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How Lucy Changed the World

Forty years ago, on a Sunday morning in late November 1974, a team of scientists were digging in an isolated spot in the Afar region of Ethiopia. Surveying the area, paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson spotted a small part of an elbow bone. He immediately recognised it as coming from a human ancestor. And there was plenty more. “As I looked up the slopes to my left I saw bits of the skull, a chunk of jaw, a couple of vertebrae,” says Johanson.

It was immediately obvious that the skeleton was a momentous find, because the sediments at the site were known to be 3.2 million years old. “I realised this was part of a skeleton that was older than three million years,” says Johanson. It was the most ancient early human – or hominin – ever found. Later it became apparent that it was also the most complete: fully 40% of the skeleton had been preserved. At the group’s campsite that night, Johanson played a Beatles cassette that he had brought with him, and the song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” came on. By this time Johanson thought the skeleton was female, because it was small. So someone said to him: “why don’t you call it Lucy?” The name stuck immediately. “All of a sudden,” says Johanson, “she became a person.”

It would be another four years before Lucy was officially described. She belonged to a new species called Australopithecus afarensis, and it was clear that she was one of the most important fossils ever discovered. But at the campsite the morning after the discovery, the discussion was dominated by questions. How old was Lucy when she died? Did she have children? What was she like? And might she be our direct ancestor, a missing gap in the human family tree? Forty years later, we are starting to have answers to some of these questions. More here BBC

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How to climb a 900ft high tower

Not for the faint hearted. This guy must be mad! – Deskarati

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Quantum conductance

Electrical wires are made of metals that have a good ability to carry current. If we make the wire really small, the conductance becomes quantized. This is not an exotic phenomenon: it happens every time you switch off the light.

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New superconductor-powered wind turbines could hit Australian shores in five years

Australian scientists are developing wind turbines that are one-third the price and 1,000 times more efficient than anything currently on the market to install along the country’s windy and abundant coast. New superconductor-powered wind turbines could be installed off the coast of Australia within the next five years to finally take advantage of the country’s 35,000 km of coastline, which offers up some of the best wind resources in the world.

Developed by a team at the Institute for Superconducting and Electronic Materials at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, the wind turbines are a significant improvement on current technology. Right now, wind turbines cost about $15 million each to construct, and are super-heavy and tough to ship. They also require a whole lot of maintenance because they’re run using a complex, heavy, and costly piece of machinery called a gear box.

“In our design there is no gear box, which right away reduces the size and weight by 40 percent,” said lead researcher and materials scientist Shahriar Hossain. “We are developing a magnesium diboride superconducting coil to replace the gear box. This will capture the wind energy and convert it into electricity without any power loss, and will reduce manufacturing and maintenance costs by two thirds.” Via New superconductor-powered wind turbines could hit Australian shores in five years

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One of the fundamental principles of geology is that sedimentary rocks are deposited in horizontal layers due to gravity. There are some exceptions, including cross beds and rocks deposited on steep slopes, but the rule is a very good guide.

If sedimentary rocks are deposited in horizontal layers that are parallel to Earth’s surface, then what you’re seeing here requires something else. The vertical pattern is dominated by erosion along fractures. Fractures called joints often appear in parallel sets; water is able to sneak into the rocks along these vertical cracks, weather the rocks, and erode them. Via Facebook.

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The Turing Test


The Turing test is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. In the original illustrative example, a human judge engages in natural language conversations with a human and a machine designed to generate performance indistinguishable from that of a human being. All participants are separated from one another. If the judge cannot reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test. The test does not check the ability to give the correct answer to questions; it checks how closely the answer resembles typical human answers. The conversation is limited to a text-only channel such as a computer keyboard and screen so that the result is not dependent on the machine’s ability to render words into audio.

i_failed_the_turing_testThe test was introduced by Alan Turing in his 1950 paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” which opens with the words: “I propose to consider the question, ‘Can machines think?'” Because “thinking” is difficult to define, Turing chooses to “replace the question by another, which is closely related to it and is expressed in relatively unambiguous words.” Turing’s new question is: “Are there imaginable digital computers which would do well in the imitation game?” This question, Turing believed, is one that can actually be answered. In the remainder of the paper, he argued against all the major objections to the proposition that “machines can think”.

