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The Earliest American Heroine

The baptism of Virginia Dare, the first child born to English parents in the New World and an enduring literary muse. CREDIT BETTMANN / CORBIS

On August 11th, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a team of archeologists announced the results of new excavations in a rural, largely swampy area near the two-mile-wide mouth of the Chowan River, at the western end of the Albemarle Sound. The find included spoiled rivets and nails and fragments of a distinctive style of ceramic that was imported to the region only in the earliest years of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Virginia expeditions. The archeologists believe that the artifacts are remnants of the first English colony in North America, on Roanoke Island, often known as “the lost colony.” In 1590, three years after a hundred and eighteen men, women, and children disembarked there, a mission carrying supplies from England found the place abandoned, with books, armor, and maps buried for safekeeping.

The site gained new attention in 2012, thanks to a map of Albermarle Sound drawn by John White, the colony’s leader, who last saw his fellow colonists when he left in 1587 to procure fresh supplies from England. Researchers affiliated with North Carolina’s First Colony Foundation persuaded the British Museum, which had long held the map, to use ultraviolet imaging to peer beneath an ancient paper patch. The scan disclosed a stubby four-pointed star at what is now the excavation site. Eric Klingelhofer of Georgia’s Mercer University, an expert in colonial fortifications and the principal investigator of the project, reckoned that the star marked a forgotten fort, perhaps a place of refuge for colonists driven from Roanoke by disease, hostile locals, or Spanish marauders. (Klingelhofer also suggested that White or someone else might have used the patch to conceal the fort’s location, probably from Spanish agents.) Continue reading

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Here’s how diamonds can help scientists to fight cancer

They say diamonds are forever, but while ‘forever’ remains to be seen, they could certainly one day help people fighting cancer live longer lives, thanks to new Australian research. Physicists at the University of Sydney have developed a way of using synthetic nano-diamonds to track and combat early-stage cancers before they become life-threatening.

“We knew nano-diamonds were of interest for delivering drugs during chemotherapy because they are largely non-toxic and non-reactive,” said one of the team, David Reilly. “We thought we could build on these non-toxic properties, realising that diamonds have magnetic characteristics enabling them to act as beacons in MRIs. We effectively turned a pharmaceutical problem into a physics problem.”

While cancer-targeting medications have existed for some time, it’s difficult for doctors to know where exactly in a patient’s body the treatment is taking place – short of conducting invasive biopsies, which have a number of limitations. The nano-diamonds solve that problem, having been specially treated so that they’re readily visible in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans. The synthetic stones have been hyperpolarised, effectively turning them into little beacons that give away their location during a scan.

By itself that might not be too helpful, but once the nano-diamonds are fused to specialised cancer-finding medications, the tables are turned. “By attaching hyperpolarised diamonds to molecules targeting cancers the technique can allow tracking of the molecules’ movement in the body,” said Ewa Rej, lead author. In other words, once the double whammy of diamonds and drugs is injected into the body, you’ve effectively got a ‘search and destroy’ medication that reveals where cancer is – and all without needing patients to go under the knife. Source: Here’s how diamonds can help scientists to fight cancer

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China has had a telescope on the moon for the past two years

Point a telescope at the moon, and you might just see one looking back. Chinese researchers have reported that their robotic telescope, the first of its kind, has been operating flawlessly ever since it landed on the moon in 2013.

The 15-centimetre telescope is mounted on the Chang’e 3 lander, which touched down on the lunar surface in December 2013. Chang’e 3 (pictured above) carried the Yutu rover, which repeatedly struggled to survive the lunar night and ceased working in March this year – but the lander is still going strong.

The telescope sees in ultraviolet light, making it particularly suited for observations that aren’t possible here on Earth. “There is no atmosphere on the moon, so unlike Earth, the ultraviolet light from celestial objects can be detected on the moon,” says Jing Wang of the National Astronomical Observatories in Beijing, China, who is in charge of the telescope. And since the moon rotates 27 times more slowly than the Earth, the scope can stay fixed on the same star for a dozen days without interruption, he says.

Snapping Earth

In a paper published this week, Wang and his colleagues detail the first 18 months of the telescope’s operation, during which it has observed for 2000 hours and monitored 40 stars. The team also captured a picture of the Pinwheel galaxy, shown below.

China has had a telescope on the moon for the past two years

Astronauts on the Apollo 16 mission had a manually operated UV telescope, which they used to take pictures of Earth, stars and the Large Magellanic Cloud. But the Chinese telescope is the first to be operated remotely from Earth.

