Today’s “Planet Earth Report” –New Antarctica Discovery, Stoned-Ape-Evolution Theory, Ancient DNA Reveals Inca Mystery


December 13, 2017: Today's links to headline stories from around the world on the threats, opportunities, and dangers facing our fragile planet –along with an occasional dash of humor, popular culture, and an intriguing conspiracy theory or two.  

Newfound Antarctica Species Could Change the Way We Look for Alien Life




Newfound species shows it’s possible to survive on nothing more than the chemicals in air. Scientists search for extraterrestrials and habitable exoplanets based on what we know of life on Earth. But in a breakthrough discovery, researchers found a bacterial species that require only chemicals in the air to survive.

For countless years, scientists and enthusiasts have wondered about the possibility of extraterrestrial life. From grey beings with large, haunting, humanoid eyes to microscopic space bacteria, theories about what might exist beyond our orbit have developed and changed drastically over the years and decades. But, while alien searching has evolved from conspiracy theories to advanced space imaging, there is still much we have to learn before extraterrestrial life could be confirmed. But one new discovery in Antarctica might change the way that we look for aliens, and it could be the key to ultimately finding them.

As described in the journal Nature, scientists have discovered a new bacterium that can survive solely off of chemicals in the air. Discovered in Antarctica, these microscopic organisms can survive off of just hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide. Taking the term “extremophile” to the next level, these microbes can survive in some of the most extreme conditions that exist on our planet. These organisms are so unique that they are opening up the potential for finding alien life because, now that we know organisms can exist off of only chemicals in the air, extraterrestrial life could exist in much wilder circumstances than previously thought.

Lead researcher Belinda Ferrari expanded, “Antarctica is one of the most extreme environments on Earth. Yet the cold, dark and dry desert regions are home to a surprisingly rich diversity of microbial communities. The big question has been how the microbes can survive when there is little water, the soils are very low in organic carbon and there is very little capacity to produce energy from the Sun via photosynthesis during the winter darkness.”

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The 'Stoned Ape' Theory Might Explain Our Extraordinary Evolution



A scientist resurfaces a psychedelic retelling of human evolution. Imagine Homo erectus, a now-extinct species of hominids that stood upright and became the first of our ancestors to move beyond a single continent. Around two million years ago, these hominids, some of whom eventually evolved into Homo sapiens, began to expand their range beyond Africa, moving into Asia and Europe. Along the way, they tracked animals, encountered dung, and discovered new plants.

But that’s just the version of our origin story that happens to be widely accepted by scientists.

A more radical interpretation of these events involves the same animals, dung, and plants but also includes psychedelic drugs. In 1992, ethnobotanist and psychedelics advocate Terence McKenna argued in the book Food of the Gods that what enabled Homo erectus to evolve into Homo sapiens was its encounter with magic mushrooms and psilocybin, the psychedelic compound within them, on that evolutionary journey. He called this the Stoned Ape Hypothesis.

McKenna posited that psilocybin caused the primitive brain’s information-processing capabilities to rapidly reorganize, which in turn kick-started the rapid evolution of cognition that led to the early art, language, and technology written in Homo sapiens’ archeological record. As early humans, he said we “ate our way to higher consciousness” by consuming these mushrooms, which, he hypothesized, grew out of animal manure. Psilocybin, he said, brought us “out of the animal mind and into the world of articulated speech and imagination.”

[Image credit: With thanks to]

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Ancient DNA Uncovers Fierce Peruvian Tribe Who Almost Beat the Incas


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The saying goes that history is written by the victors. But sometimes that history is written inaccurately by the disease-bearing colonizers who defeated the original (and supposed) victors. Case in point: the story that’s been told of the Chachapoyas people, indigenous Americans who lived in the cloud forests between the Andes and the Amazon in northern Peru.

Writings by Spanish conquistadors, said to be based on Incan oral histories, say that after years of resistance the Chachapoyas were conquered by the Inca empire and forced to disperse and resettle throughout the kingdom. However, recent DNA analysis conducted by scientists at the Max Planck Institut, the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, and the Universidad de San Martín de Porres reveals that this was not the case. In a paper published Tuesday in Scientific Reports, they reveal that the Chachapoyas were not forcibly uprooted, and their descendants continue to live in their ancestral homeland today.

“For Peruvian society today, this matters,” co-author Jairo Valqui, Ph.D., announced in a statement. “There’s long been an appreciation of the Incas, but often at the cost of sidelining everything else in the archaeological record across Peru, and the diversity in our linguistic and genetic heritage too.”

“As these latest findings remind us: Peru is not just Machu Picchu, and its indigenous people were not just the Incas.”

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New A.I. Guidelines Will Usher in a World of Ethical Robots



Artificial intelligence-powered robots are coming, and that’s okay. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the world’s largest technical professional organization, released on Tuesday the second draft of its “Ethically Aligned Design” guide. The guidelines are aimed at getting developers to think about their autonomous systems and question how they come together to benefit humanity.

“It is imperative that we create consensus about how these technology platforms may explicitly support and prioritize human values and well-being.” said Konstantinos Karachalios, managing director for IEEE Standards Association. “In doing so, we will overcome current sensationalism and fears associated therewith and we will be able to maximize the potential benefits autonomous and intelligent systems can bring for humanity.”

The document is the work of 13 expert committees from the “Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems.” Each group looked at a different aspect of A.I. development to make recommendations. For this year’s document, the team added five new committees: wellbeing, mixed reality, policy, classical ethics and affective computing.

