SCIENCE EXPERIMENT: Making plasma in the microwave


A cool science experiment you can carry out at home in your kitchen for next to nothing in cost, and a chance to see plasma in action. Plasma is a state of material that is rarely encountered naturally on Earth but is a core component of stars.

The plasma is generated by a combination of combustion and the microwave’s electric fields. Electrons are pushed back and forth, colliding with air molecules. It is these collisions that science says causes the formation of a ‘plasmoid’ which being hotter that the surrounding air, causes it to rise up to the top.

This experiment is quite easy to set up and uses things like jars and matches that you can find around the house. Be warned however, that you should do your research beforehand, as the plasma experiment can go wrong if not set up properly. Also it’s best not to use your flatmate’s expensive microwave just in case.


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“Make a ball of plasma in a microwave” – Amie, Wonder How To Science Experiments/WonderHowTo, Inc (6 September 2008)

“Q & A: Plasma from a flame in the Microwave” – Tom, Ask the Van/Department of Physics – University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (22 October 2007)


OUTLASTING THE ENERGIZER BUNNY: US researcher creates stronger batteries with cheap materials

Houston – VIJAY SHAH via and AgroAlimentando

Batteries are one of the most important elements of our technologically driven society. We rely on them to energise everything from children’s toys and torches, to cars and lorries, yet often they can be the bane of our lives too. Batteries can have their drawbacks, such as catching on fire, running out too quickly, leaking, and performing poorly in wintry weather.

Recently, researchers led by Dr. Yan Yao at the US’ University of Houston have discovered that manufacturing batteries from a new and inexpensive class of materials may help solve the problem of troublesome lithium ion batteries and the like.


Yao and team used quinones, a type of chemical organic compound derived from petrochemicals which are easy to obtain and cheap. These recyclable materials were converted into a stable anode compound, which can be used in the manufacture of water-rechargeable batteries. Water-chargeable batteries contain water-based electrolytes that carry current easily, but unlike conventional batteries, do not corrode. Until recently, these kinds of batteries were only really good in the laboratory environment, as their short shelf life made them impractical for situations where replacing the battery regularly is inconvenient, such as in heavy machinery. Despite their short lifespans, water-rechargeable batteries, also known as aqueous-rechargeable batteries are much safer and are more robust.

The main problem with previous models of water-rechargeable batteries has been their anodes, one of three parts in a battery, that is negative when the battery is discharging, and then switches to a positive charge when the battery is being charged up. The anodes in these previous models were intrinsically structurally and chemically unstable, which means that the battery was only efficient for a relatively short period of time.

Yan Yao and the researchers used quinones, which cost as little as $2 (£1.54) per kilogram. They discovered that anodes made from quinones were effective in both acid and alkali batteries as well as newer water-based models using metallic ions. This diversity of usage means that Yao’s technology could be applied to any battery setting for any technology, including for devices not yet invented.

The quinones also help batteries work at a wide range of temperatures, which gives Yao’s batteries an advantage even over other existing aqueous rechargeable battery technology, which still underperforms in cold conditions.


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“Baterías con vida más larga gracias a una clase de materiales baratos” – via Agroalimentando – AgroA


“Duracell battery AA type” – Anton Fomkin, Flickr (19 November 2008)


PHOTO MOMENT: An intelligent ability


If you are fluent in the English language, then even if the letters in a word are jumbled up, then you would still be able to make sense of the correct way to spell it. In scientific terms, this is known as typoglycaemia. In the photo above, the man is sporting a t-shirt with a quote attibuted to the mastermind Stephen Hawking. The trouble is, the t-shirt printing shop was short on letters, so substituted in some numbers, SMS-style. Can you figure out what the garment is saying? Answers in the comments. Enjoy!


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Collin Fisher.

GENE THERAPY: Researcher discovers safer way to keep cancer out of studied genes

VIJAY SHAH via Medlab

Grant Trobridge, an associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at Washington State University engaged in research, has discovered a method of reducing harmful cancer cells which occasionally surface while conducting gene therapy, genetics events site Medlab reported this week.

