Saturn moon a step closer to hosting life

Image of a white ice moon with blue lines streaked across its surface and a small cluster of cratersImage copyrightNASA

Scientists have found complex carbon-based molecules in the waters of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

Compounds like this have only previously been found on Earth, and in some meteorites.

They are thought to have formed in reactions between water and warm rock at the base of the moon’s subsurface ocean.

Though not a sign of life, their presence suggests Enceladus could play host to living organisms.

The discovery came from data gathered by the Cassini spacecraft.

An image of Enceladus next to a satellite map of Great Britain. The moon spans from the top of Scotland to YorkImage copyright PRESS ASSOCIATION
Image captionSmall neighbourhood: Enceladus is just 500km wide

A new pale blue dot?

“These huge molecules contain a complex network often built from hundreds of atoms,” explains study author Dr Frank Postberg.

“This is the first ever detection of such complex organics coming from an extraterrestrial water-world.”

On Earth, these molecules are usually biologically created, but this does not have to be the case.

“They are a necessary precursor to life,” says Dr Postberg, “[but] we currently cannot tell if these organics are biologically irrelevant or signs of prebiotic chemistry or even life.”

What does life need?

  • Liquid water
  • Energy
  • Organics (compounds containing carbon)
  • A group of particular elements (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur)

Phosphorus and sulphur have not yet been measured on the moon, but it has all of the other ingredients.

What next?

The Cassini mission, which ended by plunging into Saturn’s cloud-tops last September, was never designed to detect life.

In fact, it was dispatched before scientists even knew about the peculiar jets of water emerging from the south pole of Enceladus.

Cassini first observed them in 2005, after its arrival in the Saturn system.

The technology to distinguish whether molecules like those detected are biological in origin already exists on Earth.

“The next logical step,” says Dr Postberg, “is to go back to Enceladus soon with a dedicated payload and see if there is extraterrestrial life.”

Ancient GPS – Viking sunstones

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There is a lot wrong with the popular History Channel series Vikings. There is a lot right with it, too. Much of what you see on screen falls in the middle somewhere.

An example or two of the wrong: If there even was a Ragnar Lothbrok (the series’ main protagonist in its first four seasons, and who some historians consider a conglomeration of many Viking characters), he did not live at the same time as his series’ brother, Rollo.

In the series, the character Rollo (in reality, “Gangr Hrolf,” or “Hrolf the Walker” for his long legs) lived 50 to 75 years before the man was actually born and he received land in France, which became “Normandy,” meaning “Land of the Northmen,” perhaps 100 years after the series begins.

After agreeing to help the King of France repel any further invasions by his brother, Rollo proceeds to use French troops to kill his Viking compatriots who complain. Why then is Rollo needed? Now he is just a lone Viking.

In the Season 5a finale, we see Rollo coming to the aid of his nephews Ivar and Hvitserk at the head of a massive fleet. If the French had a massive fleet capable of reaching Norway, it’s news to virtually everyone, and history would likely have played out much differently than it did.

Those are just a couple of things wrong with the character Rollo and the timeline of the program.

However, the series does get much right. Much of the everyday life of the Vikings depicted in the series is correct, with the popular exception of the semi-Mad Max leather costumes.

We know too that Viking men were frequently tattooed and wore somewhat elaborate hairstyles. We are told this by Arab travelers who documented their visits among the Northmen. Most of the rituals depicted in the series fits outside contemporary accounts as well.

It seems also that Michael Hirst, the shows’ creator and writer, got the idea of female warriors right. While “shield-maidens” had been loosely mentioned in some texts following the Viking era, there had never been definitive proof. We don’t have it now, but it’s beginning to look like some women did take part in Viking warfare, and/or at the very dangerous game of Viking politics.

In 1889, Viking-era remains were found in a grave in Birka, Sweden. 128 years later, they were identified as female through DNA testing. In the grave with the female skeleton were typical warriors goods. Though nothing points directly to her being a warrior–she may have been a high-status warrior’s wife, given his expensive goods as a token of love, or perhaps the high-status female was anticipating joining the Valkyries in the afterlife. We are not 100 percent sure.

However, when taken with tales from the sagas (whose details, not theme, should be taken lightly), we know that women played a significant role in the political world of Iceland.

We know that women in Norway and Iceland enjoyed rights that few other women of the time could even dream of, such as divorce and inheritance.

