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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Medieval Shipwreck Hauled from the Deep

Written by Tia Ghose

A nearly intact medieval shipwreck has been hauled from the frigid waters of a Dutch river.

The boat was likely deliberately sunk by maritime engineers more than 600 years ago in an effort to alter the flow of the Ijssel River, an offshoot of the mighty Rhine River that flows through six European countries. The trading ship sailed at a time when the Hanseatic League, a group of guilds that fostered trade across Europe, dominated the seas.

"The fact that we were able to raise the Ijssel cog [a type of wooden vessel] in its entirety and in one attempt is a fantastic achievement by the entire team," lead maritime archaeologist Wouter Waldus said in a statement. "The shipwreck can become a symbol of our rich maritime history, and I fully expect many people, both young and old, to be amazed by and start enjoying this ship from the Hanseatic period's fascinating story."

Surprise discovery

The boat was first discovered in 2012 at the river bottom during efforts to widen the flow of the Ijssel River. The massive ship was lying perpendicular to the river flow, along with a medieval barge and a punt, a specialized ship designed for navigating river deltas.

Over the course of the next three years, maritime archaeologists put in place a painstaking, meticulous plan to recover the ancient seafaring vessel. First, the team built a platform and crane on the river, then built a protective frame around the ship to lift it out of the water. After suctioning gunk from the area inside the frame, the archeological team created 3D images of the boat underwater. Only then were the team members ready to carefully lift the boat out of the water, using a basketlike structure made of straps, crossbeams and jacks. Each strap had its own motorized control to allow perfectly precise maneuvering in response to the forces experienced in the ship.

The ship had characteristic construction found in a medieval ship called a cog.

"This was an incredibly involved operation and was almost as impressive as the cog itself. The raising of the 20-meter-long [65 feet] ship was complex, in the middle of the river, near the navigation channel. Also, as a result of the fact, three different specializations had to work together here: an archaeological research team, divers and storage specialists," said Ben Broens, an official with the Rijkswaterstaat, a water management bureau in the Dutch government, which helped oversee the salvage operation.

Medieval cog

It turned out the 55-ton (50 tonnes) ship was a medieval cog, a type of wooden vessel with a steep, straight ship prow and deck beams that stick out from the boat's skin. Cogs were typically used in the late medieval period on international trade voyages. Many of the structural support elements, such as nails, were made of metal, meaning it was sturdier, and therefore easier to take out of the water without falling apart.

The team believes the ancient seafaring vessel was likely sunk deliberately. It was placed perpendicular in the stream of the river. By looking at medieval maps and historical documents and recreating the historical path of the river, the team found the ship was sunk at a time when silt was building up, creating huge sandbanks along the Ijssel River. Those sandbanks would have prevented ships from docking properly, so the ship, along with the barge and punt, were likely sent to the bottom of the river in a bid to narrow the river flow or divert it in a way that would improve sea traffic.

Though the ship was stripped of much of its original finery, the team did find an intact brick oven, as well as gorgeous glazed tiles, in the galley area of the ship.

Now that the ship is safely out of the water, the team will transport it inside its custom-made frame to a preservation facility in Leylstad, the Netherlands. There, it will undergo a painstaking process of drying out, which could take another three years. If all goes well, the Ijssel Cog will be placed on display in a museum. But if the ship can't be dried out safely, it will be studied thoroughly before being destroyed.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Ancient armored mammal from Argentina was a huge armadillo

Written by Will Dunham

DNA coaxed out of a 12,000-year-old fossil from Argentina is providing unique insight into one of the strangest Ice Age giants: a tank-like mammal the size of a small car with a bulbous bony shell and a spiky, club-shaped tail.

Scientists said on Monday their genetic research confirmed that the creature, named Doedicurus, was part of an extinct lineage of gigantic armadillos. Doedicurus was a plant-eater that weighed about a ton and roamed the pampas and savannas of South America, vanishing about 10,000 years ago along with many other large Ice Age animals.

"With a length of more than three meters (10 feet) from head to tail, it certainly looks like a small car, like a Mini or Fiat 500," evolutionary biologist Frederic Delsuc of France's Université de Montpellier, one of the researchers, said.

It was a member of a group called glyptodonts that shared the landscape with giant ground sloths, sabre-toothed cats and towering, flightless, carnivorous "terror birds." Some glyptodonts made it as far north as southern portions of the United States, from what is now Arizona through the Carolinas.

The researchers were able to place Doedicurus and the other glyptodonts into the armadillo family tree after studying small fragments of DNA extracted from bits of the creature's carapace. They used a sophisticated technique to fish mitochondrial DNA out from a soup of environmental contaminants that had leached into the fossil over the eons.

They determined the glyptodont lineage originated about 35 million years ago. The oldest armadillo fossil, from Brazil, was around 58 million years old.

Asked what someone might think upon encountering Doedicurus, another of the researchers, evolutionary biologist Hendrik Poinar of McMaster University in Canada said, "That's the biggest armadillo-looking creature I've ever seen, and it has a tail like an Ankylosaurus. Yikes!"

Doedicurus resembles the dinosaur Ankylosaurus, which also was heavily armored and wielded a club-like tail.

The researchers said the resemblance was an example of "convergent evolution" in which disparate organisms independently evolve similar features to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches.

Scientists have debated whether humans contributed to the extinction of the glyptodonts. Poinar said he believed that humans played a role, saying most of the large mammals of that time were under pressure not only from climate change as Ice Age waned but also from human hunting.

The research was published in the journal Current Biology.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Being Bilingual Changes the Architecture of Your Brain

Written by Lizzie Wade

I’D BEEN BACK from studying abroad in Mexico City for a couple of days when I asked my dad, “Can I use the lavadora?”

“The what?” He didn’t speak Spanish. I knew that, of course. I didn’t even really speak Spanish. I had barely been able to hold a conversation for most of the six months I had just spent in Mexico. So why when I needed to do laundry, the only word that came into my head was in Spanish?

“You know, the…umm…the thing that washes your clothes?” What is happening to me? I thought. How could I be forgetting English? I thought I was great at English!

“You mean the washing machine?”

“Yes, that!” I said, relieved to recognize a noun I had known and used for over 20 years. This momentary aphasia freaked me out when it first happened. But in the almost 10 years since this conversation—during which time I moved back to Mexico City as a grad student and then as a journalist—I’ve gotten used to it. I forget some English word or another at least once a day. I’m fluent in Spanish now, and I’m proud of that. But has speaking a second language somehow made me less fluent in my native language?

Judith Kroll thinks so. She’s a psychologist who studies bilingualism and its cognitive consequences at Pennsylvania State University. “A bilingual’s two languages sometimes converge, but often they compete,” she said this weekend during a presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, DC. When I speak Spanish, it’s not an effortless cognitive switch. My brain needs to actively choose Spanish every time I say a word or construct a sentence. Even after years and years of speaking Spanish every day, I can often feel that work happening. It’s tiring, and switching to English can be a relief.

But when I do, my brain is still doing all the same work, Kroll said. It’s just that now I’m choosing English instead of Spanish. Spanish is always there in my brain, forcing me to do a little extra work to find the English words, even though I’ve known them far longer than their Spanish equivalents. “Especially in immersive environments, it’s harder to grab hold of the native language,” Kroll said. “You might have a moment of panic.”

But if you really want to learn that second language, you can’t shy away from that panic. You should lean into it. “The native language may take a hit during second language learning,” Kroll said. “But that may be a crucial processes in learning to regulate language.” Preliminary results from her own lab suggest that “learners who are better able to take that hit to their native language and suffer those early consequences may be better able to learn the second language,” she said.

Plus, making a decision with every word you say may actually be like weightlifting for the brain. Every time I choose “washing machine” over “lavadora,” or vice versa, my brain gets a little stronger. Kroll thinks this constant cognitive challenge that bilinguals face may be responsible for an observed improvement in what’s called executive function, or the ability to filter out unnecessary information and make decisions. (Other researchers doubt that bilingualism has any effect on executive function, citing small sample sizes and a failure to replicate many positive results.)

