Science Tuesday: A New Prime Number, Ancient Prosthetic Legs, and A (Possible) New Ninth Planet.

[Photo: Space Zinnia, Scott Kelly/NASA]

Happy Tuesday, Aledan Merfolk! I missed last week’s Science Tuesday, so we have two weeks worth of science news to catch up on. Let’s get to it.

Philae lander not responding to scientists’ wake-up efforts: Scientists have tried one last time to awaken the Philae lander on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, but it isn’t responding. The comet is moving away from the sun, which powers the lander, deposited on the comet by the Rosetta space probe in November of 2014. “We have to face reality, and chances get less and less every day as we are getting farther and farther away from the sun. At some point we have to accept we will not get signals from Philae anymore,” said Stephan Ulamec, lander manager.

Comets may have generated so-called 1977 Wow! signal: Comets, not aliens, may have been responsible for the so-called “Wow!” signal picked up by radio astronomers on Aug. 15, 1977, according to a new study. Researchers suggest comets 266P/Christensen and P/2008 Y2 (Gibbs), neither of which had been discovered at the time, are the mostly likely candidates, generating a sound signal as they moved around the sun that could have been picked up by the Big Ear telescope. Astronomy professor Antonio Paris hopes to test this idea when the comets go through the same region of space again, one in 2017 and the other in 2018.

Dying star Betelgeuse has scientists baffled: The dying star Betelgeuse is spewing large amounts of gas into interstellar space, but scientists can’t figure out where it’s getting the energy to do so, according to findings presented at the American Astronomical Society meeting. Temperatures in the star’s upper atmosphere are much cooler than what researchers think is necessary to eject the gas. “This challenges all our theoretical models,” said astrophysicist Graham Harper.

Well-preserved Bronze Age dwellings found in UK: Well-preserved Bronze Age houses have been discovered in Cambridgeshire in the UK. The houses date back to around 1,000-800 BC, were circular and were built on stilts that were destroyed by a fire, sending the dwellings into a river, where everything was preserved in silt. “So much has been preserved, we can actually see everyday life during the Bronze Age in the round,” said excavation leader David Gibson.

Researchers: Superdeep diamonds hold valuable info about Earth’s processes: Scientists have discovered new insights into the Earth’s carbon recycling process and how that results in superdeep diamonds. Carbon dioxide is absorbed by the oceans and the carbon is pushed deep into the Earth by the movement of tectonic plates, forming the diamonds where it meets the mantle, researchers say. “We will be able to use the wealth of information that is trapped inside the diamonds to build a detailed picture of processes occurring hundreds of kilometers beneath our feet,” said Simon Kohn, an author of the study published in Nature.

Scientists create lithium-ion battery that shuts down when it gets too hot: A lithium-ion battery that stops working before it gets too hot and catches fire has been developed by scientists at Stanford University. Accidental fires caused by overheating lithium-ion batteries have been a problem for various products, including an array of vehicles, airplanes and computers. “We’ve designed the first battery that can be shut down and revived over repeated heating and cooling cycles without compromising performance,” said Zhenan Bao, an author of the study published in Nature Energy.

Backyard chickens have more ectoparasites than commercial flocks: Backyard chickens have more ectoparasites, including fleas, mice and lice, than poultry in commercial facilities, according to a study in the Journal of Medical Entomology. University of California researchers believe that open, cage-free quarters increase ectoparasite loads. Most of the owners didn’t know their birds were infested, and they weren’t using any parasite prevention on the birds.

Lower back pain may respond to motor control exercises, study says: Motor control exercises that increase coordination of muscles that control and support the spine may help reduce chronic lower back pain and disability, according to a study review published in the Cochrane Library. However, research indicates no particular form of exercise has been shown to be better than others in relieving chronic lower back pain.

6,000-year-old pits found in France hold remains of people who died violently: Ancient pits containing the fossilized remains of people who died violently have been found near Bergheim, France, close to the German border. The site, about 6,000 years old, contains the bones of several people, and one pit is filled with the remains of amputated limbs. Researchers believe the pits were the result of a brutal fight or war. “The discovery of Bergheim is the witness of a very violent event, which took place at a specific time. Its unique and extraordinary nature does not allow or help us to better understand the daily life of these people,” University of Strasbourg archaeologist Fanny Chenal, co-author of the study.

