Watch This Black Hole Rip Apart a Star [Video]

Astronomers caught a black hole tearing apart a star in the center of a galaxy about 290 million light years away from Earth.

The team used a trio of orbiting observatories that includes NASA’s Swift Gamma-ray-Burst Explorer to gather the data. They say the results offer an extraordinary opportunity to understand the extreme environment and events around a black hole.

After the star is destroyed, the black hole’s strong gravitational force pulls most of the remains of the star toward it. This infalling debris is heated to millions of degrees and generates a huge amount of X-ray light. (Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/CI Lab)

“Swift is uniquely equipped to make rapid-response observations to fast-breaking events throughout the universe,” says John Nousek, Swift’s director of mission operations and a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State.” This event occurred near a supermassive black hole estimated to weigh a few million times the mass of the Sun.

“The black hole is located in the center of PGC 043234, a galaxy that lies about 290 million light years from Earth. This event is the closest tidal disruption discovered in a decade.

When a star comes too close to a black hole, the intense gravity of the black hole results in tides that can rip the star apart. In these events, called “tidal disruptions,” some of the stellar debris is flung outward at high speeds, while the rest falls toward the black hole, causing distinct X-ray flares that can last for a few years.

AN ASTRONOMICAL PUZZLE

To make the observations, they used NASA’s Swift observatory, NASA’s Chandra X-ray observatory, and the ESA (European Space Agency)/NASA XMM-Newton observatory. Swift carries two telescopes whose lead scientists are Penn State astronomers and a third telescope led by a NASA scientist.

In 2014, NASA gave its top ranking to the Swift observatory for all of its astronomy satellites other than two of its “great observatories,” the Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-ray Observatory.

NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, Swift Gamma-ray Burst Explorer, and ESA/NASA’s XMM-Newton collected different pieces of this astronomical puzzle in a tidal disruption event called ASASSN-14li, originally discovered in an optical search by the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASAS-SN) in November 2014.

Swift_tidal_1500-770x498
An illustration of the tidal disruption event. (Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/CI Lab)

After the star is destroyed, the black hole’s strong gravitational force pulls most of the remains of the star toward it. This infalling debris is heated to millions of degrees and generates a huge amount of X-ray light.

Soon after this surge of X-rays, the amount of light decreases as the material falls beyond the black hole’s event horizon, the point beyond which no light can escape.

Gas often falls toward black holes by spiraling inward in a disk. But how this process starts has remained a mystery. In ASASSN-14li, astronomers were able to witness the formation of such a disk by looking at the X-ray light at different wavelengths (known as the “X-ray spectrum”) and tracking how that changed over time.

Astronomers are hoping to find more events like ASASSN-14li, which they can use to continue to test theoretical models about how black holes affect their environments and anything that might wander too close.

These results are published in the journal Nature.

Source: Reproduced in from Futurity.org as a derivative work under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Original article posted by  

Featured Image Credit: Screen capture from video.

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11,500 Year-old Babies May Prove Native American Migration Model

Out of the genes of babes comes truth, or at least some very great support for one of the theories of human migration which proposes that Native Americans descended from people who spent a long time in the ancient region called Beringia, and then migrated quickly south from there.

A fascinating article on the Science Daily website explains how the frozen remains of two babies found at an archaeological site known as Sun River in Alaska give strong support to the “Beringinian standstill model”:

University of Utah scientists deciphered maternal genetic material from two babies buried together at an Alaskan campsite 11,500 years ago. They found the infants had different mothers and were the northernmost known kin to two lineages of Native Americans found farther south throughout North and South America.

By showing that both genetic lineages lived so far north so long ago, the study supports the “Beringian standstill model.” It says that Native Americans descended from people who migrated from Asia to Beringia — the vast Bering land bridge that once linked Siberia and Alaska — and then spent up to 10,000 years in Beringia before moving rapidly into the Americas beginning at least 15,000 years ago.

“These infants are the earliest human remains in northern North America, and they carry distinctly Native American lineages,” says University of Utah anthropology professor Dennis O’Rourke, senior author of the paper set for online publication the week of Oct. 26 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We see diversity that is not present in modern Native American populations of the north and we see it at a fairly early date. This is evidence there was substantial genetic variation in the Beringian population before any of them moved south.”