That’s a challenge, because the moon is a hostile environment, full of charged and abrasive lunar dust that can get into equipment and destroy electronics, as Yutu’s troubles demonstrate. To counter this, the telescope is stowed within Chang’e 3 during sunrise and sunset on the moon, when dust is thought to be at its worst, and has survived much longer than its expected one year life. Wang says the scope is still working today, and the team are awaiting a decision to continue its mission past the end of this year. Source: China has had a telescope on the moon for the past two years | New Scientist

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Lightest Metal Ever

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The DJI Osmo lets you film drone-like footage from a handheld camera

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Ancient DNA reveals ‘into Africa’ migration

An ancient African genome has been sequenced for the first time.

Researchers extracted DNA from a 4,500-year-old skull that was discovered in the highlands of Ethiopia. A comparison with genetic material from today’s Africans reveals how our ancient ancestors mixed and moved around the continents. The findings, published in the journal Science, suggests that about 3,000 years ago there was a huge wave of migration from Eurasia into Africa.

This has left a genetic legacy, and the scientists believe up to 25% of the DNA of modern Africans can be traced back to this event. “Every single population for which we have data in Africa has a sizeable component of Eurasian ancestry,” said Dr Andrea Manica, from the University of Cambridge, who carried out the research. Edited from: Ancient DNA reveals ‘into Africa’ migration

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Harvard University debate team loses to New York inmates

A group of New York inmates have out debated Harvard University’s team – the top-ranked club in the world. Last month, inmates at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility challenged the Harvard team to a debate at the maximum-security lockup. The prison offers courses taught by faculty from nearby Bard College and the inmates have formed a popular debate club. The friendly competition ended in a win for the prison’s team.

This is not the first win for the Eastern New York Correctional team. In the two years since starting the club they have challenged and beaten teams from the University of Vermont and the US Military Academy at West Point, with whom they have established an annual match and a budding rivalry.

The Harvard victory may be their biggest success; the Harvard team have won both the national and world championships. In the match, inmates defended the premise that students whose parents entered the US illegally should be turned away from schools. The debate was judged by a neutral panel. Shortly after their loss Harvard students posted on the team’s Facebook page. “There are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to than the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team we faced this weekend,”‘ they wrote. “And we are incredibly thankful to Bard and the Eastern New York Correctional Facility for the work they do and for organizing this event.” Edited from: Harvard University debate team loses to New York inmates

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The biggest mystery in mathematics: Shinichi Mochizuki and the impenetrable proof

Sometime on the morning of 30 August 2012, Shinichi Mochizuki quietly posted four papers on his website. The papers were huge — more than 500 pages in all — packed densely with symbols, and the culmination of more than a decade of solitary work. They also had the potential to be an academic bombshell. In them, Mochizuki claimed to have solved the abc conjecture, a 27-year-old problem in number theory that no other mathematician had even come close to solving. If his proof was correct, it would be one of the most astounding achievements of mathematics this century and would completely revolutionize the study of equations with whole numbers.

Mochizuki, however, did not make a fuss about his proof. The respected mathematician, who works at Kyoto University’s Research Institute for Mathematical Sciences (RIMS) in Japan, did not even announce his work to peers around the world. He simply posted the papers, and waited for the world to find out.

Probably the first person to notice the papers was Akio Tamagawa, a colleague of Mochizuki’s at RIMS. He, like other researchers, knew that Mochizuki had been working on the conjecture for years and had been finalizing his work. That same day, Tamagawa e-mailed the news to one of his collaborators, number theorist Ivan Fesenko of the University of Nottingham, UK. Fesenko immediately downloaded the papers and started to read. But he soon became “bewildered”, he says. “It was impossible to understand them.”

Fesenko e-mailed some top experts in Mochizuki’s field of arithmetic geometry, and word of the proof quickly spread. Within days, intense chatter began on mathematical blogs and online forums. But for many researchers, early elation about the proof quickly turned to scepticism. Everyone — even those whose area of expertise was closest to Mochizuki’s — was just as flummoxed by the papers as Fesenko had been. To complete the proof, Mochizuki had invented a new branch of his discipline, one that is astonishingly abstract even by the standards of pure maths. “Looking at it, you feel a bit like you might be reading a paper from the future, or from outer space,” number theorist Jordan Ellenberg, of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, wrote on his blog a few days after the paper appeared.

