Archive for March 3rd, 2011
Straight from Gizmodo: “Here’s a whirlwind tour that takes apart almost everything you thought you knew about reality. If those BBC accents weren’t so soothing, I might actually be pretty freaked out by now. Quarks! The holographic principle! Event horizons! Parallel universes! And all softs of other goodies that I’ll need a second cup of coffee to fully deal with. There’s enough spooky science in this BBC Horizon episode to make your head spin. If that really is your head.”
Straight from Fox News: “No tip-toeing around it, this foot bone could change the story of human evolution — or at least the story of human foot evolution.
The bone is additional evidence that Australopithecus afarensis, an ancient human ancestor who lived around 3 million years ago, spent most of its time walking, instead of climbing trees like chimps.
“Lucy and her relatives were bipedal, but there had been a debate as to how versatile they were in the trees,” said lead researcher Carol Ward, at the University of Missouri in Columbia, referring to the most famous A. afarensis member nicknamed Lucy after a Beatles song. “If they did climb in the trees, they wouldn’t have been able to do it any better than you or I would.”
One human origins expert doesn’t buy the conclusions, however, saying other Lucy-aged bones point to a combination of tree climbing and ground walking.
The bone in question belonged to one of Lucy’s A. afarensis kin who died about 3.2 million years ago. It was discovered in Hadar, Ethiopia, on a plateau so rich with fossils from this era that it’s called the “first family site.”
The bone comes from the outside of the foot, near the pinky toe, and is a stiff part of the arch bone that acts like a lever when walking on two feet.
Arches were an important part of our evolution into humans, because they make climbing trees much harder. The arches on the inside of the foot, nearer to the big toe, serve as a shock absorber when we plant our feet back on the ground. All other living primates have feet made for grasping and bending to hang onto tree branches and their young, more like our hands than our feet.
Their analyses revealed the bone matched up best with human foot bones, suggesting, Ward said, that Lucy and her Australopithecus kin would have spent time in the trees only when chased there by predators or to harvest food from its branches. “Selection wasn’t favoring the ability to be effective in the trees, it was favoring being effective on the ground,” Ward said.
“That’s a big deal because that means arches, and not just precursors, real full-grown arches, go back three, three and a half million years,” said Jeremy DeSilva, from Boston University, who was not involved in the study. “It really helps us understand this uniquely human feature, this arch.”
An inkling of Lucy’s saunter came in 1976, when scientists discovered footprints in volcanic ash left behind 3.5 million years ago by three creatures in Laetoli, Tanzania. Though the footprints had distinct arches, figuring out who made them was tricky and has been long debated in the archeological world.
And only a few arch bones from early humans have been found, making it difficult to determine if Australopithecus had arches.
“Those of us who work on feet and early human foot morphology, arches have been tough because they are soft tissue, and they don’t really fossilize,” DeSilva, who studies locomotion in the earliest apes and early human ancestors, told LiveScience. “What you look for are skeletal hints, or correlates of the presence of an arch, and as a field we haven’t really been able to agree on what those are.”
Scientists don’t have a very clear grasp on how bones evolve, either, DeSilva said. Use of bones during movement can shape the bone scaffolding laid down by genes during development. And so it’s hard to isolate features of these fossilized bones that would’ve been the result of the walking styles of a few individuals versus an adaptation that evolved in a group of organisms.
But previous studies of ankle, toe and heel bones convinced DeSilva. “I wouldn’t say that from a single metatarsal [foot bone] you can reconstruct the entire locomotion of an animal, but from all of the other evidence that’s been presented from the waist down, they were obligate walkers,” DeSilva said.
“These things are moving very similar to the way we are, the way we do today and they were not spending much time up in the trees,” DeSilva said, though he noted that there are differences in the pelvic region that suggest Lucy and her kin might have walked with a slightly different gait.
But this new evidence hasn’t swayed everyone.
William Harcourt-Smith, from the City University of New York and the American Museum of Natural History, disagrees with Ward and DeSilva. Though he said the analysis of the bone is well-done, he still believes that Lucy could have spent as much as 50 percent of her time climbing, and would have been comfortable in the trees.
