Oct 17, 2015

Oldest Draft of King James Bible Discovered

The King James Bible, the most widely read book in the English language — from which phrases like “a man after his own heart” emerged — is as storied as it is elusive. Now, a historian claims to have found the oldest known draft of the Christian text, written in messy script, in an obscure archive at the University of Cambridge.

The manuscript was hidden among the papers of Samuel Ward, one of the men commissioned by King James I to translate a new version of the Christian text into English in the early 17th century.

Jeffrey Miller, an assistant professor of English at Montclair State University in New Jersey, chanced upon the 400-year-old notebook while doing research on Ward for an essay he’s writing. The Eureka moment came when Miller realized that the notebook contained text from the very book that Ward had been commissioned to help translate. Miller recalled thinking, “Oh my gosh, he’s talking about a book that he had been asked to help translate,” he said. “Then I realized rather he was creating the King James Bible in that moment.”

Describing his discovery in the Times Literary Supplement, Miller said the notebook is not just the earliest draft ever found, but it is also the only surviving draft written in the hand of one of the original translators.

“Ward’s draft alone bears all the signs of having been a first draft, just as it alone can be definitively said to be in the hand of one of the King James translators themselves,” Miller wrote.

That hand was a messy one, it seems. “Ward’s handwriting is notoriously bad,” Miller told Live Science. “At least this is from earlier in his life,” he added.  Ward began his translation when he was just 32 years old, making him the youngest of the 54 or so men commissioned to translate the King James Bible; his handwriting only got worse with age, Miller noted. Luckily, Miller was familiar with Ward’s handwriting from his intense study of the translator’s texts.

Translating the Bible

The King James Bible, first published in 1611, is one of the most influential and popular books in English literature. It spawned a long list of common phrases and figures of speech, such as “out of the mouths of babes,” “at their wit’s end” and “eat, drink and be merry.” Even so, few documents survive from its translation.

“I think it is a fascinating discovery, and wholly credible,” Jason BeDuhn, a professor of comparative study of religions at Northern Arizona University, told Live Science. “The more we can learn about the process by which the King James Bible was produced, the more realistic our assessment of its merits becomes.”

King James tasked teams of translators in London, Cambridge and Oxford to write an English version of the Bible that would better reflect the principles of the Church of England. Ward was part of one those teams in Cambridge. He later became master of Sidney Sussex, one of the colleges within the University of Cambridge, and his scholarly papers ended up in the school’s archives. In the 1980s, the notebook in question, catalogued as MS Ward B, had been labeled as a “verse-by-verse biblical commentary” with “Greek word studies, and some Hebrew notes.” But when Miller revisited the text, he discovered that it actually contained notes and translations of parts of the Apocrypha, a disputed section of the Bible that is excluded from many versions today.

“This discovery helps us recapture the human side of the translation process,” BeDuhn said. “I especially like Prof. Miller’s description of Ward trying out phrasing, crossing it out and trying something else. This is the real work of translation caught in the act.”

According to Miller, Ward’s notes show that he indeed grappled with the language of certain verses in the Apocrypha, for example, 1 Esdras 6:32. In the 16th-century Bishops’ Bible, the previous version to be authorized by the English Church, 1 Esdras 6:32 describes a declaration of King Darius, which states that anyone found disobeying his decrees “of his own goods should a tree be taken, and he thereon be hanged.”

“Proposing a revision to the front half of the passage, Ward at first began, ‘A tre,’ but then crossed it out,” Miller explained. “No, ‘out of h,’ he started writing on second thought, but then crossed that out, too. At last, he reverted back to the more straightforward construction with which he had abortively begun, which also more closely mirrors the Greek of the passage: ‘a tree should be taken out of his possession.’”

It seems Ward’s suggestions were disregarded. The King James translation would ultimately read “out of his own house should a tree be taken, and he thereon be hanged.”

Window into the past

The newly discovered notebook is not only the earliest known draft of any part of the King James Bible, but it’s also the only known surviving draft of any part of the Apocrypha. Even so, Miller sees its legacy on a broader scale: “It points the way to a fuller, more complex understanding than ever before of the process by which the [King James Bible], the most widely read work in English of all time, came to be,” he wrote.

Read more at Discovery News

Warmer Beaches Mean Fewer Florida Sea Turtles

Sea turtles are the ocean’s “canaries in the coal mine” when it comes to climate change, according to researchers who are trying to find out how they are adapting to a warmer climate that may be leaving baby male turtles high and dry.

Recent studies have shown that warmer temperatures in sea turtle nests -- which lie buried under several feet of beach sand -- produce more female turtles. Since turtles have been around for more than 100 million years, biologists still don’t know why a slight shift in temperature can mean more females than males.

They also don’t know whether this “feminization” of turtle eggs will spell the end of sea turtle reproduction over the long term, or is just the turtle’s way of adapting to natural cycles of warmer and cooler weather that happen each year.

A new study of nesting loggerhead turtles in South Florida has found that rainfall helps cool off the hot sand, but in recent years the females have been hatching more females because of hotter, drier weather.

“If climatic changes continue to force the sex ratio bias of loggerheads to even greater extremes, we are going to lose the diversity of sea turtles as well as their overall ability to reproduce effectively,” said Jeanette Wyneken, a marine biologist at Florida Atlantic University. “That’s why it’s critical to understand how environmental factors, specifically temperature and rainfall, influence hatchling sex ratios.”

The four-year study examined the loggerhead nesting season, which runs from April through October, and buried instruments in the sand at three depths to measure both temperature and moisture.

“The majority of hatchlings in the sampling were female, suggesting that across the four seasons most nest temperatures were not sufficiently cool to produce males,” said Wyneken. “However, in the early portion of the nesting and in wet years, nest temperatures were cooler, and significantly more males hatched.”

Wyneken and her team published their study in the journal Endangered Species Research this month.

Wyneken says the effects of temperature and rainfall are still a bit of a mystery.

“The water is not just cooling the nest, it’s modifying the sex ratios, but we don’t know how,” she said. “We don’t know the mechanism that is temperature dependent. We know some proteins that are important in directing the formation of testosterone or estrogens (the male and female sex hormones), but, the first step, we don’t know what that is.”

Climate scientists say the Earth’s tropical zones will likely become hotter and drier between now and 2100, as warming greenhouse gases like CO2 continue to increase from human activity. Much of Florida’s coastline is likely to disappear under rising seas as well, according to the U.S. National Climate Assessment.

Given that sea turtles already face threats from drifting fishing nets, illegal poachers and loss of their beach habitat to human development, many researchers want to know whether climate change will push the turtles over the edge.

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 16, 2015

Warming Ocean May Be Releasing Frozen Methane

You hear a lot about carbon dioxide’s role in climate change. But methane, which is emitted by both natural sources and human-caused ones such as natural gas production for energy, is actually 25 times more potent as a greenhouse emission than C02, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

That’s why it’s a particularly ominous sign that rising deep ocean temperatures are thawing ancient frozen deposits of methane beneath the sea floor, which are bubbling up toward the surface.

A study by University of Washington scientists, which appears in a journal published by the American Geophysical Union, reports that numerous bubble plumes observed off the Washington and Oregon coast come from levels where methane hydrate, the frozen stable form of the gas, would decompose because of warming seawater.

The release “appears to be coming from the decomposition of methane that has been frozen for thousands of years,” UW oceanographer H. Paul Johnson said in a university press release.

Although methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, the liberated deep deposits may not be quite as much of a climate threat as it might seem. The scientists say that most of the deep-sea methane is consumed by marine microbes as it rises, which convert it to carbon dioxide. Even so, it still has a harmful impact. The extra C02 results in water with a lower oxygen content and higher acidity, which is less hospitable to aquatic life. That water eventually wells up along the coast and surges into waterways.

“Current environmental changes in Washington and Oregon are already impacting local biology and fisheries, and these changes would be amplified by the further release of methane,” Johnson said.

Another problem is that the release of methane takes it out of seafloor slopes where it acts as a sort of glue, holding the sediment in place.

