September 23, 2015

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Mummies know best. They are giving up the secrets of heart disease three thousand years ago. Financial Gazette has the story.

IN 2008, Greg Thomas, a cardiologist from California, was in Cairo for work. While there, he visited the EgyptianMuseum of Antiquities with another cardiologist, Adel Allam of Al Azhar University in Cairo.

They came across the mummy of King Merneptah, a pharaoh who lived 3,200 years ago. The description on Merneptah’s case said he had suffered from atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaque on artery walls. Both men were sure this must be wrong. How could an ancient Egyptian have had heart disease, when most of the risk factors for the disease – obesity, unhealthy diet, smoking and lack of exercise – did not then exist? But could they prove it?

Thomas, a professor at the University of California, Irvine and Allam discussed how they could find out more about Merneptah’s arteries. They theorised that any arterial plaques might still be visible on a CT scan, a computerised x-ray technology that produces 3D images. Plaques contain calcium, which degrades slowly – a key reason that bones endure for so long.

After months of negotiation with officials, the pair began scanning the museum’s mummies (ironically, Merneptah was excluded, as Egyptian archaeological officials ruled that royal mummies could not be part of the project). What they found surprised them: many showed clear signs of fatty buildup in their arteries. When the results are adjusted for age (pre-modern people had shorter life-spans, so most of the remains are of people who died in their 40s or younger), the rate of atherosclerosis was about the same as it is for people in modern society, around 40%. …




From Discovery we’re treated to a photo of a seal surfing on the back of a whale.

Robyn Malcolm was on a whale-watching boat of the coast of Eden in southern New South Wales when the boat came upon a pod of humpback whales and other marine mammals feeding on small baitfish.

Malcolm told Fairfax Media in a interview that she saw amazing whales coming out of the water as they were feeding. There was a lot of activity and everything was happening so quickly that Malcolm didn’t realize what she’d photographed until later.

“It was when I went back through the photos that I realized that I’d actually captured the seal on top of the whale,” she said.

NSWNational Parks and Wildlife whale expert Geoff Ross told the Brisbane Times that the last time he heard of such an unusual coupling was when a seal was trying to get away from a killer whale. “…the seal hopped on the back of the pectoral fins of a humpback whale,” he said. …




The Atlantic has a brief history of levees.

The levee is a technology fundamental to human civilization.  Artificial embankments were designed for the earliest cities, along with the first known draining systems and wells. In the ruins of great Bronze Age civilizations, lost now for thousands of years, the imprints of advanced networks of raised earth can still be traced.

Artificial levees in America predate the founding of the United States itself. Before European colonization, Native Americans made raised-earth structures along the banks of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

Levees can be made of mere mud and sand, yet still bedevil today’s engineers. They have been in use for millennia, yet still they fail. And in many ways, the story of the levee’s design and failure is a parable about the eternal battle between technology and nature.

Two of the best-remembered levee disasters in the United States both decimated New Orleans, once after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and again after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. (The former was immortalized in a 1929 blues tune, “When the Levee Breaks,” that was covered and popularized by Led Zeppelin four decades later.) Local history, though, reveals a much longer record of levee failures; the region has always known anxiety about the integrity of manmade embankments.

Newspaper archives are filled with accounts of surging waters, submerged plantations, quicksand, and close calls. In the Great October Storm of 1893, women were saved from drowning, the story goes, only when their long hair wrapped around tree limbs. “Down the bayou we are used to dealing with sudden adversity,” the poet Martha Serpas wrote in 2010. “We calibrate history by big hurricanes.” …




According to an article in Smithsonian, cypress trees can help suppress wildfires.

It’s been a brutal summer for wildfires in the American West. In the hottest year to date, flames are bearing down on northern California, western Washington has scorched, and more than 5 million acres burned across Alaska. 

As the wildfires smolder, across the pond, researchers from Italy and Spain are looking at a particular tree’s natural resistance to fires, and how that might be used to temper these disasters. They have found that cypress trees ignite seven times slower than other tree species that are native to the same area.

“The peculiar flammability traits of cypress are not a real mystery,” says Gianni Della Rocca, the lead author on the study published in the Journal of Environmental Management. “The physical, chemical and biological characteristic of this species makes it not immediately prone to fire. It means that cypress burns, but it takes longer to catch fire than other Mediterranean species.” 

The group conducted a series of tests on the Cupressus sempervirens species, which is native to the Mediterranean. In a lab, at the particle level, Della Rocca says, “a wide set of bench-scale calorimetry techniques were used to test the flammability parameters of live crowns and litter samples.” Then, in the field, they planted live green barriers. They will test the barrier’s fire resistance as soon as the trees mature, to see if what they found in the lab holds up in the wild.

Across the board, all the characteristics they saw in the cypress trees indicate that they’d help fight wildfires of moderate intensity. The tree’s needles and dead litter that falls to the ground are spongy and hold water for a long time, for one. The widely-spaced structure of the tree’s crown slows down air circulation, and the space between its branches reduces the speed at which a fire spreads. Cypress sap also happens to be less flammable than the resin from other trees. …




Statistically speaking, Five Thirty Eight says movies are about to get good again.

The end of September is approaching, which is fantastic news for moviegoers: It’s the season of good, Oscar-worthy films.

The Hollywood calendar isn’t really rocket science. Summer is the time to put out blockbusters (or blockbuster wannabes). Studios release movies that could potentially score awards — “Oscar bait” — toward the end of the year, so the films are fresh in awards voters’ minds. And typically, the holiday season is also ripe for a few big movies — recently the preferred release time for big-budget fantasy films, such as “The Hobbit” and other “Lord of the Rings” movies, or sci-fi films such as “Avatar” and the forthcoming “Star Wars” reboot.

Unfortunately, that means studios fill in the rest of the year with the movies that aren’t such certain bets — aka mostly schlock. The first four months of the year, January through April, see undependable weather conditions in major population centers that could force people indoors and away from theaters. September is the worst financial month of the year for studios, on average. That probably has something to do with school starting up again; the Motion Picture Association of America reported that, in 2014, 42 percent of tickets were sold to people 24 and younger.

This can be observed by simply plotting out box office receipts per month as a percentage of the yearly total, like so:

But it’s about to be October! That means not only that studios will make a little more money, but also that the really good movies — the kind that win Oscars — are about to come out. …