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Cosmic Science

‘Tomorrow War’ adds time travel twist to today’s problems

As far as we know, we won’t be facing an alien uprising in 2051 — but there are plenty of catastrophes that could be hitting with full force by then, ranging from the wildfires, droughts and floods associated with climate change to super-pandemics and food and water shortages.

In that context, the aliens of “The Tomorrow War” — a sci-fi movie making its debut today on Amazon Prime — serve as stand-ins for the perils we could well bring upon ourselves over the next three decades.

“The Tomorrow War,” starring Chris Pratt, calls to mind earlier time-twisting movies including “Edge of Tomorrow” (the Tom Cruise alien-battle flick) and “It’s a Wonderful Life” (watch for Pratt’s “heehaw” greeting, which was used in the Jimmy Stewart classic as well).

This time, the time travel trope includes a setup in which unsuspecting present-day citizens are drafted to fight future-day aliens as unrelenting as the bug-eyed monsters of “Starship Troopers.”

“I wanted to do something with the idea of conscription, the draft, for a long time. The idea of not having it be about necessarily an ideology, or patriotism, or loyalty to your country, but being about literally your desire to save your own kids,” screenwriter Zach Dean said during a pre-premiere press conference. “Who doesn’t sign up for that?”

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Cosmic Science

‘Dragon Man’ sparks debate over ancient human species

It’s time to add a new name to the list of ancient human species discovered in the fossil record — or is it?

The latest contender is a species dubbed Homo longi, created on the basis of a skull that was discovered in northern China in the 1930s, hidden for decades, and finally analyzed for a trio of research papers in The Innovation, an open-access journal published by Cell Press.

The almost perfectly preserved fossil is the largest skull ever found representing the genus that includes modern humans (Homo sapiens). Based on the skull’s morphology and geochemical dating techniques, researchers say it’s most likely to have come from a male who was about 50 years old when he died 146,000 years ago.

Researchers at Hebei GEO University have nicknamed the ancient individual “Dragon Man” in recognition of its Chinese origins. The species’ scientific name plays off the Chinese word for dragon (“long”) and the region around Harbin City where the fossil was found — Heilongjiang (“Black Dragon River”) province.

The skull could hold a brain comparable in size to ours, but had larger, almost square eye sockets, thick brow ridges, a wide mouth and oversized teeth. “While it shows typical archaic human features, the Harbin cranium presents a mosaic combination of primitive and derived characters setting itself apart from all the other previously named Homo species,” study author Qiang Ji, a paleontologist at Hebei GEO University, said in a news release.

Ji and his colleagues say the skull’s peculiarities justify its status as a species that’s distinct from Neanderthals and Denisovans and other extinct human ancestors. They even claim that Homo longi is more similar to humans of the Pleistocene era than those others.

“It is widely believed that the Neanderthal belongs to an extinct lineage that is the closest relative of our own species,” said study author Xijun Ni, a professor of primatology and paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Hebei GEO University. “However, our discovery suggests that the new lineage we identified that includes Homo longi is the actual sister group of H. sapiens.”

There’s some question about Dragon Man’s status, however.

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Cosmic Science

Supersonic flight and suborbital science feel the boom

Boom Supersonic attracts a big-name customer, Virgin Galactic signs up another researcher for a suborbital spaceflight, and new questions are raised about NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Get the details on the Web:

United boosts Boom Supersonic

United Airlines says it’s agreed to buy 15 of Boom Supersonic’s faster-than-sound jets once they come onto the market. Colorado-based Boom is gearing up to start flight testing for a subscale prototype of its Overture jet, known as the XB-1. Those tests are slated to open the way for the Overture’s rollout in 2025, first flight in 2026 and the start of commercial air service at speeds of up to Mach 1.7 by 2029. That could cut Seattle-to-Tokyo travel time from 8.5 hours to 4.5 hours.

The deal makes United the first U.S. airline to sign a purchase agreement with Boom, providing a significant boost to the startup. Boom says it now has purchase agreements and options for 70 Overture jets in its order book. But wait, there’s more: The jets will be designed to use a type of sustainable aviation fuel that’s meant to allow for flight operations with net-zero carbon emissions.

