Monday, August 29, 2011

Decatur Book Festival adds science track

Meet Bookzilla, below, your host for the AJC Decatur Book Festival Sept. 2-4. The literary sci-fi monster is the perfect mascot for what has grown into the largest independent book festival in the country. This year, the festival aligned with Atlanta Science Tavern to offer its first science track.

AJC Decatur Book Fest graphic

“An enormous number of great science books are coming out,” says Marc Merlin, a lead organizer of Atlanta Science Tavern and an Emory alum who majored in physics. “The book festival was looking for new ways to extend its program and didn’t have a particular expertise in selecting science authors, so this is a wonderful overlapping of interests.”

Emory physicist Sidney Perkowitz kicks off the science track on Saturday, Sept. 3 at 12:30 p.m. He’ll discuss his new book “Slow Light: Invisibility, Teleportation and Other Mysteries of Light.” Perkowitz will be followed by medical historian Holly Tucker from Vanderbilt University, author of “Blood Work: A Tale of Murder and Medicine in the Scientific Revolution.”

The science track continues on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. with a panel discussion “From Page to Pub to Podcast: Science Writers Address New Venues and New Media.” Panelists include Holly Tucker; Emory paleontologist Anthony Martin, whose book “Life Traces of the Georgia Coast” will be published this fall; and Maryn McKenna, author of Superbug and a blogger at

“They’ll share their experiences of being science educators in a world in which public communication about science now routinely takes place in bars and cafes and on Facebook and Twitter,” says Merlin, who will moderate the discussion.

Atlanta Science Tavern is a great example of the "social science" trend. The Meet-Up group, which gathers regularly at Manuel’s Tavern to hear scientists discuss their research, has grown to more than 1,300 members. “A lot of people are interested in finding out more about science, while also meeting like-minded people who share their wonder and excitement about the natural world,” Merlin says.

On Sunday at 5 p.m., Emory neuroscientist Karen Rommelfanger, who has a special interest in bioethics, will introduce the final speaker in the science track, neuroscientist David Eagleman. He’ll be discussing “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.” In the book, Eagleman argues that “all brains are not created equal. “ He imagines a future where neuroscience improves the ability to zero in on neural inequality, to the point where criminals could be sentenced based on a spectrum of neural “modifiability.”

Other Decatur Book Festival genres of interest to science lovers:

Nature, including Georgia author Janisse Ray.

Science fiction, including best-selling authors Beth Revis and Lee Gimenez.

Graphic novels, with Kyle Puttkammer, author of Galaxy Man.

Health and wellness, including a talk by Norman Rosenthal on transcendental meditation.

Polar dinosaur tracks open new trail to past
'Unstoppable' physics
Buffalo wings, beer and brains

Friday, August 26, 2011

Rock of ages: Music helps keep brain young

Credit: iStockphoto/LindaYolanda

Senior citizens who took music lessons as children for at least 10 years score higher on tests of memory and decision-making ability than non-musicians. In the video below, NBC Chicago reports on the findings by Emory neuropsychologist Brenda Hanna-Pladdy and the University of Kansas.

“It’s conceivable,” Hanna-Pladdy says, “that music activity creates cognitive reserves that may delay the presentation of dementia symptoms.”

Much research has been done to determine the cognitive benefits of musical activity by children. Hanna-Pladdy’s study, published by Neuropsychology in April, was the first to look at whether those benefits extend across a lifetime.

The earlier children undertake music training, the better, in terms of predicting their cognitive function in advanced age.

Another recent study, at Northwestern, shows that older adult musicians who began lessons as children have better hearing.

Teen brain data predicts pop song success
Notes on the musical brain

Thursday, August 25, 2011

An artistic spin on renewable energy

If you have the energy on Friday evening, gather up your molecules and head to downtown Atlanta to catch an acrobatic display of Emory’s research into sustainable fuel. The free performance begins at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 26 in Atlanta Underground, and will help launch a city of Atlanta urban art event, Elevate: Art Above Underground, that continues through October 30.

