Rat Pants and Goatman, the 2016 Ig Nobels Were Wacky As Ever

By Nathaniel Scharping | September 23, 2016 3:22 pm
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(Credit: Tim Bowditch)

The 2016 Ig Nobel prizes were awarded last night, and the honorees included, as always, the best, brightest and wackiest minds in science.

The Ig Nobel prize tradition began in 1991 as a way to honor research that “could not, or should not, be reproduced,” and has since grown into both a fond celebration of bizarre science and an opportunity for esteemed researchers to sing operas about coffee. Actual Nobel Prize winners serve as the presenters during the ceremony, which takes place at Harvard University’s Sanders Theater. Read More

New Hieroglyphics Translations Offer a Glimpse of Ancient Egyptian Life

By Nathaniel Scharping | September 22, 2016 1:58 pm
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Hieroglyphic carvings and paintings on the interior walls of an ancient Egyptian temple in Dendera (Credit: Kokhanchikov/Shutterstock)

“Man perishes; his corpse turns to dust; all his relatives pass away. But writings make him remembered in the mouth of the reader. A book is more effective than a well-built house or a tomb-chapel in the west, better than an established villa or a stela in the temple!”

Those prescient lines were written over 3,000 years ago, in ancient Egypt. They are part of a new book offering fresh translations of Egyptian hieroglyphics by Toby Wilkinson, an Egyptologist at the University of Cambridge. For the book, called “Writings From Ancient Egypt“, he gathered texts from poets, scribes, priests, storytellers and everyday citizens spanning some 2,000 years of Egyptian civilization to present a tantalizingly personal glimpse into a society defined today mostly by pyramids and mummies. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: archaeology

Ötzi the Iceman Sounded Like a Chain-smoker

By Nathaniel Scharping | September 22, 2016 12:52 pm
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A reconstruction of what Otzi may have looked like. (Credit: Thilo Parg/Wikimedia Commons)

Ötzi the Iceman is speaking from beyond the grave.

It’s not a seance that brought his voice — or a rough approximation of it — to life though, but instead a careful reconstruction of his vocal cords. A team of researchers led by members of the Ear, Nose and Throat Department at Bolzano General Hospital conducted a series of CT scans of the 5,300 year old mummy’s vocal cords and vocal tract and attempted to digitally reconstruct his speech organs, according to Seeker.

They reported their results Wednesday at the 3rd Bolzano Mummy Congress in Italy, celebrating the 25th anniversary of Otzi’s discovery. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: archaeology

How to Read An Ancient Scroll Without Ever Unwrapping It

By Nathaniel Scharping | September 21, 2016 1:03 pm
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The digitally unwrapped scroll. (Credit: Seales et. al/Science Advances)

A new image processing technique has peered into an ancient parchment scroll from Israel, allowing researchers to virtually unwrap the brittle parchment and read the text contained inside for the first time.

The En-Gedi scroll was discovered in Israel 1970, but had been so badly charred that even touching it risked disintegration. It had been stored for 45 years, with no hope of gleaning its secrets until now. In collaboration with the Israel Antiquities Authority, researchers from the University of Kentucky used a form of X-ray analysis called microcomputed tomography (micro-CT) to peel back each delicate layer of the scroll and digitally render a flat, readable version of the artifact. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World
MORE ABOUT: archaeology

This Is Where Space Blobs Come From

By K. N. Smith | September 21, 2016 10:10 am
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A computer simulation of a Lyman-alpha blob similar to LAB-1. (Credit: J.Geach/ D.Narayanan/ R.Crain)

A combination of observation and modelling sheds new light on how Lyman-Alpha blobs form and why they shine so brightly.

Lyman-Alpha blobs are among the rarest denizens of the distant universe. They’re giant clouds of hydrogen gas spanning hundreds of thousands of light years, named for the trademark radiation they emit. Now combined observations from several telescopes have given astrophysicists a look at what’s going on inside and what produces the characteristic radiation.

