How One Strain of Plague Bacterium Ravaged Eurasia

By Nathaniel Scharping | June 8, 2016 3:22 pm

A mass burial site in Ellwangen, Germany. (Credit: Rainer Weiss)

Even today, the specter of the Black Death looms over society. The disease, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, began a deadly march through Eurasia starting in the mid-14th century, killing hundreds of thousands along the way. And researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History believe that a single strain of the bacterium is to blame, and it remains the source of modern plague epidemics.

The disease was likely introduced in Europe via fleas that had feasted on infected ship rats. Symptoms of the Black Death were first reported in port cities on the Mediterranean, and it spread quickly from there. Whole villages were nearly wiped out, and in total, some 60 percent of Europe’s population would succumb to the disease, which was characterized by an extreme swelling of the lymph nodes and the gradual blackening of the fingertips and toes as the tissues died. Many of those infected died within a week. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts

Yes, We Can Take the Gravitational Wave Hunt to Space

By Carl Engelking | June 7, 2016 1:02 pm
An illustration of the LISA Pathfinder in space. (Credit:

An illustration of the LISA Pathfinder in space. (Credit: ESA) 

Scientists at the European Space Agency have successfully engineered the quietest environment in the known universe, paving the way for deep-space gravitational wave detectors.

In December 2015, the 22-nation ESA launched the LISA Pathfinder spacecraft to determine if it’s possible for two gold-platinum cubes to remain perfectly still, relative to each other, as they orbited the sun. That meant shielding the cubes from all disturbances — even forces as minuscule as the gravitational pull of a mosquito — to ensure only a passing gravitational wave, and not an errant gas molecule, could squeeze the masses closer together.  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts

Archerfish Can Recognize Faces, Too

By Nathaniel Scharping | June 7, 2016 12:44 pm

An archerfish aiming for prey on a leaf high above. (Credit: Screenshot Nature)

Next time you peer into the water, be careful — the fish looking back at you might know more about you than you realize.

In a study published Tuesday in Science Reports, researchers from the United Kingdom and Australia trained a species of fish to recognize individual human faces. While it took a bit of practice, the archerfish could pick out specific faces from a lineup with reasonable accuracy, indicating that animals can learn to recognize faces even if they don’t possess the neural hardware thought to be a prerequisite for the skill.  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts

We’re Getting Serious About Mining Asteroids

By Nathaniel Scharping | June 6, 2016 4:43 pm
shutterstock_140788450 (1)

Asteroids could one day provide the components for your smartphone. (Credit: Dabarti CGI/Shutterstock)

As humanity gobbles up natural resources to satisfy the demands of economic expansion, a growing number of enterprising corporations are eyeing outer space as the next source of valuable commodities.

Asteroid mining is making the leap from science fiction novels and into corporate boardrooms as new technologies bring the idea within reach. We’ve already landed a probe on a comet, satisfying the first requirement for potential mining activities. Figuring out how to extract potential resources and return them to Earth, well, that’s another question.

Big Investment from a Small Country

Asteroid mining ambitions received a boost last week when Luxembourg announced that it would commit $223 million to developing and carrying out the first asteroid-mining expedition. The tiny European country has already made steps toward becoming a player in the space race, but its latest proposal solidifies a commitment to pursuing cosmic resource extraction operations.

“Luxembourg’s aims [sic] is to be in the top 10 space faring nations in the world,”  said deputy prime minister Etienne Schneider, speaking to Reuters.

Luxembourg is already developing legislation aimed at protecting the rights of future space miners — the United States has done the same — and has partnered with Deep Space Industries, an asteroid-mining company based in the U.S., to produce their Prospector-X satellite, an experimental nano-spacecraft that will test key cosmic mining technologies. They say that they could potentially begin scouting operations within the next five years.

Rare Metals

Asteroids could provide new sources for the rare metals used in smartphones and computer chips. While these elements are scant on Earth, there are countless resource-rich asteroids scattered throughout our solar system that could serve as potential sources. Asteroids are also sought after for their water content — a necessity for lengthy human missions, and a potential source of fuel for spacecraft.

Today, the big challenge is developing a means to ship astro-mined resources back to Earth. Towing asteroids closer to Earth using rockets, or deploying small robots to mine resources and ship them back to Earth piecemeal are two proposed solutions for the shipping problem. But both would require significant amounts of fuel or machinery, which increases payloads and costs. 

Asteroid + Spaceship = Astership?

Another company has proposed a simpler plan: Instead of using spacecraft to move the asteroid, California-based Made in Space wants to turn the asteroid into a spacecraft. The concept recently received funding through NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program.

The company, which has supplied 3D printers to the International Space Station, proposes sending small “seed craft” to asteroids. Using resources from the asteroid, the craft would 3D print a propulsion system and rudimentary guidance mechanisms. Once completed, the asteroid would simply “drive” itself back to Earth, where it could be harvested for resources.


