Category Archive 'Science'
09 Sep 2017

Taxonomic Vandalism

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Presumably Naja nigricincta, the Western barred spitting cobra.

Smithsonian reports that there is a problem these days with taxonomic vandalism.

Imagine, if you will, getting bit by an African spitting cobra. These reptiles are bad news for several reasons: First, they spit, shooting a potent cocktail of nerve toxins directly into their victims’ eyes. But they also chomp down, using their fangs to deliver a nasty bite that can lead to respiratory failure, paralysis, and occasionally even death.

Before you go rushing to the hospital in search of antivenin, you’re going to want to look up exactly what kind of snake you’re dealing with. But the results are confusing. According to the official record of species names, governed by the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), the snake belongs to the genus Spracklandus. What you don’t know is that almost no taxonomists use that name. Instead, most researchers use the unofficial name that pops up in Wikipedia and most scientific journal articles: Afronaja.

This might sound like semantics. But for you, it could mean the difference between life and death. “If you walk in [to the hospital] and say the snake that bit you is called Spracklandus, you might not get the right antivenin,” says Scott Thomson, a herpetologist and taxonomist at Brazil’s Museum of Zoology at the University of São Paulo. After all, “the doctor is not a herpetologist … he’s a medical person trying to save your life.”

In fact, Spracklandus is the center of a heated debate within the world of taxonomy—one that could help determine the future of an entire scientific field. And Raymond Hoser, the Australian researcher who gave Spracklandus its official name, is one of the forefront figures in that debate.

By the numbers, Hoser is a taxonomy maven. Between 2000 and 2012 alone, Hoser named three-quarters of all new genera and subgenera of snakes; overall, he’s named over 800 taxa, including dozens of snakes and lizards. But prominent taxonomists and other herpetologists—including several interviewed for this piece—say that those numbers are misleading.

According to them, Hoser isn’t a prolific scientist at all. What he’s really mastered is a very specific kind of scientific “crime”: taxonomic vandalism.

RTWT

25 Aug 2017

Cause of Hunley’s Crew’s Death Established By Duke Researchers

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Daily Mail:

The first combat submarine to sink an enemy ship also instantly killed its own eight-man crew with the powerful explosive torpedo it carried, new research has found.

The HL Hunley fought for the confederacy in the US civil war and was sunk near North Charleston, South Carolina, in 1864.

Speculation about the crew’s deaths has included suffocation and drowning, but a new study claims that a shockwave created by their own weapon was to blame.

Researchers from Duke University in North Carolina set blasts near a scale model of the vessel to calculate their impact.

They also shot authentic weapons at historically accurate iron plates.

They used this data to work out the mathematics behind human respiration and the transmission of blast energy.

Ms Rachel Lance, one of the researchers on the study, says the crew died instantly from the force of the explosion travelling through the soft tissues of their bodies, especially their lungs and brains.

Ms Lance calculates the likelihood of immediately fatal lung trauma to be at least 85 per cent for each member of the Hunley crew.

She believes the crippled sub then drifted out on a falling tide and slowly took on water before sinking.

‘This is the characteristic trauma of blast victims, they call it “blast lung”, said Ms Lance.

‘You have an instant fatality that leaves no marks on the skeletal remains.

RTWT

15 Jul 2017

Everything You Were Told Was True Might Be Wrong

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Take Easter Island. For a long time now, we’ve been told the resident culture’s decline constitutes a cautionary tale about environmental destruction via human excess.

A new study paints a completely different picture. New Atlas:

When Europeans first landed on Easter Island in the 18th century, they found a barren landscape. The story goes that to raise the huge stone heads, called moai, the Rapa Nui people felled most of the island’s trees to use as rollers, burning the rest for fuel and warmth. The negative effects of a treeless island cascaded down, destroying their previous prosperity and leaving the tribes fighting over resources.

“The traditional story is that over time the people of Rapa Nui used up their resources and started to run out of food,” says Carl Lipo, co-author of the study. “One of the resources that they supposedly used up was trees that were growing on the island. Those trees provided canoes and, as a result of the lack of canoes, they could no longer fish. So they started to rely more and more on land food. As they relied on land food, productivity went down because of soil erosion, which led to crop failures … painting the picture of this sort of catastrophe. That’s the traditional narrative.”

