Nov 7, 2015

Rare, dying, giant radio galaxy 9 billion light years away

This is an optical image with radio lobes (in yellow-red). The supermassive black hole in the red galaxy at the centre (zoomed in inset) has led to the formation of the giant radio lobes.
A team of astronomers working at the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA, TIFR), Pune have discovered, using the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT), an extremely rare galaxy of gigantic size. This galaxy -- located about 9 billion light years away towards the constellation Cetus -- emits powerful radio waves and has an end to end extent of a whopping 4 million light years! Such galaxies with extremely large 'radio size' are appropriately called giant radio galaxies.

How do galaxies with an optical size of a hundred thousand light years produce radio emission several million light years in extent? It is argued that the presence of a super massive black hole at the centre of the galaxy drives large scale jets of hot plasma in diametrically opposite directions which eventually give rise to large radio lobes (see the image). While radio galaxies with size less than a million light years are common, giant radio galaxies are extremely rare, even more so, at large cosmic distances where only a handful have been discovered so far. This newly discovered galaxy known by its scientific name 'J021659-044920' is the newest member of this elite group.

Under some special circumstances, the central black hole may stop producing the radio jet, and then the bright radio lobes fade away, within a few million years, due to lack of replenishment. What makes J021659-044920 special, is that it has been caught in this dying phase, where the radio jet appears to have switched off and the radio lobes have started fading. The fading of the lobes is caused by their losing energy in two ways, one, by emitting radio waves which show up as the gigantic radio lobes and two, by transferring energy to photons from the cosmic microwave background via a process known as inverse Compton scattering. This latter mechanism leads to faint X-ray emission, which is seen to emanate from the radio lobes of this galaxy. Such dying radio objects are best studied using a low frequency radio telescope such as the GMRT. The GMRT, the world's largest radio telescope facility operating at low radio frequencies, is an array of 30 fully steerable, 45 metre diameter antennas, spread out over a 30 km region around Khodad, near Narayangaon town of Pune district in western India. The GMRT was built and is operated by National Centre for Radio Astrophysics of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and has been in operation since 2002.

For their analysis, the team combined their GMRT observations with previous observations made with a slew of international ground and space based telescope facilities -- XMM-Newton Space Telescope in X-ray, the Japanese Subaru telescope in optical, UK's Infrared Telescope in near-infrared, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope in mid-infrared and the Jansky Very Large Array (USA) in high frequency radio bands. By using data from multiple telescopes spanning across the electromagnetic spectrum, they were able to carry out a comprehensive and incredibly detailed analysis of the physical conditions around this distant galaxy. The properties of the magnetic field in the region between galaxies in the distant universe can be understood with these observations.

From Science Daily

Hubble uncovers the fading cinders of some of our galaxy's earliest homesteaders

Using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to conduct a "cosmic archaeological dig" at the very heart of our Milky Way galaxy, astronomers have uncovered the blueprints of our galaxy's early construction phase.

Peering deep into the Milky Way's crowded central hub of stars, Hubble researchers have uncovered for the first time a population of ancient white dwarfs -- smoldering remnants of once-vibrant stars that inhabited the core. Finding these relics at last can yield clues to how our galaxy was built, long before Earth and our sun formed.

The observations are the deepest, most detailed study of the galaxy's foundational city structure -- its vast central bulge that lies in the middle of a pancake-shaped disk of stars, where our solar system dwells.

As with any archaeological relic, the white dwarfs contain the history of a bygone era. They contain information about the stars that existed about 12 billion years ago that burned out to form the white dwarfs. As these dying embers of once-radiant stars cool, they serve as multi-billion-year-old time pieces that tell astronomers about the Milky Way's groundbreaking years.

An analysis of the Hubble data supports the idea that the Milky Way's bulge formed first and that its stellar inhabitants were born very quickly -- in less than roughly 2 billion years. The rest of the galaxy's sprawling disk of second- and third-generation stars grew more slowly in the suburbs, encircling the central bulge like the brim of a giant sombrero.

"It is important to observe the Milky Way's bulge because it is the only bulge we can study in detail," explained Annalisa Calamida of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, the science paper's lead author. "You can see bulges in distant galaxies, but you cannot resolve the very faint stars, such as the white dwarfs. The Milky Way's bulge includes almost a quarter of the galaxy's stellar mass. Characterizing the properties of the bulge stars can then provide important information to understanding the formation of the entire Milky Way galaxy and that of similar, more distant galaxies."

The Hubble survey also found slightly more low-mass stars in the bulge, compared to those in the galaxy's disk population. "This result suggests that the environment in the bulge may have been different than the one in the disk, resulting in a different star-formation mechanism," Calamida said.

The observations were so sensitive that the astronomers also used the data to pick out the feeble glow of white dwarfs. The team based its results on an analysis of 70 of the hottest white dwarfs detectable by Hubble in a small region of the bulge among tens of thousands of stars.

These stellar relics are small and extremely dense. They are about the size of Earth but 200,000 times denser. A teaspoon of white dwarf material would weigh about 15 tons. Their tiny stature makes them so dim that it would be as challenging as looking for the glow of a pocket flashlight located on the moon. Astronomers used the sharp Hubble images to separate the bulge stars from the myriad stars in the foreground of our galaxy's disk by tracking their movements over time. The team accomplished this task by analyzing Hubble images of the same field of 240,000 stars, taken 10 years apart. The long timespan allowed the astronomers to make very precise measurements of the stars' motion and pick out 70,000 bulge stars. The bulge's stellar inhabitants move at a different rate than stars in the disk, allowing the astronomers to identify them.

The region surveyed is part of the Sagittarius Window Eclipsing Extrasolar Planet Search (SWEEPS) field and is located 26,000 light-years away. The unusually dust-free location on the sky offers a keyhole view into the "downtown" bulge. Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys made the observations in 2004 and 2011-2013.

"Comparing the positions of the stars from now and 10 years ago we were able to measure accurate motions of the stars," said Kailash Sahu of STScI, the study's leader. "The motions allowed us to tell if they were disk stars, bulge stars, or halo stars."

The astronomers identified the white dwarfs by analyzing the colors of the bulge stars and comparing them with theoretical models. The extremely hot white dwarfs appear bluer relative to sun-like stars. As white dwarfs age, they become cooler and fainter, becoming difficult even for sharp-eyed Hubble to detect.

Read more at Science Daily

Nov 6, 2015

Birchbark Message Tells Story of Medieval Traveler

A sad tale of a Medieval traveler has emerged from the historical center of Moscow as archaeologists unearthed a rare letter written on birch bark.

Dated to the 14th century, the manuscript was found in a district close to Red Square by a team of the Russian Academy of Sciences who dug 13 feet down. They retrieved hundreds of objects that provide new information about life in Moscow in the Middle Ages.

The letter, by an unknown author, is addressed to “Sir” and recounts the troubled trip of an unnamed individual.

Birch bark as writing surface was popular in Medieval Russia. The first birch bark manuscripts were found during archaeological excavations in Velikiy Novgorod in the 1950s.

Since then, more than 1,000 manuscripts have been discovered in Novgorod, dating from the 11th to the 14th centuries. The find suggests the humble Medieval inhabitants there had an unusually high level of literacy.

Letters were produced by scratching the inner surface of a strip of birch bark; texts included everything from “I owe you” notes and birthday greetings to contracts, letters and children’s drawings.

While birch bark manuscripts were found in large numbers in Novgorod, only three letters have been discovered in Moscow until now and only one contains a detailed text, which was mainly an inventory.

The newly found letter, the fourth found in Moscow, was written by an unknown author and was addressed to “Sir.”

The manuscript recounts the misfortunes of an unnamed individual. Headed to Kostroma, a city about 217 miles north east of Moscow, the individual and other people were detained by someone, “who had the right to do so,” possibly an official.

The authority took from the unlucky traveler a lot of money. We do not know what happened afterwards, but it seems unlikely the penniless travelers reached their destination.

Read more at Discovery News

New Clues Point to Secret Chamber in King Tut Tomb

The investigation of King Tut’s tomb to find secret chambers ended today with promising results, according to a statement from Egypt’s antiquity ministry.