“You look at this one bone, it looks very humanlike, and you can’t disagree with the analysis, but it only tells part of the story,” Harcourt-Smith told LiveScience. “If you want to know how it [Australopithecus] walked around you have to look at all of the evidence available.”
Harcourt-Smith also notes that a bone from the inside of the foot, where the arch is the strongest, would be more convincing. When Harcourt-Smith looks at other parts of Australopithecan anatomy, including its curved toe bones and another foot bone called the navicular bone, he comes to different conclusions.
“It [Ward's bone] is obviously quite humanlike,” Harcourt-Smith said. “But you look at the other bones and you have a mosaic of adaptive features,” meaning features for tree climbing as well as walking on the ground.
DeSilva notes that Australopithecus does have climbing adaptations, including indications of a strong upper body, which would have encouraged climbing, but which he said could also be used as adaptations to carry food or babies when walking on two feet.
“They have their own interesting adaptations and anatomies and peculiar ones which have been difficult to figure out if they are evolutionary carryovers or if they are adaptations,” DeSilva said. “These are not scaled-down humans.”
An analysis of the bone will be published in the Feb. 11 issue of the journal Science.”
Straight from Fox News: “Fifty four years after the first Sputnik, is a new race for space brewing?
The fierce Cold War boiled over with the Russian launch of Sputnik in 1957. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara answered with the legendary Nike-Zeus program, a six-year project to develop the Army’s first antiballistic missile. General Ivey O. Drewry Jr., the man who led the follow-on Nike-X program from 1962-1969, tells FoxNews.com that McNamara’s demands were blunt and clear: Get the job done and beat those Russians.
“I was reviewing the development of the Sprint missile, which had gone through about 12 months of failure,” the 95-year old retired general said from his home in Huntsville, Alabama. “I was reviewing the details with him, what we learned and how we’ll improve. His answer to me was ‘Shut up and sit down, I know you’re gonna make it work!’”
“What he wanted hear was, what was the Russian reaction?” Drewry said.
The U.S. answer was clear: If Russia wanted a space race, America was all in.
The Nike-Zeus program hit technological limitations in the areas of missile design and communications integration, so the Kennedy Administration created the more robust Nike-X Program in 1963. The project offered a new terminal interceptor, high-speed computers and other technological advancements that enabled the country to battle Russia in the area of missile defense.
“We moved from the radar system used in World War II, where we rotated the lens, to a phased array, which is an electronic phase of small radar beams that could be rotated around electronically,” said the retired general.
Even the small details of the unrelenting and demanding space race of the 60s are still fresh Drewry’s memory.
Today, the stable of competitors has dramatically increased to include China and India — and the pressure is back on. China had a record-breaking 2010, launching 15 satellites from its Xi Chiang Satellite Launch Center. India’s Chandrayaan-1 revealed the presence of large amounts of water on the moon during the country’s first lunar mission in 2008.
And if you take into account President Obama’s recent decision to end NASA’s Constellation program and shift attention to more commercial launch operations, experts wonder, is the United States even participating in the current space race?
“I was opposed to the decision to end the Constellation program, as it was not replaced with a clear way forward for human space exploration,” Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told FoxNews.com. “It also created more uncertainties for industry, in an already difficult environment, in adapting to the end of the Space Shuttle program.”
The uncertainty is something Pace feels the U.S. should address sooner rather than later.
“The United States, and NASA in particular, needs to have a clear, mission-driven focus on human space exploration.,” said Pace. “This should start with utilization of the International Space Station, followed by returning humans to the moon, and laying the technical and organizational foundations for eventual missions to Mars and other objects in the solar system. Space technology can not be effectively developed without a defined and sustainable commitment to a logical process of exploration.”
As far as Drewry. is concerned, the very idea of a new space race is non-existent. He feels something is missing from the current competition between the United States and its fellow space technology competitors, China, India and Russia: combat.
“We’re not involved in war today, we’re not trying to beat anybody,” said Drewry. “Our objective was to develop technology and the Department of Defense’s objective was to fight a Cold War.”
With that said, he’s optimistic that the United States will still be the front-runner when it comes to space technology in the future.
I’m sure improvements are being made,” Drewry said. “Because as you know, technology never really ends.””