Of course, any bilingual person will tell you that sometimes they don’t bother making a choice. When I talk to other people who speak English and Spanish, I often mix the languages together, saying things like, “Quieres un toast?” and “I wanted to aprovechar the holiday and viajar un poco.” If I want to maximize the cognitive benefits of speaking two languages, should I stop mixing and force my brain through the gymnastics every time I open my mouth? In short: no. “Back in the 1980s, people claimed that language mixing was pathological,” Kroll said. “It’s actually a normal and typical part of bilingual experience.” Plus, it’s not like my brain is slacking off. I’m still choosing between languages with every word, it’s just that I’m not making the same choice every time.

From the day I landed in Mexico City, it was obvious that my English was always going to influence my Spanish—in my accent, in my vocabulary, in my embarrassing false-cognate fails. But as my lavadora moment made clear, learning Spanish quickly reshaped the way I spoke English, too. I don’t have two monolingual minds operating separately in one head. I have one bilingual brain. Messy? Yes. Bewildering? Sometimes. Cognitively strong? I hope so.

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Monday, March 28, 2016

Here's Your First Look At NASA's New Bleeding-Edge X-Plane

Written by William Herkewitz

NASA just unveiled a model of a green commercial airliner, the first in its new suite of experimental aircraft.

Last December, NASA received an enormous cash boost for 2016—bringing their funding to well over 19 billion dollars. Shortly after, the administration announced it was ready to cash in with some big plans.

"This increased funding will allow us to do something that NASA has not done in decades, to partner with industry and build a new series of experimental aircraft, or X-Planes." reiterated Charles Bolden, NASA's chief administrator, at a press conference at the NASA Ames's Research Center yesterday.

The majority of these new experimental aircraft will be focused on pursing an increasingly important goal: producing greener commercial airliners. During the press conference, NASA gave reporters a peek at the first design of one such X-Plane. It's a commercial airliner with some very strange wings, which NASA hopes could replace the Airbus 320 or Boeing 737 by 2030. It could carry 150 passengers and travel at 75 percent of the speed of sound.

"It would knock the socks off a Boeing 737. It'll cut fuel use by more than 50 percent," says Bolden.

The airliner, currently unnamed, has truss-braced wings, the need for which wind-tunnel testing made evident. In addition to the cut fuel consumption, the plane "would also be at least six times quieter and cut emissions by 80 percent" compared to an Airbus 320 or Boeing 737, says Nateri Madavan, a project manager of NASA's air transport technology division. The design was co-developed by Boeing, and has been a work in progress for roughly 7 years.

Madavan explains that this "revolutionary plane" owes it's insane boost in fuel efficiency to incredibly slender wings. The slenderness of the plane's wings increases the jet's aerodynamical properties—cutting down on drag—while the truss keeps those flimsy wings from snapping clean off.

The balance between slenderness and strength is one that aerospace engineers have juggled for decades, but have yet to master. The key issue is finding a way to develop a strong truss that doesn't create any unintended aerodynamical wackiness that might eliminate the efficiencies of the slender wings in the first place. Madavan says that all evidence suggests that this new design cleanly solves that puzzle.

Right now NASA is currently testing a scale model of the truss-braced jetliner in their 11 by 11-foot transonic wind tunnel. The last few weeks have focused on trying the dynamical properties at the joint where the truss meets the wing, "which we affectionately call the armpit," says Madavan.

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Friday, March 25, 2016

Scientists Unearth Perfectly Preserved 3,000-Year-Old Wooden Wheel In ‘British Pompeii’

Written by Angela Laguipo

Archeologists unearthed the largest and best preserved 3,000-year-old wheel from a quarry site in Cambridgeshire known as "Britain's Pompeii." The discovery sheds light on the lives of ancestors during the Bronze Age.

It is the latest remarkable find at a quarry out of a former brickworks at Must Farm, Peteborough. Experts call the discovery as unprecedented since the artifact can be traced back to about 1,100 to 800 B.C. and it's the country's best-preserved Bronze Age dwellings.

"This site is one continuing surprise, but if you had asked me, a perfectly preserved wheel is the last thing I would have expected to find," Mark Knight, site director, who is from the Cambridge University's archaeology unit, said.

"On this site objects never seen anywhere else tend to turn up in multiples, so it's certainly not impossible we'll go on to find another even better wheel," he added.

Largest And Oldest Wheel Ever Found

Measuring just a meter in diameter, the wheel is the most ancient find ever in Britain. The wheel could be from an Italian town where a fire broke out and destroyed five round houses. The round houses are believed to have collapsed into the river with all their contents.

"The existence of this wheel expands our understanding of Late Bronze Age technology and the level of sophistication of the lives of people living on the edge of the Fens 3,000 years ago," said Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, which is a public body that takes care historical places in the country, among other things.

The oldest wheel from the Bronze Ages found in Britain, Flag Fen, dates back to about 1,300 B.C. and was also found near Peterborough. This wheel is slightly smaller with a diameter of only 0.8 meter (2.6 feet).

Other old wheels from England dates back to at least 2,500 B.C. in the Copper Age.

"Among the wealth of other fabulous artifacts and the new structural remains of round houses built over this river channel," Kasia Gdaniec from the Cambridgeshire County Council, said. Gdaniec added that the quarry site and their findings continue to amaze them.

The £1.1 million ($1.57 million) excavation was jointly funded by Historic England and Forterra, the quarry owner. The dig was originally planned to finish by March, but with all the discoveries coming the project might be extended.

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Thursday, March 24, 2016

A Space Archaeologist Wants Your Help In Locating Lost Tombs

Written by Annabel Edwards

A space archaeologist who uses satellite imagery to locate lost tombs and Egyptian pyramids plans to enlist the world's citizen scientists in her quest to discover and protect ancient sites. Sarah Parcak won the 2016 TED prize, the non-profit’s annual $1 million dollar award intended to help develop an idea with global impact, and she announced that she plans to use the prize to create an online platform that will enable anyone to join in the search for ancient sites.

The platform, called Global Xplorer, will train users how to recognize potential archeological sites and looting pits and allow them to tag satellite pictures with descriptions. If an image has been tagged enough times, experts will evaluate it to confirm whether or not anything is there.

Parcak has discovered 1,000 lost tombs and 17 potential Egyptian pyramids, according to TED. But she believes that millions of ancient sites remain undiscovered, leaving them especially vulnerable to looters, who often ravage sites before archaeologists can get to them. The game could serve as a key to speeding up the process of locating and protecting them.

"The biggest problem we have when looking at satellite imagery is not the processing," she told NPR. "The hardest part is actually eye fatigue...Imagine hours and hours looking at satellite imagery. We miss things."

And once users accurately locate sites, they’ll get to experience a virtual dig. The archaeologists will “have to take the world with them,” Parcak told National Geographic. “They have to use Google Hangout, Periscope, or Twitter and make the process more transparent. Essentially what we are talking about is the democratization of archaeological discovery.”

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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Time Abraham Lincoln Patented a Boat-Lifter

Written by Popular Mechanics Editors

Long before he was president, Honest Abe secured a patent for a device to lift ships over shoals.


While every schoolboy is familiar with the life of Abraham Lincoln—a pioneer home, few books, hard labor at all the many trades of the frontiersman and the battle to save the Union and abolish slavery—few know that he was also an inventor.

To his genius as a statesman a united nation today bears witness, but only a rude model in the archives of the National Museum at Washington remains to give mute evidence that he possessed an inventive ability that alone, if followed, might have won him enduring fame.

Appearing as though it had been whittled out of a shingle and a cigar box, the model is about 18 or 20 inches long, and bears the inscription: "6469, Abraham Lincoln, Springfield, Illinois. Improvement in method of lifting vessels over shoals. Patented May 22, 1849."

The apparatus consisted of a bellows placed in each side of the hull of the craft, just below the water line, and worked by an odd, but simple, system of ropes and pulleys. When the keel grated against the sand or obstruction, the bellows were designed to be filled with air; and thus, buoyed up, the vessel was expected to float over the shoal.

It is declared that the idea for this device probably originated when he was 21 years old and started out for himself by contracting to build a flat-boar to take a few barrels of produce to New Orleans, for which he was to receive 12 dollars a month. Before beginning the journey, he split 400 rails for every yard of brown jeans dyed with white-walnut bark that were necessary to make him a pair of trousers.

