Icy molecules a clue to our origins
Equipment at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, right, mimics the extremely cold temperatures at the edge of a solar system.
September 24th, 2012
12:26 PM ET

Icy molecules a clue to our origins

Scientists think that water and organic molecules come together in the coldest places in space to begin the chemical reactions necessary for organics to evolve into prebiotic molecules - molecules that are precursors of life. Ice and organics could have hitched a ride to Earth on comets and asteroids, where they could have formed the building blocks of life as we know it.

Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, are trying to better understand that process, and how life may have formed on Earth, by firing lasers at icy carbon-laden molecules in a lab.

Principal scientist Murthy Gudipati explained to CNN by e-mail: "In the cycle of formation, evolution, and death of stars, two key components of life (as we know of it): water and organic matter, evolve intimately with the third component energy (radiation) at every stage of this cycle - even at the coldest regions of the universe."

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Oldest tooth filling may have been found
Beeswax on this ancient jawbone indicates the earliest evidence of theraputic dentistry
September 19th, 2012
05:00 PM ET

Oldest tooth filling may have been found

We all know the drill: Slip up on your regular brush-and-floss routine, and you may end up at the dentist's office with a cavity that needs to be filled. But what people did about their toothaches thousands of years ago?

Scientists in Italy have discovered what may be the earliest evidence of therapeutic dentistry performed on a human.

A study published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One reports the discovery of a beeswax filling on the left canine of a 6,500-year-old human jawbone from Slovenia. It is housed at the Natural History Museum of Trieste, Italy.

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New monkey unveiled to the world
September 12th, 2012
05:47 PM ET

New monkey unveiled to the world

Scientists are claiming they have discovered a new species of monkey living in the remote forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo - an animal well-known to local hunters but until now, unknown to the outside world.

In a paper published Wednesday in the open-access journal Plos One, the scientists describe the new species that they call Cercopithecus Lomamiensis, known locally as the Lesula, whose home is deep in central DR Congo's Lomami forest basin. The scientists say it is only the second discovery of a monkey species in 28 years.

In an age where so much of the earth's surface has been photographed, digitized, and placed on a searchable map on the web discoveries like this one by a group of American scientists this seem a throwback to another time.

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Sweet stars hint at building blocks of life
September 5th, 2012
04:38 PM ET

Sweet stars hint at building blocks of life

It's not exactly the kind of sugar you'd want to put in your coffee, but astronomers have found simple sugar molecules called glycolaldehyde around a star similar to our own Sun.

Here's the sweet part: Glycolaldehyde is used in the formation of RNA (a genetic material related to DNA). That makes it a building block of life.

Astronomers used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to study the binary star IRAS 16293-2422, similar in mass to the Sun. They found glycolaldehyde around the star. The molecules were found at a distance from it comparable to the distance between Uranus and the Sun.

This is the first time that these building-block sugar molecules have been found around such a star.

"If we can show that the same molecules exist around additional Sun-like stars, that would be an indication that they also have been present around the Sun 4.5 billion years ago," lead study author Jes Jørgensen, of the Neils Bohr Institude in Denmark, said in an e-mail. "This is the first evidence that these simple pre-biotic molecules are present around Sun-like stars on scales where planets and comets may be forming."

The glycolaldehyde molecules, aside from being present around a Sun-like star, are also moving towards one of the stars in the binary system. In a release, Cecile Favre of Aarhus University in Denmark and one of the members of the research team, said, "The sugar molecules are not only in the right place to find their way onto a planet, but they are also going in the right direction."

So why is this important? Further research could show how life might arise on another planet. Jørgensen is careful to point out, however, that the discovery of glycolaldehyde is a very, very preliminary step in figuring out how organic life as we know it might have begun.

"For us, the main question now is whether we can show through similar kinds of observations that the chemical complexity can be taken even further," he said.

Glycolaldehyde molecules could make their way into proto-planetary discs around young stars, leading to the formation of planets or becoming a part of the material comets are made of, Jørgensen said. Either way, they could become part of young planets.

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Bras from Middle Ages found in castle
Thanks to garments like this one found in Austria, we now know that the modern bra might not be such a modern invention.
July 26th, 2012
08:00 AM ET

Bras from Middle Ages found in castle

Scientists in Austria recently revealed a secret bigger than Victoria’s. 

While excavating Lengberg Castle in 2008, a group of archaeologists led by the University of Innsbruck’s Dr. Harald Stadler unearthed a sack from a recess in the floor. Inside, they found underwear, shoes and four linen pieces that looked like bras. The castle was first documented in 1190, but archaeologists suspect the sack and its contents were left there during a renovation in the 15th century. 

