Meteor Showers Soon

One  Autumn weekend we stayed at the Lion Inn on the Penn State campus for Alice’s  alumni board meeting.  I was time for the Leonid meteor showers!  On our last night there in very good weather we crossed the road into the golf course (with a good number of others) to look up into a fairly dark sky.

It was a good shower–meteors zipping around up there at maybe 3-5 a minute.  Even the next morning when left  we were seeing shooting stars until the sun was well up.

Another time, we joined an Adler Planetarium boat trip to see  the Perseid showers. That was after midnight of course, with a clear sky over Lake Michigan.  After a couple hours of watching, there a few people who thought they had seen a shooting star, maybe.

Image result for meteor shower photography

Chicago Tribune  7.28.16

Ask Tom (Skillings)

Dear Tom,

Where in Illinois or Wisconsin is the best place to see the Perseid meteor shower?

Dear Eva,

We posed your question to Dan Joyce, astronomer at Triton College’s Cernan Earth and Space Center, and he informed us that the best viewing will be after midnight between Aug. 11-13.

Joyce emphasized that there is no need to travel great distances to see the meteor showers, just any dark rural location away from light pollution.

The Perseid meteor shower is visible each summer starting in mid-July and ending in mid- to late-August as the Earth passes through the tail of Comet Swift-Tuttle.

Typically up to 80 meteors an hour are visible, but Joyce said that this year’s frequency could double that, with “outbursts” in excess of 150 meteors an hour at peak intensity.


Frigatebird Can Sail For Weeks Over Ocean

Nonstop Flight: How The Frigatebird Can Soar For Weeks Without Stopping

Frigatebirds have to find ways to stay aloft because they can’t land on the water. This bird was flying between the Galapagos islands of Santiago and Bartolome.         Harvey Barrison/Flickr

Frigatebirds, seagoing fliers with a 6-foot wingspan, can stay aloft for weeks at a time, (similarly, the albatross  RJN)  a new study has found. The results paint an astonishing picture of the bird’s life, much of which is spent soaring inside the clouds.

Frigatebirds are unique among aquatic birds. Their feathers are not waterproof, so they can’t rest on the waves. Males sport a vivid red pouch along their throats that they inflate when trying to attract females. They’re known for stealing food from other seabirds.

Since the frigatebird spends most of its life at sea, its habits outside of when it breeds on land aren’t well-known — until researchers started tracking them around the Indian Ocean. What the researchers discovered is that the birds’ flying ability almost defies belief.



We saw the frigate birds’ communal ritual in the Galapagos Islands.In a field were about 18 nests of branches about 10 feet across, each with a male frigate bird on it, his scarlet sac inflated under his bill. The males called continuously, raucously, to the females circling above.  A few nests had mated pairs in them.



Ornithologist Henri Weimerskirch put satellite tags on a couple of dozen frigatebirds, as well as instruments that measured body functions such as heart rate. When the data started to come in, he could hardly believe how high the birds flew.

“First, we found, ‘Whoa, 1,500 meters. Wow. Excellent, fantastique,’ ” says Weimerskirch, who is with the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. “And after 2,000, after 3,000, after 4,000 meters — OK, at this altitude they are in freezing conditions, especially surprising for a tropical bird.”

Four thousand meters is more than 12,000 feet, or as high as parts of the Rocky Mountains. “There is no other bird flying so high relative to the sea surface,” he says.

One of the frigatebirds that researchers tagged soared 40 miles over the Indian Ocean without a wing-flap. These birds were photographed in the Galapagos.                  Lucy Rickards/Flickr

Weimerskirch says that kind of flying should take a huge amount of energy. But the instruments monitoring the birds’ heartbeats showed that the birds weren’t even working up a sweat. (They wouldn’t, actually, since birds don’t sweat, but their heart rate wasn’t going up.)

How did they do it? By flying into a cloud.

“It’s the only bird that is known to intentionally enter into a cloud,” Weimerskirch says. And not just any cloud — a fluffy, white cumulus cloud. Over the ocean, these clouds tend to form in places where warm air rises from the sea surface. The birds hitch a ride on the updraft, all the way up to the top of the cloud.

