Fossils discovered in Morocco are the oldest known remains of Homo sapiens, scientists reported, a finding that rewrites the story of mankind’s origins and suggests that our species evolved in multiple locations across the African continent.
Until now, the oldest known fossils of our species dated back just 195,000 years. The Moroccan fossils, by contrast, are roughly 300,000 years old.
Remarkably, they indicate that early Homo sapiens had faces much like our own, although their brains differed in fundamental ways.
Today, the closest living relatives to Homo sapiens are chimpanzees and bonobos, with whom we share a common ancestor that lived over six million years ago.
There’s something strange about the five newly discovered snakes in Ecuador: Unlike most snakes that dine on rats, lizards and other small animals, these slithery reptiles eat snails.
And that’s pretty much all these snakes can eat. There are now 75 known species of snail-eaters, according to a new study on the reptiles.
“The jaws of these snakes are modified so much that they cannot eat anything that isn’t a snail or a slug,” said lead study author Alejandro Arteaga, a doctoral student with the American Museum of National History in New York.
“Sometimes, you can see [one] hanging from vegetation with a snail in its mouth,” he said.
Indeed, snail-eating snakes have a jawline that has evolved to slurp the snail right out of its shell — but the snakes do this without suction (in other words, it’s not the way we slurp oysters from a shell).
To extract their escargot, the snakes push their lower jaws into the shell and grasp the flesh of the slimy critter with their curved teeth.
Once the snakes have a firm grasp, they pull the prey out without crushing the shell — a process that usually takes a few minutes.
This snail-slurping “is an interesting adaptation,” Arteaga told Live Science. Because not many snakes feed on these snails, the predators don’t have much competition for food, he added.
But the snakes have other things to worry about.
Arteaga and his team are proposing that three of the five species should be listed as “vulnerable” under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species and that one should be listed as endangered.
“Four of them are facing the possibility of extinction. Only one is safe,” Arteaga said.
The reason? A lack of cover for the snakes to hide in.
In western Ecuador, “only 2 percent of the original vegetation cover remains,” Arteaga said. The rest of the forest cover and vegetation was destroyed by activities like logging and clearing land for cattle farming and human settlement.
Ultimately, there’s “not really much forest left,” Arteaga said, and that’s not good for the snakes, who need forest cover, vegetation, moisture and nearby streams to survive. “They cannot survive in open cattle ranch [or] grassland.”
Arteaga and his team recently held an auction for the “naming rights” to the snakes.
With the money from that auction, the researchers will purchase a 178-acre (72 hectares) plot of currently unprotected land where some of these snakes live and thereby expand the Buenaventura Reserve in Ecuador.
MIT has given a computer x-ray vision, but it didn’t need x-rays to do it. The system, known as RF-Pose, uses a neural network and radio signals to track people through an environment and generate wireframe models in real time.
It doesn’t even need to have a direct line of sight to know how someone is walking, sitting, or waving their arms on the other side of a wall.
Neural networks have shown up in a lot of research lately when researchers need to create a better speech synthesis model, smarter computer vision, or an AI psychopath.
To train a neural network to do any of these things, you need an extensive data set of pre-labeled items.
That usually means using humans to do the labeling, which is simple enough when you’re trying to make an AI that can identify images of cats.
RF-Pose is based on radio waves, and those are much harder for humans to label in a way that makes sense to computers.
The MIT researchers decided to collect examples of people walking with both wireless signal pings and cameras.
The camera footage was processed to generate stick figures in place of the people, and the team matched that data up with the radio waves.
That combined data is what researchers used to train the neural network. With a strong association between the stick figures and RF data, the system is able to create stick figures based on radio wave reflections.
Interestingly, the camera can’t see through walls. So, the system was never explicitly trained in identifying people on the other side of a barrier.
It just works because the radio waves bounce off a person on the other side of a wall just like they do in the same room. This even works with multiple people crossing paths.
The team noted that all subjects in the study consented to have their movements tracked by the AI.
In the real world, there are clear privacy implications. It’s possible a future version of the technology could be configured only to track someone after they perform a specific movement to activate the system and “opt-in.”
As for applications, it’s not just about spying on you through walls. The MIT team suggests RF-Pose could be of use in the medical field where it could track and analyze the way patients with muscle and nerve disorders get around.