After proceeding as far as New Salem the crude craft stuck on a mill-dam and there for 24 hours it hung, the bow in the air and the stern in the water, the cargo slowly settling backwards the shipwreck almost certain. With most the residents of the town looking on and shouting advice, Lincoln unloaded the boxes and barrels into a neighboring boat and tilted his craft. Then by boring a hole in the end extending over the dam, the water was let out. This done, the boat was shoved over and reloaded. Twenty years later he embodied this experience in the curious invention for getting vessels over shoals, the final inspiration resulting from a journey between Niagara Falls and his home of Springfield, Illinois.

On his way westward, the boat on which he made part of the trip was stranded in shallow water and had to be pried loose. First a large pole was driven into the mud and then a winch and rope were attached to it to pull the steamer free. When Lincoln reached home he began to build the model representing his idea, whittling at it in his law office while talking on its merits and the revolution it was going to work in river transportation. It is recorded that this partner, W.H. Herndon, did not think much of it and sought to discourage him.

But when the future president returned to his seat in congress, he took the miniature with him. "One morning he walked into my office with a model of a western steamboat under his arm," said Z.C. Robbing, a lawyer, in describing the incident. "After a friendly greeting, he placed it on my desk and proceeded to explain the principles embodied therein that he believed to be his own invention, and on which, if new, he desired to secure letters patent. I speedily came to the conclusion that his idea was of value and procured a patent."

Lincoln's inventive ability and his interest in mechanics, however, were shown in many other ways. Although he himself said that he had never gone to school more than six months in his life, he fitted himself for a position as deputy surveyor in a few weeks by reading all the books he could find on the subject. According to tradition, he was too poor to buy a chain and, instead, used a long, straight grape vine. He also acted as pilot for the first steamer to make the trip from Beardstown to Springfield.

Abe Lincoln's patented device

After he became president, and in the opening days of the civil war, the need for arms opened the way for inventors and Washington was overrun with men having guns to test. Mr. Lincoln took the greatest interest in these new arms and it sometimes happened that when an inventor could get nobody else in the government to listen to him, the president would personally test his gun. Once such incident is told by a former clerk in the navy department. He accompanied Mr. Lincoln to the lawn south of the White House, where the president fixed up a target cut from a sheet of white congressional note paper.

"Then pacing off a distance of about 80 feet," writes the clerk, "he raised the rifle to a level, took a quick aim and drove the round of seven shots in rapid succession, the bullets shooting all around the target like a gatling gun and one striking near the center.

"I believe I can make this gun shoot better,' said Mr. Lincoln, and took from his vest pocket a small wooden sight which he had whittled from a pine stick, and adjusted it over the sight of the carbine. He then shot two round and of the fourteen bullets, nearly a dozen hit the paper."

Mr. Lincoln also interested himself in balloons and was one of the first persons in this country to receive a telegraphic message from a balloon sent up to make observations on an enemy's works across the Potomac River.

During Lincoln's career as a lawyer, he enjoyed particularly work in which mathematical or mechanical problems were involved. In 1855, he was retained as one of the counsel for John M. Manny, of Rockford, Ill., manufacturer of reaping machines, who had been sued by Cyrus H McCormick, owner of patents granted in 1845 and 1847. If McCormick had been successful in his contentions, Manny would have been enjoined, his factory stopped and a claim of $400,000 damages demanded from his firm.

Another noted case involved the future of western commerce. A steamboat had struck one of the piers of a bridge built by the Rock Island railway across the Mississippi River and burned. The trial was a dramatic episode in the war long waged by the river men against the plains beyond. For decades the stream had been the willing burden-bearer of the west. Now, however, the railroad had come to carry the traffic which the river had claimed. The boat men claimed that the great waterway could not legally be obstructed by a bridge.

Lincoln argued the case for the railroad, his speech being full of nice mathematical calculations designed to show that the accident was the fault of the pilot. The pith of his contention was that "one man had as good a right to cross a river as another had to sail up and down it."

In this connection, he is said to have drawn a vivid picture of the future of the great west lying beyond the river, and argued that the necessities of commerce demanded that the bridge across the river be a conceded right. In this view he was sustained by the court's decision.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Rutgers sleuth finds new plant species locked in ancient amber

Written by Tom Avril

More than 15 million years ago, the delicate flowers fell to the floor of a muggy, tropical forest, and somehow did not rot and wither away.

Instead, they were trapped in sticky globs of tree resin, hardened into amber, and carried on the high seas to what is now a Caribbean mountain range.

The first Lena Struwe heard of all this was last April at Rutgers University, when she opened an email depicting the fragile petals trapped in golden splendor.

On Monday, the botanist and her collaborator, Oregon State University's George O. Poinar Jr., who found the two amber fossils, announced that the plants they contained represented a new species, Strychnos electri. For Agatha Christie fans, this is a distant cousin of the plant that contains the poison substance strychnine.

Struwe had identified dozens of other new species before, usually plants that were already housed in museum collections. None was from modern field expeditions like this one, and none was anywhere near so old. Animal bones are one thing, but for a flower to be preserved for eons, the odds have to line up just right.

Yet there they were, two ancient specimens looking much like modern cousins on the woody vines known as lianas, she said.

"It is pretty amazing that they have survived so long and they look so incredibly perfect," Struwe said. "They look like something that fell off one of these lianas yesterday."

This is a regular detective story, in which Struwe visited the historic collection at Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, reviewing scores of known species to determine that the ancient petals trapped in amber were, in fact, new.

She also looked at specimens at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx and at other species described in the scientific literature, comparing the amber-trapped flowers with 200 known species of Strychnos.

Among the key differences that set the new find apart from some of its close cousins: its flower petals have hairs on the outside, but not inside, she said. The findings were published in the journal Nature Plants.

Scientists at the Academy of Natural Sciences say the research illustrates the value of museum collections such as theirs, which contains an estimated 1.5 million botany specimens, some dating back to the 1700s.

"There's so much more that you could see from a specimen than you could ever see from a photograph or a drawing," said Tatyana Livshultz, the academy's assistant curator of botany.

Such specimens are useful not only for classifying new species; they also enable researchers to study broad environmental trends such as climate change.

Each of the dried, preserved plants at the academy is carefully labeled with a location and date, so scientists can tell, for example, if a certain plant now flowers earlier than in previous years due to warmer temperatures, Livshultz said.

"It's really the most granular documentation we have of species occurrence through space and time," she said.

Struwe and Poinar, the authors of the paper describing the new Strychnos species, are among the small number of scientists who have drawn notice in the popular realm.

Struwe blogs at, gently pointing out mistaken identifications of plants in popular culture.

Among her past targets was an ad for Apple's iPhone 4S, in which the phone's internal assistant, Siri, was asked what poison oak looked like. But the phone incorrectly displayed an image of poison ivy, she said.

Meanwhile, Poinar's work on insects trapped in amber inspired author Michael Crichton to write the Jurassic Park books. (And yes, Poinar often gets the question of whether we could really make dinosaurs from DNA extracted from bloodsucking insects trapped in amber. Answer: Leave it to Hollywood.)

Poinar found the amber containing the flowers in 1986 in the Dominican Republic, and found so many other samples that he only recently had the time to tackle the mystery flowers.

Poinar identified Struwe as someone who had studied similar plants in the past, and sent off an email.

The 200 or so members of Strychnos, including the new one, are part of a much larger plant group called the asterids, which includes mint, potato plants, and olive trees.

The new find suggests that tropical forests were rich in diversity millions of years before humans came along, Struwe said.

"There was nobody back then that could pick them up and look at them," she said. "Now we do this based on these remnants, these time capsules from these ancient tropical forests."

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Monday, March 21, 2016

Cave-Dwelling Giant Tortoises Are a Big Surprise

Written by Jason Bittel

To get out of the midday sun, reptiles on the Indian Ocean's Aldabra Atoll have a never-before-seen strategy for keeping cool.

For giant tortoises living in the tropics, you either find a way to get out of the sun, or you die.

Usually, that means waiting out the hottest part of the day behind a rock or beneath the shade of a tree or bush.

