The CIA has just invested in the woolly mammoth resurrection business

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The Dallas-based biotechnology company Colossal Biosciences has a vision: “To see the Woolly Mammoth thunder upon the tundra once again.” Founders George Church and Ben Lamm have already racked up an impressive list of high-profile funders and investors, including Peter Thiel, Tony Robbins, Paris Hilton, Winklevoss Capital — and, according to the public portfolio its venture capital arm released this month, the CIA. Colossal says it hopes to use advanced genetic sequencing to resurrect two extinct mammals — not just the giant, ice age mammoth, but also a mid-sized marsupial known as the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, that died out less than a century ago. On its website, the company vows: “Combining the science of genetics with the business of discovery, we endeavor to jumpstart nature’s ancestral heartbeat.”

Otters are art history’s unsung muses

Though seals are probably the gateway to aquatic mammal fandom, connoisseurs of the genre all agree that otters are best in class. These furry powerhouses are not only capable of tender intimacy and novel tool usage, they often just seem to be having the best time ever. So it’s no wonder that they have been a recurring motif throughout art history. “The pose of raised paws signifies the otter’s adoration of the sun god when he rises in the morning,” reads the label on this Ancient Egyptian bronze statuette, dating to between 664 and 30 BCE. “In myth otters were attached to the goddess Wadjet of Lower Egypt, whose cult was centered in Buto, in the northern Delta.”

Japanese professor wins Ig Nobel prize for study on knob turning

It is one of life’s overlooked arts: the optimal way to turn a knob. Now an investigation into this neglected question has been recognised with one of science’s most coveted accolades: an Ig Nobel prize. After a series of lab-based trials, a team of Japanese industrial designers arrived at the central conclusion that the bigger the knob, the more fingers required to turn it. The team is one of 10 to be recognised at this year’s Ig Nobel awards for research that “first makes you laugh, then makes you think.” Other awards at the virtual ceremony on Thursday evening include the physics prize for showing why ducklings swim in a line formation, and the economics prize for explaining, mathematically, why success most often goes not to the most talented people, but instead to the luckiest.

On language, overuse, and hyperbole

From Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza in LitHub (via Why Is This Interesting?) comes a phenomenon known as “semantic bleaching”: To attract attention, we submit to the “maxim of extravagance.” You really want people to see the taxidermied pig you just bought, so you tell your friend, “Man, this thing is incredible. It’s wearing a lederhosen and everything.” Your friend goes to see the pig and he too is surprised by the thing. He starts telling his friends, “that thing is incredible.” This is called “conformity.” Word gets around the neighborhood and then the whole block is talking about the incredible taxidermied pig. This is called “frequency.” You’re out for a walk one day, and you flag down a Door Dasher on a bicycle. “Have you seen the—” “The incredible taxidermied pig? Yeah man, whatever.” This is called “predictability.”

Riding with one of the world’s last whaling tribes

The shore of Lamalera Bay is too rocky and parched to grow crops, but the newcomers soon discovered that even one of the sperm whales schooling just offshore would provide enough meat to feed everyone for weeks. To survive this harsh environment and the dangerous work, the Lamalerans evolved a unique culture that has been rated by anthropologists as one of the world’s most cooperative and generous. Today, the Lamalerans are among the small and ever-dwindling number of hunter-gatherer societies in existence, and the only one to survive by whaling. Although they will harpoon anything from porpoises to orcas, their main prey are sperm whales, the largest carnivore in history.

What happened when my entire family came out

There’s a photo of my family from November 1981, when we are still living in Greenville, S.C. I remember that I lost my first tooth while we were sitting in the studio’s waiting area at Sears. If there were an instruction manual for the modern American family of the 20th century, this photo could have been on its cover. Dad, the son of a minister, had gone to law school and was working in-house at a Fortune 500 company. Mom cared for us at home full-time. But these identities obscured secrets, hidden shames so pervasive and toxic that although they went unnamed, they couldn’t be entirely concealed. As a child, Dad had nurtured crushes on boys. As a teen, Mom had been romantically involved with a young man who turned out to be an alleged murderer. Then, in the space of five years, everything changed. We all came out.