A team from Cairo University’s Faculty of Engineering and the Paris-based organization Heritage, Innovation and Preservation used infrared thermography to detect the temperature of the walls in the tomb. Preliminary analysis indicates the presence of an area different in its temperature than the other parts of the northern wall.

“The experiment lasted for 24 hours,”  Egypt’s Antiquities minister Mamdouh Eldamaty said in a statement.

In order to certify the results, Eldamaty said, a number of experiments will be carried out to determine more accurately the area showing the difference in temperature.

“The team was very impressed and full of emotion to spend the night in the tomb,”  Mehdi Tayoubi, founder of the Paris-based Heritage Innovation Preservation Institute, told Discovery News.

The non-invasive search follows a claim by Nicholas Reeves, a British Egyptologist at the University of Arizona, that high-resolution images of the tomb’s walls show “distinct linear traces” pointing to the presence of two still unexplored chambers behind the western and northern walls of the tomb.

According to Reeves, one chamber contains the remains, and possibly the intact grave goods, of 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.

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

Reeves’s claim  about Nefertiti has stirred  a debate among Egyptologists and mummy experts.

An international team of researchers led by mummy expert Frank Rühli, director of the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich,  cautioned last month about the possibility of Nefertiti being the occupant of the secret crypt.

They argued Nefertiti  might be the already found Younger Lady, a mummy found in 1898 by archaeologist Victor Loret in tomb KV35 in the Valley of the Kings.

Nefertiti is labelled in inscriptions to be Tutankhamun’s mother; genetic analyses identified the “Younger Lady” as the mother of Tutankhamun.

Such evidence would automatically rule out Nefertiti, the researchers concluded.

If a mummy is found, it could belong to the elusive pharaoh Smenkhkare, or to queen Meritaton, the full or half sister of Tutankhamun, they added.

It is also possible that nothing at all will be found behind those walls, they said.

Investigations in King Tut’s tomb are expected to continue.

Read more at Discovery News

Alien Megastructure? SETI Spies No Intelligent Signals

After all the public excitement surrounding the star KIC 8462852 and its weird transit signal as spotted by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, the SETI Institute decided to expedite plans to point a powerful radio antennae at the nearby star in the hope of detecting any artificial transmissions emanating from that location. Sadly (or not, depending on how you view the discovery of an intelligent alien civilization living in our cosmic backyard), the first pass drew a blank.

So, is this “case closed” for the possibility of an alien megastructure around KIC 8462852? Well, not really, but it does make a vanishingly slim chance of aliens even more vanishingly slim.

But before we discuss what SETI has (or, indeed hasn’t) found, a quick recap.

Aliens! Or Not

In September, astronomers and citizen scientists published a paper describing a “bizarre” transit signal recorded by Kepler, outlining a few possible causes for the phenomenon around KIC 8462852 — also informally known as “Tabby’s Star.” On 2 occasions during Kepler’s prime observing run, huge transits were detected around the star.

Usually, Kepler will detect periodic dips in star brightness and the amount of dimming relates to the size of the exoplanet passing in front of the star. Typically, for a small exoplanet, this dip in brightness is of the order of a couple of percent. But the two transit signals detected around Tabby’s Star were dramatic. The first transit dipped by 15 percent, but the second transit (that consisted of several objects passing in front of the star over several weeks) dipped to as much as 22 percent. The strength of the transit and its multi-object nature was unprecedented.

Many natural phenomena were explored and the researchers eventually focused on the possibility of a swarm of comets as being the most likely culprit. A nearby star, they argued, may have destabilized comets in Tabby’s Star’s Oort cloud (a hypothetical region surrounding a star containing countless billions of icy bodies), nudging a huge number of comets toward the star, blocking its light from view.

This explanation certainly fits many of the transit’s characteristics, but during an interview with The Atlantic, astronomer Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, discussed an alternate avenue of study that he wanted to investigate. On many occasions since, Wright and other astronomers have cautioned against jumping to the alien conclusion — after all, there are other, more likely natural explanations — but when faced with an unprecedented transit signal, why not explore the most extreme possibilities?

As with any speculation about aliens, the slim possibility of this Kepler signal being artificial caused an eruption of interest. While many scientists vented frustration at the frenzy of interest surrounding an unlikely scenario, whether they liked it or not, suddenly everyone was interested in Kepler science and hypotheses of an advanced alien civilization living in our galaxy. In my personal view, so long as the discussion remained planted firmly in the science, and not conspiracy theories and nonsense, this was no bad thing — especially as professional scientists were planning on investigating the possibility themselves.

Allen Telescope Array

So, if not comets, what could be causing the bizarre transit signal? Taking the age of our galaxy into consideration, it’s not such a stretch to think that if life is common in the Milky Way, perhaps there’s a vastly more advanced civilization to our own out there that has the ability to build huge solar energy collectors, say, around their host star. This speculation would certainly fit a Type II Kardashev civilization that has the ability to build huge megastructures around a star (much like a Dyson Sphere) to collect huge quantities of energy. Perhaps Kepler’s transit signal was several vast solar collectors passing in front of the star?

While it’s fun to think up all the possible structures an intelligent alien race might build, seeing a star dim a couple of times is hardly proof that aliens are out there. It’s not even evidence, especially when Occam’s Razor reminds us that there are other explanations out there with far fewer assumptions (i.e. the exocomet explanation). But in the interest of using Tabby’s Star as a point of scientific interest and respond to the huge public interest in the star, SETI Institute scientists turned to the their Allen Telescope Array (ATA) to “listen in” on the location.

The ATA is located a few hundred miles north of San Francisco, Calif., in the Cascade Mountains, consisting of 42 6-meter diameter radio antennae. The ATA was aimed at Tabby’s Star for 2 weeks and listened out for 2 specific radio signals. The first signal, of a narrow-band 1 Hz bandwidth, might be used as a “hailing signal”, according to the SETI Institute, for advanced alien civilizations to announce their presence. The second signal may be of a more broad-band emission that could signify an alien presence through the leakage of beamed propulsion in the star system. Beamed propulsion is one hypothetical method that could be used to power spacecraft in the future, so if there’s an alien megastructure around that star, there would likely be spacecraft too, possibly sporting this propulsion method.

“This is the first time we’ve used the Allen Telescope Array to look for relatively wide-band signals, a type of emission that is generally not considered in SETI searches,” said SETI Institute scientist Gerry Harp in a news release.

But on this first 2 week pass, the ATA didn’t detect either type of signal emanating from Tabby’s Star:
Analysis of the Array data show no clear evidence for either type of signal between the frequencies of 1 and 10 GHz. This rules out omnidirectional transmitters of approximately 100 times today’s total terrestrial energy usage in the case of the narrow-band signals, and ten million times that usage for broad band emissions. — SETI Institute

Slim Possibilities

This finding provides an upper limit on our ability to detect these most powerful signals — if these hypothetical aliens possess the energy required to build vast structures around stars, they will certainly have the energy required to generate such powerful beacons. But say if they’re not deliberately transmitting? Well, that might explain why we’re not hearing the narrowband “hailing” signal. Say if there’s little activity around these structures? That might explain why there’s little radio “leakage” from the star. What if these are structures left in orbit by a bygone alien civilization? Perhaps they’re monuments of an empire that is long gone. A fascinating thought.

Once again, we’re speculating about what these hypothetical aliens are or are not, but the SETI investigation certainly rules out certain scenarios.

Read more at Discovery News

Complex skeletons evolved earlier than realized, fossils suggest

The first animals to have complex skeletons existed about 550 million years ago, fossils of a tiny marine creature unearthed in Namibia suggest.

The find is the first to suggest the earliest complex animals on Earth -- which may be related to many of today's animal species -- lived millions of years earlier than was previously known.

Until now, the oldest evidence of complex animals -- which succeeded more primitive creatures that often resembled sponges or coral -- came from the Cambrian Period, which began around 541 million years ago. Scientists had long suspected that complex animals had existed before then but, until now, they had no proof.

Genetic family tree data suggested that complex animals -- known as bilaterians -- evolved prior to the Cambrian Period. The finding suggests that bilaterians may have lived as early as 550 million years ago, during the late Ediacaran Period.

The study suggests that complex animals existed long before a period in the planet's history -- known as the Cambrian explosion -- during which most major animal groups evolved.

The team studied fossils of an extinct marine animal -- known as Namacalathus hermanastes -- which was widespread during the Ediacaran Period. The fossils are remarkably well preserved and reveal that the species possessed a rigid skeleton made of calcium carbonate -- a hard material from which the shells of marine animals are made. The complex skeletal structures are similar to those of living creatures that dwell at the bottom of the sea, the team says.

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council. The research was carried out in collaboration with Lomonosov Moscow State University.

Read more at Science Daily

The Mystery of the Arctic’s Toxic, Lethargic Shark

Don't let the motion blur fool you—the Greenland shark is a comically slow swimmer. That blur is probably just the photographer's creative touch. Nice work, Doug.
In Iceland they have this delicacy called hákarl that recently initiated diners describe as “the worst tasting food on Earth,” “the world’s foulest food,” and “the worst thing I have ever had in my mouth.” To say it smells like a urinal would be generous. Not that anyone should be surprised, considering hákarl is rotten shark meat fermented in the dirt or open air for months on end.

Hákarl is no ordinary delicacy, but then again, it comes from no ordinary fish: The Greenland shark has toxic flesh (hence the detoxification via fermentation). It’s also one of the most mysterious, weirdest, and largest sharks on Earth. It dives thousands of feet deep in arctic waters and grows to over 20 feet long. It’s also comically slow, averaging less than a single mile per hour—yet, bafflingly, it seems to be an apex predator.

For the Greenland shark, pretty much everything is on the menu. Surveys of their stomach contents have revealed squid, fish, and whale meat. In 2013, two dudes in Canada found a beached Greenland shark that may have been choking on a piece of, um, moose.

The Greenland shark is a scavenger, and it certainly has the teeth for it. “The upper jaw has sharply pointed teeth, almost like needles, and those are really well adapted for sinking into flesh and holding onto it,” says marine biologist Gregory Skomal of Massachusetts Marine Fisheries. “The lower jaw has teeth arranged in rows that look very similar to what one would see on a saw used to cut wood, and so they’re really nice cutting tools.” The Greenland shark is probably getting a grip on a carcass with its upper teeth, then twisting to gouge out a chunk of flesh with the lower teeth.

But that mouth could also do the shark well for hunting live prey. Consider the cookiecutter shark, which has similar dentition. This small, zippy species gouges flesh like the Greenland, only it targets living fish and whales and at least one unfortunate man on a swim between Hawaiian islands—at night (I mean, I’m not his father, but come on). The Greenland may be doing the same to marine mammals in the arctic. Scientists have photographed beluga whales, for instance, with big plugs of flesh taken out of them.

Then we have the curious happenings on Sable Island off the coast of Nova Scotia. Seals here have shown up with corkscrew-shaped wounds spiraling down their flesh, at times with half their bodies stripped of skin and blubber, like peeled potatoes. Some scientists say it could be the work of Greenland sharks, others blame boat propellers. No one has ever caught a shark in the act, so the culprit remains a mystery.

“I have personally been in the water with Greenland sharks and handled them like they were inanimate objects,” Skomal says. “They’re incredibly docile and don’t appear to have any capacity to accelerate and capture a seal.” But consider the fact that seals can sleep in the water, bobbing with just their heads above the surface (known as “bottling,” because why not), to avoid polar bears. That’d make them vulnerable to Greenland sharks.

Lazy, But at Least in a Productive Way

If you ask biologist Peter Bushnell of Indiana University, South Bend, the seals may not even need to be sleeping for the Greenland shark to snag them. Given the presence of so much fish in the shark’s stomach contents—and often a total lack of mud, which you’d expect to find in something that’s just scavenging on the seafloor—he has no doubts it’s an active predator.

When a sheet of ice covers the sea, seals pop in and out of holes to hunt fish—a behavior the Greenland sharks may be exploiting. “I have a feeling they can slowly meander their way up to an ice hole and just park themselves for a couple of days,” Bushnell speculates. “And a naive seal plops itself in and there it is.” Thus could a lethargic predator manage to take down a spry victim like a seal while barely exerting itself.

Live fish, too, may be food for the Greenland shark, Bushnell reckons. The shark’s jaws are somewhat extensible, and like a lot of fish (oh, and a certain 6-foot-long salamander), the Greenland may be able to rapidly open its maw to create a suction effect. Imagine the shark sneaking up on a school of cod in the deep dark sea: “With a little bit of a lunge forward and a suck, you’ve got dinner,” Bushnell says.

What makes this even more incredible? A good number of Greenland sharks can’t see worth a damn, thanks to a parasitic crustacean that bores into their eyeballs and feeds on their corneas because there is no justice in the world. It’s all the rage, really: One study found that 100 percent of Greenland sharks caught near Svalbard, Norway had parasites attached to their peepers.

The parasite can severely damage the eye, either impairing the shark’s vision or snatching it away altogether. But by virtue of being a shark, the Greenland can fall back on its fantastic sense of smell—and indeed it has a massive olfactory bulb in its brain.

Yep, that’s a parasitic crustacean that’s latched on to a Greenland shark’s eyeball. Remember that time you complained about having to put contacts in every day?
Yet if Greenland sharks are indeed going after slumbering seals, or ones that drop into the water right in front of their faces, maybe vision isn’t all that important. On the flipside, though, the Greenland’s “big nose is really effective at finding scent trails from dead animals,” says Skomal, “and therefore supports the notion that it’s evolved to be a deep-water scavenger.”

Clearly, the ecology of the Greenland shark is still somewhat of a riddle. The active predation part is a particular head-scratcher. “It is a bit of a conundrum, but the one thing that is clear is they are active predators,” Bushnell says. “How they do this, I’m not sure.”

What is also clear is that the Greenland shark is well-adapted for the deep, and this may be where its toxicity comes into play.
Greenland Shark Meat: It’s Like Kibbles ‘n Bits, Except It Gives Dogs Explosive Diarrhea

Back in the ‘60s, soon-to-be-regretful humans fed Greenland shark meat to a pack of sled dogs, which suffered convulsions, respiratory distress, and explosive diarrhea. The problem may have been high levels of the compound trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) in Greenland shark flesh. This could help the animal maintain osmotic balance—that is, balancing its internal salt chemistry with the salt chemistry of the water. But why would levels of TMAO be so much higher in a Greenland’s flesh than in other sharks?

It may, Skomal reckons, come down to the uniqueness of the arctic environment, and especially the deep-sea arctic environment: lots of salt. “You tend to have higher salinity areas in northern latitudes,” he says, “because you get this very thick seasonal ice layer and sometimes permanent ice layer that extracts fresh water from the ocean.”

Read more at Wired Science

Nov 5, 2015

Common Tapeworm in Humans Spreads Tumors

Stunned scientists described on Wednesday the first known case of a man infected with tumors by a common parasitic tapeworm, raising concern about more such infections that may go undetected.

"We were amazed when we found this new type of disease -– tapeworms growing inside a person essentially getting cancer that spreads to the person, causing tumors," said Atis Muehlenbachs, staff pathologist in the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Infectious Diseases Pathology Branch.

"We think this type of event is rare. However, this tapeworm is found worldwide and millions of people globally suffer from conditions like HIV that weaken their immune system. So there may be more cases that are unrecognized," added Muehlenbachs, lead author of the study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The case involved a 41-year-old man in Colombia. He was HIV-positive and not been taking medications when in 2013, he went to his doctors with a cough, fever and complaints of weakness and weight loss.

His doctors took biopsies from his lymph nodes and lung tumors, and appealed to the CDC for help in diagnosing some bizarre-looking lesions which looked like human cancer, but initial lab tests showed they were not human.

Puzzled, scientists kept searching for the cause of the man's disease.

"The growth pattern was decidedly cancer like, with too many cells crowded into small spaces and quickly multiplying," the CDC said in a statement.

"But the cells were tiny -- about 10 times smaller than a normal human cancer cell. The researchers also noticed cells fusing together, which is rare for human cells."

After dozens of tests, they found DNA from Hymenolepis nana, the dwarf tapeworm, in the man's tumor in mid-2013.

The man died soon after.

The dwarf tapeworm is the most common tapeworm in humans, and infects up to 75 million people at any given time.

People can get it by eating food that has mouse feces on it, or ingesting feces from an infected person.

It often affects children, and many people show no symptoms.

"However, in people whose immune systems are weak, including people who have HIV or are taking steroids, the tapeworm thrives," the CDC said.

H. nana is the only one of some 3,000 known tapeworms that can complete its entire life cycle from egg to adult tapeworm in an individual's small intestine.

Rarely are infections of the tapeworm found outside the small intestine, but in the case of the Colombian man, his weakened immune state may have enabled the parasite's cancer to spread through his body.

Read more at Discovery News

Meet the Mexican Walking Fish, an Animal on the Brink

Although it may look like a whimsical cartoon character, the axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) is in serious trouble.

Also known as the Mexican Walking Fish, this critically endangered salamander is naturally found only in the local waterways near Mexico City. Rapid urbanization and subsequent water pollution have destroyed much of the creature's habitat, and the introduction of non-native species into the salamander's habitat had a detrimental impact on dwindling population.

During a 2013 survey, researchers were unable to find any wild axolotls, fomenting fears that the animal may be completely extinct in the wild. Luckily, a handful of the elusive creatures have since been spotted.

The axolotl is also alive and well in laboratories around the world, and is a staple of the exotic pet trade.

Although it can live beyond 20 years, the creature's average lifespan is closer to a decade. The salamander typically grows to be just under a foot in length.

Fun fact: the axolotl is known to swallow small gravel and small pebbles, which help the creature maintain its buoyancy in the water. In the absence of small pebbles, the creature may attempt to swallow other small objects in the water -- like plastic pollution -- which can be extremely harmful to its health.

From Discovery News

19th Century Burial Found Under NYC Park

Workers upgrading water mains under New York City’s Washington Square Park this week discovered a vault containing a large pile of skeletal remains dating back approximately 200 years.

Officials from the city’s Department of Design and Construction told Newsday that the vault measured 8 feet deep, 15 feet wide and 20 feet long. It contained the remains of at least a dozen people. Anthropologists and archaeologists would be asked to investigate the vault to determine its exact age.

The agency told DNAInfo that work on the project would continue as planned south of the burial site. The vault was discovered east of the park, in an area surrounded by New York University buildings.

The land where the park is now located was a so-called potter’s field, or public burial ground, between 1797 and 1825. The city bought the land the following year and turned it into a military parade ground, and then a park.

Historians have estimated that approximately 20,000 people were buried underneath the park.

From Discovery News

Can Faith Make You Less Generous?

Charity begins at home, and that’s also where it is first taught. But that might not hold true for many children brought up in religious households, finds a study by researchers at the University of Chicago.

In fact, although religious parents were more likely to describe their children as more altruistic and fair than secular kids, religiousness proves inversely predictive of charitableness, but positively correlated with punitive tendencies, the authors write in their study for the journal Current Biology.

Humans are a cooperative species by nature that develop prosocial behaviors early in life, so the lessons learned in adolescence will carry into adulthood.

“Some past research had demonstrated that religious people aren’t more likely to do good than their nonreligious counterparts,” lead author Jean Decety said in a statement. “Our study goes beyond that by showing that religious people are less generous, and not only adults but children too.”

For their study, University of Chicago researchers enlisted 1,170 children between ages 5 and 12 across six countries, including the United States, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey and South Africa. The majority of the households identified as Christian, Muslim or non-religious, though children of Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu homes were included as well.

All of the children played what is known as the Dictator Game, an exercise in which in which they determined whether to share stickers they received with their classmates. The kids also undertook a “moral sensitivity task,” in which they judged a series of scenarios involving interpersonal harm. Parents also completed questionnaires on religious identification as well as empathy and justice measures for their children.

Older children tended to be more generous than younger ones, but the most altruistic children were those who came from atheist or non-religious households. Children from religious households also determined harsher punishments for wrongdoers in the moral sensitivity task.

The findings echo a University of California – Berkeley study published in 2012 in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science that found that adults who regarded themselves as religious were less motivated by compassion than non-believers when it comes to generosity. Instead, doctrine, individual reputation and communal identity proved more powerful inducements in leading believers to be charitable.

In fact, under the right conditions, specifically when primed to consider their beliefs or reputation, religious individuals are more likely to engage in prosocial behavior than the non-believers, found a University of British Columbia study by published in the journal Science in 2008.

Read more at Discovery News

The Sun Will Blast Mars' Entire Atmosphere Into Space

A solar storm that missed Earth but smashed into Mars last March dramatically confirmed long-held suspicions that the sun is blasting away the Martian atmosphere, and doing so at a rate that will leave the planet airless in another couple of billion years, if not sooner.

The finding, reported among a quartet of papers in this week’s Science and detailed in another 44 papers in Geophysical Research Letters, has huge implications for understanding how Mars transitioned from a warm and wet climate early in its history -- one that is believed to have been suitable to support Earth-type life -- into the cold and dry planet that exists today.

The assault on Mars’ atmosphere isn’t coming from solar activity alone. But the first big-picture results from NASA’s ongoing Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN mission, suggest the sun may be the most lethal offender.

Case in point: an interplanetary coronal mass ejection -- a burst of gas and magnetism from the sun -- that hit Mars on March 8, 2015, sending rope-like tendrils of magnetism shooting from Mars’ magnetic pockets to more than 3,100 miles into space.

As the storm hit, oxygen and carbon dioxide ions were catapulted high into the atmosphere and out into space, zipping along at speeds that were about 10 times faster than usual.

“We got this extreme event and wham! We knocked a bunch of atmosphere out of Mars,” MAVEN scientist Jasper Halekas, with the University of Iowa, told Discovery News.

Scientists say that early Mars likely lost a bigger percentage of its atmosphere to solar storms than what is happening today because the sun was probably more active when it was young.

Still unknown is how much cosmic radiation and other phenomena, such as chemical reactions of atmosphere gases, are bleeding off Mars’ atmosphere.

Scientists also have not yet determined if Mars is adding to its atmosphere in any significant way. But extrapolating from the MAVEN measurements taken during the March storm and other solar events, Halekas figures that Mars may be completely out of atmospheric gas in about two billion years.

Other teams are working to understand the escape rate of other gases, such as isotopes argon-38 and argon-36.

Read more at Discovery News

Nov 4, 2015

In the Polar Bear Capital, an Uncertain Future

It is a crisp, sunny November morning in Churchill, Manitoba, the self-styled "polar bear capital of the world," and the early stages of the annual bear season are in full swing.

The town’s moniker is merited: established as a fur trading settlement 1717, it lies directly in the path that a population of polar bears follows from its summer resting areas to the sea ice of Hudson Bay, where the bears spend late fall, winter and early spring feasting primarily on ringed and bearded seals.

In the past, especially as Churchill grew in the mid-twentieth century following the establishment of a military facility, the close proximity of humans and bears inevitably ended poorly for the latter, and polar bears that came into town were commonly shot on sight.

Over the last several decades, however, the community has employed an entirely different approach: residents and visitors alike are taught to be bear-aware; warning signs are posted in areas of high polar bear activity; and a Polar Bear Patrol, operated under the aegis of the Manitoba Department of Conservation, encourages potential problem bears to keep moving rather than loiter in Churchill’s streets.

On a recent Monday evening, as the Northern Lights flickered overhead, the air was filled with the sound of cracker shells – explosive warning rounds fired from a shotgun – as the patrol shooed a bear along the beach and away from town.

Today, shooting at bears is done almost entirely with cameras; during polar bear season (which runs roughly for three weeks from late October), the 900 or so residents of Churchill are joined by perhaps ten times that many tourists, who take day trips from the town to the shores of Hudson Bay on Tundra Buggies or even spend a night or two at the Tundra Buggy Lodge, where they can watch bears while enjoying breakfast or evening cocktails.

On a recent morning, buggy passengers and lodge guests watched a group of bears roll in a fresh layer of snow and peer inquisitively at their human visitors. The bears had rounded profiles indicative of rude health, but despite their encouraging appearance, the future for the polar bears of western Hudson Bay is uncertain, threatened by a fate more insidious than the prospect of being shot for wandering too close to human habitation.

Climate change is causing the bay’s ice to melt earlier and freeze later, causing bears to spend longer ashore – as much as a month longer in some years. As a consequence, Churchill’s polar bears are decreasing in number (from approximately 1,350 three decades ago to roughly 900-1,000 now) and in physical condition. A 2007 study by the United States Geological Survey predicted that the western Hudson Bay population of polar bears could be extirpated by the end of the century.

There have been suggestions that the bears, which are an undeniably intelligent and adaptable species, might be able to adjust to the changes in the environment, but two recent studies have cast doubt on such optimism.

One, led by John Whiteman of the University of Wyoming and published in the journal Science, looked at the proposition that bears that are forced ashore for longer periods might be able to offset the extra period without feeding by significantly decreasing their metabolism by undergoing what is commonly referred to as “walking hibernation”: an energy-saving metabolic state similar to that seen in hibernating animals.

Alas, they found that, “although well-adapted to seasonal ice melt, polar bears appear susceptible to deleterious declines in body condition during the lengthening period of summer food deprivation.”

A second study, by Karyn Rode of the U.S. Geological Survey and others, examined claims that polar bears could survive sea ice decline by switching to terrestrial food sources, such as caribou and snow geese. Their findings were not encouraging.

Read more at Discovery News

New Giant Raptor the Largest Ever with Wing Feathers

A giant, feathered raptor dubbed "Dakotaraptor" (Dakotaraptor steini), has been uncovered in South Dakota's famous Hell Creek Formation.

The discovery was made by a research team led by Palm Beach Museum of Natural History Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology Robert DePalma.

The super-raptor lived some 66 million years ago and was about 17 feet long, making it one of the largest ever found and the largest with confirmed wing feathers.

"This Cretaceous period raptor would have been lightly built and probably just as agile as the vicious, smaller theropods, such as the Velociraptor," De Palma said, in a statement announcing the find.

The fossils indicated the presence of "quill knobs" (see photo above) pointing to where feathers would have been attached to the creature's forearms. The knobs are "our first clear evidence for feather quills on a large dromaeosaurid forearm," DePalma and his team wrote in a paper detailing their findings.

In addition to the wonder of the giant raptor's size in its own right, the find helps scientists sketch a clearer picture of the pecking order at the time.

"This new predatory dinosaur also fills the body size gap between smaller theropods and large tyrannosaurs that lived at this time," said University of Kansas paleontologist and study co-author David Burnham.

DePalma and his colleagues have just published their research on the new raptor in the journal Paleontological Contributions.

From Discovery News

Tidy Monkeys Shed Light on Human Cleanliness

Japanese macaques are so tidy that they even wash their food in salt water, and now a new study finds that these monkeys have fewer parasites than other primates that are not nearly as careful.

Female Japanese macaques, in particular, are grossed out by sometimes disease bearing things like poop, suggesting that feelings of disgust help to fuel cleanliness, and thereby healthiness, among all primates, including humans.

The findings, published in the journal Biology Letters, could carry over to other animals with tidy tendencies too.

“There are a few other accounts of animals washing food in water, like captive chimpanzees and capuchins, which both seem to wash specifically to remove debris from food items,” co-author Andrew MacIntosh of Kyoto University’s Primate Research Institute and Wildlife Research Center told Discovery News.

“There was even a recent study with zoo-based European wild boars that showed the animals capable of carrying food to water to wash it, a behavior that was restricted to those food items experimentally covered in debris,” he added.

The new study, however, focused on Japanese macaques, which not only wash sweet potatoes in salt water, but also spend much of their days grooming and preening each other.

In addition to monitoring cleanliness behaviors and associated parasite loads, MacIntosh and co-author Cecile Sarabian placed both actual and fake feces in the monkeys’ wild habitat. To attract the macaques, the researchers place either a grain of wheat or a nutrient-packed peanut on both the faux and real poo.

Just seeing both types of poo turned off the monkeys, and especially the females. Although hungry, they passed up the wheat.

The monkeys did, however, go for the peanuts, revealing that even a primate known for cleanliness must constantly weigh the risks versus benefits of exposing themselves to something that could pose a health threat.

“You have to remember that these and other terrestrial animals are basically living in the dirt,” MacIntosh said.

Nevertheless, the monkeys seem to go to a lot of trouble to clean off their food by either washing it, as mentioned, when the edibles are covered with sand, or vigorously rubbing and rolling it before consumption.

Sarabian explained that Japanese macaques live in very humid and warm conditions for much of the year, “conditions which are suitable for the development and transmission of parasites. Animals that do display more cautious behaviors toward potential contaminants may thereby gain a reproductive advantage.”

This could help to explain why females appear to engage in more cleanliness-associated behaviors than males. She quickly added that hygiene is also shaped by experience and culture, “but there is an overall biological pattern to our revulsions.” Good hygiene, as a result, may be due to both nature and nurture.

"What I think is important about this study is that it shows that the tendency to avoid obviously contaminated or disgust-inducing objects is linked somehow with lower parasite levels, at least in adults. The big question is what is the mechanism for this," said Michael Huffman of Kyoto University.

Read more at Discovery News

Search for Secret Chambers in King Tut's Tomb Begins

An investigation of King Tut’s tomb to find secret chambers will begin tomorrow and will last until Friday, Egypt’s Minister of Antiquity announced on Wednesday.

The announcement, reported in the Egyptian media, comes on the 93rd anniversary of the tomb’s discovery in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. On this day in 1922, British archaeologist Howard Carter found the entrance to King Tutankhamun’s treasure-filled tomb.

A team from Cairo University’s Faculty of Engineering and the Paris-based organization Heritage, Innovation and Preservation will investigate the tomb using infrared thermography.

The non-invasive search follows a claim by Nicholas Reeves, a British Egyptologist at the University of Arizona, that high-resolution images of the tomb’s walls show “distinct linear traces” pointing to the presence of two still unexplored chambers behind the western and northern walls of the tomb.

According to Reeves, one chamber contains the remains, and possibly the intact grave goods, of 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.

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

An examination of King Tut’s tomb in September revealed several unusual features, such as a contrast in the materials that cover different parts of the same wall and an extended ceiling which suggests King Tut’s burial chamber was originally a corridor.

After the visual examination, Egypt’s Antiquities minister Mamdouh al-Damaty agreed it was very likely that there were hidden chambers in the tomb.

However, he disagreed with Reeves on the Nefertiti claim.

An international team of researchers led by mummy expert Frank Rühli, director of the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich, also cautioned last month about the possibility of Nefertiti being the occupant of the secret crypt.

“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.

Nefertiti is labelled in inscriptions to be Tutankhamun’s mother; genetic analyses identified the “Younger Lady” as the mother of Tutankhamun.

Such evidence would automatically rule out Nefertiti, the researchers concluded.

Read more at Discovery News

Antimatter not so different after all

Due to the diligence of a Rice University student and his calculations, humanity now knows a little more about the universe.

Kefeng Xin, a graduate student at Rice, is one of a handful of primary authors who revealed evidence this week that the attractive force between antiprotons is similar to that between protons -- and measured it.

Specifically, the team measured two important parameters: the scattering length and the effective range of interaction between two antiprotons. This gave scientists a fundamental new way to understand the force that holds together the nuclei in antimatter and how this compares to matter.

"This is about the subtle difference in the way matter and antimatter interact with each other," said Rice physicist Frank Geurts.

Antiprotons carry the opposite electrical charge and spin that protons do. Like all matter and antimatter, both were created at the instant of the Big Bang. Physicists are still trying to understand why they see so few antiparticles in nature even though particles and antiparticles were produced in equal amounts and annihilate each other on contact.

"It could have been that antimatter didn't have the same attractive force as matter and would have helped explain how these differences, during the initial part of the Big Bang, might have resulted in antimatter not having survived in the shape of stars and planets, as matter did," Geurts said.

"That's where this research is helpful. The interactions between two antimatter particles turn out to be quite similar to matter particles. It may not give us a solution to the bigger problem, but we most definitely removed one option," he said.

The find was reported in Nature on behalf of the more than 500 scientists, including Geurts, who work on the STAR experiment, part of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory. Brookhaven's story on the discovery appears here.

The scattering length is a measurement of how particles deviate as they travel from source to destination; their paths are visible as three-dimensional traces captured by STAR (which is short for Solenoid Tracker at RHIC). The effective range indicates how close particles need to be for their charges to influence each other, like magnets.

Both are measured in femtometers. One femtometer is one-millionth of a nanometer; a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter.

For antiprotons measured at RHIC, the scattering length was roughly 7.41 femtometers, and the effective range was 2.14 femtometers, nearly equivalent to their proton counterparts. Measuring distances that small involves both sophisticated equipment and sophisticated calculations.

"This discovery isn't a surprise," said Xin, whose Ph.D. thesis focuses on rather exotic systems called muonic atoms. "We've been studying the interaction between nucleons (particles that make up an atom's nucleus) for decades, and we've always thought the forces between antimatter particles are the same as for matter. But this is the first time we've been able to quantify it."

Xin, a student of Geurts, applied methods developed in his thesis to the analysis. The first task was to determine which particles produced in a collision were indeed antiprotons and whether any two were in close enough proximity to influence each other. Then came correlating their momentum from creation to destruction, typically a few nanoseconds.

"All of the data we collected in 2011 is from 500 million events (collisions between two heavy gold ions)," Xin said. "Pretty much every event can contribute."

Antimatter can be created in small amounts with a collider like RHIC and analyzed. The collider accelerates the nuclei of heavy atoms to nearly the speed of light and smashes them together to produce elemental particles, antiparticles and exotic materials like quarks, muons and plasmas. All of these can be characterized by tools built at Rice and elsewhere as part of STAR.

RHIC smashed gold ions to produce hundreds of millions of particles, which can be detected by the ionization traces they leave in a gas-filled cylinder that surrounds the collision and a "time-of-flight" sensor. The instrument, the construction of which was led by Rice, tells researchers how many nanoseconds it takes particles to travel from the point of impact to sensors at the outer boundaries of the collider.

Read more at Science Daily

Nov 3, 2015

U.K. Fish-Eating Spider Back from the Brink

Thanks to a relocation project by a host of conservation organizations, the fen raft spider has made a remarkable rebound from near extinction in the United Kingdom.

The semi-aquatic fen raft (or great raft) spider, distributed widely in Europe, was at risk of disappearing from the U.K. by 2010, with only three known populations left. But a project launched in 2012 to establish the large arachnids in marsh ditches along the Broads -- protected river and lake habitats in England's Norfolk and Suffolk counties -- seems to have changed all of that.

The spider is known for its shimmering nursery webs, which are easy to spot. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RPSB), one of the conservation effort's partners, reports that this year's nursery web count in the Norfolk Broads jumped from 184 webs in 2014 to 480 today.

Officials say the habitat is just right for them to thrive.

"They have exactly the right vegetation mix along the ditches to support their nursery webs and the richness of invertebrate prey that the spiders need," said Tim Strudwick, RSPB site manager at the Strumpshaw Fen nature reserve, in a press release.

The fen raft spider is the largest eight-legger in the U.K. It can grow big enough to send shivers up the spine of any dedicated arachnophobe, with females of the species able to reach about the size of the palm of a human hand.

The spiders are skilled predators that launch attacks from along the water's edge, preying on fare such as water bugs, smaller spiders, and, yes, even small fish. (They're not the only spiders with a taste for fish, as you can see here.)

Read more at Discovery News

Tyrannosaur Cannibalism: Gnawed Bone May Offer Proof

Sixty-six million years ago, a tyrannosaur may have sunk its sharp and serrated teeth into the bones of another tyrannosaur, new research suggests.

The gnawed bone may provide evidence that tyrannosaurs ate their own kind, the researchers said.

"We were out in Wyoming digging up dinosaurs in the Lance Formation," paleontologist Matthew McLain of Loma Linda University in California said in a statement. "Someone found a tyrannosaur bone that was broken at both ends. It was covered in grooves. They were very deep grooves."

The grooves looked like tooth marks, he said. It appeared that a large, toothy creature had bitten off the tyrannosaur's flesh, pulling it in the direction perpendicular to the bone — much like a person eats a piece of fried chicken. At least 10 separate grooves of varying widths — with the widest reaching 0.1 inches (5 millimeters) across — were etched into the dinosaur's long bone.

But one groove caught the researchers' attention. Located on the bone's wider end, the groove contains smaller parallel grooves that were likely created when the diner turned its head, dragging its serrated teeth across the bone.

Marks from the serrated teeth may help identify the culprit, the researchers said. Crocodiles have large teeth and bite forces, but their teeth aren't serrated. So the researchers crossed these fierce reptiles off the list. But theropods, mostly meat-eating dinosaurs that walked on two feet, did have sawlike teeth.

"These scores were likely made by a theropod dinosaur, and the width of the larger grooves suggests the traces were made by a tyrannosaur," the researchers wrote in their unpublished findings, presented at the Geological Society of America's 2015 annual meeting in Baltimore on Sunday (Nov. 1).

The only large theropods found in that Wyoming formation are tyrannosaurs — Tyrannosaurus rex and Nanotyrannus lancensis, they said. (Nanotyrannus is a controversial species. Some paleontologists maintain it's a relative of T. rex, and others say it's a T. rex juvenile.) But, based on the presence of the Tyrannosaurus and Nanotyrannus fossils in the area, it's possible that these species left the gnaw marks on the bone, indicating that tyrannosaurs were cannibals, McLain said.

"This has to be a tyrannosaur," McLain said. "There's just nothing else that has such big teeth."However, it's an open question whether the offender killed or was just scavenging for a meal when it gnawed on the fallen tyrannosaur, the researchers said.

As they continue to study the masticated fossil, the researchers plan to invest more time analyzing the serration marks. Earlier studies on serrated Komodo dragon teeth show a relationship between serration size and the animal's size. Other studies have used this technique on tyrannosaurs, and McLain said it will likely work in this case, too.

"Exactly who did the eating that day, in the Late Cretaceous, could still be sorted out by the same grooves," he said. "It only works if you know what species it is. And since Tyrannosauruses are the only large predators in these formations, it's pretty straightforward."

But that might be jumping to conclusions, said Thomas Carr, an associate professor of biology at Carthage College in Wisconsin and a vertebrate paleontologist, who was not involved in the study.

It's not clear from the unpublished findings, thus far, if the bone belongs to T. rex, or simply another theropod, Carr said. (Theropods, like birds, have hollow bones, but more direct evidence is needed to identify it as a T. rex, he said.)

Read more at Discovery News

Yes, the Vatican Can Arrest People

The Vatican on Monday  announced the arrest of a Spanish high-ranking priest and a laywoman for allegedly leaking confidential documents to the authors of two new books that promise to expose more corruption and intrigue at the Holy See.

“Divulging confidential documents is a crime under the criminal code of the Vatican City State,” the Vatican remarked in a press statement.

Aimed at stemming  a new scandal — the first since the “Vatileaks” affair which saw Benedict XVI’s butler jailed for leaking private papal papers  –  the strict move shows a less known aspect of the Vatican.

There is more than prayers in the tiny walled enclave within Rome.  As an independent state, the Vatican has its own judicial system, a 130-strong Gendarmerie (military force) in addition to the Swiss Guards (basically the Pope’s bodyguards) and can detain prisoners.

Under the Lateran Pacts, an agreement made in 1929 between the Kingdom of Italy and the Holy See, the Vatican was recognized as independent state, actually the world’s smallest by by area and population.

Until 2008, the Vatican accepted Italian law automatically. Now it examines laws passed by the Italian parliament before accepting them.

Located just to the south of St. Peter’s Basilica, the papal jail is mainly used for pretrial detention.

The prison, currently accommodating Monsignor Lucio Ángel Vallejo Balda, the Spanish priest arrested on Monday, has held several guests lately — at least by Vatican standards.

Last year, during the Christmas holidays, a member of the Femen protest movement spent two nights in one of the cells after taking her  top off and  “kidnapping” the baby Jesus from the Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square.

Another cell was occupied during the same period by a man who climbed the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica in protest against European economic policies.

Perhaps the most famous inmate in modern times is Paolo Gabriele, pope Benedict’s personal butler .

He was arrested on May 23, 2012 for leaking  the sensitive documents that gave rise to the Vatileaks scandal and sentenced to 18 months in prison “in the name of His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, gloriously reigning.”

In contrast to the usual arrangement  under which prisoners serve time in an Italian prisons, Gabriele served his sentence in the Vatican until he was pardoned by Pope Benedict on Dec. 22, 2012.

Read more at Discovery News

Ancient Greek Fortress Found in Jerusalem Parking Lot

Israeli archaeologists said Tuesday they have found the remnants of the Acra, a fortress built by the Greek King Antiochus IV more than 2,000 years ago. The stronghold was sought by archaeologists for over 100 years.

Mentioned in Jewish biblical sources and by historians like Josephus Flavius, the fortress was unearthed after 10 years of excavations under a parking lot in Jerusalem.

The discovery solved “one of Jerusalem’s greatest archaeological mysteries,” the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) said.

The archaeologists unearthed a section of a massive wall, which they said was the base of an imposing tower measuring 66 feet long and 13 feet wide. In addition, the wall’s outer base was coated with layers of soil, stone and plaster. The specially designed slippery slope was meant to keep attackers away.

“This stronghold controlled all means of approach to the Temple atop the Temple Mount, and cut the Temple off from the southern parts of the city,” Doron Ben-Ami, Yana Tchekhanovets and Salome Cohen, excavation directors on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said.

Coins dating from the reign of Antiochus IV to that of Antiochus VII and wine jars imported from the Aegean region were also unearthed, providing evidence of the citadel’s chronology, as well as the non-Jewish identity of its inhabitants.

Among the ruins, the archaeologists also discovered lead slingshots, bronze arrowheads and stone catapults, all stamped with a trident, which symbolized the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes (215-164 BC).

“They are the silent remains of battles that were waged there at the time of the Hasmoneans, in their attempt to conquer the citadel which was viewed as a ‘thorn in the flesh’ of the city,” the IAA said.

According to historical sources, the Acra fortress was occupied by mercenaries, and Hellenized Jews which produced great sufferings in Jerusalem’s residents.

Read more at Discovery News

Antarctic Melting Irreversible in 60 years

Scientists are filling in more of the gory details about the collapse of the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), an event that is now expected to begin in 60 years under current greenhouse warming conditions, and eventually boost sea levels by nearly 10 feet.

In 2014, climate researchers at the University of Washington reported in the journal Science that the melting of two glaciers -- Thwaite’s and Pine Island -- in the West Antarctic, was underway and would lead to the destabilization of the larger ice sheet from which they arise. Imagine two logs being pulled from a beaver dam, for example, or two big fingers yanked out of a dyke of slow-moving ice.

Today’s study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), uses a computer model for a more long-term and larger-scale prediction. It found that the destabilization of the entire ice sheet would be irreversible if current conditions don’t change by 2075.

“We now, for the first time, show that if you destabilize the region, then you get a chain reaction, and the entire WAIS is discharged into the ocean,” said Anders Levermann, professor of climate dynamics at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. “We can now say how much sea level rise that will imply, which is 3 meters. But it will take a long time.”

Leverman said that the entire WAIS melting could take several hundred to thousands of years. The WAIS accounts for about 10 percent of the volume of the entire Antarctic ice continent.

The computer model used in this new study takes into account conditions on the entire continent, rather than just the small area of the two glaciers that are currently retreating, Levermann said. For this reason, the time scales are not exact, although the results are.

“We can say that to our knowledge there is nothing that will hold (the ice sheet) once it is destabilized,” Levermann said. “And it’s unlikely that once this will happen, that it will stop.”

Levermann was careful to say that the model still needs more observational data about the topography of the ice surface, and more information about the bedrock upon which the WAIS sits. The frictional forces between the ice and the rock underneath are key to understanding how quickly the ice will break up.

Eric Rignot, a climate scientist at the University of California, Irvine, said the German model adds more proof that the Antarctica is in trouble.

“It adds to the critical debate of how long it will take for ice to retreat from West Antarctica,” Rignot said. “The real advance here is to put on the table yet another model projection that shows very rapid retreat, i.e. less than 100 years.”

Read more at Discovery News

Nov 2, 2015

Giant Pterosaur with Huge Fangs Found in Utah Quarry

A little more than 200 million years ago, a four-fanged pterosaur flew over the vast desert of Triassic Utah snagging other reptiles with its toothy mouth, until it met its untimely end on the banks of a dried-up oasis, new research finds.

The pterosaur had a massive wingspan of about 4.5 feet (1.3 meters) — about as wide as a 10-year-old child is tall — and sported a total of 110 teeth, four of them inch-long (2.5 centimeters) fangs, said study researcher Brooks Britt, an associate professor of geology at Brigham Young University in Utah.

Brigham Young University student Scott Meek found the specimen, including its skull and bones from its body, in 2014 when he was excavating bones from a 300-lb. (136 kilograms) chunk of sandstone. The chunk came from the Saints and Sinners quarry in Utah near the Colorado border, Britt said.

"The site dates to the Late Triassic, about 210 million years , when Pangaea was still together, and vast desert stretched from what is now southern California to Wyoming," Britt told Live Science. (The supercontinent Pangaea didn't begin to break up until about 200 million years ago.)

The pterosaur fossil is remarkably well preserved, not crushed like other pterosaur remains. "Outside of a find in Greenland, this is the first good Triassic pterosaur from North America," he said.

A geologic analysis of the quarry suggests that, during the Late Triassic, many animals congregated around a lush oasis — decked out with plants — surrounded by a vast desert. But then the oasis dried up, leaving the fauna and flora without a drop of water.

"The animals likely died during a severe drought, and the sediments indicate their carcasses were buried when the rains returned to normal and the lake filled, with the lapping waves burying the bones with sand," Britt said.

The ancient sand and water did such a good job of preserving the pterosaur's fossils, that researchers can create a detailed picture of the animal. For instance, the pterosaur has spaces in its braincase and lower jaw that suggest the bones were air-filled in life, just like the bones of later pterosaurs and birds (to which pterosaurs are not related), Britt said.

Furthermore, the pterosaur has surprisingly small eyes, and its dentition is "quite a mix, with a combination of fangs and miniscule teeth in each side of the lower jaws," Britt said. In all, it has 80 teeth on its lower jaws (including the four fangs), and 30 on its upper jaws, including eight little ones in the front and 22 medium teeth in the back.

Its odd smile isn't all that different from other early pterosaurs, which tend to sport a mix of dramatically differently shaped teeth; that's unlike pterodactyloids (another type of flying reptile), which often lacked teeth, Britt said.

Also, like the Dimorphodon, a medium-size pterosaur that lived during the Jurassic, the newfound species has a relatively large head and comparatively short wings, indicating it didn't soar over vast areas, but likely flew in places filled with trees and other obstacles. They probably fed on insects or small land-dwelling animals, including a small crocodylomorph known as a sphenosuchian, which Britt described as a fast creature resembling a crocodile, but with the legs of a Chihuahua.

The researchers found a treasure trove of sphenosuchian fossils at the ancient oasis. They also found at least 20 individual coelophysoid theropods (bipedal, mostly meat-eating dinosaurs), the teeth of a much larger theropod, a drepanosaurid (a creature with a head like a bird, arms like a mole and a claw at the end of its tail) and two types of sphenodontids (which looks like the modern tuatara of New Zealand).

Read more at Discovery News

17th-Century Box's Contents Revealed by X-Rays

Powerful X-ray imaging techniques have allowed French archaeologists to see the inaccessible contents of a mysterious and badly damaged 17th century box.

Scientists were able to virtually reconstruct in astounding resolution the circular elements that could be seen through the broken lid of the very rusted box. Inside, the box contained a treasure of small clay medals and two pearls.

Measuring just 1.6 inches, the metal box was found during excavations at Grenoble’s Saint Laurent church. The artifact was buried alongside a corpse in one of the 195 graves dating from the 17th century.

The site has been at the center of archaeological investigations for the past 20 years, revealing more than 1,500 tombs and 2,000 objects dating as early as the 4th century AD.

The fragile box was first restored by the CREAM (Centre de Restoration et d’Etude Archaeologique Municipal) in Vienne, France. The work aimed to halt the oxidation process that was eating away the metal.

Despite their efforts, it was impossible to open the box. The archaeologists then brought the artifact to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), which houses one of the world’s most powerful X-ray machines.

The box was scanned using synchrotron X-ray phase contrast micro-tomography. The technique produced high resolution 3D images of the inside.

“It was only supposed to be a small feasibility study to produce an image for an exhibition. However, the results were so astounding that it turned into a full scale research project,” ESRF scientist Paul Tafforeau, who carried out the experiments and produced the 3D images of the box, said in a statement.

The scan allowed Tafforeau and his team to virtually extract the two pearls and three medals, which appeared in poor condition and stuck together.

After the medals were digitally separated, the scientists applied rendering and 3D virtual lighting techniques to make the three medals visible in fine detail.

“This non-destructive investigations produced astounding results,” Renée Colardelle, the archaeologist in charge of the Saint Laurent church excavation, said.

On one medal, Christ can be seen on the cross with two figures standing at the foot of the cross. An engraving on the other side of the medal shows Christ’s resurrection. The scene is symbolized by a figure bearing a crown of thorns, with one leg out of the tomb.

The two other medals turned to be identical and damaged in different places.

A combination of the images obtained from the two identical artifacts made it possible to reconstruct the illustrations and even the inscriptions on the medals.

On one side, the scene of Christ’s baptism by Saint John the Baptist is visible, with the inscription “And the word became flesh.”

The reverse side shows the three wise men bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus seated on Mary’s lap. Given the state of preservation of the medals, the presence of Joseph behind Mary can be only assumed, said the researchers.

Read more at Discovery News

Dust Gaps Around Young Stars Not Exoplanet 'Proof'

Recent observations of the gaps in protoplanetary disks surrounding nearby young stars may not be “proof” of the formation of exoplanets. Instead, it could be that these apparently “empty” bands contain larger debris that scatter starlight at different frequencies.

As optical techniques improve to study the environment directly surrounding stars, astronomers have begun to study dusty protoplanetary disks. Often these disks possess gaps — much like Saturn’s “Cassini Division” in its rings — a feature that is often cited by astronomers as possible evidence for the presence of an unseen proto-exoplanet vacuuming up the debris as it orbits the star.

Although this may be indeed true for some “empty” bands in protoplanetary disks, a new study published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters suggests many may not actually be empty at all, but filled with larger particles or pebble-sized rocks, lacking the smaller dust particles that efficiently scatter starlight at certain frequencies. Lacking this dust, these bands seem empty and the larger debris rendered invisible at certain wavelengths.

“If we don’t see light scattered from the disk, it doesn’t necessarily mean that nothing is there,” said Til Birnstiel, lead author of the study from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany, in a news release.

When studying protoplanetary disks in visible or near-infrared light, observatories are seeing light that is being reflected or scattered from tiny dust particles of the approximate size of cigarette smoke particles.

However, as predicted by planetary formation models, the material inside protoplanetary disks clumps together over time, gradually forming bigger and bigger particles, eventually forming asteroids and protoplanets. But before a large exoplanet forms from the dusty material, there is likely an intermediate stage where bands that appear devoid of material form, but are in fact filled with larger debris that scatters and reflects starlight in a different way, making them appear cloaked at certain wavelengths. In some stellar environments, these particles may not form exoplanets at all, instead becoming sheared apart through a never-ending jostling of material.

“Growth, migration and destruction can have tangible, observable effects,” said co-author Sean Andrews of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), Mass. “Specifically, these processes can create an apparent gap in the disk when the small particles that scatter light are cleared away, even though larger particles still remain.”

Read more at Discovery News

Atom Smasher Probes Highest Energies Yet

Scientists at the world’s largest atom smasher have made a precise tally of the jumbled cascade of particles produced when two proton beams are smashed together. The results could help researchers discover new types of particles, akin to the now-famous Higgs boson.

Researchers at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland sent two beams of protons hurtling in opposite directions and crashed them together at the highest energy level yet achieved at the LHC. The research is part of the CMS experiment, which stands for Compact MuonSolenoid. For each of the 150,000 proton-proton collisions the researchers identified, about 22 charged particles (hadrons) were produced.

The scientists wanted to create a snapshot of a “typical” collision between two proton beams, which could help the researchers sift through background noise for signs of new effects. Previous models to make predictions for detecting new particles rely on estimates with an uncertainty of 30 to 40 percent, which could be problematic for detecting rare particles, the researchers said.

To get a precise count of the number of particles produced in an average proton collision, the team analyzed data with the LHC’s magnet turned off. This meant the scientists could accurately count the number of charged particles, because they arrive at the CMS detector itself rather bending from the magnetic field and ending up in the main collider’s beam pipe, Yen-Jie Lee, an assistant professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the study’s lead researchers, said in a statement.

The LHC is an underground ring measuring about 16 miles (27 kilometers) in circumference. It accelerates particles to nearly the speed of light using powerful magnets. The CMS experiment is one of a handful of detectors built into the LHC machine.

The energy intensity at the atom smasher has increased by 60 percent — from about 7 teraelectronvolts (TeV) to 13 TeV — since its first run, which lasted from 2010 to 2013. This is still a tiny amount of energy; 1 TeV is about the energy of motion of a flying mosquito. Within a proton though, this is squeezed into a space about a million, million times smaller than a mosquito, according to the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), which operates the LHC.

The LHC’s energy boost means that 30 percent more particles are produced per collision, the researchers found.

“At this high intensity, we will observe hundreds of millions of collisions each second,” Lee said.

The increased energy also gives physicists a better chance of discovering new particles like the Higgs boson, which was first detected in 2012. According to Albert Einstein’s equation e = mc2, the higher the energy (e) of the experiment, the higher the mass (m) of the new particles could be.

“We are opening up a new region of these collisions that we have never opened up before,” said Daniela Bortoletto, a physicist who was previously involved with the CMS collaboration but now works on ATLAS, a rival experiment at the LHC. “We are really exploring terra incognita!”

The ATLAS group also observes collisions between a set of two proton beams and is in the process of replicating the CMS experiment to count the number of hadrons produced.

Bortoletto said that these measurements are fundamental to physics because they help “get to the diamond in a terrain full of dirt.”

“It’s part of the mankind desire to understand where we came from,” Bortoletto told Live Science. “And we’ve done really remarkably well in explaining a lot of the phenomena.”

Bortoletto says the measurements described in this paper are necessary to discover new particles in the higher energy regime. While she said the theories behind the building blocks of the universe are impressively accurate so far, there is still something missing.

The Standard Model, the reigning theory of particle physics, is based on the idea that all matter is made of particles of two basic types, called quarks and leptons, and the forces that act on them.

However, it is not a flawless design, and there are gaps to fill in. Discovering unknown — and sometimes invisible — particles could help physicists, like Bortoletto, see the bigger picture.

Read more at Discovery News

Nov 1, 2015

Jupiter bumped giant planet from our solar system

Don't be fooled by Jupiter's romantic exterior, warn researchers.
It's like something out of an interplanetary chess game. Astrophysicists at the University of Toronto have found that a close encounter with Jupiter about four billion years ago may have resulted in another planet's ejection from the Solar System altogether.

The existence of a fifth giant gas planet at the time of the Solar System's formation -- in addition to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune that we know of today -- was first proposed in 2011. But if it did exist, how did it get pushed out?

For years, scientists have suspected the ouster was either Saturn or Jupiter.

"Our evidence points to Jupiter," said Ryan Cloutier, a PhD candidate in U of T's Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics and lead author of a new study published in The Astrophysical Journal.

Planet ejections occur as a result of a close planetary encounter in which one of the objects accelerates so much that it breaks free from the massive gravitational pull of the Sun. However, earlier studies which proposed that giant planets could possibly eject one another did not consider the effect such violent encounters would have on minor bodies, such as the known moons of the giant planets, and their orbits.

So Cloutier and his colleagues turned their attention to moons and orbits, developing computer simulations based on the modern-day trajectories of Callisto and lapetus, the regular moons orbiting around Jupiter and Saturn respectively. They then measured the likelihood of each one producing its current orbit in the event that its host planet was responsible for ejecting the hypothetical planet, an incident which would have caused significant disturbance to each moon's original orbit.

Read more at Science Daily