Conceptual artists from the Seattle group Lelavision will use music, dance and kinetic sculptures to interpret research of the Emory Bio-inspired Renewable Energy Center (EBREC). Emory scientists will be on hand to answer questions about molecular evolution, and the search for sustainable fuels and the origins of life.

In a previous collaboration with Emory chemist David Lynn, Lelavision interpreted supramolecular assembly. The result, called “Evolution in a Nutshell,” can be seen in the video below.

You can also catch Lelavision in action on Thursday and Friday, Sept. 1 and 2, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The Lelavision art installation for EBREC, including a looping video, will remain on display throughout the Elevate festival.

“I hope that the art intrigues people, so that they want to learn more about the cool science research going on in their community,” says Meisa Salaita, education coordinator for the Center for Chemical Evolution. The center, based at Emory and Georgia Tech, combines high-level research with an educational outreach program.

The Lelavision performance is part of the ongoing convergence of science and art fostered by the center, with the aim of engaging the public in research.

Bringing new energy to solar quest
Teaching evolution enters new era
Where you have friction, changes can occur

Monday, August 22, 2011

Mountain gorillas: People in their midst

Fewer than 800 mountain gorillas survive, and about 480 of them are in the Virunga mountains of Central Africa. Photo by Winnie Eckardt.

By Carol Clark

Winnie Eckardt’s work commute begins with a half-hour car ride from town to forest, then continues on foot. It’s often a long trek through the mountainous jungle, and the weather is sometimes rainy and cold. She may have to trudge as long as six hours before she locates one of the groups of mountain gorillas in the Virunga volcanic mountains of Rwanda.

“Usually, I don’t mind walking up and down,” Eckardt says. “On days when the conditions are especially rough, being with the gorillas improves your mood. Spending time with them chills you out.”

Mountain gorillas are known for their tolerance and peaceful demeanor. “You can learn a lot about yourself by watching them,” Eckardt says. “They make you think about how you yourself behave and why. For me, it’s a huge privilege to work with the last remaining mountain gorillas.”

As a post-doctoral fellow in Emory’s department of environmental studies, Eckardt’s job is to observe the behavior of the endangered animals and collect their fecal samples to test for parasites and stress hormones. The first comprehensive mountain gorilla health-monitoring project is a collaboration between Emory, Zoo Atlanta, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.
Emory post-doc Winnie Eckardt during a recent visit to campus, to meet with the team in the primate disease ecology lab. Photo by Carol Clark.

“This is the first time all of these organizations are working together for the benefit of the gorillas,” says Emory primate disease ecologist Tom Gillespie. “It’s a natural way to build on efforts that we’ve been working on separately for a long time.”

Fewer than 800 mountain gorillas are estimated to survive in the world. About 480 of them live in the Virunga mountains of Central Africa, where northwest Rwanda joins with southwest Uganda and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Poachers and loss of habitat are among the threats to the mountain gorillas. As humans use more land for farming, the animals are driven to higher altitudes, where the weather is colder and food is scarcer. The gorillas sometimes take food from eucalyptus trees and bamboo patches cultivated outside the park, risking an exchange of pathogens that is dangerous to both humans and the animals.

The national parks where the animals roam strictly limit the number of tourists that are allowed to see the gorillas. The aim is to balance the need for tourism income with protecting the health of the gorillas.

Photo by Innocent Rwego.

“What we know about pathogens in wild primates is still very limited,” says Gillespie. His lab will assess parasite loads from the fecal samples. A lab at the Lincoln Park Zoo will do the stress hormone analyses.

“The aim is to get a broad-brush understanding of whether the overall health of the animals is changing,” Gillespie says.

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International is headquartered at Zoo Atlanta, and also runs the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. The center was started by the late Dian Fossey in 1967, and has built up a 40-year database of gorilla life, behavior and habitat.

The health-monitoring project melds Karisoke’s ongoing behavioral research with biological analysis.

Does exposure to tourists increase the stress levels of mountain gorilla groups? Do the parasitic loads of gorillas change in relation to stress? How do weather changes affect their immune responses?