To get a better understanding of what the people of Easter Island were eating and how, a team from Binghamton University analyzed human, animal and plant remains dating as far back as 1400 CE. Analyzing the carbon and nitrogen isotopes of the collagen in bones can reveal the diet of ancient people, and these were compared with isotope analyses of the ancient and modern plant and marine samples to get an idea of where their food was coming from.

The results showed that about half of the proteins the Rapa Nui people were consuming came from marine sources, which means they were fishing more consistently for a longer period than they were given credit for. At the same time, the food they were cultivating on land was more productive than previously thought, with the environmental analyses showing an understanding of how to improve poor soil fertility.

“We found that there’s a fairly significant marine diet, over time, throughout history and that people were eating marine resources, and it wasn’t as though they only had food from terrestrial resources,” says Lipo. “We also learned that what they did get from terrestrial resources came from very modified soils, that they were enriching the soils in order to grow the crops. That supports the argument we’ve made in our previous work, that these people came up with an ingenious strategy in enriching the soils by adding bedrock to the surface and inside the soil to create, essentially, fertilizer to support their populations, and that forest loss really isn’t a catastrophe as previously described.”

Although the story of the Rapa Nui’s self-destruction serves as a good fable to teach environmental awareness and responsibility, the Binghamton team concludes that it’s not that simple. The history of Easter Island is more nuanced, and the ancient people shouldn’t be written off as reckless and careless.

08 Jul 2017

Copper of Iceman’s Axe Came From Hundreds of Miles Away From the Tyrol

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Telegraph:

New research has shown that a copper axe carried by a Neolithic hunter known as Ötzi the Iceman came from southern Tuscany.

The find has surprised experts because hundreds of miles separate Tuscany from the Alpine pass where the mummified body of Ötzi was discovered 25 years ago.

It is known that copper was mined in the Alps so it is a mystery why the Iceman’s blade should have come from so far away.

Nor do scientists know whether the copper was acquired as a raw ingot, which then had to be fashioned into an axe, or as a ready-made blade.

The hunter-gatherer, nicknamed Ötzi after the Otztal mountains where he was found, died 5,300 years ago on what is now the border between Italy and Austria.

He perished after being shot in the back with an arrow by an unknown assailant, in one of the world’s oldest murder mysteries.

His body was frozen forever in the snow and ice of the mountains.

“Our results unambiguously indicate that the source of the metal is the ore-rich area of southern Tuscany, despite ample evidence that Alpine copper ore sources were known and exploited at the time,” scientists said in a report published in the research journal Plos One.

The fact that copper was being traded between central Italy and the remote Alps was “surprising”, said the experts, who are from Padua University and the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, where the mummified body of the Iceman is on permanent display.

RTWT

26 Jun 2017

Microchipping Rattlenakes

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Wouldn’t you be annoyed?

Adaptation Environmental Services is tagging 12-20 prairie rattlesnakes [Crotalus viridus], tracking “their movements, behavior, home range sizes and areas of ecological importance.” Denver Post

01 May 2017

New Research on Bog Bodies

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In 1950, Tollund Man’s discoverers “found a face so fresh they could only suppose they had stumbled on a recent murder.”

Smithsonian has a major update on the latest scientific news on researching Bronze Age and Iron Age bodies found in Northern European bogs.

Archaeologists have been asking the same questions since [peat-cutters in 1950] first troubled Tollund Man’s long sleep: Who are you? Where did you come from? How did you live? Who murdered you and why? But the way the researchers ask the questions, using new forensic techniques like dual-energy CT scanners and strontium tests, is getting more sophisticated all the time. There’s new hope that, sometime soon, he may start to speak.

Scholars tend to agree that Tollund Man’s killing was some kind of ritual sacrifice to the gods—perhaps a fertility offering. To the people who put him there, a bog was a special place. While most of Northern Europe lay under a thick canopy of forest, bogs did not. Half earth, half water and open to the heavens, they were borderlands to the beyond. To these people, will-o’-the-wisps—flickering ghostly lights that recede when approached—weren’t the effects of swamp gas caused by rotting vegetation. They were fairies. The thinking goes that Tollund Man’s tomb may have been meant to ensure a kind of soggy immortality for the sacrificial object.

