Oct 31, 2015

Full-scale architecture for a quantum computer in silicon

Australian scientists have designed a 3D silicon chip architecture based on single atom quantum bits, which is compatible with atomic-scale fabrication techniques -- providing a blueprint to build a large-scale quantum computer.

Scientists and engineers from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T), headquartered at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), are leading the world in the race to develop a scalable quantum computer in silicon -- a material well-understood and favoured by the trillion-dollar computing and microelectronics industry.

Teams led by UNSW researchers have already demonstrated a unique fabrication strategy for realising atomic-scale devices and have developed the world's most efficient quantum bits in silicon using either the electron or nuclear spins of single phosphorus atoms. Quantum bits -- or qubits -- are the fundamental data components of quantum computers.

One of the final hurdles to scaling up to an operational quantum computer is the architecture. Here it is necessary to figure out how to precisely control multiple qubits in parallel, across an array of many thousands of qubits, and constantly correct for 'quantum' errors in calculations.

Now, the CQC2T collaboration, involving theoretical and experimental researchers from the University of Melbourne and UNSW, has designed such a device. In a study published today in Science Advances, the CQC2T team describes a new silicon architecture, which uses atomic-scale qubits aligned to control lines -- which are essentially very narrow wires -- inside a 3D design.

"We have demonstrated we can build devices in silicon at the atomic-scale and have been working towards a full-scale architecture where we can perform error correction protocols -- providing a practical system that can be scaled up to larger numbers of qubits," says UNSW Scientia Professor Michelle Simmons, study co-author and Director of the CQC2T.

"The great thing about this work, and architecture, is that it gives us an endpoint. We now know exactly what we need to do in the international race to get there."

In the team's conceptual design, they have moved from a one-dimensional array of qubits, positioned along a single line, to a two-dimensional array, positioned on a plane that is far more tolerant to errors. This qubit layer is "sandwiched" in a three-dimensional architecture, between two layers of wires arranged in a grid.

By applying voltages to a sub-set of these wires, multiple qubits can be controlled in parallel, performing a series of operations using far fewer controls. Importantly, with their design, they can perform the 2D surface code error correction protocols in which any computational errors that creep into the calculation can be corrected faster than they occur.

"Our Australian team has developed the world's best qubits in silicon," says University of Melbourne Professor Lloyd Hollenberg, Deputy Director of the CQC2T who led the work with colleague Dr Charles Hill. "However, to scale up to a full operational quantum computer we need more than just many of these qubits -- we need to be able to control and arrange them in such a way that we can correct errors quantum mechanically."

"In our work, we've developed a blueprint that is unique to our system of qubits in silicon, for building a full-scale quantum computer."

In their paper, the team proposes a strategy to build the device, which leverages the CQC2T's internationally unique capability of atomic-scale device fabrication. They have also modelled the required voltages applied to the grid wires, needed to address individual qubits, and make the processor work.

"This architecture gives us the dense packing and parallel operation essential for scaling up the size of the quantum processor," says Scientia Professor Sven Rogge, Head of the UNSW School of Physics. "Ultimately, the structure is scalable to millions of qubits, required for a full-scale quantum processor."

Read more at Science Daily

Why Comet Oxygen is Bad for the Search for Aliens

Europe’s Rosetta mission has made the surprise discovery that Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko contains significant quantities of molecular oxygen.

The discovery rules out O2-forming mechanisms through some chemical interactions at the comet’s surface; this oxygen comes from inside the cometary material before it had a chance to combine with hydrogen to form water molecules, originating from when the comet was first formed billions of years ago inside the gas cloud that was left over after the formation of our sun.

This discovery is perplexing in many ways, primarily because astronomical studies of star-forming clouds have turned up empty-handed in the search for molecular oxygen. If there’s little sign of molecular oxygen in stellar nurseries, where did the oxygen in 67P/C-G come from? It is a highly reactive molecule, meaning it quickly breaks down, combining with other chemicals. Obviously something is amiss, throwing star system evolution theories into a spin — the environment surrounding our primordial sun must have been somehow different than classical theories predict.

“This is an intriguing result for studies both within and beyond the comet community, with possible implications for our models of solar system evolution,” said Matt Taylor, Rosetta’s project scientist, in an ESA news release.

Even though we often look toward comets as being the possible seed for life (after all, they are known to also harbor water ice and chemicals that form the building blocks for life on Earth), the implication that comets (not just 67P/C-G) could be reservoirs of primordial molecular oxygen might actually be a downer for astronomical searches for extraterrestrial biosignatures.

The next generation of space telescopes, such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) that is planned for launch in 2018, will begin a new era of seeking out extraterrestrial life, or, more specifically, biosignatures — gases that are linked with biology as we know it. Imagine if we found an Earth-sized planet orbiting a sun-like star within that star’s habitable zone, with an atmosphere composed of nitrogen, oxygen, methane, carbon dioxide and other trace gases associated with life?

This would be a new era of discovery and may throw up a new class of exoplanet — exoplanets that not only orbit within their stars’ habitable zones, exoplanets that not only are small and (probably) rocky, but exoplanets that possess water and exoplanets that possess biosignatures. Just because a candidate exoplanet possesses all these Earth-like qualities, however, we have to be cautious and 67P/C-G is another lesson why jumping to the “aliens” conclusion would be a really bad idea.

“If we look at exoplanets, our goal of course will be to detect biosignatures, to see if the planet contains life,” said Kathrin Altwegg, Rosetta scientist with the Physics Institute and Center for Space and Habitability at the University of Bern in Germany. “And as far as I know, so far the combination of methane and O2 was a hint that you have life underneath it. On the comet, we have both methane and O2, but we don’t have life. So it’s probably not a very good biosignature.”

Exocomets Gone Wild

In recent years, astronomers have gotten better at probing the inter(exo)planetary space surrounding stars. Our solar system isn’t unique; other stars that are similar to ours have systems of planets and there’s strong evidence for asteroids and comets, particularly around tumultuous young stars that are undergoing some gravitational jiggles.

A few hundred million years after the formation of Earth, the planets weren’t as well behaved as they are now — planetary migrations, particularly by massive planet Jupiter, stirred up the orbits of minor bodies (such as asteroids and protoplanets), causing collisions and likely hurling a few into interstellar space, ejecting them completely from the sun’s gravitational pull.

These gravitational misadventures can be witnessed around other star systems too — dusty clouds reveal continuous asteroid collisions and infrared telescopes have highlighted recent (in cosmic timescales) planetary collisions. The extremely eccentric orbits of some exoplanets are a testament to some gravitational hardship.

And comets, or more aptly “exocomets”, have been detected around other stars. But these systems are often the ones that have the most extreme cometary activity, likely younger stars, going through gravitational growing pains, or perhaps stars’ exo-Oort clouds getting perturbed by another passing star. (Interestingly, the recent interest in the star KIC 8462852 that was discovered to have a peculiar transit signal — causing fascinating speculation about alien megastructures — may have its roots in a cloud of exocomets getting booted from the outermost regions of the star system by another passing star, creating a powerful transit event that we were lucky enough to witness.)

So we already know that our solar system isn’t so unique, and other star systems posses similar celestial objects, only in varying quantities and ages (and therefore activities), but going back to the question of seeking out extraterrestrial biosignatures, how might these familiar objects interfere with our search?

Whether we can see them from afar or not, we can be certain that comets are a common element of most star systems and their signature may obscure the question of life, or at least the detection of biosignatures as we think we know them.

A Recent Encounter

When Comet Siding Spring zipped past Mars in October 2014, we were fortunate enough to have an armada of robotic eyes in that location to observe the spectacle. This unprecedented event was met with unprescedented observations of cometary interactions with a planetary atmosphere. NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft detected sodium, magnesium, aluminum, chromium, nickel, copper, zinc, iron and other metals from the comet’s dust sprinkle through the planet’s upper atmosphere — these elements were deposited there by what would have been a “mind-blowing meteor shower,” remarked study scientists.

So as we look toward other stars and develop the ability to look, with a higher precision, at the spectroscopic signature of the light reflected and absorbed by distant planetary atmospheres, how do we know that atmosphere isn’t being polluted with the debris ejected by passing comets? Could this signal be strong enough to dupe us into thinking we’re seeing alien biospheres, particularly if these comets are of a similar composition to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko?

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 30, 2015

Birth of universe modelled in one of largest cosmological simulations ever run

Researchers are sifting through an avalanche of data produced by one of the largest cosmological simulations ever performed, led by scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory.

