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for July, 2010.
Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond.
Well, we’ve done plants and animals and global warming and medicine lately, and now I think it’s time to dip into the technology file to see what weird and wonderful things the technogeeks are up to. So off we go to the Alice in Wonderland world of technology.
Don’t you just love the new cameras and photophones? And the ease of putting all those infinite pictures onto the net for all your friends and families and grandparents and prospective employers and everyone else to see is just wonderful. Unless of course, things get posted that you didn’t want everyone to see. But we won’t get into that here.
Let’s stick to talking about vacation photos and perhaps posting them on Flickr. It turns out lots of folks have done that, and well, read on!
BUILDING ROME IN A DAY
We all know that Rome wasn’t built in a day. It took 10 years to build the Coliseum and almost 100 years to build St. Peter’s Basilica. But researchers at the University of Washington have developed a new computer algorithm that used hundreds of thousands of tourist photos to automatically reconstruct the city of Rome. It took about a day.
The tool is the most recent in a series developed at UW to harness the enormous digital photo collections available on photo-sharing Web sites. The digital Rome was assembled from 150,000 tourist photos tagged with the word "Rome" or "Roma" that were downloaded from the popular photo-sharing Web site, Flickr.
Computers analyzed each image and in 21 hours combined them to create a 3-D digital model. Using this model, a viewer can fly around Rome’s landmarks, from the Trevi Fountain to the Pantheon to the inside of the Sistine Chapel. Earlier versions of the UW photo-stitching technology are known as Photo Tourism. That technology was licensed in 2006 to Microsoft, which now offers it as a free tool called Photosynth.
In addition to Rome, the team recreated the Croatian coastal city of Dubrovnik, processing 60,000 images in less than 23 hours using a cluster of 350 computers, and Venice, Italy, processing 250,000 images in 65 hours using a cluster of 500 computers. Many historians see Venice as a candidate for digital preservation before water does more damage to the city, the researchers said.
Transitioning from landmarks to cities — going from hundreds of photos to hundreds of thousands of photos — is not trivial. Previous versions of the Photo Tourism software matched each photo to every other photo in the set. But as the number of photos increases the number of matches increases exponentially. A set of 250,000 images would take at least a year for 500 computers to process and a million photos would take more than a decade using the previous version.
The newly developed code works more than a hundred times faster than the previous version. It first establishes likely matches and then concentrates on those parts. The code also uses parallel processing techniques, allowing it to run simultaneously on many computers, or even on remote servers connected through the Internet. This new, faster code makes it possible to tackle more ambitious projects.
This technique could create online maps that offer viewers a virtual-reality experience. The software could build cities for video games automatically, instead of doing so by hand. It also might be used in architecture for digital preservation of cities, or integrated with online maps. In the near term, the "Rome in a Day" code could be used with Photo Tourism, Photosynth or other software designed to view the model output.
The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research and its Spawar lab, Microsoft Research, and Google.
The Colosseum as seen in the digital reconstruction. Each triangle is where a person was standing when he or she took a photo (Credit: University of Washington)
So, we’re actually looking at the first step in creating a virtual world without the flies and the heat and the smells. I’m not so sure that’s a really good tradeoff, but then I’ve always had just a whiff of the Luddite about me!
And now we’ll move on to a new controversial technology that’s being put to some uses that aren’t quite so controversial.
We’ve all heard about terahertz radiation or THz. That’s the technology they want to put in airports to cut down on the risk of people smuggling weapons onboard an airplane concealed in their clothing. Terahertz radiation sees right through your clothes and that’s why a lot of people are not happy about being seen au natural at the airport!
It turns out that terhertz radiation has other uses because it can not only see through clothes, it can see through paint. German researchers are using THz to look at old paintings and murals.
Conventional wisdom says that once you paint over a mural, it’s gone because current methods can’t reveal the picture beneath without damaging it. Many church paintings are hidden from sight because they were painted over centuries ago. As tastes and religious fervors changed, walls were painted and repainted many times. In many old churches and other buildings, layers of paintings from various epochs can now be found superimposed on top of each other.
