The Best Science Photos of 2017

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The Best Science Photos of 2017

Science is stunning

The year was full of exciting, jaw-dropping photos related to science. From adorable animals — like a 4-month-old gorilla and a pair of nuzzling orange-beaked puffins — to stunning pictures of our amazing planet, long-extinct creatures like the world’s largest shark, here are the science photos that stood out in 2017.

Plankton Light Up

Otherworldly blue light dances in Three Cliffs Bay near Swansea, Wales in a gorgeous image taken June 18. Landscape photographer Alyn Wallace captured this view under a star-spangled sky. The blue is created by bioluminescent plankton, which sparkle when disturbed by currents or splashes. [Shimmering Sea: Why a Beautiful Blue Glow Lit Up the Coast of Wales]

Cyclone Licks the Coast

Like a tentative cat, a July cyclone reaches out to taste the coast of Portugal in this satellite image released by NASA. A low-pressure system pulled coastal moisture from over the ocean toward the warm, dry atmosphere of the Iberian Peninsula. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured the swirling clouds. [Cyclone ‘Licks’ Portugal Coast in Gorgeous Space Image]

Deadly Beauty

“Blue Lasso,” by Matty Smith, won the 2017 Ocean Art Underwater Photo Competition’s “Best in Show” prize for its stark depiction of a Pacific man-of-war photographed against a night sky in New South Wales, Australia. Man-of-Wars are colonial animals made up of four separate types of polyps, which are all unique organisms of their own that function together as a single creature. [Dramatic Man-of-War Takes Top Ocean Art Photography Prize]

Teeth in the Deep

The ocean’s horrors come to life in this artist’s impression of a megalodon on the hunt. The largest shark that ever lived went extinct about 2.5 million years ago, and a study published in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecologysuggested that the reason had to do with a lack of prey for these gigantic beasts. []

Puffin Love

A pair of orange-beaked puffins nuzzle in this moody black-and-white image. A study released in April found that orange-beaked puffins, which form long-term monogamous relationships, stick close together during their annual winter migrations, a strategy that probably allows them to coordinate their return to the breeding colony in Wales each spring. [Puffin Couples Stay Close During ‘Winter Break’]
A pyrocumulus cloud created by the Thomas Fire looms over Santa Barbara.

Credit: Greg Vitalich

On Sunday (Dec.10), a massive gray cloud formed over Southern California’s Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, filling the sky with dark towers of smoke and shocking onlookers for miles around. The ominous cloud looked like an ash column from a volcanic eruption, but the culprit was a wildfire.

The cloud, created by the ongoing Thomas Fire that has scorched more than 230,500 acres (93,280 hectares) of Southern California, is an example of a pyrocumulus cloud — literally, a puffy cumulus cloud formed by the hot air and smoke released into the sky during wildfires and volcanic eruptions. [Wildfires Blaze in Northern California (Photos)]

“Pyrocumulus clouds form when wildfires burn hot enough to generate very strong upward motion, which we call updrafts,” said Nick Nauslar, a research scientist for the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies/Storm Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

These clouds tend to be gray, brown or black because of the smoke in the air, and can tower up to 5 miles (8 kilometers) high, according to NASA. But besides being terrifying, pyrocumulus clouds can develop dangerous weather systems of their own, and potentially lead to more and harder-to-tame wildfires, Nauslar told Live Science.

Walking Polymer

A ‘walking’ polymer inches like a caterpillar in a time-lapse image released in June. This polymer is made of light-activated materials and inches along when exposed to a light source. It can even carry small objects (small grains of sand) or push items larger than itself uphill. [Light Makes New Material Creep Like a Caterpillar]
Jaw-Dropping Vision Helps Tiny Flies Snag Prey in Under a Second

Robber Fly

What big eyes you have! This robber fly is a mere 6 millimeters in length, but its huge, faceted eyes give it some of the best vision among insects, researchers reported in March. Using their keen eyesight, the flies can capture prey as far as 1.6 feet (0.5 meters) away. [Jaw-Dropping Vision Helps Tiny Flies Snag Prey in Under a Second]
Incredible Image of Bubble-Blowing Wasp Has a Scientific Explanation

Water Droplet Wasp

A wasp seems to play ball with a water droplet in this macro image released in October. What the insect is actually doing is sucking up excess water from its nest and flicking it away. [Incredible Image of Bubble-Blowing Wasp Has a Scientific Explanation]
Satellite images showed significant damage to Palmyra’s Tetrapylon and Roman theater in January 2017.

Credit: ASOR and DigitalGlobe

A month after retaking control of Palmyra, the Islamic State group (also called ISIS or Daesh) has allegedly committed new destruction and executions in the ancient Syrian city.

Two of Palmyra’s iconic monuments, the Tetrapylon and the Roman theater, have experienced  “significant damage,” according to the Cultural Heritage Initiatives (CHI) of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), which obtained new satellite images of the site from DigitalGlobe.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights alleges that ISIS is again using the archaeological site for mass executions, killing a group of 12 prisoners on Jan. 19. [See Photos of the Destruction to the Tetrapylon and Theater in Palmyra]

“One might interpret these destructions and the recent executions of prisoners, including civilians, at Palmyra as designed by Daesh to develop propaganda,” said Michael Danti, a Boston University archaeologist and academic director of ASOR CHI. “We are braced for a possible release of video footage by Daesh.”

The new reports are reminiscent of the Islamic State group’s previous occupation of the site, from May 2015 to March 2016. During that period, ISIS militants executed prisoners in the Roman theater and hung the body of archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, Palmyra’s longtime head of antiquities, from a column at the site. The group also blew up Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph and destroyed several other monuments, statues and funerary towers at the UNESCO World Heritage site.

“This destruction is a new war crime and an immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity,” UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said in a statement. “This new blow against cultural heritage, just a few hours after UNESCO received reports about mass executions in the theater, shows that cultural cleansing led by violent extremists is seeking to destroy both human lives and historical monuments in order to deprive the Syrian people of its past and its future.”

Satellite images showed that this Roman monument called a tetrapylon in Palmyra has been badly damaged.

Credit: nikidel /

Danti told Live Science that ISIS has not been very active lately in staged or deliberate destructions of heritage sites as they battle to keep control of territory in Syria and Iraq. The group has, however, vandalized cultural sites and infrastructure as they withdraw or retreat from some areas, Danti said.

“For example, as they pulled out of the campus of Mosul University, they burned campus buildings,” Danti said. (In 2015, ISIS also released a video showing militants ransacking the Mosul Museum in northern Iraq.)

“It all adds up to a massive cultural heritage and educational crisis for Syria and Iraq that will require large-scale, concerted action from the international community as one part of a massive humanitarian relief program,” Danti added.

The latest damage to monuments at Palmyra took place sometime between Dec. 26, 2016, and Jan. 10, 2017, according to ASOR CHI. (TheSyrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums said that locals had informed them about the destruction at Palmyra at least a week ago.)

The Tetrapylon was built to make Palmyra’s main street look more harmonious, as it lies at a point where the route changes direction, according to ASOR CHI. This structure has four large platforms, each supporting four massive columns. The latest satellite images show that now just two columns remain standing, and debris is scattered around the structure. ASOR CHI says this monument seems to have been intentionally destroyed using explosives.

The satellite images also show that the Roman theater, which dates back to the second century A.D., has sustained damage to its stage backdrop and new stone debris appears to be scattered across the center of the stage.

Since war broke out in Syria in 2011, archaeologists have been turning to satellite data to monitor destruction and looting of the region’s heritage sites, which include prehistoric mounds, Roman outposts and the ruins of Assyrian, Persian and Akkadian empires.