The youngest scientist on the Manhattan Project was also a spy

Always wanted to live in a cave? This house is for you

Zillow Gone Wild — one of my favourite Twitter accounts — posts some pretty amazing (and weird) homes, but this one really takes the cake: it is built into the side of a mountain, and is connected to a chain of caverns that the ad refers to as the “Cave of Chimes,” which appears to be part of Iron Mountain, near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Most of the house is built into a wide opening in the rock face that looks out over a canyon.

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The secret microscope that sparked a scientific revolution

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On September 7, 1674, Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek sent a letter to London’s Royal Society detailing an astonishing discovery. While he was examining algae from a nearby lake through his homemade microscope, a creature “with green and very glittering little scales,” which he estimated to be a thousand times smaller than a mite, had darted across his vision. Two years later, he followed up with another report so extraordinary that microbiologists today refer to it simply as “Letter 18”: Van Leeuwenhoek had looked everywhere and found what he called animalcules (Latin for “little animals”) in everything. This monumental discovery was not made by one of the 17th century’s great scientific minds such as Galileo or Isaac Newton, but by a secretive, self-taught Dutchman, who did it by handcrafting a lens 10 times more powerful than anything built before it.

Ski mountaineer Hilaree Nelson disappears while descending Manaslu

On Monday, American ski mountaineer Hilaree Nelson and her partner Jim Morrison reached the summit of 26,781-foot Manaslu, the eighth-highest mountain in the world. Soon after the 49-year-old explorer began her descent on skis, she disappeared. On Wednesday, searchers recovered her body. Nelson, a National Geographic Explorer, had a distinctive sense of wanderlust that propelled her through more than 40 expeditions to 16 countries. Along the way, she explored some of the tallest mountains on the planet, often carrying her skis along with her for the ride down. In 2012, she became the first woman to summit two 8,000-meter peaks, Mount Everest and Lhotse, in a single 24-hour push. Six years later, Nelson returned to Lhotse to become the first to ski from its summit.

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NASA is going to slam a spacecraft into an asteroid

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A golf cart-sized spacecraft will intentionally smash into a tiny asteroid at about 14,000 miles per hour on September 26. It’s humanity’s first test of our ability to deflect dangerous incoming space rocks. NASA currently knows the location and orbit of roughly 28,000 nearby asteroids. Experts say that it’s a matter of when — not if — Earth finds itself on track to be hit by one. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 in November 2021, to see whether a spacecraft could one day divert a rogue space rock headed for Earth. The $308 million spacecraft traveled 6.8 million miles from Earth to Dimorphos, a small asteroid orbiting the asteroid Didymos.

The Chicago heiress who created lifelike crime-scene miniatures

The tiny diorama shows a miniature husband and wife, lying in their bedroom, their baby in her crib in the adjacent nursery. A typical family on a typical morning, minus the red bloodstains on the beige bedroom carpet. All three family members have been shot to death. The diorama, called “Three-Room Dwelling,” was built in about 1944 by a 60-something Chicago heiress named Frances Glessner Lee. It was made to train police officers in the handling and processing of evidence. The blood behind the baby’s crib allows officers to study blood spatter patterns. In the 1940s and 1950s, when Lee created what came to be known as The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, her dioramas were seen as a revolutionary way to study crime scene investigation.

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The triumph of hope over experience

This is from a great piece by the always excellent Helena Fitzgerald, from her newsletter “Griefbacon”:

Somebody said second marriages represent “the triumph of hope over experience,” but everything is that, isn’t it? Every day any of us get up in the morning is the triumph of hope over experience, choosing not to know better, choosing to ignore the warnings, to do it anyway, despite the likelihoods, against the odds. “The triumph of hope over experience” figures love as willful stupidity, which is true, but it also says—also correctly—that there is no greater human miracle than second chances. A belief in change is stupid in a mathematical sense, but it is also a ladder to climb back up into the world. Here in this unlikely room the door is never closed. Love is impossible, but that means it is a place where there are no borders between worthy and unworthy, where there is no notion of worthiness at all. The harsh lines do not hold; they blur out into the green haze beyond the legible view.