“It supports the Beringian standstill theory in that if they [the infants] represent a population that descended from the earlier Beringian population, it helps confirm the extent of genetic diversity in that source population,” O’Rourke says. “You don’t see any of these lineages that are distinctly Native American in Asia, even Siberia, so there had to be a period of isolation for these distinctive Native American lineages to have evolved away from their Asian ancestors. We believe that was in Beringia.”

The burial of ancient infants is rare. One was a 6- to 12-week-old baby; the other a stillborn or preterm 30-week fetus. The discovery of the infant burials first was reported in the same journal this past November. They are among human remains at only eight sites in North America older than 8,000 years and from which researchers obtained mitochondrial DNA — genetic information inherited only from mothers. The infants are the northernmost of all those remains and of the two lineages they represent.

In the eight sites, “we find all five of the major lineages of Native Americans,” Tackney says. “That indicates that all were present in the early population in Beringia that gave rise to all modern Native Americans.”

See the excellent and informative article on the Science Daily website for additional details.

 

Source: ScienceDaily.com – “Ancient babies boost Bering land bridge layover

Featured Photo Credit: Ben Potter, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Something You Would Never Guess Can be done with Snake Venom

A nanofiber hydrogel infused with snake venom may be the best material to stop bleeding quickly—and may perform better than anticoagulants, a new study suggests.

The hydrogel called SB50 incorporates batroxobin, a venom produced by two species of South American pit viper. It can be injected as a liquid and quickly turns into a gel that conforms to the site of a wound, keeping it closed, and promotes clotting within seconds.

The findings suggest the hydrogel may be most useful for surgeries, particularly for patients who take anti-coagulant drugs to thin their blood.The hydrogel may be most useful for surgeries, particularly for patients who take anti-coagulant drugs to thin their blood.

“It’s interesting that you can take something so deadly and turn it into something that has the potential to save lives,” says Jeffrey Hartgerink, a chemist at Rice University.

Batroxobin was recognized for its properties as a coagulant—a substance that encourages blood to clot—in 1936. It has been used in various therapies as a way to remove excess fibrin proteins from the blood to treat thrombosis and as a topical hemostat. It has also been used as a diagnostic tool to determine blood-clotting time in the presence of heparin, an anti-coagulant drug.

“From a clinical perspective, that’s far and away the most important issue here,” Hartgerink says. “There’s a lot of different things that can trigger blood coagulation, but when you’re on heparin, most of them don’t work, or they work slowly or poorly. That obviously causes problems if you’re bleeding.

“Heparin blocks the function of thrombin, an enzyme that begins a cascade of reactions that lead to the clotting of blood,” he says. “Batroxobin is also an enzyme with similar function to thrombin, but its function is not blocked by heparin. This is important because surgical bleeding in patients taking heparin can be a serious problem. The use of batroxobin allows us to get around this problem because it can immediately start the clotting process, regardless of whether heparin is there or not.”

WORKS IN 6 SECONDS

The batroxobin combined with the hydrogels isn’t taken directly from snakes, Hartgerink says. The substance used for medicine is produced by genetically modified bacteria and then purified, avoiding the risk of other contaminant toxins.

For the study, published in ACS Biomaterials Science and Engineering, researchers combined batroxobin with their synthetic, self-assembling nanofibers, which can be loaded into a syringe and injected at the site of a wound, where they reassemble themselves into a gel.

Tests showed the new material stopped a wound from bleeding in as little as six seconds, and further prodding of the wound minutes later did not reopen it. The researchers also tested several other options: the hydrogel without batroxobin, the batroxobin without the hydrogel, a current clinical hemostat known as GelFoam and an alternative self-assembling hemostat known as Puramatrix and found that none were as effective, especially in the presence of anti-coagulants.

The new work builds upon extensive development of injectable hydrogel scaffolds that help wounds heal and grow natural tissue. The synthetic scaffolds are built from the peptide sequences to mimic natural processes.

“To be clear, we did not discover nor do any of the initial investigations of batroxobin,” Hartgerink says. “Its properties have been well-known for many decades. What we did was combine it with the hydrogel we’ve been working on for a long time.

“We think SB50 has great potential to stop surgical bleeding, particularly in difficult cases in which the patient is taking heparin or other anti-coagulants,” he says. “SB50 takes the powerful clotting ability of this snake venom and makes it far more effective by delivering it in an easily localized hydrogel that prevents possible unwanted systemic effects from using batroxobin alone.”

SB50 will require FDA approval before clinical use, Hartgerink says. While batroxobin is already approved, the hydrogel has not yet won approval, a process he expects will take several more years of testing.

