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Australian fires are being set by legendary pyromaniacal raptors
Flame-bearing birds streak out of mythology and straight into science.
The aboriginal people of northern Australia have spoken of them for at least a century: “Firehawks" who carry fire through the sky, dropping it to the ground to spark flames that drive prey out of hiding. These creatures are even characters in certain Dreaming ceremonies. Indigenous author Phillip Waipuldanya Roberts wrote in his 1964 biography, “I have seen a hawk pick up a smouldering stick in its claws and drop it in a fresh patch of dry grass half a mile away, then wait with its mates for the mad exodus of scorched and frightened rodents and reptiles." Inspired by Roberts' account, researchers decided to look into these stories, talking to both indigenous and non-indigenous people, and a new study concludes they're no myths. Firehawks are real.
The new insight is likely to help authorities deal with a major outbreak of brushfires, occurring during Australia's current overwhelming heatwave. The depth of indigenous ecological knowledge has long been recognized, including what the study terms “fine-grained understandings of fire." Even so, “Though Aboriginal rangers and others who deal with bushfires take into account the risks posed by raptors that cause controlled burns to jump across firebreaks, official skepticism about the reality of avian fire-spreading hampers effective planning for landscape management and restoration." While humans engage in careful, science-based fire management for community safety, food production, and ecological purposes, the birds have had their own plans.
It appears at least three avian species qualify as the firehawks of legend:
Black Kite, Whistling Kite, and Brown Falcon (THE INTERNET BIRD)
The study finds there have been numerous reports of birds gathering along the fronts of raging fires, essentially foraging for burning sticks to grab in their talons and beaks. In general, people studying the behavior from afar tend consider it to be accidental, while up-close witnesses disagree: They're pretty convinced the firehawks know exactly what they're doing. The study offers this summary of the “fire-spreading" behavior as described by witnesses:
Raptors fly into active fires to pick up smoldering sticks in talons or beaks, transporting them up to a kilometer away and dropping them either in brush or in grass. Sticks may be from human cooking fires or from burning or smoldering vegetation. The imputed intent of raptors is to spread fire to unburned locations—for example, the far side of a watercourse, road, or artificial break created by firefighters—to flush out prey via flames or smoke. The behavior may occur once or repeatedly during the fire, by a single bird or by a small percentage of the overall raptors present. Attempts may be unsuccessful, with burning sticks dropped short of unburned areas or dropped but not igniting vegetation.
The study also includes accounts that explain why firehawks so excel at thwarting firefighters' attempt to establish fire breaks: “When a fire burns into a creek line and burns out, brown falcons have also been observed collecting fire brands and dropping them on the other unburnt side of the creek in order to continue the fire."
The authors of the study suggest controlled experiments with deliberately started fires and ornithologists on hand to more closely observe firehawks' behavior in the hopes of better understanding these naturally occurring, flying arsonists who make the job of down-under firefighters' so much more tricky. Dreamtime, indeed. More like nightmare-time.
Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
Ancient Mayans have been a continuing source of inspiration for their monuments, knowledge, and mysterious demise. Now a new study discovers some of the drugs they used. For the first time, scientists found remnants of a non-tobacco plant in Mayan drug containers. They believe their analysis methods can allow them exciting new ways of investigating the different types of psychoactive and non-psychoactive plants used by the Maya and other pre-Colombian societies.
The research was carried out by a team from Washington State University, led by anthropology postdoc Mario Zimmermann. They spotted residue of the Mexican marigold (Tagetes lucida) in 14 tiny ceramic vessels that were buried over a 1,000 years ago on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. The containers also exhibited chemical traces of two types of tobacco: Nicotiana tabacum and N. rustica. Scientists think the marigold was mixed in with the tobacco to make the experience more pleasant.
"While it has been established that tobacco was commonly used throughout the Americas before and after contact, evidence of other plants used for medicinal or religious purposes has remained largely unexplored," said Zimmermann. "The analysis methods developed in collaboration between the Department of Anthropology and the Institute of Biological Chemistry give us the ability to investigate drug use in the ancient world like never before."