It could also enable motion capture in video games — like Kinect but good.
Last week, the US Department of Energy and IBM unveiled Summit, America’s latest supercomputer, which is expected to bring the title of the world’s most powerful computer back to America from China, which currently holds the mantle with its Sunway TaihuLight supercomputer.
With a peak performance of 200 petaflops, or 200,000 trillion calculations per second, Summit more than doubles the top speeds of TaihuLight, which can reach 93 petaflops.
Summit is also capable of over 3 billion billion mixed precision calculations per second, or 3.3 exaops, and more than 10 petabytes of memory, which has allowed researchers to run the world’s first exascale scientific calculation.
The $200 million supercomputer is an IBM AC922 system utilizing 4,608 compute servers containing two 22-core IBM Power9 processors and six Nvidia Tesla V100 graphics processing unit accelerators each.
Summit is also (relatively) energy-efficient, drawing just 13 megawatts of power, compared to the 15 megawatts TaihuLight pulls in.
Top500, the organization that ranks supercomputers around the world, is expected to place Summit atop its list when it releases its new rankings later this month.
Once it does — with these specs — Summit should remain the king of supercomputers for the immediate future.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory — the birthplace of the Manhattan Project — is also home to Titan, another supercomputer that was once the fastest in the world and now holds the title for fifth fastest supercomputer in the world.
Taking up 5,600 square-feet of floor space and weighing in at over 340 tons — which is more than a commercial aircraft — Summit is a truly massive system that would easily fill two tennis courts.
Summit will allow researchers to apply machine learning to areas like high-energy physics and human health, according to ORNL.
“Summit’s AI-optimized hardware also gives researchers an incredible platform for analyzing massive datasets and creating intelligent software to accelerate the pace of discovery,” Jeff Nichols, ORNL associate laboratory director for computing and computational sciences, said.
The system is connected by 185 miles of fiber-optic cables and can store 250 petabytes of data, which is equal to 74 years of HD video.
To keep Summit from overheating, more than 4,000 gallons of water are pumped through the system every minute, carrying away nearly 13 megawatts of heat from the system.
While Summit may be the fastest supercomputer in the world, for now, it is expected to be passed by Frontier, a new supercomputer slated to be delivered to ORNL in 2021 with an expected peak performance of 1 exaflop, or 1,000 petaflops.
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The study, conducted by a Franco-Swiss collaboration involving the laboratories Biogéosciences (Université de Bourgogne / CNRS), Paléoenvironnements & Paléobiosphère (Université Claude Bernard / CNRS) and the Universities of Zurich and Lausanne (Switzerland), appears in the August 28 issue of Science.
The history of life on Earth has been punctuated by a number of mass extinctions, brief periods of extreme loss of biodiversity. These extinctions are followed by phases during which surviving species recover and diversify.
The End-Permian extinction, which took place between the Permian (299 – 252.6 MY) and Triassic (252.6 – 201.6 MY), is the greatest mass extinction on record, resulting in the loss of 90% of existing species.
It is associated with intensive volcanic activity in China and Siberia. It marks the boundary between the Paleozoic and Mesozoic Eras.
Until now, studies had shown that the biosphere took between 10 and 30 million years to recover the levels of biodiversity seen before the extinction.
Ammonoids are cephalopod swimmers related the nautilus and squid. They had a shell, and disappeared from the oceans at the same time as the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago, after being a major part of marine fauna for 400 MY.
The Franco-Swiss team of paleontologists has shown that ammonoids needed only one million years after the End-Permian extinction to diversify to the same levels as before.
The cephalopods, which were abundant during the Permian, narrowly missed being eradicated during the extinction: only two or three species survived and a single species seems to have been the basis for the extraordinary diversification of the group after the extinction.
It took researchers seven years to gather new fossils and analyze databases in order to determine the rate of diversification of the ammonoids.
In all, 860 genera from 77 regions around the world were recorded at 25 successive time intervals from the Late Carboniferous to the Late Triassic, a period of over 100 million years.
The discovery of this explosive growth over a million years takes a heated debate in a new direction.
Indeed, it suggests that earlier estimates for the End-Permian extinction were based on truncated data and imprecise or incorrect dating.