If you strip the paint to the original picture using conventional methods you risk damaging it. You also destroy the layers of pictures above it and they may be worthy of preservation too. So what’s a poor conservationist to do? Use terahertz radiation!
THz radiation can penetrate plaster and lime washes even if the layer is relatively thick. And unlike other radiation wavelengths like ultraviolet, THz radiation doesn’t damage the art. Infrared beams don’t work because they can’t penetrate deep enough and microwaves can’t provide the necessary width and depth resolution.
The German researchers developed a mobile system that can be used anywhere to conduct the examinations. The scanner travels over the wall without touching it and has two measuring heads; one transmits the radiation, the other picks up the reflected beams.
Each layer and each pigment reflects the transmitted pulses differently so that picture contrast as well as depth information can be obtained. The measured results provide information about the thickness of the painted layers, what pigments were used and how the colors are arranged. A specially developed software system puts the measured results together to form a picture displaying the structure of the concealed paintings.
The scientists have already succeeded in revealing the structures of concealed pictures on a test wall where several different pictures were painted and then painted over with other pictures. The next step will be to conduct a practical test in a church.
The mobile scanner at work on a test wall. A software system reveals the structure of the concealed paintings. (Credit: Copyright Fraunhofer IWS)
And now we come to a story that still just blows me away. One of the things I definitely remember from high school science classes were the great strides that had been made in microscopy. It was the beginning of the era of the electron microscope and astounding discoveries were being made everywhere. But there was one boundary that everybody agreed on. No matter how good microscopes got, we would NEVER be able to see individual atoms!
Just goes to show you that ‘never’ is a very tricky word that should probably be avoided in most cases!
Using the latest in aberration-corrected electron microscopy, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and their colleagues have obtained the first images that distinguish individual light atoms such as boron, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. (Yes, boys and girls, they have taken pictures of individual ATOMS).
The ORNL images were obtained with a Z-contrast scanning transmission electron microscope (STEM). Individual atoms of carbon, boron, nitrogen and oxygen–all of which have low atomic numbers–were resolved on a single-layer boron nitride sample.
"This research marks the first instance in which every atom in a significant part of a non-periodic material has been imaged and chemically identified," said Materials Science and Technology Division researcher Stephen Pennycook. "It represents another accomplishment of the combined technologies of Z-contract STEM and aberration correction."
The new high-resolution imaging technique enables materials researchers to analyze, atom by atom, the molecular structure of experimental materials and discern structural defects in those materials. Defects introduced into a material–for example, the placement of an impurity atom or molecule in the material’s structure–are often responsible for the material’s properties.
The group analyzed a monolayer hexagonal boron nitride sample prepared at Oxford University and was able to find and identify three types of atomic substitutions–carbon atoms substituting for boron, carbon substituting for nitrogen and oxygen substituting for nitrogen. Boron, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen have atomic numbers–or Z values– of five, six, seven and eight, respectively.
Armed with the high-resolution images, materials, chemical and nanoscience researchers and theorists can design more accurate computational simulations to predict the behavior of advanced materials, which are key to meeting research challenges that include energy storage and energy efficient technologies. (In other words, if we can actually see what it looks like, we can figure out how it all fits together!)
Individual boron and nitrogen atoms are clearly distinguished by their intensity in this Z-contrast scanning electron transmission microscope image from Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Each single hexagonal ring of the boron-nitrogen structure, for instance the one marked by the green circle in the figure a, consists of three brighter nitrogen atoms and three darker boron atoms. The lower (b) image is corrected for distortion. (Credit: Department of Energy, Oak Ridge National Laboratory)
Seeing a city, seeing a painting, seeing atoms. Our technology is showing us our world, as it’s never been seen before!
Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond.
Greetings everyone! Well, I thought today we’d visit a file we don’t delve into very often. It’s a shame really because if it wasn’t for these Earth inhabitants, humans and the rest of the animals wouldn’t be here. It is, of course, the plants. If the Sun doesn’t shine and the plants don’t keep cranking out that oxygen, humans and all the rest of the animals are quite literally dead meat. We do tend to forget how much we depend on the plants.