Trobridge and his team have found a way to change how a virus carries a beneficial gene to its target cell. Under natural conditions, viruses attached themselves to the surface of a cell, and use the cell to replicate themselves, often rupturing and killing the cell in the process. Trobridge’s modified ‘viral vectors’ as these altered viruses are known, also have the side effect of reducing the number of cancerous cells, and the research team at Washington State believe that the vectors may be useful for treating blood diseases. The team plan to adapt the viral vector technology to help fight SCID-X1, a potentially life-threatening disease that occurs in babies, and is also known as “Boy in the Bubble Syndrome.”



Gene therapy, a relatively recent branch of science, has useful applications for biomedicines, and may eventually be capable of tackling genetic diseases by replacing defective genes with repaired ones prepared in a laboratory.

Trobridge and colleagues adapted their vectors from a type of virus, foamy retrovirus, named for its habit of creating foam under certain conditions. Retroviruses are popular choices for viral gene therapy as they rarely infect humans and do not activate genes for dangerous diseases such as cancer. Gene scientists also find retroviruses easier to work with as they like to insert their own genes into the host cell’s genome when they breach a cell’s membrane, making it easier for the researcher to study the virus’ effects on the genetic structure.

The Washington State University team altered the vector to make it safer by changing how it behaves with a targetted stem cell, a type of junior cell that can develop into anything from reproductive cells to muscle cells. The altered virus can then insert itself into safer parts of the genome, avoiding areas where genes for life-threatening conditions reside. The vector successfully avoided areas of the human genome which has an abundance of cancer-causing genes. The researchers hope that this new discovery will be ready for clinical trials within five years.

“Our goal is to develop a safe and effective therapy for SCID-X patients and their families,” said Trobridge. “We’ve started to translate this in collaboration with other scientists and medical doctors into the clinic.”

Trobridge and team have published their results in Scientific Reports, an online open-access journal produced by the Nature Publishing Group.

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“Researcher Develops Safer Gene Therapy” – MEDLAB/Informa Life Sciences Exhibitions (14 November 2016)
“File:Symian virus.png” – Phoebus87, Wikimedia Commons (19 July 2007) [This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic licence.]


ANGKOR WAT STEGOSAURUS: Cambodian Hindu temple shows possible ancient knowledge of prehistoric life

Krong Siem Reap, CAMBODIA
VIJAY SHAH via Hawkfeed

If you visit the 800-year-old Hindu temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, you will be immediately be taken aback by the immense building and intricate carvings of deities and old Khmer kings of was once one of the most powerful and expansive empires in south-east Asia. However take a closer look, and you will notice something very peculiar among the images of soldiers, local wildlife, royalty and apsaras (sacred nymphs).

Via Hawkfeed

On one of the walls of the main temple at Ta Prohm, there is a carving of a lizard-like creature, stockily-built and four-legged with a series of small sails running along its back. To many modern observers, it resembles a stegosaurus, a herbivorous dinosaur that lived during the late Jurassic period, some 155 to 150 million years ago in what is now the western United States and Portugal. Eight centuries later, it would be impossible to interview the carver of the main temple wall with its prehistoric embellishment, but this may be a sign that the ancient Khmer Hindus knew of the existence of dinosaurs, which were not fully understood in Europe until the archaeological discovery of dinosaur fossils that began in the 19th century. It is possible that they may have unearthed a dinosaur skeleton while constructing the temple and figured out what kind of dinosaur it was, before carving its supposed likeness into the temple wall of Ta Prohm as a sort of homage.

The story of the Khmer stone dinosaur has been noticed by various scientific, obscure discovery and religious websites, including Hawkfeed, which specialises in Indian and Hindu news stories and features and is the source for this article. The dinosaur has also attracted attention across the religious divide from Biblical proponents.

The Angkor Wat temple complex was built around 1140 CE by the emperor Suryavarman II and dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The Khmer people has previously come into with Indian traders who introduced them to Hinduism. The temple was also built as a show of imperial strength as the Khmer empire was making inroads against the neighbouring Thais. The Ta Prohm temple, where the carving is said to be found, was built by later king Jayavarman VII sometime in the late 12th century. The complex eventually fell into disrepair and was swallowed up by the surrounding jungle until, ironically, French archaeologists rediscovered it and it is now the world’s largest surviving religious monument and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yet, at least judging by the mysterious stegosaurus carving, the Khmers may have themselves possessed advanced archaeological knowledge at the time.

