Build a tree-ring timeline

From Build a Tree-Ring Timeline

If you’re the skeptical type, you might raise an eyebrow when you hear that a particular Viking ship was built in the year 819. How could anyone determine the age of such an aged object so precisely, especially when there are absolutely no records to verify the date?

Well, tree-ring dating, or dendrochronology, can be this precise, and even more so. Dendrochronologists showed that an ancient wooden road uncovered in southwestern England not only was built in 3806 B.C., but that the trees used for the road were chopped down in the winter of that year (the winter of 3807-3806). The science can also reveal the origin of old pieces of wood. In one case, archeologists determined not only the age of a Viking ship found in Denmark, they also learned that it was built in Ireland.

The basis of dendrochronology lies in [continue]

Chocolate teapot experiment

Now this is the kind of science I really like: How useless is a Chocolate Teapot? From The Naked Scientists:

You have heard the saying, but it is meaningless unless you know exactly how useful a chocolate teapot actually is. We try to find out how thick the walls of a chocolate teapot would have to be to let you brew tea… [continue]

The site includes photos, a video, and look, there’s a chocolate teapot!

(Link found here at Scribal Terror.)

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In our genes, old fossils take on new roles

From the Washington Post: In Our Genes, Old Fossils Take On New Roles.

Over the past 15 years, scientists have been comparing the inherited genetic material — the genomes — of dozens of organisms, acquiring a life history of life itself. (…) It turns out that about 8 percent of the human genome is made up of viruses that once attacked our ancestors. The viruses lost. What remains are the molecular equivalents of mounted trophies, insects preserved in genomic amber, DNA fossils.

The thousands of human endogenous retroviruses, or HERVs, sketch a history of rough times during the 550 million years of vertebrate evolution. The best-preserved one, HERV-K113, probably arrived less than 200,000 years ago, long after human beings and chimpanzees diverged from a common ancestor.

But these retroviruses are more than just curiosities. They are some of the most important enemies we ever had. They helped mold the immune system that is one of the evolutionary marvels of life on Earth. [continue]

Tahitian vanilla originated in Maya forests, says botanist

From Science Daily: Tahitian Vanilla Originated In Maya Forests, Says Botanist.

The origin of the Tahitian vanilla orchid, whose cured fruit is the source of the rare and highly esteemed gourmet French Polynesian spice, has long eluded botanists. Known by the scientific name Vanilla tahitensis, Tahitian vanilla is found to exist only in cultivation; natural, wild populations of the orchid have never been encountered.

Now, a team of investigators led by Pesach Lubinsky, a postdoctoral researcher with Norman Ellstrand, a professor of genetics in UC Riverside’s Department of Botany and Plant Sciences, claims to have traced Tahitian vanilla back to its true origins. [continue]

Bees, fish analyzed to understand serial killers

From discovery.com: Bees, Fish Analyzed to Understand Serial Killers.

Studying species in the animal world helps police catch human criminals — and vice versa. Originally developed to catch serial killers, a method called geographic profiling is now being used to study great white sharks, bats and bees.

In turn, criminologists expect that these biological studies will help refine their criminal studies, making it easier for them to catch criminals more quickly. Eventually they want to apply it to other fields, such as epidemiology.

"The same general geographic framework that criminologists use to catch criminals can be used by zoologists as well," said Kim Rossmo, co-author of an article in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface and a professor at the Texas State University Center for Geospatial Intelligence and Investigation.

“This makes us think that it can be applied to other areas as well, like epidemiology.” [continue]

In the summer kitchen, the thrill of the chill

From the New York Times: In the Summer Kitchen, the Thrill of the Chill.

It lasted only a moment, but it was the most refreshed I’ve ever felt at the dining table. All of a sudden my mouth was shockingly cold, so cold that I could see my breath. As the cold dissipated I could sense acidity, astringency, the aroma of lime. Meanwhile, there was the sight of my companions, eyes wide open and vapor jets shooting from their lips and nostrils. Each of them looked like Yosemite Sam blowing his stack.

