Humans aren’t the only primates that can make sharp stone tools


The Guardian reports: Monkeys have been observed producing sharp stone flakes that closely resemble the earliest known tools made by our ancient relatives, proving that this ability is not uniquely human.

Previously, modifying stones to create razor-edged fragments was thought to be an activity confined to hominins, the family including early humans and their more primitive cousins. The latest observations re-write this view, showing that monkeys unintentionally produce almost identical artefacts simply by smashing stones together.

The findings put archaeologists on alert that they can no longer assume that stone flakes they discover are linked to the deliberate crafting of tools by early humans as their brains became more sophisticated.

Tomos Proffitt, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford and the study’s lead author, said: “At a very fundamental level – if you’re looking at a very simple flake – if you had a capuchin flake and a human flake they would be the same. It raises really important questions about what level of cognitive complexity is required to produce a sophisticated cutting tool.”

Unlike early humans, the flakes produced by the capuchins were the unintentional byproduct of hammering stones – an activity that the monkeys pursued decisively, but the purpose of which was not clear. Originally scientists thought the behaviour was a flamboyant display of aggression in response to an intruder, but after more extensive observations the monkeys appeared to be seeking out the quartz dust produced by smashing the rocks, possibly because it has a nutritional benefit. [Continue reading…]


Great Barrier Reef obituary goes viral, to the horror of scientists

Huffington Post reports: Dead and dying are two very different things.

If a person is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, their loved ones don’t rush to write an obituary and plan a funeral. Likewise, species aren’t declared extinct until they actually are.

In a viral article entitled “Obituary: Great Barrier Reef (25 Million BC-2016),” however, writer Rowan Jacobsen proclaimed ― inaccurately and, we can only hope, hyperbolically ― that Earth’s largest living structure is dead and gone.

“The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 2016 after a long illness,” reads the sensational obituary, published Tuesday in Outside Magazine. “It was 25 million years old.”

There’s no denying the Great Barrier Reef is in serious trouble, having been hammered in recent years by El Niño and climate change. In April, scientists from the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies found that the most severe coral bleaching event on record had impacted 93 percent of the reef.

But as a whole, it is not dead. Preliminary findings published Thursday of Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority surveys show 22 percent of its coral died from the bleaching event. That leaves more than three quarters still alive ― and in desperate need of relief.

Two leading coral scientists that The Huffington Post contacted took serious issue with Outside’s piece, calling it wildly irresponsible. [Continue reading…]


There may be two trillion other galaxies


Brian Gallagher writes: In 1939, the year Edwin Hubble won the Benjamin Franklin award for his studies of “extra-galactic nebulae,” he paid a visit to an ailing friend. Depressed and interred at Las Encinas Hospital, a mental health facility, the friend, an actor and playwright named John Emerson, asked Hubble what — spiritually, cosmically — he believed in. In Edwin Hubble: Mariner of the Nebulae, Gale E. Christianson writes that Hubble, a Christian-turned-agnostic, “pulled no punches” in his reply. “The whole thing is so much bigger than I am,” he told Emerson, “and I can’t understand it, so I just trust myself to it, and forget about it.”

Even though he was moved by a sense of the universe’s immensity, it’s arresting to recall how small Hubble thought the cosmos was at the time. “The picture suggested by the reconnaissance,” he wrote in his 1937 book, The Observational Approach to Cosmology, “is a sphere, centred on the observer, about 1,000 million light-years in diameter, throughout which are scattered about 100 million nebulae,” or galaxies. “A suitable model,” he went on, “would be furnished by tennis balls, 50 feet apart, scattered through a sphere 5 miles in diameter.” From the instrument later named after him, the Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990, we learned from a series of pictures taken, starting five years later, just how unsuitable that model was.