Although our later excursions in this column today will be into the plant kingdom, our first story is about a group of living things that most of us tend to think of as plants. After all, they don’t move and we eat some of them, so that makes them plants right? Well no, our first story is about several species of the fungi and the fungi (we call many of them mushrooms) are actually more closely related to animals than plants.
One of my fondest memories is of the Ecology field trip I took several years ago. I had already graduated so I no longer had to worry about taking notes or doing surveys, I just got to enjoy the terrain.
Most of us don’t go into the jungle at night, but on that trip Mariano and I took flashlights and stepped into a whole new world. One of the things we found was an entire log that was lit up like a Christmas tree. It was full of luminescent mushrooms and I got to answer a question I’d always wondered about. Is it just the fruiting bodies (the mushrooms) that glow or is it the whole organism including the hyphae (the roots)? Read on for the answer!
LIGHTING UP THE NIGHT
Seven new glow-in-the-dark mushroom species have been discovered, increasing the number of known luminescent fungi species from 64 to 71. The paper was published in the journal Mycologia, and the new finds include two new species named after movements in Mozart’s Requiem. The discoveries also shed light on the evolution of luminescence, adding to the number of known lineages in the fungi ‘family tree’ where luminescence has been reported.
Researchers from San Francisco State University discovered the fungi in Belize, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Japan, Malaysia and Puerto Rico. The discoveries include four species new to science and three new reports of luminescence in known species. Three quarters of glowing mushrooms, including the species described in the study, belong to the Mycena genus, a group of mushrooms that feed off and decompose organic matter as a source of nutrients to sustain their growth.
"What interests us is that within Mycena, the luminescent species come from 16 different lineages, which suggests that luminescence evolved at a single point and some species later lost the ability to glow," said Dennis Desjardin, lead author of the study. He believes that some fungi glow in order to attract nocturnal animals that aid in the dispersal of the mushroom’s spores, which are similar to seeds and are capable of growing into new organisms.
The newly discovered fungi glow constantly, emitting a bright, yellowish-green light, and are tiny, with caps smaller than one centimeter across. The new species have been named Mycena luxaeterna (eternal light) and Mycena luxperpetua (perpetual light), names inspired by Mozart’s Requiem and the fact that these mushrooms glow 24 hours a day. To date, Desjardin has discovered more than 200 new fungi species and together with these latest findings, has discovered nearly a quarter of all known luminescent fungi.
A new luminescent fungus, Mycena luxaeterna. The species was collected in Sao Paulo, Brazil and was found on sticks in an Atlantic forest habitat. These mushrooms are tiny with each cap measuring less than 8 millimeters in diameter and their stems have a jelly-like texture (Credit: Cassius V. Stevani, Chemistry Institute, University of Sao Paulo)
And based on my personal experience, yes the hyphae do glow in the luminescent mushrooms on Guam. Are they the same species described in the article? Who knows?
But I’ll tell you something else interesting. If you go out into the jungle at night and turn off your flashlight and wait for about 20 minutes until your eyes completely adjust to the darkness, you’ll discover something REALLY interesting. After a while, the entire forest floor lights up with an eerie, very faint, blue-green glow. As near as we’re able to tell, this is caused by luminescent bacteria that are decomposing the dead plant material that’s present all over the forest floor. It’s an amazing sight!
And now for a little excursion into the world of plants, but plants as you’ve never thought of them before!
People have always been interested in the so-called carnivorous plants or plants that eat insects and other animals. Although we know there are no man-eating plants, they continue to appear in films (Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors) and books (Tentacula in the Harry Potter series). The Japanese cartoon Pokémon has several characters based on carnivorous plants (Bellsprout, Weepinbell and Victreebell).
Carnivorous plants fascinated Charles Darwin, and he and his friend Sir Joseph Hooker who was Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew had an extensive correspondence concerning them. Darwin’s book Insectivorous Plants played a large part in the acceptance of the idea that plants could eat animals. Before it was published, many botanists (including Linnaeus) refused to accept it was possible.
