NONE SCI Science

Archaeologists find slave quarters of Sally Hemings at Monticello

Archaeologists have discovered the living quarters of Sally Hemings — the enslaved African American woman who bore six of Thomas Jefferson’s children — at Jefferson’s Monticello estate. The room, 13 feet long and just under 15 feet wide, was adjacent to Jefferson’s bedroom.

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and was the third president the United States.

“This discovery gives us a sense of how enslaved people were living,” said Gardiner Hallock, director of restoration for Monticello, in a report by NBC News. “Some of Sally’s children may have been born in this room.”

Historians hit on a possible location for Hemings’ living quarters by studying a description related by one of Jefferson’s grandsons, who said Hemings’ room was in Monticello’s south wing.

Monticello’s director of archaeology, Fraser Neiman, said digging revealed the original brick fireplace, hearth, and early 19th century floors.

“This room is a real connection to the past,” Neiman said. “We are uncovering and discovering and we’re finding many, many artifacts.”

Gayle Jessup White is Sally Hemings’ great-great-great-great niece and also works at Monticello’s Community Engagement Officer.

“As an African American descendant, I have mixed feelings — Thomas Jefferson was a slave holder,” White said, in the NBC News report. I am appreciative of the work that my colleagues are doing at Monticello because this is an important American story. But for too long our history has been ignored. Some people still don’t want to admit that the Civil War was fought over slavery. We need to face history head-on and face the blemish of slavery and that’s what we’re doing at Monticello.”

NONE SCI Science

5.7 million-year-old fossil footprints from Crete shake up theories of human evolution

Scientists working on the Greek island of Crete have found distinctly human-like footprints that are 5.7 million years old — a discovery that is challenging accepted theories of human evolution because they date back long before human ancestors are thought to have left Africa.

The footprints, found embedded in rock in an area called Trachilos in western Crete, show that the creature was bipedal, had five toes, and sported an especially human-like big toe that is similar to those of modern humans in size, shape, and position.

The research is published in the journal Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association.

“Human feet have a very distinctive shape, different from all other land animals,” wrote Uppsala University, in a statement. “The combination of a long sole, five short forward-pointing toes without claws, and a hallux (“big toe”) that is larger than the other toes, is unique.”

By contrast, the 3.7 million-year-old Laetoli footprints from Tanzania, believed to have been made by Australopithecus, lack arches and have narrower heels than modern humans, while the 4.4 million-year-old Ardipithecus ramidus from Ethiopia has a more ape-like foot.

“What makes this controversial is the age and location of the prints,” says co-author Prof. Per Ahlberg of Uppsala University, in the statement.

When the Trachilos footprints were made, during the late Miocene, Crete was still attached to the Greek mainland and savannah-like environments stretched from North Africa around the eastern Mediterranean.

“This discovery challenges the established narrative of early human evolution head-on and is likely to generate a lot of debate,” says Ahlberg. “Whether the human origins research community will accept fossil footprints as conclusive evidence of the presence of hominids in the Miocene of Crete remains to be seen.”


Rolling Stone settles lawsuit with university fraternity over debunked rape story

After three years, a fraternity associated with the University of Virginia has agreed to accept $1.65 million from Rolling Stone magazine in settlement of a defamation suit arising from the publication of a since-retracted story about an alleged gang-rape on campus, a report by ABC News said.

“The Virginia Alpha Chapter of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity has agreed to settle and dismiss its defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone and Sabrina Erdely arising from the magazine’s publication of the November, 2014 article A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA,” the fraternity said in a statement, as reported by ABC News. “It has been nearly three years since we and the entire University of Virginia community were shocked by the now infamous article, and we are pleased to be able to close the book on that trying ordeal and its aftermath.”

The retracted story, written by Sabrina Erdely, involved a young woman called “Jackie” who claimed to have been gang-raped UV’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity during her first year at school.

The fraternity has pledged that a substantial part of the settlement amount will go to organizations involved in preventing and treating sexual assault.

