News Briefs 14-03-2016

Today is 14-3 for most of us - but for the Americans out there...

Quote of the Day:

Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.

Charles R. Swindoll

I CAN HAZ ACCENT? Cats Might Have Dialects

Maybe it's the Toxoplasmosis gondii talking, but humans love cats. The feeling is mutual since, according to Carlos Driscoll of the University of Oxford, cats domesticated themselves 12,000 years ago in hopes of mooching off unsuspecting Homo sapiens. [1] Charmed by their inscrutible personalities, we talk back to our feline companions by imitating their vocalisations. Arabs greet kitties with "mawa", the Japanese famously intone "nyan", French and Germans say "miaou" and "miau" respectively. Are these different onomatopoeias representative of human dialects, or are cats of faraway lands influenced by their humans's language?

Cat language is not such a silly prospect to consider. Last year scientists claimed a group of chimpanzees altered their vocalizations after being moved from a Dutch safari park to the Edinburgh Zoo, suggesting they have accents. [2] Less contentious are the accents of whales, evinced by a study published in the Royal Society Open Science illustrating how whalesong differs between populations of these magnificent beasts. [3] So why not cats?

Susanne Schötz from Lund University in Sweden is spearheading this maverick study. She told Josh Hrala at Science Alert, "We know that cats vary the melody of their sounds extensively, but we do not know how to interpret this variation. We will record vocalisations of about 30 to 50 cats in different situations - e.g. when they want access to desired locations, when they are content, friendly, happy, hungry, annoyed or even angry - and try to identify any differences in their phonetic patterns. We want to find out to what extent domestic cats are influenced by the language and dialect that humans use to speak to them, because it seems that cats use slightly different dialects in the sounds they produce".

It's going to be a long five years 'til the results are published.

You may also enjoy:

  1. Why Do Cats Hang Around Us? (Hint: They Can't Open Cans)
  2. Debate over chimpanzee 'accent' study -
  3. Individual, unit and vocal clan level identity cues in sperm whale codas -

Is This Physical Evidence Of Twin Telepathy?

If identical twins weren't anomalous enough, Bridgette and Paula Powers kick it up a notch with their uncanny bond. These Australian women have almost never been apart, possibly contributing to their unique communication style. They have a knack for repeating what the other says, sometimes finishing their sister's sentences or speaking in unison. The phenomenon is known as echolalia: the immediate and involuntary repetition of words or phrases spoken by other people.

Exhibiting these wild talents at the age of forty two makes them exceptional. Most twins tend to develop separate personalities as they grow up. If their behavior doesn't change, twin DNA tends to diverge over the years. [1] In the case of the Powers sisters, they share the same heart and blood pressure conditions. Also there's this curious account they related to the Sydney Morning Herald last year.

The longest they've been apart was three days during their teens, when Paula was hospitalised for an appendectomy. Helen told the doctors that whatever ailment one twin suffered always affected the other soon after, but they refused to remove Bridgette's appendix at the same time.

"That led to a very bad experience for me," ventures Bridgette, her first solo utterance since my arrival. "I was at a bus stop and three guys tried to pull me into their car. But I used my whole strength and I fought hard and I did get away from them."

Paula says she sensed her twin's distress from her hospital bed. "I felt really sick and my blood pressure was going up. I knew something was wrong." Soon afterwards, she "knew" Bridgette was downstairs being treated for minor injuries incurred in her struggle with the men: "And then Bridgette came up and told us what had happened." Within a few weeks, as Helen had predicted, Bridgette was back in hospital having her appendix removed. [2]

Watch Jenny Brockie's interview with the Powers sisters and decide for yourself if these coincidences are genetic, social, or something stranger.

n.b. For fans of China Miéville's Embassytown, this is exactly how I imagined the Ambassadors speaking in the novel.

You may also enjoy:

  1. Epigenetic differences arise during the lifetime of monozygotic twins -
  2. Bridgette and Paula Powers: 'We give all our love to the birds' -

News Briefs 11-03-2016

“I am a lie who always speaks the truth.”

Quote of the Day:

“A film is a petrified fountain of thought.”

Jean Cocteau

The Oldest Ages of the Earth Keep Getting Older


Of the many questions that vex humanity, there is one above all others.  It’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves since we realised we could ask ourselves questions.  There are a lot of people who think they know the answer, even though there are almost more answers than there are people.  Even so, we officially don’t know which of those many answers is the truth.

The question is; where did life come from?