The simulation, run on the Titan supercomputer at DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, modeled the evolution of the universe from just 50 million years after the Big Bang to the present day -- from its earliest infancy to its current adulthood. Over the course of 13.8 billion years, the matter in the universe clumped together to form galaxies, stars and planets; but we're not sure precisely how.

These kinds of simulations help scientists understand dark energy, a form of energy that affects the expansion rate of the universe, including the distribution of galaxies, composed of ordinary matter, as well as dark matter, a mysterious kind of matter that no instrument has directly measured so far.

Intensive sky surveys with powerful telescopes, like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the new, more detailed Dark Energy Survey, show scientists where galaxies and stars were when their light was first emitted. And surveys of the Cosmic Microwave Background, light remaining from when the universe was only 300,000 years old, show us how the universe began -- "very uniform, with matter clumping together over time," said Katrin Heitmann, an Argonne physicist who led the simulation.

The simulation fills in the temporal gap to show how the universe might have evolved in between: "Gravity acts on the dark matter, which begins to clump more and more, and in the clumps, galaxies form," said Heitmann.

Called the Q Continuum, the simulation involved half a trillion particles -- dividing the universe up into cubes with sides 100,000 kilometers long. This makes it one of the largest cosmology simulations at such high resolution. It ran using more than 90 percent of the supercomputer. For perspective, typically less than one percent of jobs use 90 percent of the Mira supercomputer at Argonne, said officials at the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility, a DOE Office of Science User Facility . Staff at both the Argonne and Oak Ridge computing facilities helped adapt the code for its run on Titan.

"This is a very rich simulation," Heitmann said. "We can use this data to look at why galaxies clump this way, as well as the fundamental physics of structure formation itself."

Read more at Science Daily

Tiny Bird Fossil Hints at Rapid Post-Dino Diversity

A teeny-tiny fossilized bird skeleton is helping researchers understand the explosive rate at which birds diversified after the dinosaur age, new research shows.

The newfound skeleton dates back to about 62.5 million to 62 million years ago, making it the oldest known modern bird specimen in North America to live after the dinosaur-killing mass extinction, the researchers said. Its mere existence suggests that birds rapidly evolved in the 3 million to 4 million years after the dinosaurs died — much faster than previously thought, they said.

"Birds were explosively diversifying right after the end of the Cretaceous, right after the big mass extinction," said study co-author Tom Williamson, curator of paleontology at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.

Birds have a lengthy past. They began their evolutionary split from dinosaurs during the Jurassic period, about 150 million years ago. But like their scaly relatives, many bird lineages went extinct when a roughly 6-mile-long (10 kilometers) asteroid smashed into Earth about 66 million years ago.

"Maybe a dozen or less lineages of birds survived," said study co-author Daniel Ksepka, curator of science at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut. (Today, there are about 40 lineages of birds that include more than 10,000 living species, he said.)

Without dinosaurs and the other extinct animals in the way, bird diversity suddenly skyrocketed, and the newfound skeleton shows just how quickly it did so, Ksepka told Live Science.

Williamson's 12-year-old twin sons found the delicate skeleton during a fossil dig in northwestern New Mexico in 2007. Williamson later excavated the fragmented bones, which are so small that the bird was likely no larger than a sparrow — smaller than the size of a human fist, he said.

The tiny bones piqued Williamson's interest, so he teamed up with Ksepka and Thomas Stidham, an avian paleontologist at the Institute for Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing. The researchers analyzed the fossils, looking at 120 different size and shape characteristics.

They found that the newfound species (which they have yet to name) is part of an extinct family of birds that is closely related to owls and mouse birds — a group of small, long-tailed birds that live only in sub-Saharan Africa.

If this tiny, newfound bird was already living about 62 million years ago, it suggests that other modern birds, especially its close relatives, developed earlier than previously thought. For instance, the new evidence indicates that the mouse bird evolved some 6 million years earlier than researchers had thought, Ksepka said.

"This bird has some wide implications for the timing of the radiation of modern birds," Ksepka said. But "to pinpoint exactly when these birds are popping up, we really need the fossil record," he added.

In 1980, other researchers, in New Zealand, discovered the fossilized skeleton of a penguin (Waimanu manneringi) that dates to between 60.5 million and 61.6 million years ago.

Read more at Discovery News

Why Do We Carve Pumpkins on Halloween?

Halloween is one of the few times of year where we're encouraged to play with our food -- or at least it's food to those who enjoy eating pumpkin.

But how did pumpkins become so strongly associated with Halloween? And why do we carve pumpkins for Halloween?

Pumpkins are tied to Halloween largely because they've long been associated with the fall. The orange, pulpy fruit has long been used for soups, pies and other pastries. Given the excess of these gourds this time of year, they make a natural addition to Halloween.

As to why we carve jack-o-lanterns for Halloween, it all starts with the legend of Stingy Jack, which dates back to the 17th century, according to the Irish Central.

According to legend, which has different variations depending on who's telling the story, a drunkard known as Stingy Jack asked the devil to have a drink, an offer that was accepted. After the two knocked back a few, the bill came, but neither wanted to pick up the tab. Jack suggested the devil turn into a coin, to which the devil agreed. Jack pocketed the coin instead beside a cross, trapping the devil in his pocket. He only agreed to free the devil under the condition that Jack wouldn't be bothered for a year.

One year later, Jack again tricked the devil into climbing an apple tree for a piece of fruit, trapping the devil in its branches by carving a cross in the tree trunk. Jack only let the devil come down if the devil swore not to take Jack to hell.

When Jack finally died, he was unwelcome in heaven, but he also was refused a place in Hell. Instead, the devil gave him a turnip -- the pumpkin is native to North America after all -- with a piece of burning coal inside to light the way as Jack wanders through purgatory.

In order to discourage the wandering spirit of Stingy Jack from visiting their homes, the Irish carved Jack O'Lanterns -- faces in turnips, beets and potatoes -- to scare him off.

When scores of Irish came to the United States beginning in the 19th century, they brought with them the tradition of carving jack-o-lanterns. Instead of turnips, pumpkins became the preferred medium for sculpting scary faces, and the gourds proved a much more versatile canvas.

Read more at Discovery News

Stonehenge Builders Hosted Barbecues

The ancient builders of Stonehenge may have hosted massive barbecue cookouts where thousands of revelers feasted on meat, new research suggests.

Archaeologists at the Neolithic settlement of Durrington Walls in modern-day southern England, where the builders of Stonehenge likely lived, found evidence that the village hosted open-air meat-roasting parties 4,500 years ago, with animals likely walking to the site for slaughter from regions far and wide.

At the time, thousands of ancient pilgrims may have flocked to the site of Stonehenge to honor their dead, while heading back after hours to party and grill at Durrington Walls, the study authors speculated.

“This is all about conspicuous consumption,” said study co-author Oliver Craig, an archaeologist at the University of York in England.

Stonehenge mystery

The megaliths of Stonehenge were erected between 5,000 and 4,000 years ago on the Salisbury Plain in England. Exactly why the sacred monument was erected, and who erected it, has baffled historians for centuries. The mysterious monument was part of a larger landscape that people had considered sacred for thousands of years, and some experts have proposed that the monument was built because the area was once a sacred hunting ground. Some historians have argued that it was an ancient sundial, part of a ceremonial processional route, or even a sound illusion.

Over the course of nearly a millennium, people progressively added to the structure, with different sizes and types of stones. The biggest stones, called sarsens, are up to 30 feet (9 meters) tall and were likely brought from miles away.

Many archaeologists believe the Stonehenge builders lived just a few miles away at a settlement called Durrington Walls, which now includes a wooden henge, or timber circle, which was first excavated in 1966. The wooden-henge site was likely connected to Stonehenge via a network of dirt roads and a short stretch of the Avon River, archaeologists have proposed. Researchers have also unearthed partially worked sarsen stones at Durrington Walls that are similar to those at Stonehenge. What’s more, the village occupation overlaps with the time period when the sarsen circle was raised.

“The dates are absolutely bang-on,” Craig said. “It’s exactly the same time when the monument was being built.”

But exactly how the builders of Stonehenge lived remains unclear.

Grilling out

In recent years, archaeologists excavating at Durrington Walls have unearthed evidence of habitation, including the floors of at least seven houses, though archaeologists suspect the village once contained up to 200 houses, Craig said.  Unlike Stonehenge, where many people were buried but no one lived, the village at Durrington Walls had no sign of persistent funeral practices.

Instead, the site contains a trove of pottery shards and pits filled with animal bones, suggestive of feasting, the researchers wrote in the October issue of the journal Antiquity.