Frigatebirds have to find ways to stay aloft because they can’t land on the water. Since their feathers aren’t waterproof, the birds would drown in short order. They feed by harassing other birds in flight until they regurgitate whatever fish they’ve eaten and the frigatebird takes it. Or they fly over a fish-feeding frenzy on the ocean surface and scoop up small fish that leap out of the water to escape larger fish.

So in between meals, apparently, frigatebirds soar … and soar … and soar.

In one case, for two months — continuously aloft.

“Absolutely incredible,” says Curtis Deutsch, an oceanographer at the University of Washington. “They’re doing it right through these cumulus clouds. You know, if you’ve ever been on an airplane, flying through turbulence, you know it can be a little bit nerve-wracking.”

One of the tagged birds soared 40 miles without a wing-flap. Several covered more than 300 miles a day on average, and flew continuously for weeks. They are blessed with an unusual body. No bird has a higher ratio of wing surface area compared with body weight — something called “wing loading.”

Writing in the journal Science, the researchers discovered that frigatebirds have also capitalized on a lucky coincidence. Winds that form these updrafts in the atmosphere also disrupt waves at the sea surface.

“We found that there’s a remarkably good correspondence between those two things,” Deutsch says. And when the regularity of waves is disrupted, deeper water rises to the surface, carrying with it things such as phytoplankton that attract small fish. The small fish attract bigger fish, which creates the feeding frenzy that frigatebirds need to dine.

So it seems the life of a frigatebird is simply hopping off at the bottom of this atmospheric roller coaster, eating and getting back on again to search for the next meal.

Numbers Big and Small–Juno Spacecraft

NASA’s Juno spacecraft travelled 1.7 billion miles, in 5 years, at 165000 miles an hour to reach orbit around the planet Jupiter.  Only one problem:  it was 1 second late.  

Thanks to Alice for pointing this out  in This Week.


(note: Jupiter is the Roman version of the ancient Greek chief god, Zeus.  Juno is the Roman version of the ancient goddess Hera, consort of Zeus.)  Jupiter is largest planet in our star’s system.

What is our name for our star?

Juno spacecraft enters Jupiter’s orbit   source This Week

July 5, 2016

Ringo Chiu/AFP/Getty Images

Nearly five years after its launch, NASA’s Juno spacecraft achieved orbit around Jupiter late Monday.

At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Southern California, thrilled scientists received a signal from the spacecraft at 11:53 p.m. Eastern time announcing it was in orbit after a 35-minute engine burn. The most difficult part of the entrance took place at around 10:30 p.m., when Juno passed through a belt of radiation where electrons went back and forth at nearly the speed of light and could have easily fried the spacecraft’s electronics, but they were protected by a titanium vault.

The largest planet in the solar system, Jupiter was likely the first planet formed after the sun and scientists say it could “hold the keys to understanding the origin of the solar system,” The New York Timesreports. “Juno is really searching for some hints about our beginnings, how everything started,” Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator, said. “But these secrets are pretty well guarded by Jupiter.” The craft’s instruments were designed to measure the magnetic and gravitational fields of Jupiter, and its cameras will likely capture images of new moons. Juno’s scientific instruments were turned off before it arrived at Jupiter, and will be turned back on in two days. On Aug. 27, the spacecraft will get its first up-close look at the planet. Catherine Garcia

The tissue-engineered robotic sting ray


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VIDEO at source

Synthetic Stingray May Lead To A Better Artificial Heart

(Left) The tissue-engineered robotic ray, made of gold, silicone and live muscle cells. (Right) The titanium molds that scientists used to create the rays.

(Left) The tissue-engineered robotic ray, made of gold, silicone and live muscle cells. (Right) The titanium molds that scientists used to create the rays.  Karaghen Hudson and Michael Rosnach

Scientists have created a synthetic stingray that’s propelled by living muscle cells and controlled by light, a team reports Thursday in the journalScience.

And it should be possible to build an artificial heart using some of the same techniques, the researchers say.

“I want to build an artificial heart, but you’re not going to go from zero to a whole heart overnight,” says Kit Parker, a bioengineer and physicist at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute. “This is a training exercise.”

Previous artificial hearts have been versions of mechanical pumps. An artificial heart made from living muscle cells would behave more like a natural heart, Parker says, and would be able to grow and change over time.

