Monday, February 18, 2019

our Neanderthal heritage

I have a soft spot for Neanderthals, so it's always nice to see new insight coming out into what they left us, not just in terms of bones and artifacts, but also in our genomes. With genetic discoveries in the UK Biobank and the recent discovery of the genome of Denny, the child of a Neanderthal and a Denisovan, there was now enough material for a feature on the encounters and minglings between the three groups of ancient humans that were out and about in Palaeolithic Eurasia. Still no news on why two of them became extinct. Maybe they were just climate change deniers ...

My feature is out now:


Mingling with Neanderthals

Current Biology Volume 29, issue 4, pages R105-R107, February 18, 2019

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

Oh, and in the process I also learned that there is now an entire book about the Neanderthal residents of the Sima de las Palomas cave, where firstborn and I spent a week helping Michael Walker's team with the excavations, many years ago:

The people of Palomas : Neandertals from the Sima de las Palomas del Cabezo Gordo, southeastern Spain
Erik Trinkaus; Michael J Walker
College Station, Texas : Texas A&M University Press, [2017]

Saturday, February 16, 2019

ploink ploink

All our instruments series, episode 7

It appears that at some distant point in the 20th century, I fancied playing the banjo, and being very lazy, I didn't want to learn new fingerings, so I mentioned that there are banjos with guitar tuning, and sure enough I got a guitar banjo.



There are certainly times when I enjoy making that sharp ploinky sound, but I never quite liked it enough to put any effort into improving. The steel strings are very unpleasant under the fingers, the shape is awkward, the whole thing is too heavy, and strumming guitar chords on it sounds dreadful.

Also, while the drum head is a US brand (Remo), it pointedly distances itself from the rest of the instrument with the inscription "banjo head only" under the brand name. I assume they did this because the rest is cheaply made Korean stuff (Arirang), which is now becoming obvious as the plastic knobs of the machine heads have a tendency to break when you try to tune.

If all of that doesn't put you off banjos forever, here's my attempt at playing John Ryan's polka:



One day though I'll take the thing to a session just to shock people. First I'll actually have to practise a tune though, that's the problem.

I should also mention that a photo of this banjo played a pivotal role at the very beginning of the whole folk craziness going on in my family, so I'll give the old Arirang some credit for that.

Friday, February 15, 2019

science news 15.2.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without quotation marks, if I have any.


nanoworld

How proteins become embedded in a cell membrane

Platinum nanoparticles for selective treatment of liver cancer cells

What happens to magnetic nanoparticles once in cells?



life

Sea worms and jellyfish treat cancer and kill insects

From vibrations alone, acacia ants can tell nibbles from the wind



This photograph shows acacia ants on their host tree (Crematogaster mimosae, Acacia zanzibarica).
Credit: Felix A. Hager and Kathrin Krausa



humans

Dog burial as common ritual in Neolithic populations of north-eastern Iberian Peninsula


Study uses satellite data to pinpoint widespread oil industry 'flaring'
ie burning fossil fuels without even making any use of the energy. As in, climate change isn't bad enough, let's heat the planet a bit more.


---------

from the news media

A UK-wide pupils' strike protesting against the general lack of action on climate change is happening today







Thursday, February 14, 2019

science news 14.2.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without quotation marks, if I have any.


evolution

Exceptional new titanosaur from middle Cretaceous Tanzania: Mnyamawamtuka

Giant 'megalodon' shark extinct earlier than previously thought


ecology

White-tailed deer shape acoustic properties of their forest habitat
"White-tailed deer feeding habits shape the acoustic properties of their forest habitat, potentially affecting the vocal communication of understory-dwelling songbirds and other species."
Love a bit of soundscape ecology.

Fate of meerkats tied to seasonal climate effects




This is a meerkat in the Kalahari.
Credit: UZH



recycling

Polymers pave way for wider use of recycled tires in asphalt


technology

The first walking robot that moves without GPS
"Desert ants are extraordinary solitary navigators. Researchers at CNRS and Aix-Marseille University, in the Institut des Sciences du Mouvement -- Etienne Jules Marey (ISM), were inspired by these ants as they designed AntBot, the first walking robot that can explore its environment randomly and go home automatically, without GPS or mapping."


humans

Decoding the human immune system
"For the first time ever, researchers are comprehensively sequencing the human immune system, which is billions of times larger than the human genome. In a new study published in Nature from the Human Vaccines Project, scientists have sequenced a key part of this vast and mysterious system -- the genes encoding the circulating B cell receptor repertoire."

