Life and Death 3.18 Million Years Ago

A photo of Lucy's skeleton, an ancient human relative of the Australopithecus afarensis species.

Lucy, an ancient human relative of the Australopithecus afarensis species.
Photo credit: Juan Aunion / Shutterstock

Lucy, easily the most famous ancient human ancestor ever discovered, has taught us a great deal about human evolution, but has also left us with some pretty good mysteries as well. One of them, how she died, seems to have been solved recently thanks to forensic science and modern technology. Lucy, a 40% complete specimen of Australopithecus afarensis, is about 3.18 million years old, making her the oldest, most complete specimen of an adult walking ancestor. She’s pretty famous.

In 2008, while on tour in the United States, she was scanned with computed tomography technology that gave us 35,000 scans without damaging the bones themselves. Since then, researchers at the University of Texas have used those scans to figure out how she died.

Though Lucy was comfortable on both land and in trees, she ironically died from falling out of a tree. Not only do we know that’s how she died, we also know she fell from about 40 feet. Calculations show that she fell at 35 miles per hour, and that she landed on her legs and fell forward as she attempted to break her fall with her hands. She died shortly afterwards.

Researchers gathered this information from Lucy’s bone fractures and splinters, which showed no signs of having healed, and could have only resulted from such a fall. The only way she could have fallen from such great heights was from a tree.

Though the knowledge of how she died helps to further humanize Lucy, it might also help us learn more about the transition our ancestors made from living in trees to living on the ground. Lucy and her peers probably foraged on the ground, and then climbed trees for safety at night. Because of fatalities like Lucy’s, Australopithecus likely switched from sleeping in trees to sleeping on the ground because trees were starting to pose more of a hazard than a benefit.

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On Emails and Polls: How a Verdict Could Affect the Presidential Race

A close-up photo of Hillary Clinton at a podium.

Photo credit: Evan El-Amin / Shutterstock.com

According to a recent CNN poll, Hillary Clinton has received a 7-point bump in the polls since the Democratic National Convention. But will it be enough to win her the presidency? Unrest still exists over the email scandal, affecting both the GOP and the Democratic tactics, despite the fact that an official verdict on the case has been handed down. How likely is that to still get in the way for Clinton and potentially help Trump’s campaign?

Legally, at least, the matter is closed. “We have a verdict we can respect on the outcome of this controversy,” said former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey in an interview on Fox Business News.

FBI Director James B. Comey spoke just before the verdict was announced, noting that he would recommend no criminal charges against Clinton for her handling of the emails. He did, however, call her “extremely careless” for using a private email address for confidential information. However, because there was no evidence of intent to transmit or willfully mishandle the emails, Comey felt there was no prosecutable case. Had Clinton still been employed in the government at the time (she left the State Department in 2013), though, Comey suggested that she could have faced disciplinary action.

While the email controversy and its fallout continue, Clinton still came out ahead in the preference polls just after the Democratic National Convention. Clinton and opponent Donald Trump were tied after the Republican National Convention, but the first poll post-DNC found Clinton with 52% approval and Trump with 43% (with a margin of error of ±3.5%). That puts Clinton up 7%.

Trump also received a bump in the polls after the RNC; however, Clinton’s was twice as much as his.

According to CNBC, one of the Democrats’ big goals for their convention was to unite more moderate Clinton supporters and more liberal Bernie Sanders supporters under one umbrella for the upcoming election. If the polls are any indication, they have managed to do just that—at least for now. Clinton’s support among Sanders’s supporters rose from 67% to 73% after the convention.

Still, the email scandal has left many questioning Clinton’s trustworthiness as a political figure, despite the official verdict in the case. The situation could still affect the election outcome.

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New Ways of Thinking About Addiction

An image of a lighter, a needle, and a spoon in the foreground. The background is a blurred image of a man hudled up in the corner.

Photo credit: Shutterstock.com

Drug addiction is something that America, and the world at large, has been struggling with for a long time. Ever since the realization that certain drugs, like heroin, are dangerous, we’ve started a never-ending “War on Drugs.” Not only is this war impossible to win, but it costs millions of dollars and lives each day. But what if drugs weren’t the problem?

