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Science News

Oldest examples of hunting weapon uncovered in South Africa

Common ancestor of people and Neandertals may have flung stone-tipped shafts at animal prey
Half-million-year-old spear tips recovered from the Kathu Pan 1 site in South Africa, including the one shown from different angles, suggest that an ancestor of humans and Neandertals used weapons for hunting.By Bruce Bower

Scientists working in South Africa have unearthed the oldest-known spear tips, apparently made by a common ancestor of people and Neandertals around 500,000 years ago.

More than 200 stone points found at a site called Kathu Pan 1 display modifications and damage consistent with having been attached to spear handles and hurled at animal prey such as springbok, say Jayne Wilkins, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and her colleagues.

“These were close-range weapons, either thrusting spears or spears thrown from fairly short distances,” Wilkins says.

A description of the South African spear points appears in the Nov. 16 Science.

Human ancestors were regularly killing game by 780,000 years ago in the Middle East, as evidenced by remains of butchered deer carcasses. Until now, the earliest stone spear tips came from a Neandertal site in France dating to between 300,000 and 200,000 years ago. Wooden spears from 400,000 years ago have been found among the remains of butchered horses in Germany.


Rainforest katydids evolved mammal-like ears

Tiny organs below insect’s knees have a structure similar to those in humans
A rainforest katydid from South America has independently evolved its own version of the three-step hearing process previously thought to be unique among vertebrates.By Susan Milius

A rainforest katydid doesn’t talk like a mammal, or walk like a mammal, but it does hear with the first mammal-like, three-stage sound-sensing system known outside vertebrates.

“The beauty about the katydid ear is that it does the same job in a way that is much simpler,” says sensory biologist Daniel Robert of the University of Bristol in England. And of interest to researchers designing miniature hearing devices, the Copiphora gorgonensis katydid ear is smaller than a rice grain.

When mammals hear a sound, airborne pressure waves thump against the eardrum and send ripples through a liquid-filled chamber where tuned cells pick out the various frequencies. The sophisticated transition comes from a trio of tiny bones that the eardrum jiggles in just the right way to translate large thumps over its broad area into intelligible sloshes in the narrow chamber.



Technology News

Conclusive proof: Sex is more enjoyable than Facebook

Research from a university in New Zealand using text messaging as its mode of examination concludes that people really enjoy sex and really don't enjoy Facebook and recovering from illness.
(Credit: Chris Matyszczyk/CNET)by Chris Matyszczyk

Academia and Silicon Valley are in a race to see who can solve life's most important problems first.

Currently, the Valley is ahead, having shown you how to make pictures that look like they were taken 40 years ago.

However, academia is catching up, by bringing conclusions to life's most pressing questions.

I am, therefore, moved beyond safe levels of self-expression on hearing of a piece of research from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

It set out to discover the true depths of what makes us happy and unhappy. What could be more fundamental than that?

Apparently, psychologists agree that there are three dimensions of happiness-seeking: through pleasure, engagement, and meaning.

The intellect behind this research, the happily named Carsten Grimm, decided to use text messaging to delve into people's inner triggers.


Kill the Password: Why a String of Characters Can’t Protect Us Anymore

“This summer, hackers destroyed my entire digital life in the span of an hour,” says Wired senior writer Mat Honan.By Mat Honan

It’s not a well-kept secret, either. Just a simple string of characters—maybe six of them if you’re careless, 16 if you’re cautious—that can reveal everything about you.

Your email. Your bank account. Your address and credit card number. Photos of your kids or, worse, of yourself, naked. The precise location where you’re sitting right now as you read these words. Since the dawn of the information age, we’ve bought into the idea that a password, so long as it’s elaborate enough, is an adequate means of protecting all this precious data. But in 2012 that’s a fallacy, a fantasy, an outdated sales pitch. And anyone who still mouths it is a sucker—or someone who takes you for one.

No matter how complex, no matter how unique, your passwords can no longer protect you.

Look around. Leaks and dumps—hackers breaking into computer systems and releasing lists of usernames and passwords on the open web—are now regular occurrences. The way we daisy-chain accounts, with our email address doubling as a universal username, creates a single point of failure that can be exploited with devastating results. Thanks to an explosion of personal information being stored in the cloud, tricking customer service agents into resetting passwords has never been easier. All a hacker has to do is use personal information that’s publicly available on one service to gain entry into another.



Environmental News

Global drought may have changed less than thought

Simple models have overestimated drying over past 60 years
DroughtsBy Tanya Lewis

Droughts shrivel crops, threaten communities, and wither ecosystems. Studies claim global warming is increasing drought worldwide, and may already have done so. But the standard method of assessing drought has exaggerated drying trends over the past 60 years, scientists report in the Nov. 14 Nature.

The 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that “more intense and longer droughts have been observed over wider areas since the 1970s.” Its findings were largely based on a widely used model known as the Palmer Drought Severity Index, which uses temperature and rainfall to determine dryness. Originally developed in the 1960s to help apportion aid to drought-stricken farmers, the index may skew drought trends in the presence of climate change.

“It’s quite obvious that the Palmer model has been overestimating changes in drought,” says study coauthor Justin Sheffield, a hydroclimatologist at Princeton University. Other scientists have reported this effect for regional areas, but the new study is the first to show it globally, he says.


Pandas' home range may move as climate changes

Warming might force animals’ food source, bamboo, to higher elevations
Giant pandas in China’s Qinling Mountains may find fewer bamboo shoots to eat by the end of this century thanks to climate change.By Alexandra Witze

China’s famous Qinling pandas may run out of their favorite food by the end of this century. Scientists have simulated how three bamboo species native to central China’s Qinling Mountains might move around as climate changes. And the news is bad for hungry pandas: All three plant species shrink in range.

