Jan 9, 2016

Gravitation under human control?

Produce and detect gravitational fields at will using magnetic fields, control them for studying them, work with them to produce new technologies -- it sounds daring, but Prof. André Füzfa of Namur University has proposed just that in an article published in the scientific journal Physical Review D. If followed, this proposal could transform physics and shake up Einstein's theory of general relativity.

At present, scientists study gravitational fields passively: they observe and try to understand existing gravitational fields produced by large inertial masses, such as stars or Earth, without being able to change them as is done, for example, with magnetic fields. It was this frustration that led Füzfa to attempt a revolutionary approach: creating gravitational fields at will from well-controlled magnetic fields and observing how these magnetic fields could bend space-time.

In his article, Füzfa has proposed, with supporting mathematical proof, a device with which to create detectable gravitational fields. This device is based on superconducting electromagnets and therefore relies on technologies routinely used, for example, at CERN or the ITER reactor.

Although this experiment would require major resources, if conducted, it could be used to test Einstein's theory of general relativity. If successful, it would certainly be a major step forward in physics: the ability to produce, detect and, ultimately, control gravitational fields. People could then produce gravitational interaction in the same way as the other three fundamental interactions (e.g. electromagnetic and strong and weak nuclear forces). That would usher gravitation into a new experimental and industrial era.

Until now, a scientific advance like this was a dream of science fiction, but it could open up many new applications tomorrow, for example in the field of telecommunications with gravitational waves: imagine calling the other side of the world without going through satellite or terrestrial relays!

From Science Daily

Most distant massive galaxy cluster identified

The early universe was a chaotic mess of gas and matter that only began to coalesce into distinct galaxies hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang. It would take several billion more years for such galaxies to assemble into massive galaxy clusters -- or so scientists had thought.

Now astronomers at MIT, the University of Missouri, the University of Florida, and elsewhere, have detected a massive, sprawling, churning galaxy cluster that formed only 3.8 billion years after the Big Bang. Located 10 billion light years from Earth and potentially comprising thousands of individual galaxies, the megastructure is about 250 trillion times more massive than the sun, or 1,000 times more massive than the Milky Way galaxy.

The cluster, named IDCS J1426.5+3508 (or IDCS 1426), is the most massive cluster of galaxies yet discovered in the first 4 billion years after the Big Bang.

IDCS 1426 appears to be undergoing a substantial amount of upheaval: The researchers observed a bright knot of X-rays, slightly off-center in the cluster, indicating that the cluster's core may have shifted some hundred thousand light years from its center. The scientists surmise that the core may have been dislodged from a violent collision with another massive galaxy cluster, causing the gas within the cluster to slosh around, like wine in a glass that has been suddenly moved.

Michael McDonald, assistant professor of physics and a member of MIT's Kavli Center for Astrophysics and Space Research, says such a collision may explain how IDCS 1426 formed so quickly in the early universe, at a time when individual galaxies were only beginning to take shape.

"In the grand scheme of things, galaxies probably didn't start forming until the universe was relatively cool, and yet this thing has popped up very shortly after that," McDonald says. "Our guess is that another similarly massive cluster came in and sort of wrecked the place up a bit. That would explain why this is so massive and growing so quickly. It's the first one to the gate, basically."

McDonald and his colleagues presented their results this week at the 227th American Astronomical Society meeting in Kissimmee, Florida. Their findings will also be published in The Astrophysical Journal.

"Cities in space"

Galaxy clusters are conglomerations of hundreds to thousands of galaxies bound together by gravity. They are the most massive structures in the universe, and those located relatively nearby, such as the Virgo cluster, are extremely bright and easy to spot in the sky.

"They are sort of like cities in space, where all these galaxies live very closely together," McDonald says. "In the nearby universe, if you look at one galaxy cluster, you've basically seen them all -- they all look pretty uniform. The further back you look, the more different they start to appear."

However, finding galaxy clusters that are farther away in space -- and further back in time -- is a difficult and uncertain exercise.

In 2012, scientists using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope first detected signs of IDCS 1426 and made some initial estimates of its mass.

"We had some sense of how massive and distant it was, but we weren't fully convinced," McDonald says. "These new results are the nail in the coffin that proves that it is what we initially thought."

"Tip of the iceberg"

To get a more precise estimate of the galaxy cluster's mass, McDonald and his colleagues used data from several of NASA's Great Observatories: the Hubble Space Telescope, the Keck Observatory, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

"We were basically using three completely different methods to weigh this cluster," McDonald explains.

Both the Hubble and Keck Observatories recorded optical data from the cluster, which the researchers analyzed to determine the amount of light that was bending around the cluster as a result of gravity -- a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing. The more massive the cluster, the more gravitational force it exerts, and the more light it bends.

They also examined X-ray data from the Chandra Observatory to get a sense of the temperature of the cluster. High-temperature objects give off X-rays, and the hotter a galaxy cluster, the more the gas within that cluster has been compressed, making the cluster more massive.

From the X-ray data, McDonald and his colleagues also calculated the amount of gas in the cluster, which can be an indication of the amount of matter -- and mass -- in the cluster.

Using all three methods, the group calculated roughly the same mass -- about 250 trillion times the mass of the sun. Now, the team is looking for individual galaxies within the cluster to get a sense for how such megastructures can form in the early universe.

"This cluster is sort of like a construction site -- it's messy, loud, and dirty, and there's a lot that's incomplete," McDonald says. "By seeing that incompleteness, we can get a sense for how [clusters] grow. So far, we've confirmed about a dozen or so galaxies, but we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg, really."

Read more at Science Daily

Jan 8, 2016

Crow Funerals All About Assessing Danger

Someone is dead. There’s a body, attended by a number of concerned and watchful figures, all in black.

The lifeless corpse belongs to a crow, and the dark-garbed group congregating nearby is a gathering of its fellow crows, sometimes referred to as a “murder.”  That name is particularly apt in this case, as murder is what holds their attention. Their vigilance over a dead crow serves a purpose — one that’s a matter of life and death, according to a new study in the journal Animal Behavior. By sticking close to a crow that was killed, other crows may improve their chances of learning about predators they need to avoid.

Human rituals for dealing with the dead are numerous and varied. But animals in the wild are not widely known to behave in an unusual way when confronting a dead animal of their own species. In fact, the researchers said in the study, “few animals have been reported to show more than a passing interest.” African elephants will touch, groom or otherwise attend to a dead elephant, and scientists have noted similar behavior in bottlenose dolphins, chimpanzees and certain species of jays and magpies, the researchers reported.

And for birds in particular, a growing body of evidence suggests that their interactions with dead members of their own species serve a critical purpose — “to assess danger and trigger anti-predator behaviors,” the scientists said in the study.

Crows are widely recognized as highly intelligent. They can solve puzzles inspired by Aesop’s Fables, and learn how to use tools by watching more experienced crows in action. Studies have shown that crows hold grudges, remembering the faces of humans who mistreated them even after years had passed.

And once you get on the wrong side of a crow, not only are they probably going to remember you, but they’re likely to tell their friends about you, too.

The scientists cited an earlier study showing that American crows gather and act aggressively, behavior known as “mobbing,” in response to audio playback of a crow’s distress call, played near a dead crow. And the crows later avoided the territories where dead crows had been found, even if those locations had plenty of food.