Your humble and obedient servant

When the writing of handwritten physical letters was popular, it was not uncommon to end a letter with a valediction similar to “Your humble servant,” etc. More recently, people often ended letters with “Yours truly,” or “Sincerely yours.” But according to this article, both of those are actually abbreviations. It explains:

While one may think that the word “Yours” is a type of possessive form, it doesn’t mean that at all. It actually is an abbreviation of “Your Servant” — typically written: yours and abbreviated today as “yours”. So both “Sincerely Yours” and “Yours Truly” actually mean “Sincerely your servant” and “Your servant truly”, respectively.

Alzheimer’s is an immune system disorder, doctor says

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For years, scientists have been focused on trying to come up with new treatments for Alzheimer’s by preventing the formation of brain-damaging clumps of a mysterious protein called beta-amyloid. But is that really the key to the disease? In July 2022, Science magazine reported that a key 2006 research paper, which identified beta-amyloid as the cause of Alzheimer’s, may have been based on fabricated data. Other scientists believe there may be other causes: Donald Weaver, who runs the Krembil Brain Institute in Toronto, says his research shows that Alzheimer’s may be an immune system disorder. “We believe that beta-amyloid is not an abnormally produced protein, but rather is a normally occurring molecule that is part of the brain’s immune system,” he writes.

Satellite images show the unprecedented flooding that has left Pakistan underwater

Reuters has a feature that compares satellite images of Pakistan before and after the massive flooding that has hit the country. In one area in Sindh province, which has been especially badly hit, locals say even two-storey houses are barely visible over the surface of the water. Floods from record monsoon rains and glacial melt in the mountainous north have affected 33 million people and killed over 1,500, washing away homes, roads, railways, bridges, livestock and crops in damage estimated at $30 billion, Reuters says. The news service used imagery from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellite.

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Researchers find rare space diamonds from ancient planet

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Billions of years ago, an asteroid smashed into a dwarf planet in a cataclysmic collision that blasted the insides of the planet into outer space. Over time, remnants of the dwarf planet’s mantle have fortuitously fallen to Earth as diamond-rich meteorites, called ureilites, that reveal an unprecedented glimpse into the subterranean layers of a doomed ancient world. For years, scientists have puzzled over the fallen remains of the long-lost planet and the mysterious presence of its abundant diamonds, which include hints of lonsdaleite, an ultra-rare type of diamond named after the pioneering crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale. Now, scientists led by Andrew Tomkins, a professor of geosciences at Monash University, have found the largest lonsdaleite diamonds ever seen.

A buyer thought he was buying a painting by Lucian Freud — but is that what he got?

A businessman who liked to acquire furniture and art at competitive prices — let’s call him Omar — bought a rare painting by Sigmund Freud’s grandson in 1997, for a hundred thousand Swiss francs, or about seventy thousand dollars, several times lower than its appraised value. He thought he had gotten a steal, and tried to lure some potential buyers by putting it on eBay. Then he got a call from someone claiming to be Freud himself, who said he wanted the painting back, and offered Omar a hundred thousand Swiss francs. Omar refused. The caller doubled his offer. “Sorry,” Omar said. “I am loving this painting.” The voice responded: “Fuck you. You will not sell the painting all your life.” When Omar tried to have the painting authenticated, Freud claimed it wasn’t his.

