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Science News

A king's final hours, told by his mortal remains

Skeleton of Richard III reveals a violent and chaotic end
The recently excavated bones of England's King Richard III bear witness to his infamous life and death. Severe scoliosis curved his spine, which may have been painful and made it difficult to breathe. Of the 10 wounds discovered on his skeleton, two are candidates for the death blow: a blade plunged up through the bottom of his skull and gash with an axe-like weapon that took off part of the back of his head. By Rachel Ehrenberg

History and literature have painted England’s King Richard III as a scoundrel who met a violent death in battle and was unceremoniously buried. Now that researchers have revealed some conclusions from a fast-paced scientific investigation of a skeleton found last year under a parking lot in Leicester, England, that end seems all the more gruesome. The results announced February 4 by a team from the University of Leicester paint a picture that is remarkably consistent with both historical and fictional accounts.

The search for the king’s body began in August 2012, in the parking lot of a Leicester city council building. An excavation there uncovered walls and other structures of Grey Friars church, where Richard III was buried after his ignominious death on August 22, 1485, in the Battle of Bosworth. Beneath the spot where the church stood, the researchers found a skeleton stuffed into what appears to have been a hastily dug grave, too small for the body it contained.

Ancestors of today’s placental mammals may never have shared the Earth with dinosaurs

New family tree suggests the predecessors of rodents, horses, and humans did not emerge until after the dino extinction
Ukhaatherium nessovi (fossil shown) was one of 40 extinct mammal species that scientists used to construct a new mammal family tree. The tree indicates that modern placental mammals emerged after the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago.By Erin Wayman

Tyrannosaurus rex may never have had the chance to terrorize the grandfathers of rodents, rabbits or primates. A new family tree using both anatomical and genetic data indicates that the lineages of modern placental mammals — those that give birth to well-developed young — arose after the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago.

The new study, published in the Feb. 8 Science, adds to a debate over the emergence of a diverse group that includes whales, cats, bats, horses and humans. Since the 1990s, some scientists have concluded from family trees based largely on molecular evidence that at least some lineages of modern placental mammals originated as early as 100 million years ago, during the Cretaceous period. But paleontologists have been skeptical because they have found no fossils resembling these mammals that are older than 65 million years.

“What the [new] analyses do is vindicate the fossil record,” says Ken Rose, a paleontologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Technology News

NTSB: Reconsider 787 Battery Approval

Boeing 787Joan Lowy, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The government should reassess its safety approval of the Boeing 787 lithium ion batteries, the nation's top accident investigator said Thursday.

The National Transportation Safety Board's investigation of last month's battery fire in a Japan Airlines 787 "Dreamliner" while it was parked in Boston shows the fire started with multiple short-circuits in one of the battery's eight cells, said the board's chairman, Deborah Hersman. That created an uncontrolled chemical reaction known as "thermal runaway," which is characterized by progressively hotter temperatures. That spread the short-circuiting to the rest of the cells and caused the fire, she said.

The findings are at odds with what Boeing told the Federal Aviation Administration when that agency was working to certify the company's newest and most technologically advanced plane for flight, Hersman said. Boeing said its testing showed that any short-circuiting was contained within a single cell, preventing thermal runaway and fire, she told reporters at a news conference.

Boeing's testing also showed the batteries were likely to cause smoke in only 1 in 10 million flight hours, she said. But the Boston fire was followed nine days later by a smoking battery in an All Nippon Airways plane that made an emergency landing in Japan. The 787 has recorded less than 100,000 flight hours, Hersman noted.

"There have now been two battery events resulting in smoke less than two weeks apart on two different aircraft," she said. "This investigation has demonstrated that a short-circuit in a single cell can propagate to adjacent cells and result in smoke and fire. The assumptions used to certify the battery must be reconsidered."

Apple Should, And Will, Make a Smartwatch

Pebble’s display is bright and easy to read in direct sunlight. Photo: Ariel Zambelich/WiredBy Christina Bonnington

It isn’t a matter of “if” Apple creates a smartwatch, but rather “when.” And “why.”