Virgin Galactic signs up science star

Virgin Galactic is reserving a suborbital spaceflight on VSS Unity, its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, for bioastronautics researcher Kellie Gerardi. During her flight, the timing of which hasn’t yet been set, Gerardi will support a bio-monitoring experiment drawn up by Carré Technologies Inc. (Hexoskin) with the support of the Canadian Space Agency, as well as a free-floating fluid configuration experiment.

Gerardi, who’s affiliated with the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences, is also known for TikTok videos and Instagram postings that explore the intersection of her career and her personal life. She joins planetary scientist Alan Stern in holding a reservation for a dedicated research flight on Virgin Galactic. Last month, the company conducted its first 50-mile-high, rocket-powered flight test from its home base at Spaceport America in New Mexico. Commercial service could begin within the coming year.

The latest buzz on the Webb Telescope

NASA is fine-tuning the schedule for this year’s launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, widely seen as the successor to the 21-year-old Hubble Space Telescope. The space agency had been targeting Oct. 31 for launch of the $10 billion observatory from French Guiana, using a European Ariane 5 rocket. But logistical complications are leading NASA to look at launch dates in November or early December.

Another complication has to do with the telescope’s name: NASA’s Paul Hertz is reported as saying at this week’s meeting of a space science advisory committee that the space agency is reviewing the historical record surrounding James Webb, the late NASA administrator after whom the telescope is named. A petition circulating among astronomers has called for a new name because of claims that Webb acquiesced to homophobic policies during the 1950s and 1960s.

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Cosmic Science

Muon mystery, MindPong and a lost city revealed

Egyptian archaeologists unearth a 3,000-year-old lost city, magnetic readings from muons could lead to new physics, and Elon Musk’s Neuralink venture has monkeys playing video games with neural impulses. Get the details on the Web:

‘Lost Golden City’ found in Luxor

Egypt’s best-known archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, announced today that the long-lost ruins of a 3,000-year-old city have been found in Luxor. The sprawling settlement dates to the reign of Amenhotep III and his son, Akhenaten. Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities says it continued to be used by Tutankhamun and his successor, King Ay.

The city was at one time called “The Rise of Aten,” reflecting the religious shift brought about by Akhenaten. Today it’s being called the “Lost Golden City.” During the past seven months of excavation, several neighborhoods have been uncovered, but the administrative and residential district hasn’t yet been brought forth from the sands. “The discovery of this lost city is the second most important archaeological discovery since the tomb of Tutankhamun,” said Betsy Bryan, an Egyptologist at Johns Hopkins University.

Previously: ‘Lost cities’ teach lessons for future cities

Muon anomaly sparks deep questions

Anomalous results from a Fermilab experiment have added to the suspicion that scientists have finally found a flaw in one of their most successful theories, the Standard Model of particle physics. The anomalies have to do with the strength of the magnetic field for a weightier cousin of the electron, known as the muon. Data from Fermilab’s Muon g-2 experiment supported previous findings from Brookhaven National Laboratory that the muon’s magnetism is ever-so-slightly stronger than predicted by the Standard Model — just 2.5 parts per billion stronger.

If the results hold up, physicists might have to consider far-out explanations — for example, the existence of scads of particles that haven’t yet been detected, or a totally new take on the foundations of physics. But the findings will require further confirmation. Grand discoveries, like 2012’s detection of the Higgs boson, typically have to be confirmed to a confidence level of 5-sigma. Now the muon findings have hit 4.2-sigma — which doubters would say is still substandard.

Previously: Could the God Equation be our ultimate salvation?

Elon Musk touts mind control

Neuralink, the brain-implant venture funded by tech billionaire Elon Musk, is showing off an AI system that lets a macaque monkey play a game of Pong with its mind alone. Researchers monitored the monkey’s neural impulses as it operated a joystick to play the game, and then correlated the firing patterns of the neurons with the gameplay. Eventually, the brain-monitoring system eliminated the need for the monkey to use the joystick at all.