“When he was found in 1950,” says Nielsen, “they made an X-ray of his body and his head, so you can see the brain is quite well-preserved. They autopsied him like you would do an ordinary body, took out his intestines, said, yup it’s all there, and put it back. Today we go about things entirely differently. The questions go on and on.”

Lately, Tollund Man has been enjoying a particularly hectic afterlife. In 2015, he was sent to the Natural History Museum in Paris to run his feet through a microCT scan normally used for fossils. Specialists in ancient DNA have tapped Tollund Man’s femur to try to get a sample of the genetic material. They failed, but they’re not giving up. Next time they’ll use the petrous bone at the base of the skull, which is far denser than the femur and thus a more promising source of DNA.

Then there’s Tollund Man’s hair, which may end up being the most garrulous part of him. Shortly before I arrived, Tollund Man’s hat was removed for the first time to obtain hair samples. By analyzing how minute quantities of strontium differ along a single strand, a researcher in Copenhagen hopes to assemble a road map of all the places Tollund Man traveled in his lifetime.

Fascinating stuff. RTWT

20 Apr 2017

First Tsavo Man-Eater, Scientists Find, Had a Toothache

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Colonel Patterson with the first deceased Man-Eater.

Vanderbilt News:

An analysis of the microscopic wear on the teeth of the legendary “man-eating lions of Tsavo” reveals that it wasn’t desperation that drove them to terrorize a railroad camp in Kenya more than a century ago.

“Our results suggest that preying on people was not the lions’ last resort, rather, it was simply the easiest solution to a problem that they confronted,” said Larisa DeSantis, assistant professor of earth and environmental studies at Vanderbilt University.

The study, which she performed with Bruce Patterson, MacArthur Curator of Mammals at The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, is described in a paper titled “Dietary behavior of man-eating lions as revealed by dental microwear textures” published online April 19 by the journal Nature: Scientific Reports. …

In order to shed light on the lion’s motivations, DeSantis employed state-of-the-art dental microwear analysis on the teeth of three man-eating lions from the Field Museum’s collection: the two Tsavo lions and a lion from Mfuwe, Zambia that consumed at least six people in 1991. The analysis can provide valuable information about the nature of animal’s diet in the days and weeks before its death.

DeSantis and Patterson undertook the study to investigate the theory that prey shortages may have driven the lions to man eating. At the time, the Tsavo region was in the midst of a two-year drought and a rinderpest epidemic that had ravaged the local wildlife. If the lions were desperate for food and scavenging carcasses, the man-eating lions should have dental microwear similar to hyenas, which routinely chew and digest the bones of their prey.

“Despite contemporary reports of the sound of the lion’s crunching on the bones of their victims at the edge of the camp, the Tsavo lion’s teeth do not show wear patterns consistent with eating bones,” said DeSantis. “In fact, the wear patterns on their teeth are strikingly similar to those of zoo lions that are typically provisioned with soft foods like beef and horsemeat.”

The study provides new support for the proposition that dental disease and injury may play a determining role in turning individual lions into habitual man eaters. The Tsavo lion that did the most man eating, as established through chemical analysis of the lions’ bones and fur in a previous study, had severe dental disease. It had a root-tip abscess in one of its canines—a painful infection at the root of the tooth that would have made normal hunting impossible.

“Lions normally use their jaws to grab prey like zebras and buffalos and suffocate them,” Patterson explained. “This lion would have been challenged to subdue and kill large struggling prey. Humans are so much easier to catch.”

The diseased lion’s partner, on the other hand, had less pronounced injuries to its teeth and jaw—injuries that are fairly common in lions which are not man eaters. According to the same chemical analysis, it consumed a lot more zebras and buffalos, and far fewer people, than its hunting companion.

31 Mar 2017

“Fewer Than 1% of Papers Published in Today’s Scientific Journals Follow Scientific Method”

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Breitbart has some really bad news.