The scientists used a new method based on metabolomics that is able to pinpoint thousands of plant compounds, or metabolites, in residue of archaeological artifacts like containers and pipes. This allows the researchers to figure out which specific plants were utilized. The way plant residue was identified before employed looking for specific biomarkers from nicotine, caffeine, and other such substances. That approach would not be able to spot what else was consumed outside of what biomarker was found. The new way gives much more information, showing the researchers a fuller picture of what the ancient people ingested.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
The containers in the study were found by Zimmerman and a team of archaeologists in 2012.
"When you find something really interesting like an intact container it gives you a sense of joy," shared Zimmermann. "Normally, you are lucky if you find a jade bead. There are literally tons of pottery sherds but complete vessels are scarce and offer a lot of interesting research potential."
The researchers are negotiating with various Mexican institutions to be able to study more ancient containers for plant residues. They also aim to look at organic materials possibly preserved in the dental plaque of ancient remains.
Check out the study published in Scientific Reports.
Before it fueled Woodstock and the Summer of Love, LSD was brought to America to make spying easier.
- The CIA's Project MK-Ultra was designed to investigate the potential of drugs for intelligence operations.
- LSD was thought to be a truth serum and was used on unwitting citizens.
- The full extent of the CIA's unethical human experiments may never be known.
LSD has a long, storied history in America. It is most famously associated with the counterculture of the 1960s, but modern medical science has brought it (and other psychedelics like DMT and psilocybin) into the mainstream as possible therapeutic agents for the treatment of mental illness and addiction.
A slightly less well-known story is when the CIA tried to employ LSD as a tool in spycraft and tested its applications on unwitting Americans and Canadians.
The specter of international communism made America paranoid during the 1950s. Communist infiltration was thought to be lurking behind every corner, and the USSR was considered capable of just about anything in its goal of achieving worldwide dominance. It is within this milieu that one can understand why, when faced with instances of soldiers in the Korean War defecting to the North or denouncing war crimes that didn't happen, the U.S. government suddenly became convinced that the commies had developed some form of mind control.
The CIA thought it imperative that similar capacities be achieved by the U.S. If the Reds did not actually have that ability, all the better. So a project dubbed MK-Ultra was started in 1953 with the goal of finding a drug that could be used as a truth serum and a tool of mind control. Many drugs were tested, not just LSD, often on people without their knowledge or consent.
The head of the program, Sidney Gottlieb, thought LSD may be the wonder-drug he was looking for. So, he had the U.S. buy the entire global supply of LSD, at the time only produced by the Swiss company Sandoz, for a cool $240,000. The massive stockpile was immediately put to use.
The CIA set up front organizations to finance research of the drug at a number of universities, including Stanford and MIT, to see how typical test subjects would react to the drug in a clinical setting without making the CIA's interest in the drug known.
Less ethically and less voluntarily, some prisoners in the American penal system were given the drug daily for months on end. The CIA even drugged its own employees, hoping to learn what would happen if an intelligence asset was slipped a drug they knew nothing about. This resulted in at least one death.
And it only got stranger, less voluntary, and more illegal after that.
Operation Midnight Climax (yes, it was really called that)
In one of the more bizarre "experiments" during the project, the CIA had prostitutes in New York and San Francisco bring their clients back to a safehouse where they would be slipped LSD. After the conclusion of business, the prostitutes would ask questions of their clients, who would be tripping, in an attempt to determine how much LSD was required to get men talking. All of this was observed through a one-way glass by CIA operatives with no scientific backgrounds who drank martinis by the pitcher.
The use of the drug in interrogations also was investigated at safehouses in Europe and East Asia. Suspected foreign intelligence assets were given massive doses of LSD before interrogation to cause emotional trauma "at levels that can only be called torture," according to Raffi Khatchadourian. Some subjects were told that their bad trips would never end if they did not talk. Related tests were done to see if an LSD trip would make lies show up more clearly on a polygraph test. The results were inconclusive.