To get a better picture of Neolithic life in this little village, the team analyzed the chemical composition of fats clinging to the pottery vessels in both the inhabited areas and the ceremonial wooden-henge parts of the complex. Those items found in habitation areas contained mostly animal fats, strengthening the notion that the village hosted ancient barbecue cookouts as a centerpiece of feasting. Meanwhile, the ritual spaces had chemical traces of milk or other dairy products, which may have been ceremonial offerings.

“Given the role of milk in so many cultures around the world as a symbol of purity and as a symbolic link between spiritual and earthly nourishment, it is perhaps no great surprise that such remains were deposited in front of this great timber circle,” the authors wrote in the paper.

The team also analyzed the assemblage of animal bones found at the site. Because every part of the animal was found at the site, the team concluded that the Stonehenge builders walked the animals from off-site locations and slaughtered them on the premises. Based on the isotopes (versions of atoms with different atomic weights), the team concluded that some of the animals came from far away, which would have required a highly organized operation.

The new finds suggest the builders of Stonehenge lived in a well-organized village with a sophisticated culinary system.

Read more at Discovery News

Massive Impact Mystery Revealed in Moon Gravity Maps

New lunar gravity maps point out a stark and unexpected difference between the sizes of ancient asteroids that slammed into the moon billions of years ago and the sizes of the rocky bodies that occupy the in the Main Asteroid Belt today.

Scientists had expected to find buried evidence of several large, potentially “planet killing” asteroid impacts on the moon, as predicted by several computer models. But data collected by NASA’s now-defunct, gravity-mapping GRAIL satellites show only one, previously known, behemoth crater on the moon, the 1,550-mile wide Aitken basin on the lunar south pole, according to a paper published this week Science Advances, a new journal.

Crater size provides an important measure of what was happening in the early days of the solar system. During the so-called Late Heavy Bombardment, which scientists believe occurred about 4 billion years ago -- just a few hundred million years after the solar system’s formation -- Earth and the newly formed inner planets were targets in a celestial shooting gallery.

Computer models suggest the blitz was triggered by Jupiter and the giant planets shifting orbits, causing a barrage of rocky bodies and comets to be gravitationally slingshot inward. But impact basins uncovered by GRAIL don’t fit neatly into those models, astronomer and geophysicist Gregory Neumann, with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, told Discovery News.

“We have more of the medium-size impactors that formed the ‘face’ of the moon, Imbrium (a vast lava-filled crater), and so forth, and we don’t find evidence for larger impactors other than Aitken,” Neumann said. “The implications are enormous.”

“We have been writing this paper since 1996, trying to get an inventory of lunar impact basins from gravity. We haven’t had the gravity field that we’ve needed to do the job until now,” added GRAIL lead scientist Maria Zuber, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Overall, the number of impact basins uncovered by GRAIL was in the ballpark of what most researchers expected, Zuber told Discovery News.

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 29, 2015

Abused Alcoholic Monkey in Chile Beats Addiction

Escaping the clutches of alcoholism is never easy, and it certainly wasn't for Nicolas, who had to go on anti-depressants to cope with the withdrawal symptoms.

But thanks to the timely help of a Chilean treatment center, he has finally been able to get back to what he does best: being a monkey.

Nicolas, a tufted capuchin monkey, was abused in captivity by his owners -- shopkeepers in the Chilean capital Santiago.

They amused themselves by teaching him to smoke cigarettes and giving him alcohol.

"They liked to see his reactions when he drank. He became more aggressive, and that made them laugh," said veterinarian Nicole Rivera Helbig.

Nicolas, whose owners had his fangs removed, was made to drink so often he became addicted.

Today the small brown monkey, who gets camera-shy when journalists film him, is one of about 150 illegally trafficked animals recovering from various forms of abuse at the Primate Rehabilitation Center in Penaflor, on the outskirts of Santiago.

After going through a rehab program similar to the ones human addicts undergo, he is now in recovery.

But his case is not an isolated one.

"Alcohol, cigarettes and drugs are the most common things (abusive owners) give to monkeys, because they see it as a game," said Rivera.

One monkey was even taught to steal jewels from unsuspecting people on the street, while another, an aging female, was subjected to hormone treatments in a laboratory.

With lush trees and plants that seek to emulate the monkeys' natural environment, the rehabilitation center today hosts a range of species, from the gangly spider monkey to the pint-sized squirrel monkey.

Many bear the scars of mutilation, wounds from choke-hold leashes and other signs of abuse.

"Here, monkeys learn that they are monkeys," said the center's founder, Elba Munoz, a life-long animal lover who runs the facility with her family.

"When they're in (abusive) homes they aren't monkeys, they can't develop the normal behaviors of their species. So they're not monkeys. And they're not children either. They're nothing," she told AFP, against the din of her patients' shrieks and howls.

Munoz launched the center in 1994 after adopting a monkey herself.

She said it made her realize the horrific treatment exotic animals face at the hands of traffickers and abusive owners.

Animal trafficking is a persistent problem in Chile, where exotic pets are seen as chic status symbols.

Under Chilean law, trafficking in protected species is punishable by up to 60 days in prison and large fines.

But the penalties do not stop a heavy traffic in exotic animals across the Brazilian, Bolivian, Peruvian and Argentine borders.

Monkeys were all the rage in the 1990s, but then the fashion switched to exotic birds like toucans and macaws.

Read more at Discovery News

Hiker Finds 1,200-year-old Viking Sword in Norway

A hiker has stumbled across a 1,200-year-old Viking sword in remarkably good condition in Norway’s mountains, archeologists said Thursday, in what could be another sign that global warming is benefitting archeology.

The 30-inch (80-centimetre) wrought iron weapon dates “from the beginning of the Viking era, around the end of the eighth century,” according to archeologist Jostein Aksdal in the western town of Bergen where the sword will go on display.

“At this time, all the swords were very valuable because it was a weapon for people of high rank,” Aksdal told AFP.

“Most (Vikings) had to get by with a simple knife or an axe.”

The hiker found the sword three years ago but only recently turned it over to archeologists.

Experts don’t know why the sword would have been left in the mountains.

“Maybe there is a grave there, or was it left there by a trader? Was it hidden there for one reason or another? The only limits are our imagination,” Aksdal said.

“Did someone die there? Or was there a fight, a theft, a murder or something else? We can’t say.”

A more thorough study of the site will be carried out next spring when the snow has melted.

The cold dry weather in the mountainous region of southern Norway probably helped to keep the object in good condition.

There, “temperatures remain below zero for six months of the year,” Aksdal said.

While climate change has many negative implications for planet Earth, it is proving beneficial to archeologists.

“The melting snow means that a growing number of ancient objects are seeing the light of day,” Aksdal said.

From Discovery News

Primate-Ape Common Ancestor Was No King Kong

A newly unearthed species of primate from Spain with both great ape and smaller-bodied ape features has just been placed at the very root of the entire ape family tree.

The newfound primate, Pliobates cataloniae, is believed to have come before the evolutionary divergence of great apes (orangutans, gorillas, chimps and humans) and the so-called lesser apes, gibbons and siamangs, which are much smaller. The primate is described in the journal Science.

The remains of the new primate, which include most of its skull and left arm, were unearthed at a site called Abocador de Can Mata in Catalonia, Spain. They date to 11.6 million years ago, and belonged to an ape that weighed about 11 pounds and was similar in size to the smallest living gibbons.

"Being at the root of apes, including humans as well, means that in terms of kinship, the new genus is more closely related to extant apes and humans than previously known basal apes, such as Proconsul," lead author David Alba of the Institut Catala de Paleontologia Miguel Crusafont (ICP) told Discovery News.

P. catalaloniae, nicknamed "Laia" (a familiar diminutive of "Eulalia," the patron of Barcelona), has a mishmash of features now associated with different types of apes. Its sharp cusped teeth are more primitive, yet its skull and brain-to-body-mass ratio is more similar to that of a great ape.

Taken together, what is known about this small, furry primate suggests that the last common ancestor of lesser and great apes was hardly a King Kong-like beast.

"Pliobates indicates that small-bodied taxa might have played a much more significant role than previously thought in the evolution of modern hominoids (great apes), and that their last common ancestor might have been, in some respects, such as skull shape and body size, more gibbon-like than previously thought."

The actual last common ancestor, which is theorized to have lived well before Laia roughly 17 million years ago, might have also been fairly easy going, although wary. This is indicated by the way that Laia's wrist would have rotated, as well as the structure of its elbow.

Alba explained that "in spite of a similar body size, Pliobates would not have displayed the acrobatic suspensory behaviors of living gibbons, but rather a slow and cautious climbing more similar to that displayed by extant lorises."

