TIME animals

Scientists Trace Back the First Sexual Act Ever, to Weird Ancient Fish

Ancient fish were the first to copulate. And according to a world renowned paleontologist, it looked a lot like square dancing

Scientists have discovered the origins of sex, and like anyone’s first time it sounds pretty awkward.

Now light some candles and let’s set the scene: The first act of copulation occurred in the nippy Scottish sea some 385 million years ago. The fornicators in question were a set of primitive jawed, bony fish aptly called Microbrachius dicki. The dirty details? Well, according to Australian paleontologist John Long, “With their arms interlocked, these fish looked more like they are square dancing the do-se-do rather than mating.”

Not only had scientists previously thought that the first sex act occurred on land at a later date, but Long says, “We didn’t expect these little suckers to have reproductive organs.”

But the M. Dicki were endowed, as is explained by Long and his colleagues in a paper that was published in Nature Monday. Although their genitalia are not described in romantic terms.

Long, a professor at Flinders University, explained to the BBC that the fish’s arms linked them together, “so the male can get this large L-shaped sexual organ into position to dock with the female’s genital plates, which are very rough like cheese graters. They act like Velcro, locking the male organ into position to transfer sperm.”

This is also the first species that displayed a different appearance between the male and female.

TIME Surgery

Paralyzed Man Walks Again After ‘Miracle’ Surgery

Polish doctors used cells from patient's nose to heal spinal injury

A man who was completely paralyzed from the waist down has learned to walk again after Polish doctors transplanted cells from the patient’s nose into the damaged part of his spine. This pioneering research offers hope for treatment to millions of people around the world with spinal cord injuries.

The patient, 38-year-old firefighter Darek Fidyka from Poland, was left with a completely severed spinal cord after being stabbed four years ago. His doctors had given him a less than 1% chance of recovery but thanks to revolutionary surgery carried out in 2012 Fidyka is now able to walk again with a frame. “It’s an incredible feeling, difficult to describe,” he recounts in a BBC documentary to be aired Tuesday “When it starts coming back, you feel as if you start living your life again, as if you are reborn.” Fidyka has been able to resume an independent life and is even able to drive a car.

The procedure was carried out by Polish surgeons in collaboration with British researchers at University College London. Professor Geoffrey Raisman, who led the U.K. research team, called the breakthrough “historic” and said what had been achieved was “more impressive than man walking on the moon.”

[BBC]

TIME climate change

2014 Could Be the Hottest Year on Record

A girl plays with the water curtains that have been installed by firemen to bring relief to local people suffering from scorching heat on Piotrowska Street in Lodz, Poland on May 24, 2014.
A girl plays with the water curtains that have been installed by firemen to bring relief to local people suffering from scorching heat on Piotrowska Street in Lodz, Poland on May 24, 2014. Grzegorz Michalowski—EPA

May, June, August and September have all been record-breaking months

The earth could be heading for its warmest year on record, meteorologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced on Monday.

Last month was the warmest September in 135 years of record keeping, with the global average temperature 60.3 degrees Fahrenheit (15.72 degrees Celsius), the Associated Press reports. May, June and August were also record-breaking months.

NOAA climate scientist Jessica Blunden told AP it was “pretty likely” that 2014 would be the hottest year since measurements began.

The reason for the rise in temperature is partly due to a band of warm water that develops in the Pacific Ocean called El Niño. Other record-breaking years started off with El Niño, and meteorologists forecast one is likely to occur this year.

“This is one of many indicators that climate change has not stopped and that it continues to be one of the most important issues facing humanity,” University of Illinois climate scientist Donald Wuebbles told AP.

[Associated Press]

TIME space

Ice Spotted on Mercury—Yes, We Know It Sounds Nuts

"This is making a lot of people happy"

At high noon on Mercury, the temperature can soar to 800°F—and no wonder. The Solar System’s smallest planet (as of 2006, anyway) averages only 36 million miles from the Sun, which is right next door compared with Earth’s 93 million. You’d be justified in thinking that ice couldn’t possibly exist on such a scorching world.

But you’d be wrong. Scientists using the MESSENGER space probe are reporting in the journal Geology that they’ve taken images of that reveal what they call “the morphology of frozen volatiles” in permanently shadowed crater floors near the planet’s north pole. That’s ice, in plain English. “This is making a lot of people happy,” said Nancy Chabot of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins, lead author of the report.

