Dec 30, 2016

An extra second has been added to 2016 on Dec 31

On December 31, 2016, a "leap second" will be added to the world's clocks at 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). This corresponds to 6:59:59 pm Eastern Standard Time, when the extra second will be inserted at the U.S. Naval Observatory's Master Clock Facility in Washington, DC.

Historically, time was based on the mean rotation of the Earth relative to celestial bodies and the second was defined in this reference frame. However, the invention of atomic clocks defined a much more precise "atomic" timescale and a second that is independent of Earth's rotation.

In 1970, international agreements established a procedure to maintain a relationship between Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) and UT1, a measure of the Earth's rotation angle in space.

The International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS) is the organization which monitors the difference in the two time scales and calls for leap seconds to be inserted in or removed from UTC when necessary to keep them within 0.9 seconds of each other. In order to create UTC, a secondary timescale, International Atomic Time (TAI), is first generated; it consists of UTC without leap seconds. When the system was instituted in 1972, the difference between TAI and UTC was determined to be 10 seconds. Since 1972, 26 additional leap seconds have been added at intervals varying from six months to seven years, with the most recent being inserted on June 30, 2015. After the insertion of the leap second in December, the cumulative difference between UTC and TAI will be 37 seconds.

Confusion sometimes arises over the misconception that the occasional insertion of leap seconds every few years indicates that the Earth should stop rotating within a few millennia. This is because some mistake leap seconds to be a measure of the rate at which the Earth is slowing.

The one-second increments are, however, indications of the accumulated difference in time between the two systems.

The decision as to when to add a leap second is determined by the IERS, for which the USNO serves as the Rapid Service/Prediction Center. Measurements show that the Earth, on average, runs slow compared to atomic time, at about 1.5 to 2 milliseconds per day. These data are generated by the USNO using the technique of Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI). VLBI measures the rotation of the Earth by observing the apparent positions of distant objects near the edge of the observable universe. These observations show that after roughly 500 to 750 days, the difference between Earth rotation time and atomic time would be about one second.

Instead of allowing this to happen a leap second is inserted to bring the two time-scales closer together. We can easily change the time of an atomic clock, but it is not possible to alter the Earth's rotational speed to match the atomic clocks.

The U.S. Naval Observatory is charged with the responsibility for the precise determination and dissemination of time for the Department of Defense and maintains DoD's Master Clock.

The U.S. Naval Observatory, together with the National Institute ofStandards and Technology (NIST), determines time for the United States.

Modern electronic navigation and communications systems depend increasingly on the dissemination of precise time through such mechanisms as theInternet-based Network Time Protocol (NTP) and the satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS).

Read more at Science Daily

Most doctors ignore one of the most potent ways to improve health

Leveraging existing relationships with friends and family may be a more effective way to improve patients' health and encourage new healthy habits and behaviors than increasing interactions with physicians or other clinicians. In a new perspective published by the New England Journal of Medicine, Penn Medicine behavioral economists suggest a five-step ladder to effectively engineering social engagements that promote health and to test their acceptability and effectiveness.

"Spouses and friends are more likely to be around patients when they are making decisions that affect their health -- like taking a walk versus watching TV, or what to order at a restaurant. Patients are also more likely to adopt healthy behaviors -- like going to the gym -- when they can go with a friend," explains co-author David Asch, MD, MBA, a professor of Medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Medicine Center for Health Care Innovation. "Though people are more heavily influenced by those around them every day than they are by doctors and nurses they interact with only occasionally, these cost-free interactions remain largely untapped when engineering social incentives for health. That's a missed opportunity."

Because of these lost opportunities, and the high costs when doctors and nurses keep tabs on their patients, the authors say it's important to engineer social engagements that enlist the social support patients already have, and allow organizations to test their acceptability. "Concerns about privacy are often the reason doctors and hospitals avoid organizing social support," Asch says. "But while privacy is very important to some patients under some circumstances, more often patients would love if their friends and family helped them manage their diabetes, and those friends and family want to help people get their health under control."

The authors define a ladder with escalating rungs of social support ranging from no social engagement -- such as when a patient is expected to take medication as part of a routine, without anyone seeing them do it or holding them accountable -- to a design that relies on reputational or economic incentives, and incorporates teams or other designs that hold patients accountable for their health behaviors and habits.

"Although we don't normally think of competition or collaboration among patients are part of managing chronic diseases like high blood pressure, heart failure, or diabetes, research shows that behavior is contagious, and programs that take advantage of these naturally occurring relationships can be very effective," said co-author Roy Rosin, MBA, chief innovation officer at Penn Medicine. "Most health care interventions are designed for the individual patient, but there's a growing body of research that shows how health care organizations can use social engagement strategy to enhance health for patients who want to be involved in group activities or team competitions aimed at improving health."

Read more at Science Daily

Ancient Chaco Canyon population likely relied on imported food

Ancient inhabitants of Chaco Canyon likely had to import corn to feed the masses a thousand years ago says a new CU-Boulder study.
The ancient inhabitants of New Mexico's Chaco Canyon, the zenith of Pueblo culture in the Southwest a thousand years ago, likely had to import corn to feed the multitudes residing there, says a new University of Colorado Boulder study.

CU Boulder scientist Larry Benson said the new study shows that Chaco Canyon -- believed by some archeologists to have been populated by several thousand people around A.D. 1100 and to have held political sway over an area twice the size of Ohio -- had soils that were too salty for the effective growth of corn and beans.

"The important thing about this study is that it demonstrates you can't grow great quantities of corn in the Chaco valley floor," said Benson, an adjunct curator of anthropology at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. "And you couldn't grow sufficient corn in the side canyon tributaries of Chaco that would have been necessary to feed several thousand people.

"Either there were very few people living in Chaco Canyon, or corn was imported there."

A paper by Benson was published online in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Between the ninth and 12th centuries, Chaco Canyon (officially the Chaco Culture Natural Historic Park) located in the San Juan Basin in north-central New Mexico was the focus of an unprecedented construction effort, said Benson. At the height of its cultural heyday, 12 stone masonry "great houses" and other structures were built there, along with a network of ceremonial roads linking Chaco with other Pueblo sites in the Southwest.

As part of the study, Benson used a tree ring data set created by University of Arizona Professor Emeritus Jeff Dean that showed annual Chaco Canyon precipitation spanning 1,100 years. The tree rings indicate the minimum amount of annual precipitation necessary to grow corn was exceeded only 2.5 percent of the time during that time period.

Benson suggests that much of the corn consumed by the ancient people of Chaco may have come from the Chuska Slope, the eastern flank of the Chuska Mountains some 50 miles west of Chaco Canyon that also was the source of some 200,000 timbers used to shore up Chaco Canyon masonry structures. Between 11,000 and 17,000 Pueblo people are thought to have resided on the Chuska Slope prior to A.D. 1130, he said.

Winter snows in the Chuska Mountains would have produced a significant amount of spring snowmelt that was combined with surface water features like natural "wash systems," said Benson. Water concentrated and conveyed by washes would have allowed for the diversion of surface water to irrigate large corn fields on the Chuska Slope, he said.

Benson said the Chaco Canyon inhabitants traded regularly with the Chuska Slope residents, as evidenced by stone tool material (chert), pottery and wooden beams.

"There were timbers, pottery and chert coming from the Chuska region to Chaco Canyon, so why not surplus corn?" asks Benson, a former U.S. Geological Survey scientist.

Read more at Science Daily

A Star's Explosive Death May Have Spawned Our Solar System

The explosive death of a star — that may have been up to a dozen times the sun's mass — might have triggered the formation of the solar system, a new study finds.

The sun as well as the rest of the solar system was born from a cloud of gas and dust about 4.6 billion years ago. According to previous research, some event disturbed this cloud, prompting a gravitational collapse that formed the sun and a surrounding disk of matter, where the planets were born.

By searching for telltale patterns that have been left in matter from the dawn of the solar system, Yong-Zhong Qian, co-author of the new study and an astrophysicist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and his colleagues now suggest that the explosive death of a small star could have kicked off that collapse.

