One Man Is to Blame for the Infamous Piltdown Man Hoax

By Nathaniel Scharping | August 10, 2016 2:43 pm

A 1915 painting depicts the bones being analyzed. Charles Dawson is third from the left. (Credit: John Cooke/Wikimedia Commons)

A new study identifies the perpetrator of one of the most famous scientific hoaxes of all time.

The hoax involved the purported discovery of the long sought-after missing link between apes and humans in a gravel pit near Piltdown, England. Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist hungry for fame, claimed to have found fragments of a skull that was part human and part primate. The find neatly filled a hole in the theory of human evolution—a little too neatly.

The skull featured human and primate parts because that’s exactly what it was, an amalgamation of two medieval human skulls and the jawbone of an orangutan. Now, we know who to blame for one of science’s most infamous lies.  Read More

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

Titan Is Home to Canyons Flooded with Methane

By John Wenz | August 10, 2016 2:02 pm


Titan is a strange, strange world — a frigid moon of Saturn larger than Mercury where water is frozen rock solid and lakes of liquid methane permeate the surface. But now there’s a new weird fold in the story of Titan: it’s got canyons flooded with more liquid hydrocarbons.

The find, announced today by NASA and published in the Geophysical Research Letters journal, details “channels” of hydrocarbons — in other words, streams of methane and other organic compounds that flow like water at low temperatures. While the canyon features were known to NASA previously, radar evidence now reveals that the features are liquid and not solid ices. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: solar system

A Single Mutation Made It Easier to Ride Horses

By Nathaniel Scharping | August 9, 2016 3:25 pm

This 19th-century image shows a horse pacing. Note that the legs on each side move at the same time. (Credit: USC Digital Library/Wikimedia Commons)

Horses normally move about in one of three ways: they walk, trot or gallop. The middle gait, the trot, is a horse’s Goldilocks stride — not so fast that it gets tired, but not so slow that it gets left in the dust.

Unfortunately for the humans that like to ride on horses’ backs, the trot is a pretty uncomfortable gait. During a trot, a horse will lift two legs at a time in diagonal pairs, alternating sets as it goes. This is a very economical motion for the horse, as it requires little extraneous compensation to stay balanced. If you happen to be sitting astride that horse, however, it feels more like riding in a truck with no shocks over a backcountry road — bouncy only begins to describe it. Read More

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

To Clean Up An Oil Spill, Light a Fire Tornado

By Nathaniel Scharping | August 8, 2016 3:45 pm
fire tornado

A “blue whirl” formed in the lab. (Credit: Xiao et. al/University of Maryland)

The best way to clean up an oceanic oil spill might be to light a fire tornado on top of it.

That’s the conclusion drawn by researchers from the University of Maryland, who found that, under controlled conditions, a fire whirl was the most efficient way to burn hydrocarbon fuel. That could come in handy the next time an oil slick, like 2011’s Deepwater Horizon spill, occurs. Simply burning the slick off has been proposed as a method for dealing with the oil, releasing tons of environmentally-damaging compounds into the air. With a cleaner flame, however, the slick could be cleaned up more responsibly. These fire whirls could also potentially be used in combustion power plants as a way to generate power with less waste. Read More


Perseid Meteor Shower, the Best in 20 Years, Peaks This Week

By Rich Talcott | August 7, 2016 8:00 am


If you ask most skygazers to name their favorite meteor shower, the odds are good that “Perseid” will be the first word out of their mouths. This annual shower seemingly has it all: It offers a consistently high rate of meteors year after year; it produces a higher percentage of bright ones than most other showers; it occurs in August when many people take summer vacation; and it happens at a time when nice weather and reasonable nighttime temperatures are common north of the equator. No other major shower boasts all four of these attributes.

