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The 1257 A.D. explosion was eight times stronger than Krakatoa (pictured). Illustration from Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of history’s great disaster mysteries may be solved—the case of the largest volcanic eruption in the last 3,700 years. Nearly 800 years ago, the blast that was recorded, and then forgotten, may also have created a “Pompeii of the Far East,” researchers suggest, which might lie buried and waiting for discovery on an Indonesian island.

The source of an eruption that scattered ash from pole to pole has been pinpointed as Samalas volcano on Indonesia’s Lombok Island. The research team, led by geographer Franck Lavigne of the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, has now dated the event to between May and October of 1257. The findings were published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“It’s been a long time that some people have been looking,” said Lavigne. After glaciologists turned up evidence for the blast three decades ago, volcano experts had looked for the origin of the eruption everywhere from New Zealand’s Okataina volcano to Mexico’s El Chichón.

The previously unattributed eruption was an estimated eight times as large as the famed Krakatau explosion (1883) and twice as large as Tambora in 1815, the researchers estimate. (Related: “Tambora: The Greatest Explosion in History.”) “Until now we thought that Tambora was the largest eruption for 3,700 years,” Lavigne said, but the study reveals that the 1257 event was even larger.

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Brian Handwerk
National Geographic

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The Romans may have first come across the colorful potential of nanoparticles by accident, but they seem to have perfected it. (The Trustees of the British Museum / Art Resource, NY)

The colorful secret of a 1,600-year-old Roman chalice at the British Museum is the key to a super­sensitive new technology that might help diagnose human disease or pinpoint biohazards at security checkpoints.

The glass chalice, known as the Lycurgus Cup because it bears a scene involving King Lycurgus of Thrace, appears jade green when lit from the front but blood-red when lit from behind—a property that puzzled scientists for decades after the museum acquired the cup in the 1950s. The mystery wasn’t solved until 1990, when researchers in England scrutinized broken fragments under a microscope and discovered that the Roman artisans were nanotechnology pioneers: They’d impregnated the glass with particles of silver and gold, ground down until they were as small as 50 nanometers in diameter, less than one-thousandth the size of a grain of table salt. The exact mixture of the precious metals suggests the Romans knew what they were doing—“an amazing feat,” says one of the researchers, archaeologist Ian Freestone of University College London.

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Zeeya Merali
Smithsonian


Driving ambition … Norman Foster and his Dymaxion. Photograph: Nigel Young

Richard Buckminster Fuller had a lot of nerve. In the 1930s, the great US inventor secured the first $1,000 he needed to build a giant futuristic car, called the Dymaxion. The socialite who gave him the cash was told: “If I want to use it all to buy ice cream cones, that will be that – and there will be no questions asked.”

Fuller, born in 1895, is best known for his geodesic domes, but his ultimate hope was that the three-wheeled Dymaxion – which looked like a VW camper van crossed with a pinball flipper – would fly, allowing Americans to leave the highway vertically and touch down at lightweight aluminium homes, scattered wherever they fancied by a fleet of Zeppelins.

The Dymaxion was meant to be phase one of a social revolution, fuelled by the latest technology, but only three were ever built. No 1 caught fire and No 3 was turned into scrap; only No 2 survived. It now sits in the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada – or it did until 18 months ago, when the architect Norman Foster decided he wanted to fulfil a dream, and build Dymaxion No 4. So he borrowed No 2 for inspiration.

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Jonathan Glancey
Guardian


When Monet painted Waterloo Bridge in 1903 he was on the fifth floor balcony of the Savoy Hotel, say the scientists.

Through a thick blanket of pre-war smog, it is hard to make out the bridge reaching across the Thames and the sun shining weakly above it.

Equally unclear is where the artist, Claude Monet, stood to create the painting, one of the “London series” knocked out by the great impressionist during his time in the capital between 1899 and 1901.

Now scientists claim to have solved the puzzle of Monet’s vantage point, using computerised records of the sun’s movement, ordnance survey maps of London and historical weather records. Together they reveal the exact spot where Monet stood on the balcony of the Savoy Hotel.

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Ian Sample
Guardian


Images from brain research conducted by the Mind Research Network. While intelligence and skill are associated with the fast and efficient firing of neurons in the brain, subjects who tested high in creativity had thinner white matter and connecting axons that slow nerve traffic. In these images, the green tracks show the white matter being analyzed. The yellow and red spots show where creativity corresponds with slower nerve traffic. The blue areas show where “openness to experience,” associated with creativity, corresponds with slower nerve traffic. (Photo: Rex Jung)

Grab a timer and set it for one minute. Now list as many creative uses for a brick as you can imagine. Go.

The question is part of a classic test for creativity, a quality that scientists are trying for the first time to track in the brain.