The study confirms the scenario described in a 2014 study, in which thawing deposits release about 100,000 metric tons of methane per year.That’s close to the amount released by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

From Discovery News

ISP: The Ultimate Plan to Launch Humanity to the Stars

How will we bring humanity out of the solar system and towards the stars? It’s going to take a huge leap forward in terms of how we explore space. Long before the 100 Year Starship Project and Icarus Interstellar, there was the Integrated Space Plan (ISP) showing the path to moon, Mars and beyond. First conceived by Ron Jones in the late 1980s, it’s just been revamped for 2015 on the back of a successful Kickstarter project.

The 2015 version is sleeker and has some changes from the first four editions, produced from 1989 (viewable here) and the last in 1997 (viewable here). One of the biggest challenges, Jones told Discovery News, was translating the complicated diagrams of the older versions into something more  easily digestable by the public. But now that it’s ready he’s looking for visionary contributors to give their ideas about how to move humanity further into space.

“We are encouraging those interested from around the planet to visit our web site and give us their feedback and ideas about human expansion into space. We’re just trying to create the vision the world can look at  and contribute its two cents’ worth,” said Jones, whose peripatetic career with companies such as Martin Marietta, Rockwell, Boeing and even Buzz Aldrin’s ShareSpace Foundation has seen him working on Congressional advisory committees, space shuttle development, air traffic management and more.

“One of the big challenges since the moon landing has been where do we go next: Mars, back to the moon, visit an asteroid?  Do we develop a long term infrastructure on the moon? Use the moon as a stepping stone to get to Mars? Go directly to Mars? NASA can’t make up its mind, and we’ve been caught in low earth orbit in the space station now for many, many years.”

Jones, who followed the space program from childhood, was a young adult when he began working with Martin Marietta to develop the Air Force  space shuttle launch facility in Vandenberg, Calif. The facility never was used for shuttles — Challenger’s explosion in 1986 put an end to that — but it got Jones thinking about how the shuttle fits into humanity’s vision to explore space.

In 1987, Jones (who lived in Los Angeles at the time) was hired by Rockwell International to work on the replacement for Challenger.  It was in this time frame that he created the Integrated Space Plan.  With a draft product in hand, he began talking to science fiction writers and leading scientists in the area about “far-out concepts” such as anti-matter propulsion, momentum transfer and evolvable architectures. Thus was created the first version of the Integrated Space Plan, showing the steps to create a Mars base and then move further out into space, even human migration to nearby sun-type stars in the next century.

The ISP was last updated in 1997 to support a Congressional hearing into the future of NASA, but the complexity of the diagram (and the software to update it) discouraged Jones from changing it again until more recently. The newest version has several changes, such as more details about commercial opportunities for private sector companies — “Those opportunities didn’t exist back then”, Jones says — and NASA’s latest design reference missions for going to the moon and Mars.

Jones acknowledges he couldn’t predict everything back in the 80s. The shuttle turned out to be much more expensive to operate than expected. NASA didn’t advance propulsion as many thought they would. Newer tech such as the Internet, smartphones and 3-D printing has begun to influence space policy while risk aversion changed how bold the missions became.

The newest version was produced by Integrated Space Analytics, a spin-off of the venture capital firm Space Finance Group that aims to help the private sector find their niches in space. (Jones is a founding member of ISA). In the coming year, Jones and ISA will be developing a comprehensive database of information to give details on all the elements of the Integrated Space Plan.

Read more at Discovery News

Kepler's 'Bizarre' Signal Sparks Alien Intelligence Speculation

The fascinating speculation surrounding a recent Kepler observation of a star 1,500 light-years away has reignited questions of alien life in our universe and what it means for future studies.

First I really want to emphasize, as I did in my previous blog about KIC 8462852, that the root cause of a very strange Kepler transit signal is most likely due to natural phenomena. (A transit occurs when an exoplanet — or, in this case, something else — drifts in front of its star and Kepler detects a slight dimming of starlight.) After analyzing the unique transit signal identified as being “bizarre” by the Planet Hunters community, researchers did a thorough job identifying a possible mechanism by which significant and distinct dimming events could have been triggered.

Among the likely natural causes of the star brightness dimming outlined in a paper submitted to the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and made available on the arXiv preprint service on Sept. 11, astronomers looked into debris from a possible planetary collision, the presence of circumstellar rings, starspots, and a clump of comets. All possibilities were investigated, but all were unsatisfactory, except for the latter.

The comet clump explanation seems to answer many of the mysteries about the strange transit signal. A nearby star, only 1,000 AU from KIC 8462852, could have caused some gravitational perturbations during close approach, possibly sending a swarm of comets toward the star, blotting out up to 22 percent of the star’s light from Kepler’s view.

The exocomet explanation seems reasonable. Although exocomets have been detected around other stars in the past, this would be the first detection of a vast clump of comets big enough to significantly dim the light of a mature F-type star (around 50 percent larger than our sun).

However, an observation of this kind would have to be an incredible stroke of luck; for us to have a NASA space telescope looking in the right place at the right time of this rare collection of comets to pass in front of one star of only 150,000 stars in Kepler’s field of view (over a very short time period of 4 years), is crazy lucky.

But just because it’s a serendipitous observation doesn’t mean it’s not caused by comets; we were just really, really lucky to see it.

Wait, There’s More

It is a great piece of research that stands by itself, an outstanding discovery first by citizen scientists poring over publicly-available data and confirmed by an international collaboration of professional astronomers.

But then, on Tuesday, an article appeared in The Atlantic; an article that provided a further look into the scientific process of seeking out more extreme possibilities. Once again, for the commenters who were upset at my blogging about these alternate hypotheses, I am in no way concluding that the transit signal observed from KIC 8462852 isn’t caused by comets or some other natural phenomenon that we haven’t accounted for. I’m exploring a possible avenue of investigation that the astronomers involved in the original research are exploring themselves.

Post-doctorate researcher Tabetha Boyajian, at Yale University and lead author of the original paper, spoke with The Atlantic’s Ross Andersen, mentioning that she was currently considering “other scenarios” for the strange transit pattern. And, after sharing the data with Penn State University astronomer Jason Wright, who is planning a follow-up publication, one of those other scenarios came to light: the strange transit signal from KIC 8462852 might be caused by a huge artificial structure.

Excerpt from The Atlantic article:
Wright and his co-authors say the unusual star’s light pattern is consistent with a “swarm of megastructures,” perhaps stellar-light collectors, technology designed to catch energy from the star.

As discussed in Wednesday’s Discovery News report, should this signal really be artificial, it could be the first evidence of an advanced alien intelligence that is well on its way to becoming a Type II Kardashev civilization. This is a remote possibility but if all other explanations are exhausted, why not test the alien hypothesis?

Alien Speculation

So, what’s next? Unfortunately, with Kepler’s primary mission over, we only have 4 years of transit data from KIC 8462852 and only 2 key transit events to study. The first dip in starlight occurred for one week in 2011 and then the second significant event was actually a series of variations over the course of a few months in 2013. That’s all we have for now.

The researchers are now hoping to get some observing time on a radio observatory to “eavesdrop” on the star in the hope of carrying out a “directed SETI” campaign, hunting for artificial radio signals emanating from the star system. If they draw a blank on this observing run — and, let’s face it, the chances of detecting alien communications are still as slim as ever — it doesn’t necessarily mean the “structure” isn’t artificial, it could just mean that this hypothetical race isn’t communicating via radio waves… or it could mean the alien civilization is no longer there.

Our galaxy, which contains hundreds of billions of stars and countless more planets, is over 13 billion years old. The human race has evolved in the tiniest fraction of this time and modern astronomy has only just opened our eyes to the cosmos over the last couple of hundred years. The likelihood of seeing a thriving civilization of advanced extraterrestrials building some kind of solar array around KIC 8462852 at this precise moment in time is extremely tiny. So it is more likely that if the radio signal hunt turns up empty handed, but the object is proven to be an artificial megastructure, it could be the remnant of a civilization that has come and gone — it could be a huge artifact of a bygone alien age.

Seeking out alien artifacts is not a new idea. The Search for Extraterrestrial Artifacts (SETA) and, indeed, the Search for Extraterrestrial Technology (SETT) are both variations of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) theme and one such project recently concluded that our local galaxy is devoid of advanced alien beings that can harness all the energy from their star.