The morsels that had cleansed our palates and minds were a mixture of lime juice, green tea, vodka, sugar and egg white that was whipped into a light foam, portioned into spoonfuls, and frozen. At 320 degrees below zero. In liquid nitrogen.

The nitro-poached mousse was invented in 2001 at the Fat Duck, near London, and has been much emulated since. These days there is less talk in cutting-edge kitchens about burners and B.T.U.’s, and more about the Antigriddle, a boxy flat-top appliance that keeps its surface at minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit. With it you could, for example, freeze puddles of crème anglaise and flip them into soft-center ice cream flapjacks. Cold is the new heat. [continue]

I’m tempted to try the no-tech ice cream method listed at the end of the article.

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How a terrified expression could keep you alive

From the Guardian: Face of fear: how a terrified expression could keep you alive.

The evolutionary mystery of why our faces contort when we are scared has been solved by a team of Canadian neuroscientists.

When our facial expression shifts to one of eye-bulging, nostril-flaring fear, our ability to sense attackers or other imminent danger improves dramatically, researchers found.

The findings lend support to an idea first laid out by Charles Darwin in one of his less well-known tomes, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1872. Darwin noted that [continue]

Mini subs to probe odd structures in BC lake

This is from McMaster University , via EurekAlert: Mini subs to probe odd structures in BC lake.

Single person submersibles have been called in to help scientists retrieve samples from a lake in northern British Columbia that may hold vital clues to the history of life on Earth and on other planets.

Greg Slater, an environmental geochemist in the Faculty of Science, says the objects of scientific interest are unique carbonate rock structures, known as microbialites because they are covered with microbes. Some of these microbialites grow at depths up to 180 feet below the water’s surface, too deep to reach by non-decompression SCUBA diving.

"Are they the result of biological or geological processes? Why are there different microbes living on them and how long have these microbial communities been preserved? These are some of our big questions," says Slater, who joined the international team researching these curious specimens three years ago. [continue]

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Five things humans no longer need

From ABC News: Five Things Humans No Longer Need.

Vestigial organs are parts of the body that once had a function but are now more-or-less useless. Probably the most famous example is the appendix, though it is now an open question whether the appendix is really vestigial. The idea that we are carrying around useless relics of our evolutionary past has long fascinated scientists and laypeople alike.

This week we tackle vestigial organs in a feature article that looks at how the idea has changed over the years, and how it has come under attack from creationists anxious to deny that vestigial organs (and hence evolution) exist at all. To accompany the article, here is our list of the five organs and functions most likely to be truly vestigial. [continue]

Sulfur in marine archaeological shipwrecks

From EurekAlert: Sulfur in marine archaeological shipwrecks — the ‘hull story’ gives a sour aftertaste.

Advanced chemical analyses reveal that, with the help of smart scavenging bacteria, sulfur and iron compounds accumulated in the timbers of the Swedish warship Vasa during her 333 years on the seabed of the Stockholm harbour. Contact with oxygen, in conjunction with the high humidity of the museum environment, causes these contaminants to produce sulfuric acid, according to a new doctoral thesis in chemistry from Stockholm University. [continue]

Scientists discover why plague is so lethal

From Science Daily: Scientists Discover Why Plague Is So Lethal.

Bacteria that cause the bubonic plague may be more virulent than their close relatives because of a single genetic mutation, according to research published in the May issue of the journal Microbiology.

"The plague bacterium Yersinia pestis needs calcium in order to grow at body temperature. When there is no calcium available, it produces a large amount of an amino acid called aspartic acid," said Professor Brubaker from the University of Chicago, USA. "We found that this is because Y. pestis is missing an important enzyme."

Bubonic plague has killed over 200 million people during the course of history and is thus the most devastating acute infectious disease known to man. Despite this, we are still uncertain about the molecular basis of its extraordinary virulence.

"Y. pestis evolved from its ancestor Y. pseudotuberculosis within the last 20,000 years, suggesting its high lethality reflects [continue]

As some of you were discussing Y pestis in this comment thread, I thought you might be interested.

Tests confirm T. Rex kinship with birds

From the New York Times: Tests Confirm T. Rex Kinship With Birds.

