lunes, 21 de septiembre de 2009
— Black holes are invading stars, providing a radical explanation to bright flashes in the universe that are one of the biggest mysteries in astronomy today.
The flashes, known as gamma ray bursts, are beams of high energy radiation – similar to the radiation emitted by explosions of nuclear weapons – produced by jets of plasma from massive dying stars.
The orthodox model for this cosmic jet engine involves plasma being heated by neutrinos in a disk of matter that forms around a black hole, which is created when a star collapses.
But mathematicians at the University of Leeds have come up with a different explanation: the jets come directly from black holes, which can dive into nearby massive stars and devour them.
Their theory is based on recent observations by the Swift satellite which indicates that the central jet engine operates for up to 10,000 seconds - much longer than the neutrino model can explain.
Mathematicians believe that this is evidence for an electromagnetic origin of the jets, i.e. that the jets come directly from a rotating black hole, and that it is the magnetic stresses caused by the rotation that focus and accelerate the jet's flow.
For the mechanism to operate the collapsing star has to be rotating extremely rapidly. This increases the duration of the star's collapse as the gravity is opposed by strong centrifugal forces.
One particularly peculiar way of creating the right conditions involves not a collapsing star but a star invaded by its black hole companion in a binary system. The black hole acts like a parasite, diving into the normal star, spinning it with gravitational forces on its way to the star's centre, and finally eating it from the inside.
"The neutrino model cannot explain very long gamma ray bursts and the Swift observations, as the rate at which the black hole swallows the star becomes rather low quite quickly, rendering the neutrino mechanism inefficient, but the magnetic mechanism can," says Professor Komissarov from the School of Mathematics at the University of Leeds.
"Our knowledge of the amount of the matter that collects around the black hole and the rotation speed of the star allow us to calculate how long these long flashes will be – and the results correlate very well with observations from satellites," he adds.
The research is published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council in the UK.
— Researchers have discovered an unusual kind of meteorite in the Western Australian desert and have uncovered where in the Solar System it came from, in a very rare finding published in the journal Science.
Meteorites are the only surviving physical record of the formation of our Solar System and by analysing them researchers can glean valuable information about the conditions that existed when the early Solar System was being formed. However, information about where individual meteorites originated, and how they were moving around the Solar System prior to falling to Earth, is available for only a dozen of around 1100 documented meteorite falls over the past two hundred years.
Dr Phil Bland, the lead author of today's study from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, said: "We are incredibly excited about our new finding. Meteorites are the most analysed rocks on Earth but it's really rare for us to be able to tell where they came from. Trying to interpret what happened in the early Solar System without knowing where meteorites are from is like trying to interpret the geology of Britain from random rocks dumped in your back yard."
The new meteorite, which is about the size of cricket ball, is the first to be retrieved since researchers from Imperial College London, Ondrejov Observatory in the Czech Republic, and the Western Australian Museum, set up a trial network of cameras in the Nullarbor Desert in Western Australia in 2006.
The researchers aim to use these cameras to find new meteorites, and work out where in the Solar System they came from, by tracking the fireballs that they form in the sky. The new meteorite was found on the first day of searching using the new network, by the first search expedition, within 100m of the predicted site of the fall. This is the first time a meteorite fall has been predicted using only the data from dedicated instruments.
The meteorite appears to have been following an unusual orbit, or path around the Sun, prior to falling to Earth in July 2007, according to the researchers' calculations. The team believes that it started out as part of an asteroid in the innermost main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It then gradually evolved into an orbit around the Sun that was very similar to Earth's. The other meteorites that researchers have data for follow orbits that take them back, deep into the main asteroid belt.
The new meteorite is also unusual because it is composed of a rare type of basaltic igneous rock. The researchers say that its composition, together with the data about where the meteorite comes from, fits with a recent theory about how the building blocks for the terrestrial planets were formed. This theory suggests that the igneous parent asteroids for meteorites like today's formed deep in the inner Solar System, before being scattered out into the main asteroid belt. Asteroids are widely believed to be the building blocks for planets like the Earth so today's finding provides another clue about the origins of the Solar System.
The researchers are hopeful that their new desert network could yield many more findings, following the success of their first meteorite search.
Dr Bland added: "We're not the first team to set up a network of cameras to track fireballs, but other teams have encountered problems because meteorites are small rocks and they're hard to find in vegetated areas. Our solution was quite simple - build a fireball network in a place where it's easy to find them. The Nullarbour Desert is ideal because there's very little vegetation and dark rocks show up really easily on the light desert plain.
"It was amazing to find a meteorite that we could track back to its origin in the asteroid belt on our first expedition using our small trial network. We're cautiously optimistic that this find could be the first of many and if that happens, each find may give us more clues about how the Solar System began," said Dr Bland.
The researchers' network of cameras takes a single time-lapse picture every night to record any fireballs in the sky. When a meteorite falls, researchers can then use complex calculations to uncover what orbit the meteorite was following and where the meteorite is likely to have landed, so that they can retrieve it.
Preliminary results from ESA’s Planck mission to study the early Universe indicate that the data quality is excellent. This bodes well for the full sky survey that has just begun.
Planck started surveying the sky regularly from its vantage point at the second Lagrange point of the Sun-Earth system, L2, on 13 August. The instruments were fine-tuned for optimum performance in the period preceding this date.
ESA's Planck microwave observatory is the first European mission designed to study the Cosmic Microwave Background – the relic radiation from the Big Bang.