Clearly, crows could learn to be wary of areas where their fellow crows turned up dead. The researchers wanted to know if they would also learn to associate dead crows — and threats to themselves — with specific predators.

The researchers went to great lengths to design the "threats" they used to test the crows. They set up feeding areas for urban wild crows and sent trained volunteers to visit, carrying different objects that were carefully selected to test the crows' alarm responses: taxidermy crows arranged in poses suggesting that they were dead, and taxidermy red-tailed hawks, which prey on crows, posed on a branch as though they were still alive.

Then, volunteers would visit the feeding areas. Sometimes they would carry the "dead" crow, sometimes they would carry the "live" hawk, and sometimes they would carry both at the same time. To make things easier for the researchers (and more surreal for passers-by) the volunteers were masked, eliminating the possibility that variations in their expressions would affect the crows' responses.

The crows reacted by vocally scolding and mobbing the volunteers carrying the "dead" crows, the posed hawks and the two taxidermy birds at the same time. After one of these encounters, the crows also appeared more watchful of the feeding area, taking longer to approach the food.

And the crows also appeared to remember the masks worn by the volunteers who held the dead birds. Even if a mask-wearer only carried a dead crow once, the crows continued to scold that person whenever they appeared, for up to six weeks.

Read more at Discovery News

Roman Toilets Spread Parasites

Public baths, latrines with washing facilities, sewer systems, fountains and clean drinking water from aqueducts did not protect the ancient Romans from parasites, finds new research.

Published in the journal Parasitology, the study used archaeological evidence from cesspits, sewer drains, rubbish pits, burials and other sites to assess the impact of Romanization across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

Piers Mitchell from the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology of the University of Cambridge, UK, reviewed and compared the evidence for parasites before, during and after the Romans.

Surprisingly, analysis of ancient latrines, human burials and coprolites, or fossilized feces, showed that intestinal parasites did not decrease as expected in Roman times compared with the preceding Iron Age. Actually, they gradually increased.

“The impressive sanitation technologies introduced by the Romans did not seem to have delivered the health benefits that we would expect,” Mitchell told Discovery News.

He found that the most widely spread intestinal parasites in the Roman Empire were whipworm (Trichuris trichiura) and roundworm (Ascaris lumbricoides) which are transmitted by the contamination of food with feces.

“It could have been spread by the use of unwashed hands to prepare food or by the use of human feces as crop fertilizer,” Mitchell wrote.

Also widespread was Entamoeba histolytica, a protozoan that causes dysentery, with bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain and fevers. It is contracted by drinking water contaminated by human feces.

Ectoparasites such as lice and fleas were as common among Romans as in Viking and medieval populations, where bathing was not widely practiced.

The finding is surprising since the Romans are known for their regular bathing and for building latrines provided with flushing systems. They took care of their personal hygiene with a sponge on a stick and hand washing.

“I would not say that these technologies were useless. Public latrines would be been convenient in town while public baths would have made people cleaner and smell better,” Mitchell said.

“It is just that they do not have appeared to improve health in the way we might expect and we must ask ourselves why,” he added.

One possible explanation might lie in regulations which ensured human waste was cleared from the streets and taken out of towns to the countryside.

“This human and animal feces was often used to fertilize crops, thus leading to reinfection of the population with intestinal parasites when they ate this food,” Mitchell said.

Indeed, unless the feces are composted for many months before being added to the fields, they can spread parasite eggs to the plants grown.

Moreover, not all Roman baths were clean. Water was often changed intermittently, and a scum would build on the surface from human dirt and cosmetics.

The study also found fish tapeworm eggs surprisingly widespread in the Roman empire, in contrast to the evidence from the Bronze and Iron Age.

The Roman love for the fermented fish sauce known as garum may provide an explanation.

Traded across the empire, garum was made from pieces of fish, herbs, salt and flavorings. The sauce was not cooked, but allowed to ferment in the sun.

Read more at Discovery News

Space Fungus! Mold Attacks Space Station Plants

Four zinnia plants on the International Space Station are sickly or dead after mold was discovered in the Veggie experiment facility late December, according to NASA. The problem was immediately traced back to excessive water in the experiment, which was addressed. There are still three healthy plants that appear unaffected by the issue.

ISS commander and NASA astronaut Scott Kelly reported the mold to Mission Control Dec. 22 just as Veggie project manager Trent Smith was trying to manage the water problem. In pictures, Smith saw water on the plants a few days before. He told Discovery News he was trying to relay a command from NASA’s station operations team to increase fan speed in Veggie, but the mold developed before the command could be put through.

One solution was, on Christmas Eve, to designate Kelly “commander” of Veggie. Kelly now has more autonomy to make changes to Veggie’s conditions if he feels the plants need it.

Kelly is in the middle of a one-year mission on the station and was there when the first crops from Veggie, romaine lettuce, were harvested in August. “There’s nobody better positioned than Scott,” Smith told Discovery News, saying this decision should cut down on future time delays.

The zinnias on the International Space Station in December before the mold issue arose. The pillows in Veggie are labelled as such: Pillow A (top left), Pillow B (top right), Pillow C (middle left), Pillow D (middle right), Pillow E (bottom left) and Pillow F (bottom right).
Besides turning up the fan, sanitizing the experiment and wiping the excess water out of Veggie, Kelly bagged the moldy samples and put them in a freezer on station. They will be returned to Earth on the SpaceX 8 Dragon spacecraft later this year, when NASA will perform analysis to see what kind of mold it was. Any plants that die before SpaceX 8 departs will also be returned on that flight.

Each “pillow” of soil in Veggie was initially planted with two seeds, with the healthier of each pair culled early in their lifespans. A second plant -- which Smith dubbed the “stealth plant” -- sprang a little late in Pillow A (see caption in picture above), and investigators decided to leave it. Zinnias are expected to live about 60 days, but can last as long as 80, he added.

The problem was discovered about halfway through the plants’ lifespan. One plant in Pillow A died, while the “stealth plant” in that pillow survived and is growing well. The plants in Pillow B and D also died quickly, and the plant in Pillow E appears deathly ill as of Jan. 4, which was Day 49 of their cycle. The zinnias in Pillows C and F, however, still appear healthy. Smith said ground investigators continue to monitor the situation through photos and talking with Kelly.

Read more at Discovery News

The Wasp With a Metal-Reinforced Needle on Its Behind

A wasp lays her eggs in a fig—and uncomfortable images in your subconscious.
Few trees in recorded history have been as useful as the fig. Its leaves covered Adam and Eve’s naughty bits, for example, and the Buddha supposedly found enlightenment under one. But in India, the cluster fig tree is responsible for something far more fascinating than spiritual journeys and what must be wildly uncomfortable undies.

This tree’s figs play host to a battle between two remarkable insects: a harmless pollinator wasp and its enemy, a parasitic wasp with a metal-reinforced, serrated drill for a bum. The ultra-strong drill is thinner than a human hair, yet its owner can somehow pierce through the tough hide of an unripe fig to deposit its eggs inside—seriously ruining the day of the pollinator wasp’s own kids that are also (surprise!) hiding within. It’s like a shaolin monk throwing a needle through glass and then babies come out of the needle and OK maybe it’s not entirely like that.

A fig tree’s flowers are actually encased in the figs, as opposed to something like a highfalutin orchid’s hey-look-what-I-can-do blooms. This presents the tree with a reproductive problem: It can’t rely on the wind or a variety of insects to spread its pollen around, so instead the cluster fig enlists its own species of pollinator wasp hyper-specialized for the job.

