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Two million-year-old whale fossils printed with 3D technology

These are perfect plastic replicas of 20-foot-long, two million-year-old whale fossils.

These are perfect plastic replicas of 20-foot-long, two million-year-old whale fossils found in Chile.

These may look like real fossils, but they are actually perfect plastic replicas of 2 million-year-old whale skeletons made using a 3D printer.

This printing technology, which can create 3D versions of objects as diverse as a guns or the brain of a man with no memory, was hyped last week by President Obama when he said that 3D printing “has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.”

The technology certainly saved the day for Smithsonian paleobiologist Nick Pyenson.

Pyenson had been finishing up a research trip in Chile in 2011 when he decided to check out a local highway construction site in the Atacama Desert where workers had supposedly uncovered dozens and dozens of whale skeletons.

“I didn’t really believe the rumors at first,” Pyenson says. But when he arrived, “It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.” Pyenson described the experience at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston.

Local museum officials were racing to dig out the skeletons before highway workers paved over the area, Pyenson says. Although the skeletons clearly needed to be removed, a problem with removal is that spatial information about different constellations of fossilized bones is then lost. Continue reading →

The two Mona Lisas debate – Everybody take a breath now.

The two Mona Lisas: Left: the putative young upstart. Right: The Louvre Classic. Credit: Mona Lisa Foundation

The two Mona Lisas: Left: the putative young upstart. Right: The Louvre Classic. Credit: Mona Lisa Foundation

“The Mona Lisa Foundation’s mission is to make Leonardo’s ‘Earlier Mona Lisa’ known and loved in its own right, as much as the version that hangs in the Louvre Museum.”

This quote comes from the website of a Swiss organization that sent out a press release yesterday announcing it had new scientific proof that a painting of a younger looking Mona Lisa is the first portrait da Vinci made of the famous muse.

And a maelstrom of news followed.

But let’s just be clear about this new scientific proof: It’s the radiocarbon dating of a piece of cloth canvas.

New tests at the Swiss Institute for Technology in Zurich (ETH) suggest the canvas cloth was made between 1410 and 1455. Previous dating experiments at Oxford pointed toward the 17th century, which implied the painting was not made by da Vinci, who lived between 1452 and 1519.

Since the canvas cloth date just needs to fall before the production of the painting, the new carbon dating does lend credence to the claims that the artwork could have also been made by da Vinci.

But it’s JUST the dating of the cloth, folks: There’s no proof in the current study that da Vinci actually made the painting. Continue reading →

Fake crystal Aztec skulls

A fake crystal Aztec skull

A fake crystal Aztec skull

There’s a great report out about how the British Museum and the Smithsonian teamed up to prove that two crystal skulls, one at each museum, are actually fakes.

Both skulls were purportedly made by Aztecs in Mexico prior to Columbus’ arrival. The British Museum bought its skull from Tiffany and Co. in 1897 while the Smithsonian received its skull in 1960 from an anonymous donor.

Although skulls are common motifs in Aztec art, museum curators at both institutions were suspicious of the skulls for a couple of reasons.

For one, neither skull comes from well-documented official archaeological excavations.

Also something was weird with the teeth.

To quote the report:  “The rigid linearity of features representing teeth contrasts with the more precise execution of teeth on pre-Columbian artefacts.”

It sounds like whoever faked the crystal skulls was a little too fond of idealized, modern dentistry. Continue reading →

When a Rembrandt copy is not a forgery

Top: The original. Middle: The mock-up. Bottom: Mock-up & portrait below. © J. Paul Getty Trust

Top: The original. Middle: The mock-up. Bottom: Mock-up & portrait below. © J. Paul Getty Trust

So you’d think that making a replica of a Rembrandt might be frowned upon by the art world, but this copy of “An old man in military costume” has full approval of its owners.

In fact, the folks at the Paul Getty Museum in LA, asked their own intern to replicate the masterpiece as well as the hidden painting beneath it.

It seems that there’s a pretty good reason for making the copy, or “mock-up” as the researchers call it.

For years, museum researchers have known that there’s another painting beneath the military portrait. But they’ve had a tough time getting more than just a faint whiff of the image hidden below using standard analytical methods.