The first is called the Hubble Deep Field, arguably “the most important image ever taken” according to this YouTube video. (I recommend watching it.) The Hubble gazed, for ten days, at an apparently empty spot in the sky, one about the size of a pinhead held up at arm’s length — a fragment one 24-millionth of the whole sky. The resulting picture had 3,000 objects, almost all of them galaxies in various stages of development, and many of them as far away as 12 billion light-years. Robert Williams, the former director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, wrote in the New York Times, “The image is really a core sample of the universe.” Next came the Ultra Deep Field, in 2003 (after a three-month exposure with a new camera, the Hubble image came back with 10,000 galaxies), then the eXtreme Deep Field, in 2012, a refined version of the Ultra that reveals galaxies that formed just 450 million years after the Big Bang. [Continue reading…]


A plan to defend against the war on science

Shawn Otto writes: Four years ago in Scientific American, I warned readers of a growing problem in American democracy. The article, entitled “Antiscience Beliefs Jeopardize U.S. Democracy,” charted how it had not only become acceptable, but often required, for politicians to embrace antiscience positions, and how those positions flew in the face of the core principles that the U.S. was founded on: That if anyone could discover the truth of something for him or herself using the tools of science, then no king, no pope and no wealthy lord was more entitled to govern the people than they were themselves. It was self-evident.

In the years since, the situation has gotten worse. We’ve seen the emergence of a “post-fact” politics, which has normalized the denial of scientific evidence that conflicts with the political, religious or economic agendas of authority. Much of this denial centers, now somewhat predictably, around climate change — but not all. If there is a single factor to consider as a barometer that evokes all others in this election, it is the candidates’ attitudes toward science.

Consider, for example, what has been occurring in Congress. Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, is a climate change denier. Smith has used his post to initiate a series of McCarthy-style witch-hunts, issuing subpoenas and demanding private correspondence and testimony from scientists, civil servants, government science agencies, attorneys general and nonprofit organizations whose work shows that global warming is happening, humans are causing it and that — surprise — energy companies sought to sow doubt about this fact.

Smith, who is a Christian Scientist and seems to revel in his role as the science community’s bête noire, is by no means alone. Climate denial has become a virtual Republican Party plank (and rejecting the Paris climate accord a literal one) with a wide majority of Congressional Republicans espousing it. Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas), chairman of the Senate’s Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness, took time off from his presidential campaign last December to hold hearings during the Paris climate summit showcasing well-known climate deniers repeating scientifically discredited talking points.

The situation around science has grown so partisan that Hillary Clinton turned the phrase “I believe in science” into the largest applause line of her convention speech accepting the Democratic Party nomination. Donald Trump, by contrast, is the first major party presidential nominee who is an outright climate denier, having called climate science a “hoax” numerous times. In his responses to the organization I helped found,, which gets presidential candidates on the record on science, he told us that “there is still much that needs to be investigated in the field of ‘climate change,’” putting the term in scare quotes to cast doubt on its reality. When challenged on his hoax comments, campaign manager Kellyanne Conway affirmed that Trump doesn’t believe climate change is man-made. [Continue reading…]


Rewriting Earth’s creation story


Rebecca Boyle writes: Humanity’s trips to the moon revolutionized our view of this planet. As seen from another celestial body, Earth seemed more fragile and more precious; the iconic Apollo 8 image of Earth rising above the lunar surface helped launch the modern environmental movement. The moon landings made people want to take charge of Earth’s future. They also changed our view of its past.

Earth is constantly remaking itself, and over the eons it has systematically erased its origin story, subsuming and cannibalizing its earliest rocks. Much of what we think we know about the earliest days of Earth therefore comes from the geologically inactive moon, which scientists use like a time capsule.

Ever since Apollo astronauts toted chunks of the moon back home, the story has sounded something like this: After coalescing from grains of dust that swirled around the newly ignited sun, the still-cooling Earth would have been covered in seas of magma, punctured by inky volcanoes spewing sulfur and liquid rock. The young planet was showered in asteroids and larger structures called planetisimals, one of which sheared off a portion of Earth and formed the moon. Just as things were finally settling down, about a half-billion years after the solar system formed, the Earth and moon were again bombarded by asteroids whose onslaught might have liquefied the young planet — and sterilized it.

Geologists named this epoch the Hadean, after the Greek version of the underworld. Only after the so-called Late Heavy Bombardment quieted some 3.9 billion years ago did Earth finally start to morph into the Edenic, cloud-covered, watery world we know.

But as it turns out, the Hadean may not have been so hellish. New analysis of Earth and moon rocks suggest that instead of a roiling ball of lava, baby Earth was a world with continents, oceans of water, and maybe even an atmosphere. It might not have been bombarded by asteroids at all, or at least not in the large quantities scientists originally thought. The Hadean might have been downright hospitable, raising questions about how long ago life could have arisen on this planet. [Continue reading…]


Sesame particle accelerator project brings Middle East together

The Guardian reports: In the sleepy hillside town in al-Balqa, not far from the Jordan Valley, a grand project is taking shape. The Middle East’s new particle accelerator – the Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications, or Sesame – is being built.