Like today's gibbons, however, Laia probably was a frugivore, meaning that it ate mostly ripe and soft fruits.

Its habitat included incredible animal diversity, based on other fossil finds. Nearly 80 mammal species have been identified at the site, in addition to several amphibians, reptiles and birds. Many carnivores, such as big felines known as "false saber-toothed cats," also prowled the environment that during Laia's lifetime was a closed forest with a warm and wet climate.

Laia's location is intriguing, revealing just how fluid primate travel was during the Miocene 23 to 5.3 million years ago. The researchers believe that the ancestors Laia originated in Africa and later dispersed several times into Europe and Asia.

Animals were also traveling from Europe and Asia into Africa, depending on intermittent land bridges and climatic conditions. It is unknown, however, if the ancestors of Laia migrated directly to Europe, or first went to Asia and then made their way to what is now Spain.

In a commentary published in the same journal, Brenda Benefit and Monte McCrossin of New Mexico State University's Department of Anthropology write that Laia represents "the first evidence of the small-bodied ape radiation in Europe." They believe that Laia further may bridge the evolutionary gap between earlier small-bodied African apelike primates and living gibbons.

Laia also shows that when humans dig deeply into their primate roots, a truly diverse bunch of ancestors -- ranging from small and slow to big and agile -- emerges.

Read more at Discovery News

Gang of Young Stars Found Loitering at Galaxy's Core

A group of young stars has been caught loitering near the center of the Milky Way galaxy, a region previously thought to be dominated by a more mature population. Astronomers say the stars form a disk (previously unknown to scientists) that passes through the outer part of the dusty, peanut-shaped bulge at the galactic center.

The thick forest of dust located at the Milky Way's galactic center is a place where even the bright flame of a burning star can be nearly impossible for astronomers to see. But scientists are coming up with new ways to pull back the veil on this shadowy region, and now, new observations using the VISTA telescope have identified this previously undiscovered group of youngsters. Check out this video on Space.com to see where the stars are located relative to Earth and the sun.

The entire group of young stars has not been seen directly, but its presence is deduced by the detection of a group of very bright, very unusual stars called Cepheids. These act as though they're attached to a cosmic dimmer switch; they go through regular swings in their apparent brightness over days or months.

Cepheids are a type of variable star, meaning (just as the name suggests) they change over time. They go through regular oscillations in size and temperature, which cause each star to appear as if it were pulsing, going from a peak brightness to a peak dimness, and back again.

These pulsation periods are extremely regular, and in 1908 the astronomer Henrietta Swann Leavitt discovered that brighter Cepehids had longer pulsation periods, and dimmer Cepheids had shorter periods. With this insight, scientists were able to figure out the actual luminosity of these stars (whereas normally scientists only know how bright the star looks from Earth). That information then made it possible to use Cepheids to measure cosmic distances, making these stars an invaluable cosmic tool.

A co-author on the new paper, Daniel Majaess of Saint Mary's University in Nova Scotia, Canada, said in an email, "I couldn't help think how amazed Henrietta Leavitt would be to learn about the important and diverse role Cepheids would play in shaping our understanding of the cosmos, all of which is invariably tied to her seminal discovery of the Cepheid period-luminosity relationship. From helping define the extragalactic distance scale and expansion rate of the universe, to now-seminal constraints on the nature of the mysterious region encompassing the galactic center."

In the new study, a group of scientists report finding 655 new candidate Cepheid stars in the Milky Way. The data comes from the Vista Variables in the Vía Láctea Survey (VVV), completed by the European Southern Observatory's VISTA telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile between 2010 and 2014. Cepheids are brighter than most nonvariable stars — several thousand times brighter than Earth's sun, for example — which makes these stars easier to spot, said Istvan Dekany of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.

"This discovery is a very powerful demonstration of the recent technological advancement in infrared astronomy," Dekany, who is the lead author on the new paper, told Space.com via email. VISTA's "large field of view and superb near-infrared imaging capability allowed us to penetrate through the vast amount of interstellar dust that is blocking our view towards the inner Milky Way, and probe areas that are invisible in the optical light."

Also necessary to finding the new haul of Cepheids was the amount of time that VISTA spent watching the same area of the sky, which allowed scientists to spot the fluctuations in the Cepheids' brightness.

Among the 655 new Cepheids, 35 are so-called classical Cepheids, and all of them are less than 100 million years old. This makes them juveniles compared to a star like Earth's sun, which is 4.57 billion years old, and only about halfway through its lifetime.

"Classical Cepheids are very rare, 'one in a million' objects," Dekany wrote. Stars are typically born in large groups, so the presence of the young, classical Cepheids indicates that there are other sibling stars nearby. In this way, the scientists say they have traced this new, thin disk of young stars that crosses the galactic bulge.

Scientists previously thought of the galactic bulge as a home to mostly old stars, but finding a population of young stars there is not totally surprising, Dekany said.

Read more at Discovery News

Sun's Magnetic Hole Returns as Solar Storm Tickles Earth

The NOAA issued a solar storm warning at around midday (ET) on Thursday as a coronal mass ejection (CME) made a glancing blow to our planet. At time of writing, the storm was underway, but it ranks as a minor storm, just breaching “S1″ on the Solar Radiation Storm scale. “S5″ is the most extreme classification of solar storm.

The high-energy particles currently buzzing around our planet’s magnetosphere (the global magnetic bubble that deflects these solar ions from penetrating deep into the atmosphere) are only a taster of what’s to come, however.

Solar observatories are currently tracking the same coronal hole that acted as a “fire hose” earlier this month, spraying Earth with a stream of high energy, high-speed solar wind particles. This intense stream of solar plasma triggered some powerful high-altitude aurorae on Oct. 7 and 8, a display that looked most dramatic for the astronauts and cosmonauts on board the International Space Station.

Known as a “coronal hole”, the obvious dark patch in the sun’s magnetic atmosphere (the corona), pictured above, is basically a low density plasma region where “open” magnetic field lines allow plasma to rapidly escape from the sun. Bright, and therefore more dense, regions are populated by “closed” field lines, where plasma remains trapped in the lower corona by magnetic loops that thread from the solar interior and high into the corona.

But now, the same coronal hole has carried out a full rotation of the sun and appears to be in a stable configuration and will likely, once again, spray Earth with solar ions in the first week of November, igniting a similar auroral display as this month.

In addition to this solar drama, according to Spaceweather.com, Earth is currently passing through a fold in the heliospheric current sheet. As the sun rotates, it constantly releases solar wind particles into space. Because it is rotating, these particles stream throughout the solar system in a “spinning lawn sprinkler” pattern. Associated with this particle flow is a current sheet that looks like a spinning warped vinyl record. This sheet represents the boundary where the magnetic polarity switches from “north” to “south”. Passing through the sheet, and therefore passing through an interplanetary polarity change can also trigger geomagnetic storms and increased probabilities of auroral displays.

For the most part, getting hit by CMEs, getting sprayed by the fast solar wind and passing through heliospheric current sheets creates more of an opportunity to see auroral displays -- one of the greatest natural wonders our planet has to offer. But as high-energy solar particles begin interacting with our planet’s magnetosphere, there can be some unpleasant side effects.

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 28, 2015

Chickens Reveal Evolution Much Faster Than Thought

A population of chickens studied over the past 50 years reveals that evolution can happen 15 times faster than previously thought.

The study overturns the popular assumption that evolution is only visible over long time scales. The findings are published in the journal Biology Letters.

“Our observations reveal that evolution is always moving quickly, but we tend not to see it because we typically measure it over longer time periods,” Greger Larson of Oxford University’s Research Laboratory for Archaeology said in a press release.

“Our study shows that evolution can move much faster in the short term than we had believed from fossil-based estimates.”

Larson and his team looked at a well-documented, 50-year pedigree of a population of white Plymouth Rock chickens developed at Virginia Tech by Paul Siegel. The researchers focused on reconstructing how the mitochondrial DNA passed from mothers to daughters within the chicken population.

To do this, they analyzed DNA from the blood samples of 12 chickens of the same generation using the most distantly related maternal lines. (The base population started from seven partially inbred lines.) A selective mating approach within the population started in 1957, with the goal of increasing the size of the chickens.

That effort was certainly successful, as the chickens now exhibit an over tenfold difference in size from their ancestors. This was noted after the chickens were weighed at 56 days old.

“Previously, estimates put the rate of change in a mitochondrial genome at about 2 percent per million years,” Larson said. “At this pace, we should not have been able to spot a single mutation in just 50 years, but, in fact, we spotted two.”

