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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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Fiction Science Club

Ancient ‘lost cities’ teach lessons for future cities

Time-honored tales of lost cities emphasize the quest for glittering treasures, priceless relics or mysterious civilizations — but more recent expeditions are going after a different sort of prize: a greater understanding of how and why cultures create large-group living spaces, and what factors eventually cause them to move on.

The findings — gleaned from archaeological digs including Cambodia’s ancient stone city of Angkor and a faded metropolis of mounds on the Mississippi River known as Cahokia — can help future architects and planners build the cities of tomorrow more sustainably.

At least that’s what Annalee Newitz hopes.

“My hope is that we’re going to be building more like the people at Cahokia and Angkor in a more sustainable way, and that our houses will be … made of things that are biodegradable, or that are even living materials,” said Newitz (who uses they/them pronouns).

Newitz recounts a personal quest to learn about Cahokia and Angkor, as well as the ancient cities of Çatalhöyük in Turkey and Pompeii in Italy, in a new book titled “Four Lost Cities” — and in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of science and fiction.

There’s something deeply attractive about the idea of places that were ahead of their time, but were somehow lost to history. Such tales are as old as the biblical city of Sodom and as fresh as Wakanda of “Black Panther” comic-book fame. It’s even better if the lost city ends up being submerged, like Plato’s Atlantis or Egypt’s Alexandria.

But Newitz says the “lost city” concept usually doesn’t hold water.

“I don’t like to use the term ‘fallen’ or ‘collapsed’ for these cities, because their cultures didn’t collapse,” they said. “The cities themselves were abandoned by people who basically, in a lot of cases, just got sick of how the cities were being run, with the exception of Pompeii.”

Pompeii was buried under more than a dozen feet of volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius in the year 79, but even there, most of the eruption’s survivors carried their culture to other Roman cities nearby. Something similar happened to Çatalhöyük, which was abandoned more than 7,500 years ago but spawned other settlements in Neolithic Turkey.

Cahokia and Angkor, which had their heyday from roughly 800 to 1400, traced more complex evolutionary arcs: They’re both thought to have been hit by a combination of political and climate-related crises — but went through periods of revival before fading away.

Four Lost Cities cover

Newitz noted that natural disasters typically aren’t enough by themselves to bring a city down. “You really can’t take a city out with the natural disaster unless the government is also unstable,” they said. “It was the one-two punch of not having good political leadership … and having some kind of environmental problem, whether that was within the city because of the infrastructure or because of some kind of weather problem or climate problem.”

For that reason, Newitz is of the view that the coronavirus pandemic alone won’t be enough to spark the abandonment of cities — even though some downtown cores may look like ghost towns today.

Newitz is less confident about the long-term outlook, especially for urban areas threatened by wildfires or rising sea levels.

“This is a tough time for us to be thinking about this, because I think many places in the world, including the U.S., are having big questions about our government and our governance,” they said. “And we’re also having climate disasters and a pandemic. So this is a good time to be thinking about how we want to re-imagine our governments, to help us be resilient against these kinds of disasters, because they’re going to keep happening.”

After working on “Four Lost Cities” for years, Newitz wonders how tomorrow’s archaeologists will look at the peculiarities of today’s urban culture — ranging from the quirks of San Francisco’s architecture, to the stratigraphic layer of plastic left behind by the Anthropocene Age, to the revelations contained in Newitz’s own garbage.

Newitz is also working what’s been learned from the lost-cities research into their next science-fiction novel — following up on “Autonomous” and “The Future of Another Timeline.” Intelligent animals will provide an extra twist of genetic engineering to the plot.

“You’ve got to have uplifted animals if you’re going to have a really good city,” Newitz said. “It’s kind of an imaginary way of depicting getting consent from the environment to build something.”

Could cities ever go totally extinct? Newitz doubts that could ever happen. There’s something innately human about living in groups — something that goes beyond economic or environmental factors. Adapting urban culture to become truly sustainable may be one of the biggest challenges for the next century, or the next millennium.

“How do you bring nature into the city, but also how do you continue to have the cool stuff that cities have, like high-speed internet and parties and concerts and restaurants? That’s what we love about cities. People come to cities to party and to meet other people,” Newitz said.

The prime directive to party is pretty much a scientific fact.

“Every time I would talk to an archaeologist about their city, I would be like, ‘Well, why did people come here?'” Newitz said. “In my head, I kept thinking, ‘Oh, they came here for economic reasons.'”