Over the past few years, a new technique called scanning macro X-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF) has proven itself useful for uncovering hidden paintings on canvases by Van Gogh, Goya and others.

The question is whether MA-XRF would work for Rembrandt’s military portrait. And specifically, whether a portable X-ray device was powerful enough to do the trick or whether the painting should travel to a more a powerful synchrotron X-ray source, such as in Hamburg (DESY) or at Brookhaven National Labs in New York.

It comes down to the fact that museums don’t like shipping valuable and fragile art around the world unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Enter intern Andrea Sartorius (who I momentarily hoped was a descendent of the 17th century Croatian weight-loss fanatic & innovator, Sanctorius Sanctorius. Sadly the names are not quite the same.)

Anyway, Sartorius painted a copy of the original Rembrandt using the same kind of pigments and binder that he would have used, and she included another portrait below the military one.

Then the copy was shipped around the world to be analyzed using X-rays from the various synchrotron sources and from the portable device. Turns out it’s worth the trip to more snazzy X-ray sources if you want to see the hidden painting below. The team argues in this paper that transporting the Rembrandt to a synchrotron facility is actually “useful and relevant.”

The paper’s lead researcher, Matthias Alfred, praised the mock-up: “It is the first time that a painting was reproduced in such an elaborate way for these tests.” It seems that experiments on mock-ups help museum staff decide whether sending expensive art to outside labs for analysis is worth the risk and effort.

And that, my friends, is how a fake Rembrandt can sometimes be a good thing.

Fear Of Stink: A Century In The Making

Lurking among us are foolish folks who fork out cash for deodorants even though their armpits don’t smell.

This is the take-home message of an article in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology that’s been making the rounds of science news sites and blogs. It’s a fun study, but the results aren’t really that surprising.

Researchers have known for years that some people in Europe (2% of the population) and most people in China, Japan, and Korea are fortunate enough to have two copies of a recessive gene that makes their armpits relative* stink-free zones.

An anti-sweat advertisement from 1939.

An anti-sweat advertisement from 1939.

That’s because the gene codes for a protein involved in transporting molecules out of special sweat glands that appear in your armpits at puberty. These stink-producing glands are called apocrine glands, and they differ from eccrine glands, which are found all over your body and produce the salty fluid we commonly associate with sweat and body temperature regulation.

Apocrine glands typically excrete all manner of waxy molecules that armpit bacteria love to feast on. It’s the leftover, metabolized molecules, such as trans-3-methyl-2-hexanoic acid, which give many human bodies that oh-so-ripe odor.

Because the difference between stinky and stink-free folks is a gene involved in transporting armpit molecules, it’s pretty likely that people without body odor have a dysfunctional transporter. Although that’s not yet been proven, it’s a reasonable theory.

For example, people with odorless armpits also produce a dry white earwax, instead of a yellowish wet version. Presumably, the transport machinery that isn’t exporting bacteria food in the armpit isn’t exporting a yellowish fluid in the ears either.

What’s really new in the article is simply the observation that among the 2% of folks in the UK who probably don’t need to apply deodorant, 78% still do.

OK, so why is this not really surprising? Continue reading →

Ancient Roman cosmetics: Skin cream from the 2nd century A.D.

Roman skin cream from the 2nd century A.D. found in a temple below London Southwark. Credit: Nature

Last week, while working on an article about the chemical make-up of 2000-year-old medicine tablets from a Roman shipwreck, I read that back in 2003 archeologists had unearthed a full canister of cosmetic skin cream, hidden in a Roman temple drain in Southwark, London.

When a Museum of London curator opened up the 2nd century A.D. canister, she found it full of white ointment, awesomely reminiscent of modern-day Nivea cream.

This rare find was then chemically analyzed by University of Bristol’s Richard Evershed, who has a quirky research niche: Figuring out the composition of ancient medical, food and cosmetic concoctions, usually by studying residues leftover on old pottery. (He made news last December by reporting that the fatty deposits on pieces of ancient Polish pottery are Northern Europe’s oldest evidence of cheese-making.)

So what precisely was in the creamy white ointment?