But on the Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean, Aldabra giant tortoises (Aldabrachelys gigantea) have another strategy never before documented in tortoises, giant or otherwise—hiding out in caves.

What’s more, there’s reason to believe that this behavior is quite ancient, says Dennis Hansen, leader of the team that discovered the cave-dwelling reptiles.

That's because, over the centuries, the tortoises have worn smooth previously craggy paths as they clamber down to the caves each day.

“The tortoises have used it for a long, long time,” says Hansen, a tropical ecologist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.

Give Us Shade or Give Us Death

During the rainy season from November to April, temperatures on Aldabra Atoll, part of the Seychelles, can soar upwards of 107 to 109 degrees Fahrenheit (42 to 43 degrees Celsius).

This means the 100,000 or so giant tortoises that call this raised coral reef home must find shade or risk overheating and dying.

Tortoises are "ectothermic," which means their bodies warm up and cool down with the environment around them, says David Steen, a wildlife ecologist at Auburn University in Alabama who was unaffiliated with the study.

“They can’t pant or sweat like mammals do to lower their body temperature,” he says. “They must find a cooler place to go.”

When the sun isn't blistering, the reptiles spend their time browsing through the atoll's grassy lowlands. Around mid-morning, the tortoises begin their descent to the cooler caves.

“They all typically go en masse,” says Richard Baxter, a field biologist with the University of Zurich who's part of the study team.

“It’s just this long stream of tortoises queuing up to get in, and it’s quite a slow process, as you can imagine.”

The largest of the two caves Hansen and Baxter discovered is nearly 16 feet (5 meters) deep and can shelter up to 85 jostling tortoises at a time.

However, the cave is 650 to 1,000 feet (200 to 300 meters) away from any other form of cover. That means relying on the small cavity for shelter is dangerous for the slow-moving tortoises, which are considered vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Indeed, there's evidence of the fate that awaits late-comers: Tortoise bones can be seen littering the cave entrances.

Slow Going

Stephen Blake, a National Geographic grantee who studies Galápagos tortoises on the other side of the world, suspects there are all sorts of interesting social phenomena at play in the caves.

“It would not be surprising to see ... hierarchies here where dominant animals get the best spots,” says Blake.

For example, being first to enter the cave might be beneficial as far as keeping cool, but it may also mean you’re the last tortoise out of the cave—which could mean less time to feed on the nearby vegetation.

Imagine being hungry but having to wait for a few dozen giant tortoises to scuttle their way up a slope, single-file.

Ecosystem Engineers

The tortoises’ daily presence in the caves may also create a unique ecosystem, Hansen and Baxter add.

The animals have an enormous impact on the world around them—clipping vegetation low with their beaks into what's called "tortoise turf," wearing down rocks with their shells, and dispersing seeds in their dung.

The sheer amount of dung in the cave also seems to feed other Aldabra inhabitants, including crabs and insects.

“Like elephants in Africa, tortoises are ecosystem engineers,” says Hansen.

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Friday, March 18, 2016

Satellites Could Help Discover Modern and Ancient Shipwrecks

Written by Charles Q. Choi

Discovering otherwise undetected shipwrecks scattered throughout the oceans could shed light on previously lost history.

Landsat-8 image taken in 2013 of shipwreck sites off the coast of Belgium.

Ancient shipwrecks might not only hold buried treasures, but also countless historical secrets. Now researchers suggest satellites could help spot submerged wrecks that might otherwise go undiscovered.

More than three million shipwrecks may be scattered across the oceans, UNESCO estimates. "Of all the wrecks in the world, maybe less than 10 percent have been found," says James Delgado, director of maritime heritage at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. "Any technology that enables us to pinpoint wrecks is a step in the right direction."

Submerged wrecks are currently detected via waterborne sonar and airborne LiDAR systems—the former searches for wrecks with sound whereas the latter uses lasers. Waterborne sonar is most effective for deep water; airborne LiDAR requires clear water.

Neither method works well for cloudy, shallow waters, however. This means that nearshore waters—often both shallow and cloudy—are frequently overlooked in hunts for old shipwrecks. This is a problem because "the majority of shipwrecks lie closer to shore, clustered around the entrances to harbors, just as most car accidents happen a kilometer or so away from home—say, when jockeying for a spot in a parking lot or at an intersection," Delgado says. "Near the Golden Gate Bridge there are more than 300 wrecks and off of Cape Hatteras, N.C., the 'Graveyard of the Atlantic,' there are more than 1,000."


Now in a new study detailed in the February Journal of Archaeological Science, marine geologist Matthias Baeye at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences and his colleagues suggest that satellite color photos of the oceans could help find submerged wrecks in shallow cloudy waters. "It is a clever and elegant solution for using satellites to find shipwrecks," says Peter Campbell, archaeological director of the Albanian Center for Marine Research who was not involved in this work.

Baeye and his colleagues examined satellite color photos taken by Landsat 8, which NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey launched in 2013. The researchers analyzed four known wreck sites near the Port of Zeebrugge on the Belgian coast, all civilian vessels. Two of the wrecks sank after hitting mines during World War II, one sank shortly before the war after colliding with another vessel and one sank in 1965, likely after striking one of the World War II–era wrecks.

Baeye and his colleagues focused on suspended particulate mater in the seawater, such as sand and silt. High-resolution satellite imaging can measure the concentrations of these particles—the researchers had previously investigated how natural phenomena such as tides and human activity, such as fishing and dredging, could influence these particle levels, and unexpectedly noticed that shipwrecks could have an effect, too.

The scientists found that tidal currents flowing against these wrecks can generate distinctive linear plumes of these particles up to four kilometers long that are detectable from space. "It'd be like finding pyramids based only on how they disturb the patterns of wind around them," Delgado says.

The researchers noted that usage of Landsat 8 data is free, and suggest that their method could help spot promising sites for follow-up surveys. "I do think that this technique will lead to new discoveries," says Delgado, who did not take part in this research. "As this technique gets used and refined, it will help increase the population of known shipwrecks, and the opportunities to see what stories they have to tell will also increase."

Several archaeologists have already requested satellite data from the researchers, "mainly from the Mediterranean Sea but also from Belgium and the U.K.," Baeye says. Marine archaeologist Brendan Foley at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who did not participate in this study, suggests "a very interesting possibility for this technique would be seeing if this works on wooden wrecks in the shallow, turbid, muddy-floored Baltic Sea, where low salinity results in remarkably well-preserved wooden hulls. Beautifully preserved wrecks from at least the 15th century A.D., and no doubt earlier, are numerous there."

Baeye notes it remains uncertain if there is a depth limit to their method—the four wrecks they looked at were all located in less than 15 meters of water. Deep plumes may not reach near the surfaces of oceans, and therefore satellites could not image them. "If it works in, say, 80 meters of water, then it could be a way to locate some historic wrecks," Foley says. "I'd like to find and survey the wreck of the USS Tang, the World War II submarine commanded by Medal of Honor recipient Richard 'Dick' O'Kane. It went down in the Taiwan Strait after sinking most of a Japanese convoy, a victim of a circular run of its last torpedo."

The shipwrecks that Baeye and his colleagues have analyzed so far with their technique are all modern metal wrecks. Older wooden ships may be more difficult to spot because they may have decayed and collapsed, therefore kicking up less of a plume. If further research reveals this method can also find older wooden wrecks, "I'd love to use satellites to look at Imari Bay in Japan for the fleets sent by Kublai Khan that were sunk by the fabled kamikaze typhoons," Delgado says.

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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Women coders do better than men in gender-blind study

Written by Sara Ashley O'Brien

Gender bias prevents female coders from being judged solely on their work. Their work might be great, but the fact that they're women makes it less desirable.

That's according to a new study published this week that looks at how gender bias plays out in software development.

A hot topic to be sure given that just 20% of software developers are women -- and that tech firms have increasingly promised to do better when it comes to inclusion efforts.

The study, conducted by a team of six computer science researchers, looks at 3 million suggested code contributions (called "pull requests") on GitHub.

GitHub is a popular open-source software platform used by 12 million developers to collaborate, critique, and ask questions about coding projects.