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Chemists Find New Evidence That Life Might Have Started in Space –Life's primordial soup could have been ice-cold


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These days, humanity’s best bet for explaining how life began comes by way of evolution’s daddy, Charles Darwin, who proposed that the building blocks of life brewed together in a “warm little pond” — a soupy mixture of chemicals that clicked together to form RNA, DNA, and the other nucleic acids that store the instructions for life.

But where was the warm little pond?

Many scientists believe that it existed on Earth, most likely near hot hydrothermal vents on the seafloor. There’s also a small contingent that believes life emerged on land, among volcanic rocks. But there’s an even smaller — but increasingly confident — contingent that thinks life emerged in space, and evidence published in the Journal of Chemical Physics on Tuesday provides support for their daring hypothesis.

The researchers from the University of Sherbrooke in Canada had set out to find out whether the organic molecules that might have made up the primordial soup could have survived the harsh conditions of space in the first place. To do so, they had to build a replica of space — ionizing radiation, vacuum, and all — inside a laboratory.

Blasting molecular ices with rays of electrons under space conditions led to the formation of many small organic molecules found on Earth.

They started by creating icy, frozen films out of water and other elements you’d find in abundance in space, such as methane. ‘Molecular ices’ like these, they explain in their paper, form around grains of dust in space as well as on the surfaces of comets, asteroids, and moons, and it’s in these icy conditions that chemicals would be most likely to come together — if the right catalyst comes along.

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Bitcoin's Energy Consumption is Killing the Planet, but There is a Solution


The network uses about the same amount of electricity as Serbia. Right now, bitcoin is an environmental disaster. Although it seems like the cryptocurrency is on the rise with a spike in price to reach $16,000, an explosive new analysis published last month showed how Bitcoin poses a serious environmental problem.

“I talk to people about bitcoin, sometimes tell them about this energy consumption, then I say ‘okay, shall I demo a bitcoin transaction?’” Alex de Vries, author of the Digiconomist article that sparked the conversation, tells Inverse, “They say ‘no, no, that’s wasteful!’”

Wasteful is one word for it. De Vries’ analysis showed that the blockchain-based cryptocurrency’s annual electricity consumption is around 32.36 terawatt-hours, around the same amount of energy used by the entire country of Serbia. He also showed that all of Visa’s transactions use about the same amount of energy as 50,000 households, while Bitcoin uses nearly three million houses’ worth.

Something is seriously wrong here, but there are solutions that could make Bitcoin into a greener currency.

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Hunga Tonga –New Volcanic Pacific Island Gives NASA a Glimpse of Life on Mars



The new island, Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, emerged from a violent underwater eruption in late December 2014. Scientists expected the island in Tonga to survive just a few months. Now they believe it could last up to 30 years.

Most volcanic islands disappear quickly after they are beaten down and drowned by waves. This island is one of only three in the past 150 years to survive beyond its initial bruising, and the first to be observed by modern satellites.

The last island to withstand the violent waves of the ocean was Surtsey, off the coast of Iceland, which emerged in 1963 and still exists today.

"Volcanic islands are some of the simplest landforms to make," says first author, Jim Garvin, chief scientist of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a press release. "Our interest is to calculate how much the 3D landscape changes over time, particularly its volume, which has only been measured a few times at other such islands. It's the first step to understand erosion rates and processes and to decipher why it has persisted longer than most people expected."

The island’s shape has changed drastically over its short lifespan, as NASA’s time lapse video above shows. At birth, Hunga Tonga clung to a neighboring island to the West. Soon, waves eroded Hunga Tonga's sediment, forming a land bridge to another neighbor to its east. By 2016, a sandbar had closed off the volcanic crater from the sea, which stopped the island from melting into the ocean. Researchers believe the underlying rock beneath the tiny group of islands might be helping to support its newest member.

"The two islands that surround this new land mass have some pretty tough substrate, so there’s something happening to help make this solidify and stay in place, chemically," said co-author Vicki Ferrini, a geologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, in the press release.

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The Curious Case of the Alien in the Photo –And the Mystery that Took Years to Solve



In the spring of 2012, Chicago videographer Adam Dew received a mysterious phone call from his former business partner Joseph Beason. “I have something to show you,” Beason said with urgency in his voice.

Later that day, Beason showed Dew a series of slides. The slides had been found 14 years earlier by his sister, who had been hired to dispose of the belongings of an elderly woman who had recently died. His sister couldn’t bring herself to jettison the collection, and so she took the box home, placed it on a shelf and forgot about it.

Many years later, she finally projected the slides on to her bedroom wall. She saw vivid color photographs of Dwight Eisenhower on what appeared to be a postwar victory train tour, pictures of Bing Crosby and Clark Gable, as well as several photos of European towns. Figuring they had some historical significance, she sent them to Beason, who had worked in book publishing.

Now Dew scrolled through the slides. Some were stunning and had the unmistakable clarity of Kodachrome – Kodak’s revolutionary mid-century color processing. He wondered how the person who took them was able to get so close to Eisenhower. They must be important, he thought.

Then Beason showed him another picture, the first of two nearly identical slides. These had not been in the tray, but tucked underneath, wrapped in parchment paper.

Dew gasped. Staring at him was a small, brown, withered body inside what appeared to be a glass case. The figure had withered arms, shriveled legs, a large triangular skull with elongated eye sockets, and a tiny sliver of a mouth.


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