While many have cited this as evidence that the ancients were far more advanced in scientific understanding than they are usually given credit for, and some Christian creationists have clung onto the idea that the Angkor Wat stegosaurus is proof that humanity and dinosaurs co-existed, therefore invalidating the theory of evolution, opponents say that in fact the stegosaurus is probably more likely a depiction of a rhinoceros or a chameleon with exaggerated features. A report by the Smithsonian Institute suggests that if viewed head-on, the carving does not appear prehistoric at all. As the report itself states “The head is large and appears to have large ears and a horn. The “plates” along the back more closely resemble leaves, and the sculpture is a better match for a boar or rhinoceros against a leafy background.” Leaves are a common motif as a background design on many of Angkor Wat’s stone carvings.

The Smithsonian also suggests that the carving may be have been added much more recently, perhaps by a visiting film crew or a local artisan with a strange sense of humour. Others have compared the carving to a baby Asian rhino or a local species of mountain lizard which both bear a strong resemblance to the carving. Nevertheless, the temple has become a source of pride for Cambodians, Hindus and humanity the world over, regardless of whether it was a stegosaurus on that wall or not.


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“Shocking : Ancient Hindus Knew about Dinosaurs 800 years before Modern Science” – Hawkfeed
“Stegosaurus, Rhinoceros, or Hoax?” – Brian Switek, Institution (12 March 2009)
“DINOSAUR OF TA PROHM” – ilbonito, Annetta Black, mrobscurity, wythe and Allison, Atlas Obscura
“Stegosaurus Carving on a Cambodian Temple?” – Glen J. Kuban, Glen Kuban’s Web Sites
“Shocking : Ancient Hindus Knew about Dinosaurs 800 years before Modern Science” – Hawkfeed

BRAIN MATTERS 2015: Online conference to explore the neuroscience of genius coming this November

If you have ever wondered what made the minds of the world’s most intelligent people tick, and what really goes on underneath of the bonnets of famous geniuses such as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, a new online conference will aim to help you unravel the mysteries of superintelligence this November. The new conference, which will come with a unique ‘brain training library’ will also enable people to tap into their own hidden geniuses and steal the march on the science boffin that scored all the high grades back in school.

The Brain Matters 2015 conference, staged in the United States but held internationally via the net, will help attendees explore the inner workings of the mind and how neuroscience can explain the way we think, theorise and understand our worlds. It is being held in honour of the 100th anniversary of the General Theory of Relativity, formulated by accomplished scientist Albert Einstein.

(c) LearningToGo/Eventbrite

Brain Matters will help explore the nature of genius through the lens of neuroscience. It will also answer pertinent questions such as whether there is anything unique about the brains of geniuses, and how people can train their brains to acquire this special status of genius. Attendees will come away from the conference with a better understanding of how their own brain works and armed with practical tips on how to unleash your brain’s hidden potential, especially noteworthy considering that we are said to use only 10 per cent of our entire brainpower.

The Brain Matters 2015 conference will be run in the form of an interactive webinar which promises to go beyond the PC screen and immerse attendees in a full-on ‘virtual experience’, organisers say. People who sign on to the webinar conference will be able to post questions and comments, watch videos, collaborate on a scientific whiteboard and join in the Brain Matters discussions via Twitter. Alongside the conference itself, there will also be an informative lounge set up for attendees to relax, network and casually browse the related online bookstore. There will also be a sideline Virtual Expo, offering the chance to interact with event speakers and learn more about their products and services.

Speakers at Brain Matters will include Marshall Goldsmith, an inspirational thought leader and executive coach, who has recently published the mind-training bestseller “Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts–Becoming the Person You Want to BeAs keynote speaker, Goldsmith will be joined by Trudi Baldwin (Drake), a learning, performance and organisational effectiveness manager with several top US companies; Jay Cross, a pioneer of e-learning; Dr. Laura Beavin Haider, research and development manager at the Ipsos Neuro and Behavioral Science Center in Culver City, California and Donna Pangburn, educational consultant and president of Time to Teach, among many other speakers from the worlds of neuroscience, thinking and learning.