Hoofed prosthetic leg found in 2,200-year-old tomb in China: An ancient prosthetic leg with a horse’s hoof at the end has been found in an ancient tomb in China. The prosthetic was found alongside the remains of a 2,200-year-old man who had a deformed knee. The find is detailed in a study published in Chinese Archaeology.

Excavation begins on “lost city” in remote Honduras region: Archaeologists hope to learn more about the people who lived in a “lost city” found last year in a remote area of Honduras now that excavation has begun at the site. Researchers believe there are more sites like the one discovered from data collected using lidar in an aerial survey done of the Mosquitia region in 2012 and they might represent a lost civilization. “We’re hoping to find out what culture was here,” said Honduran Institute for Anthropology and History director Virgilio Paredes.

Thoughtful ants pause to consider their next move, study suggests: Ants don’t think on the move, but instead stop to consider their next step, according to a mathematical analysis of their behavior. Researchers studied the movements of Temnothorax albipennis ants as they traversed an enclosed area one by one, each stopping to assess chemical signatures left by previous ants. Researchers believe the ants may be saving mental energy as they pause to think, according to findings published in Royal Society Open Science.

Baby’s future health may be affected by mother’s weight during pregnancy: Several recent studies have indicated that a mother’s weight during pregnancy can affect her child’s development in several ways. Some studies have linked high-fat diets and obesity at conception and during pregnancy with an increased risk for attention-deficit disorder, anxiety, autism spectrum disorder and other mental health issues in the resulting children. Other studies have suggested a higher risk for physical problems for children whose mothers were obese, such as asthma and a tendency toward weight issues.

Subsurface ice found on comet 67P: Grains of ice have been found in the subsurface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, according to findings published in Nature. The grains were detected by the VIRTIS infrared detector aboard the Rosetta space probe. The ice grains are bigger than any seen on the comet previously, and researchers say that comparing the different ice forms found on the comet can help them better understand its origins.

Gas cloud may contain remnants of universe’s first stars: A huge, ancient gas cloud in space has been found to contain minute amounts of heavy elements, possibly remnants of some of the universe’s first stars, according to findings presented at the American Astronomical Society meeting. Chile’s European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope glimpsed the cloud as it existed about 1.8 billion years after the Big Bang. Scientists suspect the heavy elements came from early stars that expelled them during supernova blasts.

Tool find suggests unknown ancient humans lived on Indonesian island: Ancient stone tools have been found on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, suggesting humans inhabited the area about 118,000 years ago, but no fossils of those people have been found to indicate just who they were. Not far away is the island of Flores, where the fossil remains of a species of small, prehistoric humans were discovered in 2004. “Like on Flores … Sulawesi could also have harbored an isolated human lineage. And the search for fossil remains of the Talepu toolmaker is now open,” said Gerrit van den Bergh, an author of a study on the find published in Nature.

Brazilian frog species uses sophisticated communication signals: Some frog species are more vocal than others, with a broader range of vocalizations to communicate what’s going on in their world. Scientists found that the Brazilian torrent frog Hylodes japi uses the most sophisticated communication signals of any frog species. The tiny frogs use a complex array of visual, vocal and tactile signals to communicate, including five visual displays not seen in the anuran order, which includes toads and frogs, according to a study published in PLOS ONE.

Huge canyon may be hidden under thick layer of ice in Antarctica: The world’s largest canyon may be hidden deep beneath the ice in the Antarctic, according to a study published in Geology. The chasm lies under a thick layer of ice in Princess Elizabeth Land and is thought to be 621 miles, or 1,000 kilometers, long and as much as 3,280 feet, or 1 kilometer, deep in some areas, which would dwarf the 277-mile, or 446-kilometer, length of the Grand Canyon. “Geoscientists in Antarctica are carrying out experiments to confirm what we think we are seeing from the initial data,” said researcher Martin Siegert.