Prior work has suggested that a supernova's shock wave might have packed enough energy to compress the preexisting cloud of dust. And researchers have searched for evidence of that blast: Supernovas generate telltale patterns of unstable, short-lived radioactive isotopes. The discovery of the signatures of such anomalies in ancient rocks would help confirm the idea that a supernova triggered the solar system's formation. (The isotopes of an element have different numbers of neutrons. A different number at the end of the isotope's name identifies each variety: for example, beryllium-9 or beryllium-10.)

Until now, researchers have failed to find the fingerprints of these isotopic anomalies in ancient meteorites that were left over from the birth of the solar system. However, researchers had been examining supernovas from relatively high-mass stars — those that are 15 or more times the sun's mass, Qian told Qian's group chose to model lower-mass supernovas instead, from stars that are 12 times the sun's mass or less, and they investigated what isotopes would be formed from those explosions. They focused on the production of beryllium-10, an isotope that is commonly found in meteorites. Its prevalence in meteorites was already a mystery for researchers, Qian said. One theory held that high-energy cosmic rays could have stripped away protons or neutrons from atomic nuclei to create the beryllium-10 — a process called spallation.

Using new supernova models, Qian and his colleagues found that a low-mass supernova could generate vast amounts of ghostly particles known as neutrinos, whose influence on atomic nuclei could have created beryllium-10 — which would explain the high levels of that isotope in the meteorite record.

Moreover, the researchers said that the influence of a low-mass supernova might also explain the presence of other short-lived isotopes that are also found in meteorites, such as calcium-41 and palladium-107. "A low-mass supernova can explain the wide range of data that we have," Qian told

Qian noted that the study group's findings do not explain the presence of all short-lived isotopes that are found in meteorites. "We think that some of these other short-lived nuclei might have been contributed by other mechanisms," Qian said. "I don't think that should be taken as a weakness of our model — it's just that our model cannot explain everything. Our work is a major piece of the puzzle about the solar system's formation, but there are other pieces of the puzzle that should be looked at as well."

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 29, 2016

Scans Unveil Secrets of the World's Oldest Mummies

More than 7,000 years after they were embalmed by the Chinchorro people, an ancient civilization in modern-day Chile and Peru, 15 mummies were taken to a Santiago clinic last week to undergo DNA analysis and computerized tomography scans.

The Chinchorro were a hunting and fishing people who lived from 10,000 to 3,400 B.C. on the Pacific coast of South America, at the edge of the Atacama desert.

They were among the first people in the world to mummify their dead. Their mummies date back some 7,400 years — at least 2,000 years older than Egypt's.

Now, researchers are hoping to use modern medical technology to reconstruct what they looked like in life, decode their genes and better understand the mysteries of this ancient civilization.

The 15 Chinchorro mummies, mostly children and unborn babies, were put through a CT scanner at the Los Condes clinic in the Chilean capital.

"We collected thousands of images with a precision of less than one millimeter," said chief radiologist Marcelo Galvez.

"The next phase is to try to dissect these bodies virtually, without touching them, which will help us preserve them for another 500,000 years."

Using high-tech computer processing, researchers are busy reconstructing the mummies' muscles and facial features.

"We want to see what they physically looked like, to reconstruct them and bring to life someone who died thousands of years ago," said Galvez.

Researchers are also hoping to learn more about how the Chinchorro mummified their dead.

The Chinchorro, who apparently had a complex understanding of human anatomy, would carefully remove the skin and muscles of the deceased.

Using wood, plants and clay, they reconstructed the body around the remaining skeleton, then sewed the original skin back on, adding a mouth, eyes and hair.

A mask was then placed over the face.

The result looks like something in between a statue and a person — eerily lifelike even after thousands of years.

All in the family

Mummification was an intimate process for the Chinchorro, said Veronica Silva, the head of the anthropology department at Chile's National Museum of Natural History.

"The family itself would make the mummy," she told AFP.

The earliest mummies were unborn fetuses and newborns, she said.

The mummies were all made using the same basic process, but each one shows unique "technological and artistic innovations," she said.

Read more at Discovery News

Hubble Finds Galaxy-Sized Microwave 'Mega-Laser'

In the classic movie "Star Wars: A New Hope", the Luke Skywalker-led Rebel Alliance destroyed the Empire's super-scary super-weapon, the Death Star. Underestimating the power of The Force, Darth Vader oversaw the construction of a second Death Star that was, again, snuffed-out with the help of a tribe of furry bears on the forest moon of Endor in "Star Wars: Return of the Jedi." Ever a glutton for punishment, 30 years later in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens", the Dark Side's new fascist social club the First Order decided it would be a great plan to build the Starkiller Base — basically a bigger, badder Death Star that eats stars for breakfast. That, too, exploded after some rushed planning by those meddling Rebels.

So, should this up-sizing logic continue, by "Star Wars Episode X," can we can expect the Dark Side to build a galaxy-sized superweapon that could vaporize any galactic neighbor with the flick of a switch?

This might sound far fetched, and probably a fairly horrible premise for a "Star Wars" story line, but it seems Mother Nature may be a little more forward-thinking than Emperor Palpatine and the Hubble Space Telescope has already spotted a fully operational galaxy-sized mega-laser.

Though it might not look like much, the galaxy pictured here hosts a "megamaser." Megamasers, besides sounding awesome, are basically "astronomical lasers" that produce intense emissions of microwaves that originate from the stimulated emission of microwaves from the interstellar clouds contained within the cores of galaxies. Their smaller cousins, stellar masers, can be found throughout our galaxy and are often produced in star-forming nebulae. For example, interstellar water molecules are known to produce specific frequencies that appear very bright in radio observations of the cosmos.

Megamasers, however, are in a league of they own, generating around a 100 million times more energy than regular Milky Way masers.

This observation of IRAS 16399-0937, a galaxy located over 370 million light-years from Earth, was imaged by Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) and Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS). Though it may look fairly passive and peaceful, it's generating powerful microwave radiation, making it an important astronomical curiosity.

IRAS 16399-0937 is actually known to contain two nuclei, possibly revealing that it was once two galaxies that have merged together. The northern nucleus is known to contain a supermassive black hole 100 million times the mass of our sun. Also, the southern nucleus is a very active "starburst" region, pooping-out baby stars at a speedy rate, whereas the northern nucleus appears to be devoid of star formation. With the help of Hubble's NICMOS, astronomers have been able to resolve each nucleus spiraling in toward one another.

Read more at Discovery News

A Hole in the Sun Could Unleash New Year's Fireworks

Like watching an ominous storm brew on the horizon, solar astronomers have spied a large coronal hole emerge deep inside the sun's magnetized atmosphere (known as the corona), signalling that turbulent space weather is possibly headed our way. But don't prepare your tornado shelters or board up your windows, this kind of storm will have minimal impacts on the ground and could actually generate some timely auroral fireworks to kick of 2017 in style.

As reported by, NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) has been tracking a dark region in the sun's lower corona rotate into view. Coronal holes are associated with streams of fast-moving superheated plasma that emerges from the sun's interior and then accelerated into space, following magnetic fields that reach from the lower corona and flow out into interplanetary space.

As the sun rotates, it sweeps magnetic streams out into the solar system, like a spinning garden sprinkler, sending these high-energy particles along with it as the fast solar wind. The sun also sweeps out slow-moving streams of plasma (the slow solar wind), which can create a barrier to these fast streams. The regions where these two streams interact are known as co-rotating interaction regions (CIRs) and they are known to cause plasma to "bunch up", creating dense flows of shocked plasma. And as we are basically staring into a fast stream's sprinkler's head, a CIR is likely on its way.