Following launch on 14 May, checkouts of the satellite's subsystems were started in parallel with the cool-down of its instruments' detectors. The detectors are looking for variations in the temperature of the Cosmic Microwave Background that are about a million times smaller than one degree – this is comparable to measuring from Earth the body heat of a rabbit sitting on the Moon. To achieve this, Planck's detectors must be cooled to extremely low temperatures, some of them being very close to absolute zero (–273.15°C, or zero Kelvin, 0K).
With check-outs of the subsystems finished, instrument commissioning, optimisation, and initial calibration was completed by the second week of August.
The 'first light' survey, which began on 13 August, was a two-week period during which Planck surveyed the sky continuously. It was carried out to verify the stability of the instruments and the ability to calibrate them over long periods to the exquisite accuracy needed.
This survey was completed on 27 August, yielding maps of a strip of the sky, one for each of Planck's nine frequencies. Each map is a ring, about 15° wide, stretching across the full sky. Preliminary analysis indicates that the quality of the data is excellent.
Routine operations started as soon as the first light survey was completed, and surveying will now continue for at least 15 months without a break. In approximately 6 months, the first all-sky map will be assembled.
Within its allotted operational life of 15 months, Planck will gather data for two complete sky maps. To fully exploit the high sensitivity of Planck, the data will require delicate adjustments and careful analysis. It promises to return a treasure trove that will keep both cosmologists and astrophysicists busy for decades to come.
ScienceDaily — Observations by the European Space Agency’s Venus Express mission have provided strong new evidence that the solar wind has stripped away significant quantities of water from Earth’s twin planet. The data also shed new light on the transfer of trace gases in the Venusian atmosphere and wind patterns.
The results will be presented at the European Planetary Science Congress in Potsdam, Germany, on Wednesday 16 September.
The SPICAV and VIRTIS instruments carried by the spacecraft have been used to measure concentrations of water vapour in the Venusian atmosphere at altitudes ranging from the lowest 10 km up to 110 km, high above the cloud tops. Studies led by scientists from Belgium and Russia have found that the ratio of heavy water, which contains the isotope deuterium instead of hydrogen, to normal water is nearly twice as high above the clouds compared to its value in the lower atmosphere.
“Water vapour is a very rare species in the Venusian atmosphere: if it were in liquid form now, it would cover the surface of Venus with just a few centimetres of water. However, we believe Venus once had large volumes of water that have since escaped into space or stripped away by the solar wind. These results from Venus Express demonstrate that the heavier water containing deuterium has not been able to escape Venus’s gravity as easily as normal H2O. This enrichment of heavy water provides strong evidence that water loss is occurring in the upper atmosphere and that Venus was probably more humid and Earth-like in the distant past,” said Dr Emmanuel Marcq of the LATMOS laboratory in France.
A team led by Dr Marcq has also used SPICAV to study the variation of sulphur dioxide with latitude and found that there is a gradual decrease of concentrations of the gas towards the poles.
“This fits well with our knowledge of global circulation,” said Dr Marcq. “Incoming energy from the Sun is redistributed so that the atmosphere rises near the equator and subsequently falls towards the poles. We also see a decrease in the amounts of sulphur dioxide in the upper atmosphere, where it is destroyed by ultraviolet radiation. Globally, our measurements confirm the downward trend in sulphur dioxide concentrations since the first measurements were made in the 1970s, which indicates that there may be active volcanism on Venus, although it has never been directly observed yet.”
The VIRTIS and VMC team has also been able to measure the velocity of the wind at different altitudes in Venus atmosphere by analysing observations in different wavelengths. The cloud tops at an altitude of 70 kilometres reflect visible and ultraviolet light on day side. The lower atmosphere can be viewed on the night side in infrared wavelengths, in which radiation escapes from the lower atmosphere and the surface through narrow spectral intervals called “transparency windows”.
Observations of the lower cloud layer over a two year period show that the wind is nearly constant in time with no seasonal effects or variations linked to the position of the Sun in the Venusian sky. A study, led by Dr Ricardo Hueso at the Universidad País Vasco, has found that variations in the intensity of the wind happen from time to time, especially in subpolar regions close to 65ºS latitude.
“The variations seem to be linked to the polar vortex which may affect latitudes beyond its overall location, however we don’t yet have an explanation as to how this occurs,” said Dr Hueso.
Previous studies have shown that East-West wind speeds are very high, reaching 400km/h in the upper clouds at equatorial latitudes and 230 km/h in the lower cloud at tropical latitudes. However, the new analysis also shows that there is almost no wind in meridional (North-South) directions between tropical and subpolar latitudes in the lower cloud, which is in contrast to wind speeds of around 35 km/h in the upper clouds flowing from tropics to the pole transporting heat. Intriguingly, particular structures in the lower cloud layer may still travel North and South in this region with significant velocities of up to 40 km/h.
“Most of the cloud structures in the lower cloud do not travel in the meridional direction but sometimes some of them travel Northwards and others Southwards. The average of all these turbulent and chaotic motions is very close to zero but rarely some structures can travel at these high speeds of 40 km/h to the North or the South. When we have been able to analyse further these turbulent motions in the lower cloud, we might discover important hints to the origin of the atmospheric super-rotation and finally solve the big mystery of why the winds on Venus flow faster than the planet’s rotation,” said Dr Hueso.