For 15 years, physicists have speculated and debated about how these luminous cosmic blobs form and what’s going on inside them. This is an important question because Lyman-Alpha blobs appear to be the cosmic nurseries where the largest galaxies in the universe are born. Mapping out where Lyman-Alpha radiation comes from, and what it’s reflecting off of to form the glowing cloud we see, could help understand that galaxy formation process.

“The really exciting thing is that the Lyman-Alpha is really telling us about what’s going on in the immediate environment around the young galaxies,” said astrophysicist Jim Geach of the University of Hertfordshire. “Basically it is an environment that is very important for our understanding of how galaxies are growing, but is very difficult to study. Nature has handed us this neat trick with the scattering of Lyman-Alpha photons to figure out what’s going on in these rare objects.”

Anatomy of the Blob

In search of answers, Geach and his colleagues looked 11.5 billion light years away, to the first Lyman-Alpha blob ever discovered, SSA22-Lyman-Alpha-Blob-1 (its friends just call it LAB01). Even among Lyman-Alpha blobs, it’s a giant at 300,000 light years wide. Thanks to a combination of observations from the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA), the Very Large Telescope (VLT), Hubble, and the Keck Observatory, we’ve got the first detailed look at what’s going on in there. They published their results in The Astrophysical Journal.

At the heart of LAB01, two young galaxies are slowly colliding. They’re also busy spawning new stars at a frantic rate, about 100 times that of our own Milky Way Galaxy. The two merging galaxies resolve a long-running debate about what’s in the center of a Lyman-Alpha blob.

This diagram explains how a Lyman-alpha Blob, one of the largest and brightest objects in the Universe, shines.

(Credit: ESO/J. Geach)

Since LAB01’s discovery in 2000, some astrophysicists have predicted that Lyman-Alpha blobs should have dusty, star-forming galaxies at their hearts, but the evidence was contradictory. Some observations supported the prediction, but then, according to Geach, “The confusing thing was that not all LABs showed such galaxies. The problem is that many of the early observations were not sensitive enough to detect such sources.”

In 2014, Geach and his team detected a very bright source of far-infrared radiation at the center of LAB01, but the Maxwell telescope didn’t give them enough resolution to map it in much detail. That had to wait for the team to get observation time on ALMA in 2015.

Using ALMA, along with a spectroscopic instrument called MUSE on the VLT, the researchers were able to map the location of that source in much greater detail, revealing the two bright galaxies in the midst of the Lyman-Alpha blob. Over the next few billion years, Geach says they’ll merge into a single large elliptical galaxy, which will one day rule its own massive galactic cluster.

The two merging galaxies are at the heart of a group of smaller, fainter galaxies, which seem to be in the process of forming a cluster around the larger two. Each of the large central galaxies is about 30,000 to 60,000 light years across, while the smaller “satellite” galaxies average about 3,000 to 6,000 light years. Those little galaxies are also churning out new stars, but much more slowly than their bigger sisters. However, they may be driving the explosive rate of star formation in the larger galaxies by contributing gas through accretion.

This image shows one of the largest known single objects in the Universe, the Lyman-alpha blob LAB-1. This picture is a composite of two different images taken with the FORS instrument on the Very Large Telescope (VLT)  — a wider image showing the surrounding galaxies and a much deeper observation of the blob itself at the centre made to detect its polarisation. The intense Lyman-alpha ultraviolet radiation from the blob appears green after it has been stretched by the expansion of the Universe during its long journey to Earth. These new observations show for the first time that the light from this object is polarised. This means that the giant "blob" must be powered by galaxies embedded within the cloud. 

This image shows one of the largest known single objects in the Universe, the Lyman-alpha blob LAB-1. The intense Lyman-alpha ultraviolet radiation from the blob appears green after it has been stretched by the expansion of the Universe during its long journey to Earth. (Credit: ESO/M. Hayes)

How the Blob Gets Its Glow

That data may help explain why Lyman-Alpha blobs look like, well, blobs of light. Geach and his team wanted to see if a computer model of galaxy formation could produce something that looked like what was going on inside LAB01. Their simulation turned out to basically reproduce the structure they had observed with ALMA: big central galaxies surrounded by a swarm of smaller ones.