The Brain Matters conference and associated events are being organised by LearningToGo in association with, a mind empowerment and training organisation. Registrations are currently being taken at this link and tickets cost only USD $147 (GBP £95.28), excluding booking fees, and there are a limited batch of 500 tickets left. The event runs from 9:00 am (United States MST) on Tuesday, November 10, 2015 to 12:00 pm on Wednesday, November 11.

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“BRAIN MATTERS 2015 CONFERENCE:” – Margie Meacham, LearningToGo via The People Development Network,cd636388-2cf1-50f0-737d-e3fa713147c6
“Brain Matters 2015 Conference: Speakers” – Margie Meacham, LearningToGo
“Brain Matters 2015: Exploring the Nature of Genius” – LearningToGo via EventBrite
“Brain Matters 2015: Exploring the Nature of Genius” – LearningToGo via EventBrite

WORLD WILDLIFE: Declining species may lead to ’empty landscape’

A group of scientists have said that the rapid trend of declining wildlife populations could lead to ’empty landscapes’, the science and environment team at British public broadcaster BBC has reported today.

According to population figures published in the scientific magazine Science Advances, there has been a worrying 60 per cent drop in the number of large herbivores (plant-eating animals) such as giraffe, elephant and rhinoceros, leaving them at greater risk of extinction. The figures covered 74 herbivore species and attributed much of the decline to poaching and other forms of illegal hunting, as well as destruction of natural habitats.

Male elephant in Etosha National Park, Namibia...
Male elephant in Etosha National Park, Namibia Kiswahili: Tembo katika mbuga la burudani Etosha, Namibia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A study on large carnivores such as lions, tigers and wild dogs also reported similar declines in population.

The population research was led by Professor William Ripple of Oregon State University. His research covered large herbivores with a weight above 100 kilograms, from the reindeer up to the African elephant.

He explained in the research: “This is the first time anyone has analysed all of these species as a whole,” 

“The process of declining animals is causing an empty landscape in the forest, savannah, grasslands and desert.” he said.

Professor David Macdonald, of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, was among the team of 15 international scientists who pooled together figures for the report.

“The big carnivores, like the charismatic big cats or wolves, face horrendous problems from direct persecution, over-hunting and habitat loss, but our new study adds another nail to their coffin – the empty larder,” he said.

“It’s no use having habitat if there’s nothing left to eat in it.”

The research indicates that much of the population decline in both prey and predators is being driven by various causal factors, including habitat loss, unregulated hunting and poaching, particularly the killing of large animals for ‘bushmeat’ or body parts in Far Eastern medicine, and pressures on their habitats from livestock, involving competition for resources and the swallowing of their habitats by farmland. This problem is being escalated by a rapidly increasing human population with its greater demand for resources and land.

The various species of African rhino were one particularly sad case reported by the BBC. With ivory made from rhinoceros horn worth more than gold, cocaine, and diamonds on the black market and with increasing and illegal demand from nouveau riche buyers in Asia, it is feared that under current levels of population shrinkage, the wild rhino could cease to exist in the wild within 20 years, the researchers claim.

The consequences of large wild herbivore decline include:

*Loss of habitat: for example, elephants maintain forest clearings by trampling vegetation.

*Effects on the food chain: large predators such as lions, leopards, and hyena rely on large herbivores for food.

*Seed dispersal: large herbivores eat seeds which are carried over long distances.

*Impact on humans: an estimated one billion people rely on wild meat for subsistence while the loss of iconic herbivores will have a negative impact on tourism.

The impact of the extinction of large herbivores, and the large carnivores that feed on them, could see the collapse of food chains globally. Many African countries rely on these animals heavily for tourism purposes, leading to huge economic fallouts if they were to vanish.

The report places particular concern for large animals residing in South East Asia, India and Africa. These areas have long-established populations of big animals as well as increasing human habitation. Many governments are struggling to protect animal habitats due to increasing demands for homes and land to build on, as well as lax regulation of national parks and wildlife reserves.

Europe and North America lost many of their own large mammals after the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago. Animals such as the mammoth, woolly rhino and sabre-toothed tiger were wiped out by early hunters or changing habitats as the ice sheets retreated. More recently, the wolf, lynx and some species of deer have all but disappeared from the United Kingdom, after being hunted to extinction. There has been some success in reintroducing smaller mammals, such as the beaver, to Britain, centuries after they vanished.