Furthermore, the duration for estimated recovery after other lesser extinctions all vary between 5 and 15 million years.
The result obtained here suggests that these estimates should probably be revised downwards.
The biosphere is most likely headed towards a sixth mass extinction, and this discovery reminds us that the recovery of existing species after an extinction is a very long process, taking several tens of thousands of human generations at the very least.
First, Bill Faloon gives a shoutout to Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine. “We need to put a pedestal up for him,” Faloon argues.
He moves on to slides about Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov, a 19th-century Russian librarian who believed that man’s common task is to bring the dead back to life and unite all of humanity; he is the “prophet” of the church.
Faloon then tells the crowd that “cellular senescence,” when mature cells stop reproducing, is the root cause of physical aging. If scientists could only prevent this, people could stay young forever.
“I never accepted death as being inevitable,” Faloon says in a business-like tone. “Technology will advance to the point where death is rather optional.”
The pews are sprinkled with about 60 people: middle-aged women, friends from a libertarian meetup group, and gray-haired couples intrigued by an ad for the church that had run in the obituary section of the daily paper.
Cameramen from Vice News duck down in the aisles, filming Faloon for an episode that’s likely to air in the fall.
Faloon’s family is here: his lanky 18- and 20-year-old sons as well as his blond wife, Debra, who is 58 but looks downright girlish in high heels and a floral dress, a hot-pink flower in her hair.
In 2013, Faloon and his longtime business partner, Saul Kent, bought, for $880,000, this building just north of downtown Hollywood that had formerly housed a Baptist congregation.
They founded the Church of Perpetual Life, which hosts once-a-month meetings with a guest speaker and a social hour.
Establishing the church is just the latest bold step in the duo’s lifelong mission of trying to extend human lifespans.
Faloon and Kent are controversial figures in a controversial field. The so-called “immortalist” movement encompasses strategies of “life extension,” from taking vitamins to receiving organ transplants.
It also includes cryonics, the idea that corpses can be cooled to extremely low temperatures and someday, somehow, be returned to life.
For their work, Faloon and Kent have been both hailed as visionaries and derided as snake-oil salesmen. They’ve been raided by the feds and thrown in jail for importing unapproved drugs.
They’ve bankrolled a slew of curious cryonics projects, from the freezing of dogs to experiments in an underground house.
Kent even had his own mother’s head detached and cryopreserved, then had to fend off a murder investigation. Now, they’re battling the IRS over the foundation’s tax-exempt status.
None of this seems to bother Faloon much. A huge round of investment from the global 1 percent is now bringing immortalist ideas out of the realm of science fiction.
Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal; Martine Rothblatt, founder of Sirius Radio; and Sergey Brin, CEO of Google, are just a few of the ultrarich who have recently begun to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into life-extension endeavors.
Death, they are betting, is a scientific problem that can be solved.
Next time you’re stuck in a thunderstorm, try this easy way to calculate how far away you are from lightning strikes.
Just count the number of seconds that pass between a flash of lightning and the crack of thunder that follows it, then divide that number by five.
The resulting number will tell you how many miles away you are from where lightning just struck.
Five seconds, for example, indicates the lightning struck 1 mile away, and a 10-second gap means the lightning was 2 miles away.
This technique is called the “flash-to-bang” method, and it can keep you safe during rainy summer weather.
The National Weather Service recommends taking cover if the time between the lightning flash and the rumble of thunder is 30 seconds or less, which indicates the lightning is about 6 miles away or closer.
This method is based on the fact that light travels much faster than sound through the atmosphere: Light travels at 186,291 miles per second (299,800 km/s), whereas the speed of sound is only about 1,088 feet per second (332 meters per second), depending on air temperature.
For metric-system conversions, follow this method: Sound travels at about 340 m/s, so multiply the number of seconds you counted by 340, and you’ll know how many meters away lightning struck.
A three-second count, then, would place the lightning strike about 1,020 m away, or roughly 1 km.
Zero, zilch, nothing, is a pretty hard concept to understand. Children generally can’t grasp it until kindergarten. And it’s a concept that may not be innate but rather learned through culture and education.
Throughout human history, civilizations have had varying representations for it. Yet our closest animal relative, the chimpanzee, can understand it.