The SDO observes the sun's hot atmosphere through many different filters that are sensitive to different wavelengths of light. Each wavelength represents a different plasma temperature and in the observation above, the SDO is looking at plasma that is glowing at a temperature of 2.25 million Fahrenheit (1.25 million Kelvin). At this wavelength, coronal holes become obvious — they appear dark as the density of plasma is very low (as the particles are being lost to space very quickly); bright regions are dense with plasma at this temperature as they are trapped in closed magnetic field lines, features known as coronal loops.

Typically, solar wind particles in fast streams coming from coronal holes take a couple of days to travel from the sun to the Earth, so by using these SDO observations, solar physicists can make predictions as to what might happen when a CIR washes over Earth. Although we can expect more dramatic impacts if the sun unleashed an explosive event, like a coronal mass ejection or solar flare, CIRs are known to intensify space weather conditions, likely sparking auroras.

When solar particles hit our planet's powerful magnetic field, these electrically charged particles (known as ions) are deflected by the global magnetosphere and channeled to polar regions where Earth's magnetic field passes into the planet's crust. When a solar storm hits, these particles rain through the Earth's atmosphere at high latitudes, hitting atmospheric gases. This is when the magic happens. As solar plasma hits the atmosphere, light is produced. This light is known as the aurora. And as we are seeing this coronal hole emerge now, it could mean auroral activity on New Year's Eve.

Read more at Discovery News

Bird Flu Jumps From a Cat to a Human for the First Time

Health officials in New York have confirmed that the H7N2 strain of bird flu virus has, for the first time, been transmitted from a cat to a human.

A veterinarian at the Animal Care Center's of NYC's Manhattan shelter whose work involved gathering respiratory specimens from sick cats was infected. The shelter was reportedly home to at least 45 cats infected with H7N2, the first jump of the flu strain from birds to cats.

The infected veterinarian's illness was brief and has resolved itself, according to NYC Health. More than 150 other ACC staff have been screened for H7N2, with no one else testing positive. Screenings of volunteers and those who adopted cats from the shelter have also not turned up any new cases.

NYC Health said more than 100 cats across city shelters have tested positive for H7N2, all of whom are expected to recover from the illness, which spreads quickly among cats. Until the infected cats can be quarantined and brought back to full health, the ACC sites have suspended cat adoptions.

Other ACC shelter animals, such as dogs and rabbits, have tested negative for the virus.

"Our investigation confirms that the risk to human health from H7N2 is low, but we are urging New Yorkers who have adopted cats from a shelter or rescue group within the past three weeks to be alert for symptoms in their pets," said New York Health Commissioner Mary T. Bassett in a press release. "We are contacting people who may have been exposed and offering testing as appropriate."

H7N2 is a flu virus known to circulate among birds. To date there have only been two other cases of humans becoming infected with the strain. A 2002 case in Virginia saw a worker infected while participating in culling activities centered around a poultry outbreak, while in 2003 an adult male in New York was infected. In both cases, the illnesses resolved themselves.

No cases of human-to-human infection have been reported.

Several strains of bird flu exist, including the one most deadly to humans, H5N1. Culls of suspect bird populations have typically been performed in response to outbreaks. Recently The Netherlands killed some 190,000 ducks, while South Korea has culled an estimated 700,000 birds to contain the H5N6 strain. France, for its part, has detected the H5N8 strain in wild ducks.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), H7N2 spreads among cats just as human flu spreads among people: through direct contact, via airborne droplets from coughing or sneezing, and contact with contaminated surfaces. It can jump to humans from cats when people contact the animal and then touch their eyes, nose, or mouth. Airborne droplets from a cat's sneeze or cough could also reach a human's nose, mouth or eyes.

The agency says influenza in cats is not common and typically only produces a mild illness. Symptoms of a flu in cats include sneezing, coughing, fever, eye or nose discharge, lethargy and loss of appetite. Persistent coughing, lip smacking, runny nose, and fever have proven to be the hallmark symptoms displayed by the New York shelter cats that were infected with H7N2.

Read more at Discovery News

Our Connection to Hobbits, Neanderthals and Other Ancient Humans Deepened in 2016

Neanderthals and other archaic humans used to be considered distant beings, with no real connection to people today. Yet discoveries in 2016 show that early humans are so close to many of us that they're in our DNA — for better or worse.

Neanderthal DNA Purged From Our Genomes

Another Neanderthal extinction is taking place, and it's happening in our genomes, according to research that found natural selection is slowly removing Neanderthal genetic variants from modern populations. The study, published in PLOS Genetics, helps to explain what happened to all of those other Neanderthal genetic signatures that were more evident right after our species — known as anatomically modern humans, or AMH — mated with Neanderthals.

"So the first generation of hybrids would have been half Neanderthal and half AMH because they had one Neanderthal parent and one AMH parent," said senior author Graham Coop, a professor at UC Davis. "Later generations of hybrids may have more or less Neanderthal ancestry depending on whether they had more Neanderthal or AMH ancestors [for example, great grandparents]."

Neanderthal-Human Sex Happened Earlier Than Thought

A child conceived 100,000 years ago from a Neanderthal and modern human mating was announced in early 2016. The woman, from Siberia, was clearly a Neanderthal, but she retained DNA from our species. It's been known that people of European and Asian ancestry today possess a small amount of Neanderthal DNA in their genomes, but the Neanderthal woman offered the first evidence that gene flow from interbreeding went from modern humans into Neanderthals as well.

The study, published in the journal Nature, "is also the first to provide genetic evidence of modern humans outside Africa as early as 100,000 years ago," said Sergi Castellano, who co-led the research and is a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Neanderthals Could Have Domesticated Dogs

Many of the earliest dogs resembled this modern Siberian husky.
We learned in 2016 that dogs were domesticated not just once but twice, and in two different parts of the world. As a result, "all modern dogs are directly related to two or more wolf populations," said researcher Laurent Frantz of the Wellcome Trust Paleogenomics & Bio-Archaeology Research Network at the University of Oxford. Frantz and colleagues determined that early dogs appeared in both the East and the West more than 12,000 years ago, but in Central Asia no earlier than 8,000 years ago.

"Dogs were domesticated by hunter gatherers, prior to the advent of agriculture," Frantz said. "Dogs most likely provided multiple services to humans, such as facilitating hunting or providing protection."

The researchers can't yet rule out that Neanderthals or some other ancient human first domesticated dogs. Other research teams have found possible dog remains going back to the Neanderthal era.

Homo Erectus Walked Like a Man

Footprints for Homo erectus, aka Upright Man, dating to 1.5 million years ago were discovered in Kenya in 2009, but analyzed in 2016. "Our analyses of these footprints provide some of the only direct evidence to support the common assumption that at least one of our fossil relatives at 1.5 million years ago walked in much the same way as we do today," said researcher Kevin Hatala of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and The George Washington University.

Right-Handed Homo habilis

The earliest known evidence for right-handedness came to light in 2016 and from an unusual source: marks on old teeth dating to 1.8 million years ago. The teeth belonged to the early human Homo habilis, according to a paper in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Co-author David Frayer of the University of Kansas explained that, among the network of deep striations found only on the lip face of the upper front teeth, most cut marks veered from left down to the right. Analysis of the marks makes it likely they came from when the individual used a tool with his right hand to cut food he was holding in his mouth while pulling with the left hand, he said in a press release. The scratches can be seen with the naked eye, but a microscope was used to further investigate them.

Neanderthal Diet: 80 Percent Meat, 20 Percent Fruit and Veg

 Neanderthals ate a diet consisting of 80 percent red meat and 20 percent plant-based food, according to a study published in 2016. Hervé Bocherens of the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at the University of Tübingen and his colleagues analyzed skeletons of early humans from Europe and Asia. These archaic humans seemed to like large cuts of meat from the biggest animals possible.

"Previously, it was assumed that the Neanderthals utilized the same food sources as their animal neighbors," Bocherens said in a press release. "However, our results show that all predators occupy a very specific niche, preferring smaller prey as a rule, such as reindeer, wild horses or steppe bison, while the Neanderthals primarily specialized on the large plant-eaters such as mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses."

Neanderthals also ate fruits, vegetables and other plants, the researchers determined.