Since Darwin’s time, several groups have been recognized as carnivorous plants including sundews, Venus flytraps and pitcher plants. Although Guam has no Venus flytraps or pitcher plants, Palau has several pitcher plant species including some that are found only on Palau. We do however have a lovely little savanna plant here on Guam with the marvelous habit of lassoing worms called nematodes with its roots and then growing into them and sucking them dry.
Various other plants have been suggested as possible carnivores by some scientists, but their ideas have not gained wide acceptance. One problem is that the making a definition of what constitutes carnivory in plants is a challenge, and botanists include or exclude groups of plants on the basis of different sets of criteria.
Now botanists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Natural History Museum in England have published a paper that says carnivorous behavior in plants is far more widespread than previously thought. In the paper they state that many commonly grown plants including flowers like petunias, show some of the characteristics of being "meat eaters."
Many plants, like petunias and potatoes have sticky hairs that trap insects, and some species of campion (a commonly planted ornamental flower in temperate zones) have the common name ‘catchfly’ for the same reason. However, unlike the commonly accepted carnivorous plants, these plants don’t seem to have the ability to digest the insects they trap or to absorb the breakdown products.
Some of them may however, and Professor Mark Chase, Keeper of the Jodrell Laboratory at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew says, "Although a man-eating tree is fictional, many commonly grown plants may turn out to be cryptic carnivores, by absorbing through their roots the breakdown products of the animals that they ensnare. We may be surrounded by many more murderous plants than we think."
Fading petunias still hold interest for this fly. (Credit: iStockphoto/Denice Breaux)
Hmmmm. . . . killer petunias, eh? And in case you don’t think that’s weird enough, try this story on for size! Plants are plants and animals are animals, right? They conduct their business in totally different ways using totally different chemicals to do it, right? Well . . . maybe.
WHAT’S THAT DOING THERE??
In a paper published in the journal of the American Chemical Society, researchers have reported the first discovery of the female sex hormone progesterone in a plant. Until now, scientists thought that only animals could make progesterone. Progesterone is a hormone secreted by the ovaries that prepares the uterus for pregnancy and maintains pregnancy. A synthetic version, progestin, is used in birth control pills and other medications.
This discovery has mystified the researchers who discovered it. They speculate that progesterone, like other hormones, might be an ancient bioregulator that evolved billions of years ago, before the appearance of modern plants and animals. The new discovery may change scientific understanding of the evolution and function of progesterone in living things.
Scientists had previously identified progesterone-like substances in plants and speculated that the hormone itself could exist in plants but this is the first recorded instance of the actual hormone in plants. So, in what exotic plant did they make their discovery? They found progesterone in the leaves of the English walnut tree. They also identified five new progesterone-related steroids in a plant belonging to the buttercup family.
Leaves of the walnut tree contain progesterone, the female sex hormone, discovered for the first time in a plant. (Credit: iStockphoto)
So . . . plants that eat animals, plants that have animal hormones. What’s next?
Well, we all know the importance of plants. They make our oxygen and ultimately they make all our food. But they will become even more important in the future and one of the latest findings will dramatically affect us here on Guam. Maybe.
HOW TO SAVE THE WORLD
An article in the current issue of Global Change Biology Bioenergy reveals that a plant called Miscanthus could effectively reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, while lowering atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Using a simulation tool that models the future global climate, researchers predict that the carbon that is released into the atmosphere from the loss of natural vegetation will be paid back by Miscanthus within 30 years. Previous estimates for other liquid biofuels, such as corn ethanol, were estimated to take 167 to 420 years to pay back their carbon debt.
The global concern over climate change has challenged researchers to explore ways to mitigate the damage we are doing to our environment. They are looking more closely at energy crops, like Miscanthus, to replace our need for fossil fuels like natural gas and oil, which raise atmospheric CO2 concentrations.
According to John Hughes, UK Met Office Research Scientist, "Our study demonstrates the huge potential of energy crops, in particular of Miscanthus. Also, by scaling the results up to the global scale as we do in this study we are developing a new set of tools for evaluating energy crops."
