Oldest message in a bottle found on Western Australia beach

The bottle and the note placed on a sandy surfaceImage copyright KYMILLMAN.COM
Image caption Experts confirmed the bottle was jettisoned as part of a German oceanographic experiment in 1886

A Perth family has found the world’s oldest known message in a bottle, almost 132 years after it was thrown into the sea, Australian experts say.

Tonya Illman picked up the bottle while going for a walk around sand dunes on a remote beach in West Australia.

Her husband Kym Illman told the BBC they found some paper in the bottle but had “no idea” what it was until they took it home and dried it in the oven.

Experts have confirmed it is an authentic message from a German ship.

The note in the bottle, which was dated 12 June 1886, was jettisoned from the German ship Paula, as part of an experiment into ocean and shipping routes by the German Naval Observatory.

Previously, the Guinness world record for the oldest message in a bottle was 108 years, between it being sent and found.

‘Rolled up cigarette’

The Illman family were driving through a beach north of Wedge Island on 21 January when the car became bogged down in the sand, and Mrs Illman and her friend decided to go for a walk.

“Tonya saw a whole lot of rubbish on the ground, and thought she’d help pick up some rubbish,” Mr Illman told the BBC.

She found and picked up the bottle, thinking it would be nice for her bookshelf, he added.

The scrolled noteImage copyrightKYMILLMAN.COM

Mr Illman said his wife passed the bottle “to our son’s girlfriend, who saw what she thought was a rolled-up cigarette, and tipped it out with the sand”.

“Tonya tried to untie the string around the paper, but it was rather fragile, so we took it home and put it in the oven for five minutes to dry up the moisture.

“Then we unrolled it and saw printed writing. We could not see the hand written ink at that point, but saw a printed message that asked the reader to contact the German consulate when they found the note.”

Later, they also noticed faint handwriting on the note, with a date of 12 June 1886 and the name of the ship, Paula.

When they saw the date they thought it was “too far-fetched” to be real, Mr Illman said – but they researched the bottle online and took it to experts at the Western Australian Museum.

Kym and Tonya IllmanImage copyright KYMILLMAN.COM
Image caption Kym and Tonya Illman have loaned the find to the Western Australian Museum

Dr Ross Anderson, Assistant Curator Maritime Archaeology at the WA Museum, confirmed the find was authentic after consulting with colleagues from Germany and the Netherlands.

“Incredibly, an archival search in Germany found Paula’s original Meteorological Journal and there was an entry for 12 June 1886 made by the captain, recording a drift bottle having been thrown overboard. The date and the coordinates correspond exactly with those on the bottle message,” Dr Anderson said.

The handwriting on the journal, and the message in the bottle, also matched, he added.

A handwriting comparison of the message in the bottle and the Paula Meteorological journalImage copyrightWA MUSEUM

The bottle was jettisoned in the south-eastern Indian Ocean while the ship was travelling from Cardiff in Wales to Indonesia, and probably washed up on the Australian coast within 12 months, where it was buried under the sand, he wrote in his report.

Thousands of bottles were thrown overboard during the 69-year German experiment but to date only 662 messages – and no bottles – had been returned. The last bottle with a note to be found was in Denmark in 1934.

The bottle found on Wedge Island was found “mostly exposed without any form of cork or closure, and was about a quarter full of damp sand”, and the bottle appeared to have lain “buried or mostly buried”, partially filled with damp sand, Dr Anderson added.

Sand dunes in the area are quite mobile during storm events and heavy rain, so the bottle could have been subject to “cyclical periods of exposure” which could have led to the cork in the bottle drying out and becoming dislodged, “while the tightly rolled paper along with a quantity of sand remained inside preserved”.

“The narrow 7mm bore of the bottle opening and thick glass would have assisted to buffer and preserve the paper from the effects of full exposure to the elements, providing a protective microenvironment favourable to the paper’s long-term preservation,” the report added.

Presentational grey line

The Illman family have loaned the find to the Western Australian Museum for the next two years, and it will be on display to the public from Wednesday.