The archaeologists were quick to set Newitz straight. “Every single archaeologist would be like, ‘Well, they came because of pageantry,'” Newitz said. “Like they don’t want to say ‘party,’ right? Because that’ll sound too low-brow. ‘There were some incredible pageants.’ And I was like, ‘So, yeah, people came to have fun.’ … We’re never going to lose that desire to have good food and crazy entertainment.”

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

So what’s Newitz doing for fun during this shut-in pandemic? Podcasts are a prime pursuit: Newitz’s list includes “Short Wave”, a daily science podcast from NPR, and a quirky show called “Who? Weekly.”

“If you’re not able to soak up all the celebrity news that you want, it’s two hosts who will deconstruct silly celebrity news,” they said.

Newitz’s science-fiction reading list includes lots of tales of the city.

“N.K. Jemisin’s latest trilogy, which starts with the novel ‘The City We Became,’ really captures for me a lot of the feelings I have about cities,” they said. Other recommendations include “Perdido Street Station,” the classic book from China Miéville’s Bas-Lag series; and “Throne of the Crescent Moon” by Saladin Ahmed.

Lord Valentine's Castle cover

“When I was a teenager, one of the books that got me into science fiction was ‘Lord Valentine’s Castle’ by Robert Silverberg, which is basically just city porn,” Newitz joked. “Half the book is like, we reach this place that’s a giant mountain that has 12 giant cities on it, and then we spend half the book going up the mountain and going through the cities. I don’t remember the plot, but I remember the cities.”

The sheer quirkiness of Newitz’s recommendation, and the fact that Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, should be enough to qualify “Lord Valentine’s Castle” as this month’s selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club. Since 2002, the CLUB Club has featured books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to be available at your local library or used-book store. For more recommendations, check out the CLUB Club reading list — and go have some fun.

Consult Annalee Newitz’s Techsploitation website for the latest on the virtual book tour for “Four Lost Cities.”

My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. She’s among the science-fiction authors featured in The Best Science Fiction of the Year. To learn more about Phetteplace, check out her website, DominicaPhetteplace.com.

Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, SpotifyBreakerPocket Casts and Radio Public. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.

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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.

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Cosmic Science

Egypt’s Saqqara site yields still more mummies

It’s only been a month since Egyptian archaeologists took the wraps off the discovery of scores of mummies at Saqqara — and now they’re adding to the site’s store of archaeological treasures.

Today the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced that about 100 coffins dating back as far as 2,600 years have been found inside a network of buried shafts at Saqqara, Egypt’s oldest-known pyramid site. And there’s still more to come.

The Saqqara necropolis. about 20 miles south of modern-day Cairo, has been under excavation for several seasons. This year, it was the focus of a Netflix documentary titled “Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb,” and the most recent finds will be covered next year in a Smithsonian Channel series called “Tomb Hunters.”

Last month’s revelations related to the discovery of 59 decorated coffins dating back to the 26th Dynasty, in the time frame from around 664 to 525 B.C.E. Today’s follow-up focused on coffins and artifacts from ancient Egypt’s Late Period (664 to 332 B.C.E.) as well as the Greek-influenced Ptolemaic dynasty (320 to 30 B.C.E.)

One of the coffins was opened to reveal a nearly perfectly preserved mummy within. An X-ray scan suggested that it was a male who was in his 40s when he died, with teeth in perfect condition.

Wooden statue
Remains of ancient paint are still visible on a wooden statue recovered from the Saqqara site. (Smithsonian Channel Photo / Caterina Turroni)

Mostafa Waziri, general director of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, told NBC News that the man must have been wealthy and might have had royal connections, based on the way the arms were crossed over his chest. “We still have a lot to reveal,” he said.

In addition to the coffins, 40 “impressive statues” were found at the site, the ministry said in a Facebook posting.

The artifacts will be moved to museums in Cairo, including the yet-to-be-opened Grand Egyptian Museum, for further analysis and display. Still more discoveries will be announced in Saqqara soon, said Antiquities Minister Khaled el-Anany.

Egyptian officials are turning up the spotlight on archaeological finds in hopes of whetting interest in tourism, which has been hard-hit due to political turmoil and the coronavirus pandemic.

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Cosmic Science

Egypt opens up the next archaeological frontier

Nearly a century after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb focused the world’s attention on Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, archaeologists are turning the spotlight to Saqqara, a site that’s separated by hundreds of miles and centuries of time.

This weekend, antiquities officials formally unveiled 59 decorated coffins, or sarcophagi, with untouched mummies inside them. Mostafa Waziri, the general director of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, told NBC News that the find reminded him of King Tutankhamun’s tomb — which was found almost intact in 1922.

Saqqara is best known as the site of the Step Pyramid of Djoser, which was built around 2650 B.C.E. and is considered the oldest surviving pyramid in Egypt. The newly unveiled sarcophagi, however, come from a much later time, around 600 B.C.E.

To put the timing in context, the Pyramids of Giza were built about a century after the Pyramid of Djoser, in the 2560 B.C.E time frame. King Tutankhamun reigned from 1332 to 1323 B.C.E., and Saqqara’s coffins were buried more than seven centuries after Tut.

The wooden sarcophagi were found stacked in three burial shafts that go about 40 feet deep. They’re colorfully painted, and scores of statuettes and other artifacts were buried along with the mummies. One 14-inch-tall statuette, inlaid with red agate, turquoise and lapis lazuli, represents the Egyptian god Nefertam and is said to be inscribed with the name of its owner, a priest called Badi Amun.

Two of the sarcophagi were opened during Saturday’s unveiling in Saqqara. “We found that the two mummies bear the name and the title of the family,” Khaled El-Anany, Egypt’s minister of tourism and antiquities, told reporters.

Waziri said the sarcophagi and the artifacts would be transferred to the Grand Egyptian Museum, the massive gallery that’s under construction in Cairo and due to have its formal opening next year.

And there’s likely to be more mummies to come. El-Anany said dozens more sarcophagi could be unearthed at the site. “This is not the end of the discovery — this is only the beginning,” he said.

Saqqara, which is about 20 miles south of modern-day Cairo, could well become a high-profile stop for Egyptology enthusiasts. This April, Egyptian authorities completed a 14-year-long renovation project at the Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara and reopened it to the public — unfortunately, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Egyptian officials see archaeo-tourism as a key contributor to the country’s economic recovery in the post-pandemic era. For evidence, you need look no further than the fact that the antiquities ministry has added “tourism” to its official title.

Saqqara’s finds will keep documentary filmmakers and on-screen archaeologists busy as well: The Smithsonian Channel has already announced it’ll be airing a four-part series about the sarcophagi next year, with “Tomb Hunters” as the working title.

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

I’ve been an Egyptology fan for decades, and seeing the “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibit in Seattle still ranks among my top museum experiences more than 40 years after the fact. The mysteries of Tut’s tomb continue to stir the soul nearly a century after its discovery. But there’s much more to ancient Egyptian history than Tut and Cleopatra.

“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt,” by renowned Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson, is a must-read when it comes to the history of the world’s first nation-state. Wilkinson goes all the way back to before the beginning, stressing how the Nile gave rise to civilization and sustained it over the course of millennia.

"The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt"
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt” by Toby Wilkinson (Random House / Cover design by Victoria Allen)

Wilkinson’s account of the twists and turns of pharaonic rule — including the creation of a ruling elite, the exercise of absolute authority and the role of religion — could well get you thinking about the lessons for our own age. And if you ever get to Egypt to see the ancient sites and Cairo’s new Grand Egyptian Museum, this book could serve as a guide to the meaning behind the monuments.

For all these reasons, I’m making “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt” October’s selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club. Over the course of the past 18 years, the CLUB Club has recognized books with cosmic themes that have been out long enough to become available at your library or secondhand book store.

Past selections have included other tales of bygone civilizations, ranging from “Everyday Life in New Testament Times” to “The Year 1000” to “1491.” But the CLUB Club also highlights tales of sci-fi civilizations, including Frances Hardinge’s “Deeplight” (for September) and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series (for August).

Check out the backlist, and if you have recommendations for future CLUB Club selections, pass them along in your comments.

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GeekWire

Jerusalem dig finds traces of biblical conquest

Shimon Gibson
Shimon Gibson, co-director of the Mount Zion Archaeological Project, sets the scene at the Jerusalem site. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

One month after offering up archaeological evidence to back up a contested claim about the First Crusade, researchers say they’ve found traces of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in a deeper layer of their excavation on Mount Zion.

The newly reported find demonstrates how the site, just outside the walls of the Old City’s Tower of David citadel, serves as a “time machine” documenting the twists and turns of Jerusalem’s history.

The Babylonian conquest, which dates to the year 587 or 586 BCE, is one of the major moments of Jewish history. As detailed in the biblical Book of Kings, the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem for months, eventually broke through the walls and burned “all the houses of Jerusalem,” including Solomon’s Temple.

After the fall of Jerusalem, the Jewish people were sent into exile – an event that Jews commemorate with mourning and fasting every year on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. This year’s Tisha B’Av observance began at sundown tonight.

Get the full story on GeekWire.