Saturday, February 25, 2006 - Mysterious Ball Lightning Created in the Lab

"Ball lightning is one of the most mysterious phenomena in nature. Now scientists have created a laboratory version of the eerie floating orbs using technology taken from a common microwave oven.

The work could help scientists figure out how the lightning forms in nature and lead to practical applications that harness its power.

In the wild, the little bundles of energy are typically only a few centimeters across, although some have been reported to be the size of beach balls or larger. They are closely associated with regular lightning and thunderstorms and have been seen in many different colors.

Witnesses report hissing sounds and an acrid ozone odor when the lightning balls appear. The vivid apparitions normally hover or float around for only a few seconds before vanishing suddenly, either silently or with an explosive bang.

Although people have known about ball lightning for centuries, scientists have yet to come up with an explanation that accounts for all of the strange properties."

Click on the title link above to see a video

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

How gladiators avoided excessive gore

"Gladiators may have fought and died to entertain others in the brutality of the Roman arena, but they appear to have abided by a strict code of conduct that avoided savage violence, forensic scientists say.

Tests on the remains of 67 gladiators found in tombs at Ephesus in Turkey, a center of power for ancient Rome�s eastern empire, show they stuck to well-defined rules of combat and avoided gory free-for-alls.

Injuries to the front of each skull suggested that each opponent used just one type of weapon per bout of face-to-face contact, two Austrian researchers report in a paper to be published in Forensic Science International. Savage violence and mutilation, typical of battlefields 2,000 years ago, were out of order. And the losers appear to have died quickly.

Despite the fact that most gladiators wore helmets, 10 of the remains showed the fighters had died of squarish hammerlike blows to the side of the head, possibly the work of a backstage executioner who finished off wounded losers after the fight.

The report confirms the picture given of battles in the arena by Roman artwork, which suggests gladiators were well-matched and followed rules enforced by two referees.

Fighters used discipline

Kathleen Coleman of Harvard University, who was historical consultant for Ridley Scott’s film “Gladiator,” agreed with the findings of the report.

“The fact that none of the gladiators’ skulls was subjected to a repeated battering does seem to confirm that discipline was exercised in gladiatorial combat and its aftermath,” she was quoted by New Scientist magazine as saying.

The scientists, Karl Grosschmidt of the Medical University of Vienna and Fabian Kanz of the Austrian Archaeological Institute, used special X-ray scans and microscopic analysis to investigate the gladiators’ deaths.

The bones were uncovered in 1993 and are thought to date from the second century A.D."

Monday, February 20, 2006

Bob Dylan Tied to Cheney Shooting!

"The New York Times has tied Bob Dylan to the Cheney shooting, and no wonder.

In the opening of its major article in its Sunday 'Week in Review' section, the Times explained the history of the Armstrong Ranch in Texas, scene of the incident just over a week ago when Vice President Dick Cheney shot fellow hunter Harry Whittington.

The Armstrong property, the Times said, owes its origins to an 1877 incident, when 'a hard-bitten Texas ranger named John B. Armstrong captured the notorious outlaw John Wesley Hardin after what the officer later described in a telegram back home as a 'lively shooting' aboard a train in Florida.'

The capture, the paper observed, made a hero of Armstrong, 'who bought a 50,000-acre plot from the owners of an old Spanish land grant using, according to one account, the $4,000 reward from the capture of the notorious gunman. When Mr. Armstrong died there in 1913, the land passed down to his heirs and soon was known by the family name.'

What the newspaper fails to mention, however, is that one of Bob Dylan's famed 1960s albums was called (after one song on the record) 'John Wesley Harding.' In that case, Dylan added a 'g' rather than his usual practice of dropping a 'g.'

Dylan writes that Hardin/Harding was 'a friend to the poor/He traveled with a gun in every hand' but 'was never known to hurt an honest man.' Then, in the final two stanzas, Dylan describes, believe it or not, an incident 'down in Chaynee County.'

The song concludes as follows.

Twas down in Chaynee County,
A time they talk about,
With a lady by his side
He stook a stand.
And soon the situation there
Was all but straightened out,
For he was always known
To lend a helping hand.

All across the telegraph
His name it did resound.
But no charge held against him
Could they prove....
He was never known
To make a foolish move."

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Study: Cultures Affect Captive Gorillas

"Captive gorillas actually are a cultured bunch.
Genetics or environment alone cannot explain variations in the behavior of different groups of the apes, a study found.