Well-preserved craniodental fossil remains from two primate species have been discovered during excavations at an Algerian site. They reveal that the small primate Algeripithecus, which is 50 million years old and until now was considered as the most ancient African anthropoid, in fact belonged to another group, that of the crown strepsirhines.
This research was carried out by a team of French researchers from the Institut des Sciences de l'Evolution (Université de Montpellier/CNRS), working with Algerian paleontologists from the universities of Tlemcen, Oran and Jijel. The resulting publication, published online on the website of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (Biological Sciences) on September 9, 2009, reopens the debate on the African origin of anthropoids, the group to which humans and apes belong.
In 1992, fossilized remains of the small primate Algeripithecus were discovered in the Algerian Sahara. Fifty million years old, weighing just 75 g and known to paleontologists thanks to the remains of two molars, this primate was considered to be the most ancient anthropoid of the African continent. The discovery of Algeripithecus was thus a major contribution to the hypothesis under which Africa was the cradle of anthropoid primates, a group to which humans and apes all belong. The existence of another primate, the Azibius, has been known for longer. This is one of the most ancient African representatives of the crown strepsirhines, another primate group that today is represented by the lemurs of Madagascar, the galagos of Central Africa and the loris of Southern Asia.
At the Glib Zegdou site in north-eastern Algeria, a French team from the Institut des Sciences de l'Evolution in Montpellier (Université de Montpellier/CNRS), working in collaboration with Algerian scientists, recently exhumed cranial and dental fragments from both Algeripithecus and Azibius. They included some nearly complete mandibles. These remains displayed a certain number of traits typical of the crown strepsirhines, notably an adaptation to nocturnal activity and the putative presence of a "toothcomb"  in the lower toothrow. The paleontologists concluded that Algeripithecus, like its close relative Azibius, did not in fact belong to the family of anthropoid primates but was very probably one of the most ancient representatives in Africa of the crown strepsirhines.
In Egypt, the presence of more than a dozen fossilized anthropoid primates dating from 30 to 38 million years ago had long been known. This recent Franco-Algerian discovery thus advances the first true appearance of anthropoid primates on the African continent by more than 15 million years. With its major consequences on the evolutionary history of African anthropoid primates, this observation further strengthens the alternative hypothesis of an Asiatic origin for anthropoids. Furthermore, this paleontologic research reveals a hitherto unsuspected diversity and great antiquity of the first crown strepsirhines in Africa.
(1) Situated at the front of the teeth, the toothcomb is made up of modified canines and incisors, set more horizontally. It serves for the collection of food, the removal of nits and grooming of the coat.
South America's Altiplano is filled with mega volcanoes, some of which have had supereruptions. Even the Incas were troubled by at least one moderate eruption from this blast zone.
One of North America's great supereruptions came from the Valles Caldera, shown here in a south-looking view. The volcano looks like a giant pockmark in the middle of northern New Mexico. The Rio Grande can be seen to the left of the volcano, wending south through Albuquerque (upper left) in the distance.
Photo credit: NASA World Wind
An unprecedented miniature portrait of a young, resolute, sexy Alexander the Great has emerged during excavations in Israel, archaeologist announced this week.
Engraved on a brilliantly red gemstone, the finely carved tiny head portrait is estimated to be 2,300 old, possibly dating to after the Macedonian king's death in 323 B.C.
Less than a half-inch long, the gemstone was found by a University of Washington student in the remains of a large public building from the Hellenistic period at Tel Dor, an archaeological site that once was a major port on Israel's Mediterranean coast.
Located about 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) south of Haifa, the village was indeed known to Alexander the Great, who passed through there in 332 B.C. on his way to Egypt. The people of Dor submitted to Alexander without resistance and remained a center of Greek culture in Israel for about two centuries, until it was conquered by Alexander Jannaeus, King of Judea, in 100 B.C.
A compelling evidence of exquisite Hellenistic minor art, the carving shows a head in left profile, with rather sexy features: wavy locks of hair, wide, deep-set eyes with an intense stare, high brows and fine-cut neck. "The engraver portrayed Alexander without omitting any of the ruler's characteristics. The emperor is shown as young and forceful, with a strong chin, straight nose and long curly hair," Ayelet Gilboa, chairman of the archaeology department at Israel's University of Haifa, told Discovery News.
The distinct facial features of the work helped the researchers identify the subject as the legendary conqueror and emperor. But there was more.
"There is a diadem -- a white cloth band tied around the head -- which marks this portrait clearly as a Hellenistic ruler. Also, in the lower right hand corner, below the break, traces of a radiate crown can be seen," said Jessica Nitschke, the professor of classical archaeology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. who identified the engraved motif as a bust of Alexander.
"Only images of Alexander the Great (rarely) and the Ptolemies of Egypt (much more commonly) are known to have the radiate crown. However, the facial features of our example here do not conform to the many known images of the Ptolemaic kings of Egypt," Nitschke said.
The gem, which is probably carnelian, would have originally been set in a gold ring, and was probably intended for private ownership.Carnelian is a variety of crystalline quartz infused with iron impurities, which is found in antiquity in the deserts of Arabia and Egypt. The combination of the stone as well as the iconography, perhaps suggests that this piece originated in Egypt," Nitschke said.
According to Ayelet Gilboa, co-director of the excavations with Ilan Sharon of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the discovery shows that not only leading members of the Hellenistic courts, but also local elites at places such as Tel Dor, on the periphery of Alexander's huge empire, could afford ownership of superior objects of art.