Moving into the hot “wearables” market with a smartwatch would allow Apple to compete against upstarts like Pebble and seasoned stalwarts like Sony and capitalize on a trend that is sweeping the industry — as shown by the vast number of “wearable” computing devices seen at CES this year. Companies like Nike, Adidas and Motorola are expected to ship 90 million wearables by 2017, and there’s no way Apple would miss out on a piece of that action. A smartwatch would also help complete Apple’s product lineup since the company abandoned the wrist-wearable, square-shaped iPod nano in favor of a larger-screened version.

“The overall trend is that computing is diversifying, and the body is the next frontier for computing,” said Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps. “It would seem strange for Apple to have no goal in shaping what that next phase of computing looks like.”

There’s been a number of signs suggesting Apple is hard at work on a gadget to revolutionize the smartwatch space. There are reports that Apple may be working with Intel to develop a smartwatch with a 1.5-inch PMOLED display. Apple’s investment in curved display technology also would work beautifully on a wearable product. And don’t forget that countless people wore the iPod Nano as a wristwatch — using third-party bands sold in Apple stores.

Environmental News

In Tapping REI Chief for Interior Secretary, Obama Sends Latest Signal on Climate Agenda

Sally JewellHarry Stevens, Triple Pundit

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama nominated REI CEO Sally Jewell to be the next Secretary of the Interior.

Jewell, who took over REI in 2005, has a record both as a successful businesswoman and a longtime conservation advocate. REI, which was founded in 1938, grew rapidly under Jewell's tenure, and the company today operates over 100 stores in around 30 states.

Jewell's resume, which includes a stint for the Mobil oil company as well as 20 years in the banking sector, belies simple categorization of her as a environmentalist. Still, Jewell's record at REI suggests that she will add another environmentally conscientious voice to the group of advisors on which the president will rely when crafting U.S. energy policy during his second term.

Scientists Solve Mercury Mystery, Taking Big Step Toward Protecting Human Health

Mercury pouring from a pipette. By identifying two genes required for transforming inorganic into organic mercury, which is far more toxic, scientists have just taken a significant step toward protecting human health. (Credit: marcel / Fotolia)

Feb. 7, 2013 — By identifying two genes required for transforming inorganic into organic mercury, which is far more toxic, scientists have just taken a significant step toward protecting human health.

The question of how methylmercury, an organic form of mercury, is produced by natural processes in the environment has stumped scientists for decades, but a team led by researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory has solved the puzzle. Results of the study, published in the journal Science, provide the genetic basis for this process, known as microbial mercury methylation, and have far-reaching implications.

"Until now, we did not know how the bacteria convert mercury from natural and industrial processes into methylmercury," said ORNL's Liyuan Liang, a co-author and leader of a large Department of Energy-funded mercury research program that includes researchers from the University of Missouri-Columbia and University of Tennessee.

Medical News

Inflammation feeds E. coli

Body’s defense against microbes may become counterproductive in the gut
E. coliBy Tina Hesman Saey

Inflamed intestines produce their own brand of fertilizers, which nourish E. coli and other disease-associated bacteria, a new study shows.

Everyone carries a small amount of E. coli in their intestines, and it normally causes no problems. But compared with people who have healthy colons, people with inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease harbor a mix of intestinal microbes that is heavier on E. coli.

No one knew whether the disease or the altered microbial mix came first. The new study, published in the Feb. 8 Science, takes a step toward unraveling that chicken-or-egg tangle. Inflammation, a process the body usually uses to kill microbes, may instead feed “bad” bacteria, further inflaming the gut.

Scientists know that during inflammation, tissues produce chemicals such as nitric oxide and superoxides, which can break DNA and ravage bacterial cells. But in experiments involving mice, Andreas Bäumler of the University of California, Davis and colleagues discovered that when the chemicals react with each other, they can produce nitrates and other compounds that some bacteria use for fuel.

Link between obesity and vitamin D clarified

People carrying gene variants tied to weight also prone to deficiency
vitamin DBy Nathan Seppa

The link between obesity and vitamin D deficiency appears to be a one-way street. A large study of the genetics underpinning both conditions finds that obesity may drive down vitamin D levels, but a predisposition to the vitamin deficiency doesn’t lead to obesity. The findings also suggest that boosting vitamin D levels won’t reverse obesity.

An association between the two has been observed for years, but determining cause and effect has been difficult. “I find this very plausible and a correct interpretation of the data,” says Robert Heaney, an endocrinologist at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. “I think it’s worth reporting.”