In a Twitter exchange, Musk said human trials of the mind-reading system would begin, “hopefully, later this year.” He said Neuralink’s first brain-implant product would enable someone with paralysis to use a smartphone with their mind faster than someone using thumbs. “Later versions will be able to shunt signals from Neuralinks in brain to Neuralinks in body motor/sensory neuron clusters, thus enabling, for example, paraplegics to walk again,” Musk tweeted.

Previously: ‘Three Little Pigs’ demonstrate Neuralink’s brain implant

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Cosmic Science

Sexy Roman chariot emerges from Pompeii’s ashes

Italy’s Pompeii archaeological site has yielded up yet another treasure revealing how the good life was lived in ancient Rome: a four-wheeled chariot that was designed for use during sexy ceremonies.

The intact artifact was unearthed over the past month from a field of ash laid down in the year 79 during the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Nearby, excavators previously found the ash-preserved remains of three horses — including one horse that died in its harness.

Massimo Osanna, outgoing director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, suggested that the chariot served a function analogous to modern-day limousines. It’s styled as a type of ceremonial chariot known as a pilentum, and was decorated with bronze and tin medallions depicting men, women and winged Cupids in erotic scenes.

“The scenes on the medallions which embellish the rear of the chariot refer to Eros … while the numerous studs feature Erotes,” Osanna said in a news release. “Considering that the ancient sources allude to the use of the pilentum by priestesses and ladies, one cannot exclude the possibility that this could have been a chariot used for rituals relating to marriage, for leading the bride to her new household.”

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Cosmic Science

Listen to a 17,000-year-old conch shell horn

A sliding musical scale from a conch shell horn that hasn’t been played for 17,000 years, signs that Stonehenge was built with recycled rocks, and the world’s oldest known industrial-scale beer brewery: Here’s your daily dose of science on the Web…

Paleolithic horn blares again: What’s thought to be the world’s oldest known conch shell horn can play three notes: C, C-sharp and D.

The 17,000-year-old conch shell was discovered 90 years ago in the cave of Marsoulas, nestled in the foothills of the French Pyrenees. For decades, archaeologists assumed that it was used as a ceremonial drinking cup. But a team led by Carole Fritz, the head of research at France’s Prehistoric Art Research Center, took a closer look and saw signs that the shell had been modified to install a mouthpiece and was shaped to optimize its ability to play musical notes.

In the open-access journal Science Advances, the researchers recount how they recruited a musicologist and a horn player to re-fit the shell with a suitable mouthpiece and produce three different notes.

Sorbonne University archaeologist Philippe Walter told The Guardian that the notes would have reverberated impressively during Paleolithic rituals in the decorated cave. “The power of the sounds produced by the shell is incredible,” he said. “It is more than 100 decibels.”

Want to hear more music played on arguably ancient instruments? Listen to Boston University biologist (and flutist) Jelle Atema play a flute carved from a 4,000-year-old vulture bone, a deer-bone flute that’s thought to date back 30,000 years, and a replica of a 50,000-year-old bear-bone flute that might have been made by Neanderthals.

Stonehenge rocks traced to older ceremonial circle in Wales: Some of the stones that formed the ceremonial circle at Stonehenge were transported hundreds of miles from a similar stone circle in Wales that was built centuries earlier — but then dismantled.

That’s the conclusion of archaeologists who reported their findings last weekend in the journal Antiquity.

Researchers have known for a while that Stonehenge’s slabs of bluestone were quarried in Wales more than 5,000 years ago, but there was an unresolved mystery: Radiocarbon dating suggested that 300 to 400 years passed between the time the stones were quarried and the time they were placed at Stonehenge. What could explain the gap?

Excavation of a Welsh site known as Waun Maun turned up a plausible explanation: Stonehenge’s slabs were a perfect fit for the socket-shaped pits that were left behind at Waun Maun, suggesting that the region’s ancient inhabitants pulled out the stones and carried them to Salisbury Plain during a mass migration.

Four stones that were left behind at Waun Maun helped archaeologists reconstruct the 360-foot-wide circle traced by Waun Maun’s empty sockets — a circle that matched the dimensions of a circular trench that was part of Stonehenge’s original layout.

