Thursday, May 29, 2008

The stunning fossil of a fish giving birth that proves animals had 'sex for fun' 380 million years ago

Sex for pleasure is a lot older than we thought, according to a stunning new fossil find announced by scientists yesterday.

A fossil of an ancient, extinct Australian fish which died just before giving birth to a live baby is, according to the scientist who made the discovery, 'the earliest evidence of vertebrates having sex by copulation – not just spawning in water, but sex that was fun'.

These are the fossil remains of the 375-million fish - the oldest vertebrate mother ever discovered

The find, revealed in the journal Nature, is by far the oldest 'viviparous', or live, birth yet found by scientists.

The fish, one of a primitive extinct group called the 'Placoderms', lived in the seas of Devonian Earth and has been dated to 380 million years old.

The fossil, discovered by Professor John Long at Museum Victoria in Melbourne, shows the bones of the tiny baby fish, still attached by its umbilical cord. It is thought the mother fish was about to give birth to maybe three or four babies just before she was killed.

“When I first saw the embryo inside the mother fish my jaw dropped, I was silent, stunned like a mullet. I realised that in my hands was the oldest known vertebrate embryo.”

The embryo can clearly be seen in this image of the fossil - even, amazingly, the umbilical cord

The find was made in the Gogo rock formation east of the remote town of Fitzroy Crossing, Western Australia, and pushes back the record for a live birth by 200 million years.

The fish, a new species, has been named Materpiscis attenboroughi, 'Attenborough's mother-fish' in honour of Sir David, who featured the extraordinary fossil beds at Gogo in his 1979 TV series Life on Earth.

“The discovery is certainly one of the most extraordinary fossil finds ever made. It is not only the first time ever that a fossil embryo has been found with an umbilical cord, but it is also the oldest known example of any creature giving birth to live young,” said Dr Long.

“The existence of the embryo and umbilical cord within the specimen provides scientists with the first ever example of internal fertilisation - i.e sex - confirming that some placoderms had remarkably advanced reproductive biology. This discovery changes our understanding of the evolution of vertebrates,” he added.

Dr John Long points out the umbilical cord on the fossil, the fossilised remains of the oldest mother ever discovered

The fossilised fish has been named in honour of Sir David Attenborough

The vertebrates consist of the fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Only birds, among these, are exclusively egg-laying but live births among fishes were thought to be confined to the sharks and rays.

Like the sharks, this species of Placoderm possessed a pair of bony graspers with which the male grasped the female while fertilising her with his sperm. “It might have been fun, for the male at least,” said Dr Long.

Placoderms were fearsome looking creatures, with powerful nutcracker jaws, clad in bony armour plating and thought to be efficient predators. The fossil is of a specimen about the size of a mackerel but some placoderms grew to a length of nearly 20ft, and the group as a whole formed the dominant vertebrates of the Devonian era, a time when other species of fish were starting to crawl out onto the land and evolving into the first four-legged animals.

It is thought the placoderms became extinct as a result of climate change at the end of the Devonian; their place in the pecking order was taken by a new group of fishes to have evolved: the sharks.

The announcement of the finding was made at the grand opening of the refurbished Royal Institution in London yesterday, at which the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were present at the press conference.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The amazing telescope that lets you see New York from London's Tower Bridge

Deep beneath the Atlantic Ocean, forgotten for the best part of a century, lies a tunnel linking London and New York.

It was built on the whim of a Victorian inventor with the aim of linking two great cities and developing the kind of friendship that still exists today.

London waving: Looking down the Telectroscope at Tower Bridge end

But bad fortune befell the venture - and the tunnel lay idle ever after.

Until today, that is, when the project was rekindled with a modern twist.

Using a giant "electronic telescope" and state-of-the-art technology, England and America were joined once again when the tunnel entrances were reopened beside Tower Bridge in London and Brooklyn Bridge in New York.

It meant that New Yorkers and Londoners could wave to each other across the sea and begin the kind of mute dialogue that was only a dream all those years ago for eccentric engineering entrepreneur Alexander Stanhope St George (deceased).

Or at least, that's the way the story goes.

What is certain is that now you can indeed stand on the South Bank of the UK end of the 21st century "Telectroscope" - and see someone standing 3,460 miles away across the water.

It's raining in New York: Taking in the view on Brooklyn bridge

And - oh dear - it didn't take us Brits too long to utilise it for a bit of fun at the expense of our American cousins.

First there was the chap unbuttoning his shirt for an interested party on the other side.

Then came the group whose hand-held banner urged an assembly of curious New York cops to hop on one leg (which, incidentally, they declined).