Brain clock ticks differently in autism
"The neural 'time windows' in certain small brain areas contribute to the complex cognitive symptoms of autism, new research suggests. In a brain imaging study of adults, the severity of autistic symptoms was linked to how long these brain areas stored information. The differences in neural timescales may underlie features of autism like hypersensitivity and could be useful as a future diagnostic tool."


Many LGBTQ youth don't identify with traditional sexual identity labels

Stereotypes of romantic love may justify gender-based violence
"The media have become key agents of socialization in the construction of teenagers' and young people's identities. In particular, media representations of sexuality and love become informal educational agents of the first order on these issues."
The tail end of this year's Valentine's crop ...









Wednesday, February 13, 2019

science news 13.2.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without quotation marks, if I have any.


astrobiology

New study suggests possibility of recent underground volcanism on Mars


earth

Earth's magnetic shield booms like a drum when hit by impulses


life

Ancient spider fossils, surprisingly preserved in rock, reveal reflective eyes

Gory, freaky, cool: Marine snail venom could improve insulin for diabetic patients
Marine cone snails produce several versions of insulin as part of their venom cocktail used to stun prey. All of which are fast acting, hence the medical interest.

Natural selection and spatial memory link shown in mountain chickadee research
"Chickadees with better learning and memory skills, needed to find numerous food caches, are more likely to survive their first winter, a long-term study of mountain chickadees has found."

I had no idea what a chickadee was, but apparently they look like this:



University of Nevada, Reno research results provide the first direct evidence for natural selection on spatial cognition in wild food-caching mountain chickadees in one-of-a-kind in the world high-altitude field lab.
Credit: Vladimir Pravosudov, University of Nevada, Reno


Investigating cell stress for better health -- and better beer

Mom's reward: Female Galápagos seabird has a shorter lifespan than males
"Why? It's a story of rotating sex partners, the cost of being a parent and how the body falls apart in old age."
turns out they're just like us ...


climate change

Climate of North American cities will shift hundreds of miles in one generation


technology

Moving artificial leaves out of the lab and into the air
"Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago have proposed a design solution that could bring artificial leaves out of the lab and into the environment. Their improved leaf, which would use carbon dioxide -- a potent greenhouse gas -- from the air, would be at least 10 times more efficient than natural leaves at converting carbon dioxide to fuel."


humans

What can early adulthood tell us about midlife identity?
"A recent study from the University of Jyväskylä indicates that personality style in young adulthood anticipates identity formation later in life."

Couples creating art or playing board games release 'love hormone'
aka oxytocin - more seasonal science

The unexpected creates reward when listening to music

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

science news 12.2.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without quotation marks, if I have any.


earth

NASA finds possible second impact crater under Greenland ice

Arctic sea ice loss in the past linked to abrupt climate events


evolution

Scientists discover oldest evidence of mobility on Earth
"Ancient fossils of the first ever organisms to exhibit movement have been discovered by an international team of scientists."


ecology

The widow next door: Where is the globally invasive noble false widow spider settling next?
The noble false widow spider, Steatoda nobilis, native to Madeira and the Canary Islands, conquering the world.


How drenched spittlebugs cope in "cuckoo spit"
Note that this is nothing to do with poor old cuckoos. The liquid in question is produced by the bugs themselves to protect the nymph, see also my recent feature on bugs.

Termites shape and are shaped by their mounds
just like us ...


life on the edge

Study of Arctic fishes reveals the birth of a gene -- from 'junk'
This is about anti-freeze glykoproteins, but also exciting for the recycling of non-coding parts of the genome.

New deep sea animal discoveries warrant expanded protections in Costa Rican waters
... including this cutie:



Chimaeras are cartilaginous fish, largely confined to deep water. Their closest living relatives are sharks, though their last common ancestor with sharks lived nearly 400 million years ago.
Credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute


humans

New model predicts how ground shipping will affect future human health, environment

Pitch perfect: Brain differences behind a rare musical ability

Learning a second alphabet for a first language
Sounds a bit scary, but if insights help convincing people that it's not completely impossible to learn Russion, Arabic, Chinese et al., it's all good.