Coincidentally, British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking re-iterated his views on encountering an alien race in a recent interview. Hawking has warned against transmitting signals into space before, lest we get noticed and invaded/assimilated/blended by vastly more powerful entities. For those that have expressed concern about a potentially aggressive race of aliens sending an armada of battleships at Earth from KIC 8462852, it’s worth remembering that we are seeing the light from the star that was generated 1,500 years ago — it’s 1,500 light years away, so it’s taken light that long to travel the distance. If, 1,500 years ago, that hypothetical alien race noticed Earth, it wouldn’t have detected any transmissions (radio or otherwise) — as advanced as the Roman Empire was around 500 AD, it’s highly doubtful that anything outwardly resembling an intelligent species would have been noticed at those interstellar distances.

But what of our resources? Earth, after all, occupies the habitable zone of our star and it has done for a few billion years, possessing liquid water in abundance, now supporting a thriving biosphere — perhaps a space-traveling alien race would want to take up home here? Well, to our hypothetical alien explorers/conquerors, the sheer distance between us would be Earth’s greatest defense. Regardless of how advanced a civilization becomes, they are still bound by physics and limited by the speed of light. A trip that distance (assuming the warp drive isn’t out there, somewhere) would take hundreds of thousands or even millions of years by “conventional” means.

Also, as the Kepler mission itself is teaching us, our galaxy is filled with a bountiful array of small rocky worlds. It seems, in this early stage of discovery at least, that there are many small worlds orbiting within the habitable zones of their stars, potentially also with global oceans of liquid water. If they wanted to invade purely for our resources, there’s probably some easier-to-reach options out there.

All these ideas are pure conjecture as we don’t have the faintest clue as to whether there’s any other life form out there, let alone an intelligent civilization building solar energy collectors around a certain F-type star in our little corner of the galaxy. But as we look deeper into the cosmos through an increasingly defined lens, we’re changing our perspective on the universe.

Read more at Discovery News

This Mussel Does an Incredible Impression of a Fish

This is what a mussel in the throes of an identity crisis looks like. Or, more likely, it looks like a fish so that other predatory fish nip at it, releasing the mussel's parasitic larvae. These clamp onto the fish's gills and absorb nutrients.
Just be yourself, the saying goes. Cheesy, yeah, and fine enough for humans, unless you’re an identity thief or whatever. But in the animal kingdom, pretending to be something you’re not is a smart move. Some geckos, for instance, look exactly like leaves, while some cuttlefish cross-dress to fool their rivals.

But no deception is more complex than that of a genus of freshwater mussels called lampsilis, which call North America home. The mantle flesh that spills out of the females’ shells is not only shaped like a fish, but moves like one, every so often twitching with a flip of its “tail.” When a predatory fish like a bass attacks the lure, the mussel fires its larvae in the dupe’s gills. Here the parasitic young attach and drain nutrition from their host before ejecting and settling on the riverbed. (The Aristocrats!)

Typically lampsilis species mimic minnows, those sad little punching bags of the river world. The lure has two halves—the left and right side of the fish—that have characteristic stripes, and even sport eyespots for extra trickery. Varieties also differ in how vigorously they’ll flop their lures around, with some committing several hours straight to twitching to reel a predator in.

A lampsilis mussel doing its best impression of a fish. Why? Because you’re not the boss of it, that’s why.
And when the dupe falls for it, everything else is automatic. The predator strikes, and the gills between the two halves of the lure rupture, releasing a cloud of larvae from special chambers. “So the mussel isn’t saying, ‘Hey, there’s a fish close by, I’m going to release my larvae,’” says Bernard Sietman, a mussel biologist at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “It’s actually the act of the attack that ruptures the gills.”

This is bad news for the dupe, on account of the way predatory fish like bass hunt: They’re like vacuums with fins and eyeballs. When the hunter finds something it fancies, it approaches and rapidly opens its maw, and the resulting suction drags the prey in. Unfortunately for the dupe, though, this is a fantastic way to get gills full of mussel larvae.

So the larvae—which look like tiny versions of their parent, only opened up wide and lacking the fake-fish bits—move through the mouth and into the gills, snapping shut on the filaments. Here they’ll hold tight, absorbing nutrients from the host, though Sietman notes the mechanism involved here is still a mystery. Depending on the water temperature, the larvae will stay as few as 10 days, maybe 20 if the water is colder. Some species will even ride out a winter if the water is particularly cold, exiting their host in the warmth of spring.

Now, just like our bodies mount defenses against invading nasties like viruses, the fish doesn’t take kindly to the mussel larvae’s assault. “When [the larvae are] attached to the gill,” Sietman says, “the response of the fish tissue is to grow epithelial cells around that spot”—epithelial cells being cells that collectively act as a shield, like your skin, for instance.

The young mussel ends up encapsulated, but this doesn’t faze it. Well, at least if it’s found the right host—that is, a particular species of fish. If the wrong kind of fish happened to attack its mother and inhale the larva, the host’s immune response will overpower it. But otherwise, the species the larva is meant to attack can’t conquer it (some varieties of lampsilis, though, get a bit carried away with things and parasitize multiple fish species).

Lampsilis larvae looking all coy. We all know what you’re after, lampsilis larvae.
And this would seem to present a problem for the mussel’s future life outside a fish, yet somehow—and Sietman says exactly how isn’t yet known—the parasite drops out of the capsule and sinks to the riverbed. The fish goes about with whatever it chooses to do with its life, though a serious infestation of mussel larvae can kill it.

At this point the mussel doesn’t look that different from when it started. “Most species don’t even grow in size, but the internal organs change completely,” Sietman says. “And so it’s sort of the caterpillar to the butterfly scenario, it’s a complete change of the internal structures of the larva.”

So why go through all the trouble? Why doesn’t the mussel just release its young into the water column, like any number of other freshwater mussels (whose larvae also find fish to parasitize, only by floating around willy-nilly)? After all, such complex parasitism is serious evolutionary trickery.

Well, in addition to getting the nutrition it needs to develop, the larva gets a secure home relative to the perils of sticking it out on the riverbed, where plenty of predators lurk. Also, I’m not sure if you’ve ever met a mussel, but they aren’t exactly celebrated for their speed, so by hitching a ride with a fish, a mussel’s offspring end up better dispersed.

Those white bits are the mussel’s gills. Puncture those and the larvae fly free. Or leave the mussel alone like a decent human being.
Then we might ask how on Earth this could evolve in the first place, how the mussel could not only wonderfully impersonate a fish, but figure out how to invade its hosts. It turns out that no deliberateness is at work here, just evolution’s beautiful, millennia-long ballet.

A lampsilis mussel didn’t show up one day doing an great impression of a fish. Individual organisms of course vary, like you and your siblings, and those with beneficial variations have a better chance of reproducing and passing down those variations. So mussels that looked a bit like fish attracted predators, which helped ferry their young—boosting the mussels’ chances of reproductive success. As the generations wore on, small changes that made the mussels look more and more like fish accumulated, resulting in the fantastical lures.

It’s a shame, then, that lampsilis and other freshwater mussels in North America are in trouble. “Freshwater mussels are the most, or among the most, imperiled group of freshwater organisms in North America, and some cases you could argue in the world,” Sietman says. You name it and for the past 100 years it’s been hitting mussels hard: habitat destruction, agricultural runoff, dams—which in particular hurt them, because dams interfere with the movements of their fish hosts.

Read more at Wired Science

Oct 15, 2015

New Image Shows Billy the Kid Playing Croquet

Experts have identified Billy the Kid as the man standing in the left of this picture, wearing a top hat.
A rare coin dealer in California has concluded that a grainy image of legendary gunman Billy the Kid playing croquet is the real thing and could be worth as much as $5 million.

That is not bad for a photo purchased by Randy Guijarro of Freemont, Calif. for $2 as a part of a miscellaneous lot at a Fresno junk shop in 2010, according to Kagin’s. The company is negotiating a private sale of the photo.

“We have a couple of people who are interested right now,” Kagin’s senior numismatist David McCarthy told FoxNews.com said.

The 4×5-inch tintype – which depicts Billy the Kid and several members of his gang, The Regulators, relaxing in the summer of 1878 – will be the subject of a two-hour documentary airing Sunday on the National Geographic Channel.

Taken just one month after the tumultuous Lincoln County War came to an end, it offers a rare window into the lives of these gunmen. Rather than a threatening outlaw, Billy the Kid seems to be enjoying some downtime following what Kagin’s said was a wedding.