A similar program was going on inside the U.S. Army as well. The Edgewood Arsenal human experiments examined the use of several drugs, including LSD, in warfare and information gathering. As with the CIA, army officers drugged random soldiers to observe their reactions. While plans were drawn up to use the drug on captured Vietcong to aid in interrogations (which would have been a war crime), they were not enacted for reasons unknown.
Other ideas on how to use the powerful psychedelic included drugging foreign leaders the U.S. did not like before they had to give a speech or chair an important meeting. The hope was that the drug would cause erratic behavior, which would then lead to a decline in their popularity or to poor decision-making. Gottlieb even devised a plan to spray a radio station from which Fidel Castro was scheduled to give an address with aerosolized LSD in the hope of achieving similar ends. The plan was never carried out.
The spy who drugged me
In what may be one of the great understatements of the 20th century, the CIA concluded that LSD was too "unpredictable" in its results to be the single super-drug they sought. However, the CIA still thought LSD had its place in spycraft.
For his part, Gottlieb considered the project a failure and concluded that no possible combination of drugs or psychiatric interventions could accomplish the program's goals. He went on to work on other CIA projects and retired in 1973 after he destroyed most of the already spotty records of the program. In retirement, he helped lepers in India, raised goats, and constructed one of the first solar powered homes in the state of Virginia.
However, that was hardly the end of things. Gottlieb forgot to burn the financial records, and in the mid-1970s, the Church Committee of the U.S. Senate investigated the program, though the lack of data meant that very few of the people who were drugged without their consent were ever compensated, and a great deal about the program (and others like it) remain unknown.
Notable recorded and voluntary test subjects of MK-Ultra who were given LSD included the poet Alan Ginsburg, writer Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. All three would later tout the benefits of psychedelics and the broader drug culture in the years that followed their involvement with the program.
Their activities, as well as those of other LSD advocates in the 1960s, would undermine the very vision of American society that the CIA was trying to protect in the first place — using a tool the CIA itself provided. The irony of this was not lost on Beatle John Lennon, who mused, "We must always remember to thank the CIA and the Army for LSD. That's what people forget… They invented LSD to control people and what they did was give us freedom."
While the level of "freedom" LSD provides is debatable, the story of how the counterculture first got a taste of the stuff demonstrates even that freedom comes at a price.
What was the universe like one-trillionth of a second after the Big Bang? Science has an answer.
- Following Steven Weinberg's lead, we plunge further back into cosmic history, beyond the formation of atomic nuclei.
- Today, we discuss the origin of the quark-gluon plasma and the properties of the famous Higgs boson, the "God Particle."
- Is there a limit? How far can we go back in time?
Last week, we celebrated the great physicist Steven Weinberg, bringing back his masterful book The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe, where he tells the story of how, in the first moments after the Big Bang, matter started to organize into the first atomic nuclei and atoms. This week we continue to follow Weinberg's lead, plunging further back in time, as close to the beginning as we reliably can.
But first, a quick refresher. The first light atomic nuclei — aggregates of protons and neutrons — emerged during the very short time window between one-hundredth of a second and 3 minutes after the bang. This explains Weinberg's book title. Recall that atoms are identified by the number of protons in their nuclei (the atomic number) — from hydrogen (with a single proton) to carbon (with six) and all the way to uranium (with 92). The early cosmic furnace forged only chemical elements 1, 2, and 3 — hydrogen, helium, and lithium (as well as their isotopes, which contain the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons). All heavier elements are forged in dying stars.
The hypothesis that the universe was the alchemist responsible for the lightest elements has been beautifully confirmed by numerous observations during the past decades, including improving a lingering discrepancy with lithium-7. (The "7" represents three protons and four neutrons for this lithium isotope, its most abundant in nature.) This primordial nucleosynthesis is one of the three key observational pillars of the Big Bang model of cosmology. The other two are the expansion of the universe — measured as galaxies recede form one another — and the microwave background radiation — the radiation leftover after the birth of hydrogen atoms, some 400,000 years after the bang.