Three years on, Mochizuki’s proof remains in mathematical limbo — neither debunked nor accepted by the wider community. Mochizuki has estimated that it would take an expert in arithmetic geometry some 500 hours to understand his work, and a maths graduate student about ten years. So far, only four mathematicians say that they have been able to read the entire proof. Source: The biggest mystery in mathematics: Shinichi Mochizuki and the impenetrable proof

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Hvitserkur sea stack

Hvitserkur_sea_stack,_IcelandOnce 15 m Hvítserkur was the plug of a volcano. However, with time the violent sea eroded its flanks leaving only a small monolith. According to Icelandic legend on the other hand, Hvítserkur was a troll who forgot to retreat from the light (presumably because he was busy tearing down a convent) and thus turned into stone. Interestingly in present day people still ‘create’ trolls in Iceland by piling up rocks along the side of the road. Other stories claim that Hvítserkur is actually a drinking dragon or dinosaur.

Hvítserkur would have disappeared long ago had it not been for its base being filled up with concrete. At present it has two large holes with a third one quickly on its way. It seems very likely that eventually it will collapse..

Its name literally means ‘white shirt’ in Icelandic and is due to the fact that its top is covered in guano (bird shit). Thus a large number of birds, mostly fulmar and gulls, live on its rocks. Source EarthStory

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Ancient rocks record first evidence for photosynthesis that made oxygen

A new study shows that iron-bearing rocks that formed at the ocean floor 3.2 billion years ago carry unmistakable evidence of oxygen. The only logical source for that oxygen is the earliest known example of photosynthesis by living organisms, say University of Wisconsin-Madison geoscientists.

“Rock from 3.4 billion years ago showed that the ocean contained basically no free oxygen,” says Clark Johnson, professor of geoscience at UW-Madison and a member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. “Recent work has shown a small rise in oxygen at 3 billion years. The rocks we studied are 3.23 billion years old, and quite well preserved, and we believe they show definite signs for oxygen in the oceans much earlier than previous discoveries.”

The most reasonable candidate for liberating the oxygen found in the iron oxide is cyanobacteria, primitive photosynthetic organisms that lived in the ancient ocean. The earliest evidence for life now dates back 3.5 billion years, so oxygenic photosynthesis could have evolved relatively soon after life itself.Until recently, the conventional wisdom in geology held that oxygen was rare until the “great oxygenation event,” 2.4 to 2.2 billion years ago.Source: Ancient rocks record first evidence for photosynthesis that made oxygen

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Your Brain on Mars

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NASA is now “pretty sure” those weird white patches on Ceres are salt

For months, NASA scientists (and the rest of us playing along at home) have been puzzling over a series of mysterious bright patches spotted in the middle of a huge crater on the dwarf planet Ceres.

First seen by the Dawn spacecraft, which is now steadily orbiting closer and closer to Ceres, NASA’s original assumption was that the patches were made of ice, but the wavelengths of light being reflected suggested otherwise. And despite coming up with a whole lot of hypotheses since then, they’ve publicly remained stumped as to what could be causing the patches – until now.

At the European Planetary Science Congress in France at the end of last month, Dawn’s principal investigator Chris Russell told scientists that they now believe the patches, which are located in the Occator crater, are huge salt deposits. “We know it’s not ice and we’re pretty sure it’s salt, but we don’t know exactly what salt at the present time,” said Russell in his address, which has since been posted online. Source: NASA is now “pretty sure” those weird white patches on Ceres are salt

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Viruses ARE alive, and they’re older than modern cells

Viruses have a huge impact on our lives, and we’re making great strides into understanding how to protect ourselves from the flu and HIV. But one thing that scientists have struggled to agree on is whether or not viruses are alive. After all, they can’t survive or replicate without a host cell, and due to their rapidly changing genes, scientists have never been able to work out how or when they evolved.

Now a study by researchers in the US has managed to complete the first viral tree of life, and it suggests that not only are viruses alive, they’re also really, really old, and they share a long evolutionary history with cells. “Viruses now merit a place in the tree of life,” lead researcher Gustavo Caetano-Anollés said in a press release. “Obviously, there is much more to viruses than we once thought.”

The confusion about viruses is a result of their unique life cycle. Specifically the fact that they can’t metabolise nutrients, and they don’t contain the proteins needed to copy their own DNA and RNA – instead they invade other animals’ cells and use their equipment to do it for them. This has led some scientists to argue that viruses are merely non-living strands of DNA and RNA taken from other cells, enclosed in a neat little protein envelope.

To make things even more complicated, some viruses have incredibly low numbers of genes, including Ebola, which does all its deadly damage with just seven genes. While others, such as the recently discovered giant viruses, have more genes than bacteria.

Attempts have been made to map out how all these very different types of viruses evolved, but because they replicate so many times within each host, their genes end up mutating rapidly and often get mixed in with their host’s genes, so it’s a pretty impossible task.

The new study gave up on that idea, and instead looked at something called protein ‘folds’, which are the structures that give proteins their complex, 3D shapes. These folds are far less likely to change than viral genes, because they maintain their structure even if the genetic sequences that code for them begin to change.