The only other known photograph of Billy the Kid is a portrait of the outlaw taken in Fort Sumner, NM in 1880. It sold for $2.3 million to Palm Beach, Fla., businessman William Koch in 2011 at Brian Lebel’s Annual Old West Show and Auction in Denver. In that photo, Billy is packing a Colt revolver and trademark 1873 Winchester carbine rifle.

When they first got hold of the latest image, McCarthy said they weren’t sure it was authentic adding that “if you do an Internet search, there will be 20 people who have a photo of some guy that looks like Billy the Kid.”

“When we first saw the photograph, we were understandably skeptical – an original Billy the Kid photo is the Holy Grail of Western Americana,” Kagin’s senior numismatist David McCarthy said, in a press release.

“We had to be certain that we could answer and verify where, when, how and why this photograph was taken. Simple resemblance is not enough in a case like this – a team of experts had to be assembled to address each and every detail in the photo to insure that nothing was out of place,” he continued. “After more than a year of methodical study including my own inspection of the site, there is now overwhelming evidence of the image’s authenticity.”

McCarthy said experts began believing the tintype was real after they were able to determine that four people in the photo – using facial recognition software – were those who spent time with Billy the Kid. Then, they began looking for events in which they were all together around that time.

They stumbled upon a diary of Sally Chisum, in which she described a cattle drive featuring all the players in the photo as well as a wedding that took place between Charlie Bowdre (seated on the horse in the photo) and his wife Manuella.

The cattle drive helped researchers narrow the location of the photo to New Mexico and the former ranch of one of Billy the Kid’s employers, John Tunstall. But to confirm the site of the photo, McCarthy actually flew out to the site near Roswell and examined a building that turned out to have been built “over and around” a structure that was actually in the photo.

“I was standing at an angle from the building and I could see the texture of the stucco on the front of the building,” McCarthy said, adding they were tipped off by an investigator who saw what the thought was a building from the photo on ranch. “You could see the vertical wooden supports through the stucco and I

Read more at Discovery News

Who Else May Be in King Tut's Tomb?

If King Tut’s tomb hides a secret burial chamber, the mummy inside could belong to the elusive pharaoh Smenkhkare, or to queen Meritaton, the full or half sister of Tutankhamun, according to an international team of researchers.

Prompted by an inspection of King Tut’s tomb last month by the Egyptian Antiquities Ministry, the new study discusses the likelihood of various missing royals who might be concealed in the 3,300-year-old tomb and rules out the hypothesis that queen Nefertiti, the most favored candidate, is buried there.

The investigation by the Egyptian authorities follows a claim by Nicholas Reeves, a British Egyptologist at the University of Arizona. In July he published a paper arguing that high-resolution images of the tomb’s walls show “distinct linear traces” pointing to the presence of two still unexplored chambers.

After the inspection last month, Egypt’s Antiquities minister Mamdouh Eldamaty confirmed the likely presence of two hidden chambers behind the western and northern walls of the tomb.

“Based on these preliminary observations, the possible findings range from nothing at all or unfinished and closed corridors to storage chambers or intact burials with treasures,”mummy expert Frank Rühli, director of the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich, told Discovery News.

According to Reeves, one chamber contains the remains, and possibly the intact grave goods from queen Nefertiti, the wife of the “heretic” monotheistic pharaoh Akhenaten, Tutankhamun’s father.

He argued that a painting located behind King Tut’s sarcophagus has been wrongly interpreted. Egyptologists have always believed the scene shows Ay (who largely directed King Tut’s reign and succeeded him)performing the Opening of the Mouth ritual on the boy king.

But Reeves offered a different reading: the figure labelled Tutankhamun is actually Nefertiti. He noted that a line at the side of the figure’s mouth, called “oromental groove,” is a trademark in pictures of Nefertiti. On the other hand, the figure labelled Ay would be Tutankhamun, completing the death ritual for Nefertiti.

Reeves speculated the tomb of King Tut was not ready when he died unexpectedly at age 19 in 1323 B.C. after having ruled a short reign of nine to 10 years. Thus he was buried in a rush in what was originally Nefertiti’s tomb, who died 10 years earlier.

But Rühli and colleagues Michael Habicht, Francesco Maria Galassi and Wolfgang Wettengel, caution against that hypothesis.

“Queen Nefertiti might be the already found Younger Lady,” Rühli said.

The “Younger Lady” is a mummy found in 1898 by archaeologist Victor Loret in tomb KV35 in the Valley of the Kings. The mummy lay adjacent to two other mummies, a young boy thought to be Webensenu or Prince Thutmose and an older woman, identified by recent DNA tests as Queen Tiye.

The same genetic analyses identified the Younger Lady as the mother of Tutankhamun.

“Nefertiti is labelled in inscriptions to be Tutankhamun’s mother and indeed the mummy known as the Younger Lady is genetically suggested to be King Tut’s mother,” Rühli said.

Such evidence would automatically rule out Nefertiti as the occupant of the secret crypt.

In a study published on academia.edu, the same platform used by Reeves for his revolutionary paper downloaded more than 100.000 times within two months, Rühli and colleagues examine likely royal candidates for the potential hidden chamber.

“Chronological boundaries considerably shorten the list,“ they wrote.

They noted that Akhenaton died several years before. He was most likely buried in tomb TA 26 in Akhet-Aton in Middle Egypt, and might later have been transferred to the tomb known as KV55.

Several of his daughters, such as Nefer-Neferu-Re, Setep-en-Re, and Maketaton died in the twelfth year of Akhenaton’s reign and were also most likely buried in their father’s tomb in Akhet-Aton.

Another daughter, Ankhesenamun, apparently survived King Tut.

“Possibly all these individuals can be excluded,” the researchers said.

Rühli and colleagues also ruled out the other potential candidate, Queen Kiya, the mysterious secondary wife of Akhenaton who has been controversially debated to be King Tut’s mother.

Her mummy has not been identified so far, but her canopic jars were apparently found in tomb KV55.

“This makes a separate burial in King Tut’s tomb rather unlikely,” Rühli said.

The researchers were left with enigmatic pharaoh Smenkhkare, whose true identity is quite uncertain. A possible predecessor of King Tut, Smenkhkare could be the royal hidden behind the walls of the most famous tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

Read more at Discovery News

Prehistoric Humans Slept as Much as We Do

We have all kinds of comforts in the modern era, but a good night’s sleep isn’t one of them for many people. Despite not having the conveniences of an industrialized society, our ancestors didn’t have it much better in terms of hours spent in the sack.

Prehistoric humans didn’t get any more sleep than their modern descendants, found a study published today in the journal Current Biology. Scientists didn’t find this out by digging up some kind of paleolithic alarm clock, of course. Rather, a team led by University of California, Los Angeles, researchers examined the sleep habits of three hunter-gatherer tribes whose behaviors mimic those of pre-modern humans.

On average, people in traditional societies slumber an average of 6.5 hours per night. That’s in line with the amount of sleep the typical American gets, around 6.8 hours per night, according to a Gallup poll released in 2013. The hunter-gatherers also don’t nap regularly, so they’re certainly not catching up on hours lost overnight.

Although the hours clocked more or less mimic those of humans in the industrialized world, there are some notable differences. For starters, the hunter-gatherers tended to wake up before dawn. They didn’t sleep right after the sun went down, but usually a few hours afterward, during the coldest parts of the night.

Similar sleep patterns have been identified in other communities living according to pre-industrial customs. The town of Baependi, a small rural community in southeastern Brazil, for example, sticks to more of a solar rhythm in their sleep patterns, found a team of researchers from the University of Surrey and the University of Sao Paolo.

Perhaps the most enviable quality of slumberers in traditional societies, the UCLA researchers discovered, is that chronic insomnia, a condition that affects an estimated 20 percent of Americans, is rare among hunter-gatherers.

That fact might be eye-opening to the millions of Americans who spend more than $32 billion annually on everything from “pills, products and medical devices to “sleep consultants” who farm themselves out to hospitals, labs, and sleep centers, to luxe mattresses made with tension-relieving foams,” according to a 2012 report by The Fiscal Times. Tribesmen with no access to expensive bedding let alone sleep aids typically had no problem getting a good night’s rest.