In the first analysis of proteins extracted from dinosaur bones, scientists say they have established more firmly than ever that the closest living relatives of the mighty predator Tyrannosaurus rex are modern birds.

The research, being published Friday in the journal Science, yielded the first molecular data confirming the widely held hypothesis of a close dinosaur-bird ancestry, the American scientific team reported. The link was previously suggested by anatomical similarities.

In fact, the scientists said, T. rex shared more of its genetic makeup with ostriches and chickens than with living reptiles, like alligators. On this basis, the research team has redrawn the family tree of major vertebrate groups, assigning the dinosaur a new place in evolutionary relationships. [continue]

Shroud of Turin’s authenticity probed anew

From discovery.com: Shroud of Turin’s Authenticity Probed Anew.

The Shroud of Turin, the 14- by 4-foot linen believed by some to have been wrapped around Jesus after the crucifixion, might not be a fake after all, according to new research.

The director of one of three laboratories that dismissed the shroud as a medieval artifact 20 years ago has called for the science community to reinvestigate the linen’s authenticity.

"With the radiocarbon measurements and with all of the other evidence which we have about the shroud, there does seem to be a conflict in the interpretation of the different evidence," said Christopher Ramsey, director of England’s Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, which carried out radiocarbon dating tests on the cloth in 1988.

Venerated by many Catholics as proof that Christ was resurrected from the grave, the yellowing cloth is kept rolled up in a silver casket in Turin’s Cathedral.

Scientific interest in the linen, which has survived several blazes since it was discovered, began in 1898, when it was photographed by lawyer Secondo Pia. The negatives revealed the image of a bearded man with pierced wrists and feet and a bloodstained head. [continue]

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Napoleon poisoning claims debunked

From discovery.com: Napoleon Poisoning Claims Debunked.

Napoleon Bonaparte did not die from arsenic poisoning, a new examination of the French emperor’s hair has established. (…)

Now, Italian scientists have repeated the hair testing using a small nuclear reactor. The study will be published in the March issue of the Italian journal Il Saggiatore.

Researchers from the universities of Pavia and Milan analyzed several hair samples that had been taken during different periods of Napoleon Bonaparte’s life — from when he was a boy in Corsica, during his exile on the Island of Elba, on the day of his death on the Island of Saint Helena, and on the day after his death.

Samples taken from Napoleon II (Bonaparte’s son) in the years 1812, 1816, 1821 and 1826, and samples from Napoleon’s wife the Empress Josephine, collected upon her death in 1814, were also analyzed.

In addition to those historical samples, obtained from various French and Italian museums, the researchers tested [continue]

Viking blood in England

From Science Daily: Viking Blood Courses Through Veins Of Many A Northwest Englander.

The blood of the Vikings is still coursing through the veins of men living in the North West of England — according to a new study.

Focusing on the Wirral in Merseyside and West Lancashire the study of 100 men, whose surnames were in existence as far back as medieval times, has revealed that 50 per cent of their DNA is specifically linked to Scandinavian ancestry.

The collaborative study, by The University of Nottingham, the University of Leicester and University College London, reveals that the population in parts of northwest England carries up to 50 per cent male Norse origins, about the same as modern Orkney.

I loved the place name section of this article:

After their expulsion from Dublin in 902AD the Wirral Vikings, initially led by the Norwegian Viking INGIMUND, landed in their boats along the north Wirral coastline. Place names still reflect the North West’s Viking past. Aigburth, Formby, Crosby, Toxteth, Croxteth are all Viking names — even the football team Tranmere is Viking. Thingwall is the name of a Viking parliament or assembly (Thingvellir in Iceland) and the only two in England are both in the North West — one in Wirral and one in Liverpool. [continue]

How do you grow a glacier?

From 60 Second Science: How do you grow a glacier?.

Villagers in the Hindu Kush and Karakoram mountains have practiced "glacier growing" for centuries, according to local legend. Historically, snowmelt often hasn’t provided enough water for crops or humans in the dry, high-altitude regions, so growing glaciers became crucial to survival. How did they do it? By combining "male" and "female" glaciers to grow the glaciers larger.