Original article on Live Science.

10 Things You Didn’t Know About The First Christmas

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10 Things You Didn’t Know About The First Christmas


‘Tis the season that carolers sing, decorations are hung, Nativity scenes are set up, and Christmas cards begin flooding our mailboxes, each with a different scene from “The First Noel.” You might be shocked, however, to discover that many of the details you’ve come to believe about history’s first Christmas are completely inaccurate. The Christmas carols and card companies have it all wrong. To put you in a festive mood (as well as to correct a few historical misunderstandings) here are ten things you probably didn’t know about the first Christmas.

10It Didn’t Happen In December

Israeli Sheep
Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25. In fact, He probably wasn’t born in December at all. The Bible mentions shepherds keeping watch over their flocks in the fields. December in Israel would have been cold; the fields would have been unproductive, and the sheep were probably corralled. Shepherds usually kept their flocks in the fields during the spring lambing season.

So how did Christmas come to be associated with December 25? The earliest recorded estimates dating the birth of Christ come from Clement of Alexandria (circa AD 200). He mentioned different groups who identified the date of Jesus’s birth as March 21, April 15, April 21, or May 20. The first mention of December 25 as Jesus’s birthday wasn’t until the mid–fourth century, when a Roman almanac listed December 25 as natus Christus in Betleem Judeae, or, “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.”

A popular theory about the origin of Christmas is that early Christians stole the date from a Roman Sun festival, which was held in late December. It’s suggested that this was a deliberate attempt to spread Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. This theory has numerous problems, though, as early Christian writers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian make no mention of this, and Origen of Alexandria openly mocks Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries. It has been proposed that December 25, a time of pagan feasts, wasn’t deliberately chosen until the 12th century. While this theory popular on social media, scholars today recognize serious problems with it.

The question remains: Why December 25? Tertullian recorded a calculation that date of Jesus’s birth was March 25. This was later celebrated as a feast commemorating Jesus’s conception, as opposed to His birth. Further, it was suggested that Jesus died on March 25, which led to the belief that He was conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. December 25 is obviously nine months after March 25, so it was taken as Jesus’s birthday.

The truth is that December 25 came from celebrations in the early Church, not from pagan celebrations. Many scholars today believe that Jesus wasn’t even born in December.

9There Wasn’t An Inn

Old Israeli Building
We’ve all heard the story about there being “no room at the inn.” Indeed, this is what our English Bibles say. But in the original Greek (the language in which the New Testament was written), the word kataluma, translated as “inn,” doesn’t necessarily mean a motel. It’s only used a few times in the Bible, and elsewhere, it means “upper room” or “guest room.” The famous Last Supper took place in a kataluma. In fact, there’s a different Greek word for “inn” that does mean a motel or paid lodging, but it isn’t used, though the same gospel writer uses it in the story of the Good Samaritan a few chapters later.

First-century homes often had a main room on the ground floor, where the family lived, and an “upper room” or “guest room,” where people who needed lodging could stay. It was a great shame in the Middle East to refuse hospitality to someone in need. There is a good chance that if there was no room in the “guest room,” it’s because it was already occupied.

This changes the whole story we’ve come to celebrate. Rather than arriving in Bethlehem only to find the local motel with no vacancy, Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem and sought lodging at a family member’s house. This would be a natural thing to do in Middle Eastern culture. Because people were returning to their ancestral homes for the census, other family members had already arrived and were occupying the guest room.

So where did Mary and Joseph stay?

8There Wasn’t A Stable

There’s no mention of a stable in the Bible’s stories of the first Christmas. A stable is assumed because we’re told that they “laid him in a manger.” (A manger is an animal’s feeding trough.) If there was a manger, it must have been in a stable (or perhaps a cave) where the animals stayed, right? Probably not.

As previously mentioned, there’s a good chance that Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, Joseph’s hometown, and sought lodging at a family member’s house. The guest room was full, but it would have been a great shame to turn away someone in need, especially a relative with a pregnant wife. Many families had mangers inside their homes, where young animals would be safe and warm. Some of them were built into the floor of the of peasant homes or occupied a small room on the main floor.

Since the guest room was full, Mary and Joseph were likely offered the manger, and it was there that the mother of Jesus gave birth. Rather than being turned away by a crusty old innkeeper and given lodging in a dirty barn, Mary and Joseph were probably in a relative’s home, surrounded by loved ones, when Jesus was born and laid in a manger.

7Mary Didn’t Give Birth The Night She Arrived

In our Western reading of the Christmas story, we get the impression that Mary and Joseph made it to Bethlehem just in a nick of time and that Mary gave birth that very night. The truth is probably far less dramatic.

The actual account of the first Christmas reads, “And it came to pass, that when they were there, her days were accomplished, that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son.” The phrase “that her days were accomplished” is linked to “when they were there.” This implies that they had been there for a period of time before she gave birth.

Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, a Roman census wasn’t completed in a day. There would have had to have been time for all members of a family to travel the distance required for them to return to their ancestral homes to be counted. There would have been lines and waiting, not unlike our present-day elections. The reality is that Mary and Joseph were likely in Bethlehem for an extended period of time, both before and after she gave birth.

6The Wise Men Didn’t Arrive The Night Jesus Was Born

The three wise men are a staple in almost every Nativity scene, each carrying a gift for the newborn king. Standing beside the shepherds, Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus, they complete the story of the first Christmas. Or do they?

The Biblical account says, “And entering into the house, they found the childwith Mary his mother.” Notice two things about this statement: First, the wise men found the family in a house, not a stable. Quite possibly, they were still living with their family in Bethlehem at the time or in a house that they had since rented. Second, they found a “child.” The Greek word used ispaidion, which means “toddler,” not brephos, or “baby,” as in Luke 2:16.

It’s also worth noting that after the wise men deceived King Herod by returning a different way, he had all of the children in the vicinity who were two years old and younger slaughtered. These facts point to Jesus being a toddler and the wise men having visited him one or two years after his birth.

5The Shepherds Didn’t Follow The Star

Many think of the shepherds as old men cradling lambs and standing in a stable with the star shining above, having just heard the angels sing. Many believe that the shepherds followed the star to find the baby in a manger. This is but another traditional myth that has come to be associated with the first Christmas.

The misconception developed by the blending of two separate stories (the shepherds and the wise men) which occurred at different times. There probably wasn’t a star hanging over Bethlehem the night Jesus was born, as it didn’t lead the wise men there for two years. The shepherds were said to have been directed by the angel to find the child by following two signs: “You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger.” Using these two clues, the shepherds went in search of the newborn king.

How would the shepherds found a newborn baby in a town the size of Bethlehem? The answer is surprisingly simple. Much like today, births in the first century were a big deal. If Mary gave birth in the home of one of Joseph’s relatives, surrounded by family, the house would have been filled with much rejoicing. The shepherds were no doubt guided by the infant’s cries and happy sounds of celebration.

4There Weren’t Three Wise Men

More Than Three Wise Men
We’ve come to know them as Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, the three wise men from the East who supposedly traveled by camel following the star. But were there really only three of them? In truth, these three names weren’t added to the story until the seventh century in the earliest Latin records.

Three gifts are mentioned in the Christmas story: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Nowhere is the number of wise men recorded. It’s assumed that each wise man brought a gift, and thus, there must have been three wise men. In reality, there may have been more who came to worship the baby.