The series’ first episode revolves around Ragnar Lothbrok and his brother yearning to try their hand at raiding in the west, not around the Baltic Sea as they apparently have for years. This is another of the show’s errors–the Vikings knew full well there was land to the west.

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Trade had gone on sporadically for centuries throughout the breadth and length of northwestern Europe, including the British Isles. Still, many British trade goods arrived via Denmark over land from France, and not every Ragnar, Rollo, or Ivar would know how to get there over the open ocean.

Ragnar lets his brother in on a little secret. He has gained a “sunstone” from a wanderer, and this will allow them to successfully navigate even if the sun is obscured with cloud and fog, as is common as dirt in the North Sea.

Here’s the trouble. No one is sure that sunstone (which is the nickname for certain types of feldspar, and other stones, such as calcite and tourmaline) was used in the Viking era, or as early as Ragnar Lothbrok was said to have lived. Icelandic sagas written in the 12th and 13th centuries mention “sunstones” but are vague about their use.

Later Christian texts mention them as well, but we do not know whether the Vikings of any era used them for navigation. Until archaeologists find one in a Viking grave or other yet undiscovered site, we may never know for sure.

Recent studies at the Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary have shown that it was possible to navigate using a sunstone. As reported in the journal Royal Society Open Science in April 2018, two professors, Dénes Száz and Gábor Horváth, knowing the measurements and traits of Viking-era vessels, weather patterns in the North Sea and currents, ran 36,000 computer simulations of Viking voyages.

They found that if a navigator used a sunstone to monitor the sun’s position at least once every three hours he would reach his target exactly 92-100 percent of the time (and this period includes just before sunrise and just after sunset, as sunstones can magnify the suns light on the horizon before its truly visible to the naked eye).

In one of their simulations, the professors used a different type of sunstone, and departing from Norway in their simulation, found that if they checked their stone for the sun once every four hours instead of three, they would blow past the United Kingdom, Iceland, Greenland, and end up in…Canada.

 Matthew Gaskill

Matthew Gaskill holds an MA in European History and writes on a variety of topics from the Medieval World to WWII to genealogy and more. A former educator, he values curiosity and diligent research. He is the author of many best-selling Kindle works on Amazon.

In pictures: the Romani vardo wagons–these were more than just cozy homes

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The vibrant horse-drawn vardo wagons were at the cultural heart of the British Romanichals (Romani) from the mid-1800s into the early 20th century.

These sometimes opulent-looking caravans were more than just cozy and warm homes that housed the Romani families who were always on the road. A vardo wagon attested to the economic status of the family as well as supporting the age-old nomadic way of life of the Romani people.

They were probably first used by traveling showmen and slowly came to replace the older “benders”–tents made with a hazel frame covered by canvas. They allowed freedom to travel the country and trade everything from horses to brooms.

As we can see in the photos, vardo wagons are a work of art in their own right. It takes real craftsmanship and effort to build and decorate one. There are six distinct types: Burton, Brush, Reading, Ledge, Bowtop, and Openlot.

In the old days, families would have moved from farm to farm, pursuing work according to the season. The winter was time to rest, usually parked near some town or a bigger city. Romani also made an income from various trades, such as tinsmiths, hawkers, tinkers, and horse dealers. They were known for playing lively music and could reputedly make or mend anything.

The wagons were typically elaborately decorated on the outside. The more lavish the decor, the wealthier the family. For instance, if a cart was gilded with gold leaf, it meant the Romani family which owned it was particularly affluent.

Specific patterns and designs on the vardo were almost always associated with their artist. A well-known design likely meant a reputable craftsman. Many of the designs were inspired by nature and wildlife, therefore the recurrent flowery patterns.

And how was life on the road with these beauties?








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Typically, it was a mobile household which included everyone, from small children to the elderly. Each family member took care of their own assignments for the day.

Some of the group members were there to work and earn money. If there were kids, it was the grandparents who normally took care of them.

After an active day, there usually followed a get-together evening by a campfire set alongside the cart. Families entertained themselves by the fire sharing jokes, narrating stories, singing, and playing music.

Inside the vardo wagons, there was enough room for sleeping. Besides beds, they contained all the necessary appliances and assets to run a household. Perhaps it was all in miniature but there was everything: a stove, some cupboards, a table, chairs, and a place to store clothes and other belongings.