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“Wildlife decline may lead to ’empty landscape’ ” – Helen Briggs, BBC News – Science & Environment/BBC (2 May 2015)
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LEONIDS: Meteor shower over North America

Skywatchers in the United States are in for a visual feast of shooting stars this Sunday as the Leonid meteor shower will be hitting its annual peak in skies over much of the country. 

Leonids and ISS (Photo credit: markwilson1977)
Leonids and ISS (Photo credit: markwilson1977)

Hundreds of professional and amateur astronomers will have their telescopes trained upwards for a glimpse of the meteors, which are one of many meteor showers that pass through the Earth’s orbit annually. What makes this month’s shower even more special is that 2013 has been described as an ‘off-year’ for intense showers, according to astronomy website Universe Today.

In the north American night sky, the Leonids will be emanating from an area of space aligned with the constellation Leo. Other constellations and stars will also be visible in clear early dusk skies at the same time as the Leonids arrive.  Ones to watch out for include Ursa Major, Leo Minor, Hydra and Crater, according to a graphic released today by Universe Today.

Astronomers following the Leonids say that their projections for November indicate a twin-peaked maximum. The first peak will arrive today at 10:00 UT/5:00 AM EST with best visibility restricted to the North American continent, weather permitting. The second peak in meteor activity will also happen today, six hours later after the first. It is expected to commence at 16:00 UT/11:00. That peak will be visible from islands in the Central Pacific, possibly including the U.S. state of Hawai’i. However there will be a full moon between the two peaks which will affect visibility at around 10:16 AM EST/15:16 UT.

English: Leonids and Orion in Japan 日本語: オリオン座...
English: Leonids and Orion in Japan 日本語: オリオン座としし座流星群(日本) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Leonids are expected to be more numerous this year than usual. An average shower has a zenithal hourly rate of 10-20, meaning anyone looking out for the space rocks will see around 10-20 per hour. However this weekend’s shower may have a hourly rate of more than 1,000, an unusual and rare upsurge that occurs once every 33 years. The last time this happened on such a grand scale was in 1998-99, and ironically the Earth will experience a intermission between major meteor storms which will start next year (2014-16). About 50-70 of the Leonid meteors will leave trails as they pass through Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in shooting stars and perfect conditions for people out and about who will be able to watch them with just a set of binoculars.

Would-be viewers are encouraged to see the Leonids at their best by getting up early as the shower will be most noticeable in the early morning. They should position themselves with the Moon hidden behind a building or tree so that the moonlight is blocked and prevented from overshadowing the streaks of light the Leonids will be leaving in their wake. If you are planning to take pictures of this momentous astronomical event, it is easy. Photographers need only arm themselves with a standard DSLR camera and a tripod, as well as spare batteries in the event of their camera losing power. They should shoot continuously as meteors can pass by unnoticed by the human eye but then get picked up by the camera lens.

English: The most famous depiction of the 1833...
English: The most famous depiction of the 1833 actually produced in 1889 for the Adventist book Bible Readings for the Home Circle – the engraving is by Adolf Vollmy based upon an original painting by the Swiss artist Karl Jauslin, that is in turn based on a first-person account of the 1833 storm by a minister, Joseph Harvey Waggoner on his way from Florida to New Orleans. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Leonids’ source is the comet Comet 55p/Tempel-Tuttle, which has an orbit that takes it past the Earth every 33 years, explaining the rise in meteor shower activity which occurs at the same time. They get their name from the fact that they radiate from around the constellation Leo. When Tempel-Tuttle approaches the Sun, it warms up and parts of its body are cast off as meteoroids, which become the Leonids. An annual Leonid shower may deposit 12 or 13 tons of particles across the entire Earth.

The Leonids have long been a source of both fascination and fear. A very strong shower in 1833 caused so much consternation in the eastern seaboard (coast) of the United States that there was an explosion in the number of evangelical Christian churches being founded, as preachers warned of the coming of Armageddon. Mass panic as the sky as it turned bright with the aura of a thousand pieces of comet colliding with the atmosphere saw an entire community of the Mormon sect uprooted from their homes in Independence, Missouri, and the shower was noted in the stories of Native Americans and in the journals of early U.S. astronomers.  Reportings of sightings of the Leonids date back to 900 AD.

