Two million-year-old whale fossils printed with 3D technology
Feb17

Two million-year-old whale fossils printed with 3D technology

These may look like real fossils, but they are actually perfect plastic replicas of 2 million-year-old whale skeletons made using a 3D printer. This printing technology, which can create 3D versions of objects as diverse as a guns or the brain of a man with no memory, was hyped last week by President Obama when he said that 3D printing “has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.” The technology certainly saved the day for Smithsonian paleobiologist Nick Pyenson. Pyenson had been finishing up a research trip in Chile in 2011 when he decided to check out a local highway construction site in the Atacama Desert where workers had supposedly uncovered dozens and dozens of whale skeletons. “I didn’t really believe the rumors at first,” Pyenson says. But when he arrived, “It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.” Pyenson described the experience at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston. Local museum officials were racing to dig out the skeletons before highway workers paved over the area, Pyenson says. Although the skeletons clearly needed to be removed, a problem with removal is that spatial information about different constellations of fossilized bones is then lost. This information is essential for answering all sorts of interesting research questions, such as why so many whales died and were buried together two million years ago. For example, the whales could have swum into a bloom of toxic algae and died or they might have fallen victim to a landslide. Pyenson went home to DC and immediately recruited the Smithsonian’s in-house 3D imaging and printing team (aka the Laser Cowboys), who came back with him to Chile and spent a week imaging the whale fossils with a high resolution laser scanner. The team then went home and began analyzing the fossil images. They also also began printing out awesome replicas like the one you see above, which is many times smaller that the original. (The whale fossils span between 20-30 feet in real life.) Pyenson says the Smithsonian has industrial partners who will soon print out a full sized version pro bono, which would have otherwise cost the museum $1 million. It seems Pyenson’s team has already figured out why all these whales died but he’s staying mum about it, while the scientific paper winds its way through the peer-review process—so stay tuned. Once the discovery is published, Pyenson says they’ll put the data online so others around the globe can access and analyze it. Although this laser scanning and 3D printing could give researchers around the world the ability to study skeletons without physically handling them, old-school...

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Ancient Roman cosmetics: Skin cream from the 2nd century A.D.
Jan14

Ancient Roman cosmetics: Skin cream from the 2nd century A.D.

Last week, while working on an article about the chemical make-up of 2000-year-old medicine tablets from a Roman shipwreck, I read that back in 2003 archeologists had unearthed a full canister of cosmetic skin cream, hidden in a Roman temple drain in Southwark, London. When a Museum of London curator opened up the 2nd century A.D. canister, she found it full of white ointment, awesomely reminiscent of modern-day Nivea cream. This rare find was then chemically analyzed by University of Bristol’s Richard Evershed, who has a quirky research niche: Figuring out the composition of ancient medical, food and cosmetic concoctions, usually by studying residues leftover on old pottery. (He made news last December by reporting that the fatty deposits on pieces of ancient Polish pottery are Northern Europe’s oldest evidence of cheese-making.) So what precisely was in the creamy white ointment? In a 2004 Nature paper, Evershed’s team announced that “the Londinium cream” was primarily made up of animal fat, probably from cattle or sheep. They also detected starch, which was likely isolated by boiling roots and grains in water. In addition, the cream contained a tin dioxide mineral called cassiterite with the chemical formula SnO2. Then came some reverse engineering. Evershed’s team mixed together a new cream based on the proportions of animal fat, starch and tin dioxide that they had measured in the ancient ointment. Here’s how they describe its aesthetic appeal: “This cream had a pleasant texture when rubbed into the skin. Although it felt greasy initially, owing to the fat melting as a result of body heat, this was quickly overtaken by the smooth, powdery texture created by the starch. Remarkably, starch is still used for this purpose in modern cosmetics. The addition of SnO2 to the starch/fat base confers a white opacity, which is consistent with the cream being a cosmetic. Fashionable Roman women aspired to a fair complexion, and the Londinium cream may have served as a foundation layer.” The researchers go on to say that employing tin to color the ointment white would have been safer than using toxic lead-based pigments, which was common in that era. “White Roman face paint typically comprised lead acetate, prepared by dissolving lead shavings in vinegar.” They write that it’s not clear whether the cream’s maker intentionally opted for tin because it is non-toxic compared to lead. During the 2nd century A.D., Roman society was slowly becoming aware of lead poisoning… But then again, the chemists of that era weren’t very adept at distinguishing lead from tin, note the authors. Another possibility is that the cosmetic-maker used tin out of convenience, because nearby Cornish mines had abundant...

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Dirty Dishes: Fatty residues on pottery fragments point to 6000 B.C. cheese-making
Dec12

Dirty Dishes: Fatty residues on pottery fragments point to 6000 B.C. cheese-making

