Dr. Shelby S. Putt has a theory "Human-Like Thinking" evolved much earlier that perviously thought.(Photo credit - University of Iowa)


Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

June 2017

In the News:

"Human-Like Thinking" Evolved Earlier than Thought - By using highly advanced brain imaging technology to observe modern humans crafting ancient tools, an Indiana University neuroarchaeologist has found evidence that human-like ways of thinking may have emerged as early as 1.8 million years ago, which predates Neanderthals by nearly 600,000 years. "This is a significant result because it's commonly thought our most modern forms of cognition only appeared very recently in terms of human evolutionary history," said Shelby S. Putt, a postdoctoral researcher with The Stone Age Institute at Indiana University, who is first author on the study. "But these results suggest the transition from apelike to humanlike ways of thinking and behaving arose surprisingly early." The authors of the study measured the brain activity using a near-infrared spectroscopy -- a device that resembles a lightweight cap with numerous wires used to shine highly sensitive lasers onto the scalp -- to observe brain activity of volunteers as they were taught to create different types of primitive tools. By identifying the amount and type of brain activity required to produce a certain tool the researchers can gauge how advanced in its thinking the hominoid that made them may have been.

Early Earth had "Silicate Rain" - How did we get the crust of the Earth? Conventional theory holds that all of the early Earth's crustal ingredients were formed by volcanic activity. Now, however, McGill University earth scientists Don Baker and Kassandra Sofonio have published a theory with a novel twist: that a Mars-sized planetoid plowed into the proto-Earth around 4.5 billion years ago, melting the Earth and turning it into an ocean of magma. The atmosphere following that collision, however, consisted of high-temperature steam that dissolved rocks on the Earth's immediate surface -- "much like how sugar is dissolved in coffee," Baker explains. This is where the new wrinkle comes in. "These dissolved minerals rose to the upper atmosphere and cooled off, and then these silicate materials that were dissolved at the surface would start to separate out and fall back to Earth in what we call a silicate rain." To test this theory, Baker and co-author Kassandra Sofonio, a McGill undergraduate research assistant, spent months developing a series of laboratory experiments designed to mimic the steamy conditions on early Earth. Their resulting paper, published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters, posits a new theory of "aerial metasomatism" -- a term coined by Sofonio to describe the process by which silica minerals condensed and fell back to earth over about a million years, producing some of the earliest rock specimens known today.

"Hobbits" Not Decedents of Contemporary Hominids - A study on the bones of Homo floresiensis, (sometimes referred to as "the hobbits" due to their small stature) discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003, has found that they most likely evolved from an ancestor in Africa and not from Homo erectus, which lived at the same time. "The analyses show that on the family tree, Homo floresiensis was likely a sister species of Homo habilis. It means these two shared a common ancestor," Dr Argue said. "It's possible that Homo floresiensis evolved in Africa and migrated, or the common ancestor moved from Africa then evolved into Homo floresiensis somewhere." Homo floresiensis is known to have lived on Flores until as recently as 54,000 years ago. The study was the result of an Australian Research Council grant in 2010 that enabled the researchers to explore where the newly-found species fits in the human evolutionary tree.

Possible Diabetes Cure - A potential cure for Type 1 diabetes looms on the horizon and the l approach would also allow Type 2 diabetics to stop insulin shots. The discovery, made at The University of Texas Health Science Center, increases the types of pancreatic cells that secrete insulin. Researchers have a goal to reach human clinical trials in three years, but to do so they must first test the strategy in large-animal studies, which will cost an estimated $5 million. The strategy has cured diabetes in mice. "It worked perfectly," Dr. Doiron, assistant professor of medicine at UT Health, said. "We cured mice for one year without any side effects. That's never been seen. But it's a mouse model, so caution is needed. We want to bring this to large animals that are closer to humans in physiology of the endocrine system." Diabetes occurs when Beta cell in the pancreas stop making insulin. This approach works by using a "gene transfer" where a virus as used as a vector, or carrier, to introduce selected genes into the pancreas converting non-Beta cells to Beta cells.

"Kill Zone" for Supernova Near Earth Revised - Researchers looking at a nearby supernova that occurred 150 million years ago have revised the estimate of how close an exploding star would need to be to Earth to cause a mass extinction. "People estimated the 'kill zone' for a supernova in a paper in 2003, and they came up with about 25 light years from Earth," said University of Kansas researcher Adrian Melott, professor of physics and astronomy. "Now we think maybe it's a bit greater than that. They left some effects out or didn't have good numbers, so now we think it may be a bit larger distance. We don't know precisely, and of course it wouldn't be a hard-cutoff distance. It would be a gradual change. But we think something more like 40 or 50 light years. So, an event at 150 light years should have some effects here but not set off a mass extinction." The distance of 40 or 50 light years is still reassuring as the only known candidate for a supernova near us is the star Betelgeuse, about 600 light years away.