In a 2004 Nature

paper, Evershed’s team announced that “the Londinium cream” was primarily made up of animal fat, probably from cattle or sheep. They also detected starch, which was likely isolated by boiling roots and grains in water. In addition, the cream contained a tin dioxide mineral called cassiterite with the chemical formula SnO2.

Then came some reverse engineering. Evershed’s team mixed together a new cream based on the proportions of animal fat, starch and tin dioxide that they had measured in the ancient ointment. Here’s how they describe its aesthetic appeal:

“This cream had a pleasant texture when rubbed into the skin. Although it felt greasy initially, owing to the fat melting as a result of body heat, this was quickly overtaken by the smooth, powdery texture created by the starch. Remarkably, starch is still used for this purpose in modern cosmetics. The addition of SnO2 to the starch/fat base confers a white opacity, which is consistent with the cream being a cosmetic. Fashionable Roman women aspired to a fair complexion, and the Londinium cream may have served as a foundation layer.”

Recreated cream. Credit: Nature.

The researchers go on to say that employing tin to color the ointment white would have been safer than using toxic lead-based pigments, which was common in that era. “White Roman face paint typically comprised lead acetate, prepared by dissolving lead shavings in vinegar.”

They write that it’s not clear whether the cream’s maker intentionally opted for tin because it is non-toxic compared to lead. During the 2nd century A.D., Roman society was slowly becoming aware of lead poisoning… But then again, the chemists of that era weren’t very adept at distinguishing lead from tin, note the authors.

Another possibility is that the cosmetic-maker used tin out of convenience, because nearby Cornish mines had abundant deposits of tin dioxide. Or perhaps our cosmetic-maker was an early pioneer of the buy-local scene.

Ancient Roman remedies: Popping pills for 2000 years

Tablet holder. Courtesy: Erika Ribechini

When researchers want to learn about the cosmetics, culinary dishes, elixirs and other concoctions created and consumed by long-lost cultures, they typically try to recreate recipes found in ancient documents and then analyze the products in a lab.

Or researchers go spelunking in museum vessels, hoping to find a residue at the bottom of a pot or on a pottery sherd that can be chemically identified with increasingly sophisticated analyzed technology. Unfortunately, tell-tale residues on dirty dishes have often been destroyed by time, weather and/or hungry microbes.

That’s why the six intact medicinal tablets found in a 2000-year-old shipwreck off the coast of Tuscany is an extraordinary find.  “It has been very exciting to be in contact with a rare, original, ancient therapeutic product,” says Erika Ribechini, a scientist at the University of Pisa, who just published a paper in PNAS announcing its chemical constituents.

Ancient pill from the 1st century BC. Courtesy: Erika Ribechini.

Here’s an article I wrote (and some others) about her team’s analysis of the 1st century BC tablets, which revealed that the ancient Roman pill was heavily laden with zinc, a metal that Ribechini believes was used to cure eye disease, possibly infection or inflammation. (Zinc is present in Neosporin, the topical antibiotic.) Also found in the pill was beeswax, plant pollen and all sorts of plant and animal fats.

One of my favorite parts of the paper was the tangential reference to other medical objects found near the pills amid the Pozzino shipwreck, including an iron probe (oh my) and a bronze cupping vessel.

“The cupping vessel had a peculiar shape that was typical of a medical tool used for bloodletting or as an instrument to apply hot air to soothe aches.” The authors think that a traveling physician was probably on board with his wares.

Given the option of an iron probe, bloodletting or a zinc tablet to cure my ailments, I think I’d pop the pill, thank you very much.

Dirty Dishes: Fatty residues on pottery fragments point to 6000 B.C. cheese-making

This pottery sherd was part of an ancient strainer used by prehistoric humans to separate cheese curds from whey. Credit: Nature.

Nearly eight thousand years ago in an area that is now called Poland, a prehistoric person skipped dish-duty.

Thanks to this delinquency, researchers in Poland and the UK led by Richard Evershed have been able to analyze the dirty residues on these dishes.

Today the scientists report in Nature

that the fatty acid leftovers are Northern Europe’s earliest evidence for cheese-making.

And tomorrow, teenagers everywhere will begin arguing that dirty dishes buried under beds are a gift to future archeologists.

But seriously, archeologists are interested in the onset of cheese-making for several reasons. Continue reading →