An artist’s illustration of Made in Space’s design for a self-powered asteroid. (Credit: Made in Space)

Made in Space has laid out a Steampunk-esque plan to create what amounts to an analog computer built of gears, rods, pulleys and flywheels to get an asteroid back home. Electronics and combustion systems are too complex to manufacture on-site, so any devices built on the asteroid would have to be 3D printed with native resources, and mechanical in nature.

A giant catapult that flings portions of the asteroid backwards would serve as the propulsion system. In concordance with Newton’s Third Law, chucking material off the asteroid would propel the spacecraft in the opposite direction toward Earth. Similar systems would be used to steer the asteroid. If all goes well, the asteroid would make its way back to Earth under its own power, where it could be easily mined for resources.

However, the plan is still in its early stages and has a long road ahead, as‘s Mike Wall writes.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts

Killer Whale Culture Shapes Their Evolution

By Nathaniel Scharping | June 3, 2016 4:01 pm

(Credit: Doptis/Shutterstock)

When it comes to evolution in modern humans, environmental pressures have almost all been accounted for — instead of adapting our bodies we can come up with technological solutions that work just as well. But our culture, the shared set of activities, behaviors and beliefs that define our lives, still provides a degree of variation that could serve to imprint itself on our bodies in the long term.

Culture extends to other animals, too. Social groups often display patterns of behavior unique to their subset of the population, and these behaviors are passed down to subsequent generations. Conducting research in killer whales, or orcas, researchers have now discovered that certain elements of their culture have exerted evolutionary pressure on the whales, altering their genes in concordance with specific behaviors. Their findings offer a roadmap of sorts for researchers who want to map the evolutionary history of the whales. Read More

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

Hidden Risks in a Warming Antarctic

By Nathaniel Scharping | June 3, 2016 10:42 am

(Credit: Photodynamic/Shutterstock)

As the rest of the world heats up and the Arctic hemorrhages ice, a different story is playing out in Antarctica. Total ice coverage there has actually increased, and temperatures have risen only mildly. As researchers have attempted to adequately model the changing climate, the Antarctic paradox has served as ammunition for climate change deniers and challenged climate scientists.

But three recently published papers help explain why the Antarctic isn’t falling in line with the rest of the world, while highlighting an overlooked trend in Antarctic sea ice. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts

King Tut Was Buried with a Cosmic Dagger

By Nathaniel Scharping | June 1, 2016 3:38 pm

A dagger found in King Tut’s tomb, recently found to be of meteoric origin. (Credit: Daniella Comelli)

King Tut took some out-of-this-world weaponry with him into the afterlife.

That’s the conclusion drawn by Italian researchers who say that an iron dagger found in his tomb was crafted from metal brought to this world by a meteorite. The knife was originally found laying across his right thigh after Howard Carter discovered the tomb in 1925, and it is housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The dagger’s composition hadn’t been studied before, because previous methods would have damaged the priceless artifact. However, with a new portable form of X-ray fluorescence spectrometry, the researchers analyzed the knife without even touching it. Read More

‘Jumping Gene’ Painted the Peppered Moth Black

By Carl Engelking | June 1, 2016 2:53 pm

Your typical peppered moth. (Henrik Larsson/Shutterstock)

The peppered moth is a poster species for evolution by natural selection.

The typical peppered moth, Biston betularia, is white with black speckles, a color scheme that helps it hide from predators on light-colored tree bark. But during the Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom, coal-fired factories caked buildings and trees in black soot.

In 1848 the first entirely black peppered moth was identified, and by 1895, nearly 98 percent of peppered moths observed in Manchester were the black form, known as carbonaria. Darker moths, the thinking goes, were hidden from hungry birds in a blackened industrial landscape, and it was the black moths that lived to pass on their genes — natural selection in action.  Read More

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

Anyone Can Solve a Rubik’s Cube With Augmented Reality

By Nathaniel Scharping | June 1, 2016 12:11 pm


To the uninitiated, a Rubik’s Cube is a devilishly complex contraption — as anyone who has idly picked one up only to throw it aside minutes later can attest.

But there is hope for the impatient: A new program made by an undergraduate in Prague uses augmented reality to project a step-by-step solution onto any Rubik’s Cube, allowing even a novice to end up with a perfectly arranged cube.  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, top posts

Wound-plugging Device Saves a Soldier’s Life

By Nathaniel Scharping | May 31, 2016 12:47 pm

(Credit: RevMedx)

A simple technology meant to stop major arterial bleeding has passed its first field test on the battlefield.

The device, called XSTAT, was put to the test recently when a soldier with a gunshot wound to the thigh remained in critical condition after a seven-hour surgery failed to staunch the bleeding from his femoral artery. As a last resort, the forward medical team operating on the soldier decided to use the XSTAT, an oversized syringe filled with absorbent sponges that are injected directly into a wound. The treatment worked, the company says, halting the bleeding in 20 seconds, and allowing the patient to be moved to a care facility with more resources. Read More

MORE ABOUT: medical technology


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