“The heart’s built the way it is for a reason,” he says. “And we’re trying to replicate as much of that function as we possibly can.”

A heart and a stingray may seem pretty different. But both need to overcome problems that involve fluid and motion, Parker explains. A stingray has to propel itself through the water. A heart has to propel blood through the circulatory system.

And all of that was on Parker’s mind a couple of years ago when he visited an aquarium with his daughter. At an exhibit where visitors can touch rays as they swim by, his daughter put her hand in the water. “The stingray was coming at it,” he says, “and with a quick flick of its pectoral fin it just smoothly evaded her hand.”

The coin-sized synthetic stingray (left) next to a skate that nature made, Luecoraja erinacea.

The coin-sized synthetic stingray (left) next to a skate that nature made, Luecoraja erinacea.  Karaghen Hudson/Science

Parker realized that this sort of split-second adjustment is something the heart does all the time as it senses changes in blood flow or pressure.

“The idea just hit me like a thunderbolt,” he says.

By building an artificial stingray, Parker figured, he could learn how to replicate the animal’s ability to respond instantly to changing conditions.

So he came up with a strategy and presented it to Sung-Jin Park, a researcher in his lab.

“I sat down with him,” Parker says, “and I said, ‘Sung-Jin, we’re going to take a rat apart; we’re going to rebuild it as a stingray; and then we’re going to use a light to guide it.’ And the look on his face was both sorrow and horror.”

Parker’s lab had previously built an artificial jellyfish. But a ray was much more complicated. And the team was facing tough questions like, how do you to take cells from a rat and make them swim like a fish?

Park and the rest of the team started working, though. And, eventually, they succeeded.

Their synthetic ray, which is about the size of a nickel, has a transparent body made of silicone and a rudimentary skeleton made of gold.

The ray is propelled by 200,000 heart muscle cells taken from a rat. The cells have been genetically altered to allow the hybrid creature to follow a pair of blue lights.

“We can guide this thing around,” Parker says. “It swims through obstacle courses.”

And the creature displays the rhythmic, undulating motion of a real stingray. Replicating that motion is one of the project’s key accomplishments, says John Dabiri, a professor of engineering at Stanford who worked with Parker on the artificial jellyfish.

To get the ray’s tail to undulate, the team had to come up with a way to trigger muscle cells in sequence. The effect is similar to when the crowd at a ballgame does the wave, Dabiri says.

“You have one group standing up and then the next and then the next. Well, in the case of the muscle here, they’re doing the same thing,” he says. “They’re able to get a certain section of muscle to contract and then the next and then the next.”

That coordinated movement is necessary for many biological functions, like swallowing. It’s also the way the heart beats, with areas contracting in a precise sequence.

Another advance is the ability to activate muscle cells with light rather than electricity, Dabiri says. That allows scientists to control precisely which part of a muscle contracts. So light could act as a sort of pacemaker in an artificial heart that’s made this way.

The artificial stingray is likely to make some people uncomfortable, Dabiri says, because it raises questions about when a machine becomes a living organism.

In this case, the artificial ray pretty clearly isn’t an organism, he says. It can’t grow, adapt or reproduce. But scientists should be considering the possibilities as they pursue other projects like this, he says.

“We want to make sure we think about the ethical issues hand in hand with just asking what we can do,” Dabiri says.

Charlie’s Heart

Image result for photos human heart

My cardiologists are recommending heart surgery for me.  Makes me remember Charlie P. Anderson, a good guy who taught with us at Niles Township High Schools.

Some 50 years ago, Charlie had just had an artificial heart valve installed (a pioneer!),  when we were both appointed the union’s bargaining team.  For the first  recess in negotiations, the school board team withdrew from the room.

Someone on our side took out a deck of cards and said, “Who’s playing?”

Charlie, several others, and I sat down, and the first hand was dealt. And then, Charlie started ticking . . .and everyone knew he had a good hand.

The sound of Charlie’s new valve was not noticeable until he got excited and his pulse sped up.  A handicap, but Charlie stayed in the game.