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 25% of all incarcerated people in America were arrested on a drug charge. But despite efforts to fight drug use, the usage rates remain the same.

In fact, the War on Drugs might actually be making things worse. It has certainly led to a massive increase in the amount of Americans in prison. But there’s a new way of looking at the problem. A recent book, Chasing the Scream: The First And Last Days of the War on Drugs, by Johann Hari, purports that the real key is not fighting the dealers and destroying the drugs, but trying to heal the users.

Based on evidence gathered from numerous studies and academic research, Hari argues that the cause of addiction isn’t the chemicals themselves; rather, the cause of addiction lies with the unmet emotional and psychological needs of the user. Addicts are unable to bond with other people, so they bond with a drug. The argument makes sense when gambling addition is considered, which has no chemical or physiological dependency.

It’s a very interesting idea, one that deserves consideration, but it isn’t exactly groundbreaking. Drug addiction specialists have known for quite a long time that it’s possible to be addicted to something without a chemical dependency. What they haven’t considered though, is how a cultural shift towards more isolated human activity has left many people feeling like they need to fill the void with a self-destructive fixation.

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Newly Discovered Trans-Neptunian Object Baffles Scientists

An image of Neptune shown in space.

Image: Shutterstock.com

Space is a big zany mystery, with astronomers discovering new stuff all the time, much of it challenging our preconceived notions of what exactly is going on out there. Even our own solar system, earth’s backyard, isn’t immune to these peculiarities.

Take Niku, for example. Niku is a recently discovered trans-Neptunian object that, frankly, seems to be defying any logical explanation. Trans-Neptunian simply means something is further from the sun than Neptune, which is pretty far away. It turns out, stuff that far away is actually kind of hard to find. When we find planets in other star systems, we do so by watching how they pass between earth and their star, which gives us an idea of how big they are as well as how far away they are. But anything past Neptune is not likely to pass between earth and the sun, so when scientists discovered Niku, it took astronomers by surprise.

Niku is weird though. For one, it’s only about 200 kilometers in diameter, which is really small on a celestial scale. But Niku it not alone, rather, it is a part of a group of objects. Of specific note, those objects are traveling around the sun “backwards,” and on a different plane than everything else we know about. A defining characteristic of solar systems has, so far, been that they accrete debris and dust around them in a ring (like Saturn but far bigger), from which planets form. Earth, Mars, and all other planets orbiting the sun are all traveling in the same direction, but Niku and its’ friends are orbiting on a plane almost perpendicular to our own.

So basically, nobody knows what’s going on here. NASA scientists have only just discovered the object, and are continuing their study of it.

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Pope to Orders: Help Refugees or Pay Taxes

A photo of Pope Francis waving to a crowd.

Image: Philip Chidell / Shutterstock

Pope Francis has made a name for himself by establishing some “controversial” points of view. Recently, he said that churches and convents with a spare room, that seek to profit off that space by renting it out as a hotel, need to either take in refugees or start paying their taxes.

In Europe, it is common for many religious orders, which tend to have smaller populations than they were originally designed for, to rent out space in order to make some money to help maintain the order. Of course, religious institutions in many states do not pay taxes on property, something that has caused conflict between church and state and between religious and secular authorities in the past.

Although it is unclear how such a move would be enforced, the Pope made it clear that he expects the Catholic Church to help in Europe’s refugee crisis by giving refugees somewhere to stay. He has offered to house two refugee families in the Vatican in order to set an example. If the Pope does decide to take more concrete steps against churches that decide not to house refugees, it could have a significant impact on the issue of religious institutions and taxes.

While the Pope cannot make laws in other countries, he does hold a great deal of influence around the world, even in places that do not have a Catholic majority. He could, for example, rescind the status of an order that doesn’t follow his directions, removing their status as a religious organization, and thus causing them to lose their tax-exempt status.

The logic behind such a status, as with nonprofit organizations, is that these groups work for the common good of the community, and as such don’t need to pay taxes (which are designed to support the community as well). Pope Francis seems to have developed the opinion that churches that are not helping refugees aren’t doing enough to support their communities.

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