“We’re trying to identify key stress sources for the gorillas, and the potential impact of these stressors on their health for the long-term,” Gillespie says. “We want to provide useful data to help influence policy.”

Watch the BBC Worldwide video, below, to get an idea of what it's like to hike in search of mountain gorillas:

Eckardt was a natural choice to work on the field component of the project, based at Karisoke. A native of Germany, Eckardt stayed at Karisoke from 2004 to 2008 as a research assistant and dissertation student. Her study focused on the relationship between mountain gorilla mothers and their offspring.

She recalls when a 28-month-old female became separated from her mother and the rest of the group, perhaps because the group was startled by poachers and had to flee.

The young gorilla spent almost three days alone in the forest, in cold temperatures, before she found her way back to the group. “She was traumatized and she couldn’t walk very well,” Eckardt says. The mother refused to respond to the returning infant and the infant died that night.

“The physical challenge is not the hardest part of the job,” Eckardt says, explaining that, as a scientist, she must stay detached as she observes such behavior and let nature take its course.

A wild view of 'Planet of the Apes'
Gorilla vet tracks microbes for global health

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The iPhone is his instrument

What do you do with a major in math and computer science and a minor in music? Tim Soo, who graduated from Emory in 2010, used those degrees to create invisible musical instruments. He developed software that allows him to turn an iPhone and Wii remote into phantom orchestras, and play music in radical new ways.

It all started while Soo was at Emory and whipped up an invisible violin, using an I-Cube Touch Glove, a Wii-mote and a Max/MSP patch, because he had forgotten his actual violin and urgently needed to record a piece that he had composed for a music class.

Since then, Soo has advanced and polished the concept. His innovation brought him support from the Awesome Foundation and won him the top prize at this year’s Music Hack Day NYC and the MTV O Music Award.

Soo's web site, Invisible Instruments, invites visitors to tap his software for public and educational use, and to develop their own instruments.

The Invisible Instruments project is mainly a hobby, says Soo, and is currently on the back burner as he pursues a medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania. “My primary interests lie in patient-side medical technologies,” he writes on his blog.

One of his ongoing projects is a heartbeat app. The program ties a person’s heartbeat to the beats of a song to gradually lower the heart rate and reduce stress and mental pain.

A built-in brower searches for the top YouTube hits based on a playlist of songs entered by the user. “Should the heart rate become faster during a song, the subsequent song will have a slower tempo until the heart rate reaches an acceptable range,” Soo explains on his blog. “If the heart rate drops too low, Rick Astley sings ‘Never gonna give you up.’”

Where music meets technology
The math of your heart
Notes on the musical brain

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Somali girl pursues her passion for math

By Patrick Adams, Emory Magazine

Maaria Osman is small and slight, with hazel eyes and a round face framed by a tight-fitting hijab, the traditional head cover worn by women throughout the Muslim world and by all female teachers and students at Abaarso Tech. The school in a remote area of Somaliland is an experiment in education started by Jonathan Starr, who graduated from Emory in 1999 with a degree in economics.

Shy and reserved, Osman speaks softly in halting English. She is not yet fluent in the language.

Yet at 12, Osman is one of the best math students in the school. Last year, she had the highest score of the math section of the national exit exam, the test administered to all eighth-grade students around the country in the last days of what is, for the vast majority of Somali students, their final year of formal education.

Photo of Osman, left, by Patrick Adams.

That Osman even took the exam was unusual. According to a recent survey by UNICEF, only slightly more than a quarter of Somali girls of primary school age are enrolled in school. That figure is attributable in large part to the collapse of Somalia’s central government in 1991 and the decades of conflict that ensued. But the biggest obstacle to Somali girls’ enrollment, says UNICEF, is the tendency of mothers to keep their daughters home to share the burden of domestic labor.

For all of their daughter’s ability in the classroom, her uncommon facility for multiplying fractions, for instance, Osman’s parents had just such a plan in mind. It wasn’t that they weren’t aware of Abaarso Tech or the fact that Osman could attend the school for free. It was that her curricular achievements were immaterial to the family’s immediate needs.

