An Orbital Moon Station Is Our Gateway to Mars

By David Rothery, The Open University | September 29, 2017 4:04 pm
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Full moon photographed from Earth. (Credit: Gregory H. Revera/wikimedia, CC BY-SA)

The dream of a human habitat in orbit about the moon came a step closer on Sept. 27, when NASA and the Russian space agency (Roscosmos) signed up to a common vision for future human exploration. The project, a follow-up to the International Space Station (ISS), involves a facility placed in orbit somewhere between the Earth and the moon – a region known as cis-lunar space. Seen as a stepping-stone on the way to deeper space exploration, it has been dubbed the Deep Space Gateway, DSG. Read More

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Eat Less, Age Less?

By Mark Barna | September 29, 2017 1:52 pm
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(Credit: Shutterstock)

Eating is one of the great pleasures of life. But eating too much places people at risk for chronic illnesses and shortens life expectancy. Seven of 10 Americans are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Being overweight is so common, people don’t recognize when they’ve crossed the belt line; only 36 percent of overweight/obese people think they weigh too much, says a recent Gallup poll.

People want to feel healthy and most want to live a long time. But practically speaking, the price may be too high. It means pushing away that extra plate of food, and perhaps more. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
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How Vulnerable Are Societies to Collapse?

By Jim O'Donnell | September 28, 2017 12:28 pm
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Research findings on three early Native American cultures from the southwestern United States show how each responded to environmental challenges in different ways that dramatically altered their people’s futures. (David Williams/SAPIENS)

Along the cottonwood-lined rivers of southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, the Mimbres people did something unique: By the year 1000, these farmers were producing stunning ceramics decorated with naturalistic images of fish, people, and rabbits, as well as magical creatures and elaborate geometric patterns. And then, rather abruptly, they stopped.

After roughly a century of higher than normal rainfall, the area the Mimbres inhabited suffered a powerful drought, as indicated by the archaeological record. Big game—already scarce—became even less abundant, and it became harder to grow the beans, corn and squash that the Mimbres relied on. By about 1150 the Mimbres were no longer making their signature pottery. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Top Posts

Earth’s Oldest Rocks Are Revealing Life’s Origins, Fueling Controversy

By Eric Betz | September 27, 2017 12:35 pm
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A NASA image depicts what planet Earth may have looked like some 4 billion years ago when it was getting pummeled with space rocks. (Credit: NASA)

Earth’s first life evolved in hell.

The earliest lifeforms emerged at least 3.95 billion years ago, at a time when a near constant barrage of comets and asteroids were bombarding our still solidifying planet. That’s the implication of new research published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.

A group of Japanese scientists journeyed into a remote stretch of northern Labrador, Canada, where they chiseled samples from some of Earth’s oldest rocks. They braved bugs, bad weather and polar bears; they returned with what could be evidence for some of the oldest life on Earth. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

A Steady Diet of TV Could Be Key for Deep Space Travelers

By Jan Van den Bulk, University of Michigan | September 26, 2017 12:14 pm
Astronaut Scott Kelly hosted a Super Bowl 50 party on the International Space Station, but no one came. (Credit: Scott Kelly)

Astronaut Scott Kelly hosted a Super Bowl 50 party on the International Space Station, but no one came. (Credit: Scott Kelly)

No one knows for sure what a long-range space journey will be like for the people on board. Nobody in the history of our species has ever had to deal with the “Earth-out-of-view” phenomenon, for instance. How will it feel to live in close quarters with a small group, with no escape hatch? How will space travelers deal with the prospect of not seeing family or friends for years, or even ever again? How will they occupy themselves for years with nothing much to do?

Researchers do know some things from observing astronauts who’ve stayed in space stations revolving around Earth for long periods of time, people who spent a lot of time shut off from the outside world in isolated regions (such as on polar expeditions) and from experiments with simulated Mars missions. Read More

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Lake Michigan Itself Is the Greatest Asian Carp Deterrent

By Eric Betz | September 22, 2017 3:31 pm
Asian carp jump from the water at the mouth of the Wabash River in Ohio. (Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/Todd Davis)

Asian carp jump from the water at the mouth of the Wabash River in Ohio. (Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/Todd Davis)

For years, people have been freaking out that Asian carp are about to invade the Great Lakes.

That concern seemed more real than ever this summer after an Illinois fisherman caught a carp in June less than 10 miles from Lake Michigan — beyond the barriers designed to keep them out.