Read more at Discovery News

22 Shipwrecks Found in Single Location in Greece

Underwater archaeologists have discovered 22 shipwrecks around a small Greek archipelago, revealing what may be the ancient shipwreck capital of the world.

Hailed as one of the top archaeological finds of 2015, the discovery was made by a joint Greek-American archaeological expedition in the small Fourni archipelago with an area of just 17 square miles. This is a collection of 13 islands and islets located between the eastern Aegean islands of Samos and Icaria.

"Surpassing all expectations, over only 13 days we added 12 percent to the total of known ancient shipwrecks in Greek territorial waters," Peter Campbell, of the University of Southampton and co-director from US based RPM Nautical Foundation, told Discovery News.

Fourni lies right in the middle of the major east-west crossing route, as well as the north-south route that connected the Aegean to the Levant. Ships traveling from the Greek mainland to Asia Minor, or ships leaving the Aegean for the Levant had to pass by Fourni.

"Ikaria and the west coast of Samos have no harbors or anchorages, so Fourni is the safest place that ships could stop in the area," Campbell said.

It was the first time that an underwater archaeological expedition was organized to the islands. Archaeologists from the Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities and RPM Nautical Foundation worked with local sponge divers, fishermen, and free divers, and were more than surprised by the results.

Funding was provided by the Honor Frost Foundation, a UK charity that supports research in the eastern Mediterranean through an endowment from pioneer maritime archaeologist Honor Frost.

"In a typical survey we locate four or five shipwrecks per season in the best cases," Greek director George Koutsouflakis said.

"We expected a successful season, but no one was prepared for this. Shipwrecks were found literally everywhere."

Over half of the wrecks date to the Late Roman Period (circa 300-600 A.D.). Overall, the shipwrecks span from the Archaic Period (700-480 B.C.) to the Classical (480-323 B.C.) and Hellenistic (323-31 B.C.) through the Late Medieval Period (16th century).

"What is astonishing is not only the number of the shipwrecks but also the diversity of the cargoes, some of which have been found for first time," Koutsouflakis said,

The cargoes reveal long distance trades between the Black Sea, Aegean Sea, Cyprus, the Levant, and Egypt in all those periods. At least three ships carried a cargo of amphoras, or jars, that have not been found previously on shipwrecks.

These are Archaic period (700-480 B.C.) Samian amphoras, Late Roman (3rd-7th centuries A.D.) Sinopean (carrot-shaped) amphoras, and large 2nd century A.D. Black Sea amphoras that carried fish sauce.

The archaeologists mapped each shipwreck using photogrammetry to create 3D site plans. Representative artifacts were raised from each wreck site for scientific analysis and may go on displays in museums once conservation work is over.

According to the team, the volume of wrecks found around Fourni speaks more to the large amount of traffic passing along that route than about the islands being unsafe.

Read more at Discovery News

Mushrooms Promote Downpours

Nature’s cloud seeders are mushrooms, with spores that promote raindrops and may lead to downpours, new research finds.

The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, documents a previously unknown feedback system whereby rain stimulates mushroom growth, and then the fully fruited mushrooms release spores that could result in later rain.

“We can watch big water droplets grow as vapor condenses on (the mushroom spore’s) surface,” said senior author Nicholas Money of Miami University’s Biology Department. “Nothing else works like this in nature.”

Raindrops do form to a lesser degree around many different types of particulate matter, such as pollen. In a similar process, people seed clouds with compounds like silver iodide and solid carbon dioxide (dry ice).

Lead author Maribeth Hassett, Money and co-author Mark Fischer determined that spores from certain mushrooms and other fungi are probably even more potent rainmakers -- and they're not pollutants.

Prior research conducted by Reginald Buller, whom Money refers to as the “Einstein of Mycology,” found that mushroom spores are discharged from their gills by the rapid displacement of fluid on cell surfaces and stimulation from the mushroom’s production of sugars, such as mannitol. A catapult mechanism shoots the moisture-laden spores into the air, where the liquid evaporates.

Droplets reform on the water-attracting spores in humid air, the scientists discovered after watching the process under electron microscopy. Over time, the droplets may evolve into large water drops that may produce rainclouds.

The effect is likely dramatic over rainforests that support very large populations of mushrooms and other fungi. It also could be significant during warmer months of the year above vast northern hemisphere boreal forests.

Any fungi that release their spores via a catapult mechanism can attract moisture, resulting in possible rainclouds, according to the scientists.

“Wild porcini, for example, has spores of this kind; oyster mushrooms too,” Money said. “Sixteen thousand species of mushrooms can do the same trick, so the most abundant species of fungi are likely to have the greatest effect upon cloud formation.”

Money, who is the author of the book “Mushroom,” does not advise growing a bunch of mushrooms to relieve drought conditions.

“Nature works very well when we leave her alone,” he said. “The problems start when we cut down too many trees, burn fossil fuels, and keep multiplying as if there are no limits to human population.”

Read more at Discovery News

Rosetta's Comet Spews Molecular Oxygen Surprise

The comet being studied by Europe’s Rosetta spacecraft contains molecular oxygen, a surprising discovery that will force scientists to rethink details of how the solar system formed.

Scientists expected that the highly reactive gas would have long ago combined with hydrogen, but they found molecular oxygen (abbreviated O2) consistently outgassing from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

“It is the most surprising discovery we have made so far in 67P,” said Rosetta scientist Kathrin Altwegg, with the Physics Institute and Center for Space and Habitability at the University of Bern in Germany.

“The first time we really saw it I think we all went a little bit into denial because ... oxygen was not among the molecules suspected in a cometary coma,” Altwegg said. “All models show that molecular oxygen will react with the hydrogen and will no longer be present.”

The discovery also may complicate an evolving strategy to look for signs of extraterrestrial life by scanning the atmospheres of distant planets for telltale chemical signatures. Molecular oxygen, along with methane, is a key bio-signature of life on Earth.

“If we look at exoplanets, our goal of course will be to detect biosignatures, to see if the planet contains life. And as far as I know, so far the combination of methane and O2 was a hint that you have life underneath it. On the comet, we have both methane and O2, but we don’t have life. So it’s probably not a very good biosignature,” Altwegg said.

Scientists measured the amounts of O2 coming from 67P for months before publishing their results this week in Nature. They found that the levels of O2, relative to water, remained stable as solar heating made the comet more active. That was the proverbial smoking gun that 67P’s molecular oxygen was more than skin deep.

“This oxygen has to be present in the whole body. If it were only on the top surface, we would see a decrease over time of the oxygen-to-H20 (water) ratio,” said André Bieler, a research fellow and Rosetta scientist at the University of Michigan’s Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences.

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 27, 2015

Ancient Cave Lion Cubs Found in Russian Permafrost

The bodies of two extinct cave lion cubs from at least 10,000 years ago have been recovered in Russia's Sakha Republic, almost perfectly preserved in permafrost, The Siberian Times reports.

The cubs (Panthera leo spelaea) would have grown up to resemble modern lions. The species lived during the Pleistocene and were widespread in Europe, Asia and northwestern North America.

It's likely they preyed on animals such as bison, juvenile or hurt mammoths, deer, and horses.

"The find is sensational, no doubt," a source told The Siberian Times. The rare completeness of the find -- rather than just skeleton fragments -- should help scientists glean new details about how the lions lived and why they went extinct about 10,000 years ago.

The Academy of Sciences of Yakutia plans to display the cubs more fully to worldwide media in November.

From Discovery News

Ancient 'Hypercarnivores' Could Take Down Young Mammoths

Nearly a million years ago, a cave hyena could have taken down a 5-year-old mastodon weighing more than a ton. And in packs, the predators may have been equipped to demolish a 9-year-old mastodon weighing a hefty 2 tons.

That's according to new computer models that can calculate how big a target an ancient hypercarnivore, such as the cave hyena and the saber-toothed cat that rely solely on meat for sustenance, might have tackled, researchers say.

These findings show how ancient super-predators far larger than the wolves, lions and hyenas of today once kept megaherbivores such as mammoths, mastodons and giant ground sloths in check, researchers said.

"The probable role these large predators played in maintaining stable ecosystems hasn't been recognized until now," said the study's lead author, Blaire Van Valkenburgh, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Nowadays large herbivores such as elephants and white-tailed deer can have devastating effects on the environment by stripping it of vegetation through overgrazing (eating ground plants) or overbrowsing (eating leaves off trees). This brings up the question of what prevented widespread habitat destruction in the Pleistocene epoch, which lasted from about 1 million to 11,000 years ago. Back then, a much greater diversity of megaherbivores — plant-eaters 1,760 lbs. (800 kilograms) and larger — roamed the Earth.