Although Alexander used his image as a propaganda tool, resulting in numerous portraits distributed throughout his empire, gem portraits of the Macedonian king are quite rare.
The most widely known gemstone portrait of Alexander is the Neisos gem, now located in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, which features a full-length portrait of the Macedonian king.
"The Dor gem is of equally high quality, and of course has more facial detail since it is of just the head," Nitschke said.
Moreover, it is one of the few portraits uncovered in a controlled excavation, and in a proper Hellenistic context.
"It didn't simply emerge on the antiquities market or auction house, and thus we can be sure of its authenticity," Nitschke said.
It didn't look like much at first, just a broken, mud-caked stone mug.
But when archaeologists in Jerusalem cleaned the 2,000-year-old vessel, they discovered ten lines of mysterious script.
"These were common stone mugs that appear in all Jewish households" of the time, said lead excavator Shimon Gibson of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
"But this is the first time an inscription has been found on a stone vessel" of this type.
Deciphering the writing could provide a window into daily life or religious ritual in Jerusalem around the time of Jesus Christ (interactive time line of early Christianity).
Working on historic Mount Zion—site of King David's tomb and the Last Supper—the archaeologists found the cup near a ritual pool this summer. The dig site is in what had been an elite residential area near the palace of King Herod the Great, who ruled Israel shortly before the birth of Jesus.
From the objects that surrounded it, Gibson determined that the cup dated from some time between 37 B.C. and A.D. 70, when the Romans nearly destroyed Jerusalem after a Jewish revolt.
Among the dig's other finds are ruins spanning the time of the founding of King Solomon's Temple, around 970 B.C., to the destruction of Jerusalem by Christian crusaders in A.D. 1099.
Aside from the inscription, the cup—which was found in three fragments—isn't unusual, archaeologists say. Such stone mugs were popular among Jews at the time, thanks to purity rules.
Like people who keep kosher today, Jews in Jesus's day followed a complex code when it came to food and drink.
According to tradition, a pottery cup that had been contaminated by contact with a forbidden food had to be broken and discarded. But "according to Jewish law, stone cannot become ritually impure," said archaeologist Jodi Magness, an expert on daily life in biblical Jerusalem.
"In the long run, if you're observing purity laws, it's cost-effective to use stone vessels," said Magness, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
It was likely especially cost-effective in Jerusalem. The city was a center for the production of the stone vessels, crafted from a soft, chalky rock common to the region.
Scholars are divided on what the vessels—usually hand-carved and crude, resembling beer mugs—were used for. For one thing, they're awkward for drinking.
"Personally," study leader Gibson said, "I believe these were used for ritual purification of hands before a meal."
What sets the newfound cup apart is its inscription, which is still sharply etched but so far impossible to understand.
Similar to intentionally enigmatic writing in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the cup's script appears to be a secret code, written in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic, the two written languages used in Jerusalem at the time.
"They wrote it intending it to be cryptic," Gibson said.
In hopes the script can be deciphered, Gibson's team is sharing pictures of the cup with experts on the writing of the period. The researchers also plan to post detailed photos of the cup and its inscriptions online soon.
One thing the team is sure of, though, is that whoever inscribed the cup had something big in mind—and didn't want just anyone to know.
"They could be instructions on how to use [the cup], could have incantations or curses. But it's not going to be something mundane like a shopping list."
In an "unexpected" discovery, a rattle-wielding elite male has been found buried among powerful priestesses of the pre-Inca Moche society in Peru, archaeologists announced Monday. (See pictures of Moche treasures from the tomb.)
Surrounded by early "smoke machines" as well as human and llama bones, the body was among several buried inside a unique double-chambered tomb that dates back to A.D. 850, said archaeologist Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, of the Catholic University of Peru in Lima.
The tomb contained a wooden coffin decorated with a copper lattice and a gilded mask, sitting on a raised platform. Inside the coffin "is where we find the main object of the burial, and that fellow is a male," Castillo said.
"After 18 years of excavation in San José de Moro, we were expecting another female," he added. "But this tends to happen [in archaeology]—expect the unexpected."
"Smoke Machines," Llama Sacrifice?
The Moche people were a fragmented society of farmers who occupied the arid coasts of Peru from about A.D. 100 to 1000. (See a Peru map.)
Since 1991 Castillo has led excavations at San José de Moro, a regional ceremonial center and cemetery for elite Moche in the northern coast's Jequetepeque Valley.
The site has so far yielded seven royal priestess burials, an indication of the powerful role of women in Moche society, Castillo said.
This year Castillo's team started excavations on the first known double-chambered Moche tomb. The work was partially funded by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)
Artwork painted on known Moche pottery often depicts a ritual ceremony where a coffin is lowered into a tomb like the one that held the rattle-wielding male.
The funerals, Castillo noted, were cause for celebration and allowed for the seamless transition of power from one ruler to the next. Living priestesses probably performed such burials at annual festivals held at San José de Moro.
At the newly explored tomb, the team found a ramp that led into the first chamber, which contained the bones of a young human male on one side and those of a llama in a corner.
The human and the llamas "could have been sacrificed for the purpose of the burial," Castillo said.
Ceramic bowls about 20 inches (38 centimeters) wide crowded the floor along the walls and filled overlying niches. The large bowls were overflowing with smaller, thick-walled ceramic bottles.
These bottles may have been heated up and dropped into liquid-filled bowls to create a steamy, misty effect as bodies were lowered into the tomb during the funeral, Castillo said.
