British scientists did DNA tests on the 9,000-year-old “Cheddar Man” skeleton in 1997 and found his descendant lived a half-mile from the burial site and taught history. (William D. Montalbano, Los Angeles Times)
Dogs were the first species we domesticated — many thousands of years before plants and other animals.
At one time, it might have been reasonable to assume that people would continue living longer and longer indefinitely, as nutrition improved and medical science got better at fixing disease and injury. But new research indicates that the black camel’s going to kneel at your door no later than age 115, no matter how well you take care of yourself, says Jan Vijg, a researcher at Albert Einstein College of Medicine
The oldest living person in the 1990s was around 115, and the same is true today.
In the photo: Jeanne Calment, who died in France at age 122. We won’t see her like again soon, and nobody’s ever going to have to face the challenge of blowing out 125 candles on their birthday cake.
My $0.02: I don’t doubt Vilg’s research has discovered the limit of the current hardware, even with the best maintenance. Extending the life of the product further will require ferocious hardware hacking.
(Carl Zimmer, The New York Times)
Tectonic shift moves Australia at the brisk rate of 2.7 inches northward a year, with a slight clockwise rotation as well. That means every couple of decades the nation needs to adjust coordinates of everything in the country to make then more accurate, which becomes more of a big deal as next-generation GPS systems reach accuracy of one inch. The last adjustment, in 1994 was about 656 feet, “enough to give the delivery driver an alibi for ringing your neighbor’s doorbell instead of yours,” says Michelle Innis at The New York Times. The next adjustment, at the end of the year, will be about 1.5 meters or 5 feet.
Science is just beginning to figure it out, writes Jennie Dear at The Atlantic:
“Roughly from the last two weeks until the last breath, somewhere in that interval, people become too sick, or too drowsy, or too unconscious, to tell us what they’re experiencing,” says Margaret Campbell, a professor of nursing at Wayne State University who has worked in palliative care for decades. The way death is talked about tends to be based on what family, friends, and medical professionals see, rather than accounts of what dying actually feels like.
James Hallenbeck, a palliative-care specialist at Stanford University, often compares dying to black holes. “We can see the effect of black holes, but it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to look inside them. They exert an increasingly strong gravitational pull the closer one gets to them. As one passes the ‘event horizon,’ apparently the laws of physics begin to change.”
What does dying feel like? Despite a growing body of research about death, the actual, physical experience of dying—the last few days or moments—remains shrouded in mystery. Medicine is just beginning to peek beyond the horizon.
Scientists study the brain activity of people who claim to be able to do just fine on five hours or less sleep per night. Research finds that these people might be more efficient than the rest of us at performing the memory consolidation that sleep provides. They might also be falling asleep for a minute or two at a time when things get boring. And maybe these short sleepers are just kidding themselves about how they function well on very little sleep.
I need more sleep than I’d like. Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday nights I got four to five hours of sleep per night, and suffered for it. By Thursday and Friday I was a wreck. Last night I slept eleven hours and today it feels like my brain is packed in cotton.
NASA built a dome on the isolated slopes of a Hawaiian volcano, where six people lived on a simulated Mars mission for a year. They wore space suits when they went out. Inside, they enjoyed six bedrooms, one bath, kitchen, pantry, science lab, solar power, preserved food, and an Internet connection with a 20-minute delay (just like on Mars). The dome even has a TARDIS, though it’s out of order.
Robert Kennicot was a charismatic, handsome young explorer and naturalist who died mysteriously in 1866 while on a struggling Yukon expedition. Now, forensic anthropologists examining his skeleton have likely found out how he died.
Sarah Kaplan, The Washington Post:
The last anyone heard of Robert Kennicott was his cheerful hum as he strolled into the Alaskan wilderness early on the morning of May 13, 1866.
It was good to hear the scientist sing. It had been a long and punishing winter at Fort Nulato, where Kennicott’s expedition to map the Yukon had spent the last five months, and he bore the setbacks badly. The frigid cold and endless dark left no time for exploration or research, a fact that rendered Kennicott “entirely broken down,” a friend wrote.
This was not a young man used to failure. By age 30, Kennicott had become an accomplished explorer and celebrated naturalist for the Smithsonian Institution. He was bold, brilliant and fearless; someone who handled venomous snakes with his bare hands.
When Kennicott didn’t return, his men began to worry. The expedition’s engineer brought up a note their leader left for him that morning, which included instructions “in case of any accident happening to me.”
A search party was hastily mobilized; rescuers fanned out across the bleak, mountainous landscape. Soon two of them arrived at the Yukon River, just south of the fort, where their worst fears were confirmed. Kennicott lay on his back on the muddy shore, his arms across his chest, his hat fallen on his face, his body completely still. He was dead.