WA Minister for Culture and the Arts David Templeman said he was “delighted” with the loan, adding: “It is truly an impressive find and thanks to the wonderful international and interdisciplinary cooperation of science and research, it can now also be shared with the world.”

Writing online, Mrs Illman described the find as “the most remarkable event in my life”.

“To think that this bottle has not been touched for nearly 132 years and is in perfect condition, despite the elements, beggars belief. I’m still shaking.”

Reporting by the BBC’s Helier Cheung.

University offers science degree online for £5,650 per year

online learningImage copyright GETTY IMAGES

The University of London is to announce a fully fledged undergraduate degree course completely taught online for £5,650 per year over three years.

It is aimed at encouraging more part-time, working students, following a fall in their numbers after the increase in tuition fees in England.

There are plans for 3,000 students to take the computer science course.

It comes as the prime minister’s review of tuition fees aims to encourage more flexible and cheaper ways to study.

The review follows concerns about the high cost of university, with average graduate debts of more than £50,000.

‘Step change’

The University of London claims to have been the first university in the world to offer distance learning – with correspondence courses in the 1850s.

But it is announcing its first online BSc course, to run from next year, with the content produced by academics at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Senate House
Image captionThis will be the University of London’s first online BSc degree

The university’s deputy chief executive, Craig O’Callaghan, says it expects to attract “people who are working and need a more flexible approach”.

Part-time student numbers fell by more than 40% after fees increased in 2012 – and the current review of university funding has to find ways to reverse this trend.

There have been other online undergraduate degree courses – such as those pioneered by the Open University.

But the University of London says its entry into this market is the beginning of a “step change” in its approach to using online courses to reach more undergraduate students.

‘Older and working students’

The course is being produced in a partnership with one of the world’s biggest online university companies, the California-based Coursera.

Computing scienceImage copyrightGOLDSMITHS
Image captionThe computing course content will be from academics at Goldsmiths

This US company, which has 31 million registered students, has developed many free online courses – known as massive open online courses (Moocs) – but these are not accredited degrees.

The deal with the University of London will be Coursera’s first fully fledged BSc degree.

It will have group work, live video and individual tuition, all delivered online. But students will go to exam centres for final, invigilated exams.

Jeff Maggioncalda, the chief executive of Coursera, said the new course would be a “game changer” for a “different type of student”.

Adults might want to get a degree, but “they’re not going to quit their jobs to go back to class”, he says.

An online degree will let them stay in work and not have the extra cost of university accommodation, says Mr Maggioncalda.

“So expect a lot of students who are older and working.”

‘Changes the equation’

The course will begin with a few hundred students, but it is intended to be scaled up to having about 3,000 students – much bigger than a conventionally taught degree course.

This “totally changes the equation” in terms of the finances of delivering university degrees, says Mr Maggioncalda.

“It’s so compelling that other universities will have to follow,” he says.

Postgraduate courses have become more frequently available online – and Coursera will be announcing a number of other partnerships, including a postgraduate public health degree from Imperial College, London.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, says that so far technology has not made the impact once predicted for higher education.

Younger students have continued to sign up for traditional courses, regardless of the price, he says.

But there is “definitely scope for new initiatives that do things differently” and the success of online degrees will depend on being able to “tap deeply into the market for non-traditional students, like mature learners”.


    Tree loss pushing beetles to the brink

    Iphthiminus italicusImage copyrightHERVE BOUYON
    Image captionThis endangered beetle is found under dead branches

    The loss of trees across Europe is pushing beetles to the brink of extinction, according to a new report.

    The International Union for the Conservation of Nature assessed the status of 700 European beetles that live in old and hollowed wood.

    Almost a fifth (18%) are at risk of extinction due to the decline of ancient trees, the European Red List of Saproxylic Beetles report found.

    This puts them among the most threatened insect groups in Europe.

    Saproxylic beetles play a role in natural processes, such as decomposition and the recycling of nutrients.