Here’s how it goes. When a female pollinator wasp manages to sniff out a receptive tree, she lands on an unripe fig and makes her way into a tiny passageway that leads to a hollow core. The entrance is so tight, in fact, that as she crawls through her antennae and wings snap off. But that’s no bother, really. She won’t be needing those things anymore.

In the inner chamber the wasp roams about laying her eggs, spreading around pollen she picked up from the tree she was born in, and dies. (If you’re a vegan and you’ve been eating figs, that could be … bad news. But it’s not like you’re consuming whole wasps. As the fig ripens it digests the dead pollinators, so really you’re eating wasp jelly, if that helps any.) Her eggs hatch into larvae, which feed on the fig before turning into adults and mating with each other. The ever-chivalrous males chew a hole through the fig and die, allowing the females to escape and carry the pollen to new figs and start the process all over again.

Notice the ovipositor’s sheath pop off as the wasp drills deeper.
It’s an elegant illustration of coevolution between beast and plant—two species evolving side by side for millennia. “The pollinators help the fig reproduce and the fig provides the wasp with a nice nursery where her larvae can develop,” says Namrata Gundiah, a biomechanics researcher at the Indian Institute of Science.

Of course, that beautiful partnership can’t just exist in a closed symbiotic loop. That would be too easy. The parasitic wasp, Apocrypta westwoodi, would love to get inside the cluster fig as well to lay her own eggs, so her rambunctious young can devour the baby pollinators already in there.

Problem is, when the pollinator wasp climbed into the fruit, a sap-like goo sealed the entrance behind it. So the parasite has to get in the hard way—literally. She wields a super-elongated ovipositor, meaning “egg-placer.” After tapping around the fig with her antennae to confirm her victims are inside, the parasite positions the ovipositor with an impressive arch of her body and begins drilling into the fruit.

It’s no small task, considering the fig is unripe at this point. But this is no ordinary ovipositor. Incredibly, Gundiah and her colleagues found that its serrated tip is fortified with zinc, making the wicked-sharp needle strong enough to drill through the fig without shattering. Because of the toughness of her ovipositor, the parasitic wasp can drill through figs over and over, perhaps as many as 20 in her lifetime.

“The thing that caught our attention is one, [the ovipositor] has to be extremely hard to cut inside,” says Gundiah. “But also it needs to be flexible because it has to be able to maneuver within this substrate—and she doesn’t have eyes inside.”

The formidable ovipositor of the parasitic wasp. That knob at center and the little holes left of it are the sensors that let the wasp guide the needle.
Gundiah found that the tip of the ovipositor is loaded with different kinds of sensors. “Some of them we think are chemical sensors,” she says, cup-like structures each “with a neuron that would fire if the right chemical hits it.” Theoretically, this would allow the wasp to “taste” the different layers of the fruit’s skin as she drills deeper. The ovipositor also seems to come equipped with mechanical sensors that let the wasp feel around. Think of it like a finger with tongues all over it—and now try never thinking of that again.

Even more incredibly, the parasitic wasp is able to feel and smell her way specifically to the developing young of the pollinator wasp in the wall of the chamber, depositing an egg on each. All the while, the long ovipositor is bending like mad, yet does not snap. At play here, Gundiah reckons, may be tiny pits studding the ovipositor where it bends the most. These could help arrest cracks hell-bent on spreading across the structure.

It’s all the more impressive when you consider that the drill is thinner than a human hair—we’re talking some serious mechanical engineering on evolution’s part. But what’s also interesting from an evolutionary perspective is how different the parasite’s ovipositor is from the pollinator’s.

“The pollinator has a more spoon-like structure, and it’s much shorter than what you’d find with the parasitoid,” Gundiah says. Plus, “there’s a much wider repertoire of sensors on the parasitoid because she needs to sample several different aspects of her environment,” whereas the pollinator is on the inside embedding her eggs in the soft wall of the chamber, and therefore has no need for a super-sensitive ovipositor.

Read more at Wired Science

Jan 7, 2016

Jurassic 10-Armed 'Squid' Were Speedy Swimmers

Three extremely rare fossil specimens of an extinct squidlike animal provide new evidence of the 10-armed creature’s body structure and suggest that it may have been a swift swimmer, a new study finds.

The fossils represent Acanthoteuthis, a genus of squid relatives that lived during the Jurassic period and measured between 9.8 and 15.7 inches (25 and 40 centimeters) long. What makes the specimens so exceptional is their preservation of soft body parts like the animals’ fins and feeding structures, which are usually lost to time. Now, an analysis of the new material reveals never-before-seen organs, offering scientists their first glimpse of features that suggest how Acanthoteuthis may have lived, millions of years ago.

Acanthoteuthis is a cephalopod, part of the ocean-dwelling group that includes modern octopus, squid and cuttlefish, with an evolutionary history spanning 500 million years. But even though cephalopods have been around for a long time, unlike many other extinct animals, they don’t leave much of themselves behind in the fossil record. Their soft bodies don’t preserve well, and the isolated bits that do fossilize tell only a partial story of what the living animal might have looked like.

Acanthoteuthis belongs to a group of cephalopods called belemnites, which are particularly abundant in the fossil record — or at least a small part of them is. Belemnites had tough internal shells capped by hard parts called “rostra,” which preserve well, as roughly bullet-shaped fossils. Rostra fossils are plentiful, and marks on them can even reveal traces of where the belemnites’ fins attached to the mantle, the cone-shaped, muscular part of the body that forces water through a siphon for jet-propelled swimming.

So what kept these specimens in such good condition and preserved so much of their bodies? Christian Klug, co-author of the new study and a curator at the Paleontological Institute and Museum at the University of Zurich, said the reason had to do with the site in Solnhofen, Germany, where the fossils were found.

“Solnhofen and its surroundings are world-renowned for exceptionally preserved fossils,” Klug told Live Science in an email. “These fossils were embedded in fine-grained sediments in more-or-less quiet water lagoons between coral reefs. Additionally, microbial mats stabilized the sediments, guaranteeing perfectly flat bedding.” Rapid burial and certain chemical conditions in the soil would also have played a part in the preservation, Klug added.

The discoveries of the well-preserved Acanthoteuthis specimens were certainly very special, and Klug and his colleagues were eager to see what the fossils might reveal. "Since we knew that the material was important, we figured we should get the most out of it," he said.

Synchrotron scanning, a powerful X-ray technique frequently used to visualize delicate fossils, yielded disappointing results that were too low-contrast to reveal much detail, Klug said. So they turned to ultraviolet (UV) imaging. Klug said study co-author Helmut Tischlinger's expertise with UV photography was a vital part of the process, sometimes taking days of experimentation with different filters to get the images just right. His efforts revealed morphological details that were previously invisible.

Tischlinger's UV images showed the hyponome, a funnel that directs the water jets from Acanthoteuthis' mantle cavity; the esophagus; and statocysts, which are sensory organs responsible for maintaining balance and detecting movement and change in direction.