They hope to figure out precisely which biochemicals, electrical impulses and regions were used when, say, Picasso painted “Guernica,” or Louise Nevelson assembled her wooden sculptures. Using M.R.I. technology, researchers are monitoring what goes on inside a person’s brain while he or she engages in a creative task.

Yet the images of signals flashing across frontal lobes have pushed scientists to re-examine the very way creativity is measured in a laboratory.

“Creativity is kind of like pornography — you know it when you see it,” said Rex Jung, a research scientist at the Mind Research Network in Albuquerque. Dr. Jung, an assistant research professor in the department of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico, said his team was doing the first systematic research on the neurology of the creative process, including its relationship to personality and intelligence.

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Patricia Cohen
New York Times

The beep is an ingenious creation. Like the railroad toot but unlike an old telephone ring, beeps have both a distinct start and finish, marked by the twin plosives “b” and “p,” and an elastic center that can generously expand and contract like an accordion: beeeeeeeep. You can create Morse code in beeps. Beeeep beep beep beep. Beep. Beep. Beep beeeep beeeep beep.

“The beep is a purely human-made, electrical sound,” Jonathan Sterne, a professor of communication studies at McGill University, told me by e-mail. Plants don’t beep, nor weather, nor animals. (The beep-beeping Road Runner of Warner Brothers is an exception.) If you hear a beep, you know that a person, or more likely his artifact, is signaling. There’s no wondering, Is that a beep or a nightingale? Is that a beep or a tornado? Beeps are also not voices or music.

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Virginia Heffernan
New York Times


Celtics’ physicality–an advantage?

Psychologists have long studied the grunts and winks of nonverbal communication, the vocal tones and facial expressions that carry emotion. A warm tone of voice, a hostile stare — both have the same meaning in Terre Haute or Timbuktu, and are among dozens of signals that form a universal human vocabulary.

But in recent years some researchers have begun to focus on a different, often more subtle kind of wordless communication: physical contact. Momentary touches, they say — whether an exuberant high five, a warm hand on the shoulder, or a creepy touch to the arm — can communicate an even wider range of emotion than gestures or expressions, and sometimes do so more quickly and accurately than words.

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Benedict Carey
New York Times


New research shows that people rate an activity as more fun when they were tricked into thinking time flew by during the task. Could this method even make chores like shoveling snow seem more fun? (Photo: Jonathan Kirn/Getty Images)

Everyone knows that “time flies when you’re having fun,” but a new study suggests that the reverse is also true.

When people are tricked into thinking that time has “flown by,” they react to their surprise at the passage of time by assuming that it means they must have been having fun, says Aaron Sackett, a psychology researcher at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis.

Sackett recently did some experiments to see whether people’s sense of having fun, or not, might be affected just by how fast time seemed to be going by.

After all, he knew that fun isn’t the only thing that can make time seem to speed up, Our sense of time can be influenced by things like drinking coffee, or being on an adrenaline rush. “Would people draw maybe false conclusions about how much they enjoyed an experience based on simply the perception that time had ‘flown by’ or ‘dragged by’ during it?” Sackett wondered.

He wanted to test this in the lab, but he knew he couldn’t change the actual speed of time itself. “What we had to do instead is focus on speeding up or slowing down the perceived, or felt, passage of time from an individual’s perspective,” he explains.

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Nell Greenfieldboyce
NPR

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Culture, not just genes, can drive evolutionary outcomes, according to a study released Wednesday that compares individualist and group-oriented societies across the globe.

Bridging a rarely-crossed border between natural and social sciences, the study looks at the interplay across 29 countries of two sets of data, one genetic and the other cultural.

The researchers found that most people in countries widely described as collectivist have a specific mutation within a gene regulating the transport of serotonin, a neurochemical known to profoundly affect mood.

In China and other east Asian nations, for example, up to 80 percent of the population carry this so-called “short” allele, or variant, of a stretch of DNA known as 5-HTTLPR.

Earlier research has shown the S allele to be strongly linked with a range of negative emotions, including anxiety and depression.

Critically, it is also associated with the impulse to stay out of harm’s way.

By contrast, in countries of European origin that prize self-expression and the pursuit of individual over group goals, the long or “L” allele dominates, with only 40 percent of people carrying the “S” variant.

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Marlowe Hood
Discovery Channel

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They have been told as bedtime stories by generations of parents, but fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood may be even older than was previously thought.

A study by anthropologists has explored the origins of folk tales and traced the relationship between varients of the stories recounted by cultures around the world.

The researchers adopted techniques used by biologists to create the taxonomic tree of life, which shows how every species comes from a common ancestor.

Dr Jamie Tehrani, a cultural anthropologist at Durham University, studied 35 versions of Little Red Riding Hood from around the world…

Contrary to the view that the tale originated in France shortly before Charles Perrault produced the first written version in the 17th century, Dr Tehrani found that the varients shared a common ancestor dating back more than 2,600 years.

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Richard Gray
Telegraph