Dec 12, 2015

A ‘ghost from the past’ recalls the infancy of the Milky Way

When our galaxy was born, around 13 billion years ago, a plethora of clusters containing millions of stars emerged. But over time, they have been disappearing. However, hidden behind younger stars that were formed later, some old and dying star clusters remain, such as the so-called E 3. European astronomers have now studied this testimony to the beginnings of our galaxy.

Globular clusters are spherical-shaped or globular stellar groupings -- hence its name- which can contain millions of stars. There are about 200 of them in the Milky Way, but few are as intriguing to astronomers as the E 3 cluster.

It is situated around 30,000 light years away, in the southern constellation of Chameleon. A team of Spanish and Italian astronomers have named it "a ghost from the Milky Way's past" in an article published recently in the Astronomy & Astrophysics journal.

"This globular cluster, and a few similar ones -- such as Palomar 5 or Palomar 14 -- are `ghosts´ because they appear to be in the last stages of their existence, and we say ´from the past´ because they are very old. They were formed when our galaxy was virtually new-born, 13 billion years ago," says one of the authors, Carlos de la Fuente Marcos.

E 3 is hidden behind younger and brighter objects located between the cluster and Earth, but it has been possible to analyse it thanks to the Very Large Telescope (VLT) held in the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Cerro Paranal, Chile. The data obtained revealed some surprises.

"Unlike typical globular clusters, which contain hundreds of thousands and in some cases millions of stars, the object studied only has a few tens of thousands of them," says De la Fuente Marcos. "Additionally, it doesn't have the typical circular symmetry, but a much distorted, almost ghostly, rhomboidal shape, contorted by the galactic gravitational waves."

According to another study on E 3 by Michigan State University (USA) researchers, published in The Astrophysical Journal, this cluster is chemically homogeneous, that is, it doesn't have several star populations in its interior.

"This is characteristic of an object that was created in block, in one single episode, like what is supposed to have happened when our galaxy was born: very large star clusters (containing millions of stars) were formed, but what remains of them today are objects like E 3, ghosts from a distant past," says De la Fuente Marcos. He explains that the study of these objects "enables us to gain insight into the infancy of the Milky Way."

Native or captured?

Despite the recently published new data on this strange globular cluster, astronomers still have to clarify if it was really formed in our galaxy or not. It is known that some of its clusters are not native to the Milky Way, but were captured, even though they can currently be seen in its interior. Long ago, our galaxy cannibalised other smaller galaxies and kept their globular clusters. The rest were formed in-situ.

In the article, it is suggested that the object analysed could be dynamically related to other clusters, such as 47 Tucanae, one of the richest and largest of the Milky Way. They could even share the same stream of stars. If this were the case, it would support the hypothesis that E 3 was captured in the distant past.

Read more at Science Daily

It's a Deal! Pact Approved to Stop Global Warming

Cheering envoys from 195 nations approved in Paris Saturday a historic accord to stop global warming, offering hope that humanity can avert catastrophic climate change and usher in an energy revolution.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius ended nearly a fortnight of gruelling UN negotiations with the bang of a gavel, marking consensus among the ministers, who stood for several minutes to clap and shout their joy, with some shedding tears of relief.

“I see the room, I see the reaction is positive, I hear no objection. The Paris climate accord is adopted,” Fabius declared.

Turning to a little green hammer with which he formally gave life to the arduously crafted pact, he quipped: “It may be a small gavel but it can do big things.”

The post-2020 Paris Agreement ends decades-long rows between rich and poor nations over how to carry out what will be a multi-trillion-dollar campaign to cap global warming and cope with the impacts of a shifting climate.

With 2015 forecast to be the hottest year on record, world leaders and scientists had said the accord was vital for capping rising temperatures and averting the most calamitous impacts from climate change.

Without urgent action, they warned, mankind faced increasingly severe droughts, floods and storms, and rising seas that would engulf islands and coastal areas populated by hundreds of millions of people.

The crux of the fight entails slashing or eliminating the use of coal, oil and gas for energy, which has largely powered prosperity since the Industrial Revolution began in the 1700s.

The burning of those fossil fuels releases invisible greenhouse gases, which cause the planet to warm and disrupt Earth’s delicate climate system.

Ending the vicious circle requires a switch to cleaner sources, such as solar and wind, and improving energy efficiency. Some nations are also aggressively pursuing nuclear power, which does not emit greenhouse gases.

- Ambitious global warming limit -

The Paris accord sets a target of limiting warming of the planet to “well below” 2.0 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) compared with the Industrial Revolution, while aiming for an even more ambitious goal of 1.5C.

To do so, the emissions of greenhouse gases will need to peak “as soon as possible”, followed by rapid reductions, the agreement states.

The world has already warmed almost 1C, which has caused major problems for many people around the world particularly in developing countries, such as more severe storms, droughts and rising seas, according to scientists.

Environment groups said the Paris agreement was a turning point in history and spelt the demise of the fossil fuel industry, pointing particularly to the significance of the 1.5C goal.

“That single number, and the new goal of net zero emissions by the second half of this century, will cause consternation in the boardrooms of coal companies and the palaces of oil-exporting states,” Greenpeace International chief Kumi Naidoo said.

- Enduring money battles -

Developing nations had insisted rich countries must shoulder the lion’s share of responsibility for tackling climate change as they emitted most of the greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution.

The United States and other rich nations countered that emerging giants must also do more, arguing developing countries now account for most of current emissions and thus will be largely responsible for future warming.

On the crucial financing issue, developed countries agreed to muster at least $100 billion (92 billion euros) a year from 2020 to help developing nations.

However, following US objections, it was not included in the legally binding section of the deal.

Ahead of the talks, most nations submitted voluntary plans to curb greenhouse gas emissions from 2020, a process widely hailed as an important platform for success.

But scientists say that, even if the pledges were fully honoured, Earth would be on track for warming far above safe limits.

In an effort to encourage countries to improve their ambitions, the agreement will have five-yearly reviews of their pledges starting from 2023.

Nations most vulnerable to climate change lobbied hard for wording in the Paris pact to limit warming to 1.5C.

Big polluters, such as China, India and oil producing-giant Saudi Arabia, preferred a ceiling of 2C, which would have enabled them to burn fossil fuels for longer.

Immediately after the signing, China’s chief negotiator Xie Zhenhua told his fellow envoys the pact was not perfect.

“However, this does not prevent us from marching historical steps forward,” he said.

Nicholas Stern, a former chief economist for the World Bank who has become a prominent global advocate of climate action, also hailed the deal.

Read more at Discovery News

Full Moon to Rise on Christmas

Santa and his reindeer will have a bit of extra light this year, as a full moon is expected to reach its peak size around 6:11 a.m. ET on December 25.

A Christmas full moon last graced the skies in 1977, and will not appear again until 2034, NASA says.

December’s full moon is also known as the Full Cold Moon. According to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, certain Native American cultures have dubbed the event the Long Nights Moon, as the winter solstice kicks off around the same time, bringing with it the longest night of the year.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice will occur on December 22 at 11:48 a.m. ET.

From Discovery News

Dec 11, 2015

All Birds Descend from One Feathered Founder

The ancestry of every bird alive today can be traced back to a single “Founding Feathered Father” that lived in South America 95 million years ago, according to a new study.

The common ancestor of living birds, described in the journal Science Advances, likely lived much later than previously estimated. Prior reports suggested that the founding bird lived up to 170 million years ago during the Jurassic Period.

Dinosaurs (that didn’t evolve into birds) were still prevalent in South America 95 million years ago, yet the Founding Feathered Father would have been a standout.

“This ancestor would have looked like a bird, not like a dinosaur, and might have been capable of full flight, like many other birds from the Late Cretaceous,” co-author Joel Cracraft of the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Ornithology told Discovery News.

The “many other birds” he mentioned went extinct, however, with just the one South American species being a direct ancestor of today’s birds.