The vardo wagon was not only a warm little home–it also paid the ticket to freedom.

 Alex .A

The Antikythera mechanism, an ancient analog “computer”, said to be “more valuable than the Mona Lisa”

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Photo Credit Peulle – CC BY-SA 4.0

In 1900, a boat carrying sponge divers encountered a storm and took refuge on the island of Antikythera in the Aegean Sea. While they were diving off the island’s coast, they discovered a 2,000-year-old shipwreck, believed to be a Greek ship that had sunk in around 60 or 70 BC.

The divers brought up jewelry, pottery, coins, and statues made of bronze and marble. Another artifact brought up was a lump of eighty-two pieces of a corroded bronze device.

The artifacts were taken to the National Museum of Archaeology in Athens for cleaning and analysis, but the bronze artifact was too delicate to be studied by hand. It wasn’t until 1951 that Derek J. de Solla Price, a physicist, and professor at Yale University, took notice of the artifact and began to study it. He employed the most advanced technology for the time, the X-ray machine, to discover its origin and purpose, but still had no answers.

Price and Greek nuclear physicist, Charalampos Karakalos, performed X-ray and gamma-ray tests and in 1974, they published a paper that listed the gear settings and inscriptions on the face of the mechanism. They believed it had been manufactured in around 87 BC, which correlates with the dates of the coins found, and that it may have come from the ancient Greek city of Pergamon. Researchers initially thought it was an astronomical clock, but others thought that would have been far too sophisticated for the time.

The pieces were made from a low-tin bronze alloy, and because the writing on the artifact is in Koine Greek, it may be safe to assume that the device was made in Greece. Why it was on a cargo ship is unknown, but because researchers believe the cargo was on its way to Rome, it may have been part of booty from the Greek islands.

The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project, which began in 2005, is an international association of researchers, backed by the National Archaeological Museum and the Hellenic Ministry of Culture in Athens, where the device now resides. Technology companies such as Hewlett-Packard from the United States and X-Tek Systems from the UK, assisted the project using advanced digital imaging, 3D technology, and a powerful microscopic X-ray device. Originally designed to search for minute cracks in turbine blades, this machine allowed researchers to decipher the minute details of the writing and gears.

The Antikythera Mechanism has earned the nickname “the first computer” because researchers found it was designed for the study of astronomical phenomena, using a mechanical, computer-like system that shows the cycles of the solar system. The construction exhibited the incorporation of standard theories of astronomy and mathematics at the time.

Professor Michael Edmunds of Cardiff University led a 2006 study of the mechanism. He stated that the device was “just extraordinary, the only thing of its kind”. He said that its astronomy was “exactly right” and that it was “more valuable than the Mona Lisa”. Christian Carman and James Evans spent several years comparing the mechanism with the Babylonian records of eclipses. Using a process of elimination, they determined that the date at which the machine was set to begin, was 205 BC.

The dial has a fixed ring on the front representing the ecliptic, with the twelve zodiac signs marked in equal thirty-degree sectors. This followed the Babylonian custom of assigning one-twelfth of the ecliptic to each zodiac sign, rather than accounting for the variables of the constellation boundaries. On the outside of the first dial is a movable ring that indicates the months and days of the Sothic Egyptian calendar – 12 months of 30 days, plus five extra days distributed throughout the year.

To work the mechanism, a person had to turn a small hand crank into the largest gear, which was linked to a crown gear that moved the date pointer on the front dial to set the correct Egyptian day. The year is unable to be set, so the current year must be known by looking up the cycles shown by various indicators from the Babylonian almanac tables for that day.

In a full rotation, the crank moves the date pointer about 78 days; an additional pointer tracks the spiral cuts in the metal. The dials had four and five full rotations of the pointers; when the pointer reached the final month at either end of the spiral, the second pointer had to be moved by hand to the other end. Turning the hand crank would also cause the interlocked gears inside the mechanism to rotate, causing simultaneous calculations of the position of the sun and moon, the moon phase, eclipse, and calendar cycles.

Articles, videos, and books continue to be produced by the Antikythera mechanism. As research progresses, and with the advent of 3-D printing, perhaps science can look forward to a working model of the device someday in the future.