Two other details — the collar, and mantle structures made from cartilage — were especially important, Klug said, because they provide clues about the swimming abilities of Acanthoteuthis. Generally speaking, Acanthoteuthis' fins and bullet-shaped body, much like modern squids', suggest that it would be a good swimmer, rather than relying on ocean currents to carry it where it needed to go. But the structures revealed in the UV photos indicate a muscular mantle and cartilage support system that would have strengthened the connection between the mantle and the water jet and head, and would be directly involved in rapid swimming, Klug said.

Other structural evidence suggested to the researchers which ocean depths Acanthoteuthis could have inhabited. Calcified structures in the statocysts — the balance-managing sense organs — resembled structures found in pelagic squid, which occupy the water column, the part of the ocean between the bottom and the shore. The researchers concluded that Acanthoteuthis probably inhabited the same ocean region.

Read more at Discovery News

Dinosaurs Danced in Bird-Like Mating Rituals

Dinosaurs not only danced, but they also did so with such enthusiasm that they left behind fossilized footprints as evidence of their moves, a new paper by an international team of paleontologists reports.

The discovery confirms prior speculation, based on dinosaur head crests and colorful feathers, that some dinosaurs engaged in mating displays that were similar to those of modern birds. The dancing dinos, according to the paper published in the journal Scientific Reports, were likely large theropods, meaning two-legged carnivorous dinosaurs.

“They were evidently very active and perhaps driven into frenzies by the excitement of the breeding season,” project leader Martin Lockley of the University of Colorado Denver, told Discovery News.

“This is typical of some bird species,” he continued. “The extensive scrape evidence suggests much high-energy activity. If small birds get excited when breeding, imagine what big theropods might have done!”

Lockley and his team found the fossilized dinosaur scrape marks in 100-million-year-old Dakota sandstone in western Colorado. Since the footprints could not be removed from the rocks without causing damage, the scientists recreated them in virtual 3-D, using a technique of layering photographs known as photogrammetry. Rubber molds and fiberglass copies of the footprints were also made and are now stored at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

Various interpretations of the fossilized footprints were considered, such as whether or not dinosaurs made them while digging for food or marking territory. These were all discounted for multiple reasons, with only mating dance behavior providing the best explanation for the ancient prints. In fact, the marks closely match those created by dancing birds today, such as Atlantic puffins and ostriches.

The time and location of the prints indicate that they were made by Acrocanthosaurus, a dinosaur that grew close to 38 feet in length and weighed up to 6.8 short tons. Its rhythmic stomps and scratches, comprising what the researchers call a "scrape ceremony," must have reverberated for quite a distance. The dinosaur probably vocalized as it performed the ritualistic scraping and bobbing movements, as today’s birds do.

The scientists also suspect that males of this and certain other carnivorous dinosaur species were the primary dancers.

“Males are the main show offs, at least in birds today,” Lockley explained. “This seems to be a hormone- and instinct-driven behavior of the breeding season to attract and pair with a mate.”

Males probably then competed during the spring breeding season while females looked on. The dancing displays likely occurred in assembly areas known as leks.

The behavior might date to long before the Cretaceous, but that remains unclear for now. Carnivorous dinosaurs were among the most active of all dinos, helping to explain why they were the dancers. It is doubtful that large, lumbering herbivores, such as sauropods, moved much for mating rituals, much less for other activities.

It is probable that some carnivorous dinosaurs gave rise to bird descendants that retained the display abilities, but Lockley said that “there is no reason to suppose that all theropods developed this behavior, or that all descendants should have inherited it.”

Read more at Discovery News

Oetzi the Iceman Suffered From Stomach Bug

Oetzi the Iceman, the 5,300-year-old mummy discovered in a melting glacier in the Italian Alps 25 years ago, was infected with the pathogen that gives people gastritis and stomach ulcers, new genetic analysis reveals.

An international team of researchers working with paleopathologist Albert Zink and microbiologist Frank Maixner from the European Academy (EURAC) in Bozen/Bolzano, found evidence of Helicobacter pylori in Oetzi's stomach contents.

"We were able to decode the complete genome of a 5,300-year-old Helicobacter pylori," Albert Zink told Discovery News.

The finding not only suggests the Iceman may have been feeling ill on the day he was murdered, but provides an unexpected glimpse into the history of Europeans.

Found today in about half the world's human population, this Gram-negative bacterium is commonly transmitted person-to-person by saliva, fecal contamination of food or water and poor hygiene. The pathogen has resided with human hosts for so long that it has become a marker of human dispersal around the world.

Genetic analysis of the different strains that have evolved as humans migrated around the world, can now be used to map the history of human geography.

Oetzi's stomach bacterium is the oldest known pathogen ever sequenced.

The research, detailed in the journal Science, began in 2010 when the stomach of the Iceman was detected through CT scans after 20 years of research.

The scientists completely defrosted the mummy and took samples of the stomach.

"Evidence for the presence of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori is found in the stomach tissue of patients today, so we thought it was extremely unlikely we would find anything because Oetzi's stomach mucosa is no longer there," Zink said.

The research team, which included scientists from the Universities of Kiel, Vienna and Venda in South Africa as well as the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, solved the problem by extracting the entire DNA of the stomach contents.

"After this was successfully done, we were able to tease out the individual Helicobacter sequences and reconstruct its complete genome," Frank Maixner said.

It emerged Oetzi was infected with a single, potentially virulent strain of H. pylori, to which the Iceman's immune system had reacted.

"We found marker proteins which we see today in patients infected with Helicobacter," Zink said. "Whether Oetzi had developed a gastritis cannot be said with any degree of certainty since the stomach mucosa has not survived. But there is a clear possibility he had stomach issues."

It wasn't, however, a life-threatening condition.

"He was in quite good shape when he died at 40-50 years old, a ripe age for that time. We think he could have lived another 10-20 years if he had not been killed by the arrow in his back," Zink said.

Today, fewer than 10 percent of carriers develop disease that manifest as gastritis or stomach ulcers, mostly in old age.

But there was more. The strain the Iceman harbored revealed a surprising ancestry.

"We assumed we would find the same strain of Helicobacter in Oetzi as is found in Europeans today. It turned out to be a strain that is mainly observed in Central and South Asia," Thomas Rattei from the University of Vienna, explained.

The European population of H. pylori is known to be a hybrid between Asian and African bacteria, but there have been different hypotheses about when and where the hybridization took place.

Up till now, it had been assumed that Neolithic humans were already carrying the hybrid European strain by the time they stopped their nomadic life and took up agriculture.

Research on Oetzi, however, demonstrates that this was not the case.

The Iceman's H. pylori is "a nearly pure representative of the bacterial population of Asian origin that existed in Europe before hybridization," the researchers wrote.

"This puts things into wonderful perspective for us with just one genome. We can say the waves of migrations that brought the African strain into Europe had not occurred, or had not occurred in earnest, by the time the Iceman was alive," Yoshan Moodley, at the University of Venda, South Africa, said.

Read more at Discovery News

December in US Was Hottest in Modern Times

The United States just experienced the hottest December in modern times, and 2015 as a whole was the second warmest on record, government scientists said Thursday.

The report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is the latest to document a warming trend that many scientists expect will make 2015 the planet’s most scorching year since the late 1800s.

Global climate data for 2015 is to be released on Jan. 20.

For the United States alone, December 2015 was “record warm for the contiguous U.S., with a temperature of 38.6 Fahrenheit, six degrees above the 20th century average,” NOAA said in a statement.

Temperatures soared past the last record-breaking December, which was in 1939.