Beyond romance: Neural and genetic correlates of altruism in pair-bonds.
A bit of seasonal science ...

Why Mr. Nice could be Mr. Right
... and a bit more ...


--------------


From the news media:

invasion of the polar bears,


plus some cheering news from the lost property department:

USB stick recovered from seal poo - still working fine ...



Monday, February 11, 2019

ocean minded

Open Archive Day

Quite a few of the lovely people I meet through music happen to be scientist. For instance, I regularly get to play with a dinosaur expert (really should do something about them!), as well as the Halley professor of physics (clearly I haven't done Oxford right, they never offered me a named chair!). On a slightly less advanced level, I met Laura, who used satellite surveillance to study compliance with regulations protecting the marine environment, and wrote a feature about her work at OceanMind, which is based in Harwell, near Oxford. I was very lucky that I caught her when I did, because she left the company soon after to seek other opportunities in Spain.

Marine protected areas remain a very important topic though and satellites are a powerful tool to watch over them, so I suppose the article remains relevant this year, and it is now on open access:

Eyes on our planet




Satellites like the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1B are routinely used to observe global change and police national and international rules of environmental and wildlife protection. (Image: © ESA-Pierre Carril.)

Saturday, February 09, 2019

first synthesizer

All our instruments series, episode 6

After five instruments made in Germany, here comes one from Japan and a very special one too. I visited the Museum of musical automata (Deutsches Musikautomatenmuseum) at Bruchsal, Germany, last summer and discovered they have not one but two specimens of the Casio VL-1 in their showcases. It counts as an automaton because you can program music on it, but its bigger claim to faim is that it was the first ever commercially available digital synthesizer. I've had it for nearly 40 years and didn't realise it was so important. Essentially I thought I had a calculator that could play tunes and make funny noises.



Own photo (I chose a close-up this time, cutting off the speaker and the calculator screen on the left, which aren't very interesting. For a pic of the whole instrument (not mine, but looking exactly identical), see Wikipedia).


Anybody old enough to remember tne new wave of German pop in the 1980s (Nena et al.) may have heard it in Da Da Da by Trio. Failing that, Wikipedia lists lots of other tracks on which the instrument was used. Versions disagree on its age by the way: the German Wiki says it was produced 1981-84, the English edition says it was released in June 1979. I definitely had mine no later than 1981. (Also, dear Wikipedia, why the past tense in the description how it works, mine works perfectly fine to this day!)


Its piano-esque keyboard covers 2.5 octaves, but the range can be moved up or down an octave, so that makes 4.5. Set sounds include approximations of piano, flute, violin, guitar, and a "fantasy" instrument. With flute and piano you can guess what it's aiming to be, but for the violin and guitar sound it's less obvious. But most importantly, what makes it a synth is the ADSR mode where you put an 8-digit number into the memory of the calculator, which determines the shape of the tone. One major limitation is that it is monophonic, playing only one note at the time, although you can play that note over a programmed rhythm.

For my video, I have defined my own, sharp synth sound to have a go at Popcorn (ADSR parameters: 71105500), and I've used the "flute" sound to play the song "Une jeune fillette" from the soundtrack of the early music movie Tous les matins du monde. I've also demonstrated the other set sounds and some of the rhythms, and let the machine play its demo track. (I'm using the pencils to press the keys so you can see what's going on, otherwise my hands would obscure much of the instrument!)



Friday, February 08, 2019

science news 8.2.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without quotation marks, if I have any.


astro

Liberal sprinkling of salt discovered around a young star
"New ALMA observations show there is ordinary table salt in a not-so-ordinary location: 1,500 light-years from Earth in the disk surrounding a massive young star."

Hubble reveals dynamic atmospheres of Uranus, Neptune


nanoworld

First transport measurements reveal intriguing properties of germanene
That's the germanium analogue of graphene, see this feature on 2D materials of various elements.


evolution

Study shows unusual microbes hold clues to early life
Specifically, hydrothermoarchaeota.