But Starr persisted. Enlisting the help of some of his best female students and their mothers, he mounted a recruiting strategy worthy of a Big Ten football program. And at last, the effort paid off.

In the eight months since her arrival, Osman has exceeded expectations. Not only has she outperformed many of her peers, including a handful of diaspora students from the U.S. and the U.K., she’s exhibited a work ethic bordering on obsession.

“She does math problems in her spare time,” says math teacher Mike Freund. “Literally every night, she’ll finish her homework and come to me to ask for more. She’s incredible.”

Read the full article in Emory Magazine about the unique economic model for Abaarso Tech, which has brought a biochemistry lab, dedicated teachers and a scholarship for study in America to a parched patch of earth, in a region best known for its piracy and poverty.

Famine in Somalia driven by conflict
Blazing a new path for development work

Thursday, August 11, 2011

How to parent a college freshman

Watch the classic video, above, of the talk Emory psychologist Marshall Duke gives to parents during freshman orientation.

“Nowadays, ‘going off to college’ isn’t just about a teenager leaving home. It’s also about parents learning to let go,” writes Jenna Johnson in the Washington Post.

“College administrators have found that today’s millennial students – along with their late-Baby Boomer and early-Generation X parents – often need more hand-holding than generations before.”

Johnson conducted an online chat on the topic today with Marshall Duke, an Emory psychology professor who, for 25 years, has delivered an annual lecture to parents of freshman about what to expect when they leave their child at college for the first time.

Regarding a question about move-in day at the dorm, Duke advised parents not to sweat the small stuff and to focus on communication.

“Saying goodbye is the most important thing of all in my mind,” he responded. “Do not take this lightly. This child starts college only once. The moment is a powerful one. It allows for the communication of very high sentiments. Do you want to waste it on things like, ‘Make your bed every day?’”

You can read the whole discussion here.

Parenting a college student: What to expect

Can meditation calm your kids?


“It calms my mind,” says a regular meditator named Sam. That statement wouldn’t be too surprising, except that Sam is in elementary school.

He was one of the children ages 5 to 8 at Atlanta’s Paideia School featured in a recent report on meditation by Dan Harris of ABC News. The students are part of an Emory study into the effects of compassion meditation, a secular form of meditation aimed at helping people reduce stress and think kindly of others.

As Harris points out, studies show that compassionate people tend to be happier, healthier and more successful at work.

And Sam finds a practical use for it while in an Atlanta traffic jam with his mother at the wheel. “My brother’s screaming, my mom’s cussing, and I’m meditating,” he says.

Watch the ABC News report.

Elementary thoughts on love and kindness
Are hugs the new drugs?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Banana split: Chimps show they share


Helen Fields writes in Science Now about the latest discovery from Emory’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center:

Despite our wars and crime, humans tend to be nice. We bake for our neighbors, give directions to strangers, and donate money to far-off disaster victims. But does the same go for our closest cousin, the chimpanzee? A new study suggests that it does.

People who study chimpanzees in the field have known for a long time that the apes console their comrades when they're upset and support each other in a fight. And when one chimp has a good hunting day and kills a nice, juicy monkey, it shares the meat with the other members of its group.

But scientists have found that chimps don't share in lab experiments, creating a bit of a primatology mystery. … Comparative psychologist Victoria Horner of Emory University in Atlanta thought she knew the reason why experiments didn't find sharing: the experimental setups other scientists used to test the chimps were just too confusing—"tables with pulley systems and whatnot."

With her colleagues at Emory, including renowned primatologist Frans de Waal, Horner devised a new way to test chimps' generosity. "We did the same basic idea but from a more chimpy perspective," she says.

Read the full article in Science Now.

In the experiment, chimpanzees were trained to exchange tokens for food. One color token would buy a packet of food for the chooser, while another color would buy a packet for the chooser and her partner in the experiment. The chimpanzees were more likely to pick the generous color. Illustration by Devyn Carter.