 Ian Harvey

1st century A.D. mosaics and paintings buried under volcano damage now being revealed and restored with X-ray technology

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An iron element map (right) made with new X-ray technology reveals the underlying craftsmanship hidden beneath a damaged portrait of a Roman woman (left). Photo credit: Roberto Alberti.

X-rays have allowed us to look at many wondrous things, but can they bring an ancient city back to life?

They can if it’s the city’s artwork.

In 79 A.D. the eruption of Mount Vesuvius near Naples destroyed Pompeii and its lesser-known neighbor, Herculaneum. The cities and their civilizations were lost under the deluge of mud, molten rock, and volcanic ash.

When early researchers began uncovering Herculaneum in the 19th century, they found a treasure trove of mosaics and paintings preserved under that blanket. The problem was, the volcanic blanket had protective properties and once removed, the frescoes were exposed to weather and, even worse, air pollution. Decades of deterioration followed.

Now modern-day technology–the macro X-ray fluorescence instrument–is helping restore some of that ancient art. Researchers working in one of Herculaneum’s most art-rich locales, the House of the Mosaic Atrium, are using the portable instrument placed in close proximity to works of art to virtually peel back layers of contaminants and help reconstruct and even restore paintings.

The instrument helps map elements like iron and copper without doing damage. One analysis revealed the artist had sketched a young woman using an iron-based pigment. Highlights around her eyes had been done using a lead-based paint. Potassium signaled that her flesh was painted using an earth-based pigment.

By establishing the chemical elements in the painting, conservators can more safely choose cleaning solvents and stabilizers. And while they typically don’t paint over what remains, they can use what they learn to digitally re-create a work.

The art of Herculaneum is not the first use of the technique, but it is the first use in the original setting of the paintings. In carefully controlled museum settings, the instrument has been used to analyze work by Picasso, Van Gogh, and the Dutch masters.

 As for the original settings in the shadow of Vesuvius, much has been recorded about Pompeii, where volcanic material formed eerie molds around people who perished there. Relatively few human remains were found at Herculaneum.

Another key difference between Pompeii and Herculaneum is the compact mass of material that buried the latter city under more than 50 feet of crust; it made excavation difficult, preserving Herculaneum and staving off looting.

Even more significantly, special ground moisture conditions preserved wooden frameworks of houses, wooden furniture, the hull of a boat, fabric–and even food. Extra toasty loaves of bread remained preserved in Herculaneum’s ancient ovens.

Out of sight is often out of mind in ancient history, so over the years, the modern city Ercolano was built over the forgotten Herculaneum. And for many years, the latter-day residents had no idea of the treasures buried deep beneath their feet.

 It wasn’t until well diggers struck an underground wall in 1709 that Herculaneum was rediscovered. Tunnels were dug and treasure seekers did appear at that point, removing artifacts related to an ancient theater. Other excavations were undertaken, but when military engineer Karl Weber took over from 1750 to 1764, careful diagrams of the ruins were made, and artifacts were well documented. Weber logged an entire library of papyrus documents, recorded bronze and marble statues, and impressive paintings.

His work is considered among the earliest examples of what evolved into archaeology. The archaeology continued on and off under different oversight, but began in earnest again in 1927 with funding from Italy.

The work has also brought insight into the architecture and lifestyles of the ancient city of around 5,000 residents. The houses of nobles overlook the water, but the homes of middle class are interspersed nearby.

Public monuments uncovered include sports grounds, a large central swimming pool, and public baths.

In 1997, Pompeii, Herculaneum, and their sister, Torre Annunziata, which was also destroyed, were named UNESCO World Heritage Sites for their cultural importance. As such, they are protected by international treaty.

 Terri Likens

Ned Kelly – The most famous Australian Bush Ranger

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The legend of Ned Kelly remains a subject of debate, but one thing is certain ― this gun-wielding outlaw became and stayed a household name in Australia, as his notoriety grew into a folk tale that is remembered to this day. Son of John Kelly, who was deported from Ireland for stealing two pigs and sent to the island of Tasmania, Ned was bound for a life of hardship.

His father was a gold digger who managed to accumulate enough wealth to purchase a small farm north of Melbourne. After the gold rush, John Kelly turned to his old trade, cattle theft. The Kelly house became a meeting place for criminals, and this was the environment in which little Ned and seven of his brothers and sisters grew up.