    They also provide an important food source for birds and mammals and some are involved in pollination.

    “Some beetle species require old trees that need hundreds of years to grow, so conservation efforts need to focus on long-term strategies to protect old trees across different landscapes in Europe, to ensure that the vital ecosystem services provided by these beetles continue,” said Jane Smart, director of the IUCN Global Species Programme.

    BeetleImage copyrightCHEVAILLOT
    Image captionBeetles are food for birds and mammals

    Logging, tree loss and wood harvesting all contribute to the loss of habitat for the beetles, said the IUCN. Other major threats include urbanisation and tourism development, and an increase in wildfires in the Mediterranean region.

    Conservation efforts need to focus on long-term strategies to protect old trees and deadwood across forests, pastureland, orchards and urban areas, the report recommended.

    It said there should be inventories of ancient and veteran trees for each European country, to ensure these trees are protected in all landscapes.

    “It is critical for the Common Agricultural Policy to promote the appropriate management of wood pasture habitats containing veteran trees across Europe,” said Luc Bas, director of the IUCN European Regional Office.


    The report pointed to the need for different ages of trees in the landscape, including saplings, mature trees, ancient trees, standing dead trees, fallen tree trunks and stumps.

    It said some progress had been made in the forestry sector, while the importance of deadwood is being increasingly acknowledged in many countries.

    In Europe, there are 58 families of beetles, made up of nearly 29,000 species. About 4,000 are thought to rely on dead and decaying wood for at least part of their lifecycle.

    However, for many of these species data is lacking, suggesting more monitoring is urgently needed.

    “The population trend of half the species assessed remains unknown,” said Keith Alexander, IUCN Saproxylic Beetles Specialist Advisor.

    He said that three of the species from the list were found in the UK, including a type of longhorn beetle that lives only on veteran oak trees.

    He called for raised public awareness of their conservation needs.

    “Some of these beetles are incredibly beautiful interesting things – if people stopped and looked at them and appreciated them, they’d realise they’re just as worthy of conservation as elephants and tigers,” he told the BBC. “And these things live in the countryside on our doorstep.”

    Beetles at risk:

    • Stictoleptura erythroptera needs large veteran trees with cavities, and is therefore dependent on the preservation of old trees. This species was assessed as Vulnerable by the IUCN, which said its main threat was the continuing loss of old trees across its range.
    • Iphthiminus italicus has been assessed as endangered due to forestry practices and wildfires.

    DNA sheds light on settlement of Pacific

    Outrigger canoeImage copyrightTORSTEN BLACKWOOD
    Image captionVanuatu was a gateway to the more remote islands of the Pacific

    A study of ancient DNA has shed light on the epic journeys that led to the settlement of the Pacific by humans.

    The region was one of the last on Earth to be permanently settled by humans who used canoes to traverse hundreds of miles of open ocean.

    Two different studies tracked changes over time in the genetic make-up of people inhabiting Vanuatu – regarded as a gateway to the rest of the Pacific.

    The work appears in Nature Ecology & Evolution and Current Biology.

    Prof David Reich, from Harvard Medical School, said the region had a “tremendous” range of human diversity, adding that Vanuatu itself had an “extraordinary diversity of languages” in a relatively small area. The number of languages spoken in the tiny island state is thought to number more than 130, though several are endangered with just a small number of speakers.

    Prof Reich, who is lead author of the study in Current Biology, added that Vanuatu was a “gateway to the remote Pacific islands… through that region of Vanuatu and neighbouring islands, people spread all over the Pacific”.

    Outrigger canoe raceImage copyrightGREGORY BOISSY
    Image captionPeople race in modern versions of the outrigger canoe. Thousands of years ago, they allowed people to traverse vast distances in the open ocean

    The first people to arrive in the islands belonged to the Lapita culture, who expanded out of Taiwan between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago, reaching Vanuatu about 3,000 years ago. “They were really talented seafaring people,” said Dr Cosimo Posth, from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. Dr Posth was co-author of the study in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

    Their secret was the specialised outrigger canoe, which is characterised by the addition of lateral support floats which stabilise the main hull. This innovation, says Dr Posth, “allowed them to cover immense distances of the ocean”.