The primordial soup of particle physics
At about one minute after the bang, the matter in the universe included light atomic nuclei, electrons, protons, neutrons, photons, and neutrinos: the primordial soup. What about earlier? Going back in cosmic time means a smaller universe, that is, matter squeezed into smaller volumes. Smaller volumes mean higher pressures and temperatures. The recipe for the soup changes. In physics, temperature is akin to motion and agitation. Hot things move fast and, when they cannot because they are stuck together, they vibrate more. Eventually, as the temperature increases, the bonds that keep things together break. As we go back in time, matter is dissociated into its simplest components. First, molecules become atoms. Then, atoms become nuclei and free electrons. Then, nuclei become free protons and neutrons. Then what?
Since the 1960s, we have known that protons and neutrons are not elementary particles. They are made of other particles — called quarks — bound together by the strong nuclear force, which is about 100 times stronger than electric attraction (that is, electromagnetism). But for high enough temperatures, not even the strong force can hold protons and neutrons together. When the universe was a mere one-hundred-thousandth of a second (10-5 second) old, it was hot enough to dissociate protons and neutrons into a hot plasma of quarks and gluons. Gluons, as the name implies, are the particles that stitch quarks into protons and neutrons (as well as hundreds of other particles held together by the strong force commonly seen in particle accelerators). Amazingly, such strange quark-gluon plasma has been created in high-energy particle collisions that generate energies one million degrees hotter than the heart of the sun. (Here is a video about it.) For a fleeting moment, the early universe re-emerges in a human-made machine, an awesome scientific and technological feat.
Remember the Higgs boson?
Is that it? Or can we go further back? Now we are contemplating a universe that is younger than one-millionth of a second old. For us, that's a ridiculously small amount of time. But not for elementary particles, zooming about close to the speed of light. As we keep going back toward t = 0, something remarkable happens. At about one-trillionth of a second (10-12 second or 0.000000000001 second) after the bang, a new particle commands the show, the famous Higgs boson. If you remember, this particle became both famous and infamous when it was discovered in 2012 at the European Center for Particle Physics, and the media decided to call it the "God Particle."
For this, we can blame Nobel Prize Laureate Leon Lederman, who was my boss when I was a postdoc at Fermilab, the biggest particle accelerator in the U.S. Leon told me that he was writing a book about the elusive Higgs, which he tried to but could not find at Fermilab. He wanted to call the book The God-Damn Particle, but his editor suggested taking out the "damn" from the title to increase sales. It worked.
The Higgs goes through a strange transition as the universe heats up. It loses its mass, becoming what we call a massless particle, like the photon. Why is this important? Because the Higgs plays a key role in the drama of particle physics. It is the mass-giver to all particles: if you hug the Higgs or (more scientifically) if a particle interacts with the Higgs boson, it gets a mass. The stronger the interaction, the larger the mass. So, the electron, being light, interacts less strongly with the Higgs than, say, the tau lepton or the charm quark. But if the Higgs loses its mass as it gets hotter, what happens to all the particles it interacts with? They also lose their mass!
Approaching t = 0
Think about the implication. Before one-trillionth of a second after the bang, all known particles were massless. As the universe expands and cools, the Higgs gets a mass and gives mass to all other particles it interacts with. This explains why the "God Particle" nickname stuck. The Higgs explains the origin of masses.
Kind of. We do not know what determines the strengths of all these different hugs (interactions), for instance, why the electron mass is different from the quarks' masses. These are parameters of the model, known as the Standard Model, a compilation of all that we know about the world of the very, very small. These all-important parameters determine the world as we know it. But we do not know what, if anything, determines them.
Okay, so we are at one-trillionth of a second after the bang. Can we keep going back? We can, but we must dive into the realm of speculation. We can talk of other particles, other dimensions of space and superstrings, the unification of all forces of nature, and the multiverse. Or we can invoke a pearl the great physicist Freeman Dyson once told me: most speculations are wrong. Readers are best served if we stick to what we know first. Then, with care, we dive into the unknown.
So, we stop here for now, knowing that there is much new territory of the "Here Be Dragons" type to cover in this fleeting one-trillionth of a second. We will go there soon enough.
Though gloomy and dense, Russian literature is hauntingly beautiful, offering a relentlessly persistent inquiry into the human experience.