“It was quite an exceptional month,” said Jake Crouch, climate scientist at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.

December 2015 marked the first time in 121 years “that a month has been both the wettest and the warmest on record,” he added.

The additional precipitation can be blamed in part on the El Nino trend which can heat up the equatorial Pacific and cause heavier rains in some parts of the world, scientists said.

The average temperature for the entire year in the United States was the second warmest since record-keeping began in 1895.

“Only 2012 was warmer for the U.S.,” NOAA said, noting that 2015 marked the 19th consecutive year the annual average temperature exceeded the 20th century average.

According to Crouch, four states experienced their hottest years on record, including Florida. No state was unusually cool.

“Every state had an above average temperature for the year,” said Crouch.

Read more at Discovery News

Mega-Star Eta Carinae Isn't a Cosmic Loner

For decades, astronomers have wondered if Eta Carinae, a massive binary star that shines 5 million times brighter than the sun, was unique, as nothing like it had been found in the Milky Way galaxy, or beyond.

But scientists now know that Eta Carinae, located about 7,500 light years from Earth, is not alone. A study using archived Hubble and Spitzer space telescope imagery found five Eta Carinae "twins" in nearby galaxies, astronomers said at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Kissimmee, Fla., on Wednesday.

Aside from its girth, Eta Carinae’s most distinctive feature is an expanding envelope of gas and dust, the result of a massive eruption in the 1840s that spewed the equivalent of more than 10 times the mass of the sun into space.

What triggered Eta Carinae’s eruption remains a mystery, but scientists used telltale fingerprints of its distinctive dust cloud to find five more supermassive stars that experienced similar explosions.

“We’re looking for a rare evolutionary phase in very rare stars -- the rarest of the rare objects,” astronomer Rubab Khan, with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., told reporters.

Eta Carinae’s twins are far way, up to 26 million light years away -- too far for telescopes to pick out individual stars. Instead, Khan and colleagues developed an optical and infrared blueprint to hunt for similar stars.

The technique compares the amount of ultraviolet and visible light, which is dimmed by the dust cloud, with heating in the dust caused by the light being re-absorbed at longer, mid-infrared wavelengths.

Scientists then tried to find matches with the amount of dust observed around Eta Carinae. Two similar stars were found in the galaxy M83, located about 15 million light years away, and one each in NGC 6946, M101, and M51, located between 18 million and 26 million light-years away.

Khan said each Eta Carinae twin is believed to be a supermassive star buried in gas and dust equivalent to five to 10 times the mass of the sun.

“Eta Carinae is not unique ... It happens in nature. However, it’s very, very rare. This is the first time we can quantitatively say just how rare Eta Carinae is,” Khan said.

Read more at Discovery News

Jan 6, 2016

Giant Monitor Lizards Trained to Avoid Toxic Toads

Australian scientists Wednesday said they had devised an “innovative method of conservation” through feeding giant monitor lizards small cane toads so they won’t be killed by larger-sized amphibians.

Cane toads, an invasive species from Central and South America that were introduced to Australia in 1935, are so toxic they can kill predators that try to eat them and are continuing to spread across northern Australia at an estimated 40-60 kilometres (25-37 miles) a year.

Scientists have said the spread of the cane toads — which an Australian university study found numbered about 200 million on the island continent — was causing catastrophic population declines in predators.

But researchers from the University of Sydney said they were able to teach free-ranging goannas in the Kimberley wilderness in northwestern Australia to avoid eating the toxic toads about to invade the remote floodplain.

The scientists offered small, non-lethal cane toads to the wild yellow-spotted monitors — which have experienced a 90 percent plunge in population following toad invasions — with further trials confirming “just one or two toad meals were enough to convince a goanna not to eat another toad”.

The goannas quickly learnt to avoid the adult cane toads in the wild after being exposed to the younger, smaller toads.

“After training, giant monitor lizards, known as goannas, survived when the toads arrived, whereas untrained lizards were immediately killed,” lead researcher Georgia Ward-Fear said of the study, which was published Wednesday in the Biology Letters journal.

Read more at Discovery News

3,400-Year-Old Citadel Found in Basement

There is a 3,400-year-old citadel in my basement. That’s what the residents of an apartment high-rise in the Israeli coastal city of Nahariya will be able to say soon.

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced on Wednesday it reached an agreement with a construction company to have the remains of a Bronze Age citadel incorporated in a building that is being erected near the beach on Balfour Street.

Archaeologists uncovered the ruins during a large excavation which was carried out as the Kochav construction company started building a residential high-rise with underground parking.

“It seems the citadel was used as an administrative center that served the mariners who sailed along the Mediterranean coast 3,400 years ago. There was probably a dock alongside the citadel,” Nimrod Getzov, Yair Amitzur and Ron Be’eri, the IAA excavation directors, said in a statement.

Numerous artifacts were discovered in the citadel’s rooms, including ceramic figurines with human and animal forms, bronze weapons, and imported pottery vessels — evidence of extensive commercial and cultural relations with Cyprus and the rest of the lands in the Mediterranean basin.

“The fortress was destroyed at least four times by an intense conflagration, and each time it was rebuilt,” the archaeologists said.

An abundance of cereal, legumes and grape seeds were found in the burnt layers. According to the excavators, they are indicative of the provisions the sailors would purchase.

“Given the extraordinary nature and quality of the finds, the Israel Antiquities Authority sought a solution that would allow the conservation of some of the remains for the benefit of the public,” the IAA said.

Read more at Discovery News

Earth Is Experiencing a Global Warming Spurt

Cyclical changes in the Pacific Ocean have thrown Earth’s surface into what may be an unprecedented warming spurt, following a global warming slowdown that lasted about 15 years.

While El Niño is being blamed for an outbreak of floods, storms and unseasonable temperatures across the planet, a much slower-moving cycle of the Pacific Ocean has also been playing a role in record-breaking warmth. The recent effects of both ocean cycles are being amplified by climate change.

A 2014 flip was detected in the sluggish and elusive ocean cycle known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or PDO, which also goes by other names, including the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation. Despite uncertainty about the fundamental nature of the PDO, leading scientists link its 2014 phase change to a rapid rise in global surface temperatures.

The effects of the PDO on global warming can be likened to a staircase, with warming leveling off for periods, typically of more than a decade, and then bursting upward.

“It seems to me quite likely that we have taken the next step up to a new level,” said Kevin Trenberth, a scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

The 2014 flip from the cool PDO phase to the warm phase, which vaguely resembles a long and drawn out El Niño event, contributed to record-breaking surface temperatures across the planet in 2014.

The record warmth set in 2014 was surpassed again in 2015, when global temperatures surged to 1°C (1.8°F) above pre-industrial averages, worsening flooding, heatwaves and storms.

Trenberth is among an informal squadron of scientists that in recent years has toiled to understand the slowdown in surface warming rates that began in the late 1990s, which some nicknamed a global warming “pause” or “hiatus.”

A flurry of recent research papers has indicated that the slowdown was less pronounced than previously thought, leading some scientists to renew claims that those nicknames are inaccurate and should be abandoned.

“The slowdown was not statistically significant, I suppose, if you properly take into account natural variability, which includes the PDO,” Trenberth said. “That’s sort of the argument that people have been making; that even if it was a little bit of a slowdown, or pause, or call it what you will, it’s not out of bounds, and as a result we shouldn’t really put a label on it.”