Part of the reason for hunter-gatherers being sound sleepers might be due to lifestyle factors. After all, they tend to be active by necessity, given the lack of comforts like grocery stores or chairs. Another contributing factor is that hunter-gatherers follow more natural sleep rhythms, unlike most people in industrialized society who use artificial light to extend their productive hours.

In fact, a separate study published in the Journal of Biological Rhythms in June found that electrification and artificial light in modern societies disrupts sleep cycles and can lead to sleep deprivation. For the study, two different hunter-gatherer societies with similar ethnic and sociological backgrounds were identified in northeastern Argetina.

The only significant manner in which the two tribes differed was that one had access to electricity, and the other group didn’t. The researchers found that the community with access to artificial light tended to sleep one hour less than the one that didn’t.

People in preindustrial societies not only followed more natural rhythms in terms of the timing of their sleep; they also slept in segments rather than resting a continuous seven or eight hours, reports the BBC World Service. Instead, in traditional societies, people often slept in two, three- to four-hour periods broken up by one to two hours of wakefulness. That hours or two of consciousness wasn’t just spent tossing and turning of course, but used productively, spent conversing or being intimate with bedmates.

Read more at Discovery News

Baby With Partial Skull Reveals Brain's Flexibility

In a recent video posted on Facebook, 1-year-old Jaxon Buell coos and mumbles, “I love you,” to his parents.

A typical social media share, except that Jaxon was born with microhydranencephaly, a condition so rare it usually only gets a couple of lines in medical textbooks, experts say. He wasn’t predicted to live more than a few days, much less come close to saying “I love you.” (The post has over 333,801 views so far.)

But Jaxon’s case isn’t only generating social media support; Jaxon and the other patients with rare brain disorders give doctors a rare window into how our brains work, experts say.

“We believe the medical world will also benefit from Jaxon’s story, from his rare neurological condition, and from his diagnosis, because we are certainly seeing firsthand how much there is still to learn about the human brain,”  Jaxon’s dad, Brandon Buell, wrote on Facebook.

Doctors agree.

“Children with these sorts of problems can help us rethink the role of the brain stem and the cortex in consciousness,” said Dr. Marc Patterson, Professor of Neurology, Pediatrics and Medical Genetics at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Indeed, Dr. Ganeshwaran H. Mochida, Assistant Professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a staff physician and principal investigator at the Division of Genetics and Genomics at Boston Children’s Hospital, says he’s often amazed when he looks at a brain scan and then sees kids who are outperforming his expectations.

“Learning from each child is extremely important and hopefully as we understand more about the molecular and genetic basis of brain development and function, we will be able to also care better for these children and present accurate information to the families,” he said, adding that he hasn’t personally seen Jaxon.

Microhydranencephaly is a combination of two conditions, microcephaly, or small skull, and hydranencephaly, in which the skull is filled with spinal fluid instead of the cerebral hemispheres. Jaxon’s ability to talk, then, may shed some light on the role of the brain stem versus the cerebral cortex.

Since Jaxon’s small skull is filled with spinal fluid, he relies on his brain stem, which is responsible for basic functions such as sleep/wake cycles, breathing, and circulation, to function. The cerebral cortex is generally thought to be responsible for content. How, then, does Jaxon say, “Mommy” and “Daddy”?

It could be that more happens in the brain stem than was thought, or that the brain is better able to adapt than previously believed.

Especially in children, the brain can be surprisingly “plastic,” or flexible.

“Even in a young child, if a part of the brain is damaged, sometimes the other parts can take over better than in the case of older children or adults,” Mochida said.

Either way, says Patterson, who has seen a half dozen or so similar cases in his career, it’s important to keep these rare cases in mind when doctors encounter patients with severe traumatic brain damage.

“It emphasizes the fact that we need to be cautious in categorizing patients as minimally conscious versus in a vegetative state,” he said. “There’s an assumption that if there’s no cortex there’s no consciousness, but that’s not necessarily true.”

He points to a survey given to about 100 families who had experience with hydroencephaly. Most parents said they thought their children were aware of their surroundings. It raises key questions, Patterson said: “What is consciousness, and what neural structures do you need to support consciousness?”

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 14, 2015

Baby Dinos Died Slow Painful Deaths in Nest

Several baby dinosaurs had horrific, short lives, suggest their remains, which were recently discovered still in their nest where they all died approximately 70 million years ago.

Little did they know, however, that their remains would one day help paleontologists to better understand the growth stages of their species, Saurolophus angustirostris, aka “Ridged Reptile” or “Lizard Crest.”

The nest and its gory contents are described in the journal PLOS ONE.

Lead author Leonard Dewaele told Discovery News that it is possible “the mother somehow went missing or died, and that the babies were incapable of finding their own food resources and of surviving.”

They died one by one over a period of time, he said, “unable to disperse from their already-dead siblings.”

Dewaele, of Ghent University and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, explained that the condition of the dinosaurs’ fossils provides evidence for this way of dying, revealing that “the babies were at different stages of decomposition at the time of burial.”

The burial took place at the appropriately formidable sounding “Dragon’s Tomb” site located in Mongolia. Dewaele said that, during the Late Cretaceous, the landscape was a vast plain intersected by numerous rivers, one of which washed over the dead baby dinosaurs.

“The sandy sediments in which the babies were buried lead us to assume that the nest was located on a river bank, or point bar, and got buried by sediment when water levels rose” during the wet summer season, he explained.

Paleontologists have long suspected that juvenile dinosaurs often looked very different from their adult counterparts, and not just because of their size differences, with these remains supporting that belief.

Large, plant-eating “Lizard Crest” is famous for its head crest that looks like a spike was rammed into the top of the dino’s head. The babies had no such thing, but the researchers did find, as Dewaele described, “a very small, virtually nonexistent supra cranial crest.” In short, the dino babies had the beginnings of the crest, but it would not yet have been visible to onlookers.

This suggests that the crest held some function that could have been useful for adults, such as for mating rituals, defense or identification among their own kind.

Read more at Discovery News

Earliest Mammal Flesh and Fur Dates to Dino Era

The recently discovered remains of a 125-million-year-old mouse-resembling animal are so well preserved that they contain fur, hair follicles, hedgehog-like spines, organs, and even a fungal hair infection, according to a new study.

The find pushes back the earliest record of preserved inner organs and mammal hair structures by more than 60 million years. The fossils, described in the journal Nature and belonging to the Dinosaur Era critter Spinolestes xenarthrosus, also reveal the early evolution of hair and spines in animals.

“Spinolestes shows remarkable soft-part preservation,” lead author Thomas Martin, a paleontologist at the University of Bonn, told Discovery News.

“In the chest, lung tissue has been fossilized that shows the branched pattern of the airways and the fine terminal bulbs typical for lung tissue,” he continued. “There is also a brownish-red spot in the abdominal cavity just behind the lung tissue, which derives from the liver (liver tissue is very rich in iron and its fossilized remainders therefore have a reddish-brown color). The lung and liver are in the exact anatomical position, clearly separated from each other, which indicates the presence of a diaphragm in between, like in modern mammals. The breathing pattern of Spinolestes therefore was like in modern mammals.”

He added that there is also one external ear (called a “pinna”) preserved. It is the first known fossil outer ear of any mammal. It provides evidence that this body part was well-developed and was similar to that of living rodents.

“Modern small mammals are mostly nocturnal,” he explained, “and hearing is very important for detecting predators on the one hand and detecting prey on the other hand.”

Affectionately called a “Cretaceous furball” by the researchers, Spinolestes lived in a once swampy environment in what is now Spain. It spent most of its time searching for insects and other small animals, digging and scratching them up with its strong back legs.

During the mammal’s lifetime, the region was also home to carnivorous dinosaurs such as 20-foot-long Concavenator, the much smaller bird-like Pelicanimimus, and multiple plant-eating dinos. Martin suspects that Pelicanimimus might have preyed upon the small furry animal. It was too tiny, however, to have been of much interest to Concavenator, he said.

Read more at Discovery News

120,000-Yr-Old Human Found in China

Forty-seven teeth from our species dated to 80,000-120,000 years ago have just been found in a cave in southern China, according to a new study that has many important implications concerning humanity’s early history.

The teeth, excavated from Fuyan Cave in Daoxian, southern China, represent the earliest unambiguous evidence for Homo sapiens outside of Africa.