Behavioral surveys of the roughly 370 gorillas in U.S. zoos showed 48 variations in how individual groups of the apes make signals, use tools and seek comfort, said Tara Stoinski of Zoo Atlanta and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.

'What became very obvious is there is a very distinct pattern of similarities and differences between groups,' Stoinski said.

That suggests the gorillas pass along the different traits socially, not genetically, which is a hallmark of culture. Results were presented Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Researchers previously have found that other ape species - including chimpanzees and orangutans - show cultural differences as well in how they forage, use tools and court one another.

"These animals are smart enough to observe behaviors and imitate them," said Ingrid Porton, curator of primates at the Saint Louis Zoo.

That gorillas do the same and perhaps aren't the "slightly dumb cousins" of the ape family shouldn't be surprising, said Andrew Whiten, a professor of evolutionary and developmental psychology at the University of St. Andrews.

"It is quite surprising only if you take that common notion that gorillas aren't as smart as the rest," said Whiten, a chimp expert.

Stoinski said the surveys found that even gorillas at the same zoo but living in separate groups can display cultural differences. At Zoo Atlanta, only some gorilla groups use sticks to push aside the electrified wires that protect the trees in their enclosures, allowing the apes to snack on the bark without getting shocked, she said.

As for chimps, recent videos, described Sunday to reporters by Whiten, show the apes in the Congo using a "tool kit" to collect and eat termites.

The chimps first use a large stick to tunnel a foot deep into termite mounds. They then pull out the large stick and use a more slender piece of vegetation that they've frayed to fish out the insects through the shaft they've created, Whiten said.

Such examples of learned behaviors, when passed down from generation to generation, may have an influence on evolution, said Carel von Schaik, an orangutan expert at the University of Zurich.

"You can also argue that cultural species will become smarter species," von Schaik said."

Friday, February 17, 2006

Space-elevator tether climbs a mile high

"A slim cable for a space elevator has been built stretching a mile into the sky, enabling robots to scrabble some way up and down the line.

LiftPort Group, a private US company on a quest to build a space elevator by April 2018, stretched the strong carbon ribbon 1 mile (1.6 km) into the sky from the Arizona desert outside Phoenix in January tests, it announced on Monday.

The company's lofty objective will sound familiar to followers of NASA's Centennial Challenges programme. The desired outcome is a 62,000-mile (99,779 km) tether that robotic lifters -- powered by laser beams from Earth -- can climb, ferrying cargo, satellites and eventually people into space.

The recent test followed a September 2005 demonstration in which LiftPort's robots climbed 300 metres of ribbon tethered to the Earth and pulled taut by a large balloon. This time around, the company tested an improved cable pulled aloft by three balloons. "

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Babies may have abstract sense of math

"Even before babies learn to talk they have a bit of a grasp of math, according to new research concluding that infants may have an abstract sense of numerical concepts.

The research, published in this week's edition of 'Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,' said seven-month-old babies demonstrated an ability to match the number of voices they heard to the number of faces they expected to see.

The study of 20 infants by researchers at Duke University was similar to a previous experiment done to demonstrate that monkeys show numerical perception across senses."

Greenland's glaciers losing ice at faster rate - Science -

"Satellite observations indicate that Greenland's glaciers have been dumping ice into the Atlantic Ocean at a rate that's doubled over the past five years, researchers reported here on Thursday. The findings add yet another factor to the long-running debate over the effect of climate change on the world's ice sheets and sea levels.

'The evolution of the ice sheet, in the context of climate warming, is more rapid than has been predicted by models,' one of the researchers, Eric Rignot of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told As a result, Greenland's ice sheet -- second only to Antarctica's ice sheet, with almost as much area as Mexico -- could contribute more than expected to rising sea levels in a warming world, he said."

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Stalking Bobby Fischer

"Sometime in modern history, the Icelandic language and the game of chess came together to confound all but a few thousand souls on our planet.

I sat amongst them on Saturday, when Icelandic chess fans met in the lobby of a downtown bank to watch Fri�rik �lafsson, the Iceland�s first grandmaster, and Boris Spassky, the Russian world champion, play a couple of short matches.

I was there hoping Iceland's elusive new national Bobby Fischer might make an appearance, as was the Icelandic media who started speculating that he might over a week ago. I asked a man sitting next to me what he thought the chances were. He shrugged "who knew? "but personally believed that Fischer 'will never play again.'"

click on the title to read the entire article

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Egypt Offers First Peek at New Tombs

"LUXOR, Egypt - The painted 3,000-year-old face of a woman - her eyes lined in black kohl - stared from a funerary mask as authorities on Friday revealed to the world the first tomb discovered in eight decades in the Valley of the Kings.