The approximately 15-year warming slowdown was linked to the negative phase of the PDO, which is also called its cool phase. That phase whips up strong trade winds that bury more heat beneath sea surfaces, contributing toextraordinary levels of warming recorded in the oceans. A similar phase led to a slight cooling of the planet from the 1940s to the 1970s.

“Last time we went from a negative to a positive was in the mid-‘70s,” said Gerald Meehl, a National Center for Atmospheric Research scientist. “Then we had larger rates of global warming from the ‘70s to the late ‘90s, compared to the previous 30 years.”

“It’s not just an upward sloping line,” Meehl said. “Sometimes it’s steeper, sometimes it’s slower.”

The effects of the warm phase of the PDO and the current El Niño may be cumulative in terms of warming the planet. It also seems likely that changes in the ocean cycles are linked, with changes between El Niño and La Niña driving changes in the PDO cycle.

Or, perhaps the PDO doesn’t exist at all, other than as a tidy pile of data points, and it’s simply a manifestation of changes in the shorter-running cycle between El Niño and La Niña.

“There’s some debate about whether there is a low frequency oscillation — is there a distinct interdecadal oscillation?” said Penn State meteorology professor Michael Mann. “Or is what we call a low frequency oscillation just a change over time in the frequency and magnitude of individual El Niño and La Niña events?

Read more at Discovery News

Black Holes Set the Clock for Life on Earth

There is a chance -- just a chance -- that if black holes rule the universe, they could have "switched on" habitable planets, such as Earth, allowing them to support complex life.

It's an unavoidable implication of the work of astrophysicist Paul Mason, who is examining the role of the super high-energy particles from black holes and exploding stars in the advent of habitable planets.

Before life started on Earth, the planet was bathed in deadly radiation from the younger, angrier sun as well as a high tide of energetic particles -- a.k.a. cosmic rays -- being blasted around the galaxy and universe by exploding stars and giant black holes at the centers of galaxies. At some point the cosmic ray flux dropped enough so that life on Earth -- and on any Earth-like planet anywhere in the universe -- had a chance to flourish.

“It has taken the universe a while for the cosmic ray density and the frequency of bad events to decrease enough for life to handle it,” Mason told Discovery News. Mason is a professor at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and presented his work on Wednesday at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Kissimmee, Fla.

Those bad events include supernovas -- the explosive deaths of very large and short-lived stars -- which were much more common in the early universe, when the rates of stars births was far higher, said Mason. Other very bad events were the storms of radiation that might have blown from the gigantic central black holes of galaxies when they gulped down matter. Such feeding frenzies -- and the harsh, sterilizing radiation they released -- were also more common in the past, as astronomers have learned by looking at more distant, and therefore more ancient, galaxies.

Compounding the early universe's problem with life is the fact that everything was much closer together. The small young universe was packed thick with sterilizing cosmic rays. It took billions of years for the expanding universe to pull things apart and help thin that deadly soup.

“It implies that the expansion of the universe is important for life,” Mason said, regarding this cosmic ray perspective on the universe.

What also helped life eventually fend off cosmic rays were the leftovers of all those supernovas. Dying stars are element factories which created the oxygen and nitrogen atoms that are now the primary components of our atmosphere. That atmosphere is what protects us from all but the most powerful cosmic rays that are still banging around the galaxy.

Mason's cosmic ray story seems to fit the observable universe, but there are still lots of unanswered questions. For instance, do all giant black holes necessarily zap their galaxies with the most dangerous, highest-energy cosmic rays?

“It's not very well established that these (giant black holes) release very high energy cosmic rays,” said physicist Dimitra Atri of the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science in Seattle.

Read more at Discovery News

Jan 5, 2016

Mystery Solved: Why the Real King Kong Became Extinct

The largest ape to roam Earth died out 100,000 years ago because it failed to tuck into savannah grass after climate change hit its preferred diet of forest fruit, scientists suggest.

Gigantopithecus — the closest Nature ever came to producing a real King Kong — weighed five times as much as an adult man and probably stood three metres (nine feet) tall, according to sketchy estimates.

In its heyday a million years ago, it inhabited semi-tropical forests in southern China and mainland Southeast Asia.

Until now, though, almost nothing was known about the giant’s anatomical shape or habits.

The only fossil records are four partial lower jaws, and perhaps a thousand teeth — the first of which turned up in the 1930s in Hong Kong apothecaries where they were sold as “dragon’s teeth.”

These meagre remains “are clearly insufficient to say if the animal was bipedal or quadrupedal, and what would be its body proportions,” Herve Bocherens, a researcher at Tübingen University in Germany, told AFP.

Its closest modern cousin is the orangutan, but whether Gigantopithecus had the same golden-red hue, or was black like a gorilla is unknown.

A comparison graph of a 1.8-meter-tall human male in comparison to Gigantopithecus blacki (left) and G. giganteus (right): This graph is based on orangutan proportions while standing upright.
Another mystery: its diet. Was it a meat-eater or a vegetarian? Did it share a taste for bamboo with its neighbor the prehistoric giant panda?

Answering this riddle might also tell us why a monster that surely had little to fear from other fauna went extinct.

That’s where the teeth had a story to tell.

Examining slight variations in carbon isotopes found in tooth enamel, Bocherens and an international team of scientists showed that the primordial King Kong lived only in the forest, was a strict vegetarian, and probably wasn’t crazy about bamboo.

These narrow preferences did not pose a problem for Gigantopithecus until Earth was struck by a massive ice age during the Pleistocene Epoch, which stretched from about 2.6 million to 12,000 years ago.

That's when Nature, evolution -- and perhaps a refusal to try new foods -- conspired to doom the giant ape, Bocherens explained.

"Due to its size, Gigantopithecus presumably depended on a large amount of food," he said.

"When during the Pleistocene, more and more forested area turned into savannah landscapes, there was simply an insufficient food supply."

And yet, according to the study, other apes and early humans in Africa that had comparable dental gear were able to survive similar transitions by eating the leaves, grass and roots offered by their new environments.

But for some reason, Asia's giant ape -- which was probably too heavy to climb trees, or swing in their branches -- did not make the switch.

"Gigantopithecus probably did not have the same ecological flexibility and possibly lacked the physiological ability to resist stress and food shortage," notes the study, which is to be published in a specialist journal, Quaternary International.

Read more at Discovery News

ISIS Gone, Archaeologists Return to Key Iraq Sites

As the terrorist group ISIS is pushed out of northern Iraq, archaeologists are resuming work in the region, making new discoveries and figuring out how to conserve archaeological sites and reclaim looted antiquities.

Several discoveries, including new Neanderthal skeletal remains, have been made at Shanidar Cave, a site in Iraqi Kurdistan that was inhabited by Neanderthals more than 40,000 years ago.

Additionally, though ISIS did destroy and loot a great number of sites, there are several ways for archaeologists, scientific institutions, governments and law enforcement agencies in North America and Europe to help save the region's heritage, said Dlshad Marf Zamua, a Kurdish archaeologist and doctoral student at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

He criticized antiquity dealers who are benefiting financially from ISIS' looting and destruction, calling on authorities in North America and Europe to prevent those dealers from selling northern Iraq's heritage. "It was said that war was created for selling weapons, but in the situation of our area, the war was created for selling weapons, oil and antiquity objects," Marf Zamua said.