"They are indeed the earliest Homo sapiens with fully modern morphologies outside of Africa," lead author Wu Liu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences told Discovery News. "At the Levant (much of the eastern Mediterranean), we also have human remains from the sites of Qafzeh and Skhul (in Israel) with similar ages, but these fossils have been described as retaining some primitive features and, thus, are not fully modern."

The remains are described in the latest issue of the journal Nature.

Well-dated and well-preserved fossils older than 45,000 years ago have been lacking outside of Africa, although primates themselves originated in Asia. Some researchers have even proposed an "Out of Asia" instead of "Out of Africa" migration path for the first Homo sapiens.

While the new findings do not resolve that question, they do reveal that our species was in southern China up to 70,000 years before it was in the eastern Mediterranean and Europe. The newly unearthed remains also offer evidence that China during the Pleistocene Era was likely inhabited by multiple groups of humans: our species and another more primitive lineage(s). Prior fossil discoveries show that the primitive Denisovans, for example, were in northern Asia.

Further complicating the mix is that Neanderthals were also living outside of Africa at the same time. The researchers suspect that the Neanderthals’ presence might have even deterred our species’ migration into Europe, since it took Homo sapiens so long to get there. Intriguingly, Neanderthals went extinct, or perhaps were absorbed into the Homo sapiens population, shortly after our species landed on what was Neanderthal turf.

"The coincidence between the arrival of H. sapiens to Europe and the Neanderthal extinction has often been interpreted as evidence of the superiority of modern humans, however, we now wonder that if modern humans were already present in southern China more than 80,000 years ago, why were they not capable of entering Europe until 45,000 ago?" co-author María Martinón-Torres of the National Center on Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain, asked.

"Maybe because Neanderthals were there," she continued, "it was not easy to take over 'their' land."

She further points out that Neanderthals were already in much lower numbers at the time of Homo sapiens’ European arrival -- Neanderthals often lived in more challenging environments with fewer resources.

The southern China cave where the teeth were found unfortunately provides no clues on what the culture of Homo sapiens was like there 80,000–120,000 years ago. No prehistoric tools or other telltale artifacts have been found so far at the site.

Senior author Xiu-jie Wu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences told Discovery News that she and her colleagues "do not think the cave was a living place. Future archaeological findings from this period in other Asian locations may shed some light about the type of culture or adaptations these humans had."

There is, however, very good news about the cave site, according to archaeologist Robin Dennell of the University of Exeter. He did not work on the project, but wrote a separate News & Views article, also published in Nature, about the discovery.

He explained that a flowstone layer covers the entire cave floor and has a minimum age of 80,000 years old. The teeth were found in a sandy clay layer well beneath the stone, which allowed them to be reliably dated.

Dennell wrote that most researchers believe our species first appeared in East Africa around 190,000 to 160,000 years ago, and subsequently dispersed into the eastern Mediterranean several thousand years later. Since the prevailing theory holds that Homo sapiens originated in or near the tropics, he thinks it makes sense that our early ancestors would have initially dispersed eastward rather than northward, where winter temperatures rapidly then fell below freezing.

Read more at Discovery News

Has Kepler Discovered an Alien Megastructure?

NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope is tasked with finding small, rocky worlds orbiting distant stars. However, exoplanets aren’t the only thing Kepler can detect — stellar flares, star spots and dusty planetary rings can also pop up in the mission’s observations.

But there’s also been speculation that Kepler may have the ability to detect more than natural phenomena; if they’re out there, Kepler may also detect the signature of artificial structures orbiting other stars. Imagine an advanced civilization that’s well up on the Kardashev scale and has the ability to harness energy directly from its star. This hypothetical alien civilization may want to construct vast megastructures, like supersized solar arrays in orbit around their host star, that could be so big that they blot out a sizable fraction of starlight as they pass in front.

When Kepler detects an exoplanet, it does so by sensing the very slight dip in starlight from a given star. The premise is simple: an exoplanet orbits in front of star (known as a “transit”), Kepler detects a slight dimming of starlight and creates a “lightcurve” — basically a graph charting the dip in starlight over time. Much information can be gleaned from the lightcurve, such as the physical size of the transiting exoplanet. But it can also deduce the exoplanet’s shape.

Normally the shape of an exoplanet isn’t particularly surprising because it’s, well, planet-shaped. It’s round. The physics of planetary formation dictate that a planetary body above a certain mass will be governed by hydrostatic equilibrium. But say if Kepler detects something that isn’t round. Well, that’s when things can get a bit weird.

For the most part, any dip in star brightness can be attributed to some kind of natural phenomenon. But what if all possibilities are accounted for and only one scenario is left? What if that scenario is this object appears to be artificial? In other words, what if it’s alien?

In a chilling article written by Ross Andersen of The Atlantic, at first glance, it seems we may be at this incredible juncture.

A star, named KIC 8462852, has been found with a highly curious transit signal. In a paper submitted to the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, astronomers, including citizen scientists from the Planet Hunters crowdsourcing program, report: “Over the duration of the Kepler mission, KIC 8462852 was observed to undergo irregularly shaped, aperiodic dips in flux down to below the 20 percent level.”

The research paper is thorough, describing the phenomenon, pointing out that this star is unique - we’ve seen nothing like it. Kepler has collected data on this star steadily for four years. It’s not instrumental error. Kepler isn’t seeing things; the signal is real.

“We’d never seen anything like this star,” Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoctorate researcher at Yale University and lead author, told The Atlantic. “It was really weird. We thought it might be bad data or movement on the spacecraft, but everything checked out.”

The Planet Hunters volunteers are depended on to seek out transits in Kepler’s stars in the direction of the constellation Cygnus. This is a huge quantity of data, from over 150,000 stars in Kepler’s original field of view, and you can’t beat the human eye when identifying a true dip in starlight brightness. The Planet Hunters described KIC 8462852 as “bizarre,” “interesting” and a “giant transit.” They’re not wrong.

Follow-up studies focus on two interesting transit events at KIC 8462852, one that was detected between days 788 and 795 of the Kepler mission and between days 1510 to 1570. The researchers have tagged these events as D800 and D1500 respectively.

The D800 event appears to have been a single transit causing a star brightness drop-off of 15 percent, whereas D1500 was a burst of several transits, possibly indicating a clump of different objects, forcing a brightness dip of up to 22 percent. To cause such dips in brightness, these transiting objects must be huge.

The researchers worked through every known possibility, but each solution presented a new problem. For example, they investigated the possibility of some kind of circumstellar disk of dust. However, after looking for the infrared signal associated with these disks, no such signal could be seen.

Also, the star is a mature F-type star, approximately 1.5 times the size of our sun. Circumstellar disks are usually found around young stars.

The researchers also investigated the possibility of a huge planetary collision: could the debris from this smashup be creating this strange signal? The likelihood of us seeing a planetary collision is extremely low. There is no evidence in data taken by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) that a collision happened, creating a very tiny window of opportunity between WISE’s mission end and the beginning of Kepler’s mission (of a few years) for an astronomically unlikely cosmic event like this to occur.

The only natural explanation favored by the researchers seems to focus on an intervening clump of exocomets.

“One way we imagine such a barrage of comets could be triggered is by the passage of a field star through the system,” write the researchers.

Indeed, they argue, there’s a nearby star that might have tidally disturbed otherwise dormant comets in the outermost regions of the KIC 8462852 star system. This small star is located around 1,000 AU from KIC 8462852 and whether it’s a binary partner or an interstellar visitor, its presence may have caused some cometary turmoil. Like the other scenarios, however, the exocomet explanation still falls short of being fully satisfactory.

This research paper focuses only on natural and known possible causes of the mystery transit events around KIC 8462852. A second paper is currently being drafted to investigate a completely different transit scenario that focuses around the possibility of a mega-engineering project created by an advanced alien civilization.

This may sound like science fiction, but our galaxy has existed for over 13 billion years, it’s not such a stretch of the imagination to think that an alien civilization may be out there and evolved to the point where they can build megastructures around stars.

“Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build,” Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, told The Atlantic.

Indeed, hunting down huge structures that obscure the light from stars is no new thing. The Search for Extraterrestrial Technology (SETT) is one such project that does just this. Only recently, a survey of the local universe focused on the hope of detecting the waste heat generated by a technologically advanced civilization, specifically a Type II Kardashev civilization.