His father was later imprisoned and sentenced to hard labor. As the labor penalty affected his health significantly, John Kelly died shortly after his release from prison in 1866. Ned grew up surrounded by the Australian bush, and he became acquainted with it from his early age. He was an excellent swimmer and a capable tracker, as these traits were common knowledge in the Australian countryside.

But still, his childhood wasn’t at all pastoral and idyllic as it sounds. Young Kelly witnessed harassment by the police, as members of his family were often targeted as usual suspects due to their known association with crime. His own personal journey into the life of crime began in 1869 when he was 14 years old.

He was accused of a robbery of a Chinese merchant called Ah Fook. According to Fook, Kelly jumped him with a bamboo stick and stole 10 shillings from him. According to Kelly, his sister Anne and two other witnesses, Fook attacked Kelly, and the boy ran away. According to several historians, neither of the accounts are completely true, but Fook most probably did strike first, as Kelly most definitely responded twice as hard. The whole incident was dismissed due to lack of evidence, but Ned Kelly was noted as a troublemaker.

After this episode, Kelly turned to armed robberies, presenting himself as a bushranger, which was the term used for Australian renegades who used the uninhabited bush of Australia as their base of operations. His career as an outlaw began in the company of an another troublesome character called Harry Power.

Even though Kelly was often guilty of many crimes, there was a number of mishaps when he was just falsely accused. One such event involved a stolen mare which was given to Kelly by Isaiah “Wild” Wright, yet another petty criminal. When a police officer tried to apprehend Ned Kelly for possession of a stolen mare, a fight broke out, and Kelly was arrested and sentenced to three years of imprisonment. He was 16 at the time.

After serving his prison sentence, Kelly challenged Wild Wright to a bare-knuckle boxing to settle the inconvenient fact that his stolen mare landed him in jail for three years. The match lasted for 20 rounds, after which Kelly came out triumphant. He was a genuine tough guy, destined to live the life of a renegade.

In 1878, he shot and wounded Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick, who had attempted to apprehend Ned’s younger brother Dan for horse stealing. The Constable was shot in his left arm, and he lost consciousness briefly.

He was woken up by an unbearable pain, only to find Ned Kelly trying to remove the bullet from his arm with a knife so it would not be used as evidence against him.

Kelly was no stranger to various shootouts with police officers and bank robberies. After the shooting of Fitzpatrick, the accusations piled up. His brother had joined him in his war against law enforcement and together they formed a gang that garnered both notoriety and admiration from the settlers of Australia.

His downfall began with the arranged killing of a police informant called Aaron Sherritt. Joe Byrne, a respective member of the Kelly Gang, killed Sherritt at point blank range after he answered the door. Byrne and Sherritt were in fact childhood friends, but they chose separate paths in life. This crossing proved to be fatal for the most infamous police informant of the time.

The police pursuit was at its highest. The gang was considered to be the most dangerous in Australia. In order to protect themselves from a numerically superior enemy, the members of the gang designed special body armor weighing about 44 kg. The gang set out to Glenrowan, north-east of Melbourne, where they were to intercept a train carrying police reinforcements.


They had torn the tracks at one point and waited while drinking with laborers stationed nearby, who sang songs about the Kelly Gang. The laborers were, in fact, taken hostage by the gang, but they didn’t mind. By this time, the gang was well-known, and adored by many, for their war against the police was something with which people of those times could relate to, especially because the Australian police were often plagued with corrupted officers who only cared for their own wellbeing.

The police were informed about the ambush and came in prepared. A raging battle occurred, in which Kelly and his armored crusaders fought back fiercely, but they were simply outnumbered. They decided to fall back into the nearby bush, where Kelly decided to single-handedly attack a detachment of policemen from the rear.

When he appeared wearing his iron mask, the policemen were in awe. The bullets simply bounced off him. But still, his legs were unprotected, so they concentrated their fire in order to knock Kelly off his feet. When he was shot two times in his legs, he surrendered.

After a brief trial, Ned Kelly was executed on 11 November 1880 at the Melbourne Gaol. It is believed that his last words were “Such is life.” He was calm and at peace with himself.

To illustrate Kelly’s notoriety and popularity among common folk it is enough to note that the reward for his head was £8,000 (about $1.5 million in 2015 dollars) and that on the day of his execution 30,000 people allegedly signed a petition for a commutation of his sentence.

 Nikola Budanovic