New research

Before ISIS moved into Iraq in the summer of 2014, scientists with 45 foreign missions from 16 countries were conducting archaeological excavations and surveys in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, said Marf Zamua.

Over the past few months, Kurdish forces have gone on the offensive and, with support from allied air strikes, are pushing ISIS out of the region. And archaeologists are returning to the area, including at Shanidar Cave. This cave was originally excavated between 1952 and 1960 by a team led by archaeologist Ralph Solecki from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The archaeologists at that time found several Neanderthal skeletons and pollen remains suggesting that the Neanderthals placed flowers in graves before burial.

In an article recently published in the journal Antiquity, a team that has recently returned to Shanidar Cave reported finding additional Neanderthal bones, "including a hamate [a wrist bone], the distal ends of the right tibia and fibula, and some articulated ankle bones, scattered fragments of two vertebrae, a rib and long bone fragments."

The newfound bones are likely from one of the Neanderthals that archaeologists dug up in the 1950s, said University of Cambridge archaeologist Graeme Barker, who is part of the research team. He said that as excavations continue, new Neanderthal skeletons may be found.

Additionally the team's research is shedding light on the environment in the cave where the Neanderthals lived.

For instance, scientists reporting in another paper published in the journal Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology found that bees were transporting pollen into the cave. This complicates the idea that Neanderthals in the cave buried their dead with flowers, suggesting instead that pollen remains from flowers could have entered the cave through natural means.

Protecting heritage

When ISIS took over parts of northern Iraq, the group began looting and destroying archaeological sites such as ancient Assyrian cities like Nimrud. After bulldozing these cities, but before blasting them, ISIS looted thousands of artifacts from the sites, Marf Zamua said. "Thousands of objects reached the black markets over the world."

Additionally, many unexcavated "Tell" (mound) sites were also bulldozed, looted and blasted. Those sites contained artifacts that have not yet been excavated. There "are hidden treasure [within these mounds], and by losing any of them, we lose an important part of history and civilization of Mesopotamia," Marf Zamua said.

In addition to curtailing the black market, scientific organizations in the West can help train Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian archaeologists in conservation techniques, Marf Zamua said. "Institutes can offer local archaeologists scholarships in restoration, protecting heritage and museum studies," he said.

Read more at Discovery News

Andromeda Galaxy Is Peppered With 'X-Ray Heaters'

A NASA observatory has zoomed-in on the Milky Way’s galactic big “sister” and spied 40 X-ray binaries, objects that are believed to be a key factor in the heating of interstellar gases and therefore major drivers of galaxy evolution.

NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, is a space telescope capable of detecting some of the highest-energy X-rays the universe can generate and when spying on the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), NuSTAR astronomers weren’t disappointed.

Andromeda, like the Milky Way, is a more massive spiral galaxy located around 2.5 million light-years away. This may sound like a long way, but Andromeda is our nearest spiral galaxy neighbor. Its relative closeness means missions like NuSTAR can study Andromeda’s X-ray emissions in great detail and some new findings were presented today (Jan. 5) at the 227th meeting of American Astronomical Society in Kissimmee, Fla.

“Andromeda is the only large spiral galaxy where we can see individual X-ray binaries and study them in detail in an environment like our own,” said Daniel Wik, of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “We can then use this information to deduce what’s going on in more distant galaxies, which are harder to see.”

X-ray binaries consist of two stellar objects — typically one star and a stellar remnant, like a neutron star or black hole. As the pair orbit one another, plasma from the star is dragged away by the compact remnant As this plasma falls toward the black hole or neutron star, the gas undergoes rapid and intense heating — a process that can generate high-energy X-rays.

Now, using NuSTAR observations of a nearby galaxy, astronomers can gain a better understanding as to whether the X-ray binaries are composed mainly of black holes or neutron stars and how their radiation compares with the average X-ray emissions from more distant galaxies. This, in turn, can help us understand the heating influence X-ray binaries have on their galactic environment and how the Andromeda galaxy compares with our own.

Read more at Discovery News

Black Hole's Rejected Snack Becomes Science Goldmine

Remember that mysterious cloud of gas that was supposed to be on a collision course with the supermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy? Well, astronomers are still trying to work out why it wasn’t sucked in, and why it didn’t spark the mother of all cosmic fireworks displays.

But in doing so, researchers have revealed some fascinating new things about the monster singularity that lurks over 25,000 light years from Earth.

In 2011, astronomers noticed a cloud of gas speeding through the innermost reaches of the galactic bulge. Ahead of the object, known (rather un-romantically) as “G2″, was supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* (or, simply, Sgr A*). After some caluculations, it was realized that this cloud would come within 250 sun-Earth distances of the black hole, close enough to be sucked in by the black hole’s powerful gravitational pull.

This was really exciting: for the first time in human history we’d be able to study material before it fell into a black hole, from approach to dazzling finale.

At the time, it was assumed G2 was composed of a nebulous collection of stellar gases. It was also assumed that, while undergoing extreme tidal warping, the cloud would be stretched out like a long noodle, with tendrils being sucked into the black hole’s accretion disk. Somewhere along the line it was hoped that the emissions from knots of this gas interacting with the extreme spacetime environment surrounding Sgr A*’s event horizon would be detected as X-ray flashes — possibly the biggest eruptions we’d ever see come from Sgr A*. We’d witness our black hole in action; from discovery of an in-falling object to that object’s ultimate doom — when matter gets transformed to energy and the black hole has a cosmic feast.

But… nothing happened.

Well, stuff did happen, but the destruction of G2 became something of a non-event and astrophysicists have been trying to work out exactly what happened… or, more accurately, why something didn’t happen.

The current hypothesis is that G2 isn’t the loose collection of gas it was assumed to be; it could be a star enveloped in a cloud of gravitationally-bound gas. During its close encounter with Sgr A*, the cloud maintained its integrity and very little gas was stripped away from the cloaked star. No infalling matter; no cosmic fireworks; disappointed astronomers.

In new research published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS), astronomers Michael McCourt and Ann-Marie Madigan of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astronomy (CfA) described their study of G2, revealing that although it was a bit of a dud, the event did probe the extreme environment surrounding Sgr A*. Of particular interest: they may have tracked down where the black hole finds its regular feast.

McCourt and Madigan tracked G2, and another gas cloud called “G1″, travel through the vicinity of Sgr A*. It just so happens that the clouds passed so close, that they would have traveled through the black hole’s “accretion flow” — in other words, these clouds could be used as tracers to see the structure of the matter that regularly falls into the black hole.

As both clouds follow a similar trajectory around the black hole, small changes in the objects’ gas could be measured. And the evolution of these clouds revealed characteristics of the interstellar material surrounding Sgr A*.

“Although it is not yet clear whether these objects contain embedded stars, their extended gaseous envelopes evolve independently as gas clouds,” they write. “We find evolution consistent with the G-clouds (G1 and G2) originating in the clockwise disc. Our analysis enables the first unique determination of the rotation axis of the accretion flow: we localize the rotation axis to within 20 degrees, finding an orientation consistent with the parsec-scale jet identified in X-ray observations and with the circumnuclear disc, a massive torus of molecular gas (approximately) 1.5 parsecs (5 light-years) from Sgr A*.”

Read more at Discovery News

Jan 4, 2016

Ivan the Terrible Military Arsenal Found

Russian archaeologists have unearthed the full arsenal of a military commander who served Ivan the Terrible, the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences has announced.

