May 14, 2013 9:43 am
In Belize, they needed to build a road. Roads require rocks, there happened to be a really convenient, large pile of rocks for the construction team to use nearby. It also happened to be one of the largest Mayan pyramids in the country. Now that pyramid is gone, destroyed by bulldozers and backhoes.
The construction company building the road appears to have extracted crushed rocks from the pyramid to use as road fill. The pyramid, called the Nohmul complex, is at least 2,300 years old and sits on the border of Belize and Mexico. It’s over 100 feet tall, the largest pyramid in Belize left over from the Mayans.
Jaime Awe, the head of the Belize Institute of Archaeology said that the news was “like being punched in the stomach.” The pyramid was, he said, very clearly an ancient structure, so there’s no chance the team didn’t realize what they were doing. “These guys knew that this was an ancient structure. It’s just bloody laziness,” Awe told CBS News. He also said:
“Just to realize that the ancient Maya acquired all this building material to erect these buildings, using nothing more than stone tools and quarried the stone, and carried this material on their heads, using tump lines. To think that today we have modern equipment, that you can go and excavate in a quarry anywhere, but that this company would completely disregard that and completely destroyed this building. Why can’t these people just go and quarry somewhere that has no cultural significance? It’s mind-boggling.”
And it turns out that this is an ongoing problem in Belize. The country is littered with ruins (although none as large as Nohmul), and construction companies are constantly bulldozing them for road fill. An archaeologist at Boston University said that several other sites have already been destroyed by construction to use the rocks for building infrastructure. There isn’t much in the way of protection or management of these sites in Belize, so many people who live in the country either aren’t aware of their significance, or aren’t taught to care.
The Huffington Post has photographs from the scene, showing backhoes and bulldozers chipping away at the stone structure. HuffPo ends this story on a lighter note, pointing out that due to the destruction, archaeologists can now see the inner workings of the pyramid and the ways they were built.
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May 7, 2013 3:03 pm
For the first time in human history, later this month the world’s atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide will likely exceed 400 parts per million, according to a study conducted by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The researchers monitor CO2 concentrations from a station in Hawaii, and those levels usually peak in May. Right now, levels are teetering at 399 ppm. If they do not exceed 400 ppm this year, the researchers say, they almost certainly will next year.
In March 1958, when the first measurements of atmospheric CO2 were made, the northern hemisphere stood at 316 ppm. Researchers project that the pre-industrial atmosphere was around 280 ppm. For the past 800,000 years prior to the industrial revolution, Scripps points out, CO2 levels never exceeded 300 ppm. At this rate, however, we’re likely to hit 450 ppm within the next few decades. “With global emissions showing no sign of slowing, it may well be that within our lifetimes we look back on 400 ppm as a fond memory,” muses the Carbon Brief.
This landmark is more symbolically the scientifically significant, however. The International Herald Tribune points out:
While the milestone is arbitrary (why is hitting 400 parts per million more alarming than a measurement of 399?), scientists say it’s an important reminder of how the levels continue to rise.
Regardless of whether we’re at 390 or 400 ppm, the fact is that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are rising are projected to continue to do so. Some researchers and advocates hope that crossing the 400 ppm threshold will help kick politicians and the public into action since climate change is just as much a political issue as a scientific one these days. Responding to Climate Change writes:
Let us hope that reaching 400ppm can serve as a spark to ignite a new sense of urgency about climate change. Otherwise, in a few decades, we’ll lament our inaction when we hit 450ppm.
But there’s no guarantee or even hint that this latest development will cause significant ripples in policy, attitude or action. Indeed, the station in Hawaii that monitors CO2 levels is in danger of shutting down because of budget cuts and the perception that the research conducted there is not essential, reports Nature News. “It’s kind of silly that we chose to go all ostrich-like,” biogeochemist Jim White told Nature. “We don’t want to know how much CO is in the atmosphere, when we ought to be monitoring even more.”
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April 26, 2013 4:04 pm
In a letter to Congress, writes the Guardian, the White House stated that officials believe, with “varying amounts of confidence,” that the chemical weapon sarin was used in the ongoing conflict in Syria and that the use of this type of weapon “would very likely have originated with” supporters of Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian government. The link between the use of sarin and al-Assad is not completely firm, though, and the U.S. Intelligence community is looking for more proof of what’s really going on.
Sarin, wrote Smart News previously, is a nerve agent first developed in 1938 Germany. “A colourless, odourless gas with a lethal dose of just 0.5 mg for an adult human,” sarin, “can be spread as a gaseous vapor, or used to contaminate food. The CDC says that symptoms can arise within seconds, and can include, like VX, convulsions, loss of consciousness, paralysis, and death.” And according to a 2002 article from the New York Times, sarin “dissipates to nondeadly levels after a few hours.”