If we gloss over the various theological discussions such a question evokes – if only because we haven’t got that kind of time – we still end up with an encyclopedia volume’s worth of theories, hypotheses, suppositions, and crackpot ideas.  Primordial soup, panspermia and pseudo-panspermia, deep-hot-biosphere, the clay hypothesis, and several more.  All of those ideas and those unlisted are encompassed under a single term: abiogenesis – which is the idea that life can spontaneously manifest out of non-living components.  You might also hear the term biopoiesis tossed about in this conversation, which is just a more specific reference to the three stages of the development of life.  But these fancy scientific words are such a small part of the question, it’s unfortunate so many people get hung up on them.

It’s important to understand that none of those theories are correct though.  Or, well…we still don’t know which, if any of them, is correct.  The front runner in this race is the chemical evolution theory of life, which is a reformed version of the primordial soup idea.  Its basic tenets have been proven in laboratory, but just because life can arise in that way, doesn’t mean it did (at least on Earth).  The scientific community is still working to bring us an answer, but until we invent time travel, it’s possible we’ll never know for sure.

Of course, what we know about how life began pales in comparison to what we know about when it began on Earth.

Some time ago, I brought you discussion on the likelihood that life has developed elsewhere in the galaxy, and the ways in which we speculate about how much of that life might exist.  You’re probably familiar with the Drake Equation, which provides a way of mathematically calculating how many times life should have sprung up in our galaxy, and how many times out of that pool such live might reach a point of intelligent civilisation.  It depends on several variables, most of which we have to guess at, but current estimates claim that there should be somewhere in the neighbourhood of 10,000 alien civilizations in the Milky Way.

The problem is (or one of the problems is) we’ve yet to find evidence of such life.  And as disappointing as that is, it actually shouldn’t be surprising.  As science-fiction author Douglas Adams once wrote:

“Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space.”

As I pointed out in previous discussion though, there are other considerations, such as Moore’s Law.

Moore’s Law, which is usually applied to the development of computer hardware, has been used by some to suggest that life on Earth is actually older than Earth itself.  It’s an interesting idea – though it’s little more than a thought experiment – but it seems like some new developments are starting to back up those conclusions.

The main way scientists test and study the age of life on Earth is by breaking apart really old rocks and analysing the elements they find inside.  Certain chemical compounds are to be expected inside rocks, of any age; silica, iron (and other metals), some acids, oxygen, helium…the usual.  But sometimes, trapped inside those rocks are compounds that are unexpected, chemicals that are unique to life, such as graphite.  Graphite is pure carbon, which is the key component of all life on Earth, and when you find it inside rocks, it’s a sure sign that life existed when that rock was formed.  Deductive reasoning at its finest.

Using the above process of elimination, the standard model of biopoiesis tells us that life began on Earth between 3.5-3.83 billion years ago.  That number sits well with most scientists mainly because the period of time between 3.8-4.1 billion years ago is largely thought to have been so volatile – it’s known as the heavy bombardment period because of the massive and cataclysmic cosmic impacts that occurred during that time – that the development of life would have been impossible prior to it.

However, new results published in Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences in September have thrown that bit of accepted wisdom right out the window.  Geochemist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-author of the paper, Mark Harrison, explains that he and his team found strong evidence that life began more than 250 million years earlier than previously thought.  Analysing some 10,000 zircon fragments from rocks found throughout Western Australia, Harrison found what appeared to be graphite inclusions embedded in 79 zircons (zircons are like diamonds; very hard, and can form around elements from their environment).  One of those tiny flecks has been confirmed as graphite, and through radiometric dating, that particular zircon is believed to be 4.1 billion years old.[1]

Harris admits that this finding would have been heretical 25 years ago, but their conclusions are compelling.  As seems to be a trend in biopoiesis research, the age of life on Earth just keeps getting older and older.  This new information not only suggests an earlier birthdate, but it also says some things about just how resilient life is; it either survived the incredible heat and radiation associated with the heavy bombardment period, or it sprung back up again immediately after.  Both of those possibilities are astounding.  Not only would the survival of early life through such planetary upheaval be impressive, but the alternative means that genesis happened twice, within a period 300 million years.  If that were the case, it suggests that life can form very quickly given the right conditions, lending even more weight to the idea that we should be surrounded by it in the universe.

Earth is a relatively young planet at 4.543 billion years, there are much older just in the Milky Way.  If we’ve had four billion years to get where we are, what of others who’ve had five? Eight? Ten?

“The universe is a lot more complicated than you might think, even if you start from a position of thinking that it’s pretty damn complicated to begin with.”

[1] Elizabeth A. Bell, Patrick Boehnke, T. Mark Harrison, and Wendy L. Mao.  Potentially biogenic carbon preserved in a 4.1 billion-year-old zircon.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 112 no. 47,  14518–14521, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1517557112.  September 4, 2015.


News Briefs 10-03-2016

Счастливый Запоздалый День рождения Ю́рий Гага́рин!