Clues to Hobbit Human Relatives and Disappearance

Remains of at least three tiny humans dating to 700,000 years ago have been found on the Indonesian island of Flores, which was the homeland of Homo floresiensis, aka "Hobbit Humans," according to research findings published in the journal Nature in 2016. These diminutive people predate the Hobbits by more than half a million years.

Aida Gómez-Robles, a scientist at George Washington University specializing in human evolution, told Seeker the research demonstrates "that the origin of Homo floresiensis is very old, which confirms that this is a totally valid species with old evolutionary roots."

We also learned that humans were on Hobbit turf at around the same time that Homo floresiensis seemingly disappeared from the face of the earth. The evidence is a pair of 46,000-year-old human teeth found in Flores' Liang Bua cave. Could our appearance and the Hobbits' disappearance just be a coincidence? The discovery would seem to implicate our species in whatever happened to the Hobbits.

Many People Today Could Be Part Denisovan

Schoolchildren from Bhutan.
 Denisovans, a mysterious population of archaic humans that lived at around the same time as Neanderthals, could have interbred with Homo sapiens more than previously thought. An analysis published in 2016 proposed that modern humans interbred with Denisovans about 100 generations after their trysts with Neanderthals. As a result, many bloodlines around the world, particularly of South Asian descent, show genetic evidence of Denisovan ancestry.

"There are certain classes of genes that modern humans inherited from the archaic humans with whom they interbred, which may have helped the modern humans to adapt to the new environments in which they arrived," said senior author David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School. "On the flip side, there was negative selection to systematically remove ancestry that may have been problematic from modern humans. We can document this removal over the 40,000 years since these admixtures occurred."

In terms of helping modern humans, Denisovans are known to have given people from Tibet and nearby regions genetic adaptations for life at high altitudes.

Denisovans Gave Some People Cold Tolerance Too

Inuit family.
 Native Americans, the Inuit and some Siberians likely can tolerate cold temperatures better than the rest of us due to their Denisovan or other archaic human ancestry, according to a paper published in 2016 in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution. Lead author Fernando Racimo of the New York Genome Center told Seeker that he and his team identified a genetic variant in the mentioned living groups. It is thought to cause a certain type of body fat, commonly known as "brown fat," to generate heat.

He added, "The gene is also involved in a number of other traits, like body fat distribution, bone and facial morphology (structure)."

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 28, 2016

A Brain Museum in Peru Puts Diseased and Healthy Organs on Display

It powers everything we do, yet remains one of our biggest mysteries. But thanks to an unusual Peruvian museum dedicated entirely to the brain, visitors can get up close and personal with the most complex organ in the human body.

The "brain library" at the Santo Toribio de Mogrovejo Hospital in Lima has a massive collection of diseased and healthy brains, giving researchers and also the general public a glimpse of what is going on inside our heads.

It is the only museum in Latin America, and one of the few in the world, with a large collection of brains that is regularly open to the public. The hospital, which was founded more than three centuries ago, has a total of 2,912 brains collected over the years, nearly 300 of which are on display in a mind-opening exhibit. Some 20,000 people visit the museum each year.

"Touch a real skull," the museum invites them on arrival, proffering a specimen so visitors can feel the cranial bone structure and imagine how it holds two square meters (22 square feet) of intricately folded brain matter.

The brains of this operation, so to speak, is neuropathologist Diana Rivas, who is hovering over an icy steel table choosing scientifically interesting specimens to add to the museum's collection.

"This is where we do the autopsies. I handle them myself," she tells AFP, barely looking up from the brain she is holding in her gloved hands.

She has just removed this particular specimen from a jar of formaldehyde. It is about the size of a deflated football, and "has the consistency of a rubber eraser," she says.

She examines the brain's two hemispheres, which resemble giant walnuts, then carefully removes the thin layer of three membranes that hold them together, the meninges.

Once open, the organ's fascinating geography is on full display: a labyrinth of gray and white tissue that holds the mysteries of thought, language and virtually every bodily function inside.

Rivas gives a lesson as she dissects.

"A human brain weighs between 1.2 and 2.4 kilos (2 pounds 10 ounces and five pounds four ounces), depending on the height and weight of the person, and on the sex," she says. "Women's are more evolved than men's. What differentiates us is the evolution of language, which we use much more than men."

The museum is divided into three parts: neuroanatomy, birth defects and brain damage caused by diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer's and the Zika virus.

"We show students what a healthy brain looks like, and then a sick brain, like this one with cysticercosis, which causes convulsions," she says, pointing to a brain stained with marks left by invading tapeworms.

The parasites are present in pork and can also be transmitted when people fail to wash their hands properly, she explains.

Offering more food for thought, she points to another sick brain affected by arteriosclerosis -- the result of eating too much fatty food, which clogs the arteries, including the ones feeding the brain.

"This is to remind us not to get carried away with the hamburgers. It's not good to abuse fatty foods," she says, pointing out the brain's blackened blood vessels.

Read more at Discovery News

China Seizes More Than Three Tons of Pangolin Scales

Chinese customs seized over three tonnes (3.3 tons) of pangolin scales, state media said, in the country's biggest-ever smuggling case involving the animal parts.

Shanghai Customs found around 3.1 tonnes (3.4 tons) of pangolin scales mixed in with a container of wood products imported from Nigeria, state broadcaster CCTV reported Tuesday.

It estimated up to 7,500 of the creatures could have been killed.

The reclusive pangolin has become the most trafficked mammal on Earth due to soaring demand in Asia for their scales for traditional medicine and their flesh, considered a delicacy.

State media have previously said the scales fetch around 5,000 yuan (US $700) per kilogram (US $700) on the black market – which would make the seizure worth more than $2 million.

Although the international pangolin trade is illegal in China and they are listed as one of the most-protected wild animals, law enforcement remains weak.

Pangolins are also farmed in the country and an online site selling traditional Chinese medicine offers them at 7,000 yuan per kilogram.

The scales are nothing more than keratin, the same substance that makes up fingernails. Yet it has been falsely touted as a cure for multiple ailments, including cancer, among some practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine.

Shanghai Customs arrested three suspects who were suspected of smuggling the scales from Africa since 2015, the report said.

From Discovery News

Cassini Buzzes Pandora, Saturn's Moon of Chaos

Although every observation made by NASA's Cassini mission at Saturn is science gold, as the spacecraft is now in its final year of operations, each new photograph of this special place in the solar system carries extra weight. And this snapshot of a potato-shaped moon is no exception.

As Cassini is now making some danger-close passes of the gas giant's rings ahead of its "Grand Finale", it's setting itself up for some pretty magnificent (and unprecedented) views of Saturn's moons and rings. During its third ring-grazing orbit, Cassini was able to image Pandora, one of Saturn's innermost moons, from a record-breaking distance of only 25,200 miles (40,500 kilometers), 6,800 miles (10,900 kilometers) closer than its previous closest approach in 2005. The spacecraft's narrow-angle camera captured this view on Dec. 18.

Pandora was discovered in 1980 after analysis of photos taken by the Voyager 1 probe during its grand tour of the solar system's planets. The moon measures only 52 miles (84 kilometers) across and is known to have at least two large craters around 19 miles (30 kilometers) wide. These large craters are filled with debris and a thick layer of dust covers its surface, smoothing over the smaller craters.

The moon orbits Saturn at an average distance of around 88,000 miles and zooms around the planet once every 15 hours.

This observation will be used to better understand how Pandora formed and what it's made of. Known to have a fairly low density and high albedo (reflectivity), scientists think the moon is likely porous and composed of water ice. According to NASA, Pandora has a chaotic orbit that is heavily influenced by orbital resonances with other moons, causing it to speed up and slow down during its path around Saturn. It is thought that Pandora's orbital weirdness may disrupt the grains of dust and debris in Saturn's thin F-ring, while "shepherd moon" Prometheus, which orbits just inside of the ring, works to keep the ring particles in check.