For astronomers over much of the U.S. , this weekend is an exciting time. Many seasoned skywatchers have seen previous visits by the Leonids and are optimistic that not even the Moon will stop them seeing this jaw-dropping moment of astronomy at its most visible and entrancing.

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ATACAMA HUMANOID: Alleged extraterrestrial corpse is of this world

Claims that the remains of a being found in the world’s driest desert were that of an alien have been debunked by a television show broadcast on US television. Scientific analysis of the creature which was found in a remote mining village in the Atacama Desert of Chile has in fact proved that it is in fact of earthly origin, thus concluding a paranormal mystery that has intrigued scientists, the media and ufologists for a decade.

English: Map of Atacama Desert
English: Map of Atacama Desert (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The desiccated corpse, measuring only six inches in height and resembling a toy Hallowe’en skeleton, was stumbled upon by a man named Oscar Munoz in the ghost town of La Nora, where it had allegedly been hidden away near an abandoned church. The blackened skeleton with yellowed bones and ‘hard’ teeth had been found wrapped in a white cloth. Its deep-set eyes and domed elongated skull struck him as possibly that of an entity from another world. Many observers given access to view Munoz’s mysterious organism were startled by its uncanny resemblance to the infamous Greys – aliens said to be capable of telepathy and interstellar travel and traditionally blamed for the widely documented ‘alien abductions’ of ordinary humans.

Munoz later sold on the ‘alien’ skeleton, nicknamed ‘Ata’ or the ‘Atacama Humanoid’, to a Spanish businessman for the sum of a few hundred euros. Its discovery meanwhile was fuelling fierce debate in the UFO community, many who were convinced it was proof that aliens had visited our planet, and had even died on it. Sceptics meanwhile maintained that the ‘alien’ was in fact a preserved human foetus, a dried baby monkey or even a hoax.

The confusing mystery of 15 centimetre tall ‘Ata’ was finally solved by a team of biologists led by Dr. Steven Greer, whose findings were aired in a documentary called  ‘Sirius’ this past Monday. Greer’s team managed to obtain the corpse from its current owner and ran a series of tests to determine the alien’s origins, including microscopic analysis of its DNA  and advanced 3D CAT scans to examine its internal structure for clues to its possible origins.

Dr. Greer hit back at detractors who claimed the Atacama Humanoid was a deliberate hoax by scammers exploiting the scientific community’s desire to find proof of intelligent life outside Earth. He said “The CAT scan clearly shows internal chest organs – lungs and what appears to be the remains of a heart structure

There is absolutely no doubt that the specimen is an actual organism and that it is not a hoax of any kind

In an unfortunate blow to those who hoped that the Humanoid would be the first concrete proof of alien life, Dr. Greer has stated that it is in fact an ordinary human foetus. One theory is that it is the remains of a child, possibly stillborn and abandoned by its mother who wrapped it in a cloth and left it near the church, fearful of divine retribution and societal rejection in the staunchly Catholic society of rural Chile. Some believe however that the child, said to be male, may have survived up to eight years of age, despite his unusually tiny height.

Alien hello icon
Alien hello icon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ata’s characteristic bulging head may have been the result of a deformation in the womb or an ancient cultural practice. Some societies in South America had, and may continue, to follow a tradition of wrapping their babies’ head in cloth reinforced with wood splints, causing the child’s skull to become elongated as it develops. This custom was once in vogue among well-to-do people as a sign of nobility.

Its appearance may have been down to exposure to the relentless sun of the Atacama, the world’s driest desert, where some areas do not see rain for 400 years.

His findings have been confirmed by two other scientists based at California’s Stanford University.

SIRIUS DOCUMENTARY TRAILER – featuring the Atacama Humanoid

Many thanks to Sunny Atwal for suggesting today’s article.

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DEATH OF THE DINOSAURS: It may have been a speeding comet, US scientists say

Sixty-five million years ago, a massive object from outer space slammed into the Earth near what is now the Yucatan peninsula in modern-day Mexico. It released thousand of times the energy of an atomic bomb, leaving behind a crater more than 180 kilometres wide. The collision rained molten and pulverised rock over an area of more than 2,500 kilometres in diameter, creating devastating firestorms. It also caused worldwide temperatures to plummet as millions of tonnes of dust was thrown up into the atmosphere, blocking out the Sun for decades. As plants died off, the food chains that supported land dinosaurs and their marine reptile relatives collapsed. Dinosaurs soon became extinct, enabling mammals and later, humans, to take the dinosaurs’ place as dominant animals.