In a typical year, observers under a clear dark sky can expect to see up to 100 meteors per hour. Astronomers think we may be in for an even better show this year, however. The Perseids begin as tiny specks of dust that hit Earth’s atmosphere at 37 miles per second, vaporizing from friction with the air and leaving behind the streaks of light we call meteors. These dust particles were born in a periodic comet known as 109P/Swift-Tuttle, which last returned to the inner solar system in 1992. But the giant planet Jupiter recently nudged Swift-Tuttle’s debris stream closer to Earth’s orbit. If predictions hold true, we could see up to 150 meteors per hour the night of August 11/12.

The best views will come in the predawn hours of Friday morning the 12th, after the waxing gibbous Moon sets around 1 a.m. local daylight time. The spectacle will continue to improve as dawn approaches because the shower’s radiant — the spot on the border between the constellations Perseus and Cassiopeia where the meteors appear to emanate from — climbs higher.

As always, you’ll see more meteors at a viewing site far from any artificial lights. Look about two-thirds of the way from the horizon to the zenith, but don’t get tunnel vision gazing at one location. Let your eyes wander so your peripheral vision can pick up meteors you otherwise might not see. Keep comfortable by reclining in a lawn chair or lying on an air mattress. And bring along a sweater or light jacket. Even if evening temperatures are comfortable, you won’t be active and can get chilled in a hurry.


This article originally appeared in

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: stargazing

LHC Didn’t Break Physics, New Particle Vanishes Upon Further Review

By Nathaniel Scharping | August 5, 2016 10:24 am

Engineers make precision measurements to some of the final splices on the LHC. Splices connect superconducting cables within the accelerator. (Credit: CERN)

What began as a bump has turned out to be nothing more than a statistical ghost.

Physicists at the International Conference on High Energy Physics in Chicago announced today that the much-discussed 750 GeV aberration in their data discovered by the Large Hadron Collider at the end of last year disappeared upon further testing.

“There is no excess seen in the 2016 data particularly around 750 GeV, confirms Bruno Lenzi, a physicist at CERN. All over the mass range the data is consistent with the background only hypothesis.” Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts

Geologists Find Evidence of China’s Great Flood

By K. N. Smith | August 4, 2016 3:36 pm

Fourteen skeletons of victims killed by earthquake in Cave dwelling F4 at Lajia site excavated in 2000. (Credit: Cai Linhai)

According to legend, Chinese civilization began with a Great Flood.

The floodwaters covered the plains of northern and central China for 22 years, until a ruler named Yu led a great dredging project that returned the river to its original channels. As a reward, the gods supposedly granted Yu a divine mandate to rule China and found its first imperial dynasty, the Xia.

For 1,000 years, the story of the Great Flood and Yu’s founding of Chinese civilization were handed down as oral history, before finally entering the written record in the first millennium BCE. With no hard evidence of Xia or the flood, however, scholars have long debated whether these events actually happened or were purely the stuff of legend.

Now, it turns out that the Great Flood may have been a real natural disaster that struck the Yellow River valley in about 1920 BCE. Read More

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

Degas’ Hidden Woman Shines With Help of Particle Accelerator

By Nathaniel Scharping | August 4, 2016 2:11 pm

The final painting (left) and the hidden woman (right). (Credit: Australian Synchrotron)

With the help of a particle accelerator, a 19th-century painting is finally giving up its secrets.

Famed French impressionist Edgar Degas painted “Portrait of a Woman” sometime in the late 1870s, but since 1922, degraded oils on the canvas have revealed tantalizing hints of another woman concealed beneath the visible image. The outlines are too faint to make out clearly with the naked eye, however. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Technology, top posts

Here’s What You’ll Find in 3 Teaspoons of Rio’s Water

By Nathaniel Scharping | August 3, 2016 3:48 pm

Trash in the waters of Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Credit: Donatas Dabravolskas/Shutterstock)

A single gulp of ocean water, or roughly three teaspoons, is all it will take for athletes and tourists to contract potentially deadly diseases at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

That’s the consensus of a recent study commissioned by the Associated Press looking at levels of viruses, bacteria and other microbes in the water of Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay — home of historic Copacabana and Ipanema beaches.