Human Computers (female)


Meet The ‘Rocket Girls,’ The Women Who Charted The Course To Space

The women of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory helped launch the first American satellites, lunar missions and planetary explorations. Those "human computers," as they were called, are seen here in 1953.

The women of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory helped launch the first American satellites, lunar missions and planetary explorations. Those “human computers,” as they were called, are seen here in 1953.  Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the 1940s, an elite team of mathematicians and scientists started working on a project that would carry the U.S. into space, then onto the moon and Mars. They would eventually become NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (or JPL), but here’s what made them so unusual: Many of the people who charted the course to space exploration were actually women.

Nathalia Holt tells their story in her new book, Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars. Holt tells NPR’s Ari Shapiro that the women worked as “computers.”

“In a time before the digital devices that we’re used to today, it was humans that were doing the calculations,” she says. “And so you needed these teams of people — many of whom were women, especially during World War II — and they were responsible for the math.”

Barbara Paulson was one of those women. She tells Shapiro that while her sisters were preparing to be secretaries, she took a different path. She says, “I had had quite a bit of math in high school. … I know my mother certainly wanted us all to graduate from college, but why I veered off into this … I can’t remember. … But I did, and it helped me get the job that I did get at JPL.”

Rise of the Rocket Girls
Rise of the Rocket Girls  The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt

Today, Holt says, “There is hardly a mission that you can find in NASA that these women haven’t touched.”

Interview Highlights

On how Holt first learned about the women who worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab

Holt: In 2010, I was expecting my first child. And my husband and I were just having a terrible time coming up with a name. We finally thought of Eleanor Frances. We googled the name, and the first Eleanor Frances that popped up was a woman named Eleanor Francis Helin. And there was this beautiful picture of her at NASA in the 1960s accepting an award. And I was stunned by this picture because I hadn’t realized that women even worked at NASA at this time, much less as scientists. And so what I found is that there was this group of women who, starting in the 1940s, worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

On tracking down the Jet Propulsion Lab women

Holt: It was quite difficult to track down this group and find their stories. In fact, I think it was over 40 Barbara Paulsons I talked to before I found the right Barbara Paulson. … But when I found the real Barbara Paulson, the one I was searching for, it was so wonderful. And right from the beginning, Barbara had these amazing stories and incredible memory.

On one of the first stories Paulson shared

Holt: I think it has to be the Explorer 1 [satellite]. That has to be right at the beginning. …

Paulson: Well, Explorer 1 was launched Jan. 31, 1958. And that would’ve been after Sputnik had been launched. … I was asked to graph the results coming back from the Explorer 1 satellite. And I worked most of the night, through the night, at JPL with my mechanical pencil and graph paper and light table that I was working on. And that was all the equipment that I had. …

As I look back on so many things, I get more excited now than I did then. But it was exciting. I mean, it was great news that it was … in orbit around the Earth.

On what Holt hopes her book will accomplish

Holt: My hope is that these women serve as role models, not just for my daughter of course, but for all of the women that are interested in science. It’s a difficult time for women in technology right now. In 1984, 37 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in computer science were awarded to women, and today that number has dropped to 18 percent. And even for women that are working in science today, it’s about half of all women that leave mid-career. So I think these stories are important for inspiring and being role models that are so much needed for women today.

Salt, Ice to Store Solar Energy



Solar And Wind Energy May Be Nice, But How Can We Store It?

SolarReserve’s Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Plant, located near Tonopah, Nev., features an array of 10,347 mirrors arranged in a circle 1.75 miles across. A 640-foot-tall tower glows when the sun’s energy is concentrated and directed to the top.


Renewable energy like solar and wind is booming across the country as the costs of production have come down. But the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t blow when we need it to.

This challenge has sparked a technology race to store energy — one that goes beyond your typical battery.

Heat Storage: Molten Salt And A Giant Solar Farm

Batteries are often used to store solar power, but it can be a costly endeavor.

A company called SolarReserve may have found a solution: It built a large solar plant in the Nevada desert that can store heat from the sun and generate electricity for up to 10 hours even after sundown.

You can see the Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Plant from miles away. There’s a 640-foot-tall tower surrounded by 10,347 mirrors. The heliostats, as they’re technically called, are arranged in a circle that is 1.75 miles across. They direct heat from the sun to the top of the tower, which glows white hot.