Tenderly, the devastated men lifted their leader’s body and began to carry it back to the fort. That’s when they noticed something strange: The small vial of medicinal strychnine that Kennicott always carried with him was missing.
In 1866, whispers traveled faster than ships. By the time Kennicott’s remains were returned to his family homestead in Illinois, called the Grove, eight months after his death, the rumor that Kennicott had killed himself with a fatal dose of the poison had already taken hold. What else could explain the death of a man seemingly in his prime of life?
Stephan Swanson, director of the Grove, which is now a National Historic Landmark, as well as Smithsonian anthropologists Kari Bruwelheide and Doug Owsley, initially intended to return Kennicott’s skeleton for reburial at the Grove. Instead, with the permission of Kennicott’s descendants, the skeleton is being added to the museum’s human anatomy collection, and is already being used to research the effects of mercury-based dental fillings and test the accuracy of facial reconstruction software.
“We think he would like that,” Owsley said. “He’s a collector who was collected.”
Centuries ago, Europeans first visited isolated Easter Island and found more than 800 enormous stone statues. Europeans assumed that the island was once home to an advanced civilization called the Rapa Nui, which destroyed itself through war. More recently, Jared Diamond’s bestselling book “Collapsed” stated that the Easter Island civilization destroyed itself by consuming all the natural resources of the island, even cutting down all the trees so they couldn’t build canoes to get off the island, and imploded in an orgy of violence and cannibalism.
But new research shows that the statues could have been built by the existing population of the island, that there’s no evidence the population of the island was ever much larger than it is now, and that there’s no evidence of a massive population collapse caused by ecological exhaustion or brutal war.
The research shows that “systematic violence” between groups is not inevitable, even “in cases where resources are scarce (such as Easter Island),” archaeologist Carl Lipo tells Annalee Newitz at Ars Technica. “But when we look more broadly at human history, we find generally that we are pretty good at living in social groups and getting along with one another,” Lipo says.
Citing the evolutionary biologist Peter Turchin, famous for developing a theory of history called “cliodynamics,” Lipo believes that the common thread in human history is cooperation rather than war. The fate of the Rapa Nui on Easter Island is often used to illustrate how humans destroy their communities with environmental destruction and warfare. But it might actually provide a good model for sustainable civilizations of the future.
In the grand scheme of the cosmos, life on earth might have popped up far sooner than it should have.
A team led by Harvard astronomy department chair Avi Loeb crunched some numbers comparing the size of stars to how soon life should form on the habitable planets that surround them. The team predicts that the odds of life developing around the more common and smaller red dwarf stars will increase drastically in the future. In other words, when it comes to life, maybe we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Research suggests planets orbiting red dwarf stars will be more congenial to life, but it won’t evolve for another 10 trillion years. The universe is now 14 billion years old.
So don’t wait up.
Life On Earth May Have Arisen Unusually Early (Ryan F. Mandelbaum/Popular Science)
More than anything, Peter Thiel, the billionaire technology investor and Donald Trump supporter, wants to find a way to escape death. He’s channeled millions of dollars into startups working on anti-aging medicine, spends considerable time and money researching therapies for his personal use, and believes society ought to open its mind to life-extension methods that sound weird or unsavory.
Speaking of weird and unsavory, if there’s one thing that really excites Thiel, it’s the prospect of having younger people’s blood transfused into his own veins.
That practice is known as parabiosis, and, according to Thiel, it’s a potential biological Fountain of Youth–the closest thing science has discovered to an anti-aging panacea. Research into parabiosis began in the 1950s with crude experiments that involved cutting rats open and stitching their circulatory systems together. After decades languishing on the fringes, it’s recently started getting attention from mainstream researchers, with multiple clinical trials underway in humans in the U.S. and even more advanced studies in China and Korea.
Peter Thiel Is Very, Very Interested in Young People’s Blood (Jeff Bercovici, Inc.)
When my socialist friends talk about capitalists being vampires who feed on the blood of working people, I always figured they were speaking metaphorically.
It’s possibly a spider egg sack, and it looks like a disco ball, scientists say.
Robert Kosara, a research scientist at data visualization software company Tableau, has been solving puzzles using the US’s nearly 4,2000 ZIP codes for years, writes Christopher Ingraham at The Washington Post. Kosara had a question:
What would it look like if you drew a single line through all Zip codes in the lower 48 in numeric order? Kosara wrote some code and let it rip, and what he ended up with was a map that clearly delineated state boundaries and gave a reasonable approximation of population density to boot. Since it looked as though it were created by scribbling in arbitrary regions of a U.S. map, he dubbed it the ZIPScribble map.
Kosara ran some calculations and discovered that if you started at the lowest-numbered Zip code (00544, Holtsville, NY) and walk through every Zip code in the continental U.S. in numeric order all the way up to the highest-numbered Zip code (99403, Clarkston, WA), the path you’d need to take would be roughly 1,155,268 miles long. Which naturally brought up a second question: What would be the shortest route you could take through all 37,000 of those zip codes?