DNA provides insights into penguin evolution and reveals two new extinct penguins


mosquitoes

Who's listening? Mosquitos can hear [wing-beating noises] up to 10 meters away
I added the detail in [] because the emphasis on the distance wouldn't make sense if we were talking about sound in general - turn it up louder and it transmits further.


Putting female mosquitoes on human diet drugs could reduce spread of disease



fish

Do fish recognize themselves in the mirror?
Now that would be very surprising if they really did.



A cleaner wrasse interacts with its reflection in a mirror placed on the outside of the aquarium glass. Note that the mirror itself cannot be seen in this photo because the aquarium glass itself becomes reflective at the viewing angle of the camera, according to Snell's law. This is not the case for the fish itself, which sees the aquarium glass as transparent because of its direct viewing angle.
Credit: Alex Jordan



humans

Studies lend support to 'grandmother hypothesis,' but there are limits


--------------------


science in Google doodles

today's doodle honours Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge, who isolated caffeine from coffee beans.

Today is also Mendeleev's birthday - he got his doodle in 2016.



Thursday, February 07, 2019

science news 7.2.2019

Today's selection of science news (I had to skip yesterday's, sorry!). Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about.


astrobiology

Massive collision in the planetary system Kepler 107


climate

Diffusing the methane bomb: We can still make a difference
"The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, causing the carbon containing permafrost that has been frozen for tens or hundreds of thousands of years to thaw and release methane into the atmosphere, thereby contributing to global warming. The findings of a study that included researchers from IIASA, however, suggest that it is still possible to neutralize this threat."


Cracks herald the calving of a large iceberg from Petermann Glacier
The Petermann Glacier is in the far northwest reaches of Greenland, in case you wondered.

Study shows that Vikings enjoyed a warmer Greenland


evolution

Research explains how snakes lost their limbs

Researchers investigate a billion years of coexistence between plants and fungi



Stropharia fungus on wood chips exemplifying the evolution of fungal ability to break down the cell wall lignin and to help recycle plants. This feature was instrumental in the emergence of woody plants and forest systems.
Credit: Tom Wieboldt


animals

Study confirms beaked whales' incredible diving abilities

The black storks in Estonia are suffering from loneliness


A scientific study reveals the enigmas on social behavior of western lowland gorillas
"A new study reveals one of the enigmas related to the social behavior of the western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) in the heart of the African equatorial rainforest. These primates show a dynamic social structure -- individuals change frequently between families -- with a high degree of tolerance and peaceful coexistence among the members."


humans

Touch biographies reveal transgenerational nature of touch

Endocannabinoid system, a target to improve cognitive disorders in models of Down syndrome
that's mouse models, but still intriguing

New music styles: How the challenger calls the tune

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

science news 5.2.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about.


astrobiology

Retreating snow line reveals organic molecules around young star


chemistry

FSU chemists harness power of light to tackle asymmetrical molecules
"... a way to turn a 'left-handed' molecule into a 'right-handed' one -- a process that could have important implications for drug development."


evolution

First discovered fossil feather did not belong to iconic bird Archaeopteryx



The isolated Archaeopteryx feather is the first fossil feather ever discovered. Top image, the feather as it looks today under white light. Middle image, the original drawing from 1862 by Hermann von Meyer. Bottom image, Laser-Stimulated Fluorescence (LSF) showing the halo of the missing quill. Scale bar is 1cm.
Credit: @The University of Hong Kong


ecology

Culprit found for honeybee deaths in California almond groves
"Fungicides, often needed for crop protection, are routinely used during almond bloom, but in many cases growers were also adding insecticides to the mix. Our research shows that some combinations are deadly to the bees, and the simplest thing is to just take the insecticide out of the equation during almond bloom."
I happen to think though that the whole industrialised trucking around of bee colonies can't be very good for them either. Almond products shouldn't be considered vegan, really.

