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Thursday, December 4

Science Thursday

It's time to feed your sense of wonder, ladies and gentlemen. Let's be fair, there's only so much you can do to squeeze humor out of politics.

So, let's begin.


About 21,000 to 22,000 years ago (or roughly three times longer than the universe has been in existence, according to the fundamentalist loonies), a group of people in what is now Russia, about a hundred miles southeast of Moscow, buried a set of engravings made of mammoth ivory. In what is believed to have been a hunting ritual designed to bring more game animals to their cooking fires, the people buried images and other artifacts.

The archeologists who have unearthed the site described the artwork as "confident" and showing an "extraordinary repertoire" of skills. Included in the site are two Venus figurines, stylized female likenesses that may have had some connection to fertility.

Gee, ya think?


The 16th Century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe was a very interesting person in a century filled with interesting people - among other things, he had a detachable nose made of gold (having lost the real one in a duel). In 1572, while doing what he normally did at night (looking up at the stars without a telescope), he noted a new star.

Nowadays that's not too big of a deal, but in 1572 it was a great blow against the idea of an orderly universe - God had set up the heavens, you see, and adding things were not supposed to be on the menu. But you couldn't deny it was there, all you had to do was look up. So Brahe started to calculate how far away it might be, and that staggered him and the entire scientific community at the time.

The new star had no parallax, indicating that it was amazingly far away; so amazingly far away, in fact, that people had to revise their thinking about how big the universe actually was. To their surprise, the supernova (for that is what it was) vanished after 16 months, during which time it could be visible in daylight for about two weeks.

Amazing stuff.

Scientists have managed to trace backward, using Brahe's calculations and observations, to find the relic (or 'light echo') of the nova and determine just what it was he saw. It turns out that it was a type of supernova where a white dwarf sucks material away from a companion star until it reaches a critical mass and explodes.

Brahe would be impressed.



2,700 years ago a man was buried in the Gobi Desert area of China. He was a Caucasian, maybe a member of a nomadic tribal group, and he was maybe 45 years old. He was buried with some artifacts, probably mementoes or possessions.

Whoever buried him also buried his stash.

About two pounds of marijuana were unearthed in the grave, apparently from a cultivated strain of the plant. The tribe apparently knew something about it, as the male flower parts (lower in the active ingredient, THC, than the female parts) had been picked out of the mass, which thanks to decomposition is no longer capable of getting people high.

There's some speculation as to how it was used, as there was no pipe in the grave. The scientists think he may have chewed it, or burned it in a censer as part of a religious ritual.

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