This type of problem actually has a storied history in computer science. It’s known as the Traveling Salesman Problem: Say a salesman has a bunch of cities in his route — what’s the shortest trip he can take through all of them? This type of computation is used as a benchmark in computer science because it has a lot of applications, from route-finding to the creation of circuit boards, and because it gets complicated really, really quickly. For instance, a network of only 20 points contains roughly 1.2 quintillion(1,200,000,000,000,000,000) possible solutions, only one of which can be the shortest. That’s on the order of magnitude of the number of grains of sand on earth.
What, then, of a traveling salesman problem with more than 37,000 points?
Kosara took a crack at it. He called it the Traveling Presidential Candidate Problem, after a hypothetical presidential candidate who wanted to visit all 37,000 contiguous Zip codes to clinch the nomination.
They open cashews using sophisticated and effective stone tools, according to researchers at the University of Oxford. And European settlers may have learned to eat cashews by observing the monkeys
6 million years of human history in 10 minutes. Beautiful and mind-blowing.
The entirety of human civilization, from the invention of agriculture 12,000 years ago to today, is just a brief sliver of time — 500 generations. 500 of something isn’t a lot.
The Antikythera computer, 2,100 years old, is still yielding secrets, after being uncovered from an ancient Greek shipwreck more than a century ago.
In its prime, about 2,100 years ago, the Antikythera (an-ti-KEE-thur-a) Mechanism was a complex, whirling, clockwork instrument comprising at least 30 bronze gears bearing thousands of interlocking tiny teeth. Powered by a single hand crank, the machine modeled the passage of time and the movements of celestial bodies with astonishing precision. It had dials that counted the days according to at least three different calendars, and another that could be used to calculate the timing of the Olympics. Pointers representing the stars and planets revolved around its front face, indicating their position in relation to Earth. A tiny, painted model of the moon rotated on a spindly axis, flashing black and white to mimic the real moon’s waxing and waning.
The sum of all these moving parts was far and away the most sophisticated piece of machinery found from ancient Greece. Nothing like it would appear again until the 14th century, when the earliest geared clocks began to be built in Europe. For the first half century after its discovery, researchers believed that the Antikythera Mechanism had to be something simpler than it seemed, like an astrolabe. How could the Greeks have developed the technology needed to create something so precise, so perfect — only to have it vanish for 1,400 years?
21st Century X-Ray and imaging technology is making new discoveries about what’s underneath the mechanism’s calcified surface.
[Sarah Kaplan/The Washington Post]
Bookmarked for later reading:
Mike Sutton is a meta-skeptic. He debunks skeptics who use myths to debunk myths.
[Mark Frauenfelder/Boing Boing]
Earth to Mars in just 10 weeks! If it works. Which is a mighty big if.
First designed by British scientist Roger Shawyer back in 1999, the EM drive uses electromagnetic waves as fuel, and creates thrust by bouncing those microwaves back and forth within a metal cavity to trigger motion.
Newton’s Laws say engines need to push something to go. A car pushes against the ground, and a jet or rocket engine pushes out exhaust. But the EM drive is apparently exhaustless. Yet it’s survived a few tests.
However, new research from physicists at the COMSOL company, the University of Helsinki, and the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, suggests the EM drive produces exhaust after all. The theory is that the EM drive achieves compliance by emitting paired photos that are essentially invisible to detection.
[Fiona MacDonald/Science Alert]
X-Rays Reveal “Hidden Library” on the Spines of Early Books [Jason Daley – Smithsonian.com]
The first book printers, in 15th Century Europe, used handwritten manuscripts to reinforce spines and covers of the new printed books. Now, using technology called “macro X-ray fluorescence spectrometry,” researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands are able to read these old texts without ripping apart the almost-as-old books.
As part of the experiment, the team scanned 20 books. According to a press release, their discoveries include fragments from a 12th century manuscript from the early English historian Bede as well as text from the Dutch Book of Hours. The X-ray was also able to separate out texts that had been pasted on top of one another.
“Every library has thousands of these bindings, especially the larger collections. If you go to the British Library or the Bodleian [in Oxford], they will have thousands of these bindings,” [says Leiden book historian Erik Kwakkel] “So you can see how that adds up to a huge potential.”
But it may be a while before the hidden library is fully revealed. The current method is painfully slow, taking up to 24 hours to scan a book’s spine. The researchers hope that advances in X-ray technology will soon help speed up the process.
Millionaires don’t move from high-tax states to low-tax states in significant numbers, according to a recently published study. And when they do move, it’s to Florida, disproportionately more than other low-tax states, such as New Hampshire, Tennessee and Texas. That suggests the millionaires are moving for reasons other than fleeing taxes.