Nearly eight thousand years ago in an area that is now called Poland, a prehistoric person skipped dish-duty. Thanks to this delinquency, researchers in Poland and the UK led by Richard Evershed have been able to analyze the dirty residues on these dishes. Today the scientists report in Nature that the fatty acid leftovers are Northern Europe’s earliest evidence for cheese-making. And tomorrow, teenagers everywhere will begin arguing that dirty dishes buried under beds are a gift to future archeologists. But seriously, archeologists are interested in the onset of cheese-making for several reasons. First, because cheese-making permitted humans to gain protein nutrients from domesticated livestock year-round, and without killing the valuable animals. Second, cheese has less lactose than straight milk. So the development of cheese-making may have been a way for lactose-intolerant prehistoric humans in Northern Europe to gain nutrients from something that would otherwise make them extremely sick. Finally, “the production of cheese is a technically complex process,” note the authors. Thus the knowhow shows some advanced food science skills. To make cheese you first have to coagulate milk with acid or enzymes, so that you get semi-solid cheese curds. Then you have to separate the curds for the liquid whey. The pottery fragments analyzed in this study were pierced with holes, and were liked used as a sieve to separate the curds from whey. Other research by the same scientists on vessels from Anatolia, in Turkey, have pointed to cheese-making as far back as the seventh millennium, older than the Northern Europeans. This not the only time that researchers have discovered interesting residues on ancient vessels. In January, scientists at the Library of Congress found traces of nicotine at the bottom of a 700 A.D. Mayan pot, the first physical evidence of tobacco use by this civilization. And in 2010, traces of body paint pigments were found in 50,000-year-old shells on the Iberian Peninsula, evidence that even Neanderthals liked to pretty themselves up before a night out on the...

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A Fun Video About Photo Conservation And The History of Photo-making
Nov15

A Fun Video About Photo Conservation And The History of Photo-making

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit the Getty Conservation Institute with videographer Kirk Zamieroski. This is a cool video he made about the photo conservation research that takes place in the GCI’s Los Angeles laboratories. It features the GCI’s Art Kaplan talking about a few of the 100+ different photo-making processes (wowsers!) used since the dawn of photography. Enjoy! PS:  ….And if you want to know why some old photos have a brownish “sepia” look, check out this piece about the research of GCI’s Dusan Stulik and Tram...

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Annals of Quirkiness: Space Buddha Taken By Nazis.
Sep27

Annals of Quirkiness: Space Buddha Taken By Nazis.

Ancient Egyptians made necklaces from meteorites, the Inuit used these extra-terrestrial rocks as an iron source but this is the world’s first space Buddha. Researchers in Germany led by Elmar Buchner are reporting that a sculpture of the Buddhist god Vaiśravana was carved out of a meteorite fragment that fell to Earth near the border of Siberia and Mongolia between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago. It’s the first known example of a religious sculpture carved from a meteorite, said the researchers to the Newscientist’s Colin Barras, who wrote the best of many news stories on the discovery (IMHO). And that’s not all: The 24-centimeter tall statue “had a colourful past. It was apparently brought to Germany in 1939 by a Nazi-backed archaeological expedition to search for the roots of Aryanism. A swastika on the armoured Buddha’s breastplate may have been a motivating factor in bringing the statue to Germany,” writes Barras. Buchner and his team proved the statue was made from a meteorite by comparing the relative levels of iron, nickel, cobalt, chromium, gallium and germanium to these elements in pieces of the Chinga ataxite meteorite. (Incidentally, the Chinga meteorite’s 250 odd fragments were discovered in 1913 at Tanna-Tuva, which has gorgeous stamps and is now a quirky autonomous nation between Russia and Mongolia run by a former sports instructor named Sholban Kara-ool.¬) But I digress. The only thing that could make this Nazi-seized, space Buddha discovery better is if it becomes the basis for a sequel to Iron Sky, the awesomely terrible (and by this I mean campy great) movie about Nazis on the...

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Did Neanderthals Produce Cave Paintings?
Jun14

Did Neanderthals Produce Cave Paintings?

It may be time to stop using the word Neanderthal as an insult for people we think lack culture, intelligence and any concept of aesthetics. Or at least that’s what Spanish Neanderthal expert João Zilhão would argue. He’s just published a paper in Science that identifies Neanderthals as possible artists for three paintings in Spain’s El Castillo and Altamira caves. The work suggests stereotyping Neanderthals as “dumb” may be incorrect, Zilhão says. “From what we know of Neanderthals, there’s no reason to think they didn’t have the capacity” to be creative artists. Zilhão and his colleagues used an interesting method (more on that later) to date the cave art to between 35,600 and 40,800 years ago…  a time when both Neanderthals and early humans likely coexisted in Europe. (They also dated some 47 other cave paintings, whose younger ages finger humans as the artists.) This is not the first time Zilhão has found evidence suggesting Neanderthals in Europe were neither cognitively inferior nor less creative than their Homosapien contemporaries in Africa. In 2010, he was first author on a PNAS paper that reported a cache of painted marine shells on the Iberian Peninsula in Spain that were produced by Neanderthals.  These shells were dated to 50,000 years ago, about 10,000 years before early humans showed up in Europe. The shells contain mineral pigment makeup that required some skill and know-how to produce. (The makeup was composed of fool’s gold, aka pyrite, and ground hematite, which can be red and black, all mixed in to a base of the rust-colored mineral, lepidocrocite) Not only did this research show Neanderthals were chemists, but it also suggests they painted themselves and wore jewelry. Of course, it’ll take many more of these discoveries before the entire research community is convinced that Neanderthals weren’t as dumb as we thought. (I’m reminded that history is written by the winners—us humans.) In fact, the other cool part of the current Science paper is that Zilhão and his colleague Alex Pike in Bristol used an uncommon technique to date the cave paintings. This method could be used to accurately determine the age of many more cave paintings, which could help provide additional evidence that Neanderthals were relatively civilized—or not. Since radiocarbon dating is not reliable for determining the age of cave art, the scientists relied on a method that measures the levels of uranium and thorium found in calcite crusts that build up on top of the cave art. (Calcite is the same mineral in stalagmites and stalactites.) Trace amounts of uranium but not thorium are found in the water that deposits the calcite on top of the art. Since uranium...

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