“This is really the first utility-size project of this type in the world,” says SolarReserve CEO Kevin Smith.

Kevin Smith, CEO of SolarReserve, stands in the control room of the Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Plant. “This is really the first utility-size project of this type in the world,” he says.  Jeff Brady/NPR

He says the key to the plant’s ability to store energy is molten salt. You can’t see this special kind of salt because it’s contained in a system of pipes and insulated storage tanks.

“It actually looks like water. It’s clear — it flows like water,” Smith says.

He says the molten salt has to remain above 450 degrees Fahrenheit to stay liquid. It’s sent up the tower to the glowing tip where it’s heated further. When the salt comes back down, it is 1,050 degrees.

The molten salt is used to make steam to power a generator. The facility can continue to produce electricity for up to 10 hours after the sun goes down. Smith says that flexibility is very important to the local utility.

Billboard-sized mirrors arrayed in a large circle follow the sun as it moves across the sky. The heliostats, as they’re known technically, direct the sun’s energy to the top of a tower.  Jeff Brady/NPR

“That’s the whole concept here is that this facility would operate just like a natural gas, or a coal or nuclear facility — turn us on and off when they want,” he says. “We have energy in storage so that we can generate at night.”

At full capacity, he says, the $997 million plant generates enough electricity to power 75,000 Nevada homes.

There was a problem with the plant briefly last year. During a test, observers recorded a video of birds flying into heat from the mirrors and being incinerated.

The plant is on federal Bureau of Land Management property, and the agency says the company fixed the problem by adjusting where mirrors are pointed at certain times. The BLM says biologists have documented fewer than five bird deaths a month since then.

The group Basin and Range Watch is suing the agency to get more detailed data biologists have collected.

Laura Cunningham, co-founder and executive director of Basin and Range Watch stands near her home in Nevada. Her group has taken legal action against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to learn more details about the number of bird deaths associated with Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Plant. Jeff Brady/NPR

Executive Director Laura Cunningham says she supports solar. “So we’re in a little bit of an unpopular position of trying to defend solar but then criticizing some solar,” she says. Cunningham says in addition to the bird issue she believes facilities like this should be built closer to where people live and away from wild areas.

Another issue with this plant is cost. The utility NV Energy is buying all the electricity from Crescent Dunes for the next 25 years at 13.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. That’s much more than the same power would cost from a natural gas plant.

Smith says his company learned a lot from building this first project and he says subsequent plants will be cheaper. That’ll reduce the cost of electricity because once the plant is built, the fuel is free. The ability to store solar power will also add value to the plants.

“We really think we’ve cracked the code here with energy storage and we can take this technology and bring it worldwide,” Smith says.

SolarReserve expects to begin work soon on the company’s second solar plant with heat storage that will be built in South Africa.

Compressed Air: A Cheaper And Longer-Lasting Alternative To Batteries

The challenges of renewable energy are becoming apparent in California, where the state’s ambitious goals are driving a boom in solar power. Earlier this spring, there was so much electricity on the grid that solar companies were told to turn off their production.

To cope with the higher demand for power in the evening, electric utilities are being requiring to add energy storage to the grid, which would store the extra electricity that solar farms generate during the daytime.

One startup — LightSail Energy — experimented with compressed air.

Steve Crane of LightSail Energy in Berkeley, Calif., has developed energy storage technology that compasses air in large tanks, so it can generate electricity when needed.  Lauren Sommer/KQED

“So what you’re looking at really is best described as a giant scuba tank,” says Steve Crane, pointing to a 25-foot tank in the warehouse of his company, LightSail Energy in Berkeley, Calif.

A scuba tank is the inspiration for his technology, which compresses air.

“The electrical energy is hard to hold on to,” Crane says. “Compressed air is relatively easy to store for hours or even days.”

Here’s how it works: When there’s extra electricity, Crane turns on a giant air pump. It fills the tank, compressing the air by 200 times.

Then when electricity is needed, the air is released to drive an electric generator. The hard part has been dealing with all the heat this makes.

“Any air compressor that you use, even a bicycle pump, creates heat,” Crane says. “A bicycle pump will feel warm after you’ve used it for a while.”