Early Christian art is inconsistent as to the number of wise men. A painting in the cemetery of Saints Peter and Marcellinus displays two wise men, while one in the cemetery of Domitilla shows four. A vase in the Kircher Museum has eight wise men, and Asian tradition says there were twelve. The truth is that the number of wise men who visited the infant king simply isn’t known, and there is no compelling reason, aside from the number of gifts, to believe that there were three.

3The Wise Men Weren’t Kings

Educated Biblical Man
“We three kings of orient” is sung each Christmas to celebrate the journey of the wise men. Were they really kings?

The Greek word used in Matthew 2:1 is magos. The word is primarily used to denote a member of a group of priests or wise men among the Medes, Persians, and Babylonians. They were educated men, whose study included astronomy, astrology, and enchantment. It is sometimes translated as “wise man,” sometimes as “magician.” The Greek translation of the Old Testament uses the same word in the book of Daniel, where it describes that Daniel was made the “chief of the magicians.”

This fits well with the Christmas story, where we’re told that the wise men “saw his star in the east” and came to worship the baby. Magoi studied the stars and saw meaning in the celestial object that dominated the night sky at that time. Rather than being kings, it seems more likely that the wise men were educated astronomers from the East.

2Mary And Joseph Were Married When Jesus Was Born

Mary and Joseph
Part of the scandal surrounding the birth of Jesus was undoubtedly the claim of Mary’s immaculate conception. It was this that even led Joseph to initially decide to quietly divorce her, rather than have her stoned to death for adultery as the law said. Here was an unwed mother, pregnant in a first-century religious community.

However, it’s not quite as cut and dry as that. Joseph and Mary were “betrothed,” or engaged, when they find out that Mary was pregnant. It’s likely that they had signed a Jewish engagement contract called a ketubbah. This was much more legally binding than our modern engagements and could only be broken by a divorce.

Furthermore, after seeing a vision of an angel in a dream, Joseph got up “and took unto him his wife.” So, in view of the average Jewish person in the first century, they were technically married, although they hadn’t consummated their marriage.

1The Christmas Star May Have Been A Planetary Conjunction

Bright Planet
There are a number of fascinating features about the star that guided the wise men. It is said to have risen “in the east,” to have “appeared” at a specific time, to have gone “before them,” and to have “stopped” over Bethlehem.

Taken together, these characteristics cannot possibly describe a star, but they do describe planets, known as “wandering stars” to the ancients. They rise in the eastern sky, travel through the fixed field of stars, and are governed by the planetary laws of motion, which make them appear at certain times and not others. Moreover, they can even appear to stop when they enter their retrograde motion phase.

There is evidence that Herod the Great died in 1 BC, not 4 BC as previously thought. During the fall of 2 BC, an amazing planetary conjunction between Jupiter and the star Regulus would have resulted in one of the brightest objects that people at that time had ever seen. It’s interesting to note that Jupiter is named after the greatest god of Roman mythology, and Regulus means “regal” or “kingly.” This symbolism would not have been lost on the magi (aka astronomers) who decided to follow it.

By running computer simulations, we can discover the exact day that Jupiter went into its retrograde motion and appeared to stop. That day wasDecember 25, 2 BC. To the wise men gazing at Jupiter from Jerusalem, it would have appeared to be over the little town of Bethlehem. So, December 25 may not have been the day Jesus was born, but rather the day that the wise men came to give him gifts.

10 Harrowing Christmas Accounts That Were Far From Festive

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10 Harrowing Christmas Accounts That Were Far From Festive


Whatever your reasons for celebrating it, whether it’s religious belief or just the chance to spend carefree quality time with family and loved ones, Christmas is generally a time of joy, happiness, and festive fun. However, on occasion, what should be a time of love for all around us can quickly turn into a festive nightmare. Those who learn of such events from afar are shocked, while those who survive such incidents see the holiday seasons forever marked with terrifying and horrific memories.

As we will see as we go down our lit of the darker side of Christmas, as much as the holidays bring out the best in most of us, for some, they can bring out dark and twisted feelings that finally bubble over to breaking point. Here are ten such examples.

10Kristy Bamu Accused Of Witchcraft

Photo credit: Met Police

As soon as paramedics saw the lifeless body of 15-year-old Kristy Bamu in the bathtub on Christmas Day 2010, they could tell he was subject to a horrific ordeal before he had drowned. His body was battered and bruised, and if that wasn’t enough, the bathroom and the room next to it were awash in what would be confirmed to be the young boy’s blood. In all, later reports would show he had 130 separate injuries upon his body.

They had been called by the sister of the dead boy, Magalie, who asked them to hurry to the flat in in Newham, East London, stating, “My brother has drowned himself in the bath.” Investigation would show that Magalie, along with her boyfriend Eric Bikubi, had turned the rooms into makeshift torture and interrogation chambers, apparently under the impression that Kristy Bamu was a witch.

According to family members, Kristy had only arrived several days earlier in order to spend Christmas with his sister. However, according to the eventual trial, Kristy had “wet himself,” and upon attempting to hide his underwear (likely out of embarrassment), he was discovered by his sister and Bikubi, who bizarrely made the assertion he must be a witch.

Bikubi would arrange rituals and bizarre ceremonies aimed at “forcing the Devil” out of Kristy (and his siblings, who Bikubi had also accused ofwitchcraft). Part of these ceremonies included severe beatings, which took the teenager to the brink of death. He was then taken to the bath to clean up. Being barely conscious, his body simply collapsed in the water, and he was unable to lift himself out. By the time his sister returned, he was dead. The jurors heard that Bikubi was a controlling person and that he was the main instigator behind the needless death.

9Where Did The Sodder Children Go?

Perhaps what makes the case of the five missing (and presumed dead) children of the Sodder family even more tragic is that the case is still officially unsolved over six decades after the events.

On Christmas Eve 1945, near the small town of Fayetteville, West Virginia, the Sodder family, George and Jennie and their nine children (a tenth child was away in the military), would settle in their beds, awaiting for sleep to guide them through to Christmas morning. For five of the children—Maurice, Martha, Louis, Jennie, and Betty (ranging from five to 14 years old)—the morning would not come.

A fire ripped through the property an hour or so after midnight. Both parents made it out of the building alongside their four remaining children—Sylvia, Marion, John, and George. The fate of their other offspring, though, is unknown. No remains were ever found, either inside the burned-out house or in the surrounding area. Despite this, death certificates were issued less than a week later.

The Sodders, though, began to think things through a little further. For example, a worker at a local crematorium told Jennie that bones remain even after two hours of burning at 2,000 degrees. The fire at the Sodders’ home at no point reached such high levels of heat and was put out within 45 minutes. Faulty wiring was stated to be the cause of the fire, but the Sodders’ power had remained on as the fire raged. Further still, witnesses reported seeing a strange man near one of the older children’s trucks just before the fire. (His truck refused to start following their escape from the property.) Perhaps most chilling of all, the family would find what they believed to have been the remains of a “napalm pineapple bomb” in their yard, an interesting discovery, as Sylvia would recall hearing a thud and rolling sounds on the roof shortly before the fire began.

Then came the sightings of four of the five children in a car with Florida plates. They were accompanied by two women and two men of “Italian extraction.” Theories began to suggest that the Sodders had been mixed up with local Mafia or that the children were kidnapped on the order of unknown parties. The last surviving member of the Sodder family, Sylvia, firmly believes her siblings not only survived the fire that evening but were taken somewhere against their will by persons unknown.

8Tricia McCauley

Photo credit: WJLA-TV

On Christmas Day 2016, the body of Tricia McCauley was riding around Washington, DC, as her killer drove her car—the reason he had strangled her to death in the first place.