Read more at Discovery News

The Most Incredible Alien Planet Discoveries of 2016

1) Proxima Centauri b

A planet in its star's "habitable zone" — a region where it's not too hot or too cold for liquid water to exist on a planetary surface — was found practically in our planet's backyard this year. Called Proxima Centauri b, the planet was found during a unique campaign called Red Blue Dot where astronomers shared details of their search on social media in the first few months of 2016. The planet is believed to be about 1.3 times the mass of the Earth and orbiting about 5 percent of the Earth-sun distance from its cool parent star. The team was led by Guillem Anglada-Escudé, from Queen Mary University of London.

Artist's impression of the dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 and its three planets, which are similar in size and temperature to Venus and Earth.
TRAPPIST-1's three planets were quite the astronomical find. The research team uncovered evidence of three Venus- and Earth-sized exoplanets, which was extraordinary given that TRAPPIST-1 is an ultracool dwarf star and no planets have ever been found around a star of this type. Finds like this are exciting because it's easier to observe planetary atmospheres — especially for habitable environments — if the star is fairly dim. The team was led by Michael Gillon, of the the Institute of Astrophysics and Geophysics at the Unviersity of Liege in Belgium.

3) Planet rings spinning the wrong way

Artist's impression of the bizarre ring system of J1407b.
In 2015, researchers proposed that a bizarre series of eclipses around the star J1407 could be caused by a planet with a huge ring system. Then earlier this year, the team published another paper suggesting that the system would only work if the rings orbited around the planet in the opposite direction that the planet orbits its parent star! As unstable as this sounds, their calculations suggest the planet's rings could persist for more than 100,000 years. The research was led by Matthew Kenworthy of Leiden University, in the Netherlands.

4) Three planets around two close stars

Artist's impression of three planets orbiting two close binary stars.
We've all heard of several Tattooine-like systems similar to "Star Wars", where a planet orbits two stars. But we're starting to discover some even more bizarre combinations. Scientists found a system in which three planets orbit two stars that are very close together (the closest ever observed). The stars are called HD 133131A and HD 133131B. Researchers are now studying this system closely to see if Jupiter-like planets often begin with long and eccentric orbits. The team was led by Johanna Teske of the Carnegie Institution for Science.

5) One planet orbiting three stars

Artist's impression of a planet in the HD 131399 system, orbiting three stars.
It seems strange to think of a single planet somehow surviving a three-star orbit, but such a world has been discovered. The HD 131399 system features a planet with the widest known orbit in a multi-star system. While astronomers thought this type of orbit was unlikely, since they have found one they expect to find many others. The team was led by Kevin Wagner at the University of Arizona.

6) Kepler's new mission yields 100-plus exoplanets

Artist's impression of the Kepler space telescope on its K2 mission.
A few years ago, the Kepler space telescope — a venerable exoplanet hunter — lost the ability to point precisely with its reaction wheels. NASA devised a new mission using the sun's pressure to steady the telescope, and it's been far more productive than expected. This year, the so-called K2 mission announced that it has yielded 104 exoplanets. One of the most promising finds among these was the star K2-72, which has four planets that could be rocky.

7) Kepler's database yields more than 1,200 exoplanets

Artist's impression of some of the Kepler's many planetary discoveries.
Although the Kepler telescope's primary mission is over, the data from its years of observations persist. NASA is doing ongoing analyses to see how many of these planetary candidates are likely to be planets. The latest results show that 1,284 of them are 99 percent likely to be planets. Of these, nearly 550 are likely rocky planets — and nine of those potentially rocky planets are in the habitable zone of their stars.

8) Baby planet just 11 million years old

Artist's impression of a young planet orbiting the star K2-33.
Earlier this year, astronomers announced they had found the youngest known planet — just 11 million years old, a fraction of the Earth's 4.5 billion years. It's a super-Neptune roughly five times the size of Earth and orbits its star only five million miles away, making it a scorching world. It was first found with the K2 mission and then confirmed with the MEarth-North and MEarth-South arrays in Arizona and Chile, just to make sure it wasn't a starspot. The research was led by Andrew Mann at The University of Texas at Austin.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 27, 2016

World's smallest diamonds made into wires three atoms wide

An illustration shows the basic nanowire building block – a diamondoid cage carrying atoms of copper and sulfur – drifting toward the growing tip of a nanowire, center, where it will attach in a way determined by its size and shape. The copper and sulfur atoms wind up on the inside, forming a core of semiconducting material, and the diamondoids remain on the outside, where they function as an insulating shell.
Scientists at Stanford University and the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have discovered a way to use diamondoids -- the smallest possible bits of diamond -- to assemble atoms into the thinnest possible electrical wires, just three atoms wide.

By grabbing various types of atoms and putting them together LEGO-style, the new technique could potentially be used to build tiny wires for a wide range of applications, including fabrics that generate electricity, optoelectronic devices that employ both electricity and light, and superconducting materials that conduct electricity without any loss. The scientists reported their results today in Nature Materials.

"What we have shown here is that we can make tiny, conductive wires of the smallest possible size that essentially assemble themselves," said Hao Yan, a Stanford postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the paper. "The process is a simple, one-pot synthesis. You dump the ingredients together and you can get results in half an hour. It's almost as if the diamondoids know where they want to go."

The Smaller the Better

Although there are other ways to get materials to self-assemble, this is the first one shown to make a nanowire with a solid, crystalline core that has good electronic properties, said study co-author Nicholas Melosh, an associate professor at SLAC and Stanford and investigator with SIMES, the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Sciences at SLAC.

The needle-like wires have a semiconducting core -- a combination of copper and sulfur known as a chalcogenide -- surrounded by the attached diamondoids, which form an insulating shell.

Their minuscule size is important, Melosh said, because a material that exists in just one or two dimensions -- as atomic-scale dots, wires or sheets -- can have very different, extraordinary properties compared to the same material made in bulk. The new method allows researchers to assemble those materials with atom-by-atom precision and control.

The diamondoids they used as assembly tools are tiny, interlocking cages of carbon and hydrogen. Found naturally in petroleum fluids, they are extracted and separated by size and geometry in a SLAC laboratory. Over the past decade, a SIMES research program led by Melosh and SLAC/Stanford Professor Zhi-Xun Shen has found a number of potential uses for the little diamonds, including improving electron microscope images and making tiny electronic gadgets.

Constructive Attraction

For this study, the research team took advantage of the fact that diamondoids are strongly attracted to each other, through what are known as van der Waals forces. (This attraction is what makes the microscopic diamondoids clump together into sugar-like crystals, which is the only reason you can see them with the naked eye.)

They started with the smallest possible diamondoids -- single cages that contain just 10 carbon atoms -- and attached a sulfur atom to each. Floating in a solution, each sulfur atom bonded with a single copper ion. This created the basic nanowire building block.

The building blocks then drifted toward each other, drawn by the van der Waals attraction between the diamondoids, and attached to the growing tip of the nanowire.

"Much like LEGO blocks, they only fit together in certain ways that are determined by their size and shape," said Stanford graduate student Fei Hua Li, who played a critical role in synthesizing the tiny wires and figuring out how they grew. "The copper and sulfur atoms of each building block wound up in the middle, forming the conductive core of the wire, and the bulkier diamondoids wound up on the outside, forming the insulating shell."

A Versatile Toolkit for Creating Novel Materials

The team has already used diamondoids to make one-dimensional nanowires based on cadmium, zinc, iron and silver, including some that grew long enough to see without a microscope, and they have experimented with carrying out the reactions in different solvents and with other types of rigid, cage-like molecules, such as carboranes.

The cadmium-based wires are similar to materials used in optoelectronics, such as light-emitting diodes (LEDs), and the zinc-based ones are like those used in solar applications and in piezoelectric energy generators, which convert motion into electricity.

"You can imagine weaving those into fabrics to generate energy," Melosh said. "This method gives us a versatile toolkit where we can tinker with a number of ingredients and experimental conditions to create new materials with finely tuned electronic properties and interesting physics."

