Wednesday, January 17, 2007

My obsessions for the past year


Upward view, originally uploaded by FrogMiller.

Aside from my business, my funny son, travel, and my new DUI blog, I developed a renewed love for Disneyland last year. For my son's first birthday, we bought annual passes to Disneyland, and immediately started going every week. Eventually we upgraded to premium passes, which allow you to park for free, and go 365 days a year. From there, I met a group of people on Micechat, a fun Disney related message board, which led me to my newest obsession, photography. I bought a used Canon Digital Rebel XT on Ebay, and it takes amazing pictures. Take a second and look at my photos, won't you?

Friday, January 12, 2007

Diamonds ... A Diamond is...?

First, and this is hard to believe, but its true, the largest diamond in the universe is actually floating out in space.

"Astronomers Find a Huge Diamond in Space
Fri, 13 Feb 2004 - Astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have found a diamond in space, and it's big… really big. The object, technically known as BPM 37093, is a crystallized white dwarf star approximately 4,000 km across. It's believed that this is the final outcome for many stars, including our own Sun. In five billion years our Sun will become a white dwarf and two billion years after that the carbon should crystallize to form a gigantic diamond.

Image credit: CfA

When choosing a Valentine's Day gift for a wife or girlfriend, you can't go wrong with diamonds. If you really want to impress your favorite lady this Valentine's Day, get her the galaxy's largest diamond. But you'd better carry a deep wallet, because this 10 billion trillion trillion carat monster has a cost that's literally astronomical!

"You would need a jeweler's loupe the size of the Sun to grade this diamond!" says astronomer Travis Metcalfe (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), who leads a team of researchers that discovered the giant gem. "Bill Gates and Donald Trump together couldn't begin to afford it."

When asked to estimate the value of the cosmic jewel, Ronald Winston, CEO of Harry Winston Inc., indicated that such a large diamond probably would depress the value of the market, stating, "Who knows? It may be a self-deflating prophecy because there is so much of it." He added, "It is definitely too big to wear!"

The newly discovered cosmic diamond is a chunk of crystallized carbon 50 light-years from the Earth in the constellation Centaurus. (A light-year is the distance light travels in a year, or about 6 trillion miles.) It is 2,500 miles across and weighs 5 million trillion trillion pounds, which translates to approximately 10 billion trillion trillion carats, or a one followed by 34 zeros.

"It's the mother of all diamonds!" says Metcalfe. "Some people refer to it as 'Lucy' in a tribute to the Beatles song 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.'"

The diamond star completely outclasses the largest diamond on Earth, the 530-carat Star of Africa which resides in the Crown Jewels of England. The Star of Africa was cut from the largest diamond ever found on Earth, a 3,100-carat gem.

The huge cosmic gem (technically known as BPM 37093) is actually a crystallized white dwarf. A white dwarf is the hot core of a star, left over after the star uses up its nuclear fuel and dies. It is made mostly of carbon and is coated by a thin layer of hydrogen and helium gases.

For more than four decades, astronomers have thought that the interiors of white dwarfs crystallized, but obtaining direct evidence became possible only recently.

"The hunt for the crystal core of this white dwarf has been like the search for the Lost Dutchman's Mine. It was thought to exist for decades, but only now has it been located," says co-author Michael Montgomery (University of Cambridge).

The white dwarf studied by Metcalfe, Montgomery, and Antonio Kanaan (UFSC Brazil), is not only radiant but also harmonious. It rings like a gigantic gong, undergoing constant pulsations.

"By measuring those pulsations, we were able to study the hidden interior of the white dwarf, just like seismograph measurements of earthquakes allow geologists to study the interior of the Earth. We figured out that the carbon interior of this white dwarf has solidified to form the galaxy's largest diamond," says Metcalfe.

Our Sun will become a white dwarf when it dies 5 billion years from now. Some two billion years after that, the Sun's ember core will crystallize as well, leaving a giant diamond in the center of our solar system.

"Our Sun will become a diamond that truly is forever," says Metcalfe.

A paper announcing this discovery has been submitted to The Astrophysical Journal Letters for publication. "

Secondly, the Skepchick reports in her blog about "LifeDiamonds", that is, Diamonds that are made from the recently deceased.

"A few weeks back, I wrote about how I am not a fan of diamond engagement rings and of diamond jewelry, in general. Mostly, this is because I have some moral apprehensions about the way the diamond industry is run. However, I am going to speak out in support of the artificial diamonds created by a company called LifeGem. This company makes artificial diamonds from the cremated remains of deceased humans and animals. The vice president of the company recently came here to MIT to give a talk as part of the geology department’s Diamond Seminar Series. The artificial diamonds the company makes are really beautiful and, clearly, they carry a large amount of meaning for the people who order these diamonds.

At first, the idea of turning your loved one into an expensive artificial diamond may sound a little crazy. I mean, I can just imagine an attractive, middle aged woman out on a date. Her date comments on her beautiful diamond earrings, and she replies, “oh, yes. I turn my deceased ex-husbands into diamonds.” There is a little bit of a creepiness factor to turning dead relatives into diamonds, I must admit. I mean, would Elizabeth Taylor end up with a diamond tennis bracelet made from all her dead husbands?