In the years since 1950, the test has proven to be both highly influential and widely criticised, and it is an essential concept in the philosophy of artificial intelligence.

2014 University of Reading competition – On 7 June 2014 a Turing test competition, organised by Kevin Warwick to mark the 60th anniversary of Turing’s death, was won by the Russian chatter bot Eugene Goostman. The bot, during a series of five-minute-long text conversations, convinced 33% of the contest’s judges that it was human. Judges included John Sharkey, a sponsor of the bill granting a government pardon to Turing, and Red Dwarf actor Robert Llewellyn.

The competition’s organiser believed that the Turing test had been “passed for the first time” at the event, saying that “some will claim that the Test has already been passed. The words Turing Test have been applied to similar competitions around the world. However this event involved the most simultaneous comparison tests than ever before, was independently verified and, crucially, the conversations were unrestricted. A true Turing Test does not set the questions or topics prior to the conversations.”

The contest has faced criticism, with many in the AI community stating that the computer clearly did not pass the test. First, only a third of the judges were fooled by the computer. Second, the program’s character claimed to be a Ukrainian who learned English as a second language. Third, it claimed to be 13 years old, not an adult. The contest only required 30% of judges to be fooled, a very low threshold. This was based on an out-of-context quote by Turing, where he was predicting the future capabilities of computers rather than defining the test. In addition, many of its responses were cases of dodging the question, without demonstrating any understanding of what was said. Joshua Tenenbaum, an AI expert at MIT stated that the result was unimpressive. Edited from wiki

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PhD student adapts cheap microscope and saves £100,000

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Featured Artworks – Pythokritos – Nike of Samothrake

Thanks to Alan Mason for contributing to our ‘Featured Artworks’ category with this very enlightening post.

nike of samothrake

Sculpture has been rather neglected in the deskarati collection of great artistic works, so the Nike of Samothrake (1) is presented to you. It is a piece of classical Greek statuary, from the Second Century BC and is justly famous and admired. It has been described as “the greatest masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture” by the Russian-born American art historian, H W Janson, who wrote a definitive work entitled “The History of Art”.

NIKE OF SAMOTHRAKE, (ny kee, sam oe thray kee)

Nike is the Greek Goddess of Victory, hence the use of the name for sportswear. Samothrake is the Greek island where the statue was discovered in 1863. The eight-foot high (2.44 m) statue was carved from Parian marble, it is believed, at some time in the decade 200 – 190 BC, by the sculptor, Pythokritos of Lindos. In 1884, the sculpture was transferred to Paris, to be displayed in the Louvre, a world-famous art gallery and museum. It stands impressively at the head of the Daru marble staircase (2). Continue reading

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Three stunning ancient Greek mosaics unearthed on the Syrian border

Archaeologists have unearthed three stunning mosaics in southern Turkey. The beautifully preserved works have been dated to the ancient Greek city of Zeugma, founded more than 2,000 years ago by one of Alexander the Great’s generals.

Three new mosaics have been excavated by archaeologists in Turkey’s southern province of Gaziantep, as part of a seven-year expedition to discover the secrets of Zeugma – an ancient Greek city founded in 300 BC.

The excavation of Zeugma, being carried out by 25 students led by archaeologist Kutalmış Görkay from Ankara University in Turkey, begin in 2007 in an effort to rescue the ancient treasures from the waters of a flooded dam built on the Euphrates River about a kilometre away. “Of particular concern was the removal of Zeugma’s mosaics, some of the most extraordinary examples to survive from the ancient world,” Matthew Brunwasser writes at

Around 80 percent of the city has been underwater for over a decade, but the team is continuing to unearth some incredible artefacts to help them piece together what life was like in one of the most important trade centres of the Eastern Roman Empire. According to Jenny Zhang at My Modern Met, “Zeugma” means “bridge” or “crossing” in ancient Greek.