Researchers use human skin cells to produce insulin: Scientists have found a way to reprogram human skin cells to produce insulin, a development that could someday help patients with type-2 diabetes. The research is in its early stages, with scientists testing the cells in lab dishes, and researchers say the insulin produced is not exactly like that produced normally in the pancreas. The technique is described in Nature Communications.

Humans may have been in Arctic 45,000 years ago: Marks on the bones of a woolly mammoth found in Siberia suggest that humans may have been in the Arctic about 10,000 years earlier than previously thought. The bones, which are about 45,000 years old, indicate the creature was killed by humans using pointed projectiles, according to findings published in Science. Researchers think the humans moved that far north in search of mammoths.

Mysterious bright object may be massive supernova, astronomers say: A massive cosmic blast first seen in June may be a supernova more powerful than any seen by astronomers before, according to a study published in Science. ASASSN-15lh, about 3.8 billion light-years away, was observed with the All Sky Automated Survey for SuperNovae, and researchers are trying to pin down whether it is a supernova, a superluminous supernova or something else entirely. “How ASASSN-15lh fades will reveal much more about this event,” said study author Ben Shappee.

Fish communicate to stay close to each other, study finds: Fish use calls to stick together as a group, a new study suggests. Researchers played recordings of bigeye vocalizations for captive wild bigeyes, and noted that their own vocalizations increased and they swam more closely together than they did when no recordings were played. “This study means that fish are now the oldest vertebrate group in which this behavior has been observed, and that has interesting implications for our understanding of evolutionary behavior among vertebrates,” said Lucy van Oosterom, lead author of the study published in Scientific Reports.

Hardened brain arteries, tissue damage linked to sleep issues: A slightly higher risk of developing hardened brain arteries and damaged brain tissue because of lack of oxygen has been linked to poor sleep in older adults, a new study published in Stroke suggests. “The forms of brain injury that we observed are important because they may not only contribute to the risk of stroke but also to chronic progressive cognitive and motor impairment,” noted neurologist Andrew Lim, a study author.

Brain waves may affect how patients respond to anesthesia: Brain waves may help predict differences in the way certain people react to anesthesia, allowing dosage to be tailored to the patient, a new study in PLOS Computational Biology suggests. Researchers found that some study participants would fight the drug propofol’s effects, while others were more susceptible to it. The difference was noticeable in the subjects’ brain waves even before the drug was given, scientists say.

Continual tea consumption can reduce risk of arterial stiffness: People who drink tea every day for more than six years have a lower risk of arterial stiffness, according to a study by researchers in China. The study of 40- to 75-year-olds showed that those who drank tea for more than 10 years were found to have the lowest levels of brachial-ankle pulse wave velocity.

Bio-activated concrete helps promote algae growth in marine environment: Researchers in Japan have discovered a way to develop concrete that promotes algae growth for use in marine environments. The process uses amino acids and grows algae up to 10 times faster than regular concrete. They hope to create a seaweed bed with the material.

Zero-energy particles give black holes “hair,” Hawking study suggests: Black holes contain “hairs” made up of zero-energy particles that may hold some of the information they consume, according to a new hypothesis by Stephen Hawking and colleagues. “The million dollar question is whether all the information is stored in this way, and we have made no claims about that. It seems unlikely that the kind of hair that we described is rich enough to store all the information,” said Harvard physicist Andrew Strominger, an author of the study published online in arXiv.

Zinnia grown on space station first flower to bloom in space: A zinnia has bloomed on the International Space Station less than a month after mold damaged several plants in its nursery. Astronaut Scott Kelly is tending the plants and shared the news of the blossom with a photo on Twitter. NASA hopes to try growing tomatoes and other flowering plants beginning in 2018 in ongoing experiments to see if fresh food can be grown in space.

Location of 1692 Salem witch trial hangings confirmed: The exact site of the hangings resulting from the 1692 Salem witch trials has been confirmed using a mix of historical document research and modern archaeological techniques. The hangings of 19 people accused of witchcraft took place on Proctor’s Ledge, located behind a present-day pharmacy on a city-owned plot of land. The finding confirms that of historian Sidney Perley, who used historical documents to find the site almost 100 years ago, but whose work was overshadowed by myth and conspiracy theories, according to the team of researchers who confirmed Perley’s discovery.

