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Did Neanderthals Produce Cave Paintings?

This cave art was made around 37,300 years ago, when both Neanderthals and humans inhabited Europe. Credit Pedro Saura.

It may be time to stop using the word Neanderthal as an insult for people we think lack culture, intelligence and any concept of aesthetics.

Or at least that’s what Spanish Neanderthal expert João Zilhão would argue. He’s just published a paper in Science

that identifies Neanderthals as possible artists for three paintings in Spain’s El Castillo and Altamira caves.

The work suggests stereotyping Neanderthals as “dumb” may be incorrect, Zilhão says. “From what we know of Neanderthals, there’s no reason to think they didn’t have the capacity” to be creative artists.

Zilhão and his colleagues used an interesting method (more on that later) to date the cave art to between 35,600 and 40,800 years ago…  a time when both Neanderthals and early humans likely coexisted in Europe. (They also dated some 47 other cave paintings, whose younger ages finger humans as the artists.)

This is not the first time Zilhão has found evidence suggesting Neanderthals in Europe were neither cognitively inferior nor less creative than their Homosapien contemporaries in Africa. Continue reading →


Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Bethany Halford and Lauren Wolf.

Credit: Flickr user Lame_Pnk

Turns out the moon isn’t really made of cheese. It’s made of nanoparticles. [Nanowerk]

Well, don’t we feel like old underachievers. One Swedish 10 year old solves a puzzle about approximants, which are related to quasicrystals. Plus he has an awesome name: Linus Hovmöller Zou. [New Scientist]

Live stem cells recovered from a 17-day-old corpse. Horror filmmakers, start your engines. [iO9]

With all the solvents we sniffed in grad school, the Newscripts gang would probably make terrible “O”s in GC-O analysis. Still, this summary of the subject and how it helps scientists understand why certain odors make food yummy is nifty. [PopSci]

New study says tight pants lower sperm count. Future hipster population in major danger, Will Robinson. [Gizmodo]

Computer scientists building an automated country music generator based on algorithmic methods. Why, God, why???????????? [Improbable Research]

When, oh when, can we put the water jet cutter on our Amazon wish lists? [Discoblog]


Recognizing chemical hazards

I’ve got a story in this week’s issue of C&EN on OSHA’s new Hazard Communication standard (aka “HazCom”), the regulation that determines how chemical safety information is relayed to workers, and what bench chemists need to know about the chemical labels and safety data sheets coming their way.

“Memorize the pictograms” is really the take-home point. To that end, it’s important for people to recognize the distinctions between them. The two groups that I think require particular attention are the three health-related pictograms (human profile, exclamation mark, and skull and crossbones) and the flammables and oxidizers (flame and flame over circle). C&EN Design Director Rob Bryson worked with me to group those in print, but that was difficult to do in our web and mobile formats. We posted online a pdf of the print pages as an additional resource for our readers.

Also in this week’s issue is a comment from Robert H. Hill Jr., chair of the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety, discussing the Safety Culture Task Force report on “Creating Safety Cultures in Academic Institutions.”

And now I will sign off for the rest of the week, as I head to Boston to immerse myself in the Investigative Reporters & Editors annual conference! The Friday news round-up will return on June 22.


Friday chemical safety round-up

Chemical health and safety news from the past week:

  • ChemistryWorld released a new “Chemistry in its element” podcast on carbon tetrachloride: “At its height, it was as an all-purpose cleaner, refrigerant and even fire extinguisher but we have since learned (the hard way) that it is dangerously toxic”
  • Remember the rocks that set a woman’s shorts on fire in California? I e-mailed Deanne Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Health Care Agency. She responded that initial field testing of the rocks “indicated the presence of phosphate and phosphine gas.” An independent lab subsequently confirmed the phosphate. “Based on the description of how the rocks spontaneously combusted, the initial results indicating phosphate and the generation of phosphine gas, and the ion chromatography definitively identifying the presence of phosphate, we have concluded the unknown substance on the rocks was phosphorus,” Thompson said. I also checked in with UC Irvine chemistry professor Kenneth Shea, who said that “I think the phosphate analysis was on the residue after the fire. The ‘rock’ that burst into flames that produced the residue had to be elemental phosphorous, probably left over from a flare or some other source.”
  • OSHA pared its annual inspection goal from 42,250 to 41,000 “because the agency has been conducting ‘more complex, time consuming’ inspections this year”
  • Cardiff Metropolitan University, in Wales, opened an International Training Center for handling major chemical incidents
  • Costco will pay $3.6 million to settle a lawsuit over hazardous waste disposal in California
  • The always entertaining and educational Periodic Table of Videos crew visited the U.K.’s National Nuclear Laboratory to get a close-up view of uranium, neptunium, plutonium, and americium:

Fires and explosions:

  • A steam explosion killed one worker and injured two others at Mississippi Phosphates plant in Pascagoula, Miss. The plant had another fatal explosion on May 21. OSHA is investigating both incidents.
  • Molten metal plus water led to an sxplosion and fire at the R.H. Sheppard foundry in Pennsylvania; four workers were treated for minor smoke inhalation
  • If you use sunscreen sprays, pay attention to any flammable warnings: A man sprayed himself with sunscreen, then walked over to his grill, which set his skin alight. “The result was second-degree burns to his chest, ear and back, the only areas where he applied the sunscreen.”