Crane’s technology uses water to capture some of the heat, so the energy isn’t lost.

The technology is still in the early stages, but he says it could have an edge over batteries because it’s likely cheaper and lasts longer.

“If you have a laptop or cellphone, you know that after two to three years, you start to see significant deterioration,” he says.

Ice Energy: A Thermal Battery That Brings Down Electricity Demand

Traditionally, batteries store energy in chemical form, but a thermal “battery” uses temperature.

A California-based company is using the concept to build Ice Bear, a thermal energy storage unit that can both reduce energy demand and store energy during the night.

Greg Miller, executive vice president of Ice Energy, poses next to the “Ice Bear,” his company’s invention. The equipment cools down air conditioners in the day and stores energy at night.  Leigh Paterson/Inside Energy

An Ice Bear can save up energy in a 450-gallon tank of water, for example, by turning it into ice. That energy is used later on to cool down the building next door during the hottest time of the day and into early evening.

“So essentially what we’re doing is we’re shutting air conditioners off during the day, consuming energy at night and displacing that peak load for the utility company,” says Greg Miller, executive vice president of the company, Ice Energy.

Peak load refers to the time of day or year when we’re using the most electricity. In Fort Collins, Colo., that’s in the summer, between 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. The Ice Bear brings down the total amount of electricity needed during those busy peaks.

In 2014, the company got its first big order from Southern California Edison for 25.6 megawatts of storage, which is around 1,800 Ice Bear units. The California utility won’t disclose how Ice Energy’s thermal storage stacked up to the other companies that also won storage contracts. Ice Energy also has a deal in process on the island of Nantucket, Mass.

In Colorado, there is an important limitation to Ice Bear’s technology. During winter, the demand for air conditioning is low, so there is no need for the Ice Bear’s services. Miller says that during cold months, the unit just sits idle.

The Ice Bear, unlike compressed air or molten salt storage, saves up energy for temperature control but can’t feed electricity back onto the grid.

But when temperatures soar in the summer, the Ice Bear goes to work.

“Monster” Lived in Illinois–New Info


Monstrous news on state fossil front
By Steve Johnson Chicago Tribune   3.17.16

   Since 1955, when amateur fossil hunter Francis Tully discovered the unlikely prehistoric creature in a coal mining area near Morris, the thing that would be named the Tully monster has presented one of the great puzzles in paleontology.   Much as the people of Metropolis wondered whether Superman flying overhead was a bird or a plane, scientists have struggled to classify these fossils that showed traits associated with several disparate animal types and such abnormalities as eyes mounted on an external bar and a long, toothy proboscis.   “If you put in a box a worm, a mollusk, an arthropod and a fish, and you shake, then what you have at the end is a Tully monster,” said Carmen Soriano, a paleontologist at Argonne National Laboratory. 

  The Tully’s renown stretched even to the Illinois state legislature, which named it the official state fossil in 1989, some 308 million years after it inhabited the shallow salty waters that turned into the state’s Mazon Creek geological deposits, in Grundy County, one of the richest fossil troves on Earth.  

Now, though, Tullimonstrum gregarium has a home on the Tree of Life rather than in the biological category known as the “problematica.” Utilizing the synchrotron X-ray machine at Argonne and the Field Museum’s collection of 2,000 Tully specimens, a team from those two institutions, Yale University and the American Museum of Natural History announced in a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature that “The Tully monster is a vertebrate.”  

Below that headline, the paper describes Tully as belonging “on the stem lineage to lampreys,” a find that “resolves the nature of a soft-bodied fossil which has been debated for more than 50 years.”    “This is one of the mysteries that I heard about since I was a kid,” said Soriano. “To be able to study, to basically ‘unmonsterize’ the monster, is really exciting.” 

  “Resolving this is a big deal,” said Scott Lidgard, the Field’s associate curator of fossil invertebrates and another of the paper’s authors. “It’s one of the examples used in textbooks around the world as what are called ‘problematica,’ ” creatures that defied ready classification and were sometimes thought to be examples of extinct phyla, or animal categories.   “This is kind of a poster child for that sort of evolutionary puzzle,” Lidgard said.

The finding “changes it from a mystery to a fishlike organism that is probably on the lineage leading to what we would recognize as lampreys.”  

