A History Recalled, One Symbol at a Time

By Stephen E. Nash | December 7, 2016 11:46 am
Denver Museum of Nature & Science

The spiraling story of the Chief Martin White Horse Winter Count documents significant events in Lakota history each year from 1789 to 1910. (Credit: AC.7923/DMNS)

(This post originally appeared in the online anthropology magazine SAPIENS. Follow @SAPIENS_org on Twitter to discover more of their work.) 

Time. Astronomers, philosophers, physicists, anthropologists, politicians, geographers, and theologians have all pondered the nature and meaning of time. Is it linear or cyclical? Is it reversible? (Put another way, can we go back in time?) Is time absolute and measurable, as it seemed to be to Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei, or is it relative, as Albert Einstein theorized? Cynically, is it “what keeps everything from happening at once,” as science fiction author Ray Cummings wrote so memorably in 1923? Is time a cultural construct? Or is it a corollary to the second law of thermodynamics, under which disorder always increases? Why does time seem to go so much faster the older we get? Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: anthropology

Lacking Funding and Data, Gun Policy Researchers Soldier On

By Nathaniel Scharping | November 15, 2016 2:18 pm
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(Credit: DmyTo/Shutterstock)

Every year, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control allocate more than $35 billion to researchers to study diseases, treatments and public health. But there’s one public health concern that hasn’t received funding in nearly two decades: firearm regulations.

Firearms accounted for more than 30,000 deaths in 2014 — about the same number as died from motor vehicle accidents. With vanishingly few studies to investigate firearm deaths, however, researchers are unable to recommend the best course of action for public health officials to take.

In 1996, Congress passed legislation that specifically prohibited the use of government funds for the promotion of of gun control. Fearing funding cuts, the government agencies that hand out grants to researchers instated a self-imposed ban on any sort of research into firearms.

The CDC has funded no studies directly related to firearms, while the NIH has been only slightly less cautious — despite a 2013 memorandum from President Barack Obama instructing both agencies to begin funding research into gun violence. More often than not, researchers rely on their own resources to conduct their work.
Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: public health

British Squirrels Are Suffering from Leprosy

By Stephen Harrison, Nottingham Trent University | November 11, 2016 1:58 pm
red-squirrel

A red squirrel. (Credit: Shutterstock)

For many people, leprosy brings to mind Biblical stories of diseased people cast out from society. It’s a condition that today is largely found in developing countries, whereas in other, mostly Western nations it’s a pestilence of the past that was eradicated decades ago. But recent research has shown the disease not only persists in Britain but, perhaps more alarmingly, is also being carried by one of our best loved and most endangered native mammals, the red squirrel.

The study by researchers at the University of Edinburgh and EPFL in Switzerland found red squirrels from England, Scotland and Ireland were infected with leprosy. In particular, a group from Brownsea Island on the south coast of England had a strain of the disease virtually identical to one that infected humans in the middle ages. Read More

Outsmarting the Art of Camouflage

By Lakshman Prasad | November 2, 2016 12:28 pm
copperhead-snake

Copperhead Snake on Dead Leaves, watercolor by Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921). (Courtesy: Smithsonian American Art Museum)

When the American painter Abbott H. Thayer published his book Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom in 1909, he put forth the hypothesis that animals’ colors served one function and one function only: to camouflage.

While that theory has since been disproven (animal colors also play a role in threatening predators and attracting mates), his work made a significant impact on our understanding of camouflage and how it could be used in war. During World War I, both the French and the German militaries relied on his book to develop designs for camouflaging their soldiers, and it became required reading for the U.S. Army’s newly launched unit of camoufleurs. Thayer’s work noted how nature “obliterates” contrast by both blending into its environment and disrupting it by using arbitrary patterns to break up outlines. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts

Is It Time for Medicine to Ditch Lab Mice?

By Nathaniel Scharping | November 1, 2016 12:13 pm
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(Credit: Shutterstock)

“Cancer has been cured a thousand times.”

So says Christopher Austin, the director of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) at the National Institutes of Health. Austin should know — as the director of NCATS, his focus is on exactly these kinds of groundbreaking laboratory studies.

His proclamation comes with a significant caveat that will pop the bubbles in your champagne. Austin is so interested in these studies because they all happened in mice, in a lab. When the hundreds of different drugs that made mouse tumors disappear were carried forward to human trials, they went in and came out without doing what they promised. Or worse, they turned out to be toxic. Read More

Sherlock Holmes, Spirit Hunting and a Great Hoax

By David Warmflash | October 31, 2016 12:56 pm
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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a revered author and physician, but he was an ardent proponent of spiritualism during his lifetime. (Credit: The British Library)

Back in August, it seemed that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was cleared of playing any role in one of the greatest hoaxes in scientific history. But in true Sherlockian form, there may still be a twist in this case that appears to be closed. And it’s a fitting discussion on Halloween.