These voracious fish have already decimated Midwestern rivers. They’re filter feeders who feast on plankton — the tiny plants and critters that prop up foodchains. And they eat lots of them. Adult Asian carp eat pounds of the stuff every day. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts

How the Invention of Zero Yielded Modern Mathematics

By Ittay Weiss | September 20, 2017 2:24 pm
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(Credit: Shutterstock)

A small dot on an old piece of birch bark marks one of the biggest events in the history of mathematics. The bark is actually part of an ancient Indian mathematical document known as the Bakhshali manuscript. And the dot is the first known recorded use of the number zero. What’s more, researchers from the University of Oxford recently discovered the document is 500 years older than was previously estimated, dating to the third or fourth century – a breakthrough discovery.

Today, it’s difficult to imagine how you could have mathematics without zero. In a positional number system, such as the decimal system we use now, the location of a digit is really important. Indeed, the real difference between 100 and 1,000,000 is where the digit 1 is located, with the symbol 0 serving as a punctuation mark. Read More

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Cassini’s Bittersweet Symphony

By Shannon Stirone | September 15, 2017 12:27 pm
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Cassini’s final ringscape, taken Sept. 13. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

The Cassini team members filled the chairs of mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. As a long-time astronomy journalist, I was invited to witness the end of an era.

At 4:55 a.m. PST, Cassini’s 13-year mission came to a bittersweet end when we lost signal from the spacecraft as it pierced through the cloud tops at Saturn. We’ve gathered in a lecture hall lined with spacecraft models, Voyager, Juno and of course, Cassini. Read More

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Cassini Scientist Would Be Surprised if Life Doesn’t Exist on Enceladus

By Eric Betz | September 14, 2017 12:44 pm
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Enceladus (Credit: NASA)

The Cassini spacecraft has entered its final hours. And with the end nigh, Discover called up the Southwest Research Institute’s Hunter Waite — a Cassini principal investigator — for a look back at how this has redefined our view of where alien life might live in our solar system.

Before reaching Saturn in 2004, astronomers knew little about the gas giant’s many moons. Voyager got a glimpse of the system decades earlier. And Titan — the only known moon with a thick atmosphere — seemed like the best bet for learning about alien life. It seemed a solid proxy for early Earth. So scientists, led by the European Space Agency, landed the Huygens probe the moon’s surface. Read More

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How the Folsom Point Became an Archaeological Icon

By Stephen E. Nash | August 25, 2017 9:39 am
This broken spear point found between two bison ribs ultimately changed not only the field of archaeology but also the narrative surrounding the arrival of Native Americans in North America. (Credit: DMNS/E-51)

This broken spear point found between two bison ribs ultimately changed not only the field of archaeology but also the narrative surrounding the arrival of Native Americans in North America. (Credit: DMNS/E-51)

The Folsom spear point, which was excavated in 1927 near the small town of Folsom, New Mexico, is one of the most famous artifacts in North American archaeology, and for good reason: It was found in direct association with the bones of an extinct form of Ice Age bison. The Folsom point therefore demonstrated conclusively, and for the first time, that human beings were in North America during the last Ice Age—thousands of years earlier than previously thought.

The Folsom discovery marked the end of a long series of sometimes serendipitous, sometimes deliberate actions by an intriguing cast of characters. As such, it helps us understand that archaeology—like most fields of study—has very few “Eureka!” moments in which a brilliant sage comes upon an insight that suddenly changes the world. Instead, archaeology is cumulative, often slow, and painstaking. And while an individual artifact can indeed be important, it’s context (where it was found) and association (what it was found with) are often more important than the object itself.

Lucky Break

The story begins in 1908. In the late afternoon heat of August 27, an unusually strong summer thunderstorm dropped 13 inches of rain—75 percent of the yearly average—on Johnson Mesa, northwest of Folsom. The resulting flash flood swept through the town and the usually dry drainages in the vicinity. In so doing, it exposed buried features and artifacts that hadn’t seen the light of day in thousands of years.

A local cowboy named George McJunkin soon went out to inspect and repair fence lines broken by the flood. McJunkin was a fascinating character. Born into slavery in Midway, Texas, in 1851, he migrated west in 1868 to escape his awful past, and in Folsom he found a welcoming community. Though effectively self-taught as a naturalist, McJunkin maintained a collection of artifacts and specimens amassed during the long hours he spent chasing cattle. While surveying along Wild Horse Arroyo after the flash flood in 1908, he noticed large bones eroding out of a newly exposed wall at the base of the arroyo some 10 feet below the surface.

For 14 years after he made the discovery—until his death in 1922—McJunkin either kept the Folsom Site a secret or (more likely) was unable to convince anyone of its scientific importance. But on December 10, 1922, Carl Schwachheim, a naturalist and collector from nearby Raton, visited the Folsom Site with local banker Fred Howarth. Both must have known McJunkin; the community is very small even today. Perhaps McJunkin’s death had inspired them to finally visit the hard-to-reach site.