Modern research suggests that current megaherbivores like elephants are largely immune to predators. However, scientists now find that ancient hypercarnivores had the ability to, and likely did, limit megaherbivore numbers.

The impact of ancient hypercarnivores on past megaherbivores may have been difficult to appreciate because many extinct hypercarnivores such as saber-toothed cats have no close living counterparts, the researchers noted. This makes it difficult to deduce what they might have preyed on.

Still, the researchers noted there was once a much greater diversity of predators than exists today, many of which were significantly larger than their modern analogs — for the ones that do have analogs. This diversity suggests there was once intense competition between these carnivores, perhaps leading some to specialize in hunting megaherbivores.

To deduce the potential impact of ancient hypercarnivores, the researchers analyzed the fossil record to gauge size ranges for Pleistocene predators larger than about 45 lbs. (21 kg). Whereas modern hypercarnivores average 116 to 138 lbs. (53 to 63 kg), fossil hypercarnivores spanned 211 to 297 lbs. (96 to 135 kg) on average.

"Scientists didn't really understand how much bigger some of these Pleistocene predators were than modern ones," Van Valkenburgh told Live Science.

Previous research then helped the scientists develop estimates of an animal's size based on just its first molar. "In the fossil record, the one thing we've got a lot of is teeth," Van Valkenburgh said in a statement.

The researchers next estimated the sizes of ancient mammoths and mastodons. To do so, they developed mathematical formulas for the relationship of shoulder height to body mass from previous research on modern captive elephants.

By looking at the sizes of modern carnivores and the preferred sizes of their victims, the scientists then estimated what sizes of prey ancient predators might have targeted. They concluded that juvenile mastodons and mammoths would have been susceptible to many past hypercarnivores, especially ones that hunted in groups such as prides, clans and packs.

Indirect evidence that ancient predators hunted in larger groups than they do today may come from fossil teeth. Among modern carnivores, when competition over prey is high, prey is more difficult to capture, and carnivores make the most out of carcasses by eating more bone, leading to higher rates of broken teeth. When it came to large predators of the New World during the Pleistocene, tooth fracture rates were as much as three to five times that of their modern counterparts, suggesting higher densities of predators to prey than seen now.

"The group sizes of predators were considerably larger in the past than they are today, which would have made it easier for them to take down large prey," Van Valkenburgh said.

Read more at Discovery News

Fake? DNA Testing Deepens Mystery of Shroud of Turin

Is it a medieval fake or a relic of Jesus Christ? A new analysis of DNA from the Shroud of Turin reveals that people from all over the world have touched the venerated garment.

“Individuals from different ethnic groups and geographical locations came into contact with the Shroud [of Turin] either in Europe (France and Turin) or directly in their own lands of origin (Europe, northeast Africa, Caucasus, Anatolia, Middle East and India),” study lead author Gianni Barcaccia, a geneticist at the University of Padua in Italy and lead author of the new study describing the DNA analysis, said in an email. “We cannot say anything more on its origin.”

The new findings don’t rule out either the notion that the long strip of linen is a medieval forgery or that it’s the true burial shroud of Jesus Christ, the researchers said.

Long-standing debate

On its face, the Shroud of Turin is an unassuming piece of twill cloth that bears traces of blood and a darkened imprint of a man’s body. Though the Catholic Church has never taken an official stance on the object’s authenticity, tens of thousands flock to Turin, Italy, every year to get a glimpse of the object, believing that it wrapped the bruised and bleeding body of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion.

According to legend, the shroud was secretly carried from Judea in A.D. 30 or 33, and was housed in Edessa, Turkey, and Constantinople (the name for Istanbul before the Ottomans took over) for centuries. After crusaders sacked Constantinople in A.D. 1204, the cloth was smuggled to safety in Athens, Greece, where it stayed until A.D. 1225.

However, the Catholic Church only officially recorded its existence in A.D. 1353, when it showed up in a tiny church in Lirey, France. Centuries later, in the 1980s, radiocarbon dating, which measures the rate at which different isotopes of the carbon atoms decay, suggested the shroud was made between A.D. 1260 and A.D. 1390, lending credence to the notion that it was an elaborate fake created in the Middle Ages. (Isotopes are forms of an element with a different number of neutrons.)

But critics argued that the researchers used patched-up portions of the cloth to date the samples, which could have been much younger than the rest of the garment.

What’s more, the Gospel of Matthew notes that “the earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open” after Jesus was crucified. So geologists have argued that an earthquake at Jesus’ death could have released a burst of neutrons. The neutron burst not only would have thrown off the radiocarbon dating but also would have led to the darkened imprint on the shroud.

Global traveler?

In the current study, Barcaccia and his colleagues analyzed dust that they vacuumed from the shroud that contained traces of both plant and human DNA.

The plant DNA came from all over the world, the researchers reported Oct. 5 in the journal Scientific Reports. European spruce trees; Mediterranean clovers, ryegrasses and plantains; North American black locust trees; and rare East Asian pear and plum trees all left their mark on the cloth.

The team also sequenced the human mitochondrial DNA (DNA passed from mother to child) found in dust from the shroud. The genetic lineage, or haplotype, of the DNA snippets suggested that people ranging from North African Berbers to East Africans to inhabitants of China touched the garment.

Still, the strongest genetic signals seemed to come from areas in and around the Middle East and the Caucasus — not far from where Jesus was buried, and consistent with the early folklore surrounding the object.

“One of the most abundant human mitochondrial haplotypes, among those discovered on the shroud, is still very rare in western Europe, and it is typical of the Druze community, an ethnic group that has some origin in Egypt and that lives mainly in restricted areas between Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine,” Barcaccia told Live Science in an email.

The oldest DNA snippets (which tend to be shorter because DNA breaks down over time) are found in many places on the shroud, and come from genetic lineages typically found only in India, Barcaccia said. That finding suggests that the shroud was manufactured in India before somehow making its way to Europe, as Indians had little contact with Europeans at the time of its origin.

“In my opinion, it is hard to believe that in the past centuries, in a historical interval spanning the medieval period, different subjects — such as priests, monks or nuns, as well devotees and other subjects of Indian ancestry — have had the possibility to come in contact with the shroud in France and/or Turin,” Barcaccia said.

Unsettled question

But the new results don’t settle questions about the shroud’s authenticity, said Hugh Farey, editor of the British Society of the Turin Shroud newsletter.

As far as the plant DNA goes, “they’ve done a good job, and they’ve identified a number of species that mean, broadly speaking, nothing at all,” Farey told Live Science.

The new study suffers from the same issues that made past studies of pollen on the shroud unreliable, said Renée Enevold, a geoscientist at the Moesgaard Museum in Denmark who has analyzed ancient pollen in the past.

“The plant DNA could be from many sources, and there is no way of finding the right source,” Enevold told Live Science in an email. “Also, the sub-genus level of taxon that has been reached is not near enough to the species level that is needed to determine the area of origin for each plant.”

The researchers also mistakenly relied on an interpretative method that is used to analyze thousands of grains of pollen in a lake, she said. In that environment, the conditions that led to the deposition of pollen — rain and wind, for instance — are known. In contrast, there are so many unknowns when it comes to describing how dust settled onto the shroud.

“It is very bold and completely wrong to use the same interpretational approach on the presence of DNA — or just a few pollen grains, for that matter — on a shroud that has been man-handled for decades,” Enevold said.

Given that the cloth was publicly displayed for centuries, it’s not surprising that so many people touched it, Farey added. “Apart from ruling out the United States of America as the source for the shroud, it leaves just about everything else open,” Farey said.

As for the possible Indian manufacture, it’s just as likely that Indian DNA got onto the object during its 20th-century testing, he said. To truly determine where the cloth was manufactured, the researchers would need to analyze the DNA from the flax seeds used to make the linen shroud, which was not done, he added.

Read more at Discovery News

Mammals Could Once Regrow Limbs

Salamanders are unique among their four-legged vertebrate brethren in that they can regenerate tails, limbs and even internal organs throughout their lifespan.

Salamanders, in short, can heal themselves.

Could studying the salamander’s spectacular regenerative ability translate into advancements in animal and human medicine? Researchers have long hoped so — and now new findings add key information.

Recent fossil discoveries from the Carboniferous and Permian periods — around 300 million years ago — show that some other amphibian groups may have regenerated legs and tails in a way similar to salamanders, suggesting that all land mammals once carried within them the ability to regenerate limbs.

That ability was lost through time.