Fewer than 1 percent of papers published in scientific journals follow the scientific method, according to research by Wharton School professor and forecasting expert J. Scott Armstrong.

Professor Armstrong, who co-founded the peer-reviewed Journal of Forecasting in 1982 and the International Journal of Forecasting in 1985, made the claim in a presentation about what he considers to be “alarmism” from forecasters over man-made climate change.

“We also go through journals and rate how well they conform to the scientific method. I used to think that maybe 10 percent of papers in my field … were maybe useful. Now it looks like maybe, one tenth of one percent follow the scientific method” said Armstrong in his presentation, which can be watched in full below. “People just don’t do it.”

Armstrong defined eight criteria for compliance with the scientific method, including full disclosure of methods, data, and other reliable information, conclusions that are consistent with the evidence, valid and simple methods, and valid and reliable data.

According to Armstrong, very little of the forecasting in climate change debate adheres to these criteria. “For example, for disclosure, we were working on polar bear [population] forecasts, and we were asked to review the government’s polar bear forecast. We asked, ‘could you send us the data’ and they said ‘No’… So we had to do it without knowing what the data were.”

According to Armstrong, forecasts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) violate all eight criteria.

“Why is this all happening? Nobody asks them!” said Armstrong, who says that people who submit papers to journals are not required to follow the scientific method.

A must-read.

25 Mar 2017

Now When Can I Buy a Pair of Clip-Ons?

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TechXplore:

A team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin has developed a pair of glasses that allows the wearer to have tetrachromatic vision….

Humans have three types of cone cells in the back of the eye to differentiate color. Some react to blue, some to green and some to red. The cones do their work by responding to the difference in wavelength of the incoming light. Such vision is known as trichromatic. In this new effort, the researchers have found a way of fooling the brain into seeing as if there were a fourth type of cone, by wearing glasses with two types of filters. The result is tetrachromatic vision. …

The filters remove some parts of the blue light spectrum. But the filters each remove a different part. When the filters are fitted into a frame and worn like regular glasses, the wearer is able to see colors that are normally hidden—metamers. In a sense, it is rather the opposite of what occurs with people who are color blind. They might see blue and red as the same, even though there is more light information there. Adding spectrum identification to color blind eyes allows for seeing more of what is already there. With the new combined filter system, a person is able to look at what appears to be an object that is all the same color, such as purple, and see more colors in it—those normally hidden metamers.

Hat tip to Glenn Reynolds.

18 Feb 2017

The Liberals’ “Settled Science”

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Donald Devine, in the American Spectator, has a fine time debunking the community of fashion’s popular notion of “settled science.”

The idea that people will not accept the findings of science drives a certain class of self-described intellectuals crazy. Even those who can comprehend the Yale University Cultural Cognition Project research warning that scientific findings are screened by individuals through pre-existing cultural beliefs and are interpreted in ways to reinforce those beliefs still insist their own scientific beliefs are objective and settled.

That research finds progressives risk averse, biased toward control of their environment, while conservatives tolerate risk, partial toward greater freedom — the recognition of which does not overcome the progressive insistence that relativity explains all motion or that global warming is “settled science.” Conservative wise man Eric Voegelin traced the progressive predisposition to the positivist philosopher Auguste Comte, who invented the social sciences to replace religion with objective empirical research that would eventually allow humans to achieve perfection in this world rather than waiting for the next.

The fact that this hope has fallen a bit short over the following century has not diminished its appeal. For progressivism, it is just science, at least when it agrees with its own reductionist, materialistic predispositions by academic fields dominated by fellow progressives. While it might surprise that 43 percent of physicists believe that God or some higher spirit affected material development, it is even a majority belief among biological and chemistry scientists. On the other hand, few hold this belief in psychiatry and many other social sciences.

In fact, settled science is rather difficult to find, even the purely physical sciences. Columbia University physicist Brian Greene explained: “[G]eneral relativity and quantum mechanics cannot both be right” as currently formulated, even though they are “the two foundational pillars upon which modern physics rests.” The journal Physical Review Letters reported that a major study of the light sterile neutrino, widely expected by scientists to undermine Standard Model physics, found at a “99% certainty” level that neutrinos do not even exist.