The study, carried out by an unnamed researcher at Brazil’s Feevale University, reported initial results last year, and found viral loads up to 1.7 million times higher than what are considered safe concentrations in most countries. An AP article published this week reiterates those findings, and a biology professor at the University of South Florida offered some free advice: “Don’t put your head under the water.”

But what, exactly, is swimming in a mouthful of water from the bay?

Lots of Company

While the AP has not released the actual data from their study, the findings appear to agree with a different study also published last year from researchers in Brazil. That study focused on levels of bacteria and algae found in Guanabara Bay, home of the sailing events. Those researchers concluded: “The majority of the beaches within the bay are not appropriate for swimming.”

Here’s a taste of what’s in the water (at various concentration levels):

  • Coliforms: bacteria that are not necessarily harmful themselves, but which indicate that other, more deadly bacteria are likely present.
  • Clostridum: the microbe behind botulism, tetanus and colitis
  • Heightened levels of Gammaproteobacteria: a class of bacteria that includes species of Vibrio, known to cause intestinal infections.
  • Klebsiella: can cause pneumonia and urinary tract infections.
  • Pseudomonas: also a cause of pneumonia, and could also trigger blood infections.
  • Antibiotic-resistant superbugs: This includes Vibrio cholerae, which causes cholera, Klebsiella pneumonia, and Shigella bacteria, which leads to an intestinal infection. A few of these bacteria were even shown to be multi-resistant, meaning that they exhibit an immunity to more than one kind of antibiotic.
  • Bacillus: the menace behind food poisoning.
  • Adenoviruses: a broad class of viruses that causes common afflictions such as colds and diarrhea, but also more menacing diseases like pneumonia and bronchitis.
  • Rotaviruses: most often causes gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the intestinal tract that leads to stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea.

Many of the bacteria were present at extraordinarily high levels, meaning the risk of infection is frighteningly large.


Relative abundance of phylogenetic groups to metagenomes (at class level) in three sites of Guanabara Bay. (modified from Gregoracci et al., 2012)

Along with the untreated waste, algae blooms are becoming more common, fed with an ample supply of phosphorus and nitrogen from the sewage and runoff. These blooms are known to produce harmful toxins, and suck up oxygen in the water, killing off the fish many residents depend on for their livelihoods. The unnaturally nutrient-rich conditions also favor particular types of bacteria over others, some of which can be harmful to humans.

The AP found that 90 percent of sites sampled had worrying levels of adenoviruses, which lead to a host of infections, and Ipanema beach, and likely others, saw levels of rotavirus exceeding 32 million per liter. You don’t even have to go in the water to be at risk — tests of the sand itself also found greater than average levels of viruses. Some species of bacteria break down in warm water and sunlight, both of which are ready commodities in Brazil. Viruses, on the other hand, don’t disappear so easily.


Vibro cholerae (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s a Sewer

Rio de Janeiro has for years been pumping large quantities of raw sewage into the bay, in addition to industrial waste from 16,000 sources and freshwater runoff, which also contains contaminants. It is estimated that as much as 18 cubic meters of raw sewage flows into the bay per second. However, plans to upgrade the water treatment system have repeatedly been put on hold.

The Rio Olympics were meant to provide the impetus for the city to clean up its act, but the time for that has come and gone. In just a few days, Olympic athletes will be sailing, rowing and swimming in waters that are constantly subject to an influx of raw sewage, and which consistently contain far above safe levels of potentially harmful microbes and viruses.

MORE ABOUT: pollution, water

A Darwinian Perspective on the Female Orgasm

By Nathaniel Scharping | August 2, 2016 4:52 pm

(Credit: SANDPHOTOGRAPHER/Shutterstock)

A new study provides an interesting explanation for one of biology’s most enduring mysteries: the female orgasm.

The male side of the equation is easy enough — if sex feels good, they’ll have more of it. For males intent on sowing their wild oats, a pleasurable response to ejaculation makes sense. For females, however, success at reproducing is not tied to having an orgasm, so does it still serve a physiological purpose?  Read More



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