However, is it really so creepy to turn the ugly remains of dead person into something beautiful? As a geologist, I find the idea of being turned into a diamond when I die sort of appealing. Really, I want to donate my body to science. I mean, I’ll be dead, so I won’t care and it gives me some comfort now to know that my dead body could do something useful. Someone may as well get some use out of my decaying carbon and hydrogen atoms. However, ending up as a nice piece of jewelry worn by a family member would be okay, too.

Funeral rituals are for the living, anyway. Dead Uncle Ernie doesn’t care– or even realize– that he’s sitting in a flower-covered urn on the fireplace mantle. He’s dead. In my atheistic worldview, that’s it. No survival after death, no feelings or emotions after death. Just decomposition and return to the Earth. Or to a diamond, apparently. You can bet that Uncle Ernie’s wife Aunt Betty cares a great amount about that urn full of ashes. Maybe she feels better knowing that some part of her dead husband is still close to her, watching over her from the fireplace. In my opinion, turning cremated ashes into diamonds is just taking the cremated-relative-in-the-living-room one step further. If it gives the living some comfort to own diamonds made from their deceased relatives, then why shouldn’t diamonds be made from dead relatives? Dust to dust, ashes to diamonds.

Interestingly, the company recently announced that they can also make diamonds from locks of hair. So, you can make your living relatives into diamonds, too. Hmm… maybe an engagement ring made from the hair of your beloved is just a little too creepy, but at least it’s not a conflict diamond."

New Fossil Find confirms that humans evolved in Africa

'Out Of Africa' Theory Boost: Skull Dating Suggests Modern Humans Evolved In Africa

Science Daily — Reliably dated fossils are critical to understanding the course of human evolution. A human skull discovered over fifty years ago near the town of Hofmeyr, in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, is one such fossil. A study by an international team of scientists led by Frederick Grine of the Departments of Anthropology and Anatomical Sciences at Stony Brook University in New York published in Science magazine has dated the skull to 36,000 years ago. This skull provides critical corroboration of genetic evidence indicating that modern humans originated in sub-Saharan Africa and migrated about this time to colonize the Old World. (Science January 12, 2007)

The Hofmeyr Skull. Scientists have now dated the skull as being 36,000 years old. The great similarity of this skull to skulls of the same age from Eurasian finds confirms the "Out of Africa"-hypothesis. Modern humans broke out of their place of origin around 40,000 years ago - from Africa south of the Sahara - and populated the world. (Image: Frederick E. Grine)

"The Hofmeyr skull gives us the first insights into the morphology of such a sub-Saharan African population, which means the most recent common ancestor of all of us - wherever we come from," said Grine.

Although the skull was found over half a century ago, its significance became apparent only recently. A new approach to dating developed by Grine team member Richard Bailey and his colleagues at Oxford University allowed them to determined its age at just over 36,000 years ago by measuring the amount of radiation that had been absorbed by sand grains that filled the inside of the skull’s braincase. At this age, the skull fills a significant void in the human fossil record of sub-Saharan Africa from the period between about 70,000 and 15,000 years ago. During this critical period, the archaeological tradition known as the Later Stone Age, with its sophisticated stone and bone tools and artwork appears in sub-Saharan Africa, and anatomically modern people appear for the first time in Europe and western Asia with the equally complex Upper Paleolithic archeological tradition.

In order to establish the affinities of the Hofmeyr fossil, team member Katerina Harvati of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, used 3-dimensional measurements of the skull known to differentiate recent human populations according to their geographic distributions and genetic relationships. She compared the Hofmeyr skull with contemporaneous Upper Paleolithic skulls from Europe and with the skulls of living humans from Eurasia and sub-Saharan Africa, including the Khoe-San (Bushmen). Because the Khoe-San are represented in the recent archeological record of South Africa, they were expected to have close resemblances to the South African fossil. Instead, the Hofmeyr skull is quite distinct from recent sub-Saharan Africans, including the Khoe-San, and has a very close affinity with the European Upper Paleolithic specimens.

The field of paleoanthropology is known for its hotly contested debates, and one that has raged for years concerns the evolutionary origin of modern people. A number of genetic studies (especially those on the mitochondrial DNA) of living people indicate that modern humans evolved in sub-Saharan Africa and then left between 65,000 and 25,000 years ago to colonize the Old World. However, other genetic studies (generally on nuclear DNA) argue against this African origin and exodus model. Instead, they suggest that archaic non-African groups, such as the Neandertals, made significant contributions to the genomes of modern humans in Eurasia. Until now, the lack of human fossils of appropriate antiquity from sub-Saharan Africa has meant that these competing genetic models of human evolution could not be tested by paleontological evidence.

The skull from Hofmeyr has changed that. The surprising similarity between a fossil skull from the southernmost tip of Africa and similarly ancient skulls from Europe is in agreement with the genetics-based "Out of Africa" theory, which predicts that humans like those that inhabited Eurasia in the Upper Paleolithic should be found in sub-Saharan Africa around 36,000 years ago. The skull from South Africa provides the first fossil evidence in support of this prediction.

Reference: F.E. Grine, R.M. Bailey, K. Harvati, R.P. Nathan, A.G. Morris, G.M. Henderson, I. Ribot, A.W.G. Pike. Late Pleistocene Human Skull from Hofmeyr, South Africa and Modern Human Origins. Science, 12. January 2007

Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by Max Planck Society.