English: This shaded relief image of Mexico's ...
English: This shaded relief image of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula show a subtle, but unmistakable, indication of the Chicxulub impact crater. Most scientists now agree that this impact was the cause of the Cretatious-Tertiary Extinction, the event 65 million years ago that marked the sudden extinction of the dinosaurs as well as the majority of life then on Earth. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It has been heavily debated about what exactly gorged out the infamous Chicxulub crater, with the guilty party either assumed to be a meteor or comet. Now a group of researchers in New Hampshire state, America, say they are almost certain it was a comet pulled in off its course by Earth’s powerful gravitational field. In findings shown to observers at the 44th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, the researchers used complex chemical analyses to determine that Chicxulub was impacted by an object smaller than previously realised.

Until recently, most scientists believed that the space object that wiped out the dinosaurs as well most other life on Earth was a predominately metallic asteroid containing the rare metal iridium. It was presumed to be relatively large, slow-moving and heavy in metal content, based on traces of iridium found in rock layers worldwide dating from the impact time. Iridium does not occur naturally on our planet in any large quantities and such a spike in the metal’s levels was attributed to fallout from the gigantic iridium-rich meteor settling over the Earth’s land masses.

Chicxulub impact - artist impression
Chicxulub impact – artist impression (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However the U.S. researchers says that established iridium counts are inaccurate. By comparing iridium counts with that of another rare element, osmium, found in asteroids, they discovered that far less iridium has been deposited than would have been expected for such a massive extraterrestrial object. According to their studies, the lethal asteroid would have needed to be 5km wide to have deposited the two metals in such quantities, but that was inconsistent with the size of the Mexican crater. They believe that the real culprit behind the extinction of the dinosaurs was a very fast and small long-tailed comet.

Long-tailed comets are balls of ice, water and frozen gases that typically travel through space and occasionally pass by the Sun. Their trajectories can take many thousands or even millions of years to complete as they move around our solar system. If such a comet strayed too close to the Earth, it would have been snagged easily and its high speed would have created enough force to generate a wide crater, holding sufficient power to have been able to wipe 70% of all species, as has happened in the great Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event around 65 millions years ago.

However the findings have been questioned by other scientists. Dr Gareth Collins of the Imperial College in London, who specialises in studying the nature of impact craters, said “I don’t think it is possible to accurately determine the impactor size from geochemistry”.

Geochemistry tells you – quite accurately – only the mass of meteoritic material that is distributed globally, not the total mass of the impactor. To estimate the latter, one needs to know what fraction of the impactor was distributed globally, as opposed to being ejected to space or landing close to the crater.

Even the researchers in New Hampshire, working at the Dartmouth College, admit that they are not completely certain if it was really a stray comet that killed off the dinosaurs, but one, Jason Moore said that ultimately “the overall aim of our project is to better characterise the impactor that produced the crater in the Yucatan peninsula [in Mexico]

Chicxulub (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A geophysical map of the Chicxulub crater. Most scientists are certain that this was the aftermath of the comet that ended the reign of dinosaurs.

Understanding what exactly wiped out three-quarters of the planet’s living things 65 million years ago is vital for when we are faced with such a situation in the distant future, which scientists unanimously agree is more likely than not. About 95% of all near-Earth objects in space with a diameter of one kilometre or more have been discovered by astronomers. However, only about 10% of the 13,000 – 20,000 asteroids above the size of 140m have been detected and tracked by scientists at organisations like NASA, the world leader in asteroid astronomy.

There are believed to be far more comets in our solar system than near-Earth asteroids but NASA scientists say that the likelihood of the Earth being pummelled by another comet is small. Most comets travel far beyond the Earth and Sun with many not being sighted for millennia. A NASA census of historical collisions between our world and so-called near-Earth objects shows that only 10% were comets.

Many thanks to Sunny Atwal for suggesting today’s article.

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“Dinosaur-killing space rock ‘was a comet’ ” – Paul Rincon, BBC News Science and Environment LINK