Founded by Seleucus I Nicator (“the Victor”), one of Alexander the Great’s generals, the city of Zeugma was home to 80,000 citizens at its peak. With the fall of the Roman Empire, so too did Zeugma fade into obscurity, after being destroyed by Persian forces in AD 253. Via Three stunning ancient Greek mosaics unearthed on the Syrian border

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How far from the equator is Australia compared to countries in the Northern Hemisphere?

Australia in Northern Hemisphere

We thought it might be interesting to see how far Australia is below the equator compared to the countries above the equator. It fits nicely in the North Atlantic in this image we knocked up. You can also see why it is quite so hot down under! What it doesn’t show is how close to the Antarctic it is, which makes it quite cool in the southern territories in the winter. – Deskarati

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Great picture of the Antarctic

NASA antartic

This great image from NASA is not a single picture but a composite of many. More here NASA

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What is a Billabong?

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What Does Sound Look Like?

You can actually see sound waves as they travel through the air thanks to a clever photographic trick.

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Brian Cox creates pioneering 3D show for Manchester festival

TV physicist Brian Cox and the visual effects team behind the film Gravity will tell the story of the universe using cutting-edge augmented reality technology in a live show next year. Prof Cox, effects wizards Framestore and film director Kevin Macdonald are using a system called Magic Leap.

Magic Leap has not been seen in public, but reports suggest that its headgear projects images onto users’ eyes. The show will be part of the Manchester International Festival next July. Titled The Age of Starlight, it is one of the first three productions to be announced for the 18-day event. Also on the line-up are a ballet created by choreographer Wayne McGregor, musician Jamie xx and artist Olafur Eliasson, and a family show telling the life story of children’s TV favourite Mr Tumble. Via Brian Cox creates pioneering 3D show for Manchester festival.

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A 2,000-year-old, hidden goldmine has been discovered in Spain

Airborne lasers have uncovered a 1st century BC Roman goldmine hidden beneath crops and vegetation in northern Spain. Scientists have found a 2,000-year-old network of channels and reservoirs in the Eria river valley of Leon, Spain, that would have been used by the Romans to extract gold. The largest opencast gold mine of the Roman Empire, Las Médulas is also located nearby in León, but until now scientists had no idea that they had also been searching for the precious metal further to the south-east.

The mine, which is hidden beneath heavy vegetation, was discovered by researchers from the University of Salamanca using a Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) laser system that was attached to an aircraft. These lasers were beamed at the ground, and the pattern they reflected back was then measured and compared to geographical information to create a visualisation of hidden features on the Earth’s surface.The discovery will help us understand more about how the Romans lived and mined back in the 1st century BC, and has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Via A 2,000-year-old, hidden goldmine has been discovered in Spain

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Mini museum


In this day and age, it is increasingly difficult to buy people cool and thoughtful gifts, mainly because everyone already has everything! But, you can be pretty sure that your loved one doesn’t have this. Their very own mini museum!

Created by Hans Fex, as a result of a kickstarter campaign, it is a pocket-sized collection of rare specimens that are labelled and embedded into an acrylic block. Some of the 33 specimens include: lunar rock, dinosaur egg, coal from the Titanic, a piece of the Berlin Wall and the ‘oldest matter ever collected’ at over 4.5 billion years old!

The museums are available in three size which contain a varying amount of specimens and thus vary in price (ranging from $99-299). But beware, there is a waiting list and obviously due to the rarity of the artefacts, there is limited availability. Via earthstory

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3 strange facts about Tudor king Henry VIII


1) Henry VIII was slim and athletic for most of his life – At six feet two inches tall, Henry VIII stood head and shoulders above most of his court. He had an athletic physique and excelled at sports, regularly showing off his prowess in the jousting arena. Having inherited the good looks of his grandfather, Edward IV, in 1515 Henry was described as “the handsomest potentate I have ever set eyes on…” and later an “Adonis”, “with an extremely fine calf to his leg, his complexion very fair…and a round face so very beautiful, that it would become a pretty woman”. All this changed in 1536 when the king – then in his mid-forties – suffered a serious wound to his leg while jousting. This never properly healed, and instead turned ulcerous, which left Henry increasingly incapacitated. Four years later, the king’s waist had grown from a trim 32 inches to an enormous 52 inches. By the time of his death, he had to be winched onto his horse. It is this image of the corpulent Henry VIII that has obscured the impressive figure that he cut for most of his life.