Gratz to Red Pill Junkie, Kat, and viewers like you.

Quote of the Day:

"If it's real, it can take the pressure."
- Terence McKenna

Le Grand Menhir of Locmariaquer: a 300 Ton Megalith Constructed 7000 Years Ago

Le Grand Menhir of Locmariaquer

In discussions of the staggering age of the Turkish megalithic site of Göbekli Tepe (circa 10,000 BCE), mention is often made of the large gap in time between the erection of these stones, and other ancient sites such as Stonehenge and the Giza pyramids in Egypt (circa 2500 BCE). However, there were other megalithic constructions in that intervening time - and some of those were truly on a grand scale.

On a recent trip to France - in particular the famous Carnac stone alignments - I was pleasantly surprised to come across a truly ancient, and truly massive, megalith that I had not heard about before. The ‘Grand Menhir’ at Locmariaquer, only a short drive from Carnac, is said to have been erected around 4700 BCE - and at some 20 metres in length, and close to 300 tonnes in weight, is one of the largest stones ever used by the megalith builders of Europe!

During the tour of the Locmariaquer site - which also includes the Er-Grah tumulus passage grave and a (reconstructed) dolmen known as the Table des Marchand - we were told that the massive megaltih unfortunately was ‘only’ standing for 700 years, with archaeologists believing it was toppled around 4000 BCE (either intentionally by man, or via an earthquake). It’s funny how the relative spans of time concerning such ancient structures convert our thinking - ‘only’ standing for 700 years!

The stone must have been something impressive when standing. Unfortunately, the manner in which it now lies on the ground - with stones at almost right angles to each other - and the landscaping of the site in which it sits, makes it difficult to get a real feel for how huge it was. Here are a couple of shots from different directions, with my daughter in the picture, to try and convey more of a sense of it’s size:

Maya and the Grand Menhir

Maya and the Grand Menhir's base

Geological research suggests the Grand Menhir was brought to its present location from at least 10km away, and was ground and pounded into a desired shape. What’s more, excavations have revealed a line of other stone-filled pits that decrease in size for some 50 metres, suggesting the Grand Menhir may have been just one of many menhirs placed in alignment for some reason, with the missing menhirs having been used for construction elsewhere in the intervening years.

Why was it built? This remains a mystery, though there have been a number of theories. Alexander Thom suggested its great size may have allowed it to be used as as a marker that could be observed from other sites in the area, used for tracking the lunar cycle. Archaeoastronomer Clive Ruggles has, however, pointed out this theory as one example of the dangers of “selectively scouring the landscape for suitable alignments…conflating archaeological features of all ages, often together with natural features in the landscape” Ruggles notes that Thom’s alignments were arrived at “by traversing eight relevant directions in search of suitable candidate backsights while ignoring other directions”.

I’ve found it difficult to learn more about the site, as much of the archaeological research appears to be in the French language. So if there is anybody out there with more knowledge of the recent research into the Locmariaquer site, please do take the time to comment.

Pieces of the Grand Menhir

Between this site, the endless lines at Carnac, the nearby megaliths of Gavrinis (now on an island, though not so when constructed), and many other little-known locations in the area, I highly recommend spending a couple of days touring this amazing part of Frannce if you get the chance!

News Briefs 09-03-2016

Play your own spooky Theremin accompaniment to the news with today's Google Doodle for Clara Rockmore.

  • How the FolkloreThursday hashtag on Twitter has become a global event. And they have a new website.
  • Beads found in 3,400-year-old nordic graves were made by King Tut's glassmaker.
  • Google's DeepMind defeats legendary Go player Lee Se-dol in historic victory.
  • Genetic engineering will one day create the smartest humans who have ever lived.
  • Computers will overtake us when they learn to love, says futurist Ray Kurzweil.
  • Pluto could be about to become a planet again, after scientists spotted what appears to be clouds on its surface.
  • Discordianism meets UFOlogy.
  • Repeat fast radio bursts detected from same sky location.
  • Birds form complex sentences by joining calls together to create new meanings.
  • Amber-encased lizards reveal missing links.
  • Monks with 'superhuman' abilities show scientists what we can all do.
  • Can DMT prolong your life after clinical death?
  • Magnetic mind control makes mice happy.
  • J.K. Rowling criticised over new writings on American magic.
  • Someone figured out how to train bees to make honey from cannabis.
  • Penguin swims 5,000 miles every year for reunion with the man who saved his life.

Thanks Cat

Quote of the Day:

Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they're so frightfully clever. I'm awfully glad I'm a Beta, because I don't work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

First Trailer for Game of Thrones Season 6

For the Game of Thrones fans out there, begin with the excitement: here's the first trailer for Season 6, which kicks off in April. Let the storyline speculation begin!