A sealed door closed off the entrance to the second chamber. Inside that second room, painted red and yellow, the archaeologists found the remains of two females and a male in simple burials.
The trio may have been sacrifices, but for now the team is unsure of their exact roles.
Another unidentified young male sat cross-legged in the room, and a lone mask lay out in the open.
The mask is similar to the one found on the elite male's coffin, making Castillo suspect the mask might have been left behind from another coffin that had been mysteriously removed.
Inside the elite male's coffin, his bones, a mask, a long stick with hanging bells, and other metal objects were in disarray. The jumble suggests the coffin had endured a long, bumpy journey before arriving at the tomb complex, Castillo added.
Wrinkle Face's Rattle
The surprise discovery of an elite male burial among the priestesses sent Castillo and his colleagues searching through Moche artwork for an explanation.
(Related: "Mummy of Tattooed Woman Discovered in Peru Pyramid.")
For starters, the long stick with bells looked remarkably similar to a rattle held by a well-known archetype in Moche art.
"I think that the guy with the rattle is the guy that we have here," Castillo said.
The archetype is known as Aia Paec, or "Wrinkle Face," a central figure in burial scenes. He's often depicted lowering a coffin into a tomb alongside another human-like character named Iguana.
Alongside Iguana and a female, probably one of the priestesses, Aia Paec is also depicted in some scenes presenting a decorative shell to a leader. According to Castillo, Aia Paec and Iguana were roles that living people would have inherited. When the person who had played a role died, he or she would be buried and a new person in the living world would take on the part.
"It seems then that all of these figures are related and connected," Castillo said.
Transition of Power?
So many of the known Moche elite burials are female that some archaeologists believe women dominated the Moche power structure.
But because both men and women rulers are represented in Moche artwork, it's hard to believe that the civilization was "strictly ruled by women," Castillo said.
"I think it would be more possible to have societies where women power is allowed alongside male power," he added.
"So finding a male elite burial probably goes in that direction."
But anthropologist Steve Bourget, an expert in Moche art at the University of Texas at Austin, suspects the male in the coffin was not the tomb's primary resident.
He cites the fact that the male's coffin was found against one wall of what could be seen as an unusually empty chamber. According to Bourget, it's possible some of the tomb's inhabitants were taken away in Moche times.
"Maybe what you had in there was one of these so-called priestesses along with other people, and then they didn't remove that guy," he said.
The idea of the newfound male as a supporting figure in an important female's burial would better fit Bourget's notion that late Moche society was transitioning to a power structure ruled by kings surrounded by influential women.
"I see that in the iconography, but I also see that in the site of San José de Moro," he said.
The tomb complex's layout, he said, suggests a king's, or kings', tomb surrounded by satellite tombs for priestesses.
Such a power structure was prevalent in coastal Peru's succeeding cultures, the Chimú and later the Lambayeque, he noted.
Excavation leader Castillo, however, said that the newfound male could instead be part of a more complex burial layout that would put the Moche man on equal footing with the priestesses.
The new discovery, he added, may not be the first to support his view of male-female power sharing.
In 2008 his team excavated a priestess from a tomb alongside the one containing the elite male. "They seem to be like a mirror image, [with] the male on one side [and] the female on the other one."
True, the signs of impending disaster were everywhere, from an unspooling global economy, to war and ongoing political turmoil, to drought-stricken land, and dying oceans. And above it all, we have the growing evidence that global warming is progressing even faster than anticipated, while the political will to address it remains sluggish.
No, the planet did not come to an end. And yet—here we are, too far into the new century to pretend any longer that a new age of awareness and responsibility will suddenly emerge, unless we can gather the resolve to drag it kicking and screaming from our imaginations and into reality.
To preserve and redeem our planet, we must first understand it—and the nearly seven billion people who share its beauty, its opportunities, and its challenges. That is the purpose of EarthPulse, and it has never been an easy task. But this year the stakes seem higher somehow, even as the impediments appear steeper. These are complex times, after all, and they are changing fast.
After decades of expansion and years of rapid acceleration, the global economy has grown to an unprecedented size and near universal reach. We are connected now as never before, directly through travel, the Internet and telecommunications, and no less tangibly through the global networks of finance, trade, and commerce, which have spread both wealth and worry to the farthest corners of the Earth. We find ourselves now in an unprecedented double bind, with our global bill for decades of overconsumption—of living beyond our ecological and economic means—apparently coming due just as our financial system faces its most serious threats in several generations.
How different the world is today from the one we inherited from our parents and grandparents. In 1929, when the Great Depression struck, many people still lived in relative isolation, steeped in ancient cultural traditions and drawing on local resources for much of the food, water, and shelter they required. Today the world is knit together with cargo ships and jetliners, advertising campaigns and television reruns. Distances have collapsed, barriers have disappeared, and we are filling our homes and our minds with goods and ideas from around the globe. The human population has nearly quadrupled since the 1930s. Millions now enjoy greater wealth and security and nutrition than ever before, while others have been pushed to the margins.
And what of the planet itself? Our footprint can be seen everywhere, in the deserts we've caused to bloom and the many cities and roadways and verdant suburbs we've built, but also in the greenhouse gases we've pumped into the air, the seas we've emptied of fish, and the forests we've cut, burned, and bulldozed into oblivion. Yes, this interconnected world we've constructed has brought unprecedented comfort to millions, but it has also threatened the very functioning of nature's sustaining systems. We've transformed our home planet to such a dramatic extent that many scientists suggest we've created an entirely new geologic era: the Anthropocene, or the age of humans.