The National Institutes of Health and the Welch Foundation supported the research.

 

Source: Reproduced in full from Futurity.org under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license with a new title and additional article links removed. 

Featured Photo Credit:  Greg Hume via Wikipedia

Who Will Autonomous Cars Choose to Kill?

Now that Tesla has updated some car models to have a semi-autopilot mode, and researchers at Stanford are programming a modified DeLorean to perform crazy evasive maneuvers, it looks like our automotive future most certainly will eventually be dominated by self-driving cars. A set of researchers at the Toulouse School of Economics are now wondering about an old philosophical problem applied to this new age of automobiles: who will these driverless cars decide to kill in a scenario where it’s impossible to avoid?

An insightful article on the Popular Science website explains the philosophical dilemma and gets into the possible outcomes:

In philosophy, there’s an ethical question called the trolley problem. If you had to push one large person in front of a moving trolley to save a group of people on the tracks, would you? This abstract idea has taken hold in programming self-driving cars: what happens if it’s impossible to avoid everyone?

Researchers from the Toulouse School of Economics decided to see what the public would decide, and posed a series of questions to online survey-takers, including a situation where a car would either kill 10 people and save the driver, or swerve and kill the driver to save the group.

They found that more than 75 percent supported self-sacrifice of the passenger to save 10 people, and around 50 percent supported self-sacrifice when saving just one person. However, respondents didn’t actually think real cars would end up being programmed this way, and would probably save the passenger at all costs.

The researchers posed several different questions along this vein to participants in the Amazon Mechanical Turk program, and found some other interesting results that are detailed in the provocative and excellent article with all the details on the Popular Science website.

Source: PopSci.com – “WHO WILL DRIVERLESS CARS DECIDE TO KILL?

Featured Image Credit: Toulouse School of Economics

Why Poo Transplants are Nothing to be Sniffed at

Tim Spector, King’s College London

Most of us will have experienced diarrhoea or Delhi Belly and spent an unpleasant 48 hours in bed or on the toilet, often while travelling. Studies show that if severe, these infections can sometimes change your gut microbes permanently. And rather than sitting it out we are increasingly turning to powerful broad spectrum antibiotics that kill the infectious bug – but these can also cause collateral damage and weaken our resistance to recurrences.

Five years in the future we could be popping capsules to cure us and reboot our healthy gut community made up of our frozen poo we stored when we were healthy.

Last week I visited the labs of the world’s biggest poo bank run by a not-for-profit company OpenBiome in Boston. They currently ship out more than 50 frozen poo samples a week to 430 US centres for treating a life threatening infection called recurrent Clostridium difficile, also known as C.diff infection or CDI, caused by antibiotics that affects about 100,000 Americans and kills 14,000. CDI is usually caused by an initial mild infection followed by recurrence in one in four patients, because of treatment with antibiotics that destroy the diversity of the normal gut microbes and allow the C. diff to flourish.

The traditional treatment for CDI is usually powerful antibiotics. However, a summary of three randomised control trials and more than 500 treated patients, and a resulting commentary in the BMJ, concluded that poo transplants – where liquidised stool (or its frozen microbial content) from a healthy donor is used in the colon of the patient to introduce healthy microbes – had more than an 85% success rate, compared to only 20-25% for the antibiotics.

One study stopped early as they viewed it unethical to continue with antibiotics. So far from more 6,500 supervised transplants in the US very few adverse events have been reported even in the very ill, immune deficient or very elderly.

Faecal opportunity

Poo transplants have been around since 4th century China but most doctors had not heard of them until the first trial was published two years ago. Faecal Microbial Transplantation (FMT), the official name of the treatment, and the process is quite simple.

At Openbiome, a healthy donor is chosen after a rigorous series of questionnaires and clinical tests on volunteers that eliminates 97% of candidates hoping to make easy money. So the dozen or so super-donors are in high demand. Their stools are diluted and a cryopreservative added so it can be safely frozen. It is then packaged three ways: either for a concentrated mixture to send down a tube through the nose into the stomach; a larger amount for use during a colonoscopy or enema to introduce via the rectum; and finally a new product being launched this week – 30 acid resistant capsules (nicknamed crapsules – which appear to work nearly as well) and reduce medical procedures.