Her body would be discovered a little over 24 hours later when her vehicle, still being driven by her killer, Adrian Duane Johnson, was pulled over by police following a report from a member of the public, Jonathan Padget, who had seen an appeal for the missing actress on television. As well as strangulation marks around her throat, there was evidence that she had been badly beaten in the attack.

Padget had seen Johnson sitting in McCauley’s parked car with loud music and cigarette smoke pouring out of the windows. As the car drove away, Padget made note of the license plate, later matching it to the police appeal, at which point he notified them of his sighting.

What made Tricia McCauley’s death even more enraging was that only days earlier, Johnson, who had a string of assaults and convictions behind him, had been ordered by a judge to have GPS monitoring device fitted to his person. When he was arrested, this device was missing. Needless to say, many were critical of the justice system that allowed Johnson to be in a position to end an innocent person’s life.

7Rebecca Johnson—The Lapland Murder

Photo credit: BBC News

When Rebecca Johnson ventured off to Finland to work in Lapland as part of the Christmas holiday period in December 2016, neither she nor her family could have dreamed her trip would end so tragically.

Rebecca was working as a tour guide on Christmas-themed adventures into the unforgiving terrain of the Arctic. Her body would be discovered in the flat she shared with her boyfriend, a Czech national named Karel Frybl (also named by some sources as Radek Kovac), seemingly having been the victim of a brutal and vicious attack. Frybl would be arrested as the main suspect following his bizarre manhunt by police through the snowy wilderness. He had attempted to flee on one of the nearby husky sledges in conditions that had seen the temperature drop to almost –30 degrees Celsius (–22 °F). The authorities would use snowmobiles, helicopters, as well teams of husky dogs to eventually find the suspect in a considerably bad way, almost dead from hypothermia.

What made the devastation cut even deeper for the family is that Rebecca’s body would not be released to her native Scotland until the investigation was complete, which would take considerable time.

In August 2017, Frybl admitted to killing Rebecca, though he claimed he had no memory of the attack and had suffered a “temporary mental breakdown.”

6Bruce Pardo—The Santa Claus Killer

In an account that reads like the grimmest of horror stories, Bruce Pardo, labeled the Santa Claus Killer, would terrorize an entire household before ending his own life.[5] His 2008 Christmas Eve killing spree in Covina, an otherwise quiet suburb of Los Angeles, California, would leave nine people dead (a number of whom were murdered execution-style). At least one was killed by Pardo’s subsequent arson.

It was shortly before midnight on Christmas Eve, when Pardo, dressed in full Santa Claus costume, got out of his car and walked to the front door of his ex-wife’s parents’ home. As soon as the door opened, Pardo opened fire with the semiautomatic weapon he had in his hand.

After his initial wave of bullets, which led to family members inside the house dropping to floor like deflated balloons, Pardo would put the weapon down and turn his attention to the brightly wrapped package he was carrying. He unwrapped it and produced a homemade flamethrower. Within seconds, the house was aglow with flames.

He would retreat shortly after, himself injured and burned from his crudely made flamethrower. He would be found later that evening at his brother’s home, dead from an apparently self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head. However, perhaps indicative of his mental state at the time, he had seemingly given little concern to his own well-being during the attack, as his body had severe burns, with the Santa Claus costume “melted to his skin” in places.

It would appear, from investigations afterward, that the murder spree was the result of life going wrong (his failed marriage), increasing pressures (child support and increasing debt), and finally an attempt to defraud the courts in order to lighten his child support payments. When he was caught, he was fired, and shortly after, he seemingly snapped.

5Los Feliz Murder—The House Where Every Day Is Christmas?

Photo credit: Alexis Vaughn

It’s not so much the murder-suicide that took place in a mansion in the extremely affluent Los Feliz district of Los Angeles but the rumors that persisted in the following decades, particularly when the Internet invaded people’s homes, that made the events of December 1959 live on in the grim folklore of otherwise sunny and happy California.

According to the story, at 4:30 AM on December 6, respected and successful cardiologist Harold Perelson took a hammer to his wife’s head while she slept, leaving her to choke on her own blood as he proceeded into the bedroom of his teenage daughter, Judye. He attacked her in the same way, but surprisingly, she managed to flee the property screaming before ringing the police.

Bizarrely, he didn’t attack his two younger children, instead telling them, “Go back to bed. This is a nightmare.” They did as told. By the time the police and emergency services had arrived at the Spanish-style mansion, Perelson was dead from an overdose of painkillers (31 pills were discovered in his system) and two doses of Nembutal (a barbiturate). It is believed Perelson and his family were in a mountain of debt, and like the Bruce Pardo incident that we looked at earlier, he simply snapped.

The spooky parts of the tale—if indeed they are true and not just urban legend—is that the house remained decorated for Christmas, looking just as it did on the night of the murders, complete with wrapped presents under the tree. The property apparently became a target of thrill-seekers and adventurers. The house was sold after the murders, but by most accounts, it has remained empty, aside from a family who rented the property very briefly in 1960. Some people attribute the Christmas decorations to this unknown family, with the legend stating that “something” made them flee the property without taking any of their possessions with them on the anniversary of the murder-suicide.

4Gabriel Cadis

On January 6, 2012, in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, lawyer, accountant, and Arab Christian leader Gabriel Cadis was stabbed to death by a man wearing a Santa Claus costume, following a parade. The area’s Greek Orthodox community were to celebrate Christmas the next day.

According to authorities, the murder was in relation to a local family rivalry, and three Arab Israelis, all from the same family, were soon arrested. Two other suspects were placed under house arrest.

In 2016, Tufik Dalou and Faud Abu Maneh, both in their twenties, were found guilty of the murder. It is believed that (then) 56-six-year old Tala Abu Maneh had ordered the killing, although this was never proven or confirmed.

According to reports, it was Cadis’s recent third election victory as leader of the Greek Orthodox Christians that had created increased tensions in the community, particularly with the Abu Maneh family. Israel has a huge Christian population, and the timing of the murders to coincide with Greek Orthodox Christmas Eve was purposeful, according to investigators.

3Carnation Murders

Christmas Eve 2007 in Carnation, Washington, would see Michele Anderson take the lives of three generations of her own family. Later investigations, and indeed Michele’s own confession, would show the killings were influenced mainly by a perceived debt of $40,000 that her brother Scott Anderson (one of the deceased) owed to her. When her parents took his side and suddenly requested that she and her boyfriend (and accomplice) Joseph McEnroe begin paying rent for the family-owned trailer they lived in, the pair hatched their deadly plan.

Just after 4:00 PM on that fateful Christmas Eve, Michele and Joseph arrived at the family home and quickly shot her parents to death, before dragging their bodies to a shed in the garden and cleaning their blood from the floors in the house.

They then sat waiting for her brother, his wife Erica, and their two young children, who were coming for a family meal. Upon their arrival, the pair opened fire, killing them all. They fled the property, leaving the bodies to be discovered on December 26 by a coworker of the mother’s, who had grown concerned by her friend’s absence from work.

Police soon suspected Michele and her boyfriend due to their seemingly unconcerned behavior as well as their equally suspicious alibi that they were out of town on the day of the murders, as they had planned to marry in Las Vegas. They told police they’d changed their minds and headed back to Carnation.

McEnroe would be sentenced to life in prison in 2015, while Michele would be found guilty of all six murders and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in April 2016.

2Ron Gene Simmons’s Christmas Killing Spree

Photo credit: Crime Scene Database

Over a seven-day period from December 22 to 28, 1987, former US Air Force master sergeant Ronald Gene Simmons went on a killing spree through Arkansas that would leave a total of 16 people dead, 14 of them family members.