“The chapter looks forward to donating a significant portion of its settlement proceeds to organizations that provide sexual assault awareness education, prevention training and victim counseling services on college campuses,” the statement said.


Bee-harming pesticide detected in 75 percent of the world’s honey, study reports

A team of international researchers have found traces of neonicotinoid chemicals in honey samples taken from numerous bee populations across the world, according to a recent study in the journal Science.

The team detected the harmful chemicals in 75 percent of the samples looked at in the research honey samples taken from bees collected around the world. While the levels are far below anything that could be dangerous to humans, one third of the honey had levels that could harm bees.

Neonicotinoids are the world’s most widely used class of insecticides. The chemicals are popular because they can be added as a seed coating to crops, which then reduces the need for spraying. While many believe they are better for the environment than past products, they negatively affect certain pollinators.

This issue has troubled scientists for some time, especially because numerous studies have shown a strong connection between the pesticides and a decline in bee health.

To expand on that link, researchers in the study looked at the prevalence of neonicotinoids in 198 different honey samples taken from every continent except Antarctica. They found at least one chemical in 75 percent of the samples, and a mix of two or more neonicotinoids in 45 percent of the samples. Pesticide concentrations were the highest in North America, Asia, and Europe.

“Neonicotinoids are highly persistent in the environment, and frequently turn up in soils, water samples, and in wildflowers, so we would expect to find them in honey,” said Dave Goulson, a professor of biology at the University of Sussex who was not involved in the study, according to BBC News. “Entire landscapes all over the world are now permeated with highly potent neurotoxins, undoubtedly contributing to the global collapse of biodiversity. Some of us have been pointing this out for years, but few governments have listened.”

The findings are concerning because bees are crucial to many ecosystems around the world. They also help certain crops grow. Though the team could not distinguish between organic and other types of honey in their research, many still agree the study shows the danger of the chemicals. 

“The findings are alarming,” said Chris Connolly, a neurobiology expert at the University of Dundee who wrote a Perspective article alongside the new study, according to “The levels detected are sufficient to affect bee brain function and may hinder their ability to forage on, and pollinate, our crops and our native plants.”

Business TECH TECH_Technology

Ex-Google manager reveals the tricks to get us hooked to apps

Tech giants such as Google and Facebook are employing underhand tactics to get peoples’ brains hooked to smartphones.

The claims have been made by former Google product manager Tristan Harris, who says that tech companies using techniques borrowed from casinos to get people addicted to checking their phones.

According to Harris, the widespread phenomenon is known as ‘brain hacking’ by computer programmers.

He warned that the methods are “destroying our kids’ ability to focus.”

“They are shaping the thoughts and feelings and actions of people,” Harris told CBS News, adding that there is a whole playbook of techniques that are employed to get people to use their products as long as possible.

Harris said that notification streams on smartphones and apps such as Facebook are designed to excite the brain in a similar way to slot machines.

“Every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, ‘what did I get?’” Harris said, adding that this is one way used to hijack peoples’ minds and create a habit.

He said that this explains why apps allow users to collect rewards over time slowly.

For instance, social media app Twitter lets its users slowly build up followers, while Snapchat keeps a running score based on how much a person uses the app.

Harris revealed that competing companies are in a race ‘to the bottom of the brain stem’ to grab people’ attention and keep them glued to their phones.

He voiced his opinion that the tactics used by tech companies ‘are weakening our relationships to each other’ and ‘destroying our kids’ ability to focus.’


Global winter caused by asteroid impact doomed the dinosaurs

A team of scientists studying rock samples in the Gulf of Mexico is providing new evidence about exactly how the dinosaurs were killed off 66 million years ago when a massive asteroid about 10 kilometers wide crashed into Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

Researchers have debated the possible ways the Chicxulub impact could have wiped out most of Earth’s species, with some arguing that tsunamis in the aftermath of the explosion were the main culprit.