Read more at Science Daily

We’re Starting to Understand What Bats Are Saying

Bat caves can be noisy places, filled with screeching residents who seem to have a lot on their minds and would probably shout in all-caps if they used social media. Is the din just so much sound and fury, signifying nothing? Not according to researchers who have listened in on the animals and found meaning in the noise.

In a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports, scientists from Tel Aviv University (TAU) captured 22 Egyptian fruit bats from a natural roost in Israel and housed them in large chambers that would allow the animals to be monitored visually and acoustically over the course of more than two months.

The goal? To find out what all of the yelling was about.

"Previous research presumed that most bat communication was based on screaming and shouting. We wanted to know how much information was actually conveyed, and we wanted to see if we could, in fact, extract that information," explained TAU study lead Yossi Yovel, in a statement.

Yovel and his team did just that. Their bat observations yielded recordings of some 15,000 vocalizations – the sum total of all the chatter passed between the bats, generating dozens of specific calls – and there was in fact a great deal of significance to the sounds.

After poring over the audio, the researchers say the calls not only identified the calling bat but also conveyed information about the bat being called. What's more, different calls were used for different situations – usually aggression-filled encounters, the team observed. Even friends or foes greeted each other with different calls.

"We have found that bats fight over sleeping positions, over mating, over food or just for the sake of fighting," said Yovel. "To our surprise, we were able to differentiate between all of these contexts in complete darkness, and we are confident bats themselves are able to identify even more information and with greater accuracy. They are, after all, an extremely social species that live with the same neighbors for dozens of years."

Read more at Discovery News

Cheetahs Are on a Fast Track to Extinction

Cheetahs are "sprinting" to extinction due to habitat loss and other forms of human impact, according to a new study out this week which called for urgent action to save the world's fastest land animals.

Cheetah numbers in Zimbabwe have plunged by more than 85 percent in 16 years and fewer than 50 individuals survive in Iran, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) warned.

The report's authors said cheetahs should be listed as "Endangered" instead of "Vulnerable" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

The study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, estimated that just 7,100 cheetahs remain in the wild, occupying just nine percent of the territory they once lived in.

"The cheetah is sprinting towards the edge of extinction and could soon be lost forever unless urgent, landscape-wide conservation action is taken," ZSL said in a statement.

There were an estimated 100,000 cheetahs at the beginning of the 20th century, according to previous estimates.

"Given the secretive nature of this elusive cat, it has been difficult to gather hard information on the species, leading to its plight being overlooked," said Sarah Durant, the report's lead author and project leader for the Rangewide Conservation Program for Cheetah and African Wild Dog.

"Our findings show that the large space requirements for cheetah, coupled with the complex range of threats faced by the species in the wild, meant that it is likely to be much more vulnerable to extinction than was previously thought," she said.

Cheetahs travel widely in search of prey with some home ranges estimated at up to 3,000 square kilometers (1,158 square miles).

The study found that 77 percent of the animal's remaining habitat falls outside protected areas, leaving it especially vulnerable to human interference.

The main risks are humans hunting their prey, habitat loss, illegal trafficking of cheetah parts and the exotic pet trade, according to the study.

Durant hailed recent commitments taken by the international community, including on stemming the flow of live cats from the Horn of Africa region.

Read more at Discovery News

The Coolest Archaeological Finds of 2016

From creepy burials to sunken ships, Bronze Age ancestors of Rodin's "The Thinker" and "speaking" mummies, this year offered extraordinary insight into the past.

But 2016 has also been a year of disappointments. Egyptian authorities faced embarrassment after supporting the theory that a secret room existed in the tomb of King Tut. Such a room would have concealed "one of the most important finds of the century" — the tomb of Queen Nefertiti.

After much excitement, more detailed scans earlier this year showed that no secret room existed in the tomb of the boy pharaoh.

Still in Egypt, experts raised doubts over a claim that the Great Pyramid at Giza contains two unknown voids or cavities. Investigations using innovative techniques such as infrared thermography, and "cosmic ray" muon detectors are expected further explore that claim in 2017.

Here are some of our favorite archaeology stories of this year.

Despite some disappointments, Egypt remained an archaeological hot spot in 2016. Authorities unveiled 30 papyri which contain the oldest known examples of Egyptian writing, dating back 4,500 years.

Found within caves in the ancient Red Sea port of Wadi al-Jarf, the papyri provide insight into the lives of workers in the port during the reign of fourth dynasty King Khufu, also known as Cheops, for whom the Great Pyramid of Giza was built as a tomb.

The hieroglyphs reveal that workers and employees at Wadi al-Jarf participated in the construction of the pyramid.

Other findings included the remains of a 4,500-year-old funerary boat which was uncovered near the Abusir pyramids, a 3000-year-old mummy resting inside a perfectly preserved brightly colored wooden sarcophagus and a remarkable 3,400-year-old necropolis. Consisting of dozens of rock-cut tombs, it was unearthed at the quarry site of Gebel el Sisila, north of Aswan.

Some of the most intriguing finds of 2016 were made in labs outside Egypt. Using non-invasive, portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometry, a team of Italian and Egyptian researchers found that King Tut was buried with a dagger made of an iron that literally came from space.

They confirmed that iron of the dagger placed on the right thigh of King Tut's mummified body has meteoric origins.

In another breakthrough, a pair of 3,200-year-old mummified legs were identified as belonging to Queen Nefertari. She was the first and favorite wife of the mighty warrior pharaoh Ramses II.

The legs had been on display at the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy when an international team of researchers led by Frank Rühli, head of the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, made the stunning identification.

Nefertari's mummy was ripped to pieces and tossed around by ancient robbers, so her remains were believed to have been lost forever. Nefertari is the only queen from the Ramesside era to have been identified so far.

A Bronze Age settlement in the UK county of Cambridgeshire stands as one of the most compelling finds of 2016. Dubbed Britain's "Pompeii," the site provided vivid insight into domestic life 3,000 years ago.

The settlement was home to several families who lived in a number of circular wooden houses built on stilts above a river. It was abandoned in haste 3,000 years ago as a giant fire destroyed the houses. The dwellings fell into the river, where thick silt and clay preserved the contents.

The archaeologists found an extraordinary time capsule buried just over six feet below the ground surface. Finds include clothing, jewelry, tools, furniture, textiles, abandoned meals still in the cooking pots and the the oldest, largest, most complete wheel ever found in Britain.

Food was again in the spotlight in 2016.

Evidence for one of the most common mistakes in the kitchen — burning food — was found in a 3,000-year-old clay pot that was excavated in central Jutland, Denmark, at the bottom of what was once a waste pit. The clay vessel, in near mint condition, contained burned cheese and was possibly thrown in a moment of anger over the cooking mistake.

Such cooking accidents were likely avoided by those using the "Cumanae testae" or "Cumanae patellae" — pans produced more than 2,000 years ago in the from the city of Cumae, about 12 miles west of Naples. Archaeologists found the site where such pottery, featuring a red coating that prevented food from sticking to the pan, was produced. They were the precursors of non-stick pans.

While 340-year-old Roquefort cheese was found in a Swedish shipwreck on the bed of the Baltic, turf cutters working in an Irish peat bog unearthed a 2,000-year-old lump of butter, which also smelled like a strong cheese.

Chemical analysis of prehistoric hearths, revealed that salmon has been on the American menu for 11,800 years. The dating confirms central Alaska as the earliest site of salmon consumption in the Americas.

As for drinking, researchers analyzing ancient pottery jars in China, found that barley might have been the "secret ingredient" in a 5,000-year-old beer recipe.

World's oldest dress
Among the list of world's firsts discovered this year were the oldest known dress, a stained shirt produced more than 5,000 years ago, and the oldest ground-edge stone axe, whose discovery in Australia pushed back the Aborigenal technology to between 45,000 to 49,000 years ago.