Many people believe the modern bra was invented after corsets, and was a revolutionary result of late 19th and early 20th century style and engineering. But the "treasure chest" of chest wear suggests that the bra as we know it is just the most recent overhaul in a long line of similarly shaped breast supports.

"(The find) reminds people not to assume we already know everything, and to keep an open mind to possible new discoveries about our history," said Beatrix Nutz, a member of Stadler's team who he commissioned to research the textiles in 2009.

“I don’t think they quite revolutionize the history of underwear, but this find certainly will modify it,” says Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who was not involved in the research. “I think it means people should go back and look a bit more carefully at other garments and images in antiquities collections, to focus on something that may be more ignored."

The four newly discovered bras include two that resemble crop tops with bag-like cups, a decorated piece with thick shoulder straps and bags, and one that surprised Nutz with its similarity to lingerie in the 20th century.

“The one that I myself like to compare to a modern ‘long-line bra’ does look as if it could have been fashioned not 100 years ago,” Nutz said of the bra, which has thin straps and minimal cups. “The radiocarbon dates proved otherwise.”

Two of bras - in addition to a pair of underpants, a girls dress and a shirt fragment - have been carbon dated to the 15th century, Nutz said. This coincides with the idea that the garments were disposed of during the recorded renovation of Lengberg Castle.

Similarities between the medieval bras and our current collection of demis, push-ups and racer backs end pretty quickly in the realm of construction.

The medieval bras are linen while modern bras take advantage of synthetic fibers. Additionally, Nutz’s "long-line" bra fastens at the side instead of the back, cup sizes didn’t exist in the 15th century, and, of course, the Lengberg bras are all hand-sewn.

Curious to see how these bras fit into medieval chronology, Nutz began a personal inquiry into the history of underwear in general. She also contacted peers in Germany and France for help finding mentions of undergarments in medieval texts. What she found out was that, apart from differences in form, these bras also served functions different from those desired today.

Where most bras today are worn to highlight contents of all sizes, breasts deemed too large found their ways into "breast bags" in order to minimize their appearance.

“These ‘bags’ would have been utilitarian,” Nutz said.

Bras meant to highlight were used in private.

“Only the wearer herself and her husband would have seen them,” Nutz said. “As all ‘bras’ are decorated in some way it must be suspected that the wife would have at least wanted to look nice for her husband.”

Because the recently discovered bras are decorative, they would belong to members of the elite, Steele said.

“Linen was fairly widely used, but to have linen as underclothing helps protect your outerwear from your dirty body,” Steele said. “You can wash linen, you can’t easily wash silk or velvet or fur.”

Women were also discouraged from wearing underpants if they weren’t wealthy (those who did were assumed to discard them frequently in the company of men), but it is not yet known if the underpants found in the sack were men’s or women’s garments.

Despite differences, Nutz said that the medieval finds meet criteria for bras. The newly found bras have cups, where ancient Mediterranean "bras" were “simple strips of cloth or leather wound around the breasts and designed to flatten rather than enhance,” she wrote.

Even so, the presence of enhancing bras could represent the growing European fascination with empires of old, Steele said.

“In the 1500s, you certainly had people becoming increasingly aware of antiquity and ancient Rome, so I think that’s possible,” Steele said.

Steele said that bras called strophiums were common in ancient Rome, and indicative of class and style.

“Only the lowest class prostitute would take it off during sex. It has erotic significance as well as ‘breast support,’” Steele said. Mosaics do, however, depict Roman women wearing bandeau-like bikini tops while engaging in athletics.

Even so, bra-wearing wasn’t well received in the middle ages. Could wearing bras, then, have been a statement about standards for women?

“I don’t think it was a protest,” said Nutz, noting that progressive fashions have been worn throughout history without necessarily having social agendas. “Some people don’t like them because they’re too skimpy, and most things are met with skepticism at first.”

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Dark galaxies come to light for the first time
This is the region of the sky around quasar HE0109-3518, the bright circle at the center of this image.
July 11th, 2012
10:56 AM ET

Dark galaxies come to light for the first time

The question of how galaxies form is a hot issue among astronomers. Computer models have helped them make educated guesses about how these groups of stars come to be, but it's been hard to validate these theories.

Now scientists have made a significant stride in confirming part of the story of galaxy formation. They believe they have found several examples of dark galaxies, dense clouds of gas that essentially don't have stars, so they can't be detected with optical telescopes.

"This may be considered the building blocks of galaxies," said Sebastiano Cantalupo, postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Santa Cruz and lead author of the study. "What we believe is that this is an evolutionary phase into the whole history of galaxies."