    The Lapita voyages represent the most extensive dispersal of agricultural people in history. They carried farming technology and languages belonging to the Austronesian family as far west as Madagascar and as far east as Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

    But modern people in the wider region have varying amounts of ancestry from “Papuan” populations like those that live today on New Guinea, and other islands in the Bismarck Archipelago such as the Solomons, New Britain and New Ireland.

    However, when exactly this ancestry spread across the region has been hotly debated. One idea was that the Lapita mixed with people speaking Papuan languages early in their voyages, spreading both types of ancestry throughout the region. Alternatively, it could be explained by more recent seafaring expansions by people from the Bismarck Archipelago.

    DNA from burials on Vanuatu dating from between 2,900 and 150 years ago show that the first Lapita people were genetically similar to present-day populations such as the Ami who live in Taiwan.

    “The first people of these remote pacific islands had none of the Papuan ancestry from the New Guinea region that is ubiquitous today and everyone has about 25% of it,” said Prof Reich.

    That means that ancestry from the south must have arrived in the region more recently. Indeed, by studying the DNA of the Vanuatu population through time, the researchers found that people bearing Papuan-like ancestry arrived in the islands around 2,600 years ago. An influx of – mostly male – newcomers steadily transformed the genetic make-up of the island.

    Maori Powhiri ceremonyImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
    Image captionLater voyages resulted in islands such as New Zealand being settled for the first time; here, people engage in the Maori Powhiri welcome ceremony

    Intriguingly, all of this happened without a replacement in the language. The people of Vanuatu today speak Austronesian languages like those presumably spoken by the Lapita. This may be because a “lingua franca” developed in the region among seafaring, mobile people voyaging and trading across long distances.

    Other peoples of the Pacific, such as people living in Polynesia, derive their Papuan ancestry from a different source to the one that populated Vanuatu.

    “What we’re detecting is not one, but at least two movements of Papuan ancestry out into the Pacific,” said Prof Reich. These other movements remain a focus for future studies.

    Dr Posth commented: “All the islands in eastern Polynesia – from the Cook Islands to Hawaii, New Zealand, French Polynesia – were settled much later, about 1500 years after the Lapita expansion. So there must have been further technological advancements [to the initial outrigger canoe design] that allowed people to spread even further east.”