How exactly are investigators supposed to figure out what’s going on in Syria? According to the Guardian, the United Nations will carry out analyses of soil samples collected in Syria to try to figure out if sarin gas was used. But, says Wired‘s Danger Room, there is another way to check for sarin.
The U.S. military tests for evidence of nerve gas exposure by looking for the presence of the enzyme cholinesterase in red blood cells and in plasma. (Sarin messes with the enzyme, which in turn allows a key neurotransmitter to build up in the body, causing rather awful muscle spasms.) The less cholinesterase they find, they more likely there was a nerve gas hit.
The problem is, some pesticides will also depress cholinesterase. So the military employs a second test. When sarin binds to cholinesterase it loses a fluoride. The pesticides don’t do this. This other test exposes a blood sample to fluoride ions, which reconstitutes sarin if it’s there, in which case it can be detected with mass spectrometry.
Blood samples are drawn from a pricked finger tip into a 10 milliliter tube. They can be kept fresh for about a week before they have to be used in the blood analyzer, a gizmo about the size of a scientific calculator that produces varying shades of yellow depending on the cholinesterase level.
There is still a lot of uncertainty around this news, both about what happened and what, if anything, to do about it. At least there are relatively specific tests that can be done to sort out the first question.
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April 23, 2013 10:30 am
When she was three, Shakuntala Devi’s father noticed that she could memorize the numbers on cards and figure out card tricks. A trapeze artist, Devi’s father brought his daughter to the crowds to wow them with her amazing brain. By age six, Devi was calculating huge numbers in her head to impress visitors. But by the time she reached adulthood, Devi’s mental math would wow not just circus-goers, but computers and mathematicians all over the world.
In 1977, Devi faced off against a computer in a speed calculation race. She won twice. First, by calculating the cube root of 188,132,517. (It’s 573.) The second time, she beat the computer even more impressively. It took Devi 50 seconds to think of the 23rd root of a 201 digit number (91674867692003915809866092758538016248310668014430862240712651642793465704086709659 3279205767480806790022783016354924852380335745316935111903596577547340075681688305 620821016129132845564805780158806771, if you want to work it out for yourself in your head). The computer—a UNIVAC 1108—took a full thirty seconds longer. In 1980, she multiplied 7,686,369,774,870 by 2,465,099,745,779 in 28 seconds.
All this complex math earned Devi the nickname “human computer.” She left behind several books, including Figuring the Joy of Numbers, that teach her methods, but her techniques for simplifying math were never really picked up by mainstream schools. Her phenomenal calculation skills could also help her tell the day for any date in the last century, and Devi was, in her personal life, quite interested in dates. She doled out astrology predictions and wrote a book called Astrology for You. When asked where she got her human computer-like gifts, Devi answered “God’s gift. A divine quality.”
Devi passed away from respiratory problems at a hospital in Bangalore. She was 83.
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April 22, 2013 9:33 am
As George Carlin tells us, there are seven words you can’t say on television. Last week, David “Big Papi” Ortiz got away with saying one of them, and the Federal Communications Commission, normally quick to crack down on the slightest infringement, is letting him slide.
The day after the capture of Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the second suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings, the Boston Red Sox played a game against the Kansas City Royals. The game was emotional, the whole city swept up in both pride and exhaustion. And before the game, Big Papi gave an emotional speech. He said:
“This jersey, that we wear today, it doesn’t say ‘Red Sox.’ It says ‘Boston.’ We want to thank you Mayor Menino, Governor Patrick, the whole police department, for the great job that they did this past week. This is our f***ing city. And nobody’s going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong.”
Now, normally that little f-bomb is a fine of $325,000. And normally the FCC is quick to collect that hefty bill. Their own website says so. “The FCC vigorously enforces this law where we find violations, consistent with constitutional and statutory protections of broadcasters’ freedom of speech,” they write. But this time, they’re letting “Big Papi” slide. CNN reports:
While the FCC has pursued others for broadcast profanity — most notably, FOX Television Stations for expletives dropped during live awards shows in 2002 and 2003 — FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski gave Ortiz a free pass Saturday.
He tweeted: “David Ortiz spoke from the heart at today’s Red Sox game. I stand with Big Papi and the people of Boston – Julius.”
It probably won’t happen again though, so anyone else who wants to curse on national television should still be ready to fork over $325,000.
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