There have been exploiters and abusers throughout our history, and the greedy, the unthinking, and the downright immoral are with us still. But for the most part we've caused these planet-altering changes through the entirely understandable—laudable even—desire to better our own lot, that of our children, and even that of our fellow human beings. If our intentions have been largely benign, however, the impacts have been anything but.
Humans are nothing if not innovative, and we will likely find ways to feed our numbers as population swells beyond nine billion, and perhaps even to preserve some remnants of the planet's natural splendor. But can we do it while leaving enough rain forest so that the orangutans of Borneo can also survive? Is there room on the planet for pervasive global brands and for a thousand different cultures, each expressed through its own unique combination of sound and color, story, language, and belief? Can we continue to overcrowd and overconsume without losing the very things that have given us joy, kept us safe, and provided inspiration for as long as we've been a species? The allure of wealth, comfort, and health is powerful indeed. But asking whether we can afford them means much more than whether we simply have the money.
Money itself is now, for many, in distressingly short supply. If there is any good news in the recent economic slowdown at all, perhaps it is to be found in some still leafy corner of the Amazon Basin, where the primeval forest has not yet been converted to fire-scarred cattle range or soybean fields; or on a patch of Florida swampland that has not yet been drained, filled over, and covered with condominiums; or in the waters of a Chinese river not, for the moment, used to cool the overheated engines of industrial expansion.
After decades of accelerating deforestation, development, and exploitation, our moment of economic crisis has given the planet itself a brief moment of respite. There can be no joy in the global financial collapse—too many lives have been broken, and too many dreams put on hold. But perhaps this is a moment of opportunity also, as we seek to rebuild our systems of production and trade, and perhaps it would be just as wrong to let that opportunity pass us by.
The future is uncertain, but only the most pessimistic among us would say that the world economy will not recover and start to grow again, whether in six months, a year, or ten. We have paused in our centuries-long push to produce and consume ever more now, and the most optimistic might say that this is our chance to breathe deeply and consider the sort of future we want for ourselves and for our planet. Will consumption continue to rule the day, or will we find ways to do more good for humanity, with less harm to the Earth? Will we make our recovery merely fast, or can we make it smart as well? The choice has always been ours; the time to make it, definitively, is now.
Like a mushroom shooting out spores, a well-known comet was seen firing multiple "mini comets" that went sailing away at up to 280 miles (451 kilometers) an hour, astronomers have announced.
The fragments were recently revealed in high-resolution images of comet Holmes, a relatively small body discovered in 1892 that mysteriously erupted in 2007, when the above images were taken. (Black-ringed dots moving in the images are background stars.)
Over several days astronomers using the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope on Mauna Kea watched the 2.2-mile-wide (3.5-kilometer-wide) cloud of dust surrounding the comet swell to become larger than the sun.
Later, closer looks at the high-resolution images revealed that the comet also sent fragments, each with their own dust clouds and icy tails, shooting away from the main body.
Altogether the extra material caused the comet to brighten by a million times in less than 24 hours—producing the largest known cometary outburst in history.
"Normally you need a large telescope to see comet Holmes, but during the outburst it was visible with the naked eye," said team member Rachel Stevenson of the University of California, Los Angeles.
Comet's Internal Pressure
Comet Holmes is a so-called Jupiter Family comet, one with an orbit that crosses so near Jupiter's that the comet is affected by the massive planet's gravity. Most such comets are doomed to break apart or crash into a planet or the sun.
For instance, comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 broke up in 1994 and its pieces crashed into Jupiter. At least one other comet, Kushida-Muramatsu, was briefly captured by the gas giant in 1949 and became a Jovian moon for 12 years.
In October 2007 an amateur astronomer first reported that comet Holmes had unexpectedly brightened. Upon hearing the news, Stevenson and her colleagues quickly trained the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope on the erupting object.
Based on what they saw, the team thinks the outburst was probably triggered five months before it was spotted, when the comet's elliptical orbit brought it closest to the sun, or about 186,000,000 miles (300,000,000 kilometers) away.
"We think that the interior of the comet was heated, vaporizing ice and creating a build up of pressurized gas inside," Stevenson said. By October the pressure had become too great and the comet erupted, releasing its gas in one go.
Stevenson presented the team's findings this week at the European Planetary Science Congress 2009 in Potsdam, Germany.
Despite the drama, the comet survived the explosion, Stevenson added, and it's now making its way back toward Jupiter. Its next close approach to the sun will be in 2014.
Novelist Dan Brown's new book, The Lost Symbol, is doing for the Freemasons what its predecessor, The Da Vinci Code, did for the Catholic Church's Opus Dei—showering new fame, and new fictions, on a brotherhood that's already catnip for conspiracy theorists.
Since long before The Lost Symbol, Freemasons have been accused of everything from conspiring with extraterrestrials to practicing sexual deviancy to engaging in occult rituals to running the world—or trying to end it. Detractors include global conspiracy theorists and religious organizations, including the Catholic Church.
Released today, The Lost Symbol isn't likely to squelch any rumors, beginning as it does with a wine-filled skull, bejeweled power brokers, and a dark Masonic temple steps away from the White House.
But what if Freemasons—the world's largest international secret society—are just a bunch of guys into socializing, non-satanic rituals, self-improvement, and community service?