All that active star formation in the central galaxies emits lots of UV light, and those photons bounce of the surrounding cloud of hydrogen gas, producing a diffuse glow. It’s a cosmic-scale version of what happens when the glow of a streetlight is scattered and blurred by fog. Geach says that process of diffusion explains much of LAB01’s cloud of Lyman-Alpha emissions.

The next step, according to Geach, is higher-resolution mapping of the Lyman-Alpha emissions in LAB01. “Currently our mapping of the Ly-a is limited by ground-based ‘seeing’, which blurs out detail. But an upgrade to the MUSE instrument on VLT will offer ‘adaptive optics’ to correct for this and enable us to map the Blob in far better detail,” he said. “This will give us a far better understanding of how this emission is linked to the galaxies embedded within the Lyman-Alpha blob.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics
MORE ABOUT: cosmology

Tardigrade Genome Reveals Multiple Unique Adaptations

By Nathaniel Scharping | September 20, 2016 3:38 pm
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(Credit: Sebastian Kaulitzki/Shutterstock)

A new analysis of the tardigrade genome reveals that the microscopic creatures possess genetic adaptations shared with no other creatures on Earth.

Previous attempts to read the tardigrade’s genetic material have suffered from contamination issues that muddied the results. In the new study, researchers from Japan led by Takuma Hashimoto of the University of Tokyo say that they have taken every effort to avoid the mistakes of previous studies and have found several unique evolutionary tricks that allow tardigrades to survive conditions of extreme drought and high levels of radiation. What’s more, some of these adaptations were shown to work in human cells as well. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

Quantum Teleportation Enters the Real World

By Nathaniel Scharping | September 19, 2016 4:56 pm
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(Credit: asharkyu/Shutterstock)

Two separate teams of scientists have taken quantum teleportation from the lab into the real world.

Researchers working in Calgary, Canada and Hefei, China, used existing fiber optics networks to transmit small units of information across cities via quantum entanglement — Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance.” Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Technology

Pigeons Can Distinguish Real Words from Gibberish

By Erica Tennenhouse | September 19, 2016 10:59 am
A pigeon scrutinizes a word (gibberish) during training. (Credit:

A pigeon scrutinizes a word (gibberish) during training. (Credit: William van der Vliet)

Birds are rapidly building their reputation as a brainy bunch, and the latest credit goes to four pigeons who can visually recognize written words.

These pigeons were living in a lab in New Zealand where, over a span of two years, they learned to distinguish four-letter English words from nonsense words. For their training, a computer screen would flash words like “DOWN” or “GAME”, and non-words like “TWOR” or “NELD”, along with a star symbol. Each time the pigeons made a correct identification — pecking the word if it was a real one, or pecking the star symbol beneath a non-word — they were rewarded with a portion of wheat. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts

Diego the Tortoise Fathers 800 Offspring, Helps Save Species

By Nathaniel Scharping | September 15, 2016 2:04 pm
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This isn’t Diego, it’s another species of Galapagos tortoise, but we imagine this is how he feels. (Credit: Shutterstock)

It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.

Diego, a 100 year-old Galapagos giant tortoise that was one of the last of his species, has played an outsize role helping the population rebound. A recent genetic analysis of the giant tortoise population on an island in the Galapagos concluded that some 40 percent of the tortoises living there are descended from Diego. Since the 1970s, the 100-year-old stud has fathered some 800 offspring. Of course, half the credit belongs to the six females that share his enclosure as part of the captive breeding program on Santa Cruz island. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts

How a Russian Scientist Bred the First Domesticated Foxes

By Nathaniel Scharping | September 14, 2016 4:10 pm
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(Credit: David Havel/Shutterstock)

In just five decades, an experiment in Russia has accomplished something that took ancient humans thousands of years.

On a farm in Novosibirsk, Russian geneticist Dmitry K. Belyaev selectively bred hundreds of foxes over multiple generations, eventually creating something never seen before: a domesticated fox. His goal was to recreate the process by which humans gradually turned wild dogs into workers and friends, hopefully learning something about the mechanism of domestication in the process. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: animals, evolution
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