Experts say the number of lakes on Mars has been drastically underestimated

Billions of years ago, Mars was speckled with murky lakes that may have been home to microbial life, raising the tantalizing possibility that Martian fossils might be buried in the dessicated remains of these ancient waters, which are known as “paleolakes.” Scientists even speculate that briny liquid lakes may still flow under the red planet’s ice caps, perhaps providing a final refuge for microbial Martians—though the odds of extant life on Mars are hotly debated. Some 500 paleolakes have been identified on Mars, but scientists believe that hundreds or thousands more are waiting to be discovered in this “new era of Martian limnology,” meaning the study of freshwater ecosystems, according to a study published on Thursday in Nature Astronomy.

An AI used medical notes to teach itself to spot disease on chest x-rays

After crunching through thousands of chest x-rays and the clinical reports that accompany them, an AI has learned to spot diseases in those scans as accurately as a human radiologist. The majority of current diagnostic AI models are trained on scans labeled by humans, but that labeling is a time-consuming process. The new model, called CheXzero, can instead “learn” on its own from existing medical reports that specialists have written in natural language. The findings suggest that labeling x-rays for the purpose of training AI models to interpret medical images isn’t necessary, which could save both time and money. A team of researchers from Harvard Medical School trained the model on a publicly available data set of more than 377,000 chest x-rays and more than 227,000 clinical reports.

The number of ants on Earth is such a large number it’s almost unimaginable

A new estimate for the total number of ants on Earth comes to a mind-boggling total of nearly 20 quadrillion – or about 20,000 trillion. In a paper released by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a group of scientists from the University of Hong Kong analyzed 489 studies and concluded that the total mass of ants on Earth weighs in at about 12 megatons of dry carbon. Put another way: If all the ants were plucked from the ground and put on a scale, they would outweigh all the wild birds and mammals put together. So for every person who is alive on the planet right now, there are about 2.5 million ants. “It’s unimaginable,” Patrick Schultheiss, a lead author on the study who is now a researcher at the University of Würzburg in Germany, told the Washington Post in a Zoom interview.

The mysterious and fascinating search for the secrets of eel migration

The European eel and the American eel—both considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature—make this extraordinary migration. The Sargasso is the only place on Earth where they breed. The slithery creatures, some as long as 1.5 meters, arrive from Europe, North America, including parts of the Caribbean, and North Africa, including the Mediterranean Sea. Researchers study them in the hope of solving mysteries that have long flummoxed marine biologists, anatomists, philosophers, and conservationists: What happens when these eels spawn in the wild? And what can be done to help the species recover from the impacts of habitat loss, pollution, overfishing, and hydropower? Scientists say that the answers could improve conservation. But, thus far, eels have kept most of their secrets to themselves.

We dry out as we age

Could “obesogens” contained in plastic be making us fat?

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According to a recent Bloomberg piece, in the US, roughly 40% of today’s high school students were overweight by the time they started high school. Globally, the incidence of obesity has tripled since the 1970s, with fully one billion people expected to be obese by 2030. An emerging view among scientists is that one major overlooked component in obesity is almost certainly our environment — in particular, the pervasive presence within it of chemicals which, even at very low doses, act to disturb the normal functioning of human metabolism. Some of these chemicals, known as “obesogens,” directly boost the production of specific cell types and fatty tissues associated with obesity. Unfortunately, these chemicals are used in many of the most basic products of modern life including packaging, clothes and furniture, cosmetics, and food additives.

This artist is dominating AI-generated art. And he’s not happy about it

Those cool AI-generated images you’ve seen across the internet? There’s a good chance they are based on the works of Greg Rutkowski, according to MIT’s Technology Review. Rutkowski is a Polish digital artist who uses classical painting styles to create dreamy fantasy landscapes. He has made illustrations for games such as Sony’s Horizon Forbidden West, Ubisoft’s Anno, Dungeons & Dragons, and Magic: The Gathering. And he’s become a sudden hit in the new world of text-to-image AI generation. His distinctive style is now one of the most commonly used prompts in the new open-source AI art generator Stable Diffusion, which was launched late last month. The tool, along with other popular image-generation AI models, allows anyone to create images based on text prompts.

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