Alt-week 20.10.12: our oldest ancestor, the birth of the moon and a planet with four stars


Alt-week peels back the covers on some of the more curious sci-tech stories from the last seven days.

Alt-week 20.10.12: our oldest ancestor, the birth of the moon and a planet with four stars

Most mornings, we wake up with little to no idea what happened the day before, let alone last week. Fortunately, they don’t let us run important scientific research projects. Or maybe they do, and we just forgot? This week (and most others as it goes) we definitely leave it to the pros, as we get some insightful glimpses at some important origins. Ball Lightning, the moon and even us humans are the benefactors of those tireless scientists, who work hard to explain where it all comes from. There’s also a planet with four stars that sees the first few paragraphs of its origin story excitedly written out. One thing we never forget, however, is that this is alt-week.

The origins of our moon may have become a little clearer this week, thanks to new research published inNature. For the last few decades, one of the mainstream theories has involved an impact between Earth and another planet (dubbed Theia) roughly 4.5-billion years ago. The resulting debris then went on to form what we now see looming over us of a night. The new research looked at zinc levels both on our planet, and the moon, as well as asteroids. And the evidence suggests that the difference in density between zinc on Earth and its satellite was likely caused by large scale evaporation rather than, say, a volcanic eruption. This, they believe is consistent with the impact origin theory. There are still some unanswered questions, primarily surrounding the size of Theia, and the effect it would have had on the rate of Earth’s rotation. For now, at least, another part of the puzzle seems to fit nicely. Which is great and all, but we’re left thinking, what happened to Theia, and is it coming round again?

From the origins of one large body, to that of another — the one currently hunched in a chair reading this.Recently discovered fossils of the oldest known primate — Purgatorius — show a primitive, tree-dwelling creature and offers a new insight into the earliest ancestors of man. Before now, no bones from below the neck had ever been found. This set, presented at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s 72nd Annual Meeting revealed a number of key, never before known details. Notably, the ankle joints, which were similar to that found in modern primates except for characteristics related to leaping. It’s these joints that the researchers also believe played a pivotal (no pun intended) role in the evolutionary tardiness of primates — providing vital climbing and food collection skills. And many, many years later, the ability to roller-skate — the true pinnacle of natural selection?

Keeping on the theme of unknown origins, what might microwave radiation, oxidizing aerosols, nuclear energy, dark matter, antimatter and black holes have in common? If you were thinking “an uncle,” you’d be close, but wrong. They are all explanations given for the formation of ball lightning. Theories that new research thinks are now likely redundant. A paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research Atmospheres, with the rather direct title of “The Birth of Ball Lightning” puts forward a new theory for the cause of the phenomenon. The paper suggests that ball lightning is the result of ions accumulate on the outside of glass (such as windows) causing an electrical field on the other side to stir up air molecules, form a ball, and then discharge into the famous globe of electricity. The theory hooks into many of the common factors in ball lightning sightings: on planes, in houses and around glass. As yet, it remains to be fully proven, but the hope is that as the paper outlines a mathematical theory for their prediction, putting it to test should be relatively simple.

As much as science advances, there remain some things that simply defy explanation. Well, for the moment that is. One such thing is a recently discovered planet in a four star system. The discovery comes from website Planet Hunters, and has been names PH1 in its honor. The curious planet is a gas giant, with a diameter some six times larger than that of Earth. PH1 is circumbinary, meaning it orbits a pair of stars, but also has another two in the mix, 90-billion miles away, which are gravitationally bound to the system. As well as being the first confirmed discovery from Planet Hunters, it is the first four star system. This makes it a particularly interesting find, as cosmologists are naturally keen to investigate how planets can form, and remain stable, in such a complex environment. Due to the relative proximity of all four stars, it’s also believed that they would be clearly visible from the planet’s surface, making sunsets, sunrises and buying good curtains completely other-worldly.

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Seen any other far-out articles that you’d like considered for Alt-week? Working on a project or research that’s too cool to keep to yourself? Drop us a line at alt [at] engadget [dot] com.

[Image credit: Doug Boyer, Haven Giguere / Yale]