Found during a survey for an highway expansion outside Zvenigorod, an ancient town 18 miles west of Moscow, the cache consists of helmets stored in leather boxes, sections of sabers, arrows and and a type of armor known as kolchugs.

The location of the finding was the 16th century village of Ignatievskoe, once the homeland of the Dobrynins, a family belonging to the Russian boyar nobility.

One member of this family once figured amongst Ivan the Terrible’s “hand-picked thousand,” an elite force the Tsar established in 1550.

The first Tsar of Russia, Ivan IV “The Terrible” (1533-1584) is acknowledged to have established the current Russian territory during his long reign, which was one of the bloodiest in the country’s history.

He conquered the khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan and Siberia, creating a huge, multi-ethnic and centrally controlled state. Ivan the Terrible is also known for the atrocious things he did during his rule, and for brutally executing thousands of people, including his own son.

During the dig, archaeologists unearthed the remains of about 60 buildings of what was once the village of Ignatievskoe. The arsenal was found in the underground timber-lined storehouse of one of the buildings, which was burned down in a fire.

The weapons were stored in special boxes, and included various tools of warfare such as belts and camp tents.

According to the archaeologists, the inventory was prepared for a military expedition. It suggests the existence of a standing army which was fed and housed by members of the nobility as part of their responsibility as courtiers.

“This gives us a much better idea how a Russian noble would have prepared for setting out on a military campaign – each nobleman would have had his own arsenal in readiness,” archaeologist Alexei Alexeyev, who in charge of the excavation, said in a statement.

The highlight of the 500-year-old arsenal were a pair of spiked helmets almost undamaged by rust.

Read more at Discovery News

Eve Was Created From Adam's Penis: Bible Scholar

Eve was not made from one of Adam’s ribs, but was instead created using a bone in his penis, a Biblical scholar has claimed causing much stir.

The story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 tells that God made Adam from of the dust of the ground, then created Eve out of one of Adam’s ribs.

Ziony Zevit, distinguished professor of Biblical Literature and Northwest Semitic Languages at the American Jewish University in California, argues the Biblical story has been wrongly interpreted since a mistranslation confused rib with baculum, or penis bone.

First presented in the 2013 book “What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden?” Zevit’s shocking claim has recently resurfaced in a paper published in Biblical Archaeology Review, causing a heated controversy among outraged Christian readers.

According to Zevit, the bone of contention — literally — centers around the Hebrew word “tsela,” used in the Old Testament to indicate the bone taken from Adam to create Eve.

“This Hebrew word occurs some 40 times in the Hebrew Bible, where it refers to the side of a building or of an altar or ark, a side-chamber, or a branch of a mountain. In each of these instances, it refers to something off-center, lateral to a main structure,” Zevit wrote.

Tsela was first translated as rib in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible dating to the mid-third century B.C.

It would have then lost its original meaning, which according to Zevit relates to “limbs lateral to the vertical axis of an erect human body: hands, feet, or, in the case of males, the penis.”

“Of these appendages, the only one lacking a bone is the penis,” Zevit wrote.

This would explain why the human penis has no “os baculum,” or bone, unlike most mammals, including primates such as gorillas and chimpanzees.

It would also clear up why men don’t have an uneven number of ribs compared to women.

In this view, the part in Genesis 2:21, in which God closes the flesh beneath the “tsela,” should be interpreted as to God closing up the flesh that exists on the underside of the penis.

Not surprisingly, Zevit’s phallic interpretation of the Biblical story has come under fire, with several readers of Biblical Archaeology threatening to cancel their subscription.

Israel’s daily Haaretz also entered the debate, arguing that ancient linguistics provide no support for the theory.

“Ziony Zevit’s theory is even more unlikely than the original story,” journalist Elon Gilad wrote.

Read more at Discovery News

500-Year-Old Skeleton May Belong to Pirate

Human remains unearthed last year under a school playground in Edinburgh, UK do not belong to a Bronze Age individual, as previously thought, but to a 16th-century pirate who was executed nearby, the City of Edinburgh Council said.

The skeleton was found during survey work for an extension at the city’s oldest working primary school, located near Newhaven harbor.

“Workers expected to find remains of the original harbor and shipbuilding but instead uncovered human bones,” the City of Edinburgh Council said in a statement.

Some 4,000-year-old shards of pottery found near the poorly preserved remains led archaeologists to believe the remains were from the Bronze Age.

But recent radiocarbon dating by experts at AOC Archaeology indicates the skeleton was from the 16th or 17th centuries.

“Thanks to carbon dating techniques, archaeologists now know that the skeleton was likely to have been a murder victim — and quite possibly a pirate,” Councillor Richard Lewis, Culture Convener for the City of Edinburgh Council, said.

A a gallows-type structure called a gibbet, commonly used to execute witches and pirates, stood on the edge of Newhaven dockyards 600 years ago.

Archaeologists believe the man, who was likely in his 50s, was hung on that device for piracy or other crimes and displayed in plain sight of ships to deter fellow pirates.

He was then buried in a shallow, unmarked grave.

Read more at Discovery News

Four New Elements Added to Periodic Table

The periodic table now has its seventh row completed with the introduction of four new chemical elements.

The elements 113, 115, 117 and 118, discovered by scientists in Japan, Russia and the United States are the first to be added to the table since 2011, when elements 114 and 116 were added. Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev produced the first true iteration of the table in 1869.

The Japanese research team was granted the right to name new element 113, the first on the periodic table to be named by Asian scientists, the team’s institute said last week.

Japan’s Riken Institute said a team led by Kosuke Morita was awarded the rights from global scientific bodies — the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) and the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) — after successfully creating the new synthetic element three times from 2004 to 2012.

It is the first element on the periodic table to be discovered and named by Asian scientists, Riken said.

Synthetic elements do not occur naturally on Earth and are produced artificially through experiments.

A release on IUPAC’s website confirmed the accomplishment.

“Several studies published from 2004 to 2012 have been construed as sufficient to ratify the discovery and priority,” it said.

The name has yet to be decided, but Riken said that Morita will propose one in 2016. The three remaining elements, 115, 117, and 118 – known temporarily as ununpentium (Uup), ununseptium (Uus), and ununoctium (Uuo), respectively – will also get new names.

Read more at Discovery News

This is the Entire Universe Squeezed into One Image

An enterprising artist has taken on one of the biggest concepts known to man: the universe.

Pablo Carlos Budassi is drawing eyes across the Internet this week for a dazzling logarithmic visualization of the observable universe that he created and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons in 2013.

The spectacular illustration features our solar system at the very center, followed by “inner and outer planets, Kuiper belt, Oort cloud, Alpha Centauri, Perseus Arm, Milky Way galaxy, Andromeda galaxy, nearby galaxies, Cosmic Web, Cosmic microwave radiation and Big Bang’s invisible plasma on the edge,” according to the file’s description on Wikimedia Commons.

In an interview, Budassi told Tech Insider that he was inspired to craft the visualization while drawing hexaflexagons.

“Then when I was drawing hexaflexagons for my sons birthday souvenirs I started drawing central views of the cosmos and the solar system,” he told the website. “That day the idea of a logarithmic view came and in the next days I was able to it with Photoshop using images from NASA and some textures created by my own.”

From Discovery News