After analysing the folds in 5,080 organisms and 3,460 viruses, the researchers found that viruses and modern cells share 442 protein folds, and only 66 are virus-specific. But those 66 are unlike anything seen in cells, which contradicts the hypothesis that viruses simply took all their genetic materials from cells. This information allowed them to build a rough tree of life, which showed that viruses share a common ancestor with modern cells, but are more ancient. Source: Viruses ARE alive, and they’re older than modern cells, new study suggests

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Amazing Drone Footage of Nubian Pyramids

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Another video showing how big things are in the universe

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This device could harvest energy from the air to power our home gadgets

A British tech company has come up with a new way of powering wearables and smart home devices: a device called the Freevolt, which can harvest the ambient energy from radio waves and turn it into a small amount of electricity for low-energy gadgets to tap into. As CNET reports, this level of energy can’t keep a smartphone running, but it could be enough to power that remote sensor on your garden gate. If sensors and beacons have a wireless energy source plus wireless connectivity, it opens up more possibilities for kitting out our homes and gardens with these kind of devices.

“Companies have been researching how to harvest energy from Wi-Fi, cellular, and broadcast networks for many years,” Drayton Technologies CEO and chairman, Lord Drayson, said in a press statement. “But it is difficult, because there is only a small amount of energy to harvest and achieving the right level of rectifying efficiency has been the issue – up until now. For the first time, we have solved the problem of harvesting usable energy from a small radio frequency signal.

“The Freevolt device itself is around the size of a mobile phone, but only the thickness of a credit card, so it can easily be attached to a sensor or smart tag. Drayson Technologies has developed a CleanSpace air pollution sensor (costing around £55 or US$85) as a reference device for the ways Freevolt can be utilised. Source: This device could harvest energy from the air to power our home gadgets

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Wingsuit wonder


Hairy Moments

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A witness to history


A tree over two thousand five hundred years old sits on an island in the Field of Runnymede, in England’s county of Berkshire. While the Druids may have worshipped there (the yew is their traditional tree of death, representing the month of December in their calendar as Robert Graves discusses in The White Goddess (in which the year dies and the sun is reborn); it is still plentiful in European graveyards), tradition and history say that one of the founding events of English democracy occurred here: the signing of the Magna Carta between King John and his fractious barons on June the 15th 1215. Other stories further recount that Henry the 8th wooed and dallied with Anne Boleyn beneath its bowers in the 1530’s, and may have even proposed to his future decapitee there.

Known as the Ankerwycke Yew, the primitive bill of rights signed here paved the way for the modern Anglo Saxon flavour of democracy and constitutional arrangement, though the balances took several more centuries of to and fro conflict between crown and barons, church and state, king and country and the changes created by the Napoleonic wars and long imperial age. Now nearly 10 metres in girth, it sits in the ruins of an old priory destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries. Many of these sites took over Pagan ones, and the already mature yew passed into the custody of the nuns in 1160, and lived by their graveyard. Source: The Earth Story..

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Bone fragments found in Italian convent could be the real Mona Lisa

Bone fragments dating back to the 16th century are “very likely” to be that of the actual Mona Lisa, say Italian researchers. According to renowned art sleuth Silvano Vinceti, who has for years led the search to find the owner of the world’s most enigmatic smile, human remains uncovered in a Florence convent have a very high likelihood of belonging to Lisa Gherardini – whom many historians believe was the real-life model posing for Leonardo Da Vinci’s most famous artwork.

Gherardini, the wife of silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo, is thought to have posed for Da Vinci’s painting as a young woman, before her death in 1542. She is said to have spent her final days at the Sant’Orsola convent in Florence, from which archaeologists exhumed skeletal remains in 2012.

Their goal was to use carbon dating and DNA testing to establish a link to Gherardini’s children’s remains, separately exhumed from their resting place at the Giocondo family crypt in the city’s Santissima Annunziata basilica.

“There are converging elements, above and beyond the results of the carbon–14 tests, that say we may well have found Lisa’s grave,” Vinceti told reporters at an announcement of the results. “We can’t provide absolute certainty that some of the remains examined are Lisa’s, but the likelihood is very high.”

However, the researchers stopped short of announcing that the mystery was completely solved, as the state of the children’s remains was too degraded due to flooding over the centuries to allow DNA comparison with the bones found in Gherardini’s resting place. Source: Bone fragments found in Italian convent could be the real Mona Lisa, say researchers

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Featured Artworks – Far Above The Clouds – Mike Oldfield

Have a couple of beers, put on the headphones and crank it up to eleven. This is a serious piece of music from Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells III’. You can hear the CD version here.

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