Now, researchers led by Professor Joanna Morgan at Imperial College London, make a good case that the specific gases released into the atmosphere by the asteroid impact created a long-lasting global winter that doomed two-thirds of Earth’s species.

The research is published in Geophysical Research Letters.

By analyzing minerals and shatter patterns in the ocean bedrock, the researchers were able to determine the direction taken by the asteroid and its impact speed. According to their calculations, the asteroid crashed into a shallow sea at a speed of about 64,000 kilometers per hour, creating a hole in the ocean floor some 30 kilometers deep.

But the key finding involved the type of rock with which the asteroid collided.

The scientists found that the Gulf of Mexico is covered with a mineral known as anhydrite that releases sulphur when heated. They concluded that gigantic clouds of sulphuric ash released by the Chicxulub asteroid blocked out the sun and produced a devastating global winter, causing many food chains to perish.

The large amount of sulphur-laden climatic gases indicate that “surface temperatures were likely to have been significantly reduced for several years and ocean temperatures affected for hundreds of years after the Chicxulub impact,” write the authors.


Climate change is harming human health

Climate change is triggering global events that are harmful to human health, according to new research published in The Lancet.

This discovery comes from a team of international researchers, who found their data by analyzing 40 indicators of climate and health. That revealed global warming drives heat waves, helps the spread of mosquito-borne diseases, and causes crops to fail.

Scientists estimate that roughly 125 million vulnerable people were annually exposed to heat waves from 2000 to 2016. Not only that, but labor productivity among farm workers has dipped by 5.3 percent since 2000, and warmer climates could make it easier for mosquitoes to spread dengue fever. The number of undernourished people in 30 countries across Africa and Asia also rose from 398 million in 1990 to 422 million in 2016.

Though the research did not estimate the total number of deaths from climate change, past studies conducted by the World Health Organization estimate that global warming will lead to roughly 250,000 deaths a year between 2030 and 2050. By better understanding the cause behind those deaths, scientists hope to curb climate change and work to save countless lives.

“Our contribution with thematic working group 1 on Climate Change, Impacts, Exposure and Vulnerability mainly evolves around more comprehensive ways to measure and track disaster lethality,” said study co-author Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson, a researcher at the University of Sussex, according to “We are in a way very fortunate to have spent plenty of time in the field, such as in Bangladesh and East and West Africa, talking to people who have faced environmental shocks through generations. This allows us to dig deeper to understand the processes and real life stories beneath current health statistics.”

The team also found that the air in 87 percent of all cities exceeded pollution guidelines set by the World Health Organization. They hope their report will spur efforts to limit pollution and help people realize the danger of unhealthy air.

“Air pollution is in a way an old issue,” said Johan Rockstrom, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre who was not involved in the study, according to Reuters. “But it’s potentially coming to the forefront again as the most rapid vehicle to get action on climate change.”


Humanity’s fear of spiders and snakes is genetic, study reports

Humans have an innate fear of dangerous animals — such as spiders and snakes — according to a new study in Frontiers In Psychology.

This research comes from a group of scientists from numerous European universities who found that spiders trigger a stress reaction in children as young as 6-months-old. That is important because most infants at that age cannot tell the difference between dangerous and safe objects. However, spiders and snakes triggered a definite emotional response.

Most researchers believe fear stems from social cues that develop at a young age. However, infants who have not been exposed to the world tell a different story.

“When we showed pictures of a snake or a spider to the babies instead of a flower or a fish of the same size and colour, they reacted with significantly bigger pupils,” said lead author Stefanie Hoehl, a researcher at the University of Vienna, in a statement.

In addition, researchers also noted German citizens, despite having only two poisonous snakes and no deadly spiders in their country, are scared of snakes and spiders. As a result, it is likely the fear is inherent rather than learned. The team in the study believes that adaptation is similar to how primates have an evolutionary response to dangerous animals.