To separate Freemason fact from Lost Symbol-style myth, National Geographic News went inside the centuries-old order with two Masons and a historian of the ancient Christian order from which some claim the Masons sprang in the 17th or 18th century.
FREEMASON MYTH 1
Masonic Symbols Are Everywhere
It's true that Masonic symbols are anything but lost, said Freemason and historian Jay Kinney, author of the newly released Masonic Myth.
Freemasonry is rich in symbols, and many are ubiquitious—think of the pentagram, or five-pointed star, or the "all-seeing eye" in the Great Seal of the United States.
But most Masonic symbols aren't unique to Freemasonry, Kinney said.
"I view the Masonic use of symbols as a grab bag taken from here, there, and everywhere," he said. "Masonry employs them in its own fashion."
The pentagram, for example, is much older than Freemasonry and acquired its occult overtones only in the 19th and 20th centuries, hundreds of years after the Masons had adopted the symbol.
Likewise, the all-seeing eye saw its way to the Great Seal—and the U.S. dollar bill—by way of artist Pierre Du Simitiere, a non-Mason.
The eye represents divine guidance of the U.S. ship of state, or as Secretary of the U.S. Congress Charles Thompson put it in 1782, it alludes "to the many signal interpositions of providence in favour of the American cause."
There was one known Mason on the committee to design the seal, Benjamin Franklin. His proposed design was eyeless, and rejected.
FREEMASON MYTH 2
Masons Descend From the Knights Templar
Much has been made of the Freemasons purported lineage to the Knights Templar. The powerful military and religious order was established to protect medieval pilgrims to the Holy Land and dissolved by Pope Clement V, under pressure of King Phillip IV of France, in 1312.
After modern Masonry appeared in the 17th- or 18th-century Britain, some Freemasons claimed to have acquired the secrets of the Templars and adopted Templar symbols and terminology—naming certain levels of Masonic hierarchy after Templar "degrees," for example.
"But those [Knights Templar] degrees and Masonic orders had no historic connection with the original Knights Templar," Kinney explained.
"These are myths or symbolic figures that were used by the Masons. But because the association had been made with these degrees, and the degrees had perpetuated themselves, after a time it began to look like there had been a connection."
Helen Nicholson, author of The Knights Templar: A New History, agrees that there is no possibility that Freemasons are somehow descended from the Knights Templar.
By the time of the first Masons, the Cardiff University historian said, "there were no more Templars."
FREEMASON MYTH 3
Masons Are Hiding Templar Treasure
One of the Templar-Mason theory's many veins suggests that some Templars survived the order's 14th-century destruction by taking refuge in Scotland, where they hid a fabulous treasure beneath Rosslyn Chapel (as seen in The Da Vinci Code).
The treasure, and the Templar tradition, were eventually passed down to the founders of Freemasonry, the story goes.
In fact, there was Templar treasure, Nicholson said, but it ended up in other hands long ago.
"The most likely reason [the Templars were dissolved] is that the king wanted their money. The King of France was bankrupt, and the Templars had lots of ready cash."
FREEMASON MYTH 4
Washington, D.C.'s Streets Form Giant Masonic Symbols
It's long been suggested that powerful Freemasons embedded Masonic symbols in the Washington, D.C., street plan designed mainly by Frenchman Pierre L'Enfant in 1791.
The Lost Symbol is expected to prominently feature "Masonic mapping," detecting pentagrams and other symbols by connecting the dots among landmarks. Pre-release clues released by author Dan Brown, for example, include GPS coordinates for Washington landmarks.
"Individually, Masons had a role in building the White House, in building and designing Washington, D.C.," said Mark Tabbert, director of collections at the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia. "And [small scale] Masonic symbols can be found throughout the city, as they can in most U.S. cities."
But there's no Masonic message in the city's street plan, Tabbert said. For starters, Pierre L'Enfant wasn't a Mason.
And, Tabbert asked, why would Masons go to the trouble of laying out a street grid to match their symbols?
"There has to be a [reason] for doing such a thing," said Tabbert, himself a Mason. "Dan Brown will find one, because he writes fiction. But there isn't one."
FREEMASON MYTH 5
Freemasons Rule the World
Maybe it's the impressive list of prominent Freemasons—from Napoleon to F.D.R. to King Kamehameha (IV and V!)—that's led some to suggest the group is a small cabal running the globe. But Kinney, the Masonic historian, paints a picture of a largely decentralized group that might have trouble running anything with much efficiency.
"I think the ideals that Masonry embodies, which have to do with universal brotherhood, are shared by Masons around the world [regardless of] religious, political, or national differences," he said.
"But having shared ideals is one thing—having some sort of shared hierarchy is something else altogether."
Kinney noted that the U.S. alone has 51 grand lodges, one for each state and the District of Columbia. Each of these largely independent organizations oversees its many local blue (or beginner) lodges and has little real coordination with other grand lodges.
Internationally, Masonic lodges not only don't speak with a single voice but sometimes refuse to even recognize each other's existence.
Also, many Masons are independent minded and tend to resist edicts from above, Kinney said. "There is no way that they could be run by a single hierarchy. There is no such entity."
FREEMASON MYTH 6
Freemasonry Is a Religion—Or a Cult
But Masons stress that their organization is not a religion, that is it has no unique theology and does not represent a path for believers to salvation or other divine rewards.
Even so, to be accepted into Freemasonry, initiates must believe in a god—any god. Christians may be in the majority, but Jews, Muslims, and others are well represented in Masonic circles. At lodge meetings religious discussion is traditionally taboo, Kinney and Tabbert said.