It’s also a big moment for those who study lesser prehistoric animals and realize, said Lidgard, that “we’re never going to be as popular as dinosaurs and fossil birds.”  

The Tully monster is named for its assemblage of features, not for any sort of fearsome size. The biggest of the many, many specimens that have been found suggested a maximum length of about 18 inches and typical length of 12.  

But because Mazon Creek fossils are so well preserved, there is a lot of Tully to study. Skeletons have not survived, but detailed impressions in stone have.   “If you see the specimens, they are typically well preserved,” Soriano said. “It’s not that they are a blob in the rock.”  

BOB FILA CHICAGO TRIBUNE 1987   Francis Tully’s big fossil find was made near Morris.

Tully, a pipefitter for Texaco and lifelong fossil hound, described his find to the Tribune in a story in 1987, also the year of his death: “I found two rocks that had cracked open from natural weathering. They held something completely different. I knew right away. I’d never seen anything like it. one of the books had it. I’d never seen it in museums or at rock clubs. So I brought it to Chicago to the Field Museum to see if they could figure out what the devil it was.” 

  The first scientific paper describing the Tully monster, and giving it its vivid Latin name, came in the mid-1960s from one of Lidgard’s predecessors at the museum, who “thought it was a worm,” Lidgard said.   Later papers proposed that it was a “free-swimming shell-less snail,” he said, and then a conodont, extinct eel-like creatures very rare in the fossil record.   “I’ve been looking at this thing for 30 years,” said Lidgard. “Years ago I had a stab at it, thinking it might be related to squids. We gave up. We didn’t publish anything.”  

What got the ball rolling again was Lidgard hearing about Victoria McCoy, a Yale grad student exploring the Mazon Creek deposits who would become the paper’s lead author.   They met at a 2014 conference, and the following year, an assembled team spent three weeks at the Field studying its Tully specimens.   The Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, southwest of Chicago, came into the picture because of its advanced imaging techniques using the Advanced Photon Source, an electron accelerator and storage ring that “provides ultra-bright, high-energy storage ring-generated X-ray beams for research in almost all scientific disciplines,” according to Argonne.   “The thing with these machines is they are incredibly powerful microscopes,” Soriano said. “We can get information not only on the morphology of the sample, but also on the structure, on the composition.”   It allows people “to see what no one saw before basically,” she said. 

  What the scientists saw, as they studied the Argonne imagery, digital photographs of the fossils and the fossils themselves were characteristics that tied the Tully monster to lampreys.   A chemical analysis of the eye stalks, for instance, showed the presence of zinc, “very similar to the material in the eyes of vertebrate fossil fishes,” said Lidgard.   “Tully is usually preserved so that you’re looking down on its back,” he added. “Every so often you can see its side. In those twisted fossils we found a very few where we think we can distinguish openings we interpret as openings to a particular kind of gill structure present in very primitive fishes like lampreys.” 

  And they were able to find the animal’s gut trace, as well, the shadow of its digestive system, in the lower part of the body, which suggested that what had previously been thought to be a gut trace up on the back was in fact a notochord, a flexible rod in the back.   That made it a primitive vertebrate, he said. He does not recall a moment where somebody said, “Hey, lamprey!” but recalls that “it became more and more clear,” he said. “As those results started to come in, it was pretty convincing right away.”  

So if the Tully monster is now a known vertebrate lamprey ancestor with a place in the historical animal record, that raises two big questions:   First, do all those specimens at the Field move out of the invertebrate department?   Paul Mayer, collections manager of invertebrate fossils, laughed. “I’ve been talking with the vertebrate fossil collection manager,” he said. “We’re going to wait a couple of years and make sure there’s no rebuttal. It’s a lot of work to move these things up the stairs to where his collection is.”   Question two: Does the Tully monster need to be renamed?   “No, because it’s still a monster,” said Soriano.   “It’s something really different from anything we have seen. It’s one of a kind. If you come back to this idea of a monster as anything strange, it’s still strange.” Twitter @StevenKJohnson

Slicing Meat Shaped Modern Humans



Chew On This: Slicing Meat Helped Shape Modern Humans

Audio for this story from All Things Considered will be available at approximately 7:00 p.m. ET.