Goodness only knows what everyone will get up to when darkness falls. But artist and creator Paul St George is delighted that this reworking of his great-grandfather's project is helping to spread a little happiness.

It takes some while to grasp the concept of the Telectroscope, unless you're happy enough to accept as gospel the story behind its creation.

According to the publicity material being handed out yesterday, the original tunnel was pioneered by an orang-utan running its entire length in a safety test before disappearing with the wife of the New York City mayor. Perhaps you get the picture now.

The truth is that the Telectroscope - installed by Artichoke, the same people who spectacularly paraded a mechanical elephant through London two years ago - probably employs the latest broadband, camera and satellite technology to close the gap between our two great nations.

Anyone you asked today, however, simply put it down to magic.

The Telectroscope uses 6ft screens and a Jules Verne style telescope that gleams with brass and an array of Victorian dials. Participants peer into one end of the screen - and hey presto - they can see anyone standing at the other side.

Much of the first few hours of this morning were taken up by bemused-looking Americans gazing cautiously at the antics of the London transatlantic gazers before realising that it wasn't a set-up, that they weren't being filmed for a candid camera TV stunt, and that it wasn't a terrorist threat.

Aliens at City Hall? The London Telectroscope looks like something out of War Of The Worlds

One of them broke the ice with a message they must have thought was a subject close to British hearts - the weather.

"Raining here!" said the Yank's handwritten note, pressed tentatively to the screen. "Sunny here!" replied a trio of blondes in London, before fanning their faces and performing heat-wave actions in mime.

Jewellery company worker Annie McDonald, from North London, exchanged kisses at a stranger standing beneath Brooklyn Bridge after beginning a semaphore style conversation with him.

I tried it with a 30-something who looked as if she was on her way to work - but she just giggled, pointed to her watch, and disappeared from view. Ho hum. That's the thing about Telectroscope flirting - if you don't fancy it, you can just step aside.

So unless you happen to find someone in Brooklyn who can lip-read, it's impossible to talk the talk.

But you can still chalk the chalk. Thus, with the used of a liberated restaurant blackboard, I tried a transatlantic conversation with Todd Glass, 41, who was pushing his five-month-old son Simon in a buggy.

He assured me he was not a hologram - but, crucially perhaps, was unable to tell me who the next President would be. So was he really real? "You bet," he replied.

Andy Slater, 28, from Edinburgh, visited the Brooklyn screen with his girlfriend Sarah Cook, 33, from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The message from these Brits abroad was classically simple: "Send Tea!"

Police chase: Keeping an eye on crime in New York from Tower Bridge

Visitors to the Telectroscope web site - - have already revealed online that they will use its wizardry to bond with friends or relatives abroad, show off an unseen grandchild to grandparents in New York, and - who knows - maybe even to propose marriage.

One couple plan to use it so their Manhattan friend can flick through brochures of apartments they are trying to rent.

Designer: Paul St George

"Part of the idea is just to allow people to use it in whatever way they want," said Mr St George, 53, from Bristol, who insists he developed the Telectroscope after discovering his great-grandfather's dusty notes and diaries in an attic.

"The thought of a tunnel under the Atlantic is fascinating," he said.

"What child has never dug a hole at the beach and wondered how long it would take to go through to the other side of the world?

"The Telectroscope is a stage, and the people who use it are the performers.

"Their unpredictability is all part of it. It's encouraging people think about different ways of communicating, to see people living everyday lives thousands of miles away - and, perhaps, to study the way everyone reacts differently to something they're not quite sure about."

As we speak, another group of NYPD cops pulls up at the Brooklyn end in a squad car with flashing red lights.

At first they give only wooden waves to the Brits assembled at Tower Bridge. Then one of them - dressed in uniform and packing a handgun - is encouraged to assume a cowboy-style pose. Across the Atlantic, an unheard cheer goes up.

The cop becomes an instant hero. Here's lookin' at you, kid...

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Art of Extreme Sleeping!

Sweet dreams are only part of the story
Like any extreme activity, it requires the nerves of steel, good choice of timing, location and the absence of suspicious cops. All this however is easier to achieve, because you are, well... asleep, so you can trust the unseen powers to take care of the rest. Long & restful sleep is by no means guaranteed, but perhaps somebody will take your picture and you'll wake up famous.

Location, Location, Location

The best site to explore (or to learn this useful skill) is Sleeping Chinese. It's a constantly growing collection of impossible sleeping positions:

Ignore the crowds
According to this site, Japan's Public Sleeping is a constantly evolving art:

Schools are made for sleeping
Studying obviously leads to extreme mental and physical fatigue:

Learn from kids

Of course, children are "professional" sleepers:

Immense knowledge