The five mummies inside - possibly members of a pharaoh's court - were discovered by a team of American archaeologists working on the neighboring tomb of Amenmeses, a late 19th Dynasty pharaoh.
'It's a dream come true,' said Edwin Brock, co-director of the project, affiliated with the University of Memphis.

He and his colleagues have not yet entered the single-chamber tomb, believed to be about 3,000 years old and dating to the 18th Dynasty. But they have made a hole about a foot high in the door and peered through to see five wooden sarcophagi and about 20 alabaster jars.

"It was just so amazing to find an intact tomb here after all the work that's been done before. This was totally unexpected," Brock said."

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Star Trek fan files for bankruptcy

"A Star Trek fan has filed for bankruptcy after spending almost $71,000 converting his home into the Starship Voyager.

Tony Alleyne, 52, wanted to convert his studio flat in Hinckley, Leicestershire, into an exact replica of the TV spacecraft, The Sun newspaper in London reports.

The home has moulded walls, touch-panel blue lighting, a life-size model of the shows transporter room and a command console.

The former DJ also reshaped his windows to look like portholes and set up vertical lights so he can pretend to be beamed up, just like the shows characters Captain James T Kirk and Spock.

But after flying his way through two loans and 14 credit cards in a bid to not only build his dream home, but also market the space-age renovation for other people's homes, the fan has come crashing down to earth, broke.

The Sun reports he has now filed for bankruptcy, citing debts of $392,000, and may have to sell his Starship."

Tuesday, February 07, 2006 - Map Fuels Debate: Did Chinese Sail to New World First?

"Tattered and rusty orange, a map recently unfurled in Beijing has reignited an international war of words over who reached the New World first.

China is the latest to throw its sailor hat into the ring, but it won't likely be the last in this long-running, hotly contested debate.

The Chinese voyage to America theory was popularized by British amateur historian Gavin Menzies in his 2002 book entitled '1421: the Year China Discovered America.' The controversial, bestselling work claims that Chinese admiral Zheng He reached the Americas more than 70 years prior to Christopher Columbus' famous voyage.

After reading '1421,' Liu Gang, a Chinese lawyer, realized the potential significance of a map he'd purchased for his private collection. Dated 1418 and clearly depicting the outlines of both North and South America, the map could be used to support Menzies' theory if it proves legitimate.


Liu unveiled his map at a packed press conference in Beijing on Jan. 16.

Despite arousing immediate international interest, the map was quickly dismissed by many historians as an outright forgery.

'Scholars who know this field have refuted this claim under no uncertain terms,' Sally K. Church, Fellow at the University of Cambridge, told LiveScience.

Geoff Wade, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Singapore's Asia Research Institute, echoed her sentiment. 'The map is an 18th-century copy of a European map, as evidenced by the two hemispheres depicted, the continents shown and the non-maritime detailed [sic] depicted,' he wrote recently to a group of maritime scholars.

In the other camp, Menzies is supporting Liu and the 1418 map with fervor. His key reasoning, forwarded by email from a member of his staff, is that "every continent, ocean, land, island, river shown on the 1418 map also appears on other Chinese maps of the same date or earlier. There is nothing new on the 1418 map—it simply combines everything on one sheet of paper," he said.

Menzies also points to a Portuguese map of the Americas dating from 1419 whose mistakes—like the drawing of California as an island—are thought to have been copied from cartographic errors made by the Chinese.

"In 1419 European voyages of exploration had not started. If the 1418 map is a forgery, then the 1419 map must be as well. How do you forge something yet to be discovered," Menzies reasoned.

British magazine The Economist recently printed an article about Liu's prized possession, quoting both supporters and detractors of Menzies' beliefs.

In a letter written to The Economist and provided to LiveScience, Wade, the critic of the map from the Asia Research Institute, urged its editor to print a retraction.

"That your writer has contributed to the Menzies' bandwagon and continuing deception of the public is saddening," Wade wrote. "The support mentioned all comes from Mr. Menzies' band of acolytes and the claims have no academic support whatsoever. Your writer has been taken in by Mr. Menzies and you do have a social responsibility to rectify this."