The year also brought the discoveries of the world's oldest gold artifact — a tiny bead unearthed in Bulgaria which archaeologists believe is 6,500 years old — and the oldest snowshoe. Found in the Italian Alps, it looks amazingly modern even though it dates back 5,800 years.

Huge ancient ship graveyard found off Greek islands
A discovery in a small Greek archipelago stands as this year's most significant finding in underwater archaeology.

Investigation of the Fourni archipelago, a collection of 13 islands and islets located between the eastern Aegean islands of Samos and Icaria, revealed 23 ancient wrecks, which add to 22 other wrecks identified in 2015. The discovery confirms the Greek site as the ancient shipwreck capital of the world.

Still in Greece, archaeologists unearthed a human skeleton dating back to 2,000 years ago on the Antikythera shipwreck. Dubbed the "Titanic of the ancient world," the vessel sank more than 2,000 years ago off the remote island of Antikythera, in southern Greece.

Found by Greek sponge divers more than 100 years ago, the wreck contained a mysterious "Antikythera mechanism" — a complex, geared astronomical calculator known as the world's oldest computer.

The remains, which most likely belonged to a young man, could yield the first DNA from an ancient shipwreck victim.

Mummy research produced important findings for modern clinical medicine.

Researchers rewrote the history of smallpox by analyzing the mummified remains of a 17th-century child from Vilnius, Lithuania.

The disease had long been thought to have appeared in human populations thousands of years ago, but the child mummy, which turned to contain the oldest known sample of the variola virus that causes smallpox, now challenges that timeline,placing it between 1643 and 1665.

One of the most spectacular investigations involved Ötzi the Iceman, whose voice was reconstructed by scientists with the "best possible approximation."

Presented during a major congress to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the discovery of the 5,300-year-old mummy, the experiment aimed to discover the tone of the Iceman's Stone Age vowels.

Ötzi broke his silence with a deep male voice. He spoke Italian — but just vowels, as you can hear here.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 23, 2016

Disposable 'Bio-Battery' Gets Its Power From Bacteria

Microbes live in our body, in the soil, in water and in waste. As they feed, they harvest electrons from the environment and then excrete them.

Many scientists have figured out how to capture those electrons in microbial fuel cells and turn them into a power source. But Seokheun "Sean" Choi, assistant professor and director of the Bioelectronics & Microsystems Lab the State University of New York, Binghamton, has figured out how to do it using paper.

His foldable, paper-based battery is a bacteria-powered fuel cell that could be used to run small biosensors. Because it's made from paper, the device is cheap and disposable. Because it runs on microbes, it can generate energy wherever and whenever it's needed.

"Theoretically, the microorganisms are everywhere. I thought that the bacteria-based battery could be activated even in the most resource-limited settings," Choi told Seeker.

This might mean using it in disaster areas, on the battlefield or in clinics that serve impoverished communities.

Fundamentally, Choi's battery has the two main components of all batteries: an anode, considered the negative end, and a cathode, considered the positive end. The anode is typically the source of the electrons, which flow to the cathode to create a current.

With this battery, Choi created an anode on one side of paper that's made of a tiny amount of bacteria-laden water housed in a reservoir formed in a conductive polymer. On the other side of the paper is the cathode, a ribbon of silver nitrate underneath a thin layer of wax.

By folding the paper so that the two sides come into contact, electrons from the microbes flow toward the cathode to create an electric current. Folding the battery in different shapes varies the electrical output. For example, by crimping it accordion-style so that six rows of six fuel cells are touching, the battery produces 44.85 microwatts at 105.89 microamps.

Choi acknowledges that this is a very small amount of power. In the early days, when he first considered making paper electronics, he was skeptical they'd have any use. But then he realized that biosensors, like those that detect pathogens or monitor the blood sugar levels, didn't need much power to begin with. He also liked the idea of tapping a ubiquitous source of energy.

"Now, this work uses wastewater, but the devices can be workable with any liquid like body fluids, such as blood, sweat, urine, or saliva," he said.

This is not Choi's first paper battery. Earlier this year, his team introduced a design that folded up into a Ninja star-shaped frame.

Read more at Discovery News

Britain’s Most Famous Diamond Has a Mysterious and Bloody Past

Many precious stones have a blood-soaked history, but a new book reveals the world's most famous diamond the Koh-i-Noor surpasses them all, with a litany of horrors that rivals "Game of Thrones."

The Koh-i-Noor ("Mountain of Light"), now part of the British Crown Jewels, has witnessed the birth and the fall of empires across the Indian subcontinent, and remains the subject of a bitter ownership battle between Britain and India.

"It is an unbelievably violent story... Almost everyone who owns the diamond or touches it comes to a horribly sticky end," says British historian William Dalrymple, who co-authored "Kohinoor: The Story of the World's Most Infamous Diamond" with journalist Anita Anand.

"We get poisonings, bludgeonings, someone gets their head beaten with bricks, lots of torture, one person blinded by a hot needle. There is a rich variety of horrors in this book," Dalrymple tells AFP in an interview.

In one particularly gruesome incident the book relates, molten lead is poured into the crown of a Persian prince to make him reveal the location of the diamond.

Today the diamond, which historians say was probably first discovered in India during the reign of the Mughal dynasty, is on public display in the Tower of London, part of the crown of the late Queen Mother.

The first record of the Koh-i-Noor dates back to around 1750, following Persian ruler Nader Shah's invasion of the Mughal capital Delhi. Shah plundered the city, taking treasures such as the mythical Peacock Throne, embellished with precious stones including the Koh-i-Noor.

"The Peacock Throne was the most lavish piece of furniture ever made. It cost four times the cost of the Taj Mahal and had all the better gems gathered by the Mughals from across India over generations," Dalrymple says.

The diamond itself was not particularly renowned at the time — the Mughals preferred colored stones such as rubies to clear gems. Ironically given the diplomatic headaches it has since caused, it only won fame after it was acquired by the British.

"People only know about the Koh-i-Noor because the British made so much fuss of it," says Dalrymple.

India has tried in vain to get the stone back since winning independence in 1947, and the subject is frequently brought up when officials from the two countries meet. Iran, Pakistan and even the Afghan Taliban have also claimed the Koh-i-Noor in the past, making it a political hot potato for the British government.

Over the course of the century that followed the Mughals' downfall, the Koh-i-Noor was used variously as a paperweight by a Muslim religious scholar and affixed to a glittering armband worn by a Sikh king.

It only passed into British hands in the middle of the nineteenth century, when Britain gained control of the Sikh empire of Punjab, now split between Pakistan and India.

Sikh king Ranjit Singh had taken it from an Afghan ruler who had sought sanctuary in India and after he died in 1839 war broke out between the Sikhs and the British.

Singh's 10-year-old heir handed over the diamond to the British as part of the peace treaty that ended the war and the gem was subsequently displayed at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London — acquiring immediate celebrity status.

"It became, for the Victorians, a symbol of the conquest of India, just as today, for post-colonial Indians, it is a symbol of the colonial looting of India," Dalrymple says.

Read more at Discovery News

Proxima Centauri's Origins Could Mean Its Exoplanet Really Is Habitable

After decades of uncertainty, it seems that astronomers may have found the strongest evidence yet that Proxima Centauri is indeed "gravitationally bound" to Alpha Centauri. This is interesting for many reasons, primarily because now we're pretty sure the Alpha Centauri system is a triple-star system, with two stars (Alpha Centauri A and B) orbiting closely and one oddball sibling (Proxima Centauri) with an extremely wide orbit.

But with the recent discovery of a small rocky exoplanet in orbit around Proxima, this new finding will boost hopes that this little world may be habitable for life as we know it.

Proxima Centauri is located around 4.25 light-years away making it the nearest star to Earth beyond our sun. The star's planet, called Proxima b, is approximately the same mass as Earth and orbits within the star's "habitable zone" — the region surrounding a star that's neither too hot or too cold for liquid water to exist on a planetary surface. Finding any planet within a star's habitable zone — regardless of the star's size or luminosity — will always be exciting as, if there is liquid water there, life could be possible. And discovering a (potentially) habitable world on our galactic doorstep is an incredible stroke of luck.