For the study, Cracraft and colleague Santiago Claramunt, also from the AMNH, estimated the age of modern birds using molecular clocks calibrated with information obtained from 130 fossils representing all major bird families.

While the genetic data strongly indicates when and where the bird ancestor lived, the precise identity of this species remains a great mystery, even with the new evidence.

“There are no good candidates for this common ancestor of modern birds,” Cracraft said. “The avian fossil record of the Late Cretaceous of South America and West Antarctica is poor and fragmentary.”

The researchers were, however, able to determine that the common ancestor lived in South America for at least 25 million years before major changes started to occur. Different species began to rapidly originate from the Founding Feathered Father. This branching off of species is known to biologists as diversification.

“Rapid diversification around 66 million years ago has been interpreted as the effect of empty ecological niches left by the mass extinction (which killed off the dinosaurs and many other animals),” Claramunt said. “But our results show that rapid diversification began before the mass extinction event and coinciding with a long-term cooling trend at the end of the Cretaceous.”

During this cooling trend, some members of the founding bird’s population left South America. These birds, evolving into various different species along the way, reached Africa, Europe and Asia through North America. Early bird populations also made their way to Australia and to New Zealand through Antarctica.

The authors then believe that both environmental change and plate tectonics affected bird evolution. The latter happens in many ways, they explained. By connecting and disconnecting land, plate movements impact travel routes, even for flying animals. The resulting land formations can then affect climate, with topographical changes, such as the rise of mountains, influencing weather trends and temperatures.

Read more at Discovery News

Invasive Cuban Lizard Settling Down in Bermuda

It could be trouble ahead for the critically endangered Bermuda skink, a lizard that may soon have to share its turf with the non-native, invasive Cuban brown anole.

The Cuban lizard was first observed on the island by Florida International University PhD student James Stroud, during a two-year survey of Bermuda’s lizard populations.

“The Cuban brown anole most likely reached Bermuda by human transport,” Stroud told FIU News. “These lizards hitch rides between ports as unintended stowaways amongst cargo, usually in nursery plants and building materials.”

For its part, the Bermuda skink is the only lizard native to the island and is listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) “Red List” of threatened species. It has lost homes to habitat destruction and has to dodge predators such as cats.

The present problem for the skink is that Cuban anoles have shown themselves to be highly adaptive, settling in wherever they find themselves — comfortable making do in natural or manmade habitats and able to eat a variety of prey. They spread quickly and tend to crowd out resources, such as habitat and food, normally reserved for native species.

A bit of good news for the skink is that the two lizards’ ranges have not yet collided.

The Cuban anoles Stroud observed were found in central Bermuda, at all stages of life. They originated in Cuba and the Bahamas, and today they’re among the most widespread of lizards. They can be found in U.S. Gulf Coast states from Florida to Texas and they also call home states such as Hawaii and California. They can also be found in other Caribbean islands as well as parts of Asia.

From Discovery News

Wreck Full of Ancient Roman 'Ketchup' Found

Italian archaeologists have discovered the wreck of a Roman ship laden with thousands of jars containing the ketchup of the ancient Romans — a pungent, fish-based seasoning known as garum.

Considered a delicacy, the smelly liquid was mass produced in factories, especially in Spain and Portugal.

Resting at a depth of more than 650 feet in the waters off the Ligurian coast near Alassio, the vessel is estimated to be 98 feet long and dates between the first and the second century A.D.

The jars are now piled up on the seafloor. Ironically, they are a shelter to fish.

“From the size of the jar-made mound we estimate the ship was carrying between 2,000 and 3,000 amphoras, or clay jars,” team leader Simon Luca Trigona, coordinator of the technical services of underwater archaeology at the archaeological superintendency of Liguria, told Discovery News.

Trigona’s team worked with the Carabinieri scuba diver police force to localize the wreck, whose existence was signaled two years ago by a local fisherman.

Once the wreck site was identified, the team used a remote operated vehicle (ROV) with a claw to retrieve one of the jars.

“It has not been possible yet to recover a jar with residues that can be analyzed. However, the one we brought to light, which is identical to all the others, is of a shape that was used exclusively for garum,” Vincenzo Tiné, Superintendent of Archaeology of Liguria, told Discovery News.

Made from fermenting fish in saltwater, garum was basically the ketchup of the ancient Romans. It featured a much appreciated sweet and sour taste, and was used in almost on every dish, often substituting expensive salt.

The vessel had probably left the port of Cadiz in Spain, which at the time was an important center for the fish sauce industry, and was sailing along the coast headed to Rome.

Indeed, a couple of wine jars likely used by the crew and produced in the area around the river Tiber, point to Rome as the vessel’s port of provenance.

According to Trigona, the cargo ship shows for the first time that the Romans did not only follow the traditional direct route from southern Spain, off the Balearic islands and Corsica to Rome.

Read more at Discovery News

The Strange Saga of the Harlequin Beetle and the Pseudoscorpion

A comically long-legged harlequin beetle. To its right is the miniscule pseudoscorpion, which spends most of its time mating on the beetle's back. One might argue, then, that this baby does indeed have back.
Say what you will about the calamity that is air travel, but at least the planes have roofs. And at least the other passengers aren’t trying to throw you out mid-air because of said problem with the roof. At least no one is having sex all around you, and at least when you land, your plane doesn’t up and start getting busy with another plane.

Welcome to Harlequin Beetle Airlines, where the skies aren’t so much friendly as they are sexually awkward. The passengers are teeny-tiny arachnids called pseudoscorpions, which crawl under a harlequin beetle’s wings and latch on with their claws and strap in with silken seat belts. The dominant males among the pseudos shove other males off and get busy with a harem of females right on the back of the harlequin—itself a bizarre creature whose males tread on wildly elongated front legs.

It’s hard to imagine an odder couple out there. So this, ladies and gentlemen, is an Absurd Creature of the Week twofer: the strange saga of the harlequin beetle and the pseudoscorpion.

Arachnids do a lot of things really well (like straight-up murder). But one thing they can’t do is fly to new resources. A lot of spiders will do something called ballooning, simply letting out a line of silk for the wind to pick up and drag it into the sky, but pseudos live in the rainforests of South and Central America, where foliage is too dense for wind to penetrate. Plus, they only hang out in dead ficus trees. So they need some way to get to the next fallen plant.

A closer shot of the pseudoscorpion on a lovely backdrop of harlequin beetle.
Luckily the harlequin beetle also loves itself a dead ficus tree, specifically as a place to lay its eggs. When these hatch, the resulting larvae bore into the wood and begin pupating. Meanwhile, pseudos in the tree are milling about hunting.

“They tend to favor termites, and they tend to favor larvae of termites, which are slow moving,” says biologist Melvin Bonilla. “So they’re not super agile in terms of their hunting prowess.” Pseudos do, however, come equipped with those claws. And while they don’t have the famous stinger of actual scorpions, they use their claws to inject prey with paralyzing venom.

After several months of pupation, the harlequins emerge as adults—and the pseudos stand ready. The tiny arachnids swarm the beetles, pinching their bellies to get them to open up their wing covers, known as elytra. When the gates open, the pseudos clamber onto the beetles’ backs and hold on tight as their rides take flight.

To avoid any unscheduled skydives, the pseudos grasp at ridges on a beetle’s cuticle. Their claws also produce a silk that the pseudos will attach to the surface as a kind of safety harness (in that sense, Spider-Man firing silk from his wrists is more like a pseudoscorpion than a spider, which produces silk from its bum, but whatever).

Next comes the pseudoscorpion free love. Several males and females can end up riding one beetle, which is alright by the females, but not so great for any male that isn’t the alpha. “Usually the largest male will try to push the other males off so that he can then dominate the mating arena and use that as a way to access the females,” says Bonilla.