Author Tim Spector delves into the freezer.
Tim Spector, Author provided

Faecal microbial transplantation for C.Diff infection has now been cautiously endorsed by medical specialist groups and in the UK by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence although national regulatory bodies have struggled with how to classify it. Are the microbes in our stool a tissue a medical device or a medicine? As our bowels contains ten times more microbial cells and 150 times more genes than in our bodies – is it really ours to begin with?

In the US and UK it is not being classed as a tissue (like blood transfusions) but as a medicine with a series of discretionary exemptions to allow it to be used.

Other countries are way behind the US. In the UK there are only around seven centres (including one private) and current regulations strangely prevent the import of frozen US samples. The demand from clinicians and public for FMT is growing for other common diseases and traits linked to altered gut microbes, and clinical trials are already ongoing for Crohn’s Disease, Colitis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and autism. It may also be useful in severe allergies and other immune diseases and even has potential in assisting chemotherapy.

Probably the number one question is whether FMT could treat obesity. The only proven long-term treatment for severe obesity and diabetes is bariatric surgery where pieces of the intestine are removed and reattached. There is increasing evidence that change in microbes could be responsible for its rapid clinical benefits. There is now clear evidence that FMT can treat and prevent obesity in lab animals but preliminary trials in obese humans have been disappointing: although FMT improved insulin sensitivity, weight didn’t change much. So far we still lack good evidence from proper trials for all these other common diseases and the consensus is that they will be much harder to treat than for C.Diff.

At large centres like Openbiome, risk of infection is minimised by lab screening and keeping samples for three months and checking donor health again before use, however there are other potential risks. There are a handful of reports of FMT recipients for severe infections who recovered and then gained substantial weight, possibly transferred from their overweight donors. Nowadays obese donors are excluded. Our gut feelings and anxieties may come from a range of key neurochemicals that our microbes produce, including dopamine, and serotonin. Studies have shown in mice that anxiety can be transferred by microbes. Mental health checks may need to mandatory for future donors.

There is a worry that faecal transplantation could now be seen as a cure-all for every human ailment. We are still ignorant about doses and timing and our ability to change a stable well-balanced gut environment. We may also need to match up donors and recipients as for other transplants, because our gut microbes are to some extent influenced by our own genes and our microbe community is unique to each individual.

In the future we will probably be using much safer donors – ourselves. We will be banking our own stool samples when we are healthy for later use. These are now being used in high-risk patients prior to bone marrow transplants. However bizarrely although it is legal in the US to store your own samples, you can’t re-implant them into yourself without a complicated medical trial exemption certificate.

This is a rapidly moving field that is no longer just a joke for thousands of patients whose lives have been saved, and we urgently need more studies, experts and sensible but flexible regulations. The public is increasingly sceptical of drug-driven cures and urgently need access to good advice, reliable microbial testing and safe alternatives.

DIY transplant procedures with instructions on the internet are proliferating rapidly as alternatives to traditional medicine, and without reliable data on safety and efficacy this is likely to muddy the murky waters even further. In the meantime, perhaps we should all be freezing some of our poo while we are healthy and storing it for a rainy day.

The Conversation

Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology, King’s College London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Featured image credit: Tim Spector, Author provided

Scientists Find Intriguing Cause of First Mass Extinction

We tend to associate mass extinctions with catastrophic events, like giant meteorite impacts and volcanic super-eruptions. The world’s first known mass extinction—about 540 million years ago— appears to have had a more subtle cause: evolution itself.

“People have been slow to recognize that biological organisms can also drive mass extinction,” says Simon Darroch, assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences at Vanderbilt University.

“But our comparative study of several communities of Ediacarans, the world’s first multicellular organisms, strongly supports the hypothesis that it was the appearance of complex animals capable of altering their environments, which we define as ‘ecosystem engineers,’ that resulted in the Ediacaran’s disappearance.”

The study appears in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

THEN AND NOW

“There is a powerful analogy between the Earth’s first mass extinction and what is happening today,” Darroch observes. “The end-Ediacaran extinction shows that the evolution of new behaviors can fundamentally change the entire planet, and we are the most powerful ‘ecosystem engineers’ ever known.”

The earliest life on Earth consisted of microbes—various types of single-celled microorganisms. They ruled the Earth for more than 3 billion years. Then some of these microorganisms discovered how to capture the energy in sunlight. The photosynthetic process that they developed had a toxic byproduct: oxygen. Oxygen was poisonous to most microbes that had evolved in an oxygen-free environment, making it the world’s first pollutant.