"We hypothesized that pull requests made by women are less likely to be accepted than those made by men," wrote the team of researchers which consisted of students and assistant professors at North Carolina State University and Cal Polytech State University, California.

They were surprised to discover that they were wrong: They found that code from women is accepted at a higher rate, 78.6%. For men, it's 74.6%.

That only holds true, though, when profiles of users are stripped of their gender. The finding shows that when female coders can be identified as women, their acceptance rate plummets and their contributions are accepted at a lower rate than men.

While GitHub doesn't require gender information, some users have profile pictures from which genders can be gleaned. In order to study the impact of gender on the acceptance of GitHub contributions, researchers tried to manually identify the gender of each user. Contributors whose genders couldn't be determined were eliminated from the study.

"There's a strong belief among developers in open source that the process is a pure meritocracy," said one of the study's coauthors, Emerson Murphy-Hill, an associate professor at North Carolina State University. "This research casts doubt on that belief."

That doubt is important: "So if women aren't making software, the end software may be somewhat exclusionary," he added. "So the software industry (and, in the end, the public) is missing an opportunity when women are excluded, whatever the reason for that exclusion."

The researchers also looked at multiple factors to understand why female coders might have a higher acceptance rate than men (when stripped of their gender).

Do their contributions tend to be smaller changes? Do they tend to be time-related? Are there certain types of code that women are better at? No, no, and no, according to their findings, which have not yet been peer-reviewed.

"We observe that women's acceptance rates dominate over men's for every programming language in the top ten," wrote the authors.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

7 ways data collection is improving STEM education

Written by Larry Plank

One district is getting students more active and analytical with data-collection tools, like probeware

Today’s students, being technology natives, expect the same kinds of engagement in the classroom as they seek out online. STEM classes in particular have a natural potential to be both tech-rich and inquiry-based, especially hands-on lab activities. The recent addition of probeware—sensory-based handheld devices for measuring things like water quality, light, and temperature—has allowed us to bring students out into nature and introduce them to the world of data collection and analysis. Here are 7 ways technology is enhancing and expanding STEM education in our school district.

Technology helps students acquire scientific literacy and hands-on experience.

Science isn’t about memorizing facts and formulas. It’s about developing an understanding of the scientific process and giving students opportunities to apply that process to their learning.

One exciting way we’re infusing technology into STEM education is through our district’s Innovations Labs. To date, we’ve installed these labs in one K–8 school and two middle schools. Each Innovations Lab includes a science lab space with mobile furniture, a robotics court, netbooks, and SPARK handheld science learning devices. The size of three regular classrooms, this lab provides an active space where students can build problem-solving and critical thinking skills. They can even write on their desks or on the walls to draw out ideas, similar to how professional scientists and engineers might.

We also use the mobile science learning devices across our district in grades K-12 for real-time data collection in a variety of core classes, electives, and Career and Technical Education (CTE) classes. This type of technology, which integrates probeware with inquiry-based content and assessment, represents a key tool for promoting investigations using quantitative data that results in meaningful learning for students.

Creating these hands-on experiences, which incorporate the environments and the tools of modern science and technology careers, is critical to helping students develop scientific literacy and a love for STEM.

It prepares students for college and careers.

Our local universities support this approach as well. Several years ago, the nearby University of South Florida reported that they had to spend a significant amount of time teaching freshmen how to use probeware devices in their science laboratories. So they asked all the local school districts to emphasize these types of technology tools in high school science labs. Expanding our use of the devices has helped immensely in preparing students for college and careers, and our local post-secondary partners are thrilled.

It allows students to explore science in the field.

With mobile technology tools, students can access science anytime and anywhere, just like real STEM professionals. For example, each year all sixth graders take a field trip to Nature’s Classroom, an outdoor environmental education program located along the Hillsborough River. During the three-day hands-on experience, students study the ecosystem surrounding the river. Here, they use their handheld devices to conduct labs to examine water quality, among other things, to see how the river’s health affects things such as our drinking water supply. It would be cumbersome and expensive to take traditional lab equipment to the river, but technology makes it easy for students to gather and examine data on-the-go.

It saves time.

As teachers get busier and schools get more pressed for time, technology helps us make better use of the time we have with students. How? The probeware minimizes set-up and clean-up time, and the time it takes students to collect and analyze their data. This means that in a class like biology, which is tested in Florida, teachers can implement a full complement of labs in less time. In addition, in AP Biology, a lab that used to take two to three hours can now happen in 45 to 50 minutes.

Further, because the data is available instantaneously and organized in a way that’s visually pleasing, students can spend more time on analysis rather than data collection. This results in deeper conceptual learning.

It supports argument-driven inquiry.

Having this data has also changed the way we approach science in the classroom. For example, one of our district initiatives is argument-driven inquiry. In our high schools, several teachers now ask students to engage in the process of argumentation, instead of writing traditional lab reports. After students collect and analyze their data using the probeware, they create a poster to share their findings with the class. Then their classmates ask them questions. Through these experiences, students are learning how to make a good argument based upon evidence and strengthening their critical thinking skills.

It engages parents in STEM.

Parents are very important in the decision making process for what interests students might pursue beyond high school, so it’s important to provide hands-on opportunities for them, too. Several schools host STEM nights two to three times a year to engage parents in STEM. During the hands-on events, students will guide their parents through a lab they’ve done, often using the probeware. It’s a fun experience for everyone, and one that underscores the importance and relevance of STEM.

It improves students’ understanding of STEM concepts and practices.

The use of technology-supported inquiry in our schools is helping to improve students’ understanding of STEM concepts and practices, while increasing their motivation to learn more.

Our district is typically above the state average in science and math, and we’ve seen some significant gains over the past three years at the elementary level. Among the 10 largest districts in Florida, we’ve moved from seventh or eighth place all the way up to second in science scores for elementary schools. Our focus on STEM and technology tools has definitely had an impact. It has created a culture shift around the importance of science and the idea that science can be fun. It’s this shift in thinking, especially among teachers and students in the early grades, that has gotten us to where we are now.

Larry Plank is the director for K-12 STEM education for Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida.

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This crazy military meat could change how you eat

Written by Fox Van Allen

The US Army's new everlasting meat will soon be on your dinner plate, too. And if that doesn't tempt you, how about a "forever pizza"?

Click here to see all 18 pictures.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Trilobites Were Stone-Cold Killers

Written by Stephanie Pappas

Trilobites were savvy killers who hunted down their prey and used their many legs to wrestle them into submission, newly discovered fossils suggest.

The fossils come from a site in southeastern Missouri, not far from the city of Desloge. They are trace fossils, which means they preserve not the organisms themselves, but their burrows. The burrows were made by various species of trilobite as well as by unknown, wormlike creatures.

A statistical analysis of these burrows and their intersections shows that they cross one another more than expected, a sign that the trilobites were deliberately hunting down their wormy prey. In a subset of those cases, the trilobites seemed to sidle up to the burrows in parallel, perhaps so they could latch onto the worms lengthwise with their row of legs.

"This is legitimately the moment of interaction between the trilobite and the animal that it ate," said study researcher James Schiffbauer, a paleobiologist at the University of Missouri.

An illustrator's impression of a trilobite attacking a Cambrian worm on a shallow seafloor. The trilobite detects a lumpy worm burrow by sight and perhaps smell, then burrows down and grasps its prey with its many legs. This scene is based on trilobite and worm burrows found fossilized in Missouri.
CREDIT: Stacy Turpin Cheavens of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, University of Missouri

Trilobite tracks

The discovery of these fossils came about by accident. During a department field trip to visit a local lead mine, the researchers made a side trip to a known fossil spot. While there, study co-author John Huntley, also a professor at the University of Missouri, stumbled across a block of fossilized burrows, frozen in silty shale. The sediment was set down during the Cambrian period, between 540 million and 485 million years ago, when the area was a shallow nearshore environment. The shallow bottom was likely covered with a dense microbial mat, which made for a rich food source for wormy (or "vermiform") creatures. These worms were, in turn, prey for trilobites.

"It became sort of a small shallow-water hunting ground for the trilobites," Schiffbauer told Live Science.

Graduate student Tara Selly took on the painstaking task of cataloguing and counting the burrows and their intersections. Her findings revealed that the worm and trilobite tunnels intersected about 30 percent of the time — more than would be expected based on chance alone.

