Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tales from the Geek

Time for a sanity break with a couple of recent science stories that interested me.

- Last week, paleontologists reported that
they've discovered fossils in the southern Utah desert of two new dinosaur species closely related to the Triceratops, including one with 15 horns on its large head.

The discovery of the new plant-eating species - including Kosmoceratops richardsoni, considered the most ornate-headed dinosaur known to man - was reported [last] Wednesday in the online scientific journal PLoS ONE, produced by the Public Library of Science.

The other dinosaur, which has five horns and is the larger of the two, was dubbed Utahceratops gettyi. ...

The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has been a hotbed for dinosaur species discoveries in the past decade, with more than a dozen new species discovered. ...

Paleontologists say the discovery shows that horned dinosaurs living on the same continent 76 million years ago evolved differently.
- Also from last week comes the cool news that
[t]he $10 billion Big Bang machine under the Swiss-French border may be on the verge of its first scientific breakthroughs after appearing to produce a small amount of the matter that existed in the first moments of the universe....

Scientists say they are thrilled about a series of recent experiments with simple protons at the Large Hadron Collider, and that a wealth of new physics knowledge could be unearthed soon when the machine begins to smash more complicated nuclei into each other at nearly the speed of light.

Already, researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, and outside experts are hailing the new data. They say colliding particles seem to be creating "hot dense matter" that would have existed microseconds after the Big Bang and might hold the key for understanding how the liquids, gases and solids of our universe were created. ...

Scientists say the effects they are observing are "obscure." But they are possibly a key piece in CERN's ultimate quest of answering the great questions of particle physics, such as the presumed existence of antimatter and the Higgs boson - sometimes referred to as the "God particle" because scientists theorize that it gives mass to other particles and thus to all objects and creatures in the universe. ...

The machine in the 27-kilometer (17-mile) tunnel under the Swiss-French border at Geneva is already operating at 7 trillion electron volts, an energy level three times greater than any previous physics accelerator. The energy won't be doubled to 14 TeV until 2013, but CERN already plans to replace the simple protons with heavier lead nuclei for collisions in October.
As a sidebar to that, the LHC had a lot of technical glitches and one major melt-down at its start-up. So much so that two physicists suggested - no one seems quite sure how seriously - that the Higgs boson was actually causing "ripples in time" from some point in the future and thereby sabotaging its own discovery.

And in April, CNET reported, a "strangely-dressed young man" wearing "a bow tie and rather too much tweed for his age" was found at the collider site, rooting around in trash bins. Upon being arrestred, he said he was looking for fuel for his time machine's power unit. He had come from the future, you see, a future when the discovery of the Higgs had lead to a "communist chocolate hellhole" of limitless power, no poverty, and "Kit-Kats for everyone" - and he was determined to prevent that by cutting off supplies of Mountain Dew to the experiment's vending machines. He was taken to a secure mental facility but later disappeared from his cell.

In considering this, the facts that CNET published it on April 1, that the "fuel for the time machine" sounds suspiciously like the device itself would be built on a DeLorean, and that the description of the "young man" sounds rather much like Matt Smith's Doctor Who should be ignored as thoroughly irrelevant.

- Yesterday, Greek archaeologists announced finding an ancient skeleton covered with gold foil in a grave on the island of Crete.
Excavator Nicholas Stampolidis said his team discovered more than 3,000 pieces of gold foil in the 7th-century B.C. twin grave near the ancient town of Eleutherna. ...

The tiny gold ornaments, from 1 to 4 centimeters (0.4 to 1.5 inches) long, had been sewn onto a lavish robe or shroud that initially wrapped the body of a woman and has almost completely rotted away but for a few off-white threads.

"The whole length of the (grave) was covered with small pieces of gold foil - square, circular and lozenge-shaped," Stampolidis told The Associated Press. "We were literally digging up gold interspersed with earth, not earth with some gold in it." ...

The ruins of Eleutherna stand on the northern foothills of Mount Ida - the mythical birthplace of Zeus, chief of the ancient Greek gods. Past excavations have discovered a citadel, homes and an important cemetery with lavish female burials.

The town flourished from the 9th century B.C. - the dark ages of Greek archaeology that followed the fall of Crete's great Minoan palatial culture - and endured until the Middle Ages.
- And just today, Time magazine reported on new research that shows just how "social" there is in our being "social creatures." It notes that "we've known for some time" that "social denial lights up our central nervous systems," so much so that even if we know the rejection is coming from a computer, the experience sparks the release of a stress hormone called cortisol.
This week a new study shows that these physical effects go further: rejection actually stops your heart. ... The authors of the study - a three-member group led by a University of Amsterdam psychologist named Bregtje Gunther Moor - measured beat-by-beat heart rate changes in 22 students as they received either rejection or acceptance of portrait photos they had submitted. When hooked up to electrocardiogram monitors, the students reliably showed a skip in their hearts when they thought they had been rejected by someone shown their photos. ...

[T]he findings help explain how evolution programs human sociability.
In essence, it reinforces social tendencies by making it unpleasant to be rejected - which in turn pushes us toward seeking acceptance.

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