in question is the nest fly Philornis downsi, first documented in birds’ nests in the Galapagos in 1997. It lays its eggs in finches' nests, the larvae infesting the area and feeding, to a fatal degree, on new nestlings.

This medium ground finch has nostril and abdomen lesions caused by a nest infested with parasitic fly larvae.
The researchers gathered five years’ worth of data from the island of Santa Cruz, documenting the harm the fly was causing to the finch’s reproductive success. Then they used those results to help fuel mathematical models of different long-term outcomes for the finch species.

The team ran simulations based around three broad future scenarios: “good” years likely to come, where conditions such as weather and food supply were conducive to successful breeding; “bad” years ahead; and neutral years, where both bad and good conditions were equally likely.

Two of the three model runs -- "bad" and neutral -- predicted the medium ground finch's extinction. Only the "good" model showed the species able to survive.

The "bad" model predicted extinction in anywhere from 43 to 57 years, while the "neutral" model had the bird disappearing in 65 to 95 years.

Worse still, the problem may not just apply to the medium ground finch. Study lead author Dale Clayton, a University of Utah biology professor, pointed out that the bird's other Galapagos cousins could be at risk as well.

If a species of Darwin's finch as common as the medium ground finch can face extinction because of the nest fly, "then the less common species, which have the same fly problem, are likely at risk as well," Clayton said in a release.

Glum scenarios aside, there is still hope. The bird's extinction risk is closely tied to the fly infestation problem, so there's no mystery, and the scientists have a clear target.

“Even though these guys may be going locally extinct, the model also shows that if you can reduce the probability of infestation, then you significantly alleviate the risk of extinction,” said study co-author Jennifer Koop, a professor of biology now teaching at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. She said extinction could be avoided if nest infestation could be reduced by 40 percent.

Read more at Discovery News

The Planet Keeps Breaking Heat Records

In news that will surprise almost no one, the third gatekeeper of global temperatures agrees that 2015 is on track to set a heat record after a toasty November.

On the heels of NASA and the Japan Meteorological Agency’s data release earlier this week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has published its November temperature data. It shows that November was record warm and it’s a given that the world is going to have its hottest year on record.

November was 1.75°F above the 20th century average, making it the hottest November by a long shot and the second most-anomalously warm month recorded in the 135 years of measurements. It marks the seventh month in a row with record setting warmth and has locked in record heat for the year.

“December 2015 would have to be 0.43°F colder than the coldest December on record to not break the record,” Jake Crouch, a climate scientist at NOAA, said. “That’s not going to happen in December 2015.”

This year will bump 2014 off the top of the charts as the hottest year on record. It’ll be the first time there have been back-to-back hottest years since 1997 and 1998.

Those years saw one of the strongest El Niños on record, similar to what the world is experiencing in 2015. But while El Niño tends to give the global average temperature a boost, a Climate Central analysis shows that this year’s record heat is almost completely due to carbon pollution.

Early signs already indicate that 2016 could again be a record setter due to the residual effects of El Niño and, of course, the influence of human greenhouse gas emissions.

With all the talk about record heat, you may be wondering when the last cold record was set. Let’s just say it’s been awhile.

The planet’s coldest year on record is all the way back in 1908 (it was tied in 1911). Since then, the global average temperature has trended one direction.

Read more at Discovery News

LHC Has Found a Bump: Exotic Physics or Just Noise?

Science at the Large Hadron Collider is starting to wind down ahead of a scheduled winter break after carrying out experiments at record-breaking energies. Needless to say, these are exciting times; physicists are in an unknown realm of discovery where physics ideas beyond the Standard Model are being tested. And this week, LHC scientists announced something peculiar in two of the collider’s experiments.

But this “something peculiar” could just be a glitch in the data. Or maybe it’s not. Regardless, a tiny “bump” in datasets from two detectors has caused a buzz.

Conditions of the Big Bang

Before we go neck-deep into what the LHC has (or, more likely, hasn’t) found, we need to quickly understand how the largest experiment ever devised my humankind discovers new particles and new forces.

On Dec. 15, LHC collaborators met at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), the laboratory that manages the LHC located just outside Geneva, Switzerland. This was the first major meeting since the particle accelerator was upgraded earlier this year to accommodate higher energy collisions — a new phase called “Run 2″. The LHC is now accelerating particles around its 17-mile circumference ring of supercooled electromagnets at 13 teraelectronvolts (TeV) — an energy nearly double that of the energies physicists used to discover the Higgs boson in 2012.