The male harlequin is unique among beetles in looking like it’s mad flexing in flight.
Lesser pseudos vanquished, the largest male shacks up with the females in a way that can only be described as unorthodox. Right there on the beetle’s back he’ll deposit a sort of stalk, topped with a ball of fluid that holds the spermatophore—the package of sperm. All of it looks a bit like a translucent flower, or maybe the Eye of Sauron.

Next the pseudo male grabs a female by the claw—not aggressively, mind you, just suggestively—to pull her over. If she’s into it, she’ll position herself over the flower and do a dip. “What’ll happen then is that ball of fluid will push against the spermatophore and into her sexual aperture,” Bonilla says. “And that ball of fluid will help the spermatophore stay there while the sperm is being transferred.” The male will do the same with as many other females as he can manage.

Eventually the harlequin beetle reaches its destination: another dead ficus tree. When it lands, the female pseudos disembark and develop their eggs in an external brood sac on their bellies, while the male typically stays on the beetle. The pseudos waiting in the tree climb aboard, males and females alike. Our triumphant male fights off any new males, as he did before, ideally winning the right to mate with the arriving female passengers.

Male harlequins also have to battle for females, just in a rather more dramatic way. They have those super-elongated front legs compared to the females’—limbs the males use to punt their rivals, “kind of like a hook and catapult type of device, where they try to hook the other male and catapult him away,” says Bonilla. “And usually if they do it well enough and catapult the male far enough, then that ends the battle.”

Read more at Wired Science

Dec 10, 2015

Tomb of Suleiman the Magnificent Possibly Found

Hungarian researchers may have finally found the lost tomb of Suleiman the Magnificent, the longest reigning sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

Believed to contain Suleiman’s heart and intestines, the tomb is a rectangular building which was unearthed last month near Szigetvár, in southern Hungary.

Suleiman died in 1566 at age 71 in his tent outside the besieged fortress of Szigetvár, just two days before the fall of the town, which heroically resisted the Ottoman army for an entire month.

In his 46-year-long reign Suleiman conquered much of the Middle East, large parts of north Africa and most of Hungary. Undoubtedly one of the greatest rulers of 16th-century Europe, he presided over the golden age of the Ottoman empire, funding the construction of Istanbul’s most impressive architecture.

According to historical records, the sultan’s death was kept secret for 48 days, until his son Selim II could take the throne.

Suleiman’s body was taken back to Istanbul, where is now housed at the Süleymaniye Mosque. On the spot of the sultan’s death, the Ottomans placed a memorial tomb where they interred his heart and internal organs.

Norbert Pap, head of the department of Political Geography, Regional and Development Studies at the University of Pecs in Hungary, said his team is almost certain to have found the long-sought tomb.

After searching archives for hints of the tomb around the fortress, Pap and colleagues focused on the top of a vineyard near the village of Turbékpuszta.

“According to the local population, Turkish ruins used be located here, and they have reported Ottoman era archaeological artifacts on numerous occasions,” the researchers wrote in a statement.

Geophysical and remote sensing revealed the traces of several buildings, all oriented toward the southeast.

“One of them is almost exactly oriented toward Mecca,” the researchers said.

The site fits with descriptions of an Ottoman settlement called Turbék, a name derived from the Turkish word “turbeh,” meaning “tomb.”

Turbék started out as a shrine over Suleiman’s burial in the 1570s and thrived as a holy town until its destruction by the Habsburg army in the 1680s.

During a dig carried out in October and November, Pap and colleagues unearthed a rectangular building with wide walls built from bricks and stones.

Covered with stone tiles, the building had a large central room, about 26 by 26 feet. A robber pit in the middle of the structure suggests it was plundered in the late 17th century.

Some decorative elements remained intact and match in style the decorations in Suleiman’s mausoleum in Istanbul.

Read more at Discovery News

80-Million-Year-Old Dinosaur Blood Vessels Never Fossilized

Tiny, delicate vessels that carried blood through a duck-billed dinosaur 80 million years ago never fossilized and still contain the beast's tissue, a new study finds.

Researchers discovered the prize specimens on the femur (leg bone) of Brachylophosaurus canadensis, a 30-foot-long (9 meters) duck-billed dinosaur that was excavated in Montana in 2007. But it wasn't immediately clear whether the blood vessels were made of organic matter originally from the dinosaur, or whether they had been contaminated over the years and were now made of bacteria or other components.

Now, several tests show that the specimens are the original blood vessels, making them the oldest blood vessels on record to survive with their original components, the researchers said.

The finding adds support to a growing pile of evidence that organic structures such as blood vessels and cells can persist for millions of years without fossilizing, they said. In fact, the blood vessels are only the latest part of the B. canadensis fossils the group is examining.

"The other major components of the bone from this dinosaur (bone matrix and bone cells) had already been studied, so we began studying the blood vessels in isolation," study lead researcher Tim Cleland, a postdoctoral researcher of chemistry at the University of Texas at Austin, told Live Science in an email.

The new project allowed the researchers "to focus on the vascular proteins that may hold more evolutionary information," said Cleland, who started the research while studying molecular paleontology at North Carolina State University.

To study the blood vessels, Cleland demineralized a piece of the leg bone and studied it with high-resolution mass spectroscopy. This technique uses an instrument to weigh and sequence proteins and peptides (chains of amino acids that are like proteins, but shorter). One of the proteins within the vessel, myosin, is found in smooth muscles found in the walls of blood vessels, the researchers said.

In a separate test, they used antibodies to detect specific proteins in a thin slice of the blood vessels. The antibodies revealed the same proteins that the mass spectroscopy did, thus confirming the results.

The researchers also tested the bones of chickens and ostriches, both of which are living relatives of dinosaurs. In both the modern and ancient samples, the peptide sequences were the same as those found in blood vessels, the scientists said.

"This study is the first direct analysis of blood vessels from an extinct organism, and provides us with an opportunity to understand what kinds of proteins and tissues can persist and how they change during fossilization," Cleland said in a statement. "This will provide new avenues for pursuing questions regarding the evolutionary relationships of extinct organisms, and will identify significant protein modifications and when they might have arisen in these lineages."

Now that researchers have sequenced a large number of bird and crocodilian genomes, there should be more information about the proteins made by these creatures. This data may, in turn, help researchers study dinosaur proteins that have survived over millions of years, Cleland said.

Read more at Discovery News

Angkor Wat Yields Astounding Buried Towers

Eight buried towers and the remains of a massive spiral structure created from sand have been discovered at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

The massive structure — almost a mile long — contains a spiral design, with several rectangular spirals that form a giant structure, archaeologists say. “This structure, which has dimensions of more than 1,500 m × 600 m (about 1 mile by 1,970 feet) is the most striking discovery associated with Angkor Wat to date. Its function remains unknown and, as yet, it has no known equivalent in the Angkorian world,” Roland Fletcher, a University of Sydney professor, said in a statement put out by the university.

Today, the spiral structure is hard to make out on the ground, having been obscured by modern features and vegetation.

By examining the mile-long spiral structure and the stone towers, researchers date them back to when Angkor Wat was first built in the 12th century A.D.

King Suryavarman II had Angkor Wat built as a Hindu temple to the god Vishnu. The temple has a 213-foot-tall (65 meters) central tower that is surrounded by four smaller towers and a series of enclosure walls. The layout “is considered to correspond with the cosmology of Mount Meru and the surrounding Sea of Milk from which ambrosia was churned by the gods and demons,” wrote a research team in an article published this month in the journal Antiquity.

Antiquity recently published a special section dedicated to the latest archaeological research at Angkor Wat.

Spiral mystery

The spiral structure is difficult to make out from the ground, and archaeologists found it using LiDAR — a laser-scanning technology that allows scientists to detect structures obscured by vegetation or modern development.

When surveyed on the ground the structure turned out to be made of “archaeologically sterile banks of sand,” meaning it contained no artifacts from the past, wrote archaeologists Damian Evans, a researcher with École française d’Extrême-Orient, and Roland Fletcher in an Antiquity article.

“Quite how the spirals functioned is not at all clear,” Evans and Fletcher wrote. One possibility is that it is a garden that provided the temple with produce for rituals and eating, the spiral patterns possibly having a spiritual significance.

Evans and Fletcher found that the spiral structure was not in use for long. A canal that cut through the spiral design was built later in the 12th century.

“The spiral features would only have been functional for a brief period during the mid-to-late twelfth century A.D.,” Evans and Fletcher wrote. They say that it’s possible the spiral structure was never completed.

Buried towers

Another discovery, made using ground-penetrating radar and archaeological excavation, are the remains of what appear to be eight demolished towers constructed out of sandstone and laterite (a type of rock). They were found on the western side of Angkor Wat beside a gateway across the moat.

The dating is not entirely clear but it appears that many of the towers were created during the early-to-mid 12th century when Angkor Wat was being constructed.

Archaeologists found that some of the towers form a series of squares that may have supported one or more structures. They also found that many of the towers were constructed before the gateway wall.

They theorize that the towers could have supported a shrine that was in use while construction of Angkor Wat was underway.

“The configuration of the buried ‘towers’ contains the unique possibility that a shrine was built on the western side of the Angkor Wat platform during the period when the main temple was being constructed,” a research team wrote in an article published in Antiquity.

Once the main temple was constructed and work on the gateway across the western moat began, the shrine could have been torn down, researchers say.

Read more at Discovery News

Girl's Suicide Blamed Unproven 'Wi-Fi Allergy'

A British mother claims that her teenage daughter killed herself over her allergy to her school’s Wi-Fi signals.

According to The Telegraph, “A mother claims a Wi-Fi allergy killed her daughter and is accusing an Oxfordshire school of failing to safeguard children against the physical effects of wireless technology, an inquest has heard.

Jenny Fry, 15, was found in woodland near her home in Chadlington, on June 11 this year after texting a friend telling her she would not be going to school and intended to kill herself. An inquest heard the teenager was intelligent and organised but that her life had been made a misery due to the prolonged effects of a condition known as electro-hypersensitivity (EHS).

Jenny’s mother, Debra Fry, said her daughter suffered with tiredness, headaches and bladder problems as a direct result of wireless internet connections at Chipping Norton School.”

Debra Fry’s claim that that her daughter could sense—much less was made ill by—electromagnetic waves and fields (EMFs) has found little or no support in the medical community.

The World Health Organization, for example, concluded that “well controlled and conducted double-blind studies have shown that symptoms do not seem to be correlated with EMF exposure… these symptoms may be due to pre-existing psychiatric conditions as well as stress reactions as a result of worrying about believed EMF health effects, rather than EMF exposure.”

Nonetheless, concern over the effects of EMFs (via power lines) have been around since the 1970s, and resurfaced in the past decade as cell phones have become ubiquitous. Indeed, there is a burgeoning market for so-called “EMF shields” that can be inserted into cell phones that allegedly block harmful electromagnetic waves (though consumer groups say there’s no evidence they are effective).

In May of this year, Berkeley, Calif. became the first American city to pass a measure requiring that cell phones be sold with a health warning about the exposure of users to radio frequency radiation.

Despite no credible scientific evidence that EMFs and cell phone radiation can cause cancer, some people claim that they can actually sense or feel the presence of radio waves. Signals pass harmlessly through our bodies all time, and always have. All our lives—and even before we were born—we have been surrounded by television, radio, and other waves.

High-energy cosmic waves including particles called muons pass through us all the time; as a article noted, “About 10,000 muons pass through our bodies every minute. Some of these muons will ionize molecules as they go through our flesh, occasionally leading to genetic mutations that may be harmful. At present, the average human receives the equivalent of about 10 chest X-rays per year from cosmic rays. We shouldn’t be alarmed by this, since it is just part of the natural background radiation under which humans and our ancestors have been exposed to for eons.”

Dr. Harriet Hall, a blogger for the consumer protection website, notes that “the symptoms that ‘EMS’ patients report are real, but there is no evidence that they are caused by EMF exposure. In provocation studies, patients were unable to tell when they were being exposed to radiofrequency emissions, and they reported the same symptoms regardless of whether the devices were turned on or off.”

In other words no one is suggesting that the people who believe they have EMS are not suffering from real symptoms, but instead that they are misattributing what is causing those symptoms. A rash, for example, might be caused by an undiagnosed allergy, sensitivity to laundry detergent, or something else but be assumed to have its origins in unseen electromagnetic waves.

Despite Fry’s mother’s claims, it’s not clear why her daughter killed herself (or even that she intended to); she was clearly emotionally troubled and just because they both believed that she was sensitive to EMFs (and that the symptoms she described were attributable to that) does not mean she actually was.

Even if sensitivity to Wi-Fi had been demonstrated, Mrs. Fry’s assertion that “Wi-Fi killed my daughter” is a stretch. Many people suffer miserably from seasonal allergies, but it would be difficult to prove that pollen, for example, in any way “caused” a sufferer’s suicide.

There also seems to be some confusion about what drove her to suicide; a news article in November reported that Jenny was “still deeply upset” following the suicide of a close friend a year earlier, and barely mentioned EMF sensitivity.

Read more at Discovery News

Huge Jupiter-Like Storm Rages On Cool 'Failed Star'

Jupiter’s Big Red Spot is the largest example of a long-lived storm in the solar system, but now it has some pretty stiff competition in another star system. However, this “exo-storm” hasn’t been spied on another gas giant, it’s been spotted in the uppermost layers of a cool, small star.

L-dwarfs are a special subset of tiny stellar objects that possess both star-like and planet-like characteristics. Known colloquially as “failed stars,” brown dwarfs are too massive to be classified as planets, but they are too small to be clearly defined as stars. They form a bridge between planets and stars and can weigh-in at many times the mass of Jupiter (although their physical size is approximately that of Jupiter). They are celestial mongrels in a way; they have qualities of both stars and planets, but can be clearly defined as neither.

For example, although some of the more massive brown dwarfs (such as M- and L-dwarfs) can experience some low-level fusion in their cores (a star-like quality), it’s not enough to raise the object’s temperature beyond a couple of thousand degrees. Therefore, their atmospheres can become stratified (layered) and possess very planet-like phenomena such as clouds and, in this case, powerful storms.

NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer discovered W1906+40 in 2011 and astronomers realized that the object was within the field of view of NASA’s exoplanet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope. Usually, Kepler will look out for “transits” of exoplanets that orbit in front of their host stars — the slight dimming caused by the planet blocking star light causes a dip in brightness. But sometimes “starspots” can also be detected by Kepler — basically huge dark patches of magnetic activity in the uppermost stellar layers.

So, using Kepler, although the light generated by W1906+40 is faint, astronomers detected a huge dark patch rotate with the L-dwarf’s spin. Could it just be another star sporting a vast, dark cluster of star spots, like our sun does during periods of high magnetic activity?

To investigate, the researchers turned to another NASA mission for help: the Spitzer Space Telescope. And what they discovered may come as a surprise.

Viewing the brown dwarf in infrared light, Spitzer was able to determine that the large dark feature on W1906+40 isn’t driven by magnetism, so it isn’t a star spot, it’s actually an atmospheric phenomenon. It’s a big, dark storm near the north polar region.

“The star is the size of Jupiter, and its storm is the size of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot,” said John Gizis, of the University of Delaware, Newark, lead author of the study to be published in The Astrophysical Journal. “We know this newfound storm has lasted at least two years and probably longer.”

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 9, 2015

Snakes Slither on a Thin Layer of Fat

Anyone who’s ever watched a snake slither knows that, no matter the surface, they make it look easy. Smooth and easy -- without tearing themselves to shreds. Scientists have long been aware that snakes feel slipperier on their bellies than on their backs, but what accounted for the difference remained a mystery.

Now they think they may have found the mechanism that effectively greases the skids, as it were, and reduces the friction from all of that slithering.

In a paper published December 9 in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, researchers from Oregon State University (OSU), Kiel University, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research, report their discovery of what is essentially a super-thin layer of fat covering the skin of one common species of snake.

The researchers examined skin samples of the California kingsnake, using a sophisticated laser spectroscopy technique to analyze the surfaces. It allowed them to study at the molecular level the outermost layer of the creature’s skin.

What they found was a previously undiscovered lipid (fatty) layer, only a few nanometers thick, coating the animal’s ventral (belly) and dorsal (top) scales.

Importantly, the layer differs in structure between those two surfaces. According to the researchers, the belly layer “exhibits a higher degree of order and denser packing.” The more highly ordered belly film -- with molecules lined up and nearly perpendicular to the surface below –- provides both lubrication and a kind of defense against wear and tear.

“It’s crazy how well ordered this [ layer ] is,” said the study’s lead author, OSU’s Joe Baio, in a statement during a symposium at which he first announced his team’s discovery. “It would be hard for me to believe it is random, because you have to work hard to make a well-ordered monolayer.”

Baio told the BBC he has already begun looking for the same structures on other snake species and that so far they, too, seem to have them.

From Discovery News

New Frog Found in Tiny Water Pool in Plant

Like a page out of a storybook, researchers have just found a tiny frog living in a tiny nature-made pool formed by the leaves of a plant.

The new tree frog has been named Dendropsophus bromeliaceus, aka the Teresensis’ bromeliad treefrog, which refers to locals at the municipality of Santa Teresa, Brazil, where the frog was found, and to the leafy bromeliad plants in which it lives.

“Bromeliads accumulate rainwater between leaves, which provides refuge, moisture and water,” wrote lead researcher Rodrigo Ferreira and colleagues in a PLOS ONE paper describing the discovery.

Ferreira, a researcher at both Utah State University and Brazil’s Universidade Vila Velha, and his colleagues found the frog while surveying the plants along rocky outcrops at Santa Teresa. It is a mountainous region within the Atlantic Forest of Brazil.

They both heard and saw the little frog as one leapt out of its plant home.

The scientists now suspect that the new species spends its tadpole stage in the leaf-created water pool before heading out to explore other leafy territory. Such a lifestyle is unusual, as many other frogs of a similar type begin their lives in small ponds or puddles on the ground.

The frog is not a quiet creature either, as it advertises its presence for others.

“The advertisement call is composed of a moderate-pitched two-note call,” according to the researchers. “The territorial call contains more notes and pulses thatn the advertisement call.”

Females appear to be larger than males. Ferreira and his colleagues also believe that it's the males of this species that do the parenting.

Read more at Discovery News

CO2 Isn't Spurring Plant Growth as Expected

Plants use the energy in sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water to sugar, which they use for food to nourish themselves, and oxygen, which they release into the atmosphere. So you might think that if you gave plants more CO2 to work with, the way we’re doing by pumping emissions into the air, it would enhance plant growth — which, in turn, would enable plants to absorb more of the greenhouse gas. Scientists have assumed that, too. and they’ve been counting on that carbon-storing capacity to help slow climate change.

But, unfortunately, a new study published in Nature Climate Change shows that maybe we’ve been a little too optimistic.

The study, led by William Kolby Smith, a postdoctoral fellow at the Luc Hoffmann Institute who worked with the Global Landscapes Initiative and the Natural Capital Project, found that while plant growth has increased over the last 30 years, the growth isn’t as much as scientists would have expected, considering the increase in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.

Current Earth system models assume that global plant growth will provide the tremendous benefit of offsetting a significant portion of humanity’s CO2 emissions, thus buying us much needed time to curb emissions,” Smith explained in a press release.

“Unfortunately, our observation-based estimates of global vegetation growth indicate that plant growth may not buy us as much time as expected, (so) action to curb emissions is all the more urgent.”

The researchers identify two explanations for why scientists’ previous optimistic results may be off. Satellite data show that the climate, which is warming due to increased CO2, may be increasing plant stress, counteracting any positive effects from having more of the greenhouse gas. Additionally, there may not be enough nitrogen and phosphorus in the environment to enable plants to absorb additional carbon dioxide.

If we can’t depend upon plants to absorb as much carbon as we’d been counting upon them to do, that means that emissions targets based upon those numbers may need another look.

From Discovery News

Astronomers Spy the Faintest Galaxy Ever

A newly discovered early galaxy is the faintest ever found, and it's giving researchers a rare look into how ancient galaxies evolved.

To peer into the distant universe is also to peer back in time. Researchers are seeing the tiny galaxy, which they nicknamed Tayna, as it existed 13.8 billion years ago. and the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes were able to image it in the earliest stages of its evolution. The early universe was likely populated by many such newborn galaxies, NASA officials said, but few have been observed before now because of their extreme faintness.

The researchers detected the galaxy along with 21 other young galaxies near the outer edge of the observable universe.

"Thanks to this detection, the team has been able to study for the first time the properties of extremely faint objects formed not long after the Big Bang," lead author Leopoldo Infante, an astronomer at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, said in a statement.

The team called ancient newborn galaxy Tayna, which means "first-born" in the South American language Aymara spoken near Chile — it dates back to just 400 million years after the Big Bang. The galaxy is about the size of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a prominent star-forming dwarf galaxy orbiting the Milky Way, but it is forming new stars about 10 times faster.

The super-faint galaxy was visible to the scientists' telescopes because of its lucky location: behind a massive galaxy cluster Hubble was investigating, whose bulk bent the far-away galaxy's light as it passed by. That bending acted like a magnifying glass, concentrating the galaxy's light to appear 20 times brighter than it would have otherwise.

To verify the galaxy's distance and age — it is likely the faintest ever found from that early in the universe's existence, the researchers said — the researchers combined Hubble and Spitzer images to determine its exact color on the infrared spectrum. Galaxies seen from the early days of the universe appear much redder, because of the speed they're moving away from us. Although Tayna's light was originally blue or white, its vast age means that it's moving away quickly enough to take on an infrared hue.

Read more at Discovery News

Robots to Spy On Black Holes

Astronomers wanting more accurate measurements of distant black holes have some new assistants -- robots that can tackle the tedious task of monitoring black hole neighbor clouds’ glow.

The technique, known as reverberation mapping, has been in astronomers’ toolkits for decades, but it required much labor and telescope time.

The idea is that radiation from swirling matter at the mouth of an active black hole will light up distant clouds. By chemically analyzing the gas in the so-called accretion disk around the black hole and comparing it with the glow of gas farther away, astronomers can figure out the mass of the black hole and the strength of its gravitational field.

“This technique takes advantage of the fact that accretion disks don't always shine at the same brightness,” the University of Texas McDonald Observatory wrote on its website.

“A disk can flare brightly as new material falls in … or as magnetic fields cause some of the disk's gas to clump together. Measuring how long it takes the surrounding clouds to brighten as they are illuminated by these flares reveals their distance from the black hole. And measuring the width of the lines in the spectra from these clouds reveals how fast they are moving,” the observatory said.

To test whether a robot observatory could compile the maps, astronomers conducted a pilot program at the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGT), which currently consists of 11 automated telescopes in Texas, Hawaii, Australia, South Africa and Chile.

The network’s newest addition is FLOYDS, a pair of light-splitting spectrographs installed in the Faulkes Telescope North at Haleakala Observatory in Hawaii, and at the Faulkes Telescope South at Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, Australia.

“A spectrograph is a special kind of camera that splits the light of an object into its constituent colors, like a rainbow, and lets you do things like measure the chemical composition of an object and how fast it is moving with respect to you,” astrophysicist David Sand, with Texas Tech University, wrote in an email to Discovery News.

Robotically taking pictures of the sky is pretty commonplace, he added, “but these spectrographs were – and still are – totally new.”

(FLOYDS is named after the band Pink Floyd in honor of the iconic, light-splitting prism that graces the cover its “Dark Side of the Moon” record album.)

For about 200 days, the network’s robot imagers and the FLOYDS spectrograph in Hawaii kept tabs on Arp 151, a well-studied galaxy about 300 million light years away in the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear.

The galaxy contains a massive black hole, which previous reverberation mapping projects had determined to be between 6.5 million and 7 million times the mass of the sun. The Milky Way’s central black hole, by comparison, is about 4 millions times the mass of the sun.

The robot astronomers proved capable, coming up with measurements that put Arp 151’s black hole mass at 6.2 million times the mass of the sun.

“It seems like the regions around the black hole had changed in the last few years, and that is very interesting,” Sand said.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 8, 2015

Origin of heavy elements in the universe uncovered

In a letter published in the journal Nature Physics, a team of scientists from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem suggests a solution to the Galactic radioactive plutonium puzzle.

All the Plutonium used on Earth is artificially produced in nuclear reactors. Still, it turns out that it is also produced in nature.

"The origin of heavy elements produced in nature through rapid neutron capture ('r-process') by seed nuclei is one of the current nucleosynthesis mysteries," Dr. Kenta Hotokezaka, Prof. Tsvi Piran and Prof. Michael Paul from the Racah Institute of Physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem said in their letter.

Plutonium is a radioactive element. Its longest-lived isotope is plutonium-244 with a lifetime of 120 million years.

Detection of plutonium-244 in nature would imply that the element was synthesized in astrophysical phenomena not so long ago (at least in Galactic time scales) and hence its origin cannot be too far from us.

Several years ago it was discovered that the early Solar system contained a significant amount of plutonium-244. Considering its short-lived cycle, plutonium-244 that existed over four billion years ago when Earth formed has long since decayed but its daughter elements have been detected.

But recent measurements of the deposition of plutonium-244, including analysis of Galactic debris that fell to Earth and settled in deep sea, suggest that only very small amount of plutonium has reached Earth from outer space over the recent 100 million years. This is in striking contradiction to its presence at the time when the Solar system was formed, and that is why the Galactic radioactive plutonium remained a puzzle.

The Hebrew University team of scientists have shown that these contradicting observations can be reconciled if the source of radioactive plutonium (as well as other rare elements, such as gold and uranium) is in mergers of binary neutron stars. These mergers are extremely rare events but are expected to produce large amounts of heavy elements.

The model implies that such a merger took place accidentally in the vicinity of our Solar System within less than a hundred million years before it was born. This has led to the relatively large amount of plutonium-244 observed in the early Solar system.

Read more at Science Daily

How our brains overrule our senses

Is it a duck or a rabbit? The same sensory stimulus can produce different perceptions.
Scientists have long known that when sounds are faint or objects are seen through fog in the distance, repetition of these weak or ambiguous sensory 'inputs' can result in different perceptions inside the same brain. Now the results of new research, described online Dec. 7 in the journal Nature Neuroscience, have identified brain processes in mice that may help explain how those differences happen.

"In everyday life, we experience weak stimuli all the time," says senior researcher Daniel O'Connor, Ph.D., assistant professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "Did I hear my name being called? Do you smell smoke? Is that an oasis up ahead or a mirage? When the brain receives weak information through the senses, it can interpret that information in multiple ways, and we wanted to understand what determines the resulting perception."

To find out, O'Connor and his team used a simple model: the gentle tickling of a single mouse whisker, a sensory organ common to many animals. "The stimulation is faint enough that sometimes the mice perceive it, and sometimes they don't," explains O'Connor. "Why is that?"

To get at the answer, the researchers had to train the mice to indicate when they felt tickled. First, they positioned the mice close to a waterspout. After they tickled a whisker, they gave the mouse a "reward," a bit of water from the spout. If they didn't tickle a whisker, no water. So the mice learned to only lick the spout after perceiving a whisker tickle.

Using high-resolution microscopy with an engineered protein that fluoresces when a nerve cell is active, O'Connor's team members monitored the activity of hundreds of neurons in the part of the brain responsible for feeling touch. They then paired that data with the animals' licking responses. Studies in primates already had shown that activity in the primary sensory areas of the brain's cerebral cortex lines up with perception, and they found this to be true in the mice too. When the mice correctly perceived a tickle and licked the spout ('hits'), there were higher levels of activity in the cortex than when they didn't perceive a tickle ('misses').

"The cortex's response to exactly the same stimulus wasn't always the same, but it correlated with the animals' licking," says O'Connor.

So why the difference in response when the stimulation is the same? The researchers began searching for that answer by monitoring the activity of the neurons that connect to individual whiskers. Those neurons turned out to respond equally to all tickles, whether the mice perceived them or not.

After those first neurons fire in response to a tickle, however, the signal travels to the brainstem and then on to another part of the brain, the thalamus. So the research team repeated its activity monitoring there and saw a small, brief increase in neuron activity strength during the hit trials. The team thought the response seemed too small and brief to be responsible for the larger, longer hit signals seen in the cortex, though.

To get a clearer picture of the relationship between the two signaling patterns, the scientists used a beam of light to artificially enhance the signals sent from the thalamus to the cortex, but even strong light produced only weak activity peaks in the cortex and didn't help the mice perceive whisker tickles.

Finally, they returned to the cortex to look for the cause of the variability. Their previous experiments had focused on the primary sensory area of the cortex (S1). Deeper into the brain, however, is another set of neurons involved in "higher" aspects of perception, cognition and memory (S2). When the scientists monitored activity sent "backward" from these S2 neurons to those in S1, they saw patterns that did indeed predict and align with an animal's perception.

Read more at Science Daily

Dinosaurs Evolved Rapidly After First Relatives Appeared

The first dinosaur relatives may have emerged up to 10 million years later than previously thought, then evolved rapidly into the animals that would take over the world, a new study suggests.

Researchers have used a relatively new dating technique to accurately determine the age of fossils of early dinosaur relatives - known as dinosauromorphs - found in a large collection in Argentina.

"If you met an early dinosauromorph in a dark alley, you'd think it was a dinosaur," said lead author and palaeontologist Dr Randall Irmis, curator of palaeontology at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

The Argentinian Chanares Formation includes fossils of dinosauromorphs such as the 70-centimetre-long Lagerpeton chanarensis that ran on its hind legs, and the even smaller Marasuchus dinosauromorph.

"Not only is this a classic fossil assemblage that's well known the world over for these early dinosaur relatives that are found in it, but it's also got these layers that are mixed with volcanic ash that we can date," Dr Irmis said.

By analysing the ratio of uranium to lead in zircon crystals in this volcanic ash, Dr Irmis and an international team of colleagues were able to precisely date when the zircon was formed and thereby establish an upper limit for the age of the fossils preserved within the ash-containing sediment.

"What we found was that this fossil layer was a lot younger geologically than we thought," Dr Irmis said.

"People previously thought it was somewhere between 240-245 million years old and we showed that it was about 235 million years old," said Dr Irmis, also an associate professor in the department of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah.

This places these early dinosauromorphs somewhere in the late Triassic period - much closer to when dinosaurs first appeared in the fossil record around 231 million years ago.

The discovery, reported today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, challenges the idea that the dinosaurs rose to dominance after the end-Permian extinction event - the largest mass extinction event in history 252 million years ago that wiped out so many of the large creatures that had existed before them.

"We thought that these rocks that included these early dinosauromorphs were recording the eventual recovery of ecosystems from this extinction, where ecologically things are finally getting back to normal and diversifying," Dr Irmis said.

"But now that we're moving those rocks much later in time, they're really too late to have anything to do with that recovery and now there's this gap in the record that we need to go out and fill."

Australian palaeontologist Dr Steven Salisbury from the University of Queensland said the finding does suggest the transition to dinosaur dominance happened relatively quickly, but the question remains as to why it happened so fast.

"The idea was the first dinosaurs didn't really get a stronghold until everything else had been taken out of the picture," he said.

"This indicates that dinosaurs getting a leg up so to speak didn't happen till quite a bit later."

Read more at Discovery News

Mona Lisa May Conceal Second Portrait

Another portrait lies underneath the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa, according to a French scientist who has analyzed Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece for more than 10 years.

Pascal Cotte, co-founder of Lumiere Technology, a Paris-based company which relies on multispectral imaging to digitize artworks, was given access to the painting in 2004 by the Louvre.

He claims a reflective light technology he pioneered revealed the underlying portrait of a totally different woman. In particular, the sitter lacks Mona Lisa’s famous direct gaze and smile. Instead she looks off to the side.

Cotte announced his findings at a press conference in Shanghai on Tuesday. His claim will be featured in a BBC documentary called “The Secrets of the Mona Lisa,” which airs Wednesday.

The researcher analyzed the Mona Lisa using a technique called the Layer Amplification Method (LAM). It works by projecting a series of intense light onto the painting. By measuring the light’s reflections, Cotte reconstructed what was created between the layers of the paint.

"We can now analyze exactly what is happening inside the layers of the paint and we can peel like an onion all the layers of the painting. We can reconstruct all the chronology of the creation of the painting," Cotte told the BBC.

“The results shatter many myths and alter our vision of Leonardo’s masterpiece forever,” he added.

Mona Lisa has been fascinating art lovers since her portrait was completed toward the end of the life of Leonardo, who lived from 1452-1519.

A long debate about her identity basically ended a decade ago, when conclusive evidence emerged from Heidelberg University Library in Germany.

Manuscript expert Armin Schlechter discovered a note written by the Florentine city official Agostino Vespucci, an acquaintance of Leonardo da Vinci, in the margin of a book he owned. Writing in 1503, Vespucci stated that Leonardo was working on a portrait of “Lisa del Giocondo.”

The conclusion is that Mona Lisa is indeed Lisa Gherardini, a member of a minor noble family of rural origins who married the wealthy merchant Francesco del Giocondo.

But Cotte argues the image he has found underneath the surface of the painting is the original Lisa, and the portrait named Mona Lisa is another woman.

“She is totally different to Mona Lisa today. This is not the same woman,” he said.

The Louvre Museum has declined to comment on the claim.

Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of the history of art at the University of Oxford, and one of the world’s leading Da Vinci scholars, is skeptical.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 7, 2015

Image Shows How Dolphins See People

In a scientific first, researchers have just reproduced what a dolphin saw as it encountered a male diver.

This “what the dolphin saw” image of the submerged man reveals that dolphin echolocation results in fairly detailed images. What’s more, it’s now thought that dolphins may share such images with each other as part of a previously unknown marine mammal language.

Research team leader Jack Kassewitz of said in a press release that “our recent success has left us all speechless. We now think it is safe to speculate that dolphins may employ a ‘sono-pictorial’ form of language, a language of pictures that they share with each other. If that proves to be true an exciting future lies ahead for inter species communications.”

For the research, which took place at the Dolphin Discovery Center in Puerto Aventuras, Mexico, Kassewitz had colleague Jim McDonough submerge himself in front of the female dolphin “Amaya” in a research pool at the center. To avoid bubbles from a breathing apparatus (which might have hurt the later recreation of the image), McDonough wore a weight belt and exhaled most of the air in his lungs to overcome his natural buoyancy before positioning himself against a shelf in the pool.

As Amaya directed her echolocation beam to McDonough, high specification audio equipment was used to record the signal. Team members Alex Green and Toni Saul handled that part of the project.

Green and Saul then sent the recording to the CymaScope laboratory in the U.K., where yet another colleague, acoustic physics research John Stuart Reid, imprinted the signal onto a water membrane and then computer enhanced the resulting image.

“The ability of the CymaScope to capture what-the-dolphin-saw images relates to the quasi-holographic properties of sound and its relationship with water, which will be described in a forthcoming science paper on this subject,” Reid explained.

His fellow teammates thought they had captured an echolocation image of McDonough’s face, so that was what Reid was expecting to see. Instead, as he told Kassewitz in a note at the time, the signal translated to “what appears to be the fuzzy silhouette of almost a full man. No face.”

Read more at Discovery News

Stonehenge First Built in Wales, Study Claims

Stonehenge may have stood in Wales hundreds of years before it was dismantled and transported to Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, a new research into megalithic bluestone quarries suggests.

The study, published in the current issue of the journal Antiquity, indicates that two quarries in the Preseli Hills of Pembrokeshire, in southwest Wales, are the source of Stonehenge’s bluestones. Carbon dating revealed such stones were dug out at least 500 years before Stonehenge was built — suggesting they were first used in a local monument that was later dismantled and dragged off to England.

The very large standing stones at Stonehenge are sarsen, a local sandstone. The smaller ones, known as bluestones, consist of volcanic and igneous rocks, the most common of which are called dolerite and rhyolite.

Geologists have known since the 1920s that the bluestones were brought to Stonehenge from somewhere in the Preseli Hills, around 140 miles from Stonehenge. But the outcrops of Carn Goedog were only recently identified as the main source of Stonehenge’s dolerite and Craig Rhos-y-felin as the source for the rhyolite bluestones.

The new research focused specifically on the Craig Rhos-y-felin outcrops.

A team of scientists from University London College, University of Manchester, Bournemouth University, University of Southampton, National Museum Wales, and Dyfed Archaeological Trust, excavated the site in a five-year dig.

They found a series of holes cut into the rocky outcrops that match Stonehenge’s bluestones in size and shape.

They concluded that the special formation of the rock, which forms natural pillars, allowed the prehistoric quarry-workers to detach each megalith with a minimum of effort.

“They only had to insert wooden wedges into the cracks between the pillars and then let the Welsh rain do the rest by swelling the wood to ease each pillar off the rock face,” Josh Pollard, at the University of Southampton, said.

“The quarry-workers then lowered the thin pillars onto platforms of earth and stone, a sort of ‘loading bay’ from where the huge stones could be dragged away along trackways leading out of each quarry,” Pollard added.

Radiocarbon-dating of burnt hazelnuts and charcoal from the quarry-workers’ campfires showed surprising results.

“We have dates of around 3400 B.C. for Craig Rhos-y-felin and 3200 B.C. for Carn Goedog, which is intriguing because the bluestones didn’t get put up at Stonehenge until around 2900 B.C.,” Mike Parker Pearson, director of the project and professor of British later prehistory at University College London said.

The dating suggests Stonehenge was basically a second-hand monument from Wales.

“It could have taken those Neolithic stone-draggers nearly 500 years to get them to Stonehenge, but that’s pretty improbable in my view,” Parker Pearson said.

He believes the “first Stonehenge” was right in Wales; the monument was then dismantled and dragged off to Salisbury Plain.

According to the researchers, it is possible the bluestones were brought by communities migrating eastwards and settling on Salisbury Plain.

“The motivation for moving the bluestones such a distance was probably related to their significance as symbols of identity,” they wrote.

Parker Pearson noted that each of the 80 monoliths weighed less than 2 tons, so teams of people or oxen could have managed to transport them.

“We know from examples in India and elsewhere in Asia that single stones this size can even be carried on wooden lattices by groups of 60 – they didn’t even have to drag them if they didn’t want to,” Parker Pearson said.

He believes the bluestones were erected at Stonehenge around 2900 B.C., long before the giant sarsens were put up around 2500 B.C.

“Stonehenge was a Welsh monument from its very beginning. If we can find the original monument in Wales from which it was built, we will finally be able to solve the mystery,” Parker Pearson said.

According to Kate Welham, of Bournemouth University, the ruins of a dismantled monument are likely to lie somewhere between the two megalith quarries. The team has been using geophysical surveys, trial excavations and aerial photographic analysis to try identify the likely location.

“We think we have the most likely spot. The results are very promising. We may find something big in 2016,” Welham said.

The research has already raised controversy. According to geologist John Downes and geomorphologists Dyfed Elis-Gruffydd and Brian John, no traces of a Neolithic quarry can be found at Craig Rhos-y-felin.

Read more at Discovery News

Embalmed Hearts Found Under French Convent

Four hundred years after they were buried in heart-shaped lead urns, five embalmed human hearts have been discovered in a cemetery in northwestern France.

Scientists said they were able to peer inside those organs with modern medical imaging techniques, revealing the hearts’ chambers, valves and arteries, some still bearing marks of disease.

The hearts were discovered underneath the basement of the Convent of the Jacobins in Rennes, where archaeologists with France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research have been excavating graves for the past several years, ahead of a plan to turn the site into a conference center.

So far, the archaeologists have unearthed hundreds of burials dating back to the late 16th or early 17th centuries, including the well-preserved corpse of a widow named Louise de Quengo, Lady of Brefeillac, who died in 1656. De Quengo’s body had been sealed in a lead coffin, and when that container was opened for an autopsy recently, the woman’s clothes —a cape, linen shirt, wool leg warmers and cork-soled shoes —were remarkably still intact, according to a report in The Guardian.

Inside de Quengo’s coffin, archaeologists also found a lead case containing the heart of her husband, Toussaint Perrien, Knight of Brefeillac.

“It was common during that time period to be buried with the heart of a husband or wife,” Dr. Fatima-Zohra Mokrane, a radiologist at Rangueil Hospital at the University Hospital of Toulouse in France, who led the new study, said in a statement. “It’s a very romantic aspect to the burials.”

Four other heart-shaped urns had been discovered in the funerary vaults of elite-class families at the Convent of the Jacobins. In an effort to learn more about the health of those 400-year-old hearts, Mokrane and a team of scientists cleaned the organs and removed the embalming material so that they could scan the hearts using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT).

“Since four of the five hearts were very well-preserved, we were able to see signs of present-day heart conditions, such as plaque and atherosclerosis,” Mokrane said in a statement.

One heart showed no signs of disease, but three others showed a buildup of plaque on the coronary arteries, which can cause a blockage of the heart, Mokrane and her colleagues found. The findings were reported Wednesday (Dec. 2) at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, in Chicago.

Read more at Discovery News

Mysterious Egyptian Mummy Has Head Full of Dirt

A mysterious Egyptian mummy dating back about 3,200 years has dirt in the skull, a new investigation reveals.

The presence of what looks like dark sediment inside the mummy’s head is bizarre, said the researchers, who used computed tomography (CT) to peer inside the mummy. Not only was there some sort of sediment in the head, the researchers found, but the individual’s brain remains inside, too.

“It’s some form of material added into the brain case while the brain was left inside,” Jonathan Elias, the director of the Akhmim Mummy Studies Consortium, said in a statement. “We have not seen that particular pattern before.”

Elias made his comments in a video recorded as the mummy was being scanned at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California, where researchers have previously used CT to delve into the remains of both human and crocodile mummies.

The latest mummy to undergo this high-tech scrutiny is named Hatason, though researchers said they believe this is a nickname assigned after death, not the individual’s real name. According to Stanford, the mummy was transported from Egypt to San Francisco in the late 1800s and was displayed at the California Midwinter International Exposition in 1894. In 1895, the mummy joined the collection of San Francisco’s de Young Museum.

The mummified body currently resides at the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco. Whoever sold the mummy in the 1800s probably named it Hatason to bring to mind the royal name of queen Hatshepsut, but this mummified individual was no royal. Her coffin depicts a woman in the standard dress of an everyday citizen, though it’s not clear whether the coffin the mummy rests in now was originally the individual’s; mummy buyers of the 1800s reused coffins haphazardly.

The scans are still being analyzed, but the initial look inside the mummy, on Nov. 24, revealed some odd details. The mummy had no amulets in its wrappings, only a metal tack probably used by a museum curator to keep the mummy’s wrappings together. The bones are jumbled inside the wrappings, which are still shaped into a mold of the ancient woman’s body. The pelvis, which is what researchers typically use to determine gender, had collapsed, but Elias said the mummy’s skull looked female.

The fact that the brain was not removed from the skull suggests the individual lived during the New Kingdom, between the 16th and 11th centuries B.C., Elias said. In mummies created after that period, he said, the brain was always removed.

Someone was probably experimenting with mummification techniques at the time, though. Adding sediment to a skull with the brain inside is a method not seen before, Elias said. It’s the kind of detail only a high-tech CT analysis could uncover without destroying the mummy, he said.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 6, 2015

New Horizons returns first of the best images of Pluto

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has sent back the first in a series of the sharpest views of Pluto it obtained during its July flyby -- and the best close-ups of Pluto that humans may see for decades.

Each week the piano-sized New Horizons spacecraft transmits data stored on its digital recorders from its flight through the Pluto system on July 14. These latest pictures are part of a sequence taken near New Horizons' closest approach to Pluto, with resolutions of about 250-280 feet (77-85 meters) per pixel -- revealing features less than half the size of a city block on Pluto's diverse surface. In these new images, New Horizons captured a wide variety of cratered, mountainous and glacial terrains.

"These close-up images, showing the diversity of terrain on Pluto, demonstrate the power of our robotic planetary explorers to return intriguing data to scientists back here on planet Earth," said John Grunsfeld, former astronaut and associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "New Horizons thrilled us during the July flyby with the first close images of Pluto, and as the spacecraft transmits the treasure trove of images in its onboard memory back to us, we continue to be amazed by what we see."

These latest images form a strip 50 miles (80 kilometers) wide on a world 3 billion miles away. The pictures trend from Pluto's jagged horizon about 500 miles (800 kilometers) northwest of the informally named Sputnik Planum, across the al-Idrisi mountains, over the shoreline of Sputnik, and across its icy plains. (To view the strip in the highest resolution possible, click here and zoom in.)

"These new images give us a breathtaking, super-high resolution window into Pluto's geology," said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. "Nothing of this quality was available for Venus or Mars until decades after their first flybys; yet at Pluto we're there already -- down among the craters, mountains and ice fields -- less than five months after flyby! The science we can do with these images is simply unbelievable."

The images were captured with the telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard New Horizons, about 15 minutes before New Horizons' closest approach to Pluto -- from a range of just 10,000 miles (17,000 kilometers). They were obtained with an unusual observing mode; instead of working in the usual "point and shoot," LORRI snapped pictures every three seconds while the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) aboard New Horizons was scanning the surface. This mode requires unusually short exposures to avoid blurring the images.

Read more at Discovery News

Burning Natural Gas Can Be as Bad as Coal

Coal recently was eclipsed by natural gas as the nation’s top source of energy for electrical power generation. That might seem like a good development, because gas has a reputation as a cleaner fuel that contributes about half as much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere when it’s burned as coal does.

But that benefit could be illusory, if even only a small amount of the gas — less than 5 percent of what is removed from the Earth — leaks into the atmosphere while it’s being used to produce electricity, according to a newly-published study by University of Colorado, Denver researchers in the journal Climatic Change.

The problem is that between 70 and 90 percent of natural gas is methane. The latter is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas emission, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, though a 2013 study found that it had 34  times the effect of CO2.

The researchers calculated that over a 20 year period, it only takes a leakage rate of 3.9 percent to render natural gas as damaging as coal when it comes to climate change. Over 100 years, the margin does increase to 9.1 percent.

“This study is important because it shows that controlling natural gas leakage is crucial at every step of the supply chain, from drilling to residential distribution,” one of the study’s authors, associate professor of civil engineering David Mays, said in a press release.

It seems likely that the threshold set in the study is being exceeded. A 2012 air-sampling study by another UC Denver scientist, Gabrielle Pétron, found that natural-gas drillers in an area known as the Denver-Julesburg Basin were losing about 4 percent of their gas to the atmosphere, even before it’s transported through pipelines to electrical power plants.

From Discovery News