Why charismatic, introduced species are so difficult to manage
"Introduced and invasive species can present big problems, particularly when those species are charismatic. Some introduced species, like zebra mussels, tend to be reviled by the public, and people willingly adhere to strict management policies. However, if an animal has that elusive quality of charisma, people often don't want it to be controlled, even if it's harming the environment. Inevitably, these imbalances in public perception of introduced species influence the way those organisms are managed."
Just ask any of the raccoons you may find around Europe (where they don't belong).


humans

The Caucasus: Complex interplay of genes and cultures
"In the Bronze Age, the Caucasus Mountains region was a cultural and genetic contact zone. Here, cultures that originated in Mesopotamia interacted with local hunter-gatherers, Anatolian farmers, and steppe populations from just north of the mountain ranges. Here, pastoralism was developed and technologies such as the wheeled wagon and advanced metal weapons were spread to neighbouring cultures. A new study, examines new genetic evidence in concert with archaeological evidence to paint a more complete picture of the region."

Women's brains appear three years younger than men's
"... according to a new study on brain metabolism from researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. The findings could explain why women maintain their cognitive skills longer than men."


-----------------------


from the news media:

The Milky Way is twisted, reports the Guardian (and probably everybody else, too).


Monday, February 04, 2019

ancient plants

The list of science-y things I have never covered is shrinking. Still haven't done anything specifically about dinosaurs, but I've now done my first feature on palaeobotany, and I found that really exciting, so may be doing more of the ancient ferns and conifers at some point (I also have a soft spot for the evolutionary history of the ginkgo tree, which I once discussed in a book review).

The story is mostly about late Permian plant fossils found in Jordan, and the wider idea behind it is the question whether the tropics serve as a source of biodiversity for the global biosphere, i.e. as a "cradle" of evolution.

Read all about it:


Finding the cradles of evolution

Current Biology Volume 29, issue 3, pages R71-R73, February 04, 2019

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access one year after publication)


Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)



An almost complete frond of the corystosperm Dicroidum irnense found at the Umm Irna Formation in Jordan and dated to the late Permian. These seed plants were widespread in the Triassic, but became extinct in the Jurassic. (Photo: © Patrick Blomenkemper.)

Saturday, February 02, 2019

blow along

All our instruments series, episode 5

I've had my Hohner Piccolo harp for longer than I can remember, could be up to half a century, but I never quite got the hang of it. The spacing between the channels is a bit too narrow for my big mouth, so I tend to get more notes than I want to play. (Also, you need to breathe in for some of the notes, which can make playing a bit unpleasant, as you end up with the metal taste in your mouth.)



But the web assures me that it is a proper instrument and there are people out there who can make proper music with it, such as this guy who wrote a review of it on his harmonica website. He says it's only available in C, but mine is in G. The design, however, hasn't changed in all those years.

One of the things I may have attempted to play way back when is Neil Young's Heart of Gold. Looking that up on YouTube, I found an ancient video of Neil Young playing live in 1971, which is hilarious for two reasons. First he apologises for all those new songs that nobody knows, of which Heart of Gold was another example, which is ironic because it became a classic about three minutes later. And then, after a few minutes spent finding the harmonica in the right key, he says, "This one's in G, if anybody wants to blow along with me." Don't mind if I do, so here's my warm-up:



further down the line there will be bigger harmonicas, big enough for me to play an actual tune on them.


Friday, February 01, 2019

science news 1.2.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about.


astrobiology

Ancient asteroid impacts played a role in creation of Earth's future continents

Membraneless protocells could provide clues to formation of early life

New research uses Curiosity rover to measure gravity on Mars


evolution

Earth's largest extinction event likely took plants first
That's the Permian-Triassic extinction 252 million years ago.

Iguana-sized dinosaur cousin discovered in Antarctica
250 million years ago, just after the extinction above.

Ancient pandas weren't exclusive bamboo eaters, bone evidence suggests



climate

Waters west of Europe drive ocean overturning circulation, key for regulating climate



ecology

The 100 Australian plant species facing extinction

Citizen scientists discover pinhead-sized beetle in Borneo



The newly discovered species of leaf beetle, Clavicornaltica belalongensis.
Credit: Taxon Expeditions - Pierre Escoubas



humans

Medical cannabis relieves symptoms in children with autism




technology


Mean streets: Self-driving cars will 'cruise' to avoid paying to park
Ban them now, that's the solution.


----------------

from the news media:

print your own Rodin sculpture (I'd rather have the kiss than the thinker, though!)

Britain's earliest evidence of beer discovered


The evil things that cruise ships get up to
...



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