But some religious leaders believe that Masonic rituals and beliefs—with its temples, altars, and oaths—do constitute an opposing faith. And the Masonic refusal to rank one religion above the others hasn't always been popular.
A 1983 Catholic declaration approved by Pope John Paul II, for example, said that "Catholics enrolled in Masonic associations are involved in serious sin and may not approach Holy Communion."
FREEMASON MYTH 7
Freemasons Started the American Revolution
Prominent Freemasons like Ben Franklin and George Washington played essential roles in the American Revolution. And among the ranks of Freemasons are 9 signers of the Declaration of Independence and 13 signers of the Constitution.
But Freemasonry—born in Britain, after all—had adherents on both sides of the conflict. Tabbert, of the George Washington Masonic Memorial, said Masonic groups allowed men on both sides of the revolution to come together as brothers—not to promote a political view, which would be against Masonic tradition.
"For many years [Masons] claimed in their own quasi-scholarship that all of these revolutionaries and Founding Fathers were Freemasons," Tabbert said. "A fair number of them were, but they weren't doing these things because they were Freemasons."
FREEMASON MYTH 8
Membership Requires Shadowy Connections
Contrary to The Lost Symbol, you don't have to drink wine from a skull to become a ranking Freemason. In fact, tradition dictates that Masons don't recruit members but simply accept those who approach them of their own free will.
When Freemasonry hit its peak in the U.S. during the late 1950s, Kinney, the Masonic historian, said, almost one of every ten eligible adult males was a member—a total of some four million and hardly a tiny elite.
Today membership numbers, like those of other fraternal organizations, have declined dramatically, and only about 1.5 million U.S. men are Masons.
But with The Lost Symbol already igniting interest in Freemasonry, Masonic centers are bracing for tourists—and maybe a few new recruits.
Sure it's pretty scary--beady eyes and all--but 125-million-year-old Raptorex kriegsteini (seen above in a new model) was no T. rex, at least in the size department. The newfound, 150-pound (70-kilogram) dinosaur, however, was nearly identical to its descendant, the 6-ton T. rex in every other way, a new study says. (Read full story.)
That Raptorex, via evolution, "scaled up, almost without change, a hundred times," resulting in T. rex some 40 million years later is an "evolutionarily staggering thing," said paleontologist Paul Sereno, lead author of the study, to be published in the journal Science tomorrow.
Newly discovered Raptorex gets underfoot of its nearly identical, though a hundred times heavier, descendant, T. rex in an artist's conception. The tiny T. rex ancestor is not known to have lived alongside its titanic ancestor.
The Raptorex find, announced September 17, 2009, runs counter to previous theories, which had said that stumpy arms were a relatively recent evolutionary development for T. rex.
Prior to Raptorex, said paleontologist Thomas Holtz of the University of Maryland, "we didn't know where and when in the history of the tyrannosaurs this arm-shortening occurred."
T. rex hypothetically could have swallowed a Raptorex head whole, skulls of both dinosaurs (pictured) suggest.
Raptorex has all the main characteristics of T. rex--big head, nipping teeth, stubby arms, fast legs--but packed into a 9-foot (3-meter) frame.
Paleontologist Paul Sereno of the University of Chicago adjusts the world's only known Raptorex skeleton, which was smuggled out of a Chinese fossil bed and later sold to U.S. collector Henry Kriegstein.
Kriegstein worked with Sereno to see that the T. rex ancestor, revealed in September 2009, was properly studied and allowed the skeleton to eventually be returned to China, where it eventually go on public display.
The Raptorex project can hopefully serve as a model for saving--and learning from--smuggled dinosaurs.
Migdal, Israel, September 13, 2009--A worker cleans a carved stone found during excavations of an ancient synagogue recently unearthed near the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
The synagogue dates back to between 50 B.C. and A.D. 100, making it one of the oldest ever found in the world. The carvings on the stone depict artifacts from the Jewish Second Temple, which was destroyed in A.D. 70 during the Roman siege of Jerusalem.
September 16, 2009--The Andromeda galaxy shines in shades of purple and blue in the highest-resolution ultraviolet picture yet taken of our closest galactic neighbor.
The composite image, created using NASA's Swift satellite, reveals a striking contrast between the galaxy's smooth central bulge--which is full of older, cooler stars--and the clusters of hot, young stars scattered across its spiral arms.
Agadez Region, Niger, September 15, 2009--Scientists excavate the 43-foot-long (13-meter-long) skeleton of a new species of sauropod--or four-legged plant-eater--in an undated photo released this week. (Related: "Bizarre New Dinosaurs Found in Sahara.")
The 170-million-year-old dinosaur, dubbed Spinophorosaurus nigerensis, had a tail studded with bony spikes that the animal likely swung at predators, study authors say in the September 16 edition of the journal PLoS One. Finding such a complete sauropod skeleton is extremely rare, and the new fossil may help scientists piece together the early evolution of the long-necked giants.
Standing for at least 4,500 years, the Sphinx is an icon recognized around the globe. A lion with the face of a mighty pharaoh, the Sphinx towers over the Giza Plateau. Yet it remains one of history's most enigmatic mysteries. Who built it, when, and why? We use the latest research to examine some of the newest and most controversial theories to reveal the Sphinx as never seen before. As we unravel the riddle behind the icon, could it be time to re-write the history books?