Basically, a dark galaxy is the middle stage between a diffuse cloud of gas, and a galaxy as we know them, with a lot of stars.

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New particle fits description of elusive Higgs boson, scientists say
July 4th, 2012
07:46 AM ET

New particle fits description of elusive Higgs boson, scientists say

Scientists said Wednesday that they had discovered a new particle whose characteristics match those of the Higgs boson, the most sought-after particle in physics, which could help unlock some of the universe's deepest secrets.

"We have reached a milestone in our understanding of nature," said Rolf Heuer, the director general of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which has been carrying out experiments in search of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's largest particle accelerator.

"The discovery of a particle consistent with the Higgs boson opens the way to more detailed studies, requiring larger statistics, which will pin down the new particle's properties, and is likely to shed light on other mysteries of our universe," Heuer said.

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Planetary odd couple discovered
An artist's redndering of a view of an unusual planet orbiting Kepler-36.
June 21st, 2012
05:24 PM ET

Planetary odd couple discovered

The discovery of a planetary "odd couple" is broadening the way scientists think about planetary migration.

Scientists at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and University of Washington discovered two planets of very different sizes and makeups orbiting Kepler-36, a sun-like star under nearly continuous surveillance by the Kepler spacecraft.

"This is kind of an extreme system in that the planets are relatively closely spaced in their orbits but their compositions are quite disparate," said Josh Carter, Hubble Fellow at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who discovered the smaller planet.

"They're quite the odd couple."

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Moon may have frozen water in south pole crater, study says
This split image of Shackleton crater shows the structure of the crater in false color on the left. The image on the right shows the elevation of the crater (in color) and shaded relief (in greyscale).
June 20th, 2012
04:37 PM ET

Moon may have frozen water in south pole crater, study says

If humanity ever colonizes the moon, we'll need the help of local resources, like water and solar power. The lunar poles, which contain regions of constant sunlight, as well as constant darkness, could be ideal locations for finding both.

Scientists have exciting new insights about the south pole in particular: A study released in Nature today suggests that there is frozen water within a massive, well-preserved crater there.

The Shackleton crater is more than 12 miles in diameter and about two miles deep, and exists in permanent shadow. While the evidence for ice in the crater has been inconsistent, this new study, conducted by scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brown University and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, finds evidence for ice on the floor of the crater.

The research team, led by Maria Zuber of MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, used an instrument called a laser altimeter aboard NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) to create a highly detailed topographical map of Shackleton crater. The laser basically lit up the area, allowing the team to measure the natural reflectivity (albedo) of the crater's interior, which Zuber describes as "extremely rugged."

Those measurements revealed that the crater's floor is much brighter than the floor of other nearby craters, which is consistent with ice in the area. Ice may make up 22% of the first micron-thick layer of the crater's floor, which Zuber says is about 100 gallons - not too much. However, these measurements aren't at all indicative of what ice may be beneath the surface.

The researchers also observed that the crater's walls were brighter than the floor - a surprise, given that the thinking was that if ice present were inside Shackleton, it'd be on the floor, since there's even less sunlight reaching the bottom of the crater than its walls.

Zuber and her team explain the brighter walls by theorizing that occasional "moonquakes" might cause older, darker soil on Shackleton's walls to slide off, revealing brighter soil underneath.

LRO orbits the moon from pole to pole, which allows the laser altimeter to map a different slice of the moon with each orbit. Each slice contains data from both lunar poles. Zuber and her team ultimately used over 5 million measurements of Shackleton crater to create their map, which is unprecedented in its level of detail and helpful for studying crater formation and other lunar processes. Detailed maps like these are also useful for planning future robotic or human missions.

One of those future missions is NASA's Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) spacecraft, also in orbit around the Moon. "We'll be attempting to detect evidence for subsurface ice this fall," says Zuber.

For more, check out this video from MIT:

More science news from CNN Light Years

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A moon of Saturn may have 'tropical' lakes
This color-enhanced composite image shows Titan's atmosphere encircling the orange moon.
June 13th, 2012
03:52 PM ET

A moon of Saturn may have 'tropical' lakes

They might not be fit for humans to swim in, but "tropical" lakes may exist on one of Saturn's moons that could harbor tiny organisms.

Scientists report Wednesday in the journal Nature that the moon Titan may have methane lakes among the dunes that pervade the tropics, the region of the moon between 20 degrees of latitude north and 20 degrees of latitude south.

Like Earth, Titan has clouds, rain and lakes, though they're made up of methane instead of water.

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