Bamboo, pandas’ dietary staple, is vulnerable to change because the plants take a long time to reproduce and can’t spread their seeds very far. Mao-Ning Tuanmu and his colleagues at Michigan State University in East Lansing mapped the climate conditions best suited to three bamboo species in the Qinling Mountains, home to some 270 pandas, or about 17 percent of the total wild population.

The scientists then took four popular climate simulations and calculated how conditions would change throughout the Qinling region. The results suggest that areas suited to bamboo growth would shift to higher elevations and become more isolated from the surrounding areas.



Medical News

Protein's destructive journey in brain may cause Parkinson's

Clumps of alpha-synuclein move through dopamine-producing cells, mouse study finds
A Lewy body, made up of the alpha-synuclein protein (brown) sits inside a neuron in the brain of a patient with Parkinson’s disease.By Laura Sanders

The insidious spread of an abnormal protein may be behind Parkinson’s disease, a study in mice suggests. A harmful version of the protein crawls through the brains of healthy mice, killing brain cells and damaging the animals’ balance and coordination, researchers report in the Nov. 16 Science.

If a similar process happens in humans, the results could eventually point to ways to stop Parkinson’s destruction in the brain. “I really think that this model will increase our ability to come up with Parkinson’s disease therapies,” says study coauthor Virginia Lee of the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia.

The new study targets a hallmark of Parkinson’s disease — clumps of a protein called alpha-synuclein. The clumps, called Lewy bodies, pile up inside nerve cells in the brain and cause trouble, particularly in cells that make dopamine, a chemical messenger that helps control movement. Death of these dopamine-producing cells leads to the characteristic tremors and muscle rigidity seen in people with Parkinson’s.


Ebola may go airborne

Infected pigs can transmit virus to primates without contact, study finds
Ebola virusBy Tina Hesman Saey

The Ebola virus can spread through the air from pigs to macaques, a new study suggests.

Transmission of the virus — which causes an often fatal hemorrhagic fever in people and primates — was thought to require direct contact with body fluids from an infected animal or person. But in the new study, published online November 15 in Scientific Reports, piglets infected with Ebola passed the virus to macaques housed in the same room even though the animals never touched.  

“The evidence that the virus got from a pig to a monkey through a respiratory route is good,” says Glenn Marsh, a molecular virologist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization’s Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, Australia. Marsh was not involved in the new study but has investigated Ebola and other viruses in pigs.

Although pigs transmitted Ebola in the laboratory, there is still no evidence that anyone has been sickened from contact with infected pigs in Africa, where the virus occurs naturally, or that the virus passes through the air under normal conditions, says study coauthor Gary Kobinger, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. “It’s definitely not an efficient route of transmission.”



Space News

Digging deep into Martian soil

NASA's rover takes a closer look at Mars' surface
NASA's Curiosity rover is hard at work analyzing samples from Mars' surface, leaving behind scoop marks like this one as it goes.By Nadia Drake

NASA’s Curiosity rover isn’t leaving just tire tracks in the reddish Martian dust — it’s also leaving scoop marks in an area called Rocknest, about 480 meters away from where the rover touched down in August.

On October 30, NASA announced that the rover had completed its first detailed analysis of the Martian surface using the CheMin X-ray analysis instrument, which shoots X-rays into collected samples.

The results suggest that the Rocknest soil is rich in minerals such as olivine, feldspar and pyroxene, much like patches of weathered volcanic soil in Hawaii.


Rogue planet found among gang of stars

Orphan orb is closest object of its kind to Earth
At less than 160 light-years from Earth, the free-floating planet CFBDSIR2149 (artist’s illustration shown) is the nearest planet-like object found not orbiting a star. The planet appears blue in near-infrared wavelengths.By Tanya Lewis

Not all planets are content to dutifully circle a star. A new rogue planet has been spied roaming free among a pack of young stars about 115 to 160 light-years from Earth.

It’s not a planet in the conventional sense, because it doesn’t orbit a star. Yet it’s between four and seven times the mass of Jupiter, well within planetary size range. The object appears to be a young, cold planet in a cluster of about 30 stars moving together called AB Doradus, astronomers report in the December Astronomy & Astrophysics. The free-floating planet is the closest to Earth yet discovered, scientists say.

“It’s quite a nice discovery — probably the clearest example of a planetary mass object that’s very young like this,” says astrophysicist Philip Lucas of the University of Hertfordshire in England, who was not involved with the study.

Other potential free-floating planets have been detected before, but their ages weren’t as well known. Astronomers couldn’t be sure the objects were planets and not brown dwarfs, failed stars too small to sustain fusion reactions in their cores.



Odd News

British Airways lofts spectacular four-letter retweet

For reasons that seem entirely unclear, British Airways retweets an expletive-laden tweet that is critical of, well, British Airways.
(Credit: Screenshot: Chris Matyszczyk/CNET) by Chris Matyszczyk

Sometimes when people send me an abusive, ignorant tweet, I retweet it.

Because, well, it seems somehow the right thing to do to make them feel better.

However, I am not Britain's flagship airline, with customers whose sensibilities are touchy at best.

Please feel the pain, therefore, of British Airways, which today retweeted this: "@JoeLadd @British_Airways F** You. F** cancelling my flight! #bunchofc**s"

That's a partial quote. As if the fusillade of four-letter phrases wasn't enough, the retweeted tweet topped it all off with a racial epithet.

It seems entirely unsurprising that others who follow BA spotted this disgruntled, nasty thing before the airline did. And so it became legend, with a legion of fast-fingered Twitter users posting screenshots of it.

When the airline finally did notice, it offered this tweet: "Apologies for the last RT. We are sorry for any offence caused and are investigating how this may have happened."

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