Plague bacterium lingered in medieval Europe for centuries: The second wave of bubonic plague that hit medieval Europe was likely fed by the presence of the bacterium Yersinia pestis in a local host for as long as 300 years, according to a study published in PLOS ONE. Researchers who studied DNA from 14th- to 17th-century skeletons say their findings show that the bacterium stayed in Europe, reinfecting residents rather than being brought in by travelers from Asia.

High-fiber diets important for gut microbes, study suggests: A high-fiber diet is important for one’s gut microbes and one’s children’s gut microbes as well, a new study suggests. Researchers who studied mice bred to have human gut microbes found that a low-fiber diet not only caused them to have less microbial diversity but affected their offspring, too. “Everyone accepts that we pass our human genes on to our children, but I think now we need to consider that our children also inherit a microbial set of genes from us,” said microbiologist Erica Sonnenburg, an author of the study published in Nature.

National Cancer Institute plans major genomic database: The National Cancer Institute will launch the Genomic Data Commons this summer, with data from approximately 50,000 patients and clinical trial subjects. The database, part of the new cancer “moonshot” led by Vice President Joe Biden, will initially contain two large information sets of data from two programs: the Therapeutically Applicable Research to Generate Effective Treatments, or TARGET, program and the Cancer Genome Atlas.

Amount of heat absorbed by oceans doubles since 1997, study suggests: Earth’s oceans are absorbing man-made heat at a higher rate than they were in 1997, according to a new study published in Nature Climate Change. The amount of heat absorbed in just the last 18 years is about the same as the amount absorbed from 1865 to 1997, researchers say. “After 2000 in particular the rate of change is really starting to ramp up,” said oceanographer Paul Durack, a study co-author.

Researchers knot quantum matter: Quantum matter has been knotted for the first time. Researchers in Finland used a changing magnetic field to create a Hopf fibration, a complex knot of interlinked circles, of a quantum gas dubbed a Bose-Einstein condensate. “These quantum knots are great because of their fundamental importance. They show that these structures are possible in quantum fields,” said Mikko Mottonen, co-author of the study published in Nature Physics.

Finches memorize mating songs with unique brain circuitry: NYU Langone Medical Center researchers found that juvenile male zebra finches learn their mating songs by activating inhibitory cells in the brain that “lock” the tunes in place while preventing other activity in that area of the brain. This neural response was present only in juvenile birds. “Maybe we could teach old birds new tricks,” said neuroscientist and lead author Michael Long. “And extrapolating widely, maybe we could even do this in mammals, maybe even humans, and enrich learning.”

Yoga poses safe in late pregnancy, study suggests: Many yoga poses are safe to do during late pregnancy, according to a study published in Obstetrics & Gynecology. Researchers monitored 25 women in the late stages of pregnancy while they practiced yoga, tracking their vital signs and those of their babies during the poses, which included four not recommended for pregnant women. The scientists say none of the women reported any problems resulting from the poses, and all vital signs remained normal.

Technique might allow more targeted delivery of cancer drug: Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that using an exosome coating derived from the white blood cells of mice allowed delivery of paclitaxel directly to drug-resistant cancer cells. The targeted delivery allowed scientists to use a 50-fold lower dose. The treatment, called exoPXT, was also labeled with a dye and tested as a diagnostic tool, which identified malignant cells in animal models with drug-resistant lung cancer. The findings were reported in the journal Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine.

Trying to understand the evolution of eyes: Eyes come in all shapes, sizes, abilities and placements on the myriad creatures that populate the Earth, and scientists are trying to understand the many mysteries behind the evolution of the organ. Some researchers find studying a creature’s eyes are an indicator if its specific needs, which range from the very simple to the extremely complex.

Prosthetic foot found buried with 1,500-year-old skeleton in Austria: A functional prosthesis has been found in southern Austria buried with a 1,500-year-old skeleton missing a left foot at a point above the ankle, researchers say. “In its place, an iron-ring and wooden remains were recovered and interpreted as a prosthesis replacing the lost foot,” said Michaela Binder, an author of a study on the find published in the International Journal of Paleopathology. Researchers say the man, who was between 35 and 50, would have been able to walk, perhaps with the aid of a crutch, using the wooden peg, likely attached with a pouch or straps.