In a region racked by violence, extremism and the disintegration of nation states, Sesame feels a world apart; the meditative peace of the surrounding countryside belying the advanced stages of construction inside the site, which is due to be formally inaugurated next spring, with the first experiments taking place as early as this autumn.

It’s a miracle it got off the ground in the first place. Sesame’s members are Iran, Pakistan, Israel, Turkey, Cyprus, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Bahrain. Iran and Pakistan do not recognise Israel, nor does Turkey recognise Cyprus, and everyone has their myriad diplomatic spats.

Iran, for example, continues to participate despite two of its scientists who were involved in the project, quantum physicist Masoud Alimohammadi and nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari, being assassinated in operations blamed on Israel’s Mossad.

“We’re cooperating very well together,” said Giorgio Paolucci, the scientific director of Sesame. “That’s the dream.” [Continue reading…]


Forget software — now hackers are exploiting physics

Andy Greenberg reports: Practically every word we use to describe a computer is a metaphor. “File,” “window,” even “memory” all stand in for collections of ones and zeros that are themselves representations of an impossibly complex maze of wires, transistors and the electrons moving through them. But when hackers go beyond those abstractions of computer systems and attack their actual underlying physics, the metaphors break.

Over the last year and a half, security researchers have been doing exactly that: honing hacking techniques that break through the metaphor to the actual machine, exploiting the unexpected behavior not of operating systems or applications, but of computing hardware itself—in some cases targeting the actual electricity that comprises bits of data in computer memory. And at the Usenix security conference earlier this month, two teams of researchers presented attacks they developed that bring that new kind of hack closer to becoming a practical threat.

Both of those new attacks use a technique Google researchers first demonstrated last March called “Rowhammer.” The trick works by running a program on the target computer, which repeatedly overwrites a certain row of transistors in its DRAM flash memory, “hammering” it until a rare glitch occurs: Electric charge leaks from the hammered row of transistors into an adjacent row. The leaked charge then causes a certain bit in that adjacent row of the computer’s memory to flip from one to zero or vice versa. That bit flip gives you access to a privileged level of the computer’s operating system.

It’s messy. And mind-bending. And it works. [Continue reading…]


Forget ideology, liberal democracy’s newest threats come from technology and bioscience

John Naughton writes: The BBC Reith Lectures in 1967 were given by Edmund Leach, a Cambridge social anthropologist. “Men have become like gods,” Leach began. “Isn’t it about time that we understood our divinity? Science offers us total mastery over our environment and over our destiny, yet instead of rejoicing we feel deeply afraid.”

That was nearly half a century ago, and yet Leach’s opening lines could easily apply to today. He was speaking before the internet had been built and long before the human genome had been decoded, and so his claim about men becoming “like gods” seems relatively modest compared with the capabilities that molecular biology and computing have subsequently bestowed upon us. Our science-based culture is the most powerful in history, and it is ceaselessly researching, exploring, developing and growing. But in recent times it seems to have also become plagued with existential angst as the implications of human ingenuity begin to be (dimly) glimpsed.

The title that Leach chose for his Reith Lecture – A Runaway World – captures our zeitgeist too. At any rate, we are also increasingly fretful about a world that seems to be running out of control, largely (but not solely) because of information technology and what the life sciences are making possible. But we seek consolation in the thought that “it was always thus”: people felt alarmed about steam in George Eliot’s time and got worked up about electricity, the telegraph and the telephone as they arrived on the scene. The reassuring implication is that we weathered those technological storms, and so we will weather this one too. Humankind will muddle through.