Around the ring of electromagnets, several experiments are housed. These experiments are huge, building-sized detectors that are highly sensitive to finding particles that are generated after two counter-rotating “beams” of hadrons (such as protons or heavy ions, like lead nuclei) are forced to collide. These counter-rotating beams are traveling at relativistic speeds, so when they smash into one another, for the briefest of moments, the conditions that the universe hasn’t seen since the Big Bang are created.

The Big Bang is the genesis of the universe; all energy in the universe was unleashed from an infinitely dense singularity nearly 14 billion years ago. From this energy, as the universe cooled, a zoo of subatomic particles condensed to form the matter we know and love in the modern universe.

By recreating the conditions of the Big Bang in the LHC, physicists are able to peel back time and see for a very brief moment what primordial particles can be created by Nature, thereby testing physics theories on what particles are possible in our universe. In the case of the Higgs boson, physicists needed huge energies to produce the massive particle — “weighing in” at a mass of 125 gigaelectronvolts (GeV). The discovery of the Higgs confirmed that the Standard Model of physics (a quantum recipe book of sorts) correctly described all known particles and forces in the cosmos.

A Mysterious Bump?

Physics didn’t simply “end” with the confirmation of the Higgs, however. Many mysteries remain, not least why gravity was ominously not invited to the Standard Model party. Now physicists are looking beyond the Standard Model for answers — a realm known as “exotic physics.” It is in this realm that physicists hope to reveal evidence for dark matter particles, extra-dimensions, the possibility of supersymmetry, the hypothetical graviton and other stuff that we haven’t even thought of yet.

So, inside the same two LHC experiments that made the Higgs boson discovery in 2012 comes a signal that, albeit weak, has caused a minor stir.

Now that the LHC is smashing particles together at the highest energies ever attained, there’s hope that we may start glimpsing some exotic physics that, so far, are only hypothetical ideas. Like a photographic film that slowly collects photons to produce a photograph, the LHC’s detectors must carry out months or years of experiments to develop a clear picture. As we’re only a few months into this high energy experimental run, any results or signals will likely be blurry, but according to Run 2 preliminary results from the CMS and ATLAS detectors, a very slight bump in energy at around 750 GeV has been spotted. What could it be?

“We’ve been working round-the-clock to understand and triple-check our numbers, and (Dec. 15) was the culmination of the year’s worth of work by thousands of people,” said particle physicist James Beacham, a post-doctoral research fellow with the Ohio State University, in an interview with Discovery News.

Beacham is based at CERN and working on the ATLAS experiment to seek out “diphoton” signals in the huge quantities of data flowing from the massive detector.

Basically, when new particles are produced by high energy collisions, like the Higgs boson, they tend to decay very quickly. As they decay, they produce other particles that may be detected by LHC experiments.

The signature of this signal can reveal a fingerprint of the particle that decayed — in this case the excess could be caused by pairs of photons (diphotons) with an energy of 750 GeV. After more and more data are collected from billions and billions of collisions, small and unexpected bumps in collision data may start to rise from the noise, above what would be predicted by the Standard Model. These bumps are known as “excesses” and they can signal the production of new and exotic particles.

“The diphoton search, the one that has the most significant excess, is interesting because it could possibly discover things like exotic Higgs bosons or gravitons (the as-yet-undiscovered particles of gravity),” said Beacham. “Both of these discoveries would be revolutionary, because they’d be concrete evidence of physics beyond-the-Standard-Model, something we’ve never seen.”

The size of the bump is indeed tiny and may well wash away as more collision data is added, but the thing that makes this statistically tiny event interesting is that another detector, the CMS, has also detected a tiny signal in exactly the same 750 GeV energy range.

Although the signal is most likely noise at this early stage, physicists will of course be hoping for something exotic. But as cautioned by LHC physicists, even if this signal does turn out to be real, it could represent the presence of something decidedly un-exotic, like a more massive Higgs boson.

More Data Needed

As interesting as these matching bumps may be, it’s only the tiniest of hints that there’s something really there and Beacham is very clear, pointing out that the take home message is that "we need more data."

“When we saw this tiny hill in the diphoton mass spectrum in ATLAS we’re like, ‘Hmmmmm…‘ and then we instantly started poking it with our most ruthless experimental sticks, as usual, to see if it would withstand scrutiny. After poking and prodding (e.g., ruling out detector problems, multiple-checking the statistical methods) it was still there. But, again, the ‘it’ is just a slight uptick that, statistically, is just a hint,” he said. “We will have to remain on the edges of our seats for a few more months to years.”

His LHC colleagues agree: “It’s interesting because we did not expect it, and both experiments are seeing something in roughly the same place,” Jim Olsen, of Princeton University who works on the CMS detector, told Symmetry Magazine. “However, it’s not a discovery. It could be the first spark of a discovery, but we need more data before we know what it means -- if it means anything at all.”

Read more at Discovery News