Urban snow absorbs pollutants from exhaust, study finds: Snow can soak up toxic pollutants in urban areas, new research has revealed. Researchers put snow in a chamber along with exhaust fumes and found the concentration of chemicals rose substantially. “Snow flakes are ice particles with various types of surfaces, including several active sites, that can absorb various gaseous or particulate pollutants. As a mother who is an atmospheric physical chemist, I definitely do not suggest my young kids to eat snow in urban areas in general,” said Parisa Ariya, who led the study published in Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts.

Risk of death from cardiac arrest greater for those on higher floors: People who experience cardiac arrest on higher floors of tall buildings are at a greater risk of dying as a result than those on the first or second floors, a study suggests. The study looked at cardiac arrest patients over five years and found that 2.6% who suffered cardiac arrest on the third floor or higher survived, compared with 4.2% who experienced the event on the first two floors, and less than 1% survived if they were above the 16th floor. Findings were published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Virtual reality might ease the pain of burn treatments: Trials show that burn victims given pain drugs may be able to further reduce the amount of pain they experience during treatment by playing a virtual reality game called Snow World, says science journalist Jo Marchant, who tried the therapy while researching a book about the science of mind-body healing. “[T]he idea is that the brain has a limited capacity for attention, so if the ice canyon commands that attention, there is less capacity left over for experiencing pain,” Marchant said.

Astronomers make case for existence of 9th planet, not Pluto: A ninth planet may exist in the outer reaches of the solar system beyond dwarf planet Pluto, said a pair of California Institute of Technology astronomers. Michael Brown and Konstantin Batygin have gathered circumstantial evidence for a ninth planet by observing the orbits of six celestial bodies circling the same area and tilted at close to the same angle, suggesting a planet may be herding them. Their findings have been published in The Astronomical Journal.

^ Definitely the coolest science news in the past week!

Small, meat-eating theropod found in UK lived in early Jurassic period: Ancient bones found near the coast south of Wales belong to a small, carnivorous theropod that lived in the early days of the Jurassic period, according to findings published in PLOS ONE. The newly discovered species, dubbed Dracoraptor hanigani, is a distant relative of Tyrannosaurus rex, though much smaller, and dates back about 201 million years ago, about the time dinosaurs started to diversify after the mass extinction at the end of the Triassic period. It may be the earliest Jurassic-period dinosaur found in the UK.

10,000-year-old skeletons found in Kenya show evidence of violent death: The remains of 12 people who died violent deaths about 10,000 years ago have been found in Kenya, offering new information about early acts of violence between possibly antagonistic hunter-gatherer groups, according to a study published in Nature. Ten of 12 mostly complete skeletons show evidence of arrow wounds or blunt-force trauma to the head, while two appeared to have been tied up when they died, researchers said.

Tree frogs thought to be extinct actually part of new genus, study finds: A species of tree frog long thought to be extinct has been found living in the jungles of northeast India, and may also exist from China to Thailand, according to a study published in PLOS ONE. Additionally, after sequencing the frogs’ DNA, researchers discovered the creatures belong to a new genus, dubbed Frankixalus. Despite finding living specimens, scientists say the frogs’ existence faces challenges due to industrial growth and development.

Magnesium trapped in Earth’s core may be power source for magnetic field: Magnesium locked in the Earth’s core may power the planet’s magnetic field, according to a new model described in Nature. Scientists long thought that magnesium couldn’t exist in the core because it doesn’t easily mix with iron, but the model suggests that magnesium was injected into the core during a series of violent collisions with other bodies when Earth was formed. “We think we now understand why the Earth has had a magnetic field for the last 4 billion years, and that the process will keep happening into the foreseeable future,” said Joseph O’Rourke, lead author of the study.

Brain changes recorded in veterans exposed to explosive blasts: Changes have been found in the brains of service members exposed to explosions, particularly in their cerebellums, according to a study published in Science Translational Medicine. Researchers looked at brain activity in veterans who had been exposed to blasts and found that increased exposure correlated with less activity in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that coordinates motor function. Researchers also found that brain pathways changed as a result of blast injuries.