On the Kardashev scale, a Type II civilization has the ability to utilize all the available energy radiating from a star. Using a vast shell or series of rings surrounding a star, a Dyson sphere-like structure may be constructed. This has the effect of blotting out the star from view in visible wavelengths, but once the solar energy has been used by the alien civilization, the energy is shifted to longer wavelengths and likely lost as infrared radiation.

Read more at Discovery News

China Put a Telescope on the Moon in 2013

Chinese astronomers have revealed that a small robotic telescope has been functioning fabulously from the lunar surface for 18 months.

The Lunar-based Ultraviolet Telescope is the moon’s first functioning robotic telescope, having arrived aboard China’s Chang’e 3 lander in 2013.

Since then, it has spent 2,000 hours monitoring 40 different stars, New Scientist reports.

The presence of a functioning ultraviolet light telescope on the moon is a pretty cool development. The moon has a different, thinner atmosphere than Earth, so certain celestial objects that cannot be seen on Earth are detectable from lunar surface.

Furthermore, the moon’s slow rotation allows the telescope to stay focused on the same subject for days at a time, a feat not possible on Earth.

China’s dirty little secret has already outlived its one-year life expectancy; the mission could be extended at the end of this year.

From Discovery News

Did Comets Spark Alien Life in Europa's Oceans?

If alien life swims in the ocean beneath Europa's icy surface, it might have got its start from comets cracking the icy shell to deliver vital pre-life ingredients, say researchers.

New simulations show that a specific family of comets have the mass, velocity and opportunity to do the job -- penetrating the full range of likely Europan ice thicknesses.

“It's one of the best candidates for an ecosystem,” said Rónadh Cox of Williams College, Mass., regarding Europa's ocean. “But how do you get biological precursers into the ocean?”

To find out if icy, chemical-rich comets could do it, she and her team modeled impacts by the full range of comets that have been influenced by Jupiter, and brought into relatively short orbits around the sun -- so-called Jupiter Family Comets. The team simulated the collisions of these known comets into a range of ice thicknesses. Their results were surprising and led to a new insights into the moon's actual ice crust thickness.

“It turns out it doesn't matter how thick the crust is,” said Cox, the lead author of a paper about the research in the latest issue of Journal of Geophysical Research-Planets. That's because it's all a matter of the frequency of impacts over the very long window of opportunity -- in this case the almost five billion-years that the solar system has been around.

If Europa's ice, for instance, is at the very thick end of the spectrum -- 40 kilometers (25 miles) deep -- it would require a 5 to 7-kilometer (3-5 mile) diameter comet to breach it, she said.

They found that the odds of that happening with a Jupiter Family Comet is once in 100 million years. That's a virtual certainty over five billion years.

The odds of getting through the ice get a lot better if the ice is thinner. Thinner ice would allow the more numerous smaller comets to break through the ice once every 10 million years, Cox explained.

“It means the crust is penetrated frequently in geological time,” said Cox.

It also means that the two dozen impact craters seen on Europa today can be compared to the simulated impact craters to see what size their impactors were. Those that left craters on Europa are failures, because if they had breached the ice they would have probably been flooded with fresh ice. So they provide a clue about how the thick the ice really is.

“We got the best match if ice was 10 to 15 kilometers (6 to 9 miles) thick,” said Cox. This ice thickness agrees with other studies that estimate Europa's ice thickness by entirely different methods, she said.

“I think that this is the most complete and careful work yet on the relation between the Europan ice shell thickness and the size and depth of impact craters on its surface,” said Purdue University's Jay Melosh, an expert on planetary impacts. “I am particularly impressed that the authors can match the observed crater depth-diameter relation over the entire range of crater sizes on Europa and get an excellent fit for a 10 kilometer (6.2 mile) thick ice shell. There has been a long-standing controversy over whether the ice on Europa is thin (that is, 7 to 15 km) or thick (around 40 km).”

As for those comets that broke the ice, Cox says the evidence for those is there on Europa's surface as well, although it's harder to be certain, as there are a lot more analogues for studying impact craters than for ice-penetrating impacts.

“If impactors are going through the ice there has to be a scar,” Cox said. “Geomorphically, we don't know what that is. What do those look like now that they are frozen?”

They might look like the patchy, complicated Europan icescape called chaos terrain. Very similar looking surface patterns have been created by re-freezing of ice after explosives have been used to break through sea ice on Earth, Cox said. And that's about the only analogue she has seen for what has happened on Europa.

“We advocate that these are sites of impactors that penetrated the ice,” said Cox.

If so, and the ice is on the thin side, it's good news for life on Europa and our chances of finding it.

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 13, 2015

How Hot Were Dinos? Eggshells Reveal

Dinosaur body temperatures widely varied, according to a new study that used dino eggshells to determine how hot, or not, some dinosaurs were.

The new research in the journal Nature Communications, represents the first time that dinosaur eggshells have been used to figure out the body temperature and metabolism of dinosaurs.

The research concluded that titanosaurs -- huge long-necked, plant-eating dinosaurs -- were hotter than humans, measuring out at 99.7 degrees Fahrenheit. Smaller, two-legged omnivorous oviraptors were estimated to have had a body temperature of 89.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

"Many people now think, based on current work, that dinosaurs were either fully endothermic (warm-blooded and producing heat internally) like most modern mammals and birds, or at a kind of intermediate physiological state and had not reached full endothermy," explained lead author Robert Eagle, who is a researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles' Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

Eagle, who is also LabEx International Chair of the European Institute of Marine Sciences, and his colleagues measured the bonds between two heavy isotopes, Carbon-13 and Oxygen-18, in the calcium carbonate mineral that makes up the hard part of eggshells.

He explained, "The abundance of these bonds in calcium carbonate is related to the temperature the mineral forms at, with more bonds forming at cold temperatures and less at hot. In the case of eggshells, the abundance of these bonds reflects the body temperature of the female when the eggshell forms."

The scientists took the measurements for both eggs of living dinosaurs, i.e. birds, as well as for eggs of now-extinct dinosaurs. Several eggs did not retain their original chemical composition, but the researchers believe they did get accurate readings for titanosaurs and oviraptors.

Both types of dinosaurs lived during the Upper Cretaceous roughly 70-80 million years ago.

Eagle and his team suspect that titanosaurs and other sauropods were warmer because of their size and apparent slow metabolism. The scientists point out that some large modern leatherback turtles are known to have elevated body temperatures as a result of their size.

The researchers quickly add, however, that many factors can affect an animal's body temperature. The presence of fur or a lot of feathers is one thing can influence body temperature. The average metabolic rate of the species is another big factor. Large animals are therefore not always the hottest.

In terms of today's birds, Eagle said "smaller birds tend to have hotter body temperatures than larger birds. Small birds like the hummingbird, for example, expend a lot of energy in their flight, while big flightless birds have lower body temperatures and metabolic rates. It shows how complicated metabolism and thermal regulation can be!"

Steve Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh's School of GeoSciences did not work on the new study, which he told Discovery News "is pushing the boundaries of the field."

He continued, "Eggshells may seem like a weird way to study the metabolism of dinosaurs, but they can be a very valuable source of evidence, because eggshells form at the same body temperature as the mother, and body temperature is critical to understanding the physiology of an animal."

Read more at Discovery News

No Charges for Cecil the Lion's Killer

Zimbabwe abandoned Monday its bid to press charges against a U.S. dentist who killed Cecil the lion, saying his papers "were in order" and that he didn't know he was committing an offence.

The black-maned lion was shot dead with a bow and arrow in July by a US trophy hunter called Walter Palmer in a hunt that provoked worldwide outrage.

Palmer paid $55,000 (50,000 euros) to shoot the lion on an expedition led by professional Zimbabwean hunter Theo Bronkhorst.

The hunt provoke a storm of criticism after it emerged that Cecil was a well-known attraction among visitors to the Hwange National Park and was wearing a tracking collar as part of an Oxford University research project.

But a minister on Monday said Zimbabwe would drop its bid to have Palmer brought to justice because he at the time of hunt, he was carrying all the right papers.

"Palmer came to Zimbabwe because his papers were in order," Environment Minister Oppah Muchinguri told reporters.

"We are now going to review how we issue hunting quotas," she said.

"The documents were there... The problem now remains internal."