“There was great excitement, but I think also blessed relief,” University College London archaeologist Michael Parker Pearson told ITV News, “because this had been a real labor of love, trying to untangle this extraordinary mystery.”

5,000-year-old brewery unearthed in Egypt: Archaeologists have found the remains of a sprawling brewery that may have produced the beer for royal burial rituals in Egypt thousands of years ago.

Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities says the brewery, unearthed in the ancient city of Abydos, was split into eight large sections for beer production, each containing 40 clay pots that were used to warm mixtures of grain and water.

The brewery could have produced as much as 5,900 gallons of beer at a time, New York University archaeologist Matthew Adams said.

Evidence for small-scale beer production goes back as far as 13,000 years, based on an analysis of residues found in a cave in Israel, but the discovery at Abydos suggests that the Egyptians were mass-producing beer during the era of King Narmer, 5,000 years ago.

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Cosmic Science

Joe Biden jumps into science policy with 5 questions

Between COVID-19 and the climate crisis, science policy matters led President Joe Biden’s to-do list for his first day at the White House.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has already taken more than 400,000 American lives and is killing thousands more daily, is clearly the biggest challenge, judging from Biden’s inaugural address.

“We are entering what may well be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus,” he said today. “We must set aside the politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation.”

But climate change also came in for a prominent mention: “A cry for survival comes from the planet itself — a cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear,” Biden said.

Public health and environmental issues also led the list of executive actions that Biden approved on his first day. Among the highlights:

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Cosmic Science

More coffins — and mysteries — unearthed in Egypt

The historical hits keep coming from Egypt’s Saqqara dig: Today archaeologists announced the discovery of more than 50 wooden coffins, found inside 52 burial shafts that go almost 40 feet deep.

An excavation team headed by Zahi Hawass, one of Egypt’s best-known archaeologists, also explored the funerary temple of Queen Nearit — parts of which were found in previous years. Nearit was one of the wives of King Teti, who ruled Egypt more than 4,000 years ago and built a pyramid next to the newly excavated site in Saqqara.

The finds promise to shed light on more than a millennium’s worth of ancient Egyptian history.

“These discoveries will rewrite the history of this region, especially during the 18th and 19th dynasties of the New Kingdom, during which King Teti was worshiped and the citizens at that time were buried around his pyramid,” the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said in a statement published to Facebook.

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Cosmic Science

Check out the oldest known painting of an animal

Archaeologists say they’ve found the oldest known artistic depiction of a natural creature — a painting of a warty pig that’s at least 45,500 years old, found inside a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

“The Sulawesi warty pig painting we found in the limestone cave of Leang Tedongnge is now the earliest known representational work of art in the world, as far as are aware,” study co-author Adam Brumm of Griffith University’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution said today in a news release.

Brumm and his colleagues discovered the painting during an expedition in 2017. It’s part of a scene that appears to show three or four animals facing off against each other on the cave wall.

The painting’s age — reported in Science Advances, an open-access journal — was estimated by using a uranium-series dating technique on mineral deposits that formed over the painting. The researchers behind the find say the artwork could be thousands of years older.

In any case, the reported minimum age beats out the previous record for representational art, which was held by a 44,000-year-old hunting scene found by the same research team in a different Sulawesi cave. The better-known paintings in France’s Chauvet Cave are thought to be a mere 32,000 years old.

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Cosmic Science

Ancient fast-food joint served up spicy language

A just-unveiled excavation at Italy’s Pompeii archaeological site shows that ancient Roman restaurants had a lot in common with modern-day fast-food eateries — including rude graffiti.

But at Pompeii’s snack bar, naughty comments weren’t just scratched on restroom walls. They were right out in the open, inscribed onto the counter where hot food and drinks were served.

The nearly 2,000-year-old fast-food joint, which was known back then as a thermopolium, got rave reviews this weekend when the Archaeological Park of Pompeii opened it up for pictures. The site was first excavated in 2019, but this year, archaeologists dug down all the way to the floor, unearthing marvelous frescoes in the process.

They also found traces of the tasty wares that were once stored inside the restaurant’s vessels and doled out to customers — as well as the remains of someone who died suddenly when Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in the year 79 covered Pompeii with hot ash and debris.