Researchers identify 24 new species of beetles in Australia: Researchers have identified 24 new species of beetles in Australia among museum specimen collections throughout the country. The new species are weevils, and many specimens are nearly 30 years old, according to findings published in ZooKeys. Researchers think the new species are just the tip of the iceberg and that there could be thousands more in Australia yet to be cataloged.

Counting helps Venus flytraps capture, evaluate prey, study finds: A Venus flytrap captures and devours its prey by counting how many times the insect touches the sensitive trigger hairs positioned through the plant’s open trap, according to a study published in Current Biology. One touch alerts the plant that prey has wandered in, a second is the signal to spring the trap, and subsequent trigger touches get the plant’s digestive juices flowing. The number of additional trigger touches tells the plant information about its prey, such as size and what kind of nutrients it can expect from it, researchers say.

Existence of old burial ground beneath NYC bus depot confirmed: Bones and bone fragments have been found beneath a large bus depot in Manhattan near the Harlem River in New York City, confirming that a burial ground existed there between the 17th and 19th centuries. Documents had identified the area as the site of a Reformed Dutch churchyard where people of African descent had been laid to rest, but there had been no physical evidence until archaeologists found the bones. The burial ground was reconsecrated last fall.

Potential cancer killer makes researchers say “cheese”: University of Michigan professor Yvonne Kapila led a recent study that found large doses of nisin — a naturally occurring preservative found in various cheeses and other dairy products — acts against 30 types of cancer. The compound also killed methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Kapila cautioned that the study, which involved mice, was small and the findings might not hold in people.

Newly discovered prime number sets record at 22.3 million digits long: The largest known prime number has been found by mathematicians at the University of Central Missouri. The world-record-setting 49th Mersenne prime number is 22.3 million digits long.

Study of iridescent clams may lead to better solar, screen technologies: Clams’ iridescence may one day help researchers create better solar panels, smartphones and televisions. “We are studying the clams to see how their iridescent cells interact with the algae to enhance photosynthesis,” said Amitabh Ghoshal, lead author of the study published in Optica. The study also looked at the way clams produce different iridescent colors.

Researchers use beetle to devise new method to prevent windshield frost: The shell of the Namib Desert beetle is helping scientists create a new method for preventing and controlling frost on windshields, according to findings published in Scientific Reports. Researchers noticed how the beetle collected airborne water by using bumpy patterns on its shell. They recreated the patterns on a silicon wafer, which attracted water, then repelled it, ultimately keeping the droplets moving, which slows or prevents frost.

European storks alter migration pattern to dine on food at landfills: The lure of discarded food at landfills has caused white storks in Europe to change their migration patterns, a study published in Science Advances suggests. Europe’s storks have traditionally flown to Africa for the winter, but over the last few decades more and more haven’t made the trek, preferring to scavenge in trash dumps. So far, they’re doing well. “There is some sort of human impact that causes these birds to change their migration strategy,” said study leader Andrea Flack.

Frequency of blizzards twice what it was 20 years ago, study suggests: The frequency of blizzards has doubled in the last two decades, according to new research. Scientists say the increase in snowstorms could be due to better documentation, but it also could be because of fewer sunspots. “Sunspot-minimum periods tend to coincide with more frequent polar outbreaks in the Northern Hemisphere that could increase the likelihood for blizzard occurrence. However, sunspot activity is only a small component in explaining the frequency of blizzard occurrence,” said geographer Jennifer Coleman, who led the research.

Stink bugs offer healthy benefits as food source, study finds: Nutrient-rich stink bugs may be a good alternate food source for the ever-increasing human population, according to a study published in PLOS ONE. Researchers found four flavonoids, 10 essential fatty acids and 12 amino acids in stink bugs, and say that such edible insects should be included in mainstream diets. “Some of the traditional foods, including insects such as the edible stink bug, are highly nutritious and beneficial to human health and should be promoted into mainstream diets,” said study co-author Baldwyn Torto.

I’ll eat a lot of things, but stink bugs? No.


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Rebecca Enzor

Rebecca Enzor is a chemist in Charleston, SC who writes Young Adult and New Adult Fantasy and Magical Realism. Repped by Eric Smith of P.S. Literary.

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