The dentist was welcome to return to Zimbabwe but "not for hunting", she said.

Palmer, an experienced trophy hunter, was hounded on social media over the killing, and after demonstrations outside his dental practice in Minesota, he went into hiding for weeks.

He later apologised for killing Cecil, a 13-year-old male renowned for his distinctive black mane.

Palmer said he believed it was legal hunt and appeared to blame Bronkhorst for misleading him.

Read more at Discovery News

Gene-Edited Pigs May Become Human Parts

Researchers have figured out a way to make pig organs for human beings free of dangerous viruses using a controversial gene-editing technique. The finding sets the stage for transplanting pig organs into humans, as well as the possibility of using gene-editing to engineer a disease-free human.

The finding reported this week by Harvard University researchers in the journal Science Express uses a technology known as CRISPR/Cas-9, which acts as a super-accurate pair of scissors for editing individual bits of DNA.

“It’s a really exciting possibility because it has immediate applications for transplantation, but also the longer-term proof of concept of something that would be hard to test in humans,” said George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard University and an author on the paper published this week in Science Express.

Some critics worry that CRISPR gene editing could lead to “designer babies” by altering the DNA of human embryos directly to produce children with certain desirable traits. However, most experts say a more likely scenario will be using the technology to eliminate genes that cause inherited diseases like Parkinson’s or Huntington’s, for example.

“Some people will say ‘I’d like to have my own genetically modified kid. I don’t want a donor egg or adoption but I do have Huntingtons or Tay-Sachs or some other miserable disease,’” said Arthur Caplan, professor of bioethics at New York University. “Someone will say let’s try to engineer embryos to see if we could produce a healthy child.”

That possibility is still several years away, Caplan noted. But in the meantime, work is progressing rapidly on using CRISPR in animal models like mice, pigs and monkeys in order to see how well it works.

The shortage of organs for transplantation is a major barrier to the treatment of organ failure. While scientists say they would like to use more pig organs, there are fears about transmission of porcine endogenous retroviruses (PERVs) to humans. In the Science paper, postdoctoral student Luhan Yang and Church were able to eliminate 62 of these retroviruses in a pig kidney cell line.

The researchers say they have to see that the technique works in the living animal itself, then test it in human cells before moving on to human clinical trials.

“You need to gradually monitor its use to bring it into humans,” Caplan said. “It’s like any other application, you want to test it in animals first.”

Read more at Discovery News

Mars Pebbles Carried for Miles by River

Imagine a babbling river, making its way over stones and pebbles — the flow occasionally knocking a pebble forward along the riverbed.

Now imagine that scene on Mars.

According to new research, that’s no daydream. A novel study has examined the erosion patterns of rocks on Mars and determined they were carried by water for some 30 miles on the Red Planet.

While recent evidence from Mars has suggested the planet hosts a small amount of liquid water today, this study is based on close analysis of images taken by NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover in 2012 and hint at a much wetter world with flowing rivers in the planet’s past.

The rover’s images included fine details of pebbles on the planet, revealing their unusually smooth and round shapes. For geophysicist Douglas Jerolmack and his colleague, Gábor Domokos, a mathematician at Budapest University of Technology and Economics, the details of the rocks’ shapes were enough to understand their history.

“Thousands of years ago, Aristotle pondered the question of pebbles on the beach and how they become rounded. But until recently, descriptions of pebble shape have been qualitative, and we lacked a basic understanding of the rounding process.” said Jerolmack, an associate professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences.

How exactly can a pebble’s shape alone reveal its past? Enter: math.

While Jerolmack analyzed the geophysics of the Mars pebbles, Domokos did some number crunching based on his past research on the precise link between an object’s motion and its shape. Since the balance points of a rock are reduced by natural abrasion, Domokos was able to come up with a geometric model that predicts how a stone’s shape and mass is altered as it bangs against another similarly sized object.

The team tested the geometric model with data they gathered from their own terrestrial erosion tests. First they rolled limestone fragments in a drum in a lab and recorded the stones’ change in shape and loss in mass over time. Next they examined rocks and pebbles in a mountain river in Puerto Rico.

“We started at the headwaters, where chunks of angular rock are breaking off from the walls of the stream, and went downstream,” Jerolmack said. “Every few hundred meters we would pull thousands of rocks out and take images of their silhouette and record their weight.”

Finally they performed similar analysis of sediment from an alluvial fan at the mouth of a canyon in New Mexico. This fan-shaped sediment feature closely resembles features at the location on Mars where the Curiosity rover snapped photos of pebbles.

Data from all three terrestrial experiments agreed nicely with the geometric model Domokos had developed — proving they could accurately use the model to determine how far a pebble had traveled based solely on its shape.

Read more at Discovery News

Black Holes Sound Like Static

If you could hear the stuff that swirls around black holes, superdense white dwarfs and young stars, what would it sound like? Probably like the empty spaces on the radio dial, researchers say.

Simone Scaringi, a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, studies “accretion disks” around massive objects. An accretion disk is acollection of matter that gathers in a disc shape around a rotating object. Scaringi and his team looked at flickering in the light emissions of galactic nuclei, black holes, young stellar objects and white dwarfs, which are the collapsed remnants of massive stars. You can hear what accretion disks around black holes sound like here.

Using observations from NASA’s Kepler space telescope, ground-based instruments and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton satellite, the scientists found it’s possible to turn the flickering into sound.

“It’s something I always wanted to try and do,” Scaringi told Space.com. “This project gave me a good excuse to give it a try. For me, it’s the obvious way to explain this research. … I can show it’s a different type of noise.”

The flickering comes from the energy released by material in accretion disks that falls in toward the central object. Scaringi treated the flashes’ frequency as that of a sound wave; for example, a frequency of 10 flashes a second was converted to a wave consisting of 10 cycles per second, or 10 Hertz. There was one “cheat”: Scaringi had to scale the frequencies to the range of human hearing, as most of them would be far too low for humans to hear.

The result is a white-noise-like sound, which helps illustrate the team’s main finding: The physics of accretion disks scale up and down and remain mostly the same, no matter how massive the object at the center of the disk is.

To many people, this finding might be intuitive; after all, stirring creamer into a cup of coffee produces a shape not unlike that of a spiral galaxy. And scientists and philosophers have remarked on the similarity between the shapes of spiral galaxies and accretion discs around stars.

Intuitions, however, are often wrong. Many scientists were unsure whether the same physical laws applied at widely differing scales. One issue, Scaringi said, is relativity. Black holes, for example, have the mass of multiple suns — millions or billions of suns in the case of the supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies. The difference in gravitational forces between the area near the black hole’s “point of no return,” called the event horizon, and the regions farther away is large, whereas for young stars it is comparatively small.

Scaringi’s team has shown that the behavior of accretion disks will scale up; one can apply the same basic laws to a large black hole, or a galaxy, or a young solar system. But the mechanism is still unknown.

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 12, 2015

King Tut's Beard To Be Fixed

Restorers are at work on King Tutankhamun’s beard, Egypt’s state-run news agency MENA said.

According to the report, the restoration began on Saturday and is being carried out by a German-Egyptian team of restorers led by specialist Christian Eckmann.

“Tutankhamun’s mask has been transferred from its exhibition hall to another room in the museum that has been turned into a restoration laboratory,” antiquities department spokeswoman Mushira Mussa told Middle East online.

The intervention takes place more than a year after the long, narrow, blue and gold beard suffered a botched repair.

Braided like a pigtail with the end jutting forward, the beard was unintentionally severed from the chin in August 2014 by workers adjusting the lighting in the case holding the priceless artifact.

Panicked curators did further damage by hastily gluing the beard back onto the fragile 3,300-year-old mask with fast-drying epoxy normally used for wood or metal.

Moreover, the glue was used abundantly, causing it to flow along the beard and chin.

News about the botched repair broke in January, followed by a press conference by Egypt’s antiquities ministry. At the news conference German restorer Christian Eckmann told reporters that the mask can be properly restored after the glue is removed.

One of the top attractions at the museum, the mask is made of gold and inlaid with stone, faience and glass. It was placed over the boy king’s face after his death around 1323 B.C. at the age of 19.

The beard was loose when British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered King Tut’s treasure-packed tomb in 1922 in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. It was re-affixed with adhesive in 1941.

Read more at Discovery News