Katherine Du/NPRiKatherine Du/NPR

Miss Manners and skilled prep cooks should be pleased: Our early human ancestors likely mastered the art of chopping and slicing more than 2 million years ago. Not only did this yield daintier pieces of meat and vegetables that were much easier to digest raw, with less chewing — it also helped us along the road to becoming modern humans, researchers reported Wednesday.

And our ancestors picked up these skills at least 1.5 million years before cooking took off as a common way to prepare food, the researchers say.

Chewing, it turns out, takes a lot of time and energy, say Katherine Zink and Daniel Lieberman, evolutionary biologists at Harvard University. They recently set about measuring precisely how much effort is required to chew raw food, and to what degree simple stone tools might have eased the toil.

“Every time I go out to dinner, I watch people chew,” Lieberman tells us. “And sometimes, I actually count how many times they chew.”

Nom Nom: Chimpanzee skull (top), A. afarensis jaws (center) and human jaws. It's likely that tool use and meat-eating reduced the evolutionary pressure to have big, powerful jaws and sharp teeth, the researchers behind a new Nature study say.

Nom Nom: Chimpanzee skull (top), A. afarensis jaws (center) and human jaws. It’s likely that tool use and meat-eating reduced the evolutionary pressure to have big, powerful jaws and sharp teeth, the researchers behind a new Naturestudy say.

John Reader/Science Source

It’s not just a hobby. Lieberman’s interest gets to some basic questions of how humans evolved.

Scientists have long known that Homo erectus, an ancestor of modern humans who lived about 2 million years ago, had already evolved to have a bigger body and brain than earlier hominins, and would have needed much more daily energy to survive. But the jaw and teeth of H. erectus were much like ours today — significantly smaller and less powerful than those of Australopithecus afarensis, or other hominins of earlier epochs.

A diet that included cooked meat would have provided that ready energy without the need for sharp canines and big grinders. But the research evidence is pretty clear that cooking didn’t become common until about 500,000 years ago, Lieberman says. So, how did H. erectus get the needed calories?

To test a long-held hypothesis that simple food processing might be the answer, Zink and Lieberman invited some Harvard colleagues to what Zink calls “a lab café,” and served them small portions of carrots, beets, jewel yams and goat meat. The food was served variously as roasted or raw; sliced, pounded or left in hunks.

“If I were to give you raw goat,” Lieberman says, “you’d chew, and nothing would happen.” Like a lot of wild game, goat meat tends to be stringy, he says. Chewing a big piece makes it more elastic, but it doesn’t readily break into pieces.

“But if you cut goat into smaller pieces,” he says, “your ability to chew it would improved dramatically.”

All the volunteers (14 for the vegetables and just 10 for the goat meat) wore a number of small sensors pasted to their faces, to detect and count contractions of various muscle fibers as they chewed the bite of food to the point of swallowing. The scientists then translated those contractions into a measure of muscular effort, and also checked to see how well the food was broken up.

Their results, published in the journal Nature, suggest that when eating a diet made up of one-third meat, if early humans pounded the vegetables before eating them, and sliced the meat, they would need to chew 17 percent less often and 26 percent less forcefully than if they started with larger slabs of the food. Every little flex of the jaw and grinding of the teeth adds up: Over the course of a year, Lieberman says, simply having a sharp stone to slice meat would reduce the number of “chews” needed by 2.5 million.

“I think it’s amazing,” he says, “to think that the simple stone tool could have amassive effect on how effectively we chew a piece of meat.”

It’s possible, he and Zink think, that the benefits of meat-eating and food processing favored the transition to smaller teeth and jaws.

But it seems more likely, they write in their study, that tool use and meat-eating simply reduced the evolutionary pressure to have big, powerful jaws and sharp teeth, “thus permitting selection to decrease facial and dental size for other functions, such as speech production, locomotion, thermoregulation, or, perhaps even changes in the size and shape of the brain.”

The Time Traveler’s Cookbook–take a look:  Several years ago, as part of our Meat Week coverage, we put together a tongue-in-cheek cookbook — based on archaeological digs and actual historical texts — tracing humanity’s changing relationship with meat. Check it out below or download the PDF.