An article in Current Biology questioned whether biologists’ long-held conception of the basic structure of the animal cell is in fact universal. Ninety-eight percent of human genome DNA had long been determined to be “junk” and only 2 percent meaningful — until the ENCODE project recently reported that in fact at least 80 percent of it was active. Scientists have known for years there are 83 distinct areas in the brain, but the journal Nature published a study last year more than doubling the number of brain regions to 180.

The one field where the science must be “settled,” of course, is global warming. Or is it “climate change,” when clearly no skeptic doubts climate changes? Why the alteration in terminology? Perhaps because, in 2007, the world’s leading experts at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported its “central forecast” for long-term warming to be 3 degrees C. Yet, since then its reports have not listed a single central estimate but did reduce its minimal expected warming down from a 1.5-degrees rise to only a 1.0-degree temperature increase.

The U.S.’s NASA-Goddard Institute did announce that 2016 was the “hottest year on record,” but while NASA had formerly warned against accepting “misleading” specific temperatures without considering the ranges of scores within the measurement margin of error, it did not repeat that warning in 2016. As the Wall Street Journal’s Holman Jenkins showed, after taking into account error margins, 2015 and 2016, two El Niño years, were actually tied for being the warmest years recorded, and 1998, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, and 2014 were all tied for second place, close behind.

As climatologist Judith Curry testified to Congress, IPCC models have forecast surface temperatures to increase 0.2 degrees C each 21st century decade. But during the first fifteen years, actual temperatures only increased 0.05, four times lower than predicted. And the models cannot explain why more than 40 percent of the temperature increases since 1900 took place between 1910 and 1945, which produced a mere 10 percent of the carbon emissions.

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip to John C. Meyer.

27 Jan 2017

Harvard Guys Make Metallic Hydrogen

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The Independent reports:

For nearly 100 years, scientists have dreamed of turning the lightest of all the elements, hydrogen, into a metal.

Now, in a stunning act of modern-day alchemy, scientists at Harvard University have finally succeeded in creating a tiny amount of what is the rarest, and possibly most valuable, material on the planet, they reported in the journal Science.

For metallic hydrogen could theoretically revolutionise technology, enabling the creation of super-fast computers, high-speed levitating trains and ultra-efficient vehicles and dramatically improving almost anything involving electricity.

And it could also allow humanity to explore outer space as never before.

But the prospect of this bright future could be at risk if the scientists’ next step – to establish whether the metal is stable at normal pressures and temperatures – fails to go as hoped.

Professor Isaac Silvera, who made the breakthrough with Dr Ranga Dias, said: “This is the holy grail of high-pressure physics.

“It’s the first-ever sample of metallic hydrogen on Earth, so when you’re looking at it, you’re looking at something that’s never existed before.”

At the moment the tiny piece of metal can only be seen through two diamonds that were used to crush liquid hydrogen at a temperature far below freezing.

The amount of pressure needed was immense – more than is found at the centre of the Earth.

The sample has remained trapped in this astonishing grip, but sometime in the next few weeks, the researchers plan to carefully ease the pressure.

According to one theory, metallic hydrogen will be stable at room temperature – a prediction that Professor Silvera said was “very important”.

“That means if you take the pressure off, it will stay metallic, similar to the way diamonds form from graphite under intense heat and pressure, but remains a diamond when that pressure and heat is removed,” he said.

If this is true, then its properties a super-conductor could dramatically improve anything that uses electricity.

“As much as 15 per cent of energy is lost to dissipation during transmission, so if you could make wires from this material and use them in the electrical grid, it could change that story,” the scientist said.

And metallic hydrogen could also transform humanity’s efforts to explore our solar system by providing a form of rocket fuel nearly four times more powerful than the best available today.

“It takes a tremendous amount of energy to make metallic hydrogen,” Professor Silvera said.

“And if you convert it back to molecular hydrogen, all that energy is released, so it would make it the most powerful rocket propellant known to man, and could revolutionize rocketry.

“That would easily allow you to explore the outer planets.

