Category: Living World

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

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

Is It Time for Medicine to Ditch Lab Mice?

By Nathaniel Scharping | November 1, 2016 12:13 pm
shutterstock_270775616

(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

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

In Pursuit of the ‘Cosmopolitan Chicken’

By Nathaniel Scharping | October 14, 2016 12:29 pm
3a_mechelseredcap

The Mechelse Redcap crossbreed created by Koen Vanmechelen. (Credit: Koen Vanmechelen)

Let us consider the humble chicken.

Or, rather, consider a world without them. Gone are breakfast burritos at Sunday morning brunch, wings at your next tailgate, half the menu at an Italian restaurant, your grandma’s precious soup recipe and nearly every fast-food chain out there. It’s a bleak world, to be sure. 

Given the extent to which we rely on the nameless, faceless birds that gift us so many culinary delights, perhaps it’s time we paid more attention to them. That’s the insight behind the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, an artistic endeavor 20 years in the making. It’s the brainchild of Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen, and it celebrates the wonder and power of the riotous diversity found in the myriad lineages of chickens the world over. Read More

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

5 Ways Yeast Will Help Save Lives

By Carl Engelking | October 6, 2016 2:09 pm
A bowl of dried yeasts. (Credit: Shutterstock)

A bowl of dried yeast. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Try to imagine life without yeast. It’s kind of a bummer.

The single-celled fungi are the leavening agents that gave rise to sourdoughs, ciabattas and chewy pizza crusts. They’re the microorganisms that convert sugar into carbon dioxide and ethanol to give beer and wine its intoxicating effects. They are used to produce insulin. You can buy yeast supplements. Yeast also played an instrumental role in a Nobel Prize win earlier this week.

Yeast, it turns out, is a life-saver. Although there are some 1,500 different species, it is one of the most well studied eukaryotic organisms known to science, and it’s serving on the front lines as a model organism for cutting-edge research in genetics, biology, agriculture and medicine.

Here are five reasons we owe this simple organism a debt of gratitude. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: microbes & viruses

17th-century Ruins Could Unravel Mysteries of Earth’s Magnetic Field

By Andrew Jenner | September 28, 2016 4:14 pm
ruinas_de_sao_miguel_das_missoes

Jesuit church ruins from the 17th century, like the São Miguel das Missões, were built with clay bricks that contain magnetite, which realigned with earth’s magnetic field when it was fired in kilns. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons) 

It seems safe to say that the laborers firing clay pavers, bricks and tiles to build the Jesuit mission of Santo Ângelo over 300 years ago had no idea that their toils might someday bear relevance to spacecraft orbiting 600 miles above what is now southern Brazil.

As the bricks and pavers were fired in kilns, magnetite in the clay abandoned its inherent magnetic properties and realigned in response to the magnetic forces exerted by the earth itself. The point at which this occurs – 580 degrees Celsius, in the case of magnetite – is known as the Curie point.

After these building materials cooled and were stacked to form a church, school and other buildings at Santo Ângelo, the magnetite inside retained this reshuffled alignment, a record of the magnetic past sealed away like a proverbial mosquito in amber. Along with several dozen other Jesuit missions built in the same era, Santo Ângelo flourished briefly along what was then the poorly defined border between the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in South America. At its height, the mission was home to about 8,000 people, nearly all of them indigenous Guarani whom the Jesuits were trying to Christianize.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

Can a Smartphone App Help Save a Dying Language?

By Carrie Arnold | September 23, 2016 4:07 pm
About half of the world’s languages are expected to disappear by 2100 if nothing is done to stop their decline. To counteract this trend, some tribes are using new technologies to revive their languages. Joshua Hinson of the Chickasaw Nation is leading the effort to revive the language of his ancestors.

About half of the world’s languages are expected to disappear by 2100 if nothing is done to stop their decline. To counteract this trend, some tribes are using new technologies to revive their languages. Joshua Hinson of the Chickasaw Nation is leading the effort to revive the language of his ancestors. (Credit: Chickasaw Nation)

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

Joshua Hinson’s first biological son was born in 2000. His son’s birth marked the start of the sixth generation that would grow up speaking English instead of Chickasaw, which was the primary language his ancestors had spoken for hundreds of years. Hinson was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and grew up in Texas. Other than a small handful of words, he knew almost nothing about his ancestral language—formally known as Chikashshanompa’. Hinson had a few pangs of sadness over the years about what was lost, but it didn’t really affect him—until his son was born.

As he counted the 10 tiny fingers and 10 tiny toes of his firstborn child, Hinson realized he had nothing to teach his son about his Native American roots. The only thing he had to pass on was his tribal citizenship card. Hinson wanted to bequeath more than just a piece of paper; he wanted his son to be a part of Chickasaw culture. He recognized that the most direct way to understand his culture was to speak the language. But to make that happen, Hinson had to start with himself. Read More

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

Taking Pangolin Off the Menu

By Steven Bedard | August 25, 2016 2:14 pm
Chinese pangolin Manis pentadactyla Mother and two-month-old baby. Mother was rescued from poachers and is now part of Taipei Zoo's captive breeding program. Taipei Zoo, Taipei, Taiwan *Captive *Digitally removed leaf debris in foreground

This Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) was rescued from poachers and given safe haven at the Taipei Zoo. She and her two-month-old baby are evidence of the zoo’s successful captive breeding program. (Credit: Suzi Eszterhas)

When acclaimed conservation photographer Suzi Eszterhas settled in for the evening, she didn’t know what to expect. She seldom does when trying to photograph elusive, nocturnal creatures. But circumstances on this particular night were unusual. She was sitting in an enclosure—albeit a naturalistic one—and although she knew her photographic subjects couldn’t flee, she thought it was quite possible she might spend the entire night being riddled by biting ants without capturing a single shot. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
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