Though we know that Proxima b is there, we can only guess at its composition and have no clue whether or not it possesses any water. But new evidence suggesting Proxima Centauri is indeed a distant sibling of the Alpha Centauri could help us find out.

Proxima Centauri was only discovered a century ago and, since then, astronomers have been trying to understand its motion in the sky, a task that becomes very complicated when considering how dim it is. Red dwarfs are many times smaller and produce only a fraction of the light of our sun. But using the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) instrument at the ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile, astronomers have, for the first time, gained precision measurements of the dim star's radial velocity, a key metric if we are to understand if it is in any way related to Alpha Centauri.

The HARPS instrument is extremely sensitive to the wobble of stars as small exoplanets orbit around them, gravitationally tugging at them. Indeed, it was the HARPS instrument that discovered the tiny wobble of Proxima Centauri, revealing the presence of Proxima b. But this time, HARPS was able to deduce the velocity at which the tiny star is moving away from us and compared it with the radial velocity of Alpha Centauri. Both radial velocities closely match, which means that, in all likelihood, Proxima Centauri has a wide orbit around Alpha Centauri. They are therefore, probably, gravitationally bound.

Though this is a significant find — indeed, the question of whether or not all three stars are in orbit around one another has been vexing astronomers since Proxima Centauri was first spotted — it could reveal an interesting tidbit about the nature of Proxima b itself.

If Proxima Centauri and Alpha Centauri are gravitationally bound, this gives us a clue that the group formed from the same star-forming nebula billions of years ago. They are all therefore the same age. Over time, the trio's orbits evolved and Proxima Centauri for some reason was thrown away from the Alpha Centauri binary. In research to be published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, the researchers speculate that before Proxima Centauri was ejected and sent on the lonely orbit it's in today, a planet formed far from the star and then migrated to a lower orbit. As it occupied such a distant (and cold) orbit, it would have likely been an icy world and that ice could have been water. And now Proxima b is orbiting in a very habitable location for liquid water to exist on its surface, then perhaps — just perhaps — it possesses water to this day.

Read more at Discovery News

5,000-Year-Old Nativity Scene Found in Egypt

Italian researchers have discovered what might be the oldest nativity scene ever found — 5,000-year-old rock art that depicts a star in the east, a newborn between parents and two animals.

The scene, painted in reddish-brown ochre, was found on the ceiling of a small cavity in the Egyptian Sahara desert, during an expedition to sites between the Nile valley and the Gilf Kebir Plateau.

"It's a very evocative scene which indeed resembles the Christmas nativity. But it predates it by some 3,000 years," geologist Marco Morelli, director of the Museum of Planetary Sciences in Prato, near Florence, Italy, told Seeker.

Morelli found the cave drawing in 2005, but only now his team has decided to reveal the amazing find.

"The discovery has several implications as it raises new questions on the iconography of one of the more powerful Christian symbols," Morelli said.

The scene features a man, a woman missing the head because of a painting detachment, and a baby.

"It could have been interpreted as a normal depiction of a family, with the baby between the parents, but other details make this drawing unique," Morelli said.

He noted the newborn is drawn slightly above, as if raising to the sky. Such position, with the baby not yet between the parents, would have meant a birth or a pregnancy.

"As death was associated to Earth in contemporary rock art from the same area, it is likely that birth was linked to the sky," Morelli said.

The scene becomes more symbolically complex if the other figures, two animals and a small circular feature, are taken into consideration.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 22, 2016

Mass insect migrations in UK skies

The painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) is a major component of the large day-flying insect migrants studied by radar in the new study.
A decade of monitoring aerial insect migration reveals that trillions of individuals travel above us each year. Migration contributes greatly to seasonal exchanges of biomass and nutrients across the Earth's surface; however, even though insect migration surpasses all other aerial migratory phenomena in terms of sheer abundance, it remains largely unquantified.

For the first time, scientists have measured the movements of high-flying insects in the skies over southern England -- and found that about 3.5 trillion migrate over the region every year.

This movement of 3,200 tons of biomass, captured by University of Exeter and Rothamsted Research using specialised radar techniques, is more than seven times the mass of the 30 million songbirds which depart the UK for Africa each autumn.

(It is also the equivalent of about 20,000 flying reindeer.)

Dr Jason Chapman, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter's Penryn Campus in Cornwall, said: "Insect bodies are rich in nutrients and the importance of these movements is underappreciated.

"If the densities observed over southern UK are extrapolated to the airspace above all continental landmasses, high-altitude insect migration represents the most important annual animal movement in ecosystems on land, comparable to the most significant oceanic migrations."

Although the origin and destination of each insect was not recorded, evidence from previous research suggests many will have been travelling to and from the UK over the English Channel and North Sea.

The scientists recorded movement above radar sites in southern England and found large seasonal differences, with mass migrations of insects generally going northwards in spring and southwards in autumn.

Until now, radar studies have measured migrations of relatively few nocturnal species of agricultural pests, and no study previously examined the vast numbers of daytime migrants.

The study found seasonal variations from year to year, but overall the net northward spring movements of larger insects were almost exactly cancelled out by net southward movements in autumn over the 10-year research period.

Dr Gao Hu, a visiting scholar with Dr Chapman from Nanjing Agricultural University, China, led the analyses of the radar data.

He said: "Many of the insects we studied provide important ecological services which are essential for maintaining healthy ecosystems, such as pollination, predation of crop pests and providing food for insectivorous birds and bats."

Co-author Dr Ka S (Jason) Lim, of the Radar Entomology Unit of the AgroEcology Department at Rothamsted Research, said migratory insects can serve as indicators of global environmental condition.

"Animal migration, especially in insects, is a very complex behaviour which takes millions of year to evolve and is very sensitive to climatic condition," he said.

Read more at Science Daily

Global climate target could net additional six million tons of fish annually

If countries abide by the Paris Agreement global warming target of 1.5 degrees Celsius, potential fish catches could increase by six million metric tons per year, according to a new study published in Science.
If countries abide by the Paris Agreement global warming target of 1.5 degrees Celsius, potential fish catches could increase by six million metric tons per year, according to a new study published in Science.

The researchers also found that some oceans are more sensitive to changes in temperature and will have substantially larger gains from achieving the Paris Agreement.

"The benefits for vulnerable tropical areas is a strong reason why 1.5 C is an important target to meet," said lead author William Cheung, director of science at the Nippon Foundation-Nereus Program and associate professor at UBC's Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries.

"Countries in these sensitive regions are highly dependent on fisheries for food and livelihood, but all countries will be impacted as the seafood supply chain is now highly globalized. Everyone would benefit from meeting the Paris Agreement."

The authors compared the Paris Agreement 1.5 C warming scenario to the currently pledged 3.5 C by using computer models to simulate changes in global fisheries and quantify losses or gains. They found that for every degree Celsius decrease in global warming, potential fish catches could increase by more than three metric million tons per year. Previous UBC research shows that today's global fish catch is roughly 109 million metric tons.

"Changes in ocean conditions that affect fish stocks, such as temperature and oxygen concentration, are strongly related to atmospheric warming and carbon emissions," said author Thomas Frölicher, principal investigator at the Nippon Foundation-Nereus Program and senior scientist at ETH Zürich. "For every metric ton of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, the maximum catch potential decreases by a significant amount."

Climate change is expected to force fish to migrate towards cooler waters. The amount and species of fish caught in different parts of the world will impact local fishers and make fisheries management more difficult.

The findings suggest that the Indo-Pacific area would see a 40 per cent increase in fisheries catches at 1.5 C warming versus 3.5 C. Meanwhile the Arctic region would have a greater influx of fish under the 3.5 C scenario but would also lose more sea ice and face pressure to expand fisheries.

The authors hope these results will provide further incentives for countries and the private sector to substantially increase their commitments and actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Read more at Science Daily