“The fossil record shows that the form of limb development of modern salamanders and the high regenerative capacities are not something salamander-specific, but instead were much more widespread and may even represent the primitive condition for all four-legged vertebrates” lead author Nadia Fröbisch said in a release.

“The high regenerative capacities were lost in the evolutionary history of the different tetrapod lineages, at least once, but likely multiple times independently, among them also the lineage leading to mammals.”

Read more at Discovery News

Cassini Zeros in on Daring Dive into Enceladus' Plumes

NASA's Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft is on track for a deep but quick plunge through plumes of water vapor shooting out hundreds of miles into space from the planet’s small, ocean-bearing moon Enceladus.

Cassini, which has been surveying the Saturn system for 11 years, will fly as close as 30 miles above the moon’s southern polar region, about 20 miles closer than any previous pass through the plumes.

Scientists believe the plumes stem from a global liquid ocean that is sealed beneath Enceladus’ icy face. They suspect tidal heating is responsible for the ocean, a process which also may mean the interior of Enceladus is suitable for life.

Cassini does not have life-detection instruments, but the flyby, which will take place at around 1 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, is expected to provide key details that will help scientists assess whether Enceladus is a suitable habitat for life.

For example, scientists want to confirm if molecular hydrogen is present in the plumes, a finding that would support other evidence of hydrothermal activity on the sea floor.

"The amount of hydrogen emission will reveal how much hydrothermal activity is actually occurring ... with implications for the amount of energy that's available -- energy (being) a key ingredient for habitability," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Scientists also want to better understand the chemistry of the material in the plumes, which in addition to water vapor and ice contain organics and a variety of gases, including methane and carbon dioxide. Collecting and analyzing samples from closer to the base of the plumes should yield larger particles and higher concentrations of gas.

"We might find new organics that we haven’t seen previously, or are just at the limits of our detection," Spilker said.

A third goal of the flyby is to provide details on the structure of the plumes, such as whether they jet, formation-style, from cracks in the ice, or if they spray like a curtain along the whole length of the fractures. That information will help scientists determine how long Enceladus has been venting water into space.

The 19,000 mph-flyby will be over in a fraction of a second, but scientists say the drop of water Cassini will collect is enough to spill some of Enceladus’ secrets.

Read more at Discovery News

Virtual Universe to Install 'Gamer Science' Project

EVE Online, the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) that is known for it’s internet spaceships and awesome science fiction visuals, is about to launch a real-world crowdsourcing science project within the game mechanic, using a huge player base to help characterize proteins in the human body.

The initiative, called Project Discovery, will operate as a mini-game within the EVE Online universe, allowing in-game characters, known as “capsuleers,” to overview microscopic images of human cells and tissue. In doing so, the project’s real world scientists hope to capitalize on a captive audience to study a huge quantity of images that require the human eye to identify and categorize certain biological structures.

Mapping human proteins is necessary to find novel treatments and understanding diseases such as cancer. By characterizing where the proteins are located and how they are shaped, scientists can better find these treatments by working out what these proteins do. But it is a huge task that would require an army of scientists to work on.

Citizen science projects depend on public participation to often make groundbreaking discoveries. For example, the Galaxy Zoo project has thousands of participants identifying different classifications of galaxy to seek out cosmic patterns and, along the way, discover some interesting quirks about the human brain.

Recently, participants of the Planet Hunters project, which is an effort to seek out transit signals in NASA Kepler Space Telescope’s data, published a paper with professional astronomers detailing a strange transit signal coming from the star KIC 8462852. Most likely a cluster of comets, there is also some speculation (beyond the paper’s conclusions) that the object may be some kind of alien megastructure. Of course, the likelihood of this being the case is vanishingly slim, but the fact that it was a citizen science project that first identified this oddity, and potentially a phenomenon we’ve never seen before, shows how powerful these crowdsourcing projects can be.

But rather than making it a public effort to identify biological shapes in human cells and proteins Sweden-based scientists of The Human Protein Atlas, the Swiss company Massively Multiplayer Online Science (MMOS) and researchers from Reykjavik University, Iceland, are bridging real-world science into the gaming world by teaming up with CCP Games, the Iceland-based company that develops EVE Online, leveraging gamers’ participation while rewarding them with in-game “loyalty points.”

“By playing this image analysis mini-game, that will give you ISK (the in-game currency) and Sisters of Eve loyalty points, you’ll be helping to improve the data in the Human Protein Atlas,” said CCP Games Executive Producer Andie Nordgren during the opening keynote speech at the EVE Vegas fan conference in Las Vegas on Friday (Oct. 23).

The data for Project Discovery comes from The Human Protein Atlas, which was founded in 2003, and the Stockholm-based group is currently building a publicly-available database of all known proteins found throughout the human body.

According to assistant professor Emma Lundberg, who is compiling the Subcellular Protein Atlas and spoke at EVE Vegas on Sunday (Oct. 25), categorizing these proteins “all comes down to pattern recognition.” Interestingly, Lundberg will have an in-game avatar called “Professor Lundberg,” a virtual scientist of the humanitarian aid organization the “Sisters of EVE,” to tutor capsuleers on how to identify different proteins.

Screenshot of the planned Project Discovery interface featuring real world microscopic images of human cells.
As an avid EVE Online player, I’m really excited to see how this mini-game performs inside the greater EVE universe. EVE is based around a cluster of thousands of jumpgate-connected stars called New Eden and can be populated by tens of thousands of active gamers at any time. It is a sandbox where player-generated content drives the rich diversity of this virtual world.

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 26, 2015

Pupils learn poorly when using most computer programs

"Most digital learning tools used in schools are unsatisfactory and only test the knowledge the pupils already have," says Björn Sjödén, who has reviewed a large number of computer programs in his doctoral thesis "What Makes Good Educational Software?"

"In a pilot study, we examined the top 100 apps within math and Swedish, and barely half of them could be considered digital learning tools according to our standards, only 17% of which provided some sort of informative feedback. Some were so bad that we, as researchers, would never even consider to test them in class," says Björn Sjödén.

One example is the computer program to teach parts of speech, where illiterate 5 year olds do better than those who can read. A 5 year old who quickly guesses multiple times performs better than someone who tries to read and spell correctly.

"Probably more than 90% of the learning tools available online are simply test tools. They provide no explanatory information in addition to the correct answer. The pupils often compete against time, but not towards greater understanding," says cognitive scientist Björn Sjödén.

Björn Sjödén has a background in the computer games industry and is part of the interdisciplinary research group ETG (Educational Technology Group) at the universities of Lund and Linköping in Sweden. In his doctoral thesis, Björn Sjödén defines 'digital learning tools' as "subject-specific, interactive computer programs that provide feedback to achieve a specific learning objective."

In the last 15 years, Sweden has invested heavily in iPads and laptops for pupils, and, compared to other European countries, we are far ahead in terms of IT technology in schools. But the latest report from the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) showed that the students who use the internet the most, both in and outside of school, also perform the worst on the PISA tests (standardized testing).

"However, digital learning tools can provide great educational benefits, as long as they do not become books on a screen, but use their digital advantages. This involves providing good feedback, showing that there are different ways of thinking to reach a goal, and presenting consequences that that cannot be demonstrated in a book," says Björn Sjödén.

For example, when calculating how long it will take you to get to the train station, a miscalculation of 13 minutes will result in the train leaving 13 minutes before you get there, or you having to wait x number of minutes. In chemistry, it is possible to show what happens if you combine different substances -- it may begin to bubble or explode.

Björn Sjödén has had two groups of pupils play a math game for eight weeks. Both groups were to help a computer character -- a digital pupil -- throughout the game. Then one group was to take a digital math test where the same character was featured. The other group took the same math test without their digital friend.

"The pupils that were helping their digital friend were more engaged. They wanted to solve more and harder math problems to help their digital character. Especially low-performing pupils became more motivated. This knowledge should be utilised in digital learning tools," says Björn Sjödén.

Read more at Science Daily

Revolutionary new weapon in air pollution fight

An electron microscope image of the NO2 sensitive layer made of atomically thin flakes of tin disulphide, magnified 500,000 times.
People could soon be using their smartphones to combat a deadly form of air pollution, thanks to a potentially life-saving breakthrough by researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.

Experts have developed the first low-cost and reliable method of detecting nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a significant air pollutant than contributes to more than seven million deaths worldwide each year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The gas increases the risk of respiratory disorders in children and can severely affect the elderly in particular.

Project leader Professor Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, from RMIT's Centre for Advanced Electronics and Sensors, said the negative impact of nitrogen dioxide could be prevented by access to personalised, highly selective, sensitive and reliable monitoring systems that could detect harmful levels of the gas early.