Before you laugh at what sounds like old-world witchcraft, consider this: Researcher Ingvar Tveiten from the Department of International Environment and Development Studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences seems to support the locals’ methods of glacier farming. While only a few villages still have glacier-growing elders, if Tveiten can refine and disseminate these techniques for glacier growing, it could go a long way to alleviating problems caused by population growth and glacier retreat in the poverty-plagued mountains of Central Asia.

So how does it work? Local tradition believes that there are two types of glaciers: [continue]

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‘Super-scope’ shines on Mary Rose

From the BBC: ‘Super-scope’ shines on Mary Rose.

The research is taking place at the Diamond synchrotron, a beam-generating machine that covers the area of five football pitches.

Scientists are using the facility in a bid to fine-tune the conservation of the historic vessel’s timbers.

The Mary Rose, pride of Henry VIII’s English fleet, sank in 1545 and lay on the sea bed until being raised in 1982.

The work carried out at Diamond will help conservators understand more about the sulphur compounds buried deep within the ship’s timbers.

Researchers aim to find out how stable they are, as these can be converted to sulphuric acid when oxygen is present – threatening preservation efforts. [continue]

Hidden method of reading revealed

From the BBC: Hidden method of reading revealed.

The mystery of how we read a sentence has been unlocked by scientists.

Previously, researchers thought that, when reading, both eyes focused on the same letter of a word. But a UK team has found this is not always the case.

In fact, almost 50% of the time, each of our eyes locks on to different letters simultaneously.

At the BA Festival of Science in York, the researchers also revealed that our brain can fuse two separate images to obtain a clear view of a page.

Sophisticated eye-tracking equipment allowed the team to pinpoint which letter a volunteer’s eyes focused on [continue]

Out-of-body experience recreated

From the Beeb: Out-of-body experience recreated.

Experts have found a way to trigger an out-of-body experience in volunteers.

The experiments, described in the Science journal, offer a scientific explanation for a phenomenon experienced by one in 10 people.

Two teams used virtual reality goggles to con the brain into thinking the body was located elsewhere.

The visual illusion plus the feel of their real bodies being touched made volunteers sense that they had moved outside of their physical bodies.

The researchers say their findings could have practical applications, such as helping take video games to the next level of virtuality so the players feel as if they are actually inside the game.

Clinically, surgeons might also be able to perform operations on patients thousands of miles away by controlling a robotic virtual self. [continue]

Origin of mysterious glass found in King Tut’s tomb

From Macroworld Investor: Cray Supercomputer at Sandia Helps Researchers Discover Origin of Mysterious Glass Found in King Tut’s Tomb.

Global supercomputer leader Cray Inc. (NASDAQ: CRAY) today announced that researchers running simulations on the Cray supercomputer at Sandia National Laboratories have re-created what could have happened 29 million years ago when an asteroid explosion turned Saharan sand into glass. The greenish natural glass, which can still be found scattered across remote stretches of the desert, was used by an artisan in ancient Egypt to carve a scarab that decorates one of the bejeweled breastplates buried in King Tutankhamen’s tomb.

"Supercomputers now allow us to approach these problems as if we were conducting actual experiments," said Mark Boslough, the physicist at Sandia whose theory about the origins of Libyan Desert Glass sparked the research. "With this class of computer, we can run multiple simulations at such high resolution and fidelity that we can see phenomena that we wouldn’t be able to predict from first principles. That means we can explore alternate possibilities as we go. It’s more like doing iterative experimental science than theoretical science." [continue]

What Finnish grandmothers reveal about human evolution

From: Scientific American: What Finnish Grandmothers Reveal about Human Evolution.

No animal compares to humans when it comes to studying populations over time. Easy to track and occasionally living in relative isolation, Homo sapiens is the only species that keeps detailed records. That is why biologist Virpi Lummaa of the University of Sheffield in England started in 1998 to comb through Finnish church records from two centuries ago for clues about the influence of evolution on reproduction.

"I always wanted to work on primates," Lummaa says. "But if I wanted to collect a similar data set on wild chimps, I would be struggling. I’ve decided to study another primate in the end."