But for the microorganisms that developed methods for protecting themselves, oxygen served as a powerful new energy source. Among a number of other things, it gave them the added energy they needed to adopt multicellular forms. Thus, the Ediacarans arose about 600 million years ago during a warm period following a long interval of extensive glaciation.

“We don’t know very much about the Ediacarans because they did not produce shells or skeletons. As a result, almost all we know about them comes from imprints of their shapes preserved in sand or ash,” says Darroch.

What scientists do know is that, in their heyday, Ediacarans spread throughout the planet. They were a largely immobile form of marine life shaped like discs and tubes, fronds and quilted mattresses. The majority were extremely passive, remaining attached in one spot for their entire lives. Many fed by absorbing chemicals from the water through their outer membranes, rather than actively gathering nutrients.

Swartpuntiafossil_770-770x797
Ediacaran fossil found in the Swartput Farm site. (Credit: Sarah Tweedt/Smithsonian Institution)

THE ‘GARDEN OF EDIACARA’

Paleontologists have coined the term “Garden of Ediacara” to convey the peace and tranquility that must have prevailed during this period. But there was a lot of churning going on beneath that apparently serene surface.

After 60 million years, evolution gave birth to another major innovation: animals. All animals share the characteristics that they can move spontaneously and independently, at least during some point in their lives, and sustain themselves by eating other organisms or what they produce.

Animals burst onto the scene in a frenzy of diversification that paleontologists have labeled the Cambrian explosion, a 25-million-year period when most of the modern animal families—vertebrates, molluscs, arthropods, annelids, sponges, and jellyfish—came into being.

“These new species were ‘ecological engineers’ who changed the environment in ways that made it more and more difficult for the Ediacarans to survive,” says Darroch.

EDIACARANS AROUND THE WORLD

He and his colleagues performed an extensive paleoecological and geochemical analysis of the youngest known Ediacaran community exposed in hillside strata in southern Namibia. The site, called Farm Swartpunt, is dated at 545 million years ago, in the waning one to two million years of the Ediacaran reign.

“We found that the diversity of species at this site was much lower, and there was evidence of greater ecological stress, than at comparable sites that are 10 million to 15 million years older,” Darroch reports. Rocks of this age also preserve an increasing diversity of burrows and tracks made by the earliest complex animals, presenting a plausible link between their evolution and extinction of the Ediacarans.

The older sites were Mistaken Point in Newfoundland, dating from 579 to 565 million years ago; Nilpena in South Australia, dating from 555 to 550 million years ago; and the White Sea in Russia, dating also from 555 to 550 million years ago.

Darroch and his colleagues made extensive efforts to ensure that the differences they recorded were not due to some external factor. For example, they ruled out the possibility that the Swartpunt site might have been lacking in some vital nutrients by closely comparing the geochemistry of the sites.

It is a basic maxim in paleontology that the more effort that is made in investigating a given site, the greater the diversity of fossils that will be found there. So the researchers used statistical methods to compensate for the variation in the differences in the amount of effort that had been spent studying the different sites.

Having ruled out any extraneous factors, Darroch and his collaborators conclude that “this study provides the first quantitative palaeoecological evidence to suggest that evolutionary innovation, ecosystem engineering, and biological interactions may have ultimately caused the first mass extinction of complex life.”

Additional researchers from the University of Toronto, the Smithsonian Institution, Stanford University, Harvard University, Yale University, and Colorado College collaborated on the study.

The Connaught Foundation, the National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the NASA Astrobiology Institute, National Geographic Society, and National Science Foundation supported the work.

 

Source: Reproduced in full from Futurity.org under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license with a new title and additional article links removed.

Featured Photo Credit: Phoebe Cohen/Flickr

Researchers Hack 3D Printers to Produce an Amazing Result

At Carnegie Mellon, a team of medical researchers has found a way to hack 3D printers using open source software in order to print models of human organs such as hearts, arteries, brains, and bones out of biological materials. Although the biological models printed thus far cannot be used in transplant operations, but that is the next step. Working from 3D images of various organs, the scientists were able to print models of various organs using biological materials

An astounding article on the Science Daily website gets into the details:

“3-D printing of various materials has been a common trend in tissue engineering in the last decade, but until now, no one had developed a method for assembling common tissue engineering gels like collagen or fibrin,” said TJ Hinton, a graduate student in biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon and lead author of the study.