"The revolutionary method we've developed is a great start to creating a handheld, low-cost and personalised NO2 sensor that can even be incorporated into smartphones," Kalantar-zadeh said.

"Not only would it improve the quality of millions of people's lives, but it would also help avoid illness caused by nitrogen dioxide poisoning and potentially even death."

The main contributors of nitrogen dioxide are the burning of fossil fuels, particularly in coal-fired power stations and diesel engines (as highlighted by the recent Volkswagen emissions scandal), which can impact on the health of people in urban areas.

"A lack of public access to effective monitoring tools is a major roadblock to mitigating the harmful effects of this gas but current sensing systems are either very expensive or have serious difficulty distinguishing it from other gases," Kalantar-zadeh said.

"The method we have developed is not only more cost-effective, it also works better than the sensors currently used to detect this dangerous gas."

Kalantar-zadeh developed the new method for sensing nitrogen dioxide together with fellow RMIT researchers and colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The sensors, which operate by physically absorbing nitrogen dioxide gas molecules onto flakes of tin disulphide, not only increase the level of sensitivity to accepted EPA standards, but outperform any other nitrogen dioxide sensing solutions on the market.

Read more at Science Daily

First Baby Giant Squid Caught Off Japan

For the first time, baby giant squid have been caught and examined.

New research in the journal Marine Biodiversity Records details findings out of Japan's University of Hyogo about three young giant squid (Architeuthis dux).

The three animals were caught by fishermen off Japan's coastal waters (two were found dead in fishing nets in the southwestern Sea of Japan; the third was caught off the coast of Kyushu Island, in southern Japan) between April and June of 2013. They range in size from 14 to 33 centimeters (5.5 to 11.8 inches).

The baby squid are about the same size as non-giant adult squid. The researchers identified them as baby giants based on the length of their arms and distinctive characteristics about their suckers, according to Motherboard.

"This is the first time in the world that such young giant squid were found, and it has helped us understand what they are like this early in their life stage," study co-author Toshifumi Wada told The Wall Street Journal.

Giant squid can grow to more than 10 meters (33 feet). They live in the deepest of waters, and sightings of them are rare. Next to nothing, then, is known about their lives as newborns and juveniles.

Fortunately for the scientists, aquarium staff who'd been in possession of the animals contacted Wada for help identifying the unusual creatures, and he determined they were actually the first-ever babies to be caught, Motherboard reported.

From Discovery News

Oldest ABCs Primer Found on Ancient Pottery

The world’s oldest-known alphabet primer was found in a list of ancient Egyptian words inscribed on a shard of pottery from the 15th century B.C., according to a new study.

Called ostracon, the flake of limestone was unearthed near Luxor over 20 years ago. British Egyptologist Nigel Strudwick found it as he excavated Theban Tomb 99, which was the burial of Senneferi, a 18th Dynasty official who lived under the reign of Tuthmose III.

The ostracon contains an incomplete list of words written in hieratic, the cursive script used in ancient Egypt for some 3,000 years. The instructional list of words in alphabetical order is called an abecedary.

The text remained obscure until recently, when it was deciphered by Ben Haring, a Dutch Egyptologist working at Leiden University.

“The abecedary is basically a list of words ordered by their first consonant sounds. The order is not the ABC of modern western alphabets, but Halaḥam (HLḤM), the order known from the ancient Egyptian, ancient Arabian and classical Ethiopian scripts,” Haring told Discovery News.

Haring made his discovery in the context of a research project on Ancient Egyptian identity marks funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO).

He found that in the 3,500-year-old abecedary, the first string of characters on the obverse is for Egyptian hy-hnw “to rejoice.”

“The words should be read from right to left. To the left is a column of individual signs that appear to be abbreviations of the words. Very possibly they even render the initial consonants of the words, which would make them alphabetic signs,” Haring said.

Indeed, the character at the far left represents a rejoicing man and thus belongs to the word.

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 25, 2015

Halloysite: Finally a promising natural nanomaterial?

a) This image shows loading clay nanotubes with drug from saturation solution. b,c) Mixing with drug solution, pumping out air, and pulling in drug molecules, washing, and loaded tubes.
Yuri Lvov and Rawil Fakhrullin of Bionanotechnology Lab, Kazan Federal University, in cooperation with Wencai Wang and Liqun Zhang of State Key Laboratory of Organic-Inorganic Composites, Beijing University of Chemical Technology have recently presented in Advanced Materials a broad scope of application of halloysite clay tubes .

Halloysite is a natural biocompatible nanomaterial available in thousands of tons at low price, which makes it a good candidate for nanoarchitectural composites. In chemical composition they are similar to kaolin and can be considered as rolled kaolin sheets with inner diameter of 10-20 nm, outer diameter of 40-70 nm and a length of 500-1500 nm. The internal side of halloysite is composed of Al2O3 while the external is mainly SiO2.

The inner lumen of halloysite may be adjusted by etching to 20-30% of the tube volume and used as natural nanocontainer for loading and sustained release of chemical agents. These ceramic nanotubes form a "skeleton" in the bulk polymers, enhancing the composite strength and adhesivity. These "skeleton bones" may be loaded with active compounds, like real bones are loaded with marrow, providing additional functionality for polymers (antimicrobial, anti-aging, anticorrosion, and flame-retardancy).

Halloysite tubes can encase enzymes for longer storage, higher temperature, and extended functionality, while the tube's opening allows for delivery of small substrate molecules into the tube interior for biocatalysis. Loading DNA into halloysite is another prospective research direction. As functional nanoblocks, halloysite tubes may be used for building on biological cells, like the formation of spore-like microbial shells providing microorganisms with additional functions.

In vitro and in vivo studies on biological cells and worms indicate the safety of halloysite, and furthermore, it can store and release molecules in a controllable manner, making these tiny containers attractive for applications in drug delivery, antimicrobial materials, self-healing polymeric composites, and regenerative medicine.

Read more at Science Daily

Wood-based alternatives in chemistry

Researchers at The University of Alabama, in collaboration with colleagues in Germany, have developed a new way to use wood or other kinds of biomass to make chemical materials without relying on the usual non-renewable petrochemical starting materials.

The idea, the researchers said, is to produce everyday products from renewable resources while remaining economically competitive and without harming the environment. Toward that end, researchers, including Dr. Anthony J. Arduengo III, the Saxon Professor of Chemistry at UA, show that traditional petroleum-based products can be synthesized in a way that recruits all the carbon atoms of a molecular skeleton exclusively from wood-based raw materials.

Arduengo and his associates have collaborated with researchers at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. They have established an international collaborative research consortium StanCE, or Sustainable Technology for a new Chemical Economy, to develop and implement their innovations.

“This is an exciting result and an important step both technologically and economically,” Arduengo said. “Imagine chemical synthesis as constructing important materials for our modern life from Lego©-like building blocks.”

Conventional petrochemistry provides a limited variety and shape of these building blocks, he said. Considerable energy and effort must be invested to re-shape the basic building blocks from petroleum into the various units needed to build more complicated objects.

“Wood, a renewable resource that’s easily accessible, offers the opportunity to directly harvest a wide range of building blocks with diverse chemistries and structures that can then be used to build materials for the modern world,” he said.

Arduengo sees the use of wood in the chemical industry as a game-changer.

“Just imagine a modern ‘oil boom’ or ‘gusher age’ that is not based on oil and petrochemicals, but rather the renewal resource of wood – a ‘Xylochemical’ revolution or boom, ” he said. “Alabama, with its extensive well-managed forests, is center stage for this new technological and economic boom.”

The UA team, led by Arduengo, focuses on fundamental chemical reactivity and structure at a molecular level and strives to make the most effective use of the inherent properties of wood ingredients for the new sustainable chemistry.

The group, which includes Dr. Jason Runyon, UA visiting scientist in chemistry, is supported by initial funding from a UA Research Grants Committee Award through the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development, which helped establish the StanCE consortium. The collaboration with the German team, led by Dr. Till Opatz, began two years ago after discussions at a conference in Goslar, Germany, Arduengo said.

“As we began discussing chemical challenges in the modern world, it quickly became apparent that many of us had complementary skill sets and interests that enabled us to tackle some of today’s grand technological and social challenges,” he said. “Not only did our skill-sets mesh well, but our varied backgrounds in industry and academics facilitate novel conceptual approaches to these problems. Out of this diverse mix, our StanCE consortium was born.”

The StanCE consortium brings together leading researchers from the United States, Germany, Japan and Canada to address industrial, technological and environmental issues facing this transition to a sustainable chemical infrastructure.

Read more at Science Daily