2) Henry VIII was a tidy eater – Despite the popular image of Henry VIII throwing a chicken leg over his shoulder as he devoured one of his many feasts, he was in fact a fastidious eater. Only on special occasions, such as a visit from a foreign dignitary, did he stage banquets. Most of the time, Henry preferred to dine in his private apartments. He would take care to wash his hands before, during and after each meal, and would follow a strict order of ceremony. Seated beneath a canopy and surrounded by senior court officers, he was served on bended knee and presented with several different dishes to choose from at each course.

3) Henry was a bit of a prude – England’s most-married monarch has a reputation as a ladies’ man – for obvious reasons. As well as his six wives, he kept several mistresses and fathered at least one child by them. But the evidence suggests that, behind closed doors, he was no lothario. When he finally persuaded Anne Boleyn to become his mistress in body as well as in name, he was shocked by the sexual knowledge that she seemed to possess, and later confided that he believed she had been no virgin. When she failed to give him a son, he plumped for the innocent and unsullied Jane Seymour instead. More strange facts about Tudor king Henry VIII

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Sun’s rotating ‘magnet’ pulls lightning towards UK

The Sun may be playing a part in the generation of lightning strikes on Earth by temporarily ‘bending’ the Earth’s magnetic field and allowing a shower of energetic particles to enter the upper atmosphere. This is according to researchers at the University of Reading who have found that over a five year period the UK experienced around 50% more lightning strikes when the Earth’s magnetic field was skewed by the Sun’s own magnetic field.

The Earth’s magnetic field usually functions as an in-built force-field to shield against a bombardment of particles from space, known as galactic cosmic rays, which have previously been found to prompt a chain-reaction of events in thunderclouds that trigger lightning bolts. It is hoped these new insights, which have been published today, 19 November, in IOP Publishing’s journal Environmental Research Letters, could lead to a reliable lightning forecast system that could provide warnings of hazardous events many weeks in advance. Via Sun’s rotating ‘magnet’ pulls lightning towards UK.

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Asteroid Bennu’s Journey

Bennu’s Journey is a 6-minute animated movie about NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, Asteroid Bennu, and the formation of our solar system. Born from the rubble of a violent collision, hurled through space for millions of years, Asteroid Bennu has had a tough life in a rough neighborhood – the early solar system. Bennu’s Journey shows what is known and what remains mysterious about the evolution of Bennu and the planets. By retrieving a sample of Bennu, OSIRIS-REx will teach us more about the raw ingredients of the solar system and our own origins.

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What kills us – Now and then

killing-deaths_1024Researchers have reviewed all the causes of death recorded in the US in 1900 and 2010 to find out just how much society has changed over the past century. The results are fascinating. A team of researchers from the New England Journal of Medicine have done some investigating to discover how much things can change in 100 years. While the year 1900 brought with it many different causes of death, from bacterial infections to severe problems with the gut, now most of us pretty much just have heart disease and cancer to fear.

The authors note that in many respects, the medical systems of today are best suited to the killer diseases of the past, which is kind of a worry. “Disease is a complex domain of human experience, involving explanation, expectation, and meaning,” they write. “Doctors must acknowledge this complexity and formulate theories, practices, and systems that fully address the breadth and subtlety of disease.” “There’s reason to temper optimism,” Julia Belluz adds at Vox. “What kills us will continue to change – and medical advancements may not keep up.” Via Here’s everything that kills us in one morbid chart

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