"Likely one-third of [the burrows] were actually capturing predatory events," Selly told Live Science.

A moment in time

The trilobites known from this area belong to species with particularly large eyes, Schiffbauer said. Those eyes may have made them adept hunters, he said, able to seek out burrow entrances or impressions. The critters would then burrow down to grasp their prey.

"What we're seeing is really sophisticated behavior fairly early on in what some people would say is a very simple creature," Schiffbauer said. The trilobites might also have used scent to sniff out their prey, he said.

Predation is important to understand, Huntley told Live Science, but it can be hard to see in the fossil record. Some Cambrian fossils have recorded animals inside the gut tracts of other animals, but it's not clear whether they were hunted and eaten or scavenged. Other signs of predation in the fossil record are wounds or drill holes in skeletons or shells, Huntley said.

"In this case, what we're getting is actually impressions of the body," Huntley said. "It's a different window into this process that we know is important ecologically and really important evolutionarily as well."

The research is detailed online in the Feb. 15 issue of the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.

Click here to read more.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Dig Into the Nuclear Era's Homegrown Fallout Shelters

Written by Ernest B. Furgurson

In 1955, the head of Civil Defense urged everyone to build an underground shelter "right now”.

Ever since war makers invented weapons that go up in the air, then come down and go boom, defenders have been trying to protect themselves against death from the sky.

In America's Civil War, particularly in the last months when Petersburg was under siege, dug-in soldiers on both sides built "bomb-proofs" with ceilings of heavy logs and earth to shield against plunging mortar fire. In World War I, troops on the muddy, stationary Western front existed beneath such shelters for months, at all times of the year. In World War II, the citizens of London crowded into subway tunnels as Nazi aircraft and missiles attacked night after night. In this country, Boy Scouts learned the silhouettes of enemy bombers, to identify them and rush people to shelters in case of raids that never came.

But not until August 6, 1945 did America and the world realize there was a weapon so horrible that one bomb could destroy a whole city at once, and poison it for years afterward. The first news reports could not adequately describe the devastation that American B-29s had released onto Hiroshima and then Nagasaki.

Full disclosure came a year later in John Hersey's magazine account, based mainly on interviews with survivors that detailed the scale and gruesomeness of what had happened in Hiroshima and filled an entire issue of the New Yorker.

Yet even then, most Americans thought of the nuclear bomb not as an external threat but as exclusively our weapon, our defense. It symbolized our nation's military, political and scientific dominance in the postwar world. The mere presence of the bomb in the U.S. arsenal seemed to assure the safety of our children and our allies.

That certainty lasted just four years. Aided by secrets stolen by spies in the American nuclear establishment, the Soviet Union conducted its first nuclear test on August 29, 1949. In Washington soon after, Douglas MacArthur's ex-wife said she was furnishing the former slave quarters beneath her Georgetown mansion as a bomb shelter. In Congress, a New York Democrat introduced a bill asking $2 billion for underground shelters that would double as parking garages. In New Jersey, three World War II veterans started a construction business and offered to build shelters that could double as wine cellars. In 1952, the Army Corps of Engineers boosted its cost estimate for the shelter being built under the White House to $938,000.

A year later, the Russians set off their first hydrogen bomb. With that in mind, in 1955 the head of Civil Defense urged everyone to build an underground shelter "right now," and in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the Anderson family installed an all-steel bunker 15 feet beneath their front yard. Two years after that, Soviet scientists startled the world by launching Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, with technology that would soon be able to deliver a missile from space. Bomb shelters suddenly became a growth sector of the economy.

Each twist in the cold war sent another jitter across the nation. At the United Nations in 1959, Soviet Premier Khrushchev bragged about his hydrogen bombs. When the legislature in Albany balked at Governor Rockefeller's plan for public shelters, the New York Times editorialized: "Horrible as the prospects are in a nuclear attack, the question we face is, should we try to survive or should we, in advance, abandon all hope, deliberately choose to make no preparation to live?"

In metropolises and in distant villages, the answer from thousands was to dig.

Tension peaked when Khrushchev tested the new American President Kennedy by threatening to cut Western access to divided Berlin, and then by installing offensive missiles in Cuba.

Life magazine published an article titled "H-Bomb Hideaway" that included shelter plans with photographs and specifications. In public and private schools, often in towns far away from any strategic target, children were taught to crouch beneath their desks if an alarm sounded. Families practiced staying in their tightly shut private shelters for several days at a time, as if waiting for deadly radiation to pass after an attack. Debates arose over whether families with shelters were morally obligated to share them with unprepared neighbors or strangers in case of war.

In Moscow, Western attachés counted directional signs to shelters, thinking that more signs might mean impending war. In 1965, civil defense officials listed hundreds of buildings as fallout shelters in Washington, D.C.

Then when the long East-West struggle relaxed and communism collapsed in Europe, such signs gradually disappeared. But since then concerns have risen about the spread of nuclear, chemical, biological and rocket weapons in lesser nations. Well into the 21st century, senior American defense experts were warning that attack could come from many directions, including Iran and North Korea.

So, even today, some Americans are on the market for private shelters. A glance online shows at least two dozen commercial versions for sale, some luxurious, some spartan, some concrete, some steel, some advertised as "hardened structures," at least one as an "apocalypse bunker" made to withstand a 20-kiloton bomb blast. Many, too, in this era of chaotic weather, are offered to protect against hurricanes, rather than direct attack by human enemies.

By whatever name, emergency shelters have been a part of American life and history for generations. And that is why the front-yard shelter installed 61 years ago by the Andersons of Fort Wayne now rests among the collections of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

Its most recent owners, the Howey family handed it over. They must have been glad to let it go after it became an unattractive neighborhood curiosity. Digging it up and getting it to Washington was an expensive logistical problem, and it's easy to see why: looming bare above ground, it looks like the carcass of a monster steam locomotive, a boiler with pointy smokestack, bereft of its wheels.

But now it is cleaned up, stocked with 1950s furniture, games and perhaps Elvis’s “Blue Suede Shoes” at 45 rpm. It represents Shelter, with a capital S, and poses a question that fortunately remains unanswered: since such shelters were never tested by nuclear war, whether they would have been sanctuaries or death traps is still uncertain.

The Family Fallout Shelter is currently not on view at the museum.

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Friday, March 11, 2016

What are Gravitational Waves?

Written by Mashable Videos

The recent announcement that gravitational waves have been detected for the first time is exciting, but what does it mean and why do we care?

See video below…

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Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Soviet Union's Secret Moon Base That Never Was

Written by Anatoly Zak

The earliest plans for the Soviet outpost on the Moon sported a soil-drilling habitat and rocket-fuel-burning internal combustion engine.

A quarter-century after the Soviet space program dropped its thick veil of secrecy, many fascinating details about the enormous scope of the USSR's space ambitions are still trickling in. The latest treasure trove of information quietly made public reveals what might have been the earliest Soviet proposal to permanently colonize the moon.

Conceived in 1967 at the height of the Moon Race with the United States, the bold plan was developed inside the same think tank that had launched Sputnik and put the first man into space. Not surprisingly, they dreamed up an innovative and ambitious plan to put people on the lunar surface to stay.

The Soviet engineers hoped to start building their lunar outpost with the delivery of the multipurpose Lunar Engineering Machine, LIM. The three-ton rover would be used for soil-moving operations and scouting, cargo hauling, and it would also double as a crane and a mobile drilling rig. A telescope-like crane and a drill would be attached to the sides of the cockpit. The rover would be also equipped with external lighting, TV cameras, and windows.

To propel the exotic vehicle, the Soviets developed a four-cylinder internal combustion engine, but with a twist. Unlike traditional motors, it would burn self-igniting rocket propellant, mixing liquid fuel with oxidizer. Vacuum valves would be used to vent combustion products out of the engine's hermetically sealed housing. One engine would be enough to propel the vehicle, but when LIM was faced with difficult terrain, it could activate both motors and turn on all-wheel drive. Wheels of the machine were designed to be flexible to do away with a complicated suspension system.