Simmons would begin his horrendous murder spree by shooting his wife and eldest son dead before strangling his three-year old granddaughter, who was staying at the house. He waited for four more of his children to return home, before taking each child separately out to the back of the property and holding their heads under the water in a large rain barrel.

He would remain at the family home until other members of his family arrived for a preplanned Christmas visit, which they did on December 26. He would shoot his son and daughter as well as their spouses. He strangled or drowned their children. In a dark, sick twist, his daughter Sheila had been the subject of sexual abuse at the hands of her father for years, and her daughter had actually been fathered by Simmons himself.

Two days later, Simmons would travel to nearby Russellville, where he would gun down a young woman who he was (by all accounts) infatuated with but who had turned down his advances. He would take shots at several people throughout the town over the following hours, killing one more person (who was no more than a stranger to him) before he gave himself up to police and handed over his weapon. He was ultimately found guilty of all 16 murders and sentenced to death.

In a bizarre twist to an already extremely dark tale, Simmons would need to be kept separate during his time spent on death row due to threats on his life from other prisoners. This wasn’t due to the horrific nature of his crimes, nor that he had sexually abused his own daughter (before murdering her), but because his refusal to appeal his death sentence, they believed, would weaken their own chances of appeal. Simmons was executed by lethal injection in June 1990.

1Aziz Yazdanpanah

Shortly after 11:00 AM on Christmas Day 2011, 56-year-old Aziz Yazdanpanah donned a Santa Claus costume and declared he wanted to be “all fatherly” to his family when he showed up at their apartment in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Then he shot his estranged wife, their two teenage children, his sister, his brother-in-law, and their 22-year-old daughter dead before shooting himself.

Although it was well-known to those who knew him that Yazdanpanah was having problems with his marriage, his increasing financial difficulties weren’t as commonly known. As we have looked at in several other such cases on this list, the murders by Yazdanpanah appear to have been the result of a mind that had simply broken.

According to the police reports, it was Yazdanpanah himself who had called police at 11:34 AM, stating to them, “Help. I am shooting people.” A text, later found on the phone of his murdered niece, was sent at 11:15 AM, stating, “Now he wants to be all fatherly and win father of the year.” It is believed that shortly after that text was sent, the murders began.

When police arrived at the scene, they found evidence of what appeared to be an attempt to “frame” his dead brother-in-law, as one of the guns used in the killings had been placed in his hand (presumably by Yazdanpanah). Police would state that at some point after making the phone call to authorities, he suddenly became “overwhelmed,” possibly having come to the awful realization of what he had done, so he simply turned the gun on himself.

The Haunting Face of a Man Who Lived 700 Years Ago

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The Haunting Face of a Man Who Lived 700 Years Ago

Behold “Context 958″—an ordinary man who lived in 13th century England. (Credit: Dr. Chris Rynn, University of Dundee)

This may look like a photograph, but the highly realistic face staring back at you belongs to a man who died over 700 years ago. The researchers who performed this unbelievable facial reconstruction say their work is providing new details about the way ordinary people lived in medieval England.

This 13th-century man—dubbed “Context 958″—is one of approximately 400 complete burials found and excavated beneath the Old Divinity School of St. John’s College in Cambridge, England, between 2010 and 2012. Back during the medieval era, this spot was home to the Hospital of St. John, a charitable institution set up to care for the poor and sick in the community. For centuries, the dead were buried in a cemetery right out back.

Facial reconstruction of Context 958. (Image credit: Dr. Chris Rynn, University of Dundee)

The reconstruction of Context 958 is part of a collaborative effort between Cambridge University’s Division of Archaeology and the University of Dundee’s Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification. The Wellcome Trust-funded project, called “After the plague: health and history in medieval Cambridge,” is an effort to catalogue and analyze the burials in as much depth and detail as possible.

Based on an exhaustive analysis of his remains and the burial site, here’s what we know about Context 958.

He was just slightly over 40 years old when he died. His skeleton showed signs of considerable wear-and-tear, so he likely lead a tough and hard working life. His tooth enamel stopped growing during two occasions in his youth, suggesting he likely lived through bouts of famine or sickness when he was young. The archaeologists found traces of blunt force trauma inflicted to the back of his head, which healed over before he died. The researchers aren’t sure what he did for a living, but they think he was a working-class person who specialized in some kind of trade.

Dr. Sarah Inskip examines the skull of Context 958. (Image credit: Laure Bonner)

Context 958 ate a diverse diet rich in meat or fish, according to an analysis of weathering patterns on his teeth. His profession may have provided him with more access to such foods than the average person at the time. His presence at the charitable hospital suggests he fell on hard times, with no one to take care of him.

“Context 958 was probably an inmate of the Hospital of St John, a charitable institution which provided food and a place to live for a dozen or so indigent townspeople—some of whom were probably ill, some of whom were aged or poor and couldn’t live alone,” noted John Robb, a professor from Cambridge University’s Division of Archaeology, in a statement.

Strangely, he was buried face down, which is rare but not unheard of in medieval burials. Robb and his colleagues are fascinated by Context 958 and those like him. Their analysis shows what it was like to live as an ordinary poor person back then—warts and all.

Context 958 was found buried face-down in the historic cemetery of St John’s. (Image credit: C. Cessford)

“Most historical records are about well-off people and especially their financial and legal transactions—the less money and property you had, the less likely anybody was to ever write down anything about you,” said Robb. “So skeletons like this are really our chance to learn about how the ordinary poor lived.”

Of course, facial reconstructions are only as good as the data they’re based on, in this case a highly-weathered skeleton. We can’t be completely certain that this is exactly what Context 958 looked like. But at the very least, it’s bringing his remains back to life. Work on other skeletons found at the site will continue, as the researchers are putting together a kind of biography of every individual studied. It’s a fitting tribute to regular folks whose lives would have otherwise been completely forgotten.

[University of Cambridge]

Morbid Experiment Proves This Neolithic Weapon Was an Effective Skull Crusher

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Morbid Experiment Proves This Neolithic Weapon Was an Effective Skull Crusher

The Thames Beater (top) and the replica club used for experimentation (bottom). (Image: Meaghan Dyer)

Humans have been killing other humans since the dawn of the species, but owing to the poor archaeological record, it’s unclear what sort of weapons our ancestors used to brutalize one another. Using models of human skulls and a replica of a weapon dating back thousands of years, researchers have shown that a bat-like club known as the “Thames Beater” was fit for the task of killing.

Humans have been constructing implements of destruction for thousands of years, including sharpened stones, spears, daggers, bows and arrows, and clubs. Some of these weapons were used for hunting, but early humans also used these weapons against one another—we’re just not entirely sure which ones. We know this because archaeologists have uncovered many burial sites in which the human remains exhibit horrific injuries, such as blunt force trauma to the skull, cracked bones, and other signs of combat.

Human warfare dates back about 10,000 years, and though we tend to harbor romantic thoughts of the “Noble Savage” and peaceful agrarian existence, the sad truth is that ancient farmers were shockingly violent. But as mentioned, connecting injuries to specific weapons has proven difficult. To overcome this shortcoming, archaeologists Meaghan Dyer and Linda Fibiger from the University of Edinburgh ran a fascinating—if rather morbid—experiment to determine if one particular weapon, the “Thames Beater,” could be implicated in Neolithic-era blunt force skull injuries (the Neolithic period ran from about 7,000 BC to 2,000 BC). Their resulting study, now published in Antiquity, shows it would make for a very effective murder weapon, indeed.