A wild view of apes

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Polar dinosaur tracks open new trail to past

By Carol Clark

Paleontologists have discovered a group of more than 20 polar dinosaur tracks on the coast of Victoria, Australia, offering a rare glimpse into animal behavior during the last period of pronounced global warming, about 105 million years ago.

The discovery, reported in the journal Alcheringa, is the largest and best collection of polar dinosaur tracks ever found in the Southern Hemisphere.

“These tracks provide us with a direct indicator of how these dinosaurs were interacting with the polar ecosystems, during an important time in geological history,” says Emory paleontologist Anthony Martin, who led the research. Martin is an expert in trace fossils, which include tracks, trails, burrows, cocoons and nests.

The three-toed tracks are preserved on two sandstone blocks from the Early Cretaceous Period. They appear to belong to three different sizes of small theropods – a group of bipedal, mostly carnivorous dinosaurs whose descendants include modern birds.
Photos of the tracks, above and below, by Anthony Martin.

The research team also included Thomas Rich, from the Museum Victoria; Michael Hall and Patricia Vickers-Rich, both from the School of Geosciences at Monash University in Victoria; and Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec, an ecologist and expert in spatial analysis from Emory’s Department of Environmental Studies.

The tracks were found on the rocky shoreline of remote Milanesia Beach, in Otways National Park. This area, west of Melbourne, is known for energetic surf and rugged coastal cliffs, consisting of layers of sediment accumulated over millions of years. Riddled with fractures and pounded by waves and wind, the cliffs occasionally shed large chunks of rock, such as those containing the dinosaur tracks.

One sandstone block has about 15 tracks, including three consecutive footprints made by the smallest of the theropods, estimated to be the size of a chicken. Martin spotted this first known dinosaur trackway of Victoria last June 14, around noon. He was on the lookout, since he had earlier noticed ripple marks and trace fossils of what looked like insect burrows in piles of fallen rock.

“The ripples and burrows indicate a floodplain, which is the most likely area to find polar dinosaur tracks,” Martin explains.

The second block containing tracks was spotted about three hours later by Greg Denney, a local volunteer who accompanied Martin and Rich on that day’s expedition. That block had similar characteristics to the first one, and included eight tracks. The tracks show what appear to be theropods ranging in size from a chicken to a large crane.

“We believe that the two blocks were from the same rock layer, and the same surface, that the dinosaurs were walking on,” Martin says.

The small, medium and large tracks may have been made by three different species, Martin says. “They could also belong to two genders and a juvenile of one species – a little dinosaur family – but that’s purely speculative,” he adds.

The Victoria Coast marks the seam where Australia was once joined to Antarctica. During that era, about 115-105 million years ago, the dinosaurs roamed in prolonged polar darkness. The Earth’s average temperature was 68 degrees Fahrenheit – just 10 degrees warmer than today – and the spring thaws would cause torrential flooding in the river valleys.

The dinosaur tracks were probably made during the summer, Martin says. “The ground would have been frozen in the winter, and in order for the waters to subside so that animals could walk across the floodplain, it would have to be later in the season,” he explains.

Lower Cretaceous strata of Victoria have yielded the best-documented assemblage of polar dinosaur bones in the world. Few dinosaur tracks, however, have been found.

In the February 2006, Martin found the first known carnivorous dinosaur track in Victoria, at a coastal site known as Dinosaur Dreaming.

In May 2006, during a hike to another remote site near Milanesia Beach, he discovered the first trace fossil of a dinosaur burrow in Australia. That find came on the heels of Martin’s co-discovery of the first known dinosaur burrow and burrowing dinosaur, in Montana. The two discoveries suggest that burrowing behaviors were shared by dinosaurs of different species, in different hemispheres, and spanned millions of years during the Cretaceous Period.

For more details of the discovery, check out Martin's blog, The Great Cretaceous Walk.

Dinosaur burrows yield clues to climate change
Dinosaurs make a comeback in the Outback

Monday, August 8, 2011

What happened to Obama's passion?

Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory and the author of “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation,” writes about the importance of story-telling in this New York Times opinion piece:

It was a blustery day in Washington on Jan. 20, 2009, as it often seems to be on the day of a presidential inauguration. As I stood with my 8-year-old daughter, watching the president deliver his inaugural address, I had a feeling of unease. It wasn’t just that the man who could be so eloquent had seemingly chosen not to be on this auspicious occasion, although that turned out to be a troubling harbinger of things to come. It was that there was a story the American people were waiting to hear — and needed to hear — but he didn’t tell it. And in the ensuing months he continued not to tell it, no matter how outrageous the slings and arrows his opponents threw at him.

Photo, left:

The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred. Our brains evolved to “expect” stories with a particular structure, with protagonists and villains, a hill to be climbed or a battle to be fought. Our species existed for more than 100,000 years before the earliest signs of literacy, and another 5,000 years would pass before the majority of humans would know how to read and write.

Stories were the primary way our ancestors transmitted knowledge and values. Today we seek movies, novels and “news stories” that put the events of the day in a form that our brains evolved to find compelling and memorable. Children crave bedtime stories; the holy books of the three great monotheistic religions are written in parables; and as research in cognitive science has shown, lawyers whose closing arguments tell a story win jury trials against their legal adversaries who just lay out “the facts of the case.”

When Barack Obama rose to the lectern on Inauguration Day, the nation was in tatters. Americans were scared and angry. The economy was spinning in reverse. … Americans needed their president to tell them a story about what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end.

Read the whole article in the New York Times.

Obama urged to wean nation off oil
Stories your parents should have told you

Friday, August 5, 2011

A wild view of apes of the planet

“It’s a very humbling experience to come face to face with an adult, male lowland gorilla,” says Emory primate disease ecologist Tom Gillespie. “They have a characteristic bluff.”

The male charges toward the perceived threat, says Gillespie, who has been charged often during in his research in Africa. “They put a leaf between their teeth, they beat their chest, and they move back and forth at very close proximity, just in front of you. You can smell their breath at times when they’re doing this. It takes all of your strength away. So it’s a very humbling experience.”

But despite their enormous physical power, gorillas don’t resort to violence unless it’s absolutely necessary to protect themselves or their families. “No one has been killed by a gorilla in any case where they didn’t provoke the gorilla,” Gillespie says. “There’s a misconception of what a gorilla is. Gorillas are extremely peaceful animals. They’re 100-percent vegetarian and they live in a family group that basically keeps to itself.”

What we know from studies of apes in the wild runs counter to the characteristics of the animals portrayed in the new movie “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” he says.

Even the more war-like behavior observed in chimpanzees in the wild might be less aggressive without human involvement, Gillespie says. “A lot of those things happened because we intervened. We went in there and fed a bunch of bananas to the animals. They changed their ranges, they got accustomed to getting bananas and then when we walked away and stopped giving them bananas, all the sudden they needed food and they started fighting over where they’re going to get the food.”

Banana split: Chimps show they share
Gorilla vet works for global health
Primate disease ecologist tracks germs in the wild

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Famine in Somalia driven by conflict

A worn-out tank sits abandoned in Somalia, where the central government has lacked control over much of the country since 1991. Credit:

“In the Horn of Africa, droughts are natural but famines are man made,” says Emory anthropologist Peter Little, who studies the politics, economy and ecology of the region. “The famine in Somalia is an unfortunate intersection of failed rain, politics and conflict.”

Drought occurs every five or six years in the Horn of Africa. In Somalia, which has lacked the control of a central government over much of the country since a civil war in 1991, the effects of the current drought have been greatly compounded by fighting, Little says.

The U.N. has declared famine in two regions of south Somalia where the Islamist group Al-Shabaab has been fighting to maintain control. “A phenomenal number of people have been displaced,” Little says. “People have been forced out of farming and livestock areas and have clustered around towns where there is a little bit of security.”

Fighting disrupts markets and trading, and complicates delivery of food aid. In an attempt to escape the situation in recent months, more than 350,000 Somalis have poured into northeastern Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, which was designed to hold fewer than 100,000 people.