Rover side view

The boxy rover would also feature two self-propelled platforms with their own propellant tanks and pairs of wheels linked by a transmission system, which would allow each platform to bank and tilt independently. The front platform would sport robotic arms and a plow, while the rear platform would carry a pressurized cabin for a single driver wearing no spacesuit. Under emergency conditions, a second person could squeeze into the back, though If necessary the rover could operate unmanned under remote control from the lunar base or even from the Earth.

Self-Burying Habitat

The rover needed all this moon-moving equipment because it would play a crucial role in making the moon base livable: Specifically, getting the pre-fabricated habitation modules of the base below the lunar surface to provide reliable radiation shielding so that its inhabitants could survive.

According to one scenario Russian engineers imagined, a pair of rovers was to be delivered to the Moon along with a 10-meter habitat. Subdivided into two floors, the habitation module could house from three to six people. Initial provisions and supplies carried onboard the spacecraft would sustain a crew of three for at least three months.

Relying on the data from the American Surveyor-3 probe, which landed on the Moon on April 20, 1967, Soviet engineers banked on the fact that the lunar soil would likely have a consistency of soft sand and would not require grinding before its application as a radiation shield. As a result, their plan suggested that one rover would bulldoze the soil toward the base and another would use a specially built sand-thrower to cover the habitat. A deployable net cage around the module would be used to keep the soil shield in place.

For any areas with harder surface, the Russians had the idea to use a cutting tool attached to the rover to carve 255 square blocks out of soil, which would then be used to build a protective wall around the future settlement. The hole in the ground formed in the process of making the blocks would be used as the bed of the radiation shelter.

But the most exotic plan they proposed envisioned a self-propelled, self-burying habitation module. The six-meter long, 3.6-meter-wide cylinder would be fully equipped for up to six cosmonauts to work inside it. After arrival to the Moon, the module would be unloaded from its landing platform along with a self-propelled four-wheel trailer. Once in horizontal position, the entire contraption would then embark on a journey across the lunar surface with a speed of up to six kilometers per hour, in search of a site with soil soft enough for "self-burial."

At the right location, the trailer would activate an electrically driven revolving mechanism, which would begin rotating the cylindrical module around its main horizontal axis. Blades arranged in a spiral on the module's exterior begin cutting into the soil and throw it out. Sliding down along the guide rails of the trailer, the giant cylinder would slowly sink into the newly forming trench. Upon reaching the right depth, mission control would need to ensure that the module stopped spinning with its ceiling facing up. Once that is done, a telescopic airlock would extend from the module to provide an access for the crew from the lunar surface. Designers estimated that it would take the module around 4.3 hours to completely bury itself in sandy soil.

Self-burying trailer

Soviet engineers went into trouble to detail the entire process of unloading the module from the landing platform, building the shelter and developing crucial components of the LIM rover, such as its exotic engine and its transmission system. All for naught, though, as the USSR eventually put small rovers on the lunar surface, but never cosmonauts.

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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Ancient Footprints Discovered in Arizona

Written by Osha Gray Davidson

The 2,500-year-old footprints of a family strolling through a field are evidence of early agriculture.

The recent discovery of dozens of remarkably well-preserved footprints in the southern Arizona desert provides new insights into how Native people practiced a complex system of irrigation agriculture in the region between 2,500 and 3,000 years ago. The find also offers new evidence in a long-standing debate over possible migration patterns from Mesoamerica and gives a unique snapshot of daily life at a time when people were transitioning from nomadic hunter–gatherers to more sedentary village dwellers.

The footprints, among the oldest ever found in the Southwest, were discovered last December during the preconstruction mitigation phase of a bridge project in Tucson, says Ian Milliken, an archaeologist for the Pima County Office of Sustainability and Conservation. The prints show what appears to have been a family—two adults, two children and a dog—opening and closing headgates from a raised irrigation ditch into fields measuring 15 meters by 15 meters. “They’re exponentially larger than anything we’ve discovered for this time period,” Milliken says. “What’s really unique about this is that it actually captures a point in time, probably down to the day these prints were left.”

The finding is important, says Paul Fish, curator emeritus of the Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona in Tucson, because it supports the theory that irrigation agriculture in Arizona was a homegrown technique, not the result of a migration of people out of Mesoamerica. “The presence of well-developed irrigation strategies in the Tucson Basin by 1500 B.C.,” Fish says, “strongly indicates the that large-scale canal technologies of the Phoenix Basin Hohokam developed locally.” Between about A.D. 200 to around 1450, when they disappeared, the Hohokam built more than 240 kilometers of canals throughout the Salt River Valley in what is now Phoenix, a feat of agricultural engineering unsurpassed in Mesoamerica.

Allen Denoyer, with Archaeology Southwest, a subcontractor working with SWCA Environmental Consultants, the firm excavating the Tucson site, says that the recently discovered fields are “clearly a local adaptation.” But Denoyer does not rule out the possibility that the techniques used there originated in Mesoamerica and could have been introduced by people spreading north along river valleys.

The theory that Hohokam settlement of southern Arizona was the result of a migration out of Mexico was based in large part on the scale and complexity of the Hohokam irrigation system. Fish finds that theory unconvincing on two counts, however. Mesoamerican irrigation systems are no older than their counterparts in Phoenix, he says. Also, many other Mesoamerican cultural and technological influences found among the Hohokam appeared at about the same time as they did in the south, with no evidence of their existence on the land in between. A more likely scenario, Fish argues, is that forms of interaction with peoples to the south involved individuals traveling from north to south to obtain Mesoamerican ritual items and knowledge that would elevate their status back home.

Ian Milliken does not expect the new discovery to settle the debate: “We have evidence of very early agriculture in Mexico that predates this, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t here at the same time.” It is also possible that the same agricultural techniques were widespread but did not leave a trace elsewhere. “The U.S. east coast may have had early irrigation agriculture but you’re just not seeing any remnants of it because of more soil moisture there,” Milliken says. “It could just be that we get this preservation effect here because of the desert.

The recently discovered footprints owe their existence to a unique set of circumstances, Denoyer says. Soon after they were made, flooding from a nearby river deposited a layer of micaceous sand 10 to 20 centimeters deep across the field. When the field was reused, the sand-filled prints were so well preserved that it was possible to see where mud squeezed into the small spaces between their individual toes—or in the case of the dog, between claws.

Archaeological excavation of fields in the Southwest is still a relatively recent development, with previous digs focusing on structures, which are more easily found with technologies like ground-penetrating radar. That changed in 1988 when fields were unearthed during a similar road project just two and a half kilometers from where the footprints were found.

Archaeologists expect to discover more about the lives of these ancient people in the near future. “We’ve got five stratified layers below this one,” says Milliken, pointing to a pair of tiny parallel footprints made by a child standing at the edge of the field thousands of years ago. “There’s so much more to learn.”

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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

5 N.J. girls are finalists in $2M national science contest

Written by Laura Herzog

Five Jersey City girls and their science teacher are on a cleaning spree.

They're cleaning up at a national contest run by Samsung — winning their school tens of thousands of dollars worth of technology— because contest officials are so impressed by how the girls are trying to clean up their school's air quality.

The 13- and 14-year-old girls — Lailany Maldanado, Ivonne Ovalles, Sidney Kensley, Gianna Quijada, and Nancy Do — all are students at Dr. Michael Conti School P.S. 5 school. They are working with their teacher Albert Padilla on their "Samsung Solve for Tomorrow" Contest submissions.

Already, they were named national state winners and won $20,000 in technology, and they just were named national finalists and won $20,000 more, officials said.

There were 4,100 applicants nationwide, and the Jersey City group is among just 15 national finalists, all in public schools across the country, Samsung officials said. They are the the only New Jersey winners.

"We can do anything that boys can do. I think it's important that girls start getting into (STEM)," Maldanado, 14, told NJ Advance Media after she and her friends, who are voluntarily working on the project outside class, won the first $20,000.

To win in the Samsung contest, kids must solve a problem using science, math, technology, and engineering.

The girls are trying to reduce carbon emissions by creating air filters and raising community awareness of the negative health effects of idling, especially given the prevalence of asthma in their school, with a "No Idling" campaign, they explained to NJ Advance Media in December.