So . . . ladies and gentlemen, just how does this wonderful new miracle plant relate to us here on Guam? Why does it put our island at the forefront of the race to replace our need for fossil fuels? What is this miracle plant?
You’re all familiar with it. Miscanthus is . . . . swordgrass!!!
Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond.
Greetings! It’s time to dip into the weird and wonderful world of what ails us and I’ve decided that today we all need a boost so all the stories are good news. No ugly oil spills, no ‘the next new thing that will kill me’, just good news. So here goes.
A world that I don’t even want to try to imagine is the world of the blind. I love to read and although I also love to listen to audio books, blindness would remove a huge part of my enjoyment of life. And there’s very good news in this area. Scientists are reporting progress toward a test that could revolutionize the diagnosis of glaucoma, the second leading cause of vision loss and blindness worldwide, by detecting the disease years earlier then the typical diagnoses today.
Glaucoma is the name given to a group of eye disorders that damage the optic nerve, which carries visual information from the eye to the brain. It usually occurs when fluid pressure inside the eye slowly increases over time and damages the optic nerve. Glaucoma affects about 70 million people worldwide, including about 2 million in the United States. It’s called the ‘vision stealer’ because it damages with no obvious warning symptoms that would send patients to a doctor. There is no cure, and glaucoma causes irreversible loss of vision.
Doctors now use two main techniques to detect the disease. One test measures eye pressure by gently touching a special instrument to the outer surface of the eye. In the other, an eye specialist uses an instrument called an ophthalmoscope to look directly through the pupil of the eye at the optic nerve. The nerve’s color and appearance can indicate the presence of damage from glaucoma.
Unfortunately, all too often, these tests detect glaucoma after the disease has already damaged the optic nerve. Years may pass between the first biological change associated with glaucoma inside the eye and diagnosis. Eye doctors need to be able to diagnose glaucoma earlier, before permanent damage has occurred, so that patients can begin taking medication to control it.
The researchers in the current study used Raman spectroscopy, which chemists use to focus a beam of infrared laser light, invisible to the human eye, into a test sample to get information about the sample’s composition. The scientists used a Raman spectrometer to shine laser light through the pupil of the eye. Nerve cells inside the eye scatter the light, producing a rainbow-like "spectrum" or pattern revealing the chemical composition of the cells. The spectrum can be used to identify biochemical changes in retinal cells that announce the presence of glaucoma.
The research team has used animal subjects so far, and they look forward to clinical trials in humans. If everything goes well and no problems are detected, the technique could be ready to be used in your eye doctor’s office within five years. The test will probably take about 30 minutes, longer than existing glaucoma tests, but will benefit patients with a more accurate diagnosis of the disease.
A person with advanced glaucoma could have this view of the world, a risk that might be reduced by a new early diagnostic test for the common eye disease. (Credit: National Institutes of Health)
Early detection of glaucoma is certainly a good news story, but there are other ones out there. One of them involves a drug I take myself.
NEW USES FOR AN OLD DRUG
I am very proud of my doctors because several years ago they put me on a drug that many of you are familiar with. They put me on metformin, which is also called Glucophage. Metformin is the generic name for the drug, but its trademarked name actually tells you what it does. Glucophage means ‘sugar eater’ and metformin is a marvelous drug that literally ‘eats’ the sugar out of your bloodstream before it can trigger type 2 diabetes.
Metformin is given to diabetics, but it’s also routinely prescribed for non-diabetics like me who are at risk of developing the disease. When my fasting blood sugar went above 110, I was put on metformin. I’ve been on it for several years now and my fasting blood sugar is always right around 100.
As if diabetes prevention (and treatment) weren’t enough for this drug, new research shows that metformin may soon play a role in lung cancer prevention. Emerging research suggests metformin may inhibit tumor growth as well.
In the current study, conducted by researchers from the National Cancer Institute, mice were treated with metformin for 13 weeks following exposure to a nicotine-derived nitrosamine (NNK), which is the most prevalent carcinogen in tobacco and a known promoter of tumor development in the lungs.
