Category: science

This Ancient Mummy Is Older Than the Pharaohs

By Mindy Weisberger

Embalming in ancient Egypt predated the pharaohs, an ancient mummy reveals. That would mean that the practice began at least 1,500 years earlier than once thought.

The mummy — an adult male curled on its left side in a fetal pose — is about 6,000 years old. It was previously thought to be naturally preserved by desert conditions at the site where it was buried. But the first-ever tests performed on the remains showed that the mummy was embalmed, making it the earliest known example of Egyptian mummification, researchers reported in a new study.

Further examination showed that the ancient embalmers used multiple ingredients to preserve the corpse, employing a similar recipe to the ones used 2,500 years later, when mummification in Egypt was at its peak. 

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This spaghetti-breaking problem stumped physicist Richard Feynman. Two MIT students have now solved it.

By Allyson Chiu

A quick Google search of the current biggest mysteries in physics turns up a daunting list of questions: What exactly is dark matter? Why does time only move in one direction? What happens inside a black hole?

But sometimes, as American physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman discovered decades ago, equally vexing conundrums can be found in everyday objects, say dry spaghetti noodles.

One night, while preparing one of his favorite meals with supercomputer pioneer Danny Hillis, Feynman noticed something strange about spaghetti. If a dry noodle is taken and broken in half, it will almost always break into three or more pieces, tiny bits spraying in every direction.

“Why is this true — why does it break into three pieces? We spent the next two hours coming up with crazy theories,” Hillis recalled in a biography about Feynman. But, after two hours, all the duo had were their theories — “no real good” ones, Hillis said — and a mess of broken spaghetti all over Feynman’s kitchen.

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How digital drug users could help to halt the US opioid epidemic

By Sara Reardon

With the tip of her syringe, Brandi pokes at a grey lump of heroin in a spoon. It’s a new variety of the drug that has shown up on the market in the past few days, and Brandi likes it. “I feel this more, I feel more of the pain resistance,” she says.

Once it has dissolved into a liquid, she injects it into her arm, then uses a fresh needle to inject the skinny arm of another woman. “She does it better than the hospital,” the woman comments.

“I’ll help anybody who needs it,” Brandi explains to public-health researcher Daniel Ciccarone of the University of California, San Francisco, who has been filming the entire process.

Ciccarone’s team has embedded with Brandi — whose name has been changed for this story — in Charleston, West Virginia, documenting her interactions without judgement or interference. Later, the group will analyse this video, in addition to half a dozen other videos of drug users from across the city, logging details big and small. Brandi does not heat the solution on the spoon, for instance, and that may increase the likelihood of spreading viruses such as HIV. And tests reveal that what she’s taking has been laced with fentanyl, a synthetic drug up to 50 times more powerful than heroin.

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Pseudoscience: Homeopathic hocus-pocus

By Jon Hauxwell, MD

The nonprofit Center for Inquiry has lodged a federal lawsuit against pharm giant CVS due to its deceptive marketing and sales of “homeopathic” nostrums.

CVS manufactures its own HP products, and sells other brands. CVS is charged with “deliberately fostering the impression through display and placement that they are effective to treat particular complaints, and that they are comparable in efficacy, and regulation to science-based medical products.”

HP is a “pseudoscience,” defined as “a system of theories, assumptions, and methods erroneously regarded as scientific.”

Samuel Hahnemann invented HP in the 1700s, when we hadn’t even discovered Germ Theory yet. Hahnemann knew nothing of today’s molecular chemistry.

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The Cognitive Biases Tricking Your Brain

By Ben Yagoda

I am staring at a photograph of myself that shows me 20 years older than I am now. I have not stepped into the twilight zone. Rather, I am trying to rid myself of some measure of my present bias, which is the tendency people have, when considering a trade-off between two future moments, to more heavily weight the one closer to the present. A great many academic studies have shown this bias—also known as hyperbolic discounting—to be robust and persistent.

Most of them have focused on money. When asked whether they would prefer to have, say, $150 today or $180 in one month, people tend to choose the $150. Giving up a 20 percent return on investment is a bad move—which is easy to recognize when the question is thrust away from the present. Asked whether they would take $150 a year from now or $180 in 13 months, people are overwhelmingly willing to wait an extra month for the extra $30.

Present bias shows up not just in experiments, of course, but in the real world. Especially in the United States, people egregiously undersave for retirement—even when they make enough money to not spend their whole paycheck on expenses, and even when they work for a company that will kick in additional funds to retirement plans when they contribute.

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US Congress leaves science agencies hanging — again

By Jeremy Rehm

Lawmakers in the US Congress are running out of time to pass a budget for the 2019 fiscal year, and have yet to resolve major disagreements over climate-change and environment programmes.

Although the federal government is funded through 30 September, politicians in the Senate and the House of Representatives have just 11 working days before then to reach agreement on the funding for key science agencies. The budgets of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are among those still being negotiated.

The Senate has approved two 2019 spending bills, and is expected to vote on more later this month. The House, which has adjourned for the month of August, has passed three. But the two chambers need to iron out the differences in their proposals before sending them to President Donald Trump to sign into law.

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NASA Spotted a Vast, Glowing ‘Hydrogen Wall’ at the Edge of Our Solar System

By Rafi Letzter

There’s a “hydrogen wall” at the edge of our solar system, and NASA scientists think their New Horizons spacecraft can see it.

That hydrogen wall is the outer boundary of our home system, the place where our sun’s bubble of solar wind ends and where a mass of interstellar matter too small to bust through that wind builds up, pressing inward. Our host star’s powerful jets of matter and energy flow outward for a long stretch after leaving the sun — far beyond the orbit of Pluto. But at a certain point, they peter out, and their ability to push back the bits of dust and other matter — the thin, mysterious stuff floating within our galaxy’s walls — wanes. A visible boundary forms. On one side are the last vestiges of solar wind. And on the other side, in the direction of the Sun’s movement through the galaxy, there’s a buildup of interstellar matter, including hydrogen.

And now NASA researchers are pretty sure that New Horizons, the probe that famously skimmed past Pluto in 2015, can see that boundary.

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Thousands of exotic ‘topological’ materials discovered through sweeping search

By Elizabeth Gibney

The already buzzing field of topological physics could be about to explode. For the first time, researchers have systematically scoured through entire databases of materials in search of ones that harbour topological states — exotic phases of matter that have fascinated physicists for a decade. The results show that thousands of known materials probably have topological properties — and perhaps up to 24% of materials in all. Previously, researchers knew of just a few hundred topological materials, and only around a dozen have been studied in detail.

“I’m shocked by the number,” says Reyes Calvo, an experimental physicist at the nanoGUNE Cooperative Research Center in San Sebastián, Spain.

In late July, several teams posted preprints1,2,3 detailing their scans of tens of thousands of materials and their predicted topological classifications, which are based on algorithms that use a material’s chemistry and symmetry to calculate their properties. Two teams have already integrated their algorithms into searchable databases. “You can put in a compound name and, with one click, get whether there is topology or not. For me, this is wonderful,” says Chandra Shekhar, a condensed-matter physicist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Physics of Solids in Dresden, Germany.

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NASA is going closer to the Sun than anyone has gone before

By Don Lincoln

In a story from Greek mythology, a clever craftsman named Daedalus was imprisoned in a tower for knowing too much. To escape, he fashioned a set of wings made of feathers and wax, one for him and one for his son Icarus. As they made their escape, he cautioned the boy to not fly too high, as his wings would melt. Icarus ignored his father, soared too close to the Sun, and fell to his death.

Luckily for astronomers and science enthusiasts everywhere, NASA has completely ignored this cautionary tale.

Sometime in the two weeks starting Saturday, NASA will launch the Parker Solar Probe, a spacecraft that will fly closer to the Sun than any previous space mission. Its objective is to pass through the Sun’s corona and study the complicated magnetic fields that surround it. The probe was named after legendary American astrophysicist Eugene Parker who, in the 1950s, contributed significantly to our understanding of the environment in space surrounding the Sun.

You might think that the Sun is well understood, given that we’ve been aware of it for millennia, but it is a coquettish beast, with some significant mysteries. The sun is a nuclear furnace, constantly shooting hot plasma — mostly protons and electrons from overheated hydrogen atoms — off into space. That hot plasma is the origin of the beautiful aurorae — known in the Northern hemisphere as the Northern lights — seen in the frigid nights of the polar regions.

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These half-billion-year-old creatures were animals—but unlike any known today

By Colin Barras

So-called Ediacaran organisms have puzzled biologists for decades. To the untrained eye they look like fossilized plants, in tube or frond shapes up to 2 meters long. These strange life forms dominated Earth’s seas half a billion years ago, and scientists have long struggled to figure out whether they’re algae, fungi, or even an entirely different kingdom of life that failed to survive. Now, two paleontologists think they have finally established the identity of the mysterious creatures: They were animals, some of which could move around, but they were unlike any living on Earth today.

Scientists first discovered the Ediacaran organisms in 1946 in South Australia’s Ediacara Hills. To date, researchers have identified about 200 different types in ancient rocks across the world. Almost all appear to have died out by 541 million years ago, just before fossils of familiar animals like sponges and the ancestors of crabs and lobsters appeared in an event dubbed the Cambrian explosion. One reason these creatures have proved so tricky to place in the tree of life is that some of them had an anatomy unique in nature. Their bodies were made up of branched fronds with a strange fractal architecture, in which the frond subunits resembled small versions of the whole frond.

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