In the new study, researchers tapped into a huge international database, accessing the genetic profiles of more than 42,000 people. The scientists noted whether a person harbored any of 12 genetic variants associated with being overweight. Not surprisingly, people with these variants were more likely to be obese than those without them. People with these obesity-associated gene variants were also apt to have low vitamin D levels, Elina Hyppönen, an epidemiologist and nutritionist at University College London, and colleagues report online February 5 in PLOS Medicine.

Space News

Supernova's death throes revealed

In archival images, astronomers see activity in weeks before giant star’s explosion
SupernovaBy Andrew Grant

Just before a giant star blew up in a spectacular supernova explosion, it gave hints to its imminent demise. The pre-explosion activity of this star, detailed online February 6 in Nature, could enable astronomers to predict a star’s coming supernova and then watch it in real time.

“It’s a very fascinating study,” says Jon Mauerhan, an astronomer at the University of Arizona who was not involved in the research. Astronomers have only rarely witnessed the activity of a massive star before its explosion, he adds.

The star came to astronomers’ attention in August 2010 thanks to a computer program. The program scans sky survey images from a 48-inch telescope at the Palomar Observatory in Southern California and flags regions that show sudden brightening, which astronomers take as potential signs of supernovas. The researchers followed up on one such brightening 500 million light-years away and confirmed that it was a type II supernova, an explosion of a massive star whose core runs out of fuel and collapses. Then they looked at images of the same star from the prior weeks and months to see whether the star showed signs that it was about to blow.

Gamma-Ray Burst Blasted 8th Century Earth

Gamma-Ray Burstby Markus Hammonds

Cosmic radiation is constantly bombarding our planet, fragmenting atoms in the upper atmosphere as it does. Every now and again, however, vast cosmic events can have a more dramatic effect on our world.

Occasionally considered as having potentially catastrophic consequences, gamma ray bursts are amongst the most powerful single events in the known universe – so powerful that we can detect them from the other side of the Universe. Now it looks as if Earth was struck by one about 1,200 years ago.

Last year, a researcher named Fusa Miyake discovered high levels of carbon-14 in the rings of ancient cedar trees in Japan. Carbon-14 is a rare isotope of carbon, and the tree rings enabled it to be accurately dated to the year 775 CE. This also coincided with high levels of beryllium-10 found in Antarctica and dated to the same time. Some clever deductive reasoning by Valeri Hambaryan and Ralph Neuhäuser suggests that a gamma ray burst might have been to blame.

Cosmic rays striking our atmosphere cause nitrogen atoms to fragment and decay, producing both carbon-14 and beryllium-10, but the levels of these two isotopes were over ten times as high as normal galactic cosmic rays could explain. In order to explain the amount of carbon-14 observed, it was found that gamma rays would need a total energy of 700 quadrillion Joules — equivalent to 167.3 megatons of TNT!

Odd News

Blame It On Barney: Student Perceptions of an Upright Tyrannosaurus Rex Remain Obsolete

Sketches of the two extreme reconstructed postures of T. rex, wrong and right, show how the researchers measured the spinal angle of student drawings. (Credit: Image courtesy of Cornell University)Cornell University

Feb. 7, 2013 — Ask a college student to sketch a Tyrannosaurus rex, and he or she will probably draw an upright, tail-dragging creature with tiny arms. An 8-year-old will draw something similar. They're wrong, of course.

The terrible T. rex, an agile, dynamic predator, never went upright. In fact, T. Rex tarried horizontal. Since the 1970s, this has been the view of most dinosaur scientists and has increasingly been represented in textbooks and popular literature.

So why are students' perceptions of the T. rex stalled in the early 1900s, when the dinosaurs were depicted as upright, somewhat slow-moving tail draggers? A Cornell University research team sought answers after years of anecdotally observing students drawing the T. rex incorrectly.


Despite decades of up-to-date dinosaur books, the imprinting of bad dinosaur anatomy at the earliest ages from unscientific sources, whether they are children's shows like "Barney and Friends," or dino-shaped chicken nuggets, is nearly impossible to overcome. This, combined with the general populace's fascination with dinosaurs, has led to what the researchers call a "cultural inertia" in which outdated science remains in the public consciousness.

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