    2 March 2018

    Africa’s week in pictures: 16-22 February 2018

    • A selection of the best photos from across Africa and of Africans elsewhere in the world this week.
    Kenya Wildlife Service lift a tranquillized elephant bull into an truck at the Lamuria, Nyeri county, on February 21, 2018 during the transfer of elephants from Solio, Sangare and Lewa to northern part of Tsavo East National Park in Ithumba.Image copyrightAFP
    Image captionIt is not every day you see an elephant upside down and suspended in the air – but on Wednesday in Nyeri county, Kenya, that is exactly what was happening.
    Canada Carpe Diem Circus performs at the French Institute on Febuary 15, 2018 during 1st Circus Festival in Abidjan in Ivory Coast.Image copyrightAFP
    Image captionIt was people who were flying in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, during its first Circus Festival.
    Mourners and supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party wave good bye to Zimbabwe's iconic opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai who died last week after a battle with cancer, on February 20, 2018, during his burial at his rural village Humanikwa in Buhera.Image copyrightAFP
    Image captionIn Zimbabwe, people gathered to mourn the loss of Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who has died aged 65.
    A newborn at the Juba Teaching Hospital in Juba, the South Sudanese capital's only fully functioning maternity ward which has five beds and only solar-powered electricityImage copyrightAFP
    Image captionThe same day, a mother was welcoming her newborn in a hospital in Juba, South Sudan. The country is one of the most dangerous places on earth to give birth, Unicef revealed this week.
    Two Ethiopian war veterans sporting military regalia walk down a path during a memorial service commemorating the anniversary of the 'Addis Ababa Massacre'Image copyrightAFP
    Image captionIn Ethiopia veterans marked the Addis Ababa Massacre, when at least 20,000 Ethiopians were killed by occupying Italian forces on 19 February, 1937.
    Libyans wave national flags as they attend a celebration marking the seventh anniversary of the Libyan revolution which toppled late leader and strongman Moamer Kadhafi, in the capital Tripoli's Martyrs Square on February 17, 2018.Image copyrightAFP
    Image captionLibyans were also remembering an important date this week. On 17 February, it was the seventh anniversary of the revolution which toppled Col Muammar Gaddafi.
    An election campaign banner erected by supporters of Egyptian President is seen in the capital Cairo on February 21, 2018.Image copyrightAFP
    Image captionAcross the border, Egypt is readying itself for an election. Supporters put up this campaign banner for the current president in Cairo this week.
    South Africa's newly-minted president Cyril Ramaphosa (centre) arrives to deliver his State of the National address at the Parliament in Cape Town, on February 16, 2018.Image copyrightAFP
    Image captionSouth Africa has not had an election, but it does have a new president. Cyril Ramaphosa is seen here before giving the country’s State of the Nation address. We’d love to know what this woman had just spotted.
    Ghana"s skeleton slider Akwasi Frimpong exits after his race in the Men"s Skeleton competition at the Olympic Sliding Centre during the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Games, South Korea, 16 February 2018Image copyrightEPA
    Image captionOn the other side of the world in South Korea, Ghana’s skeleton slider Akwasi Frimpong was introducing his daughter to a new friend.
    Athletes compete in the final of Men's 800m during the trials for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, at Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi, Kenya, on February 17, 2018Image copyrightAFP
    Image captionBut in Kenya, thoughts were turning to the next big competition – the Commonwealth Games in Australia in April.

    Images courtesy of AFP and EPA

    Why Do Airlines Overbook Seats on Flights?

    Traveling by air can be a stressful activity. There’s turbulence, baggage limitations, intrusions by airport security, and the overhyped fear of plane crashes. If these annoyances weren’t enough, once a passenger finally makes it to their gate, they face the possibility of being “bumped”—that is, kept from occupying the seat they purchased because the flight was oversold. Why do airlines oversell their flights?  In other words, why do they sell more spots on the aircraft than there are seats?

    The short answer to this is economics: airlines want to make sure that every flight is as full as possible to maximize their profits. The reported reason why airlines routinely oversell their seats is to recover costs the airline incurs for seat cancellations and for travelers who do not show up to take the flight. (On any given flight, some number of previously allocated seats go empty just before departure.) Empty seats are not profitable, so overbooking allows the airline to ensure that every seat on the airplane is making money for them. The “no-show rate,” which helps airlines determine how many extra tickets to sell, is determined by data from past flights connecting the same points. For example, if the data from most of an airline’s flights from Phoenix to Houston indicate that five passengers typically do not show up for the flight, the airline will sell five additional tickets. Such calculations are not perfect, and sometimes more people show up for the flight than there are seats on the aircraft, which forces the bumped passengers and the airline to work out an arrangement (such as rebooking on a later flight or remunerating with air-travel vouchers or cash) before the flight can depart.

    The overbooking process is also said to benefit people who purchase last-minute tickets. If a flight has extra seats available before the flight leaves the gate, these can be sold at discounted rates, which allows the airline to garner some of the revenue that they would otherwise have lost. However, all seats are not equal. Passengers in the coach and business classes of a flight are the ones that are bumped most often. Airlines rarely choose to risk the ire of those traveling first-class, because first-class seats produce the most revenue per flight. In addition, frequent fliers, passengers who check in to the flight early, and those whose air-travel itinerary would be most disrupted by being bumped have greater clout in these situations than the occasional traveler or the traveler who checks in just before departure time.

    WRITTEN BY:  John P. Rafferty