While researchers are not sure, they believe the fear looked at in the study originates in parents and then is passed down through generations. Nobody likes to be scared, but being able to recognize dangerous objects helps people better recognize and avoid dangerous hazards.

“We assume that the reason for this particular reaction upon seeing spiders and snakes is due to the coexistence of these potentially dangerous animals with humans and their ancestors for more than 40 to 60 million years — and therefore much longer than with today’s dangerous mammals,” added Hoehl, according to International Business Times.

This evolutionary adaptation can also be applied to man-made items as well. Objects like knives or syringes can lead to inherent fear because, after generations of injury, a response can be built into the brain.


Flying insect populations have plummeted in recent decades

Insect populations in Germany’s protected preserves have dramatically declined over the past 30 years, according to new research in the journal PLOS ONE.

This discovery comes from a group of European researchers who found that between 1989 and 2016 the biomass of flying insects declined by 75 percent across 63 nature reserves. In the past, most of the attention has focused on the decline of pollinators like bees and butterflies. However, the new study shows the problem may affect more species than previously thought.

“The fact that flying insects are decreasing at such a high rate in such a large area is an even more alarming discovery,” said study co-author Hans de Kroon, researcher at Radboud University in the Netherlands, in a statement.

Scientists first began collecting insects in traps — known as malaise traps — back in 1989. Since then, the devices have enabled teams to measure the total insect biomass. As the study reveals, less and less insects have been captured over time.

The decline of insect biomass during midsummer peaked at 82 percent, showing that drop-off during that time of the year is much more severe than average decline. While such shifts can be the result of weather variability, climate changes cannot account for the sharp decline noted in the research.

The team is not sure of the reason behind the decline, but they do note that over 63 of the preserves looked at in the study are surrounded by agricultural lands. Those areas — which are harmful to many insect species — could act as an “ecological trap” that hurt the insects inside the preserves.

Though the research took place in Germany, the team believes the findings are indicative of much larger trends. They hope the findings will encourage policy makers to take a closer look at global insect populations and create preserves that are not so close to agricultural land.

“As entire ecosystems are dependent on insects for food and as pollinators, it places the decline of insect eating birds and mammals in a new context,” added Kroon, according to UPI. “We can barely imagine what would happen if this downward trend continues unabated.”


Antarctic penguin die-off is one of the largest on record

A catastrophic event in Antarctica has left a large number of Adélie penguins dead, with only two chicks out of 40,000 birds surviving the disaster.

Researchers backed by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature made this discovery while studying Adélie penguin chicks on the continent’s coast. They found that almost all of the chicks starved to death as a result of “unusually extensive sea ice” that made normal food supplies hard to find.

“Adélie penguins are one of the hardiest and most amazing animals on our planet,” said Rod Downie, Head of Polar Programmes at the World Wildlife Fund, in a statement. “This devastating event contrasts with the image that many people might have of penguins. It’s more like ‘Tarantino does Happy Feet’, with dead penguin chicks strewn across a beach in Adélie Land.”

As brutal as the die-off is, this is the not the first time such an event has occurred. Four years ago, unusual environmental conditions disrupted the penguin’s breeding activity. That caused no chicks to survive the 2013-2014 breeding season, and temporarily crippled populations.

Environmental groups are worried about the recent die-off for numerous reasons, but the biggest is that new proposals could open the area up to krill fisheries. If that happens, it could further deplete the bird’s food source and make the situation even worse.

To discuss such methods, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) will meet in Hobart, Australia next week. There, they will look at ideas to protect local penguins and keep the area away from the fishing industry. Such proposals may also help create a safe spot where penguin breeding can take place.

“The region is impacted by environmental changes that are linked to the breakup of the Mertz glacier since 2010,” said Yan Ropert-Coudert, lead researcher on the Adélie penguin program at France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), according to Gears of Biz. “An MPA will not remedy these changes but it could prevent further impacts that direct anthropogenic pressures, such as tourism and proposed fisheries, could bring.”