“Somalia is like a roller coaster, and right now it’s near the bottom of the hill,” Little says.

After years of being a failed state, things were beginning to look up for Somalia around 2003, when the World Bank put together an economic memorandum for the country. “People were actually becoming modestly optimistic about solutions,” Little says. “I was asked if I might be interested in joining a 2006 mission to Mogadishu, to look at long-term development, but things blew up again and it was cancelled.”

Since 2007, the situation has been steadily deteriorating, he says. “The food security situation has been awful for the past three years, particularly for the most vulnerable: Children, the elderly and women.”

Although the famine declaration in July brought Somalia back into the media spotlight, “the story has been bubbling for a long time,” Little says.

A Somali girl takes a rare chance to pursue her passion for math
What we can learn from African pastoralists

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Dinosaurs are booming in the Outback

Emory science majors pose with a life-sized statue of Muttaburrasaurus langdoni while crusing the Cretaceous of Queensland. Can you spot Paleontologist Barbie in this picture? You may have to click on the photo to enlarge it. Photo by Anthony Martin.

A dozen years ago, Australian rancher David Elliott came across a large bone while rounding up his sheep in the Queensland Outback. It turned out to be the femur of an 18-meter long sauropod – a piece of the largest dinosaur ever found in Australia.

The collecting bug bit Elliot, as more dinosaur fossils were dug up on his property. He and his wife, Judy, founded the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Center (AAOD) in Winton. The isolated Outback town, where poet Banjo Patterson wrote the classic tune “Waltzing Matilda,” is now a hub for dino tourism.

“Australia has often been regarded as ‘dinosaur poor,’” says Emory paleontologist Anthony Martin. “As a continent, there just hadn’t been a lot of material to study.”

Since Elliot’s initial discovery, the AAOD has amassed hundreds of bones, and more keep coming. “So far, they’ve named three new species of dinosaurs, and they suspect they have more,” Martin says. “There is a growing realization that a new age of dinosaurs is happening in Australia.”

Martin and geologist Steve Henderson of Emory’s Oxford College recently returned from leading nine students on a summer study abroad program in Australia. A highlight was a whirlwind paleo-tour of Queensland, including a stop at the AAOD.

“We wanted to give the students a taste of what life is like in the modern-day Outback, and 100 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period,” Martin says. “I hope they got an appreciation for the incredible natural history of Queensland, and the evolution of landscapes and life in that area of the world.”

Unlike the American West, which has a 100-year history of unearthing and studying dinosaur fossils, Queensland is at the beginning of uncovering a rich trove of the prehistoric past.

“You get to see the science as it's happening and feel the immediacy of discoveries,” Martin says.

Trish Sloan, the group’s guide at the AAOD, showed the students how to prepare a dinosaur bone, and gave them a glimpse of the center’s most recent finds. “I can’t talk about it, because it hasn’t gone through peer review yet,” Martin says. “But Trish was excited about new finds that may change people’s minds about the dinosaurs in the area.”

Read more about Down Under dinosaurs on Martin's blog The Great Cretaceous Walk.

Dinosaur burrows found in Australia
He digs prehistoric wasps
Insider's guide to Georgia barrier islands

Monday, August 1, 2011

Do drones make killing too easy?

Dozens of countries are now producing unmanned aircraft known as drones, ranging from flying “spies” the size of insects to large planes equipped with missiles and bombs.

A soldier sitting at a computer in Nevada can be running lethal drones on the other side of the world.

“That to me is deeply problematic, when you make killing so easy, and when you remove the person so far from the site of the killing,” says Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Emory Center for Ethics. “The sense of having killed people becomes so abstract.”

Drone technology could develop to the point that enemy soldiers conduct entire battles against one another via computer, while sitting in fortified bunkers.

“This sort of strategy ends up protecting soldiers more, but exposing civilians more,” Wolpe says. “It will change the nature of warfare and raise a new kind of ethical calculus in the way in which warfare is conducted.”

Nazi eugenics versus the American Dream
Is Iron Man suited for reality?