In a nutshell, the researchers used a replica of the Thames Beater to create injuries in a model of the human skull, which were then compared to injuries found in the remains of actual Neolithic-era victims. To do so, the researchers engaged in a bit of experimental forensics not unlike modern efforts to determine cause of death.

Instead of using an animal carcass or a human cadaver, the researchers opted for a synthetic polyurethane “skin-skull-brain” model coated in rubber skin. A hole was left at the bottom, through which the researchers injected a brain-like gelatin mass. Two skin-skull-brain models of different thicknesses were used to account for human variance. Dyer and Fibiger believed this model more accurately represented the shape and strength of the human skull compared to an animal carcass, and that it was more ethical than battering away at a human donor’s corpse.

Image: Meaghan Dyer

The weapon of choice for this experiment was the aforementioned Thames Beater, radiocarbon-dated to about 4,600 years ago, was found near the Thames river in the early 1990s. For archaeologists, this represented a spectacularly rare find, as few items like this are known to exist. The item, which is kept at the Museum of London, is cracked, chipped, and generally in pretty bad shape. It looks like a mishmash of Bam Bam’s club from the Flintstones and a cricket bat. It even has a rounded pommel. When it was in good shape, the Thames Beater measured about two feet in length. It doesn’t take much imagination to see this object being used as a formidable weapon.

Obviously, the researchers couldn’t use the original Thames Beater, so they recruited the help of master carpenter David Lewis of Cornwall, who recreated the object using alder wood. Lewis did his best to recreate the club’s weight, shape, dimensions, and other attributes.

Finally, the whacking could begin. A 30-year-old male was recruited to do the hitting, which he did as if he were defending his life. The resulting fractures on the simulated ball-shaped skulls resulted in depression fractures that were deep enough to displace bone and produce cracks that spread throughout the skull. These injuries were consistent with what would be expected from blunt force trauma. What’s more, the researchers compared these injuries to the damaged skulls of remains found at Asparn/Schletz—a Neolithic massacre site in Austria. Again, the injuries were nearly identical.

At left the model, and at right an actual human skull. The similarities are striking. (Image: Meaghan Dyer)

“The fracture morphology, shape of displaced fragments, and the beveled fracture edges produced in both spheres match very closely with trauma hypothetically linked to wooden club weapons,” wrote the authors in the new study.

Of course, just because the Thames Beater can produce these kinds of injuries doesn’t prove it was actually used by Neolithic peoples to bash in each other’s skulls. But it’s a safe bet they did—just look at that thing. It would make for a very poor hunting weapon (unless used to knock an animal out of its misery), but a very effective one-on-one weapon.

Importantly, this approach to archaeology could lead to similar analyses of other suspected weapons, and shed new light on ancient Europeans.

“The research opens up new and innovative avenues for exploring the mechanisms and context of blunt force trauma in prehistory,” conclude the authors. “This is essential for understanding the meaning of the social and cultural contexts of such events (as varying forms of violence are indicative of different social pressures and interactions), whether considering material from standard funerary contexts or the increasing number of remains from mass graves across Western and Central Europe.”

As this study affirms, we humans can be our own worst enemies.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the club dated back to 4th century BC, whereas it’s actually about 4,600 years old.


The Many, Many Times Astronomers Mistook Mundane Phenomena for Aliens

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The Many, Many Times Astronomers Mistook Mundane Phenomena for Aliens

The science world is all in a tizzy this week about the supposed discovery of an alien megastructure. It’s an intriguing theory, no doubt, but one deserving hefty amounts of skepticism. As we’ve learned before, inexplicable observations are all too often confused for aliens. Here are some classic examples.

A strange star located about 1,500 light-years from here is confounding astronomers. As reported by Ross Andersen in The Atlantic, the star, dubbed KIC 8462852, appears to be surrounded by “a strange mess of objects,” compelling scientists involved in the hunt for extraterrestrial intelligence “to get a closer look.”

A likely explanation for the anomaly is a massive and irregular cloud of debris left over from a celestial collision. But Jason Wright, an astronomer who studies exoplanets and astrobiology, suspects it may be a Dyson Sphere—an alien-built megastructure consisting of solar panels placed in orbit around a star.

There’s much more to this story than my summary, so I highly recommendPhil Plait’s post at Slate. As Plait himself admits, this star’s behavior is indeed difficult to explain and it’s “clear something weird is happening there.” To be clear, it’s probably not ET, but the suggestion that aliens may somehow be involved is not completely outrageous. As I’ve said before, the search for alien artifacts—or what’s called Dysonian SETI—may be our best route to finally detecting signs of an extraterrestrial civilization.

This issue brings to mind previous instances in scientific history when a “God is in the gaps” explanation gets invoked for inexplicable phenomenon. There seems to be a tendency—and again, not a completely unwarranted tendency—among some astronomers to attribute extraterrestrial intervention when they observe something unexpected or seemingly outside the bounds of established knowledge. But in virtually every instance, these initial deliberations have been superseded by more reasonable explanations, as these following examples attest.

Canals on Mars

Back at the turn of the 20th century, American astronomer Percival Lowell posited the theory that an advanced alien civilization had irrigated crops on the surface of Mars with water drawn from the Red Planet’s poles via an elaborate canal network.

“That Mars is inhabited by beings of some sort or other we may consider as certain as it is uncertain what these beings may be,” wrote Lowell in 1906.

Since the time of Lowell, however, closer inspection of the surface has shown that Mars does indeed feature a complex and dynamic surface, one carved by the ravages of time rather than an alien civilization.


Another example is the discovery of pulsars, those freakishly precise flashes of electromagnetic radiation produced by highly magnetized, rotating neutron stars.

(Credit: NASA)

Because they flash at such steady and rapid intervals, some astronomers speculated that pulsars are actually beacons set up by advanced alien intelligences. When they were first described in 1967, one of the scientists involved in the discovery, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, said that

we did not really believe that we had picked up signals from another civilization, but obviously the idea had crossed our minds and we had no proof that it was an entirely natural radio emission. It is an interesting problem—if one thinks one may have detected life elsewhere in the universe, how does one announce the results responsibly?

Despite their initial skepticism, they named the pulsar LGM-1, which stands for “little green men.”

The Wow! Signal

There’s also the infamous Wow! signal— a 72-second-long radio burst that initially appeared to good to be true. It was.

Patrick J. KIger from National Geographic explains:

[Jerry] Ehman, a volunteer researcher for Ohio State University’s now-defunct Big Ear radio observatory, perused data from the telescope’s scan of the skies on August 15, a few days earlier. In those days, such information was run through an IBM 1130 mainframe computer and printed on perforated paper, and then laboriously examined by hand. But the tedium was shattered when Ehman spotted something surprising—a vertical column with the alphanumerical sequence “6EQUJ5,” which had occurred at 10:16 p.m. EST. He grabbed a red pen and circled the sequence. In the margin, wrote “Wow!”

Ehman’s excitement over that bit of arcane information stemmed from the Big Ear’s mission at the time, which was searching space for radio signals of the sort that might be emanated by extraterrestrial civilizations, if they were attempting to make contact with intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. To Ehman, this signal, which had come from the direction of the constellation Sagittarius, looked an awful lot like it could be such a message. Observatory director John Krauss and his assistant Bob Dixon, who subsequently examined the data, were similarly astonished by it.

The signal, which lasted 72 seconds, was never detected again, even during follow-up studies. Though never fully explained, the signal was likely a natural, continuous signal, or some human-caused artifact.