“We would be able to put rockets into orbit with only one stage, versus two, and could send up larger payloads, so it could be very important.”

However some scientists have theorised that metallic hydrogen will be unstable on its surface and so would gradually decay.

Asked what he thought would happen, Professor Silvera said: “I don’t want to guess, I want to do the experiment.”

Complete story.

20 Dec 2016

Robert Bruce (1274-1329)’s Face Reconstructed

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Real Clear Life:

A group of historians from the University of Glasgow recently partnered with scientists at Liverpool John Moores University to reconstruct the face of the father of Scottish independence, King Robert I, a.k.a. Robert the Bruce, who reigned from 1306 to 1329. The source material? A human skull owned by London’s Hunterian Museum (part of the Royal College of Surgeons).

23 Sep 2016

Ötzi the Iceman Speaks

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otzi

Science Alert:

We already know what Ötzi the Iceman was wearing when he died more than 5,000 years ago in the Italian Alps, as well as how many tattoos he had.

But now scientists have taken things one step further: they’ve managed to recreate the “best possible approximation” of his voice.

By using CT scans to measure the structure of the famous mummy’s vocal cords, throat, and mouth, scientists from Bolzano’s General Hospital in Italy have been able to digitally reconstruct what Ötzi might have sounded like while pronouncing vowels in Italian.

26 Jul 2016

Leonardo’s Notebooks Yield New Discovery

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LeonardoFriction

University of Cambridge Research:

Scribbled notes and sketches on a page in a notebook by Leonardo da Vinci, previously dismissed as irrelevant by an art historian, have been identified as the place where he first recorded his understanding of the laws of friction.

The research by Professor Ian Hutchings, Professor of Manufacturing Engineering at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of St John’s College, is the first detailed chronological study of Leonardo’s work on friction, and has also shown how he continued to apply his knowledge of the subject to wider work on machines over the next two decades.

It is widely known that Leonardo conducted the first systematic study of friction, which underpins the modern science of “tribology”, but exactly when and how he developed these ideas has been uncertain until now.

Professor Hutchings has discovered that Leonardo’s first statement of the laws of friction is in a tiny notebook measuring just 92 mm x 63 mm. The book, which dates from 1493 and is now held in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, contains a statement scribbled quickly in Leonardo’s characteristic “mirror writing” from right to left.

Ironically the page had already attracted interest because it also carries a sketch of an old woman in black pencil with a line below reading “cosa bella mortal passa e non dura”, which can be translated as “mortal beauty passes and does not last”. Amid debate surrounding the significance of the quote and speculation that the sketch could represent an aged Helen of Troy, the Director of the V & A in the 1920s referred to the jottings below as “irrelevant notes and diagrams in red chalk”.

Professor Hutchings’s study has, however, revealed that the script and diagrams in red are of great interest to the history of tribology, marking a pivotal moment in Leonardo’s work on the subject.

The rough geometrical figures underneath Leonardo’s red notes show rows of blocks being pulled by a weight hanging over a pulley – in exactly the same kind of experiment students might do today to demonstrate the laws of friction.

Professor Hutchings said: “The sketches and text show Leonardo understood the fundamentals of friction in 1493. He knew that the force of friction acting between two sliding surfaces is proportional to the load pressing the surfaces together and that friction is independent of the apparent area of contact between the two surfaces. These are the ‘laws of friction’ that we nowadays usually credit to a French scientist, Guillaume Amontons, working two hundred years later.”

LeonardoFriction2

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Paper: Leonardo da Vinci’s Studies of Friction

Abstract:

Based on a detailed study of Leonardo da Vinci׳s notebooks, this review examines the development of his understanding of the laws of friction and their application. His work on friction originated in studies of the rotational resistance of axles and the mechanics of screw threads. He pursued the topic for more than 20 years, incorporating his empirical knowledge of friction into models for several mechanical systems. Diagrams which have been assumed to represent his experimental apparatus are misleading, but his work was undoubtedly based on experimental measurements and probably largely involved lubricated contacts. Although his work had no influence on the development of the subject over the succeeding centuries, Leonardo da Vinci holds a unique position as a pioneer in tribology.

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