And now researchers in Australia writing in the journal Science say the humble honey bee can be taught to understand that zero is less than one.
The result is kind of astounding, considering how tiny bee brains are. Humans have around 100 billion neurons. The bee brain? Fewer than 1 million.
The findings suggest that the ability to fathom zero may be more widespread than previously thought in the animal kingdom — something that evolved long ago and in more branches of life.
It’s also possible that in deconstructing how the bees compute numbers, we could make better, more efficient computers one day.
Our computers are electricity-guzzling machines. The bee, however, “is doing fairly high-level cognitive tasks with a tiny drop of nectar,” says Adrian Dyer, a Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology researcher and co-author on the study.
“Their brains are probably processing information in a very clever [i.e., efficient] way.”
But before we can deconstruct the bee brain, we need to know that it can do the complex math in the first place.
How to teach a bee the concept of zero
Bees are fantastic learners. They spend hours foraging for nectar in among flowers, can remember where the juiciest flowers are, and even have a form of communication to inform their hive mates of where food is to be found.
Researchers train bees like they train many animals: with food. “You have a drop of sucrose associated with a color or a shape, and they will learn to reliably go back to” that color or shape, Dyer explains.
With this simple process, you can start teaching bees rules. In this case, the researchers wanted to teach 10 bees the basic rules of arithmetic.
So they put out a series of sheets of paper that had differing numbers of objects printed on them. Using sugar as a reward, the researchers taught the bees to always fly to the sheet that had the fewest objects printed on it.
Once the bees learned this rule, they could reliably figure out that two shapes are less than four shapes, that one shape is smaller than three. And they’d keep doing this even when a sugary reward was not waiting for them.
And then came the challenge: What happens when a sheet with no objects at all was presented to the bees? Would they understand that a blank sheet — which represented the concept of zero in this experiment — was less than three, less than one?
Humans have had such a dramatic impact on Earth that some scientists say we’ve kickstarted a new geological era known as the Anthropocene.
A fascinating new paper theorizes that alien civilizations could do the same thing, reshaping their homeworlds in predictable and potentially detectable ways.
The authors are proposing a new classification scheme that measures the degree to which planets been modified by intelligent hosts.
Whenever a distant exoplanet is discovered, astronomers categorize it according to its most obvious physical features and orbital characteristics.
Examples include hot-Jupiters, Earth-like terrestrial planets, and brown dwarfs.
With ongoing advances in telescope technology, the day is coming when astronomers will be able to expand on these simple characterizations, classifying a planet according to other features, including atmospheric or chemical composition.
But as a new study led by University of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank points out, we may eventually be able to place exoplanets within an astrobiological context, too.
In addition to taking the usual physical measures into account, Frank and his colleagues are proposing that astronomers take the influence of a hypothetical planet’s biosphere into account—including the impacts of an advanced extraterrestrial civilization.
Frank’s hypothetical planets, ranked from Class I through to Class V, range from dead, rocky worlds through to planets in which a host intelligence has solved the problems caused by its own existence, like excessive use of resources and climate change.
Moreover, as Frank explained, this paper presents more than just a planetary classification scheme—it’s a potential roadmap to an environmentally viable future.
If we discover signs of an advanced alien civilization—and that’s a big if—we may learn a thing or two about how we might be able to survive into the far future.
Indeed, we’re at a critical juncture in our history, one in which we’re crafting the planet according to our will—and so far, we’re not doing a very good job of it.
There’s ongoing debate as to whether or not our planet has crossed into the Anthropocene epoch, a new geologic chapter in which we’ve become the primary driver of planetary change.
Some scientists point to the fact that half of the planet’s land surface has been claimed for human use, or that Earth’s biogeochemical cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus have been radically altered on account of agriculture and fertilizer use, as evidence that we have.
While the technical debate over what constitutes evidence of a geologic shift continues, it’s clear humanity is altering Earth in some rather profound ways.
So much so, says Frank, that we need to place our planet, and the Anthropocene itself, within an astrobiological context. What’s happening here on Earth, says Frank, is likely happening elsewhere in the Galaxy.
Though we may be inclined to think that our situation is somehow special or unique, we have no good reason to believe that’s really the case.