The metformin was administered by mouth (hopefully they didn’t give the poor mice metformin pills the size of the ones that I take!) and it reduced the number of lung tumors developed by the mice by 40 percent to 50 percent. The researchers said that the levels of metformin used to do this would also be tolerated by humans.
The scientists discovered that the metformin inhibited the growth of a chemical called rapamycin which is know to promote lung tumor growth. They also discovered that if the metformin was delivered by injection, it reduced the number of tumors by 72 percent.
Although I’m not a smoker, I lived with one for many years. It’s nice to know that a drug I already take may be keeping me safe in other ways as well!
And now a story about a disease that is prevalent in our part of the world.
TAMPING THE FEVER
Dengue fever is also called ‘bonebreak fever’, not because it breaks your bones but because the disease makes you feel as though every bone in your body has been broken. Dengue fever is possibly the disease being suffered by whoever said, “For the first three days I was afraid I would die and for the next three days, I was afraid I wouldn’t”.
Scientists at the Imperial College in London have recently discovered the virus that cause dengue fever may be pirating some of our own immune system defenses to infect more cells. They hope their new findings can help with the design of a new vaccine against dengue. The study also shines light on the observation that people who contract dengue fever more than once usually experience more severe and dangerous symptoms the second time around.
Dengue fever is transmitted by mosquitoes and is prevalent in sub-tropical and tropical regions including South East Asia, South America and the islands of the Pacific. Symptoms include high fever, severe aching in the joints and vomiting. The dengue virus can also cause hemorrhagic fever, which can be fatal.
The researchers in the current study have identified a set of antibodies that are produced by the human immune system to fight off the dengue virus. Their research has also shown that these antibodies not only do a really lousy job of fighting off the virus, they may actually help the virus infect more cells.
The study suggests that when a person who has already been infected with one strain of dengue virus encounters a different strain, the antibodies awakened during the first infection spring into action again. However, rather than protecting the body from the second infection, the antibodies help the virus establish itself. The presence of these antibodies probably explains why a second infection of dengue with a different strain of the virus can be worse than the first infection.
Although we haven’t had an outbreak of dengue on Guam in many years, we still have the mosquito that carries it here as well as the mosquito that carries malaria. Which explains why I walk all around my property every month or so and upend anything that’s holding rainwater. This doesn’t necessarily endear me to the other people that live there, but it does mean that there are fewer mosquitoes around my house. It’s not a bad policy for everyone in the Marianas islands!
And now we come to my favorite story about one of my all time favorite things!
Researchers at Johns Hopkins have discovered that a compound in dark chocolate may protect the brain after a stroke by increasing cellular signals already known to shield nerve cells from damage.
Ninety minutes after feeding mice a single modest dose of epicatechin, a compound found naturally in dark chocolate, the scientists induced an ischemic stroke by essentially cutting off the blood supply to the animals’ brains. They found that the animals that had eaten the epicatechin suffered significantly less brain damage than the ones that had not been given the compound.
While most stroke treatments given to humans must be administered within a two- to three-hour time window to be effective, epicatechin limited further damage at least three and half hours after a stroke. If it was given six hours after a stroke, however, there was no protections.
The amount of dark chocolate you’d have to eat to benefit from its protective effects remains unclear, since the researchers didn’t use people in their clinical trials. They warn that you shouldn’t take this research as a license to go out and consume large amounts of chocolate, which is high in calories and fat.
Scientists have also been intrigued by the potential health benefits of epicatechin by studying the Kuna Indians, a remote population living on islands off the coast of Panama. The Kuna Indians have a low incidence of cardiovascular disease. Scientists who studied them found nothing striking in their genetic makeup. Then they realized that when they moved away from Kuna, they were no longer protected from heart problems. Researchers soon discovered the reason was likely environmental: The residents of Kuna regularly drank a very bitter cocoa drink, with a consistency like molasses, instead of coffee or soda. The drink was high in the compound epicatechin.
The researchers warn that the epicatechin found in dark chocolate is extremely sensitive to changes in heat and light and that most commercial processes of making chocolate destroy it. Only few chocolates have the active ingredient and the label ‘dark chocolate’ is no guarantee that the chocolate contains epicatechin.
Quite frankly, I don’t care. I LOVE dark chocolate and I’m going to keep right on eating it! if there’s the tiniest chance it’s actually good for me so much the better!
A compound in dark chocolate may protect the brain after a stroke by increasing cellular signals already known to shield nerve cells from damage, new research shows. (Credit: iStockphoto/Lasse Kristensen)
Cruise on over to the Deep Website at www.thedeepradioshow.com to learn more about eye diseases, drug research and chocoholics! Enjoy!
Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond.
Well, as I write this on a holiday, I’ve decided that what really needs attention is the miscellaneous file. You know, the one that you cram things into that just don’t fit elsewhere. So off we go to learn about the present by studying a miscellaneous past.
It is said that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure and although I doubt anyone ever says that about The Dump here on Guam, I could definitely be wrong. Archeologists absolutely adore ancient garbage heaps because the stuff that’s thrown into them tends to get covered over and preserved.
During the excavation of an 800-year-old trash dump in Lyon, France, scientists have discovered the archaeological equivalent of Manolo Blahnik shoes. They found a trove of leather shoe soles which not only tells us about shoe fashion 800 years ago but also helps the scientists understand how leather stays preserved in wet, oxygen-free environments. That knowledge could help restore other leather artifacts.
In their paper, Michel Bardet and his colleagues point out that leather is made from,collagen, a tough protein that can remain intact hundreds of thousands of years under ideal conditions. The French soles were buried in mud in the absence of oxygen — good conditions for preservation.
They did NMR studies to compare the composition of the ancient leather to modern leather. It turned out that tannin, which helps to preserve leather, had been washed out of the old soles and replaced by iron oxides. The iron oxides, which leached into the leather from surrounding soil, helped preserve the soles in the absence of tannins.
A leather sole recovered from an archaeological trash dump in Lyon, France. (Credit: Pierre Alain Bayle)
Now that we’ve walked a mile in some very old shoes, let’s have a listen to what they were marching to.
SOUNDS OF THE PAST
We were making pleasing noises before we were human. Even chimps drum on things and make other sounds. But only humans developed musical instruments to supplement their singing. Unfortunately, most musical instruments of the past have been lost. Scientists have discovered ancient bone flutes that they’ve actually played but slightly more modern instruments like the salpinx, the barbiton, the aulos,and the syrinx have been lost forever. Never heard them? Never heard of them? Neither had anyone else, for centuries. Until now.
Ancient instruments can be lost because they are too difficult to build, or too difficult to play, but they can be heard again thanks to the ASTRA (Ancient instruments Sound/Timbre Reconstruction Application) team. These researchers accomplish this feat using computer modeling and grid technology – the shared resources of a distributed network of hundreds of computers.
The ASTRA team has successfully reconstructed the sound of an instrument called the “epigonion,” and they’re working on many other lost instruments including the salpinx (a kind of ancient trumpet), the barbiton (an ancient bass guitar), the aulos (an ancient oboe) and the syrinx (a pan flute).
In many respects, ASTRA’s Lost Sounds Orchestra is like any other orchestra — with real musicians, rehearsals and performances — except its goal is to offer its audience a completely new world of music. The sounds of the barbiton and the salpinx are currently being finalized, while a guitar player is familiarizing himself with both the epigonion and the barbiton using his specially adapted electric MIDI guitar, which has been programmed with the lost sounds.
The sounds of even more instruments, such as an ancient lower Mediterranean frame drum, should be completed by the end of summer.
Ancient instruments can be lost because they are too difficult to build, or too difficult to play, but they can be heard again thanks to the ASTRA (Ancient instruments Sound/Timbre Reconstruction Application) team. (Credit: Image courtesy Luca Petrella)
OK, we’ve learned about ancient shoes and ancient music, now let’s venture into the world of books; specifically old books.
TELLING A GOOD BOOK BY ITS SMELL?
I love books. My mother worked in a library from the time I was six until I was sixteen and I’m afraid it marked me forever. I have a library of my very own now that contains almost 4,000 books and just going into my library is always the high point of my day.
I also love the smell of books and have recently discovered something interesting: scientists may not be able to tell a good book by its cover, but they now can tell the condition of an old book by its odor.
In a report published in the journal Analytical Chemistry, Matija Strlič and his colleagues describe development of a new test that measures the degradation of old books and valuable historic documents on the basis of their aroma. The non-destructive "sniff" test could help libraries and museums preserve a range of prized paper-based objects, some of which are degrading rapidly due to advancing age, the scientists say.
The researchers say that the well-known musty smell of an old book that evolves as readers leaf through the pages is the result of hundreds of different volatile organic compounds (VOCs) being released into the air from the paper.
“The aroma of an old book is familiar to every user of a traditional library,” the report notes. “A combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness, this unmistakable smell is as much a part of the book as its contents.”
The odor is the result of several hundred VOCs out-gassing from the paper and the object in general. The particular blend of compounds is unique to each book and is a result of a network of degradation pathways. It’s dependent on the original composition of the object including the paper, the ink, the glue that holds it together and other binding materials like tape.
Those substances hold clues to the paper’s condition, they say. Conventional methods for analyzing library and archival materials involve removing samples of the document and then testing them with traditional laboratory equipment. But this method damages the document.
The new technique analyzes the gases emitted by old books and documents without altering the documents themselves. The scientists used their instruments to "sniff" 72 historical papers from the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of the papers contained rosin (pine tar) and wood fiber. These substances cause the most rapid degradation of the paper found in old books. The scientists identified 15 VOCs that seem good candidates as markers to track the degradation of paper in order to optimize its preservation. The method could also be used to analyze other historic artifacts, they add.
Old books give off an unmistakable, musty odor. Scientists have developed a new test that can measure the condition of old books and precious historical documents on the basis of their aroma. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
OK, we’ve learned from old shoes, old musical instruments and old books. And for our last little tidbit, let’s discover that old paintings can tell us something surprising about ourselves.
LEARNING FROM PICTURES
OK, we all know that Guam and America in general is in the middle of the biggest obesity epidemic ever. Medical science tells us that we are fatter than we’ve ever been but they seem to also suggest that the current trend toward the gargantuan is something new.
Researchers at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab have recently discovered that this girth growth has been going on for a long time, like maybe 1,000 years. And how did they discover it? By examining paintings. More specifically, paintings that all address the same event. An event that always features food: The Last Supper. And they’ve discovered something interesting.
They analyzed more than fifty pictures of the Last Supper that were painted over the past 1,000 years and discovered that the sizes of the portions and the plates have gradually grown bigger and bigger. The finding suggests that the phenomenon of serving bigger portions on bigger plates which encourages people to overeat has occurred gradually over the last millennium.
The researchers took the 52 most famous paintings of the Last Supper (from the book Last Supper 2000) and analyzed the sizes of the entrees, bread and plates, relative to the average size of all the heads in each painting.
The study found that the size of the entrées in paintings of the Last Supper, which according to the New Testament occurred during a Passover evening, has grown by 69 percent. The plate size has increased by 66 percent over the last 1,000 years and bread size by about 23 percent.
The analysis was aided by computer-aided design technology that allowed items in the paintings to be scanned, rotated and calculated regardless of their orientation in the painting.
The team says that the last thousand years have witnessed dramatic increases in the production, availability, safety, abundance and affordability of food. Just as art imitates life, these changes have been reflected in paintings of history’s most famous dinner.
Jesus and his disciples at the last supper, a scene from the bible. Engraving from 1870 by Gustave Dore. (Credit: iStockphoto/Duncan Walker)
Jim is, above all, a passionate eco-humanitarian who has developed his own science talk-radio show to inform The DEEP’s listeners about such newsy topics as global warming, shark-finning and reef protection as well as to explore earth’s many underwater and space mysteries.
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