The 33-year-old Finnish biologist, aided by genealogists, has pored through centuries-old tomes (and microfiche) for birth, marriage and death records, which ended up providing glimpses of evolution at work in humanity’s recent ancestors. Among them: that male twins disrupt the mating potential of their female siblings by prenatally rendering them more masculine; mothers of sons die sooner than those of daughters, because rearing the former takes a greater toll; and grandmothers are important to the survival of grandchildren. "I’m trying to understand human reproductive behavior from an evolutionary perspective," Lummaa says.

Most recently, Lummaa and her colleagues studied the effect of males on their female twins. Of 754 twins born between 1734 and 1888 in five towns in rural Finland, girls from mixed-gender pairs proved 25 percent less likely to have children, had at least two fewer children, and were more than 15 percent less likely to marry than those born with a sister. This impact remained the same regardless of social class and other cultural factors and even if the male twin died within three months of birth, leaving the female twin to be reared as if she was an only child, the researchers reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. [continue]

Thanks to Sarah for pointing out this story.

DNA testing to uncover Czech noble mysteries

From iol.co.za: DNA testing to uncover Czech noble mysteries.

DNA testing will be used in a unique scientific project to solve a more than thousand-year mystery over the noble occupants of Dark Age graves in Prague castle, a team of Czech specialists announced on Tuesday.

DNA tests on remains from 19 bodies, thought to belong to the Czech noble Premyslid family, considered the founders of the Bohemian kingdom who ruled the country for 400 years, will be used to determine who is who. In parallel, 50-70 tests will be carried out on remains from ordinary graves found around the ancient castle site. [continue]

Scientists reverse mental retardation in mice

From the Scientific American: Scientists Reverse Mental Retardation in Mice.

In a case of life imitating art, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) reported today that they had successfully reversed mental retardation in mice, just as scientists did in the classic 1966 novel Flowers for Algernon. In the book by Daniel Keyes, scientists use experimental surgery—first tested on a mouse named Algernon—to dramatically boost the intelligence of a mentally retarded janitor named Charlie Gordon. Now M.I.T. scientists report in Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences USA that they ameliorated brain damage in mice caused by a genetic disorder known as fragile X syndrome by blocking an enzyme involved in cellular development.

Fragile X affects one in 4,000 boys and one in 6,000 girls. It is caused by a mutation in the fragile x mental retardation 1 gene (FMR1)—located on the X sex chromosome— that results in the loss of the fragile x mental retardation protein (FMRP). The resulting illness is characterized by hyperactivity, attention deficit, repetitive behavior, anxiety and cognitive difficulties ranging from learning disability to mental retardation. [continue]

Dating daddy’s double

From the Globe and Mail: Dating daddy’s double.

If you were a daddy’s girl, chances are you grew up to choose a boyfriend or husband who looks a lot like him, according to a study out of Britain.

A team of British and Polish researchers used a series of measurements to show how the spacing of fathers’ facial features is mimicked in the faces of the men their daughters find attractive.

"These controlled results show for certain that the quality of a daughter’s relationship with her father has an impact on whom she finds attractive," said author Lynda Boothroyd of the psychology department at Durham University in Britain.

"It shows our human brains don’t simply build prototypes of the ideal face based on those we see around us, rather they build them based on those to whom we have a strongly positive relationship." [continue]

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Astronomer shows when and where his ancient counterparts worked

From nature.com: Astronomer shows when and where his ancient counterparts worked.

Using modern techniques — and some rocks — a US astronomer has traced the origin of a set of ancient clay tablets to a precise date and place. The tablets show constellations thought to be precursors of the present-day zodiac.

The tablets, known collectively as MUL.APIN, contain nearly 200 astronomical observations, including measurements related to several constellations. They are written in cuneiform, a Middle-Eastern script that is one of the oldest known forms of writing, and were made in Babylon around 687 BC.

But most archaeologists believe that the tablets are transcriptions of much earlier observations made by Assyrian astronomers. Just how much older has been disputed — the estimates go back to 2,300 BC.

Now Brad Schaefer, an astronomer at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, says he has dated the observations to 1,370 BC, give or take a century.

The tablets contain [continue]