More recently, astronomers at the Parkes Observatory in Australia detected mysterious radio signals known as perytons.

(Credit: CSIRO)

These brief but intense bursts, which appeared to emanate from deep space, were so strange that some scientists thought they might be coming from, what else, aliens. But a follow-up study ruined the party by showing that the signals were coming from—get this—microwave ovens used in the observatory to re-heat coffee. Ouch.


Of course, supposed signs of aliens need not be limited to space.

Unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, are often associated with alien visitations, though empirical evidence for such claims are completely lacking. In virtually all cases, however, there are perfectly reasonable explanations for these observations.

Keep an Open Mind

The strange behavior of KIC 8462852 may never be explained. Our inability to posit a more reasonable explanation may be due to our limited technologies, insufficient science, or lack of imagination.

In time we may discover what’s really going on, and it’ll probably be a really fascinating explanation. Until then however, we should seek out the simplest solution, while keeping an open mind to other, more radical possibilities. Failure to do both would be a terrible disservice to the scientific process.


Preliminary Scan Suggests This Interstellar Visitor Is Not an Alien Spaceship

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Preliminary Scan Suggests This Interstellar Visitor Is Not an Alien Spaceship

Artist’s impression of ‘Oumuamua (Image: ESO)

On October 19, 2017, astronomers witnessed the first known interstellar asteroid—a bizarre, cigar-shaped rock that, just as quickly as it entered into our Solar System, exited in a hurry. Not satisfied that ‘Oumuamua, as it’s been named, is just an odd asteroid, astronomers from Breakthrough Listen recently tuned their Green Bank telescope into the object to see if it’s an alien spaceship or some kind of probe. The preliminary results are now in and—brace yourself—it’s still a rock.

Typically, scientists at Breakthrough Listen hunt for aliens by scanning distant stars, but when ‘Oumuamua (pronounced “oh-moo-ah-moo-ah” and meaning “a messenger from afar arriving first”) paid us an unexpected visit, it was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up. Indeed, astronomers have catalogued around 750,000 asteroids, yet this is the only known chunk of rock to originate from a different stellar neighborhood. What’s more, ‘Oumuamua’s strange shape and awesome speed (it’s moving at 26.3 km/s) hinted at something perhaps not quite natural.

Using Breakthrough Listen’s backend instrument on the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, the astronomers ran the first of four scans, or “blocks,” of observations from 3:45pm to 9:45pm ET on December 13. The asteroid, or alleged spaceship, was scanned across four radio bands, each of which corresponded to four radio receivers, denoted L, S, X, C, and spanning billions of individual channels from 1 to 12 GHz. During this first block of observations, the astronomers also collected 90 TB of data, which, unsurprisingly, they’re still parsing through.

Image: Brooks Bays/SOEST Publication Services/Univ. of Hawaii

No artificial signals were detected within this first block of data. So depending on your opinion of aliens, this is either good or bad news (raises hand that this is good news).

“The team has just met and reviewed our results from all four bands observed last night and we don’t see anything continuously emitting from ‘Oumuamua,” Andrew Siemion, Director of Berkeley SETI Research Center, told Gizmodo. “We’re now digging in to some of the intermittent candidates, and trying some new machine learning-based techniques we have been working on. We expect our next observation window to be scheduled for [December 15 or 16], when we should get a view of additional ‘phases’ of ‘Oumuamua as it rotates.”

Siemion said the weather cooperated such that his team was able to get data at all four bands. At this stage, only data from the S-band receiver has been processed (between frequencies of 1.7 to 2.6 GHz), and analysis of the remaining three bands is still underway.

This unexpected visit has the Breakthrough Listen team wondering if there are specific search techniques or algorithms that would be more effective when scanning nearby objects or hypothetical probes. This is completely new territory, but for now, Siemion’s team figures that ‘Oumuamua doesn’t emit “an isotropic narrow-band beacon at centimeter-wavelengths above a power of about 0.2W”—or the approximate power of an iPhone.

Some might think this exercise is a complete waste of time, and a venture that skirts the bounds of credible science, but not everyone shares this viewpoint.

“This is a fishing expedition,” Avi Loeb, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told Gizmodo. “We are most likely not to find anything, but it is worth checking steadily our fishing hooks. It is worthwhile to keep searching for artificial signals from ‘Oumuamua or any other interstellar object that will be discovered in the future. Null results are part of science, and the question ‘Are we alone?’ is one of the most fundamental questions we have.”

Penn State astronomer Jason Wright agrees, but he didn’t think ‘Oumuamua was the greatest candidate to begin with.

“Arthur C. Clarke popularized the idea that we might discover alien probes or spacecraft as they pass by the Sun in his Rama series. We should keep an open mind about how alien technology might be found, and how it might travel through space, and take Clarke’s suggestion seriously.”

Wright said he’s not “particularly persuaded” by the SETI approach for this particular asteroid, but he understands why astronomers like Avi Loeb and Andrew Siemion are, and he’s “excited that Breakthrough Listen is including interstellar objects” in its campaign.

“This is the first interstellar asteroid we know, and we expect to find many more in the future,” said Wright. “By undertaking this campaign, Breakthrough Listen is developing a protocol for these observations, and making us all think harder about how future interstellar asteroids can fit into a comprehensive SETI campaign.”

Defending his work, Siemion says SETI is a key tool in attempting to answer the question of whether or not we’re alone in the universe, and that it’s a reasonable scientific endeavor to determine the number density and distribution of technologically capable life on both galactic and possibly cosmological scales.

“No, I don’t think SETI is a crazy thing to do,” said Siemion in response to a question from Gizmodo. “I think it is perhaps the most profoundly consequential scientific endeavor we have ever attempted as human beings.”

[Breakthrough Listen]

Scientists Figure Out Why Italian Family Can’t Feel Pain

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Scientists Figure Out Why Italian Family Can’t Feel Pain

Some guy named Robert Earl’s broken leg (Image: rearl/Flickr)

An Italian woman, her two daughters, and her three grandchildren have always had trouble feeling pain. They can’t sense temperature. They break bones without noticing. Now, a team of scientists in the United Kingdom think they’ve figured out why.

Pain—whether it’s the sharp agony of a stubbed toe or the warning heat that comes before a burn—is an everyday occurrence for most people, but not for this unusual Italian family. By studying both the family members’ genetics and mice, researchers think they’ve located the gene responsible for their insensitivity. One day, this knowledge could help others treat chronic pain.

“Genetic analysis of a human family with Marsili syndrome, a rare and perhaps unique inherited pain insensitive phenotype, and mouse modeling have shown ZFHX2 as a critical gene for normal pain perception,” the authors write in the study published recently in the journal Brain. The syndrome’s name, Marsili, comes from this very family.

The family members agreed to go through rigorous examination for the new research—tests that sound like mild torture to a normal pain-feeler. They were poked at tender points, touched surfaces ranging from 14 degrees to 122 degrees Fahrenheit, and dunked their hands in ice water.

Finally, the researchers sequenced part of the family’s genomes, revealing a new mutation in the “ZFHX2″ gene. This gene alters how nociceptors, the pain-sensing part of the nerve cells that turn sensory inputs into stimuli for the brain, translate DNA code into protein-making instructions.

Previous research has created mice without that ZFHX2 gene, and those mice turned out to be pretty weird: They were more hyperactive and showed signs of mouse depression. In this new study, the ZFHX2-altered mice had difficulty sensing hot and cold, offering further evidence that a mutation in the gene is what causes the family’s lack of pain.