Devil's Kettle Mystery Solved? - A scientist from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) thinks he's solved the mystery of the famous Devil's Kettle Falls. The Brule River splits into two and one half flows continues down to Lake Superior while the other seemly disappears forever down a hole in the ground. For years, researchers have tried to figure out where it goes, but hydrologist Jeff Green thinks he has evidence that the water almost immediately re-enters the river. He and colleagues set up water flow gauging equipment just above and below the falls and found the amount of water going by to be almost identical: 123 cubic feet per second above and several hundred feet below it was almost the same at 121 feet per second. Their conclusion is that the water must re-enter the stream within that distance. This fall the DNR team will try to confirm this by putting dye in the water. One concern, with this technique, however, is that it's been tried before without success.


Science Quote of the Month - "The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge.." - Thomas Berger


What's New at the Museum:

The V-3: Hitler's Super Cannon - The Third Reich produced a number of "Vengeance" weapons during WW II. Most people are familiar with the V-1: the first ever cruise missile and the V-2: the first ever ballistic missile used in war. There was a lesser known third Vengeance weapon the German's deployed, however. It wasn't a missile, however, but a gun. A really big gun. So large some people call it a "Super Cannon." Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this this?

Ask the Curator:

A WOW in SETI - What do you know about the WOW signal, and have scientists found any possible source (other than aliens)? Could it have even been faked? Or is it more likely to be a genuine signal from aliens? If that's the case, why haven't we heard any more? - Jonathan .

This signal (called the "WOW" signal because that's what the scientist who first saw the data wrote on the printout) was observed by the "Big Ear" radio telescope at Ohio State University on August 15, 1977. The Big Ear was part of a SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project run by the college for almost 30 years. The signal was the closest thing to an alien contact that the project - or anybody else involved in SETI - has ever found.

There are several things that make the signal so interesting. The first is the strength. It is extremely high: The most powerful signal ever received from space from an unknown source. Second is its duration. Almost exactly 72 seconds. This is significant because the Big Ear was a fixed radio antenna which swept the sky as the earth turned and 72 seconds was exactly the length of time it would take for the antenna to sweep by a pinpoint source in space. Also the growth and decay pattern of the signal is exactly what one would expect for a fixed celestial source, making it unlikely it was an earthbound transmitter. Third is its frequency: It is very near the frequency of hydrogen and very concentrated. The hydrogen "line" is considered to be by most scientists the logical frequency to choose if you where trying to broadcast to another civilization. The fact that that signal did not extend much above or below that frequency is a strong indication that the broadcast was artificial, as natural sources a rarely so concentrated.

Another intriguing aspect of this signal is that is that it was only observed from one of the Big Ear's two "horns" but not the other. They scanned the same section of sky about two minutes apart, so in that short period something, or somebody, stopped the transmission.

As fascinating as the signal was, it has never been found again despite many researchers revisiting that location in the sky using, in many cases, much more sensitive equipment. This both deepens the mystery and makes it almost impossible to hope for a solution. The follow up surveys have almost eliminated the possibly of some weird natural source. However, the lack of any additional signals also makes it seem very unlikely that aliens are trying to contact us. Most scientists believe that they definitely would try more than once (although we ourselves have only sent a sent an outbound signal once). The only way we may have missed their additional signals, if they exist, is if they are being repeated at very long intervals (at least 14 hours apart).

In science, unless something is repeatable, it doesn't count for much. Some have suggested that the signal may have been a man-made space probe that the SETI team wasn't aware of, but there is no way of proving that one way or another. So, the mystery continues. We can only hope that if E.T. was trying to contact us, he tries to phone again, soon.

Have a question? Click here to send it to us.


In History:

Hale Telescope Dedicated - On June 3rd, 1948, the famous (5.08 m) Hale telescope at the Palomar Mountain Observatory in California was dedicated. With a mirror of 200 inches (5.08m) it was the largest in the world at the time. So large, in fact, after casting it took 11 months to cool. The 20-ton glass disk then took years of grinding and polishing. The telescope was named after Dr. George Ellery Hale who conceived, designed and the device. Unfortunately, he didn't live to see it completed.


In the Sky:

Check Out Saturn - On June 3, Saturn will be at opposition to the sun (which means it will be exactly opposite the sun in Earth's sky) Expect it to rise in the east-southeast near sunset, reaching its highest position in the southern sky in the middle of the night, and setting in the west-southwest around sunrise. If you have a small telescope you may even be able to see the famous rings. They are highly visible at this point as the planet is tipped toward Earth.



Ghostbuster Film Inspires Dino Name - Scientists have unveiled a new species of dinosaur the looks a lot like the monster from the original 1984 hit film "Ghostbusters" and have named it Zuul crurivastator after then film's evil supernatural villain, Zuul. The dinosaur was unearthed from the Judith River Formation in Montana and now at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada. Ghostbusters star Dan Aykroyd stopped by to meet the new fossil and take some publicity shots for the museum. The animal is a ankylosaur, a heavily armored dinosaur with a club like tail that was used for defense. In fact, the second portion of the name, crurivastator, literally translates to "Destroyer of Shins."


Zeep and Meep are on a well deserved vacation. In their place we feature highlights from their past adventures.

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