Leaks, spills, and other exposures:

  • A 300-gal container of hydrochloric acid dropped off a forklift, spilling the acid at a Novo Nordisk facility in North Carolina
  • Fumes from a mix of hydrofluoric acid and nitric acid sent three workers from Maine’s Quantum Clean to the hospital
  • Potassium hydroxide splashed, burning a worker’s face and eyes at Sensing Devices in Pennsylvania
  • A worker at South Carolina’s Resolute Forest Products was splashed in the face with sodium hydroxide when transferring the chemical from a tanker truck to a holding tannk; three other workers were also exposed to NaOH when a pipe ruptured on May 19
  • Hydrazine leaked at a space shuttle hanger in Florida
  • “An unidentified liquid in a refrigeration unit” leaked at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C.; two workers were taken to the hospital for respiratory irritation
  • A Kansas State University veterinary professor carrying a bottle of nitric acid hit it on a lab doorway, causing a spill of about 2.5 L; the faculty member sustained minor burns on her feet and five other lab workers were checked out for respiratory exposure
  • A bottle of piperidine broke in transit; the grad student that unpacked the box got it on his hands and clothes
  • An ammonia tank leaked in an engineering lab at the University of Wisconsin, Madison
  • Eight studetns and one adult were sickened from exposure to dilute formaldehyde in a biology classroom at a high school in Rhode Island

Not covered (most of the time): meth labs; ammonia leaks; incidents involving floor sealants, cleaning solutions, or pool chemicals; transportation spills; and fires from oil, natural gas, or other fuels.


UCLA, Harran arraignment in Sheri Sangji case again delayed

Fourth time, same as the first: Arraignment of the University of California, Los Angeles, and chemistry professor Patrick Harran for felony violations of California labor laws has been postponed once more, reports C&EN SCENE editor Michael Torrice. The charges stem from the death of researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji three years ago after a fire in Harran’s lab.

Today, the judge first met with all the lawyers out of the courtroom. When they returned, she scheduled a status check-in with the attorneys on July 2 and “plea and arraignment” on July 13, Torrice says.

For those trying to keep track, the defendants previously appeared together to request postponement on Feb. 2, March 7, and April 11. UCLA had one additional prior arraignment date on Jan. 12.

 


Secrets Of An Ancient Warship’s Ram

This ram was involved in important Roman naval battles some 2300 years ago. Credit: Francesco Caruso

Some people think it looks like a beak but this bronze and wooden artifact is actually a weapon formerly located on the front of a warship that sunk some 2300 years ago.

The ram, also called a rostrum, was found back in 2008, sitting in about six meters of water off the coast of Sicily, in the awesomely-named “Bay of the Pirates” (or Acqualadrone).

Shortly thereafter, scientists carbon-dated the weapon and announced that it must have come from a warship that sunk around 260 B.C.E.

This means the boat likely met its destiny during the First Punic War, which Wikipedia tells me was one of three wars fought between the Romans and the Ancient Carthage of North Africa.

You can nerd out on the history at www.historyofwar.org: “Prior to the Punic Wars, Rome was not seen as a major power in the Mediterranean…” But the point is, this boat and its ram went down in a rather significant series of watery altercations.
Continue reading →


Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news.

Credit: Steidl

Got a thing for librarians? Now you can smell like a book. [Steidl]

How do you weigh a dinosaur? Why, with a laser beam, of course. [Not Exactly Rocket Science]

The law tries to keep up with garage chemists making analogs of THC in “a giant game of chemical Whack-a-Mole.” [Gizmodo]

Mosquitoes + raindrops + high speed video = awesome. [Huffington Post]

Here’s a job you don’t want: Developing stink bombs for the Department of Defense. [New Scientist]

In honor of Ray Bradbury, here are the most beautiful covers of “Fahrenheit 451.” [Slate]

 

 


The New Species On The Block

Today’s guest post is by C&EN Associate Editor and frequent Newscripts contributor Michael Torrice.

Some of the science stories that thrill me most are ones about researchers traveling to isolated spots on the globe in search of never-before-described species. For that reason, I’m a fan of the annual top 10 list of new species put out by the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University. (See my Newscripts column on the 2011 list.)

Since 2008, the institute has published the list as a way to raise people’s awareness of the Earth’s biodiversity. It announces the list each year on May 23, the birthday of Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy.

Botanists, zoologists, entomologists, and other scientists report about 18,000 newly described species every year. The institute solicits nominations for its top 10 from experts and the public via its website. This year, a committee of 13 scientists considered more than 200 nominees.

This year’s top 10 includes a pale yellow poppy that grows at an elevation of 10,000 feet in the Himalayas, an iridescent blue tarantula that crawls along the Amazon River basin, and a Malaysian fungus named after the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants (C&EN Senior Editor Jyllian Kemsley wrote about the fungus for Newscripts back in 2011).

Here are my favorites. Continue reading →