But in the last five years or so even that cautious, pragmatic optimism has begun to erode. There are several reasons for this loss of confidence. One is the sheer vertiginous pace of technological change. Another is that the new forces at loose in our society – particularly information technology and the life sciences – are potentially more far-reaching in their implications than steam or electricity ever were. And, thirdly, we have begun to see startling advances in these fields that have forced us to recalibrate our expectations.[Continue reading…]


Potentially habitable planet discovered right next door

Scientific American reports: It was just over 20 years ago — a blink of a cosmic eye — that astronomers found the first planets orbiting stars other than our Sun. All these new worlds were gas-shrouded giants like Jupiter or Saturn and utterly inhospitable to life as we know it — but for years each discovery was dutifully reported as front-page news, while scientists and the public alike dreamed of a day when we would find a habitable world. An Earth-like place with plentiful surface water, neither frozen nor vaporized but in the liquid state so essential to life. Back then the safe bet was to guess that the discovery of such a planet would only come after many decades, and that when a promising new world’s misty shores materialized on the other side of our telescopes, it would prove too faraway and faint to study in any detail.

Evidently the safe bet was wrong. On Wednesday astronomers made the kind of announcement that can only occur once in human history: the discovery of the nearest potentially habitable world beyond our solar system. This world may be rocky like ours and whirls in a temperate orbit around the Sun’s closest stellar neighbor, the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri just over four light-years away. Their findings are reported in a study in the journal Nature.

Although technically still considered a “candidate” planet awaiting verification, most astronomers consulted for this story believe the world to be there. Scarcely more than the planet’s orbital period and approximate mass are known, but that is enough to send shivers down spines. Proxima Centauri shines with only about a thousandth of our Sun’s luminosity, meaning any life-friendly planets must huddle close. The newfound world, christened “Proxima b” by scientists, resides in an 11.2-day orbit where water — and thus the kind of life we understand — could conceivably exist. And it is likely to be little more than one-third heavier than Earth, suggesting it offers a solid surface upon which seas and oceans could pool. In a feat of discovery that could reshape the history of science and human dreams of interstellar futures, our species has uncovered a potentially habitable planet right next door. [Continue reading…]


China launches quantum satellite for ‘hack-proof’ communications

The Guardian reports: China says it has launched the world’s first quantum satellite, a project Beijing hopes will enable it to build a coveted “hack-proof” communications system with potentially significant military and commercial applications.

Xinhua, Beijing’s official news service, said Micius, a 600kg satellite that is nicknamed after an ancient Chinese philosopher, “roared into the dark sky” over the Gobi desert at 1.40am local time on Tuesday, carried by a Long March-2D rocket.

“The satellite’s two-year mission will be to develop ‘hack-proof’ quantum communications, allowing users to send messages securely and at speeds faster than light,” Xinhua reported.

The Quantum Experiments at Space Scale, or Quess, satellite programme is part of an ambitious space programme that has accelerated since Xi Jinping became Communist party chief in late 2012.

“There’s been a race to produce a quantum satellite, and it is very likely that China is going to win that race,” Nicolas Gisin, a professor and quantum physicist at the University of Geneva, told the Wall Street Journal. “It shows again China’s ability to commit to large and ambitious projects and to realise them.”

The satellite will be tasked with sending secure messages between Beijing and Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, a sprawling region of deserts and snow-capped mountains in China’s extreme west.

Highly complex attempts to build such a “hack-proof” communications network are based on the scientific principle of entanglement. [Continue reading…]


Ancient Venus may have been much like Earth

The Washington Post reports: For a 2-billion-year-long span, ending about 715 million years ago, Venus was likely a much more pleasant spot that it is today. To observe Venus now is to witness a dry and toxic hellscape, where the planet heats up to a scorching 864 degrees Fahrenheit. A super-strong electric wind is believed to suck the smallest traces of water into space. With apologies to Ian Malcolm, life as we know it could not find a way.

But travel back in time a few billion years or so. Ancient Venus, according to a new computer model from NASA, would have been prime solar system real estate, to the point it may have been downright habitable.

That life would find Venus amenable hinges on two main factors. Venus would have needed much balmier temperatures, and it also would have needed a liquid ocean — which is a significant if, although elemental traces such as deuterium indicate water existed on Venus at one point. As Colin Wilson, an Oxford University planetary physicist, told Time in 2010, “everything points to there being large amounts of water in the past.”

Venusian temperatures, too, appear to have been far cooler when the solar system was younger. NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in a report published Thursday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, calculated that the average surface temperature 2.9 billion years ago was about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Such temperature would have made Venus, surprisingly for a planet closer to the Sun, a bit chillier than Earth was at the time. [Continue reading…]


How a solo voyage around the world led to a vision for a sustainable global economy


The Ellen MacArthur Foundation works with business, government and academia to build a framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design — a circular economy.