“The challenge with soft materials — think about something like Jello that we eat — is that they collapse under their own weight when 3-D printed in air,” explained Feinberg. “So we developed a method of printing these soft materials inside a support bath material. Essentially, we print one gel inside of another gel, which allows us to accurately position the soft material as it’s being printed, layer-by-layer.”

One of the major advances of this technique, termed FRESH, or “Freeform Reversible Embedding of Suspended Hydrogels,” is that the support gel can be easily melted away and removed by heating to body temperature, which does not damage the delicate biological molecules or living cells that were bioprinted. As a next step, the group is working towards incorporating real heart cells into these 3-D printed tissue structures, providing a scaffold to help form contractile muscle.

The article explains that 3-D bioprinters have existed for a while, but they are typically very expensive, e.g. $100,000 or more. The team found that they could hack software for consumer-level printers and be ready to bioprint for less than $1000, making this new method very affordable.  For additional info, check out the excellent article on the Science Daily website.

 

Source: ScienceDaily.com – “Researchers hack off-the-shelf 3-D printer towards rebuilding the heart

Featured Photo Credit: Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering

Our Stone Tool Discovery Pushes Back the Archaeological Record by 700,000 Years

Jason Lewis, Stony Brook University and Sonia Harmand, Stony Brook University

On the morning of July 9 2011, we were climbing a remote hill near the western shore of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya.


Sammy Lokorodi, who made the initial discovery.
MPK-WTAP, CC BY-NC-ND

Our field team had accidentally followed the wrong dry riverbed, the only way of navigating these remote desert badlands, and we were scanning the landscape for a way back to the main channel. Something felt special about this particular place, so before moving on, we all fanned out and surveyed the patch of craggy outcrops. By teatime, local Turkana team member Sammy Lokorodi had helped us spot what we had come searching for.

We, and the West Turkana Archaeological Project which we co-lead, had discovered the earliest stone artifacts yet found, dating to 3.3 million years ago. The discovery of the site, named Lomekwi 3, instantly pushed back the beginning of the archaeological record by 700,000 years. That’s over a quarter of humanity’s previously known material cultural history. These tools were made as much as a million years before the earliest known fossils attributed to our own genus, Homo.


Harmand unearthing a stone tool at the site.
MPK-WTAP, CC BY-NC-ND

Stretching the record further back

Stone tools are fossilized human behavior. – Louis Leakey

In the 1930s, famed paleoanthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey unearthed early stone artifacts at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. They named them the Oldowan tool culture. Later, in the 1960s, they found hominin fossils in association with those Oldowan tools that looked more like later humans than the Australopithecines discovered there previously. The Leakeys assigned them to a new species: Homo habilis, or handy man.

Since then, conventional wisdom in human evolutionary studies has supposed that the origins of knapping stone tools by our ancestors – that is, chipping away flakes from a stone to make a tool – were linked to the emergence of the genus Homo. The premise was that our lineage alone took the cognitive leap of hitting stones together to strike off sharp flakes, and that this was the foundation of our evolutionary success. Scientists thought this technological development was tied to climate change and the spread of savanna grasslands; our ancestors innovated with new tools to help them survive in an evolving landscape.

Over the last few decades, however, subsequent discoveries pushed back the date for the earliest stone tools to 2.6 million years ago (Ma) and the earliest fossils attributable to early Homo to only 2.4-2.3 Ma. By necessity, there’s been increasing openness to the possibility of tool manufacture before 2.6 Ma and by hominins other than Homo.

A series of papers published in rapid succession in early 2015 have solidified these ideas into an emerging paradigm shift in paleoanthropology: the fossil record of the genus Homo now extends back to 2.8 Ma in the Ethiopian Afar; cranial and post-cranial diversity in early Homo is much wider that previously thought, already evincing several distinct lineages by 2 Ma; and Australopithecus africanus and other Pleistocene hominins, traditionally considered not to have made stone tools, have a human-like trabecular bone pattern in their hand bones that’s consistent with tool use.
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Unofficial Mostly-Autonomous Cannonball Run Driving Record Set: 57:48

Tesla Motors released an automated “over the air” software update to their vehicles on October 14 that enables “semi-autonomous” autopilot driving of many Model S and all Model X Tesla vehicles. Four days later, a driving team that has set several unofficial records for cross-country driving completed a “Cannonball Run” from California to New York, driving a red Model S P85D with the license plate “UBER QIK” in autopilot mode for 96% of the run, in just 57 hours and 48 minutes. Although Tesla cautions drivers from relying too much on the autopilot, many Tesla owners are taking advantage of it and even posting videos of their hands-off driving on social media.