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Dylan fan sees dream come true

"Hosting Bob Dylan on the Bardavon 1869 Opera House stage for four days of songwriting and rehearsals last week capped a 12-year pursuit of the legend for the theater's executive director, Chris Silva.

Silva first inquired with Dylan's management about having him rehearse or perform in 1994. It was one of the first things he did after becoming the executive director of a theater that has hosted Greg Allman and George M. Cohan.

He recognized the marquee value and drawing power of Dylan � who tours constantly.

'This is like a cliche, but he spoke to me and he did with everybody,' said Silva, who has been a Dylan fan since age 14.

Last week's sessions began with a mass e-mail sent in December to theaters within 90 miles of New York City from the Creative Artists Agency in Manhattan, which books acts and represents Dylan. The e-mail said the agency had an artist looking for rehearsal space. Silva has previously received similar e-mails regarding Dylan.

'As soon as I saw that, I said, 'I think it's Dylan again.' It was Dylan's agent and they weren't naming the artist,' he said.

Silva started playing games with his contact at the agency. He sent an e-mail reply, 'Should I think twice about this or is it alright,' a play on a Dylan song, 'Don't Think Twice, It's Alright.'

A furious exchange of faxes and phone calls continued for weeks. 'I was on pins and needles,' Silva said. 'I was like, I've got to make this happen. Sometimes these things just fall apart at the last minute for reasons we never know.'

But Silva ended up getting a whole lot of Dylan, a possible public concert and a 'Thank you' from the man himself.

'The master,' Silva said, 'was creating new masterpieces in my theater.'"

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Einstein, eccentric genius, smoked butts picked up off street

"An insight into the eccentric life of Albert Einstein has been provided in a letter written by his favourite grandson.

Bernhard Caesar Einstein, 75, who has never previously spoken about his relative, has recounted a string of anecdotes about the often bizarre life of the 20th century's greatest scientist.

At one point, the younger Mr Einstein recalled, his grandfather resorted to collecting cigarette butts from the streets to circumvent his doctor's effort to stop him from smoking.

In the letter, filed away and forgotten for seven years, the grandson recalled receiving a baffling three-hour lecture from Einstein on the mathematical properties of soap bubbles. He was aged eight at the time. The lecture was delivered while the two were alone on a becalmed sailing boat. Einstein, his grandson recalled, deliberately went out sailing when there was no wind because he felt it was more challenging.

"While at Knollwood [in America] my grandfather and I frequently went sailing together," Mr Einstein told Françoise Wolff, a Belgian documentary maker, in the letter.

"He usually said very little to me during those outings but on one particular afternoon, one on which there was practically no wind, he became talkative.

"He liked the calm and claimed that calm was the highest challenge to the sailor. We went no further than about a kilometre in the three hours we were out. My grandfather talked continuously about soap bubbles, and of course in mathematical terms. I did not understand a word of what he said."

Ms Wolff asked Mr Einstein to take part in her 1998 documentary because he was one of the few people with memories of the German-born genius, whose Theory of Relativity turned physics upside down and led to the development of nuclear power.

Because of illness, however, his contribution arrived too late to be used. His letter was published for the first time last week on the website of a Belgian newspaper, Le Soir, ahead of a repeat showing of the documentary.

Mr Einstein, himself a physicist who divides his time between Switzerland and America, confesses touchingly to "loving his grandfather as soon as he saw him". He also remembered his sterner side: he was a steadfast opponent of his young relative's passion for angling for sport.

"Grandfather would only allow me to go fishing if I ate all the fish I caught, so I caught one fish early in the morning and ate it for breakfast."

The scientist befriended the humble as well as the great, his grandson wrote. If he wasn't writing to President Roosevelt about the approaching Second World War he could be found playing chamber music with the local greengrocer.

His two prized possessions were his violin and his pipe, and his reliance on the latter "bordered on dependency". When forbidden from smoking by his doctor he would sneak out and collect cigarette "dog-ends" from the street to fill his pipe. "It's a rather sad anecdote," said Peter Smith, the author of the biography Einstein.

While known for getting along well with children, Einstein had a strained relationship with his two sons. He was disappointed in his grandson, too, when he discovered that he was not a brilliant physicist.

"I was 25 then," Mr Einstein recalled. "He had given me $5,000 for my studies in Zurich and later gave me money for furniture. That afternoon he talked to me for the first time ever about physics. He asked me what I knew about energy, but he dropped the question immediately when he realised that I could not discuss the subject on his terms.

"That was the last time I saw him.'"