Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Geek From The Black Lagoon

Easing back into the saddle while still trying to extend my politics-free vacation a bit longer, here are some science-related bits that caught my eye over the past couple of weeks.

1.- In 2008, some language researchers were documenting some unwritten languages spoken in the northeast corner of India, near the borders of China, Tibet, and Burma. At the time, there were 6909 documented languages. When they were done, there were 6910.

In doing their research, they discovered that a language known to its speakers as Koro, which was thought to be a dialect of a language called Aka, is actually an independent "hidden" language - one never before recognized.
"Koro is quite distinct from the Aka language," said Gregory Anderson, director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. "When we went there we were told it was a dialect of Aka, but it is a distant sister language."
Koro is an endangered language, spoken by only about 1000 people. Anderson said if they had made the trip 10 years later, they might have discovered only a handful of speakers. Linguists estimate that a language disappears about every two weeks as the last of its speakers die.

National Geographic, which supported the research as part of its Enduring Voices program, has a video about the discovery here.

2.- Around 5500 years ago, a Scandinavian Stone Age settlement, likely of the neolithic Funnel Beaker Culture, was hit with a disaster, possibly a fierce sandstorm or maybe a sudden flood that drew sand from the river. However it happened, the town was inundated and encased in a thick layer of sand.

And so it remained, undisturbed. Until now.

Archaeologists working in southern Norway dug through two meters of soil and sand, expecting to find an "ordinary" Stone Age site, one small and badly preserved. Instead, they uncovered what Håkon Glørstad, a spokesman for the dig, called "an archaeological sensation," an unspoiled dwelling site with stone structures and the most well-preserved Stone Age pottery ever found in Norway, including at least one entirely intact clay vessel.

More than 300 square meters have been excavated so far. It appears the complete settlement is much larger.

3.- The common belief among scientists is that life on Earth began forming in a “primordial soup” in the oceans. However, it develops that there is another possibility.

A study simulating chemical processes in the atmosphere of Titan, Saturn's largest moon, discovered that molecules known as nucleotide bases and amino acids could have formed there. They are components, respectively, of DNA and proteins: the basic building blocks of life.
Intense radiation hits the top of Titan’s thick atmosphere and can break apart normally stable molecules, members of the research group explained. They studied what happens after these molecules fall apart. The researchers beamed radiation into a chamber containing chemicals believed to replicate those in Titan’s atmosphere, nitrogen, methane and carbon monoxide. Formation of the life-building molecules, called complex organic compounds, followed.
In fact, the simulations generated all five of the nucleotide bases used by life on Earth, plus the two smallest amino acids. Team member Sarah Horst noted this means that to start building organic molecules, "We don’t need liquid water, we don’t need a surface."

Which means in turn that instead of starting in that "primordial soup," the building blocks of life on Earth might have arisen in a "primordial haze" high in the atmosphere. Life again proves to be more creative and more robust than we imagine.

4.- Finally, and speaking of evolution, while it wasn't their goal, a team of scientists at the University of Bristol in the UK has given what amounts to a big "Buzz off" to creationists and their "intelligent design" fellow travelers. After studying the impact of various fossil discoveries, they have concluded that despite various claims by various palaeontologists about "rewriting evolutionary history,"
most fossil discoveries don’t make a huge difference: they confirm, rather than contradict our understanding of evolutionary history.
That is especially true in the case of human evolution, where most discoveries of new fossil species simply fill in previously-known gaps in the fossil record.

Put another way, the more we learn about human evolution, the more we discover that while they may have had some of the exact details wrong, those dang evolutionists had the right idea all along.

Footnote: There are, of course, the Ig Nobels, awarded this year on September 30.

No comments:

// I Support The Occupy Movement : banner and script by @jeffcouturer / (v1.2) document.write('
I support the OCCUPY movement
');function occupySwap(whichState){if(whichState==1){document.getElementById('occupyimg').src=""}else{document.getElementById('occupyimg').src=""}} document.write('');