"We are really proud of the girls' efforts with our community initiative, and are looking forward to moving on as finalists in the contest," said Padilla, a Jersey City-raised teacher at P.S. 5, who has worked their for 12 years and has a bachelor's and master's in biology.

"Their ingenuity and hard work is continuing to pay off for themselves, our school and out city," he added.

The girls have also presented their project at the Liberty Science Center science symposium and it has been reviewed by local stakeholders including Jersey City board member Joel Torres and Superintendent Marcia Lyles, Padilla said.

The kids won't see what kind of new technology they have won for their school until after the competition is over, the teacher added.

Padilla has worked with students on several science projects in the city school to improve the local environment, including a storm-water management project involving Rutgers University.

Coming next for the Samsung competition, on March 15, Padilla and the students will present their project live to a panel of judges at the brand new Samsung 837 building in New York City, officials said. The panel will pick three grand prize winners, Samsung employees will pick a fourth winner, and the public will vote on the fifth winner through social media, Samsung officials said.

In all, five winners will win $120,000 in technology, Samsung officials said.

Social media voting (one vote per person per day) is open beginning 12 a.m. (ET) on March 1 until 11:59 p.m. April 1.

Those voting for P.S. 5 should post or tweet using the hashtags "#SamsungSolvePS5" and "#SamsungSolve" on Instagram and/or Twitter, officials said.

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What Are the Odds a Meteorite Could Kill You?

Written by Brian Clark Howard

Rumors of a space rock accident in India raise the question of how common this is.

As scientists investigate a reported death from a meteorite strike in southern India over the weekend, we wondered about the probability of such a fatal accident. Most people have the sense that meteorite strikes on people are exceedingly rare, but how rare? (As of Wednesday morning, NASA has cast serious doubt on the reports from India, saying the more likely culprit was a land-based explosion.)

Regardless of the final story in India, a meteorite is a piece of rock that strikes the Earth from outer space. The most famous case in the U.S. happened in 1954, when Ann Hodges was hit by a space rock in Sylacauga, Alabama.

The softball-sized hunk of black rock crashed through her ceiling while she was napping on her couch, hitting her in the side. Hodges later fought with her landlord over ownership of the rock and suffered a nervous breakdown.

In October 1992, a meteorite that caused a bright fireball across the sky hit a woman's parked car in Peekskill, New York. In 1825, people reported that a man was killed and a woman was injured by a meteorite in Oriang, India, although scholars have not been able to confirm the incident.

In 1827, a man was said to be injured after being struck in the arm by a space rock in Mhow, India. Other reports list cattle or horses killed by meteorites. A meteorite disrupted a wedding party in 1929 and a funeral in 1924. Perhaps even more strangely, in 2007, Peruvian villagers were sickened after a meteorite impact released toxic arsenic fumes from the ground.

A large meteorite exploded above central Russia in 2013 with a force 20 to 30 times the Hiroshima bomb injured 1,200 people, mostly from broken glass, and caused $33 million in damage.

Still, injuries from space rock incidents remain extremely rare.

"You have a better chance of getting hit by a tornado and a bolt of lightning and a hurricane all at the same time," Michael Reynolds, a Florida State College astronomer and author of the book Falling Stars: A Guide to Meteors & Meteorites, previously told National Geographic.

Doing the Math: Meteorite Strikes

Putting a probability number on the chances of being hit by a space rock is difficult, since the events are so rare. Still, Tulane University earth sciences professor Stephen A. Nelson published a paper in 2014 that made the effort. He put the lifetime odds of dying from a local meteorite, asteroid, or comet impact at 1 in 1,600,000.

Compared with 1 in 90 for a car accident, 1 in 250 for a fire, 1 in 60,000 for a tornado, 1 in 135,000 for lightning, 1 in 8 million for a shark attack, or 1 in 195 million for winning the PowerBall lottery.

Nelson put the risk of dying from a large, global asteroid or comet impact at 1 in 75,000. If that seems surprisingly high, it's because when massive objects have hit the Earth in the geologic past, they have wiped out millions of organisms, even whole species. Most of the creatures aren't killed from the direct impact, but from the aftereffects, which include heat, radiation, and dust that clouds out the sun.

Astronomer Alan Harris made a similar calculation, finding that a human being has a 1 in 700,000 chance of getting killed by an impact from space in their lifetime, with most of the risk coming from a large-scale event.

It's unclear what evidence will emerge from this week's incident in India, but if it does prove to have been a meteorite, it will be remembered as a highly unusual accident.

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Monday, March 7, 2016

Scientists Create Artificial Tissues With A Cotton Candy Machine

Written by Alexandra Ossola

What do cotton candy and artificial tissues have in common? They are both made of layers of thin, fibrous material. And now they can both be made with a $40 cotton candy machine, according to Vanderbilt News and reported today by Fast Company. The researchers published their proof-of-concept study last week in the journal Advanced Healthcare Materials.

The researchers were making hydrogels, a matrix of gelatinous fibers that can support living cells and replace any number of tissues in the body, especially muscle tissue like those in the heart. Hydrogels are about as close as researchers can currently get to emulating human tissues because the moist fibers that make up the hydrogel allow oxygen and nutrients to flow to and from the living cells. To create these gels, researchers spin polymer fibers together into a mass using a process called electrospinning. However the process of making viable hydrogels would often take weeks and the water-soluble gel material frequently would not dry or cool properly.

Researchers at Vanderbilt University wanted to see if electrospinning using a cotton candy machine would work as well as the traditional processes. After fiddling with the contents and concentration of the polymer solution, the researchers figured out that they could sprinkle in the human cells and an enzyme called transglutaminase--colloquially called “meat glue” in the food industry--to make the gel coalesce. The resulting material looks a lot like cotton candy, as you might imagine, but it’s a mass of living cells connected by fibers about the same size as a human capillary. Once the mass had cooled, the researchers pumped it full of oxygen and other nutrients the cells needed to survive. After a week, 90 percent of the cells were still alive, compared to the typical 60-70 percent in solid synthetic tissue that doesn’t have the fibers.

This is the latest in scientists’ recent efforts to create low-cost artificial organs—3D printing is the other popular method. But since the distribution of polymer fibers is more complex in the cotton candy hydrogel, this might be the most life-like technique to date.

In future studies the researchers hope to test their cotton candy technique with other types of cells to create tissues similar to those found in several different organs in the body.

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Friday, March 4, 2016

Horses Can Read Human Facial Expressions, New Study Suggests

Written by Hilary Hanson

If you've got a long face, a horse might notice.

Horses are able to distinguish between at least some human facial expressions, suggests a new study by researchers at the U.K.’s University of Sussex.

In the study, published in the February edition of Biology Letters, researchers examined the reactions of 28 horses, from five different stables, to large photos that showed a man either smiling or making an angry expression.

"We found that when we presented the photograph to the horses, they really paid attention and engaged with the facial expression images, partly because this is quite a novel situation for them," lead researcher Amy Smith told The Huffington Post in an email. "Responses to real-life humans are likely to be more subtle, because they are more accustomed to these interactions."

When the horses viewed the angry images, their heart rates sped up more quickly, researchers found. Horses were also more likely to turn and look at the angry faces with their left eye -- a reaction that the researchers wrote is “generally associated with stimulus perceived as negative.” The theory behind this "left gaze bias" is that the brain's right hemisphere is specially equipped to help process negative emotions.

"It's interesting to note that the horses had a strong reaction to the negative expressions but less so to the positive,” Smith said in a news release. “This may be because it is particularly important for animals to recognize threats in their environment. In this context, recognizing angry faces may act as a warning system, allowing horses to anticipate negative human behavior such as rough handling."

However, the horses were also being shown photos of strangers, and researchers noted in the paper that the animals may have had stronger responses to the happy faces if they were familiar with the people pictured. Dogs, for instance, have better human facial expression recognition when viewing their owners, or people of the same gender as their owners, the paper notes.

The new study builds on previous work by some of the same researchers, who published a paper last year documenting how horses communicate their own emotions through facial expressions.

"Emotional awareness is likely to be very important in highly social species like horses -- and ongoing research in our lab is examining the relationship between a range of emotional skills and social behavior," Smith told HuffPost.

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