The infamous ‘Piltdown Man’ hoax culminated in 1912 after esteemed geologist Sir Arthur Smith Woodward and amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson announced they had discovered the ‘missing link’ between ape and man. It featured a human-sized skull with an ape-like jaw, and it fooled scientists for 40 years before it was debunked.

So how did Conan Doyle get involved in this, and why should he still remain on the suspect list, despite the latest evidence? Stay with me as I dig deeper into this longstanding controversy.  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: archaeology

Ever Feel Like You’re Being Watched?

By Ben Thomas | October 31, 2016 10:51 am
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(Credit: Shutterstock)

You’ve felt it at one time or another. You’re standing on a crowded train platform, or in the park, and suddenly, your alertness spikes: you’re being watched.

The hair on the back of your neck stands up. From some unconscious part of your brain, an alarm sounds: “Look over there!” Often, you turn and find your mind was playing tricks on you. But sometimes you turn and meet the eyes of a stranger whose gaze you’ve somehow sensed without consciously seeing it.

The idea that we can feel another’s person’s gaze has captured the attention of fringe researchers and parapsychologists for decades, but are we anywhere closer to explaining the roots this unnerving feeling? Does it exist? Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: senses

Could a Corpse Seed Life on Another Planet?

By William Herkewitz | October 25, 2016 10:40 am
an astronaut drifts through space

(Credit: Shutterstock)

One day, it’s bound to happen. An astronaut dies in space.

Maybe the death occurred en route to Mars. Maybe she was interstellar, on board solo spacecraft. Or maybe the body was thrust out an airlock, a burial at space.

That corpse (or the corpse’s spacecraft) could spend anywhere from decades to millions of years adrift. It would coast listlessly in the void, until the creeping tendrils of gravity eventually pulled it into a final touchdown. Likely this corpse will burn up in a star.

But lets say it lands on a planet. Could our corpse, like a seed on the wind, bring life to a new world? Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

Wanted: Stem Cell Super Donors

By Kim Smuga-Otto | October 24, 2016 3:16 pm
Pictured is a microscopic view of brain cells generated from induced pluripotent stem cells in the laboratory of University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientist Su-Chun Zhang. The induced cells, derived from reprogrammed skin cells, seem to have many of the all-purpose qualities of human embryonic stem cells, but a team led by Zhang, writing in the Feb. 15, 2010, edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reports the induced cells seem to differentiate less efficiently and faithfully than their embryonic counterparts. Used and distributed with permission by: UW-Madison University Communications 608/262-0067 Photo by: courtesy Su-Chun Zhang/Baoyang Hu, UW-Madison Date: 2010 File#: file provided 02/10

Pictured is a microscopic view of brain cells generated from induced pluripotent stem cells in the laboratory of University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientist Su-Chun Zhang. (Courtesy: Su-Chun Zhang/Baoyang Hu, UW-Madison)

Our bodies’ cells didn’t evolve to flourish in a petri dish. Even fast-growing skin cells stop dividing and turn thin and ragged after a few weeks outside the body. This natural obstacle limited the therapeutic potential of lab-grown cells – if you can’t grow the cells, you can’t use them to heal damaged tissue.

Then, a decade ago, Nobel Prize winner Shinya Yamanaka identified a cocktail of genes that, when added to mouse skin cells, transformed them into a new kind of cell that grew happily in ever expanding colonies. More importantly, these cells, dubbed “induced pluripotent stem cells” (iPSC), had their internal clocks set back to an earlier stem cell-like state, giving them the ability to grow into any other cell type found in the body. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Can Science Save the Banana?

(Credit: Shutterstock)

(Credit: Shutterstock)

The banana is the world’s most popular fruit crop, with over 100 million metric tons produced annually in over 130 tropical and subtropical countries. Edible bananas are the result of a genetic accident in nature that created the seedless fruit we enjoy today. Virtually all the bananas sold across the Western world belong to the so-called Cavendish subgroup of the species and are genetically nearly identical. These bananas are sterile and dependent on propagation via cloning, either by using suckers and cuttings taken from the underground stem or through modern tissue culture.

The familiar bright yellow Cavendish banana is ubiquitous in supermarkets and fruit bowls, but it is in imminent danger. The vast worldwide monoculture of genetically identical plants leaves the Cavendish intensely vulnerable to disease outbreaks. Fungal diseases severely devastated the banana industry once in history and it could soon happen again if we do not resolve the cause of these problems. Plant scientists, including us, are working out the genetics of wild banana varieties and banana pathogens as we try to prevent a Cavendish crash. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: agriculture
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