A great article on WIRED’s website provides the details of the team that made the unofficial record coast-to-coast run:

AT 10:03 AM Wednesday, a red Tesla Model S P85D with the license plate “UBER QIK” arrived at a parking garage on East 31st Street in Manhattan. This is noteworthy only because that very car was at the Portofino Hotel in Redondo Beach, California, just two and a half days earlier.

The Model S crossed the country in record time for an EV—and drove itself nearly the entire way.

Carl Reese, Deena Mastracci, and Alex Roy made the coast-to-coast drive in 57 hours and 48 minutes, a time that is still to be verified by an independent third party. The three are veterans of record-setting transcontinental runs: In April, Reese and Mastracci set a record for the least time spent charging an EV while driving across the country. And Roy, a rally driver, set an unofficial “Cannonball Run” record in 2006, driving from New York to LA in just 31 hours and 4 minutes.

Arriving in New York in record time, without being arrested or killed, is a personal victory for the drivers. More than that, though, it highlights how quickly and enthusiastically autonomous technology is likely to be adopted, and how tricky it may be to keep in check once drivers get their first taste of freedom behind the wheel.

Elon Musk himself congratulated the drivers in a post on Twitter, although the company officially advises the owners of its cars to be cautious when using autopilot mode and be ready to take over control of the car at any time.

The drivers admitted that there were a few hairy moments, mostly because they were pushing the limits of the technology, driving at speeds up to 90 mph. The WIRED article continues:

Autopilot caused a few scares, Roy says, largely because the car was moving so quickly. “There were probably three or four moments where we were on autonomous mode at 90 miles an hour, and hands off the wheel,” and the road curved, Roy says. Where a trained driver would aim for the apex—the geometric center of the turn—to maintain speed and control, the car follows the lane lines. “If I hadn’t had my hands there, ready to take over, the car would have gone off the road and killed us.” He’s not annoyed by this, though. “That’s my fault for setting a speed faster than the system’s capable of compensating.”

In the end, it’s all just proof of the inevitable: self-driving cars are not just a concept any more, they have arrived, and they are here to stay. More details can be found in the excellent article from WIRED.

 

Source: WIRED.com – “Obviously Drivers Are Already Abusing Tesla’s Autopilot

Feature Photo Credit: Greg Ledet

Are We Recycling Too Much of Our Trash?

Thomas Kinnaman, Bucknell University

A recent credible study suggests the amount of waste Americans dispose in landfills each year is over twice what the EPA had been estimating.

Although this news may not surprise the country’s disposal facilities (who already knew the quantity of waste they take in), the study may strike an old nerve for many Americans – that our society generates too much garbage. The answer, we have been repeatedly told, is to recycle our waste. In fact, plans for zero waste or 100% recycling have been hatched in places including Berkeley, California and Indianapolis, Indiana.

But is more recycling always better than less recycling? Is it conceivable that society can recycle too much? What does the research say about the costs and benefits of recycling?

Unfortunately, not much is available. We may sense that more recycling is better than less recycling, but we really do not know. Our recycling habits developed not in the wake of a scientific understanding of these matters but perhaps, as John Tierney describes in his recent New York Times piece, on a leap of faith.

Last year, I coauthored a research study to estimate society’s optimal recycling rate. Results surprised us – society’s best recycling rate is only 10%. And only specific recyclable materials should be included in that 10%. What drives these results?

The literature on recycling

First, dozens of published economic studies from across the globe estimate that landfills depress neighboring property values, although this negative impact appears to diminish for small landfills. Second, a growing number of published life cycle analyses suggest that mining raw materials is damaging to the natural environment, and manufacturing goods with recycled materials rather than their virgin counterparts can be beneficial to the environment. But the magnitude of these benefits varies across materials.

Finally, the economics literature suggests recycling requires more economic resources than simple waste disposal. The value of the extra energy, labor and machinery necessary to prepare materials for recycling can double the value of those resources needed to dispose the material in the landfill.

Our study made the first known attempt to combine these various costs and benefits into one analysis to estimate what recycling rate is best. Our conclusion was that recycling up to 10% appears to reduce social costs, but any recycling over 10% costs the environment and the economy more than it helps. The environment and economy suffer as we transport some recycled materials to destinations as far afield as China.

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