Recognition At Last

On January 25, 1926, Schwachheim and Howarth made a business trip to Denver. While there, they stopped by the Colorado Museum of Natural History (now the Denver Museum of Nature & Science [DMNS], where I work) to discuss the site and its contents with scientific experts. First they met director Jesse Dade Figgins, who told them to send bones to the museum for conclusive identification. Once they did so several weeks later, honorary curator of paleontology Howard Cook confirmed that the bones were from an extinct form of Ice Age bison, Bison antiquus. Cook’s identification and Figgins’ authorization finally set institutional and scientific wheels in motion.

A flash flood in 1908 exposed this profoundly important archaeological site near Folsom, New Mexico. (Credit: DMNS/02-2048A.1)

A flash flood in 1908 exposed this profoundly important archaeological site near Folsom, New Mexico. (Credit: DMNS/02-2048A.1)

Cook and Figgins went to the Folsom Site in early spring of 1926 to develop a plan of action; Schwachheim’s excavation team entered the field in May. Their goal was to secure an exhibition-quality bison skeleton for the museum—they had no way (yet) of knowing that the site contained evidence of ancient humans. Indeed, most scientific experts at the time thought that Native Americans had been in North America for only a few thousand years.

In mid-July, Schwachheim’s team discovered the base of a broken stone spear point. Unfortunately, they found it in a pile of the soil that had been removed by mule teams in order to gain access to the bone bed. As such, they could not prove it was directly associated with Ice Age mammals.

When told of the discovery, Figgins immediately recognized its scientific importance and potential. He told Schwachheim in no uncertain terms: If the team finds other points in the bone bed they should be left exactly where they are so that the deposit can be examined by specialists. Disappointingly, none were discovered that year.

Schwachheim’s team returned to the site in 1927 with the exact same directive: Newly discovered points were to be left precisely where they were found until specialists could be called in. On August 29, the moment of truth finally arrived: They exposed a complete spear point between two bison ribs.

According to plan, Schwachheim telegrammed Figgins, who then contacted prominent archaeologists to announce the discovery and ask them to come see, and hopefully confirm, for themselves. Serendipitously, two of those archaeologists, though based on the East Coast, were already in Pecos, New Mexico—only 200 miles away from Folsom.

The wait, though less than a week in duration, must’ve been excruciating for Schwachheim and his team. They had worked for months under difficult conditions and now had to wait for specialists to confirm what they already knew—they had made a major scientific discovery. Over the next several weeks Alfred Vincent Kidder, Frank H.H. Roberts, and other specialists confirmed the initial field assessment: The point was indeed directly associated with the bison, proving that Native Americans had hunted large mammals during the last Ice Age. That Folsom point instantly became an icon, and it remains prominently on display at DMNS, still in its original sediment block.

Barnum Brown and Carl Schwachheim at bison Quarry, Folsom, New Mexico. Brown and Schwachheim are sitting at site of arrowhead in situ. (Credit: Jesse Dade Figgins)

Carl Schwachheim (left) shows the Folsom point, in its original excavation context, to visiting paleontologist Barnum Brown on September 4, 1927 (Credit: Jesse Dade Figgins)

The One That Mattered

The now iconic Folsom point was in fact the third spear point found at the Folsom Site. In addition to the broken point found in the soil pile in July 1926, Schwachheim’s team discovered a second point on July 14, 1927. For some reason, they ignored Figgins’ explicit directive and sent it, encased in a large block of sediment, to Denver. Figgins confirmed their discovery in the lab, but he knew from personal experience that they still needed a point in the field in order to convince the experts.

In 1924, Figgins had been involved in a remarkably similar project at the Lone Wolf Creek Site in central Texas. He had discovered Stone Age spear points in the laboratory, in sediment blocks that had been sent to the museum, just like the second point from Folsom. But he never found a point in the field at Lone Wolf Creek, which is why he was so adamant in his directive to Schwachheim’s team. Figgins must have been infuriated when their sediment block arrived in Denver in 1927. But he, like any good scientist, was patient, discerning, and critical.

The expert in-field confirmation that Figgins sought for so long, and eventually obtained, is the sole reason that the term “Folsom” is now given to a site, an artifact type, and a world-famous archaeological culture. By comparison, the Lone Wolf Creek Site is unknown, has no eponymous artifact type, and there is no archaeological culture bearing its name. Such is the nature of science.

Although the discovery and confirmation chapters of the Folsom story took place in both the field and the laboratory, it did not include research on museum collections. And it failed to answer some (now) basic archaeological questions: How old was the site, in years? How many animals were killed? Where did the raw material for the Folsom points come from? As we shall see in my next post, the Folsom story is still being written through the use of new analytical techniques and the reanalysis of archives and artifacts curated by museums.

[This work first appeared on SAPIENS under a CC BY-ND 4.0 license. Read the original here.]

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