It’s important to note that the mutant mice didn’t show exactly the same symptoms as the humans did—and the genetics of pain are more complex than single genes. Other people who have fractured bones without feeling pain have had mutations on another gene, called SCN11A, for example. Much about pain is still poorly understood, according to a Nature editorial.

But understanding mutations such as these may one day lead to better pain treatment ideas. Further work is needed to determine which genes might be the best targets for painkilling therapies, the authors write.

As for the Italian family, New Scientist reports that they’d rather not sense pain normally. I mean, me too.

[Brain via New Scientist]

These Endangered Wildlife Photos Are Artistic Masterpieces 

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These Endangered Wildlife Photos Are Artistic Masterpieces 

Image Tim Flach

Human’s impact on nature is unmistakeable, from vast swaths of lost forest to heaps of trash on beaches. Looking at these images might be upsetting, but still demonstrate what we’ve done. They don’t demonstrate what we might lose.

Scientists warn that we’re potentially amidst a sixth mass extinction event, thanks to human activity. Humans are indirectly and directly responsible for the loss of species once as common as passenger pigeons and Tasmanian tigers. Before these species go extinct, they’re endangered—and one photographer is trying to document these species facing the struggle before it’s too late.

Photographer Tim Flach released his collection of stunning photographs in the enormous book Endangered this week, alongside commentary from chief scientist of the National Geographic Society, Jonathan Baille. The book costs 65 bucks. But honestly—it’s very good.

Image: Tim Flach

Pangolins are considered the most trafficked animal in the world. They’re hunted in Africa as meat, and in Asia where their scales are used in traditional medical treatments. All four species are considered vulnerable and one is critically endangered, writes Baille.

Image: Tim Flach

The sea angel’s endangered status hasn’t been evaluated, but it’s falling victim to ocean acidification. These animals are important for feeding other fish, like the larvae of cod and salmon.

Image: Tim Flach

Hippopotamuses are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Their numbers have fallen due to hunting both for meat and for their teeth, which can substitute as ivory.

Image: Tim Flach

Polar bears are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN as they succumb to the effects of melting polar ice caps, thanks to climate change. However, Inuit communities attempt to hunt the bears sustainably, writes Baille.

Image: Tim Flach
Image: Tim Flach

Pictured above are chalice coral polyps, followed by Montipora coral. Single coral polyps attach, building and grow together as a colony in one large aggregation of connected individual organisms. They are listed as “least concern” by the IUCN but are vulnerable to bleaching events from the effects of climate change.

Image: TIm Flach

Yellow-eyed tree frogs lay their eggs ten feet in the air in the plants surrounding ponds during rainy seasons, writes Baille. The frog’s habitat has been stunted thanks to development in Costa Rica’s capital, San José. The frog is currently listed as endangered by the IUCN.

Image: Tim Flach
Image: Tim Flach

Poachers and smugglers trade Madagascar’s ploughshare tortoises for their shells, and the species is now critically endangered. One organization bred 600 tortoises from a set of confiscated ones, then purposely defaced the shells to deter smugglers, writes Baille.

Image: Tim Flach

The pied tamarin is listed as endangered by the IUCN as suburban development has led to deforestation and habitat lost. Numbers have begun to grow as conservationists breed the species in captivity.

Image: Tim Flach

Endangered tells the story of the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey’s biggest fan, filmmaker Xi Zhinong. He created a documentary about the monkeys, and saved a swatch of their habitat from logging after sending a litter to the Chinese government.

Image: Tim Flach

The monarch butterfly isn’t endangered, yet. But conservationists are concerned after observing large declines in migrating populations in California and Mexico between 1997 and 2016, writes Baille.

Image: Tim Flach

Phillipine eagles are an apex predator, which makes them vulnerable to toxic chemicals that have built up through the food web as bigger animals eat smaller animals. Much of their habitat has also been deforested, and they are listed as critically endangered by the IUCN.

Image: Tim Flach

Each snow leopard survives on over 80 square mile habitat apiece in central Asia, meaning that humans may increasingly come into contact with them as they expand their farmland. They’re listed as endangered by the IUCN.

Image: Tim Flach

Saiga are listed as critically endangered by the IUCN after hunting for their meat and horns, as well as a recent bacterial infection that decimated populations. Conservationists are hopeful that the saiga will bounce back, writes Baille.

Image: Tim Flach

Rhinos have succumbed to heavy losses due to the high value of their horns. The South African government legalized domestic trade hoping that prices would drop, but Baille writes that 1,000 rhinos were still killed in 2016. Pictured here is the northern white rhino—there are only three northern white rhinos left on Earth, all owned by a zoo.

Image: Tim Flach

The 16-foot-long beluga sturgeon is illegally hunted for food—its eggs go for over $9,000 a pound, writes Baille. It is simultaneously succumbing to habitat loss from damming projects, and the IUCN lists it as critically endangered.

Image: Tim Flach

There are only a few hundred Indian gharials left on Earth, mostly in sanctuary. They’re the victims of threats like hunting for food and medicine as well as habitat loss from humans.

[Abrams Books]

Behold The Most Hilarious Wildlife Photos of 2017

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Behold The Most Hilarious Wildlife Photos of 2017

Not the winner, but definitely our favorite (Image: Bence Mate/ Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards)

Wildlife photographer Tibor Kércz would spend a few nights each year camped out in a tent near a tree, hoping to capture photos of little owls and their nestlings. But just before nightfall on one fateful evening, three of the birds flew out onto a short branch. They landed and tried stabilizing themselves… but the owlet on the end began to fall.


“So I started to shoot in the right moment,” he told Gizmodo in a Facebook message. That series of photos won him the 2017 Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards.


The awards are meant to highlight whimsical, “possibly unpretentious” photography of wild animals doing funny things, according to their website. Some of the silliest images from past contests have gone viral, and this year’s certainly have the potential to do the same. Ultimately, the founders’ main goal is conservation.

“Well… you are now obviously going to go to your office, home, pub, club, or wherever and talk about the dire need for us all to be conservationists in our own little way,” the competition’s founders write on their website. The contest is affiliated with the Born Free Foundation wildlife conservation charity. But Kércz likes how it gives humans the chance to see animals in a more relatable light.

“It is a great initiative and [gives us the] chance to show people how funny and lovable these cute creatures are, like we are,” he said.


The contest received over 3,500 submissions, which were required to have been taken by the photographer, not of a pet or domesticated animal, and without being digitally manipulated. Also, term number 16 of the website’s Terms and Conditions is “16. You must think Bohemian Rhapsody one of the greatest pieces of popular music ever written, just kidding. No seriously….” So yeah.

Anyway, here are the pictures:

Overall winner: Tibor Kércz

Image: Tibor Kércz/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards
Image: Tibor Kércz/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards
Image: Tibor Kércz/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards
Image: Tibor Kércz/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards

Winner, “In The Air” Category: Jon Threlfall

Image: Jon Threlfall/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards

It’s a fart joke.

Winner, “Under the Sea” Category: Troy Mayne

Image: Troy Mayne/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards

Winner, “On Land” Category: Andrea Zampatti

Image: Andrea Zampatti/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards

Highly Commended

Image: Bence Mate/ Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards
Image: Carl Henry/ Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards
Image: Daisy Gilardini/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards
Image: Daniel Trim/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards
Image: Douglas Croft/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards
Image: George Cathcart/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards
Image: Jean-Jacques Alcalay/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards
Image: Katy Laveck-Foster/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards
Image: Oliver Colle/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards
Image: Penny Palmer/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards

[via Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards