Weird Science 02-10-09
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Editor, The Konformist
January 27, 2009
Apocalypse in 2012? Date spawns theories, film
December 21, 2012, marks the end of a 5,126-year cycle on a Mayan
Some think the date is ominous, others say it may signal the dawn of
a new era
Theories are fabricated on the basis of very little evidence, Maya
"The whole year leading up to it is going to be just crazy," another
By A. Pawlowski
(CNN) -- Just as "Y2K" and its batch of predictions about the year
2000 have become a distant memory, here comes "Twenty-twelve."
The sun shines through the door of the Seven Dolls Temple, in the
Maya ruins of Dzibilchaltun in Mexico.
Fueled by a crop of books, Web sites with countdown clocks, and
claims about ancient timekeepers, interest is growing in what some
see as the dawn of a new era, and others as an expiration date for
Earth: December 21, 2012.
The date marks the end of a 5,126-year cycle on the Long Count
calendar developed by the Maya, the ancient civilization known for
its advanced understanding of astronomy and for the great cities it
left behind in Mexico and Central America.
(Some scholars believe the cycle ends a bit later -- on December 23,
Speculation in some circles about whether the Maya chose this
particular time because they thought something ominous would happen
has sparked a number of doomsday theories.
The hype also has mainstream Maya scholars shaking their heads.
"There's going to be a whole generation of people who, when they
think of the Maya, think of 2012, and to me that's just criminal,"
said David Stuart, director of the Mesoamerica Center at the
University of Texas at Austin.
"There is no serious scholar who puts any stock in the idea that the
Maya said anything meaningful about 2012."
But take the fact that December 21, 2012, coincides with the winter
solstice, add claims the Maya picked the time period because it also
marks an alignment of the sun with the center of the Milky Way
galaxy, and you have the makings of an online sensation.
Type "2012" into an Internet search engine and you'll find survival
guides, survival schools, predictions and "official stuff" to wear,
including T-shirts with slogans such as "2012 The End" and "Doomsday
Theories about what might happen range from solar storms triggering
volcano eruptions to a polar reversal that will make the Earth spin
in the opposite direction.
If you think all of this would make a great sci-fi disaster movie,
Hollywood is already one step ahead.
"2012," a special-effects flick starring John Cusack and directed by
Roland Emmerich, of "The Day After Tomorrow" fame, is scheduled to be
released this fall. The trailer shows a monk running to a bell tower
on a mountaintop to sound the alarm as a huge wall of water washes
over what appear to be the peaks of the Himalayas.
'Promoting a hoax'
One barometer of the interest in 2012 may be the "Ask an
Astrobiologist" section of NASA's Web site, where senior scientist
David Morrison answers questions from the public. On a recent visit,
more than half of the inquiries on the most popular list were related
"The purveyors of doom are promoting a hoax," Morrison wrote earlier
this month in response to a question from a person who expressed fear
about the date.
A scholar who has studied the Maya for 35 years said there is nothing
ominous about 2012, despite the hype surrounding claims to the
"I think that the popular books... about what the Maya say is going
to happen are really fabricated on the basis of very little
evidence," said Anthony Aveni, a professor of astronomy, anthropology
and Native American studies at Colgate University.
Aveni and Stuart are both writing their own books explaining the
Mayan calendar and 2012, but Stuart said he's pessimistic that people
will be interested in the real story when so many other books are
making sensational claims.
Dozens of titles about 2012 have been published and more are
scheduled to go on sale in the coming months. Current offerings
include "Apocalypse 2012," in which author Lawrence Joseph
outlines "terrible possibilities," such as the potential for natural
But Joseph admits he doesn't think the world is going to end.
"I do, however, believe that 2012 will prove to be... a very dramatic
and probably transformative year," Joseph said.
The author acknowledged he's worried his book's title might scare
people, but said he wanted to alert the public about possible dangers
He added that his publisher controls the book's title, though he had
no issue with the final choice.
"If it had been called 'Serious Threats 2012' or 'Profound
Considerations for 2012,' it would have never gotten published,"
Another author said the doom and gloom approach is a great
misunderstanding of 2012.
"The trendy doomsday people... should be treated for what they are:
under-informed opportunists and alarmists who will move onto other
things in 2013," said John Major Jenkins, whose books
include "Galactic Alignment" and who describes himself as a self-
taught independent Maya scholar.
Jenkins said that cycle endings were all about transformation and
renewal -- not catastrophe -- for the Maya. He also makes the case
that the period they chose coincides with an alignment of the
December solstice sun with the center of the Milky Way, as viewed
"Two thousand years ago the Maya believed that the world would be
going through a great transformation when this alignment happened,"
But Aveni said there is no evidence that the Maya cared about this
concept of the Milky Way, adding that the galactic center was not
defined until the 1950s.
"What you have here is a modern age influence [and] modern concepts
trying to garb the ancient Maya in modern clothing, and it just
doesn't wash for me," Aveni said.
Meanwhile, he and other scholars are bracing for growing interest as
the date approaches.
"The whole year leading up to it is going to be just crazy, I'm sorry
to say," Stuart said.
"I just think it's sad, it really just frustrates me. People are
really misunderstanding this really cool culture by focusing on this
2012 thing. It means more about us than it does about the Maya."
Long Count 101
The Long Count calendar was one of several created by the ancient
It consists of the following units of time:
kin = one day
uinal = 20 days
tun = 360 days (18 uinal)
katun = 7,200 days (20 tun)
baktun = 144,000 days (20 katun)
The calendar shows the number of days elapsed since the beginning
date: August 13, 3114 B.C. (some scholars think the date is actually
August 11, 3114 B.C.)
The dates are written as numbers separated by periods in the
July 20, 1969 -- the date of the first moon landing -- would be
written as: 184.108.40.206.0
December 21, 2012, would be written as 220.127.116.11.0 and the day after
that as 0.0.0.0.1
First Stevia-Sweetened Diet Soft Drink Hits the Market: Zevia!
Thursday, January 29, 2009
David Gutierrez, staff writer
Key concepts: Stevia, Zevia and Soda
(NaturalNews) A new company called Zevia has introduced a line of
stevia-sweetened, zero-calorie carbonated soft drinks, the first such
products to hit the U.S. market.
Zevia soda comes in four flavors: Cola, Orange, Root Beer and Twist
(lemon-lime). It contains no calories, but everything else soda
drinkers have come to expect, from carbonation to caffeine (the cola
contains 45 milligrams, about as much as a Diet Coke).
Because stevia has not been approved as a sweetener by the FDA, Zevia
is not technically a soft drink, but rather a nutritional supplement,
even though it can be found next to sodas on the shelves of 900
stores across the United States. A label on the product reads, "A
dietary supplement is not permitted to disclose the amount of
calories, carbs, fat, when there is zero. For that reason, Zevia does
not disclose them."
Stevia is a natural sweetener derived from the leaves of a tropical
American plant, and has a long history of traditional use in Brazil
and Paraguay. It has been approved as a food ingredient in Japan
since the 1970s.
According to Zevia co-founder Ian Eisenberg, the process of removing
stevia's bitter taste and making a good-tasting soft drink was long
"We made a lot of really, really bad soda and drank it," he said.
"There's a reason Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi don't have a lot of
competition," agreed co-founder Jessica Newman. But now that the
drink has been perfected and rave consumer reviews are coming in, "We
are on a crusade to get people to kick the diet soda habit."
Major soft drink companies are also positioning themselves to exploit
stevia's appeal as a natural, no-calorie sweetener. Cargill and Coca-
Cola have already submitted a stevia product named Truvia to the FDA
for approval and Coke hopes to market a stevia beverage before the
end of 2008. Pepsi has introduced a stevia-based sweetener in Peru
and plans to follow up with U.S. product launch this fall.
Analysts believe that both Coke and Pepsi will wait for the official
FDA go-ahead before selling stevia-sweetened soft drinks.
Sources for this story include: seattlepi.nwsource.com.
January 30, 2009 in Everyday Science
When Grasshoppers Go Biblical: Serotonin Causes Locusts to Swarm
A common brain chemical could be behind the process that morphs timid
grasshoppers into voracious locusts
By Katherine Harmon
What makes harmless little green grasshoppers turn into brown, crop-
chomping clouds of swarming locusts? Serotonin, according to a study
published this week in Science. Researchers from universities in the
UK and Australia found that that neurotransmitter (a chemical
compound that sends impulses between nerve cells and affects
everything from sleep to aggression in humans) spurs a cascade of Dr.
Jekyll-to-Mr. Hydelike changes in at least one species of
grasshopper the desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria). This species
is infamous for wreaking havoc from Africa to Asia.
Knowing what causes this swift metamorphosis may help governments and
farmers develop methods to control future locust outbreaks with
chemicals that would suppress the offending serotonin.
It took just two to three hours for timid grasshoppers in a lab to
morph into gregarious locusts after they were injected with
serotonin. Conversely, if they were given serotonin blockers, they
stayed solitary even in swarm-inducing conditions.
"These little guys changed from a shy creature that actively avoided
making contact with other grasshoppers [into a creature] actively
seeking out other insects and joining a gang," says study co-author
Malcolm Burrows, a zoology professor at Cambridge University in
England. And we're not just talking about a gaggle of grasshoppers:
Just last year, a swath of locusts more than three and a half miles
(six kilometers) long tore through Australia, devastating crops in
"They eat everything in sight," says Sean Mullen, an assistant
professor of evolutionary genetics at Lehigh University in Bethlehem,
Pa., about swarming locusts.
When these insects go into swarm mode, they don't just get super
social, they also completely change physically, becoming stronger,
darker and much more mobile, says study co-author Swidbert Ott, a
research fellow at Cambridge. In fact, he says, the before-and-after
bugs look so different that, until the 1920s, they were assumed to be
two unique species.
In the wild, swarms usually appear after a rainy period followed by a
time of drought. After rains, populations of grasshoppers explode,
Burrows says, because there is food aplenty. But when the land
becomes parched and grass scarce, the populations get pushed into
smaller and smaller areas, becoming more packed as desirable pasture
diminishes, he says. At a certain point of density, the swarm-
inducing serotonin gets triggered and the locusts set off en masse to
find greener pastures. After that, few things other than an end to
the food supply or an ocean can stop them.
Burrows says that locusts can switch out of swarm mode, though it
takes days rather than hours. He notes, however, that the about-face
rarely happens in the wild, because the offspring of locusts that
breed while swarming are born swarmers.
Today, locust invasions are controlled with pesticides that also wipe
out other insects, note Burrows and Ott. This new research, however,
paves the way for development of a chemical that would specifically
inhibit serotonin production in the solitary grasshoppers, says Hojun
Song, a postdoctoral researcher at Brigham Young University in Provo,
But remember, as Kung Fu's Master Po advised his young charge in the
1986 movie, "Do not go in fear, Grasshopper." Of the approximately
8,000 species of grasshoppers, only about 10 of them are likely to
morph into swarming locusts, Burrows says. But, Song adds, more
research should be conducted to determine whether other types of
locusts also get hopped-up on serotonin.
Hobbit feud: scientists argue over mysterious bones
By Peter Brown
The setting was a hidden island filled with pint-size men who feasted
on pygmy elephants and battled dragons. The story of
paleontology's "Hobbits," the extinct human species called Homo
floresiensis, packs plenty of drama.
But the 2003 discovery by an Australian-Indonesian of the undersize
bones inside Liang Bua cave on the Indonesian island of Flores has
long also suffered from a modern-day human rivalry. Add in the
scientific back-story a five-year feud over the whether the
original inhabitants of Flores were actually a separate human
species and you have enough material for a novel.
The latest chapter of this story comes in the next Journal of Human
Evolution, which boasts four reports concerning the hobbits five
years after discovery was first disclosed in the journal
Nature. "Here we report the discovery, from the Late Pleistocene of
Flores, Indonesia, of an adult hominin," wrote the authors of that
2004 paper in the formal language of scientists declaring a new
species. ("Hominin" is what the cool kids among paleontologists say
instead of "hominids" now, or what reporters call "human species." )
Incredibly these "hobbits" stood less than 40 inches tall and had
brains about a third the size of modern humans, although they were
buried with Stone Age tools, which indicates they had some
smarts. "The combination of primitive and derived (modern-looking)
features assigns this hominin to a new species, Homo floresiensis.
The most likely explanation for its existence on Flores is long-term
isolation, with subsequent endemic dwarfing," concluded the team led
by Peter Brown of Australia's University of New England. The
declaration made the bones of "Liang Bua 1," or LB1, described in the
study the "holotype", basically the defining specimen of the new
species, much like the fossil of " Lucy" defines the pre-human
species Australopithecus afarensis, which lived 3 to 4 million years
ago in Africa.
For something so sacrosanct, LB1's bones have enjoyed a rough few
years, derided by critics such as Jochen Weber of Germany's
Leopoldina Hospital as belonging to a microencephalic victim of a
small-brained pathology, not a new species. Florida State University
neuroscientist Dean Falk countered those claims in other studies,
most recently in a 2007 Proceedings of the National Academies of
Science paper that concluded, "Despite LB1's having brain shape
features that sort it with normal humans rather than
microencephalics, other shape features and its small brain size are
consistent with its assignment to a separate species." The bones even
departed from their home in Jakarta's Indonesian Centre for
Archaeology without the permission of all of the discoverers, a move
that left them damaged and pawns in the politics of paleontology in
Indonesia prior to their return.
Another look at LB1's much-maligned noggin comes with the new Journal
of Human Evolution papers in a study led by anatomical scientist
Karen Baab of the Stony Brook (N.Y.) University Medical Center that
examines the asymmetry of the skull. Critics of the new-species
designation had pointed out the two halves of the skull are lopsided,
suggestive of microencephaly. However, Baab's report concludes
that "the cranium is fairly asymmetrical, but within the range of
asymmetry exhibited by modern humans and all extant African ape
species." Packed under 10 feet of wet mud, the skull likely became a
bit distorted, a process called taphonomy by fossil researchers.
The whole microencephaly debate is nonsense, original team members
such as Peter Brown have argued, as they have turned up bones, if not
skulls, from about a dozen "hobbits" underneath Liang Bua Cave. The
bones all display similar looks. A graveyard for stubby
microencephalics in a cave on Flores strikes the discoverers as
Two papers look at those "post-cranial" remains of LB1 and kin, in
other words every thing but the skull. The hips, legs and feet of
nine hobbits are examined in a paper led by William Jungers of Stony
Brook University. And the arms, collar bones, wrists and fingers of
six hobbits are described in another led by his colleague Susan
Larson. Those bones "presents a unique mosaic of derived (human-like)
and primitive morphologies, the combination of which is never found
in either healthy or pathological modern humans." Larson's group
reports. The leg bone finds indicate LB1 was most likely female.
Overall, the bones most resemble those of Lucy, Australopithecus
afarensis, suggesting they arrived at the island of Flores a very
long time ago.
The latest papers include a better description of that cave, which
concludes that whatever hobbits were, they ate a lot of Stegodon
pygmy elephants. "There are at least 47 individual Stegodon
represented in all excavated sectors of Liang Bua," the researchers
write, describing findings from 10 holes that held remains from
95,000 to 17,000 years ago, when a volcanic eruption appears to have
bumped off both elephants and hobbits.
Komodo dragon and giant stork remains also litter the cave, though
there is less suspicion the hobbits preyed on those species. More
likely they scavenged their carcasses. One thing the cave lacked was
seashells, suggesting that hobbits were not big on surf and
turf. "Homo floresiensis probably descended from a very early Homo
erectus, or from Homo habilis, both human species that are not known
to have used marine resources. Homo floresiensis probably did not
have the right behavior to exploit marine resources (perhaps fear of
entering the water, just like for instance orangutans)," says study
lead author Gert van den Bergh of Holland's Nationaal
Natuurhistorisch Museum Naturalis, by e-mail.
Or perhaps modern humans lived on the coasts and hobbits
were "restricted to the more inaccessible interior of Flores and did
not venture into the coastal areas," he says. "You see, still many
unanswered questions remain."
First Chocoholics in U.S. Found in New Mexico?
for National Geographic News
February 2, 2009
Chocolate lovers are a dedicated bunch.
Hershey's sales and profits rose even in the brutal final quarter of
2008, and a thousand years ago ancient Americans may have walked
hundreds of miles to procure the bittersweet stuff, a new study
The discovery suggests a vast trade network helped deliver chocolate
from Central America, where the seeds of the cacao tree were first
transformed into beverages some 3,000 years ago.
"That's a long way to go for something that you don't need for
survival, [something] that's more of a delicacy," said Patricia
Crown, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico and co-
author of the new study, which appears in tomorrow's issue of the
journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.
Have Chocolate, Will Travel
The closest cacao source may have been 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers)
away, Crown said.
"It suggests that the only way for this material to get [to New
Mexico] is [that] either people from Chaco walked down to get it, or
it was traded hand to hand from Mesoamerica to Chaco, or people from
Mesoamerica came up and traded it," she said.
"There are a lot of questions about how that exchange worked. But
once you had that connection and had tasted chocolate, you probably
wanted to keep that exchange going, whatever the mechanism."
Crown and co-author Jeffrey Hurst, a biochemist at the Hershey Foods
Technical Center, found traces of theobrominea compound that is the
principal base of cacao beans and chocolateon pottery shards.
The pottery had originally been excavated from trash mounds at Pueblo
Bonito, an ancient residential complex in Chaco Canyon, during
National Geographic Society-sponsored work in the 1920s and then dug
up again in 2007. (National Geographic News is owned by the National
Many pottery samples in museums around the United States could
someday yield evidence of additional cacao use and perhaps an even
wider trade network for chocolate, Crown said.
Louis Grivetti, professor of nutrition at the University of
California, Davis, and co-author of Chocolate: History, Culture, and
Heritage, said the study confirms previous evidence of trade between
Central America and Mexico and "changes all the chronologies
regarding cacao use in the Americas."
"It's one of the most exciting reports on the history of chocolate of
the past 10 to 15 years," he said.