It’s good news because the discovery confirms circumstantial evidence for ice on Mercury that’s been mounting for decades—first from radar observations with powerful radio telescopes on Earth that showed high reflectivity from the polar region, then from MESSENGER’s neutron spectrometer, which picked up the atomic signal of hydrogen in the same area. That pointed to H2O, almost certainly in the form if ice, especially since the high precision topographic maps made by MESSENGER have shown planetary scientists just how deeply shadowed, and thus how perpetually frigid, some of the craters really are.

All of that made a strong case for ice, and the fact that the same thing occurs on the Moon is further confirmation that it’s possible

These are the first optical images, and nobody is entirely sure how the ice got there. One idea is that it was released from water-bearing rock in Mercury’s crust. But the leading theory suggests it arrived instead in the form of impacts from icy comets, which may well be the same way Earth got its oceans. “It’s a fair amount of ice,” Chabot said, “about equivalent to the water in Lake Ontario, so if it was one comet, it was a pretty sizable one.” More likely, she said, it would have been a series of smaller comets, falling over billions of years.

Either way, the comets would have disintegrated on impact, and while some of the resulting water vapor would have escaped into space, some would have found itself at the poles, where chilly temperatures in the craters’ shadows would have allowed it to freeze out and drop to the crater floors.

Another hint that comets may have been the source of Mercury’s ice: Some of the frozen stuff is partially covered with unusually dark material, which could be organic compounds, also found on comets in abundance. The dark, ice-concealing patches have sharp edges, suggesting that whatever created them happened relatively recently, just hundreds of millions of years ago at most. That supports the idea that comet impacts could be happening all the time (in the geologic sense, anyway).

Excited as the scientists are to see the presence of ice on Mercury confirmed, they’re even more excited by the prospect of what’s to come. Messenger’s orbit is bringing the probe to within about 120 miles above the planet’s surface on its closest approach, which is why it’s able to take such high-resolution images.

By next spring, however, the probe will be zipping just 12 miles above the surface, before the mission ends with a planned crash. At that distance, no one knows what surprises MESSENGER’s cameras are going to reveal. “It’s going to be interesting, to say the least,” Chabot said.

 

TIME astronomy

New Picture: The Universe as a Sulky Adolescent

Portrait of the universe as a young man
Portrait of the universe as a young man

An ingenious technique reveals data that's been lost for 11 billion years

Correction appended: Oct. 21, 2014.

Presidential tracking polls are famous for their speed—a gaffe at noon is reflected in the numbers by four. That’s because a poll is not a lengthy conversation with voters, but just a quick-hit piece of data-gathering repeated over and over. The same approach now appears able to give us answers about the universe, too.

Using just four hours of telescope observation time, astronomers have generated a new image of what part of the universe looked like in its adolescence, when it was less than a quarter of its current age. The three-dimensional map, published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, measures millions of light years across and reveals regions of high-density matter representing galaxies as they were barely 3 billion years post-Big Bang.

“We’ve pulled this off a decade before anyone else thought it was possible,” said Max Planck postdoctoral researcher Khee-Gan Lee, the paper’s lead author.

Astronomers had previously believed they would need far more observation time and more-powerful telescopes than are currently available to collect sufficient starlight from distant galaxies with which to do a job like this. That’s partly because those light sources appear up to 15 million times dimmer than the very faintest stars that can be seen with the naked eye.

But four hours on the Keck I telescope at the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii turned out to be enough. The scientists used a technique similar to a CT scan to create their map. But rather than taking cross-sectional x-rays through a body to generate a 3D image, they used light from background galaxies passing through hydrogen gas in the “cosmic web”—the tangle of macro-filaments in which the universe’s matter arranges itself—to do the same thing.

The reason they didn’t need the most sensitive equipment available to do this work was because they had a powerful algorithm instead, created by graduate student Casey Stark and physics and astronomy professor Martin White, both of the University of California, Berkeley. The data they gathered might have been noisy but the algorithm cleaned it right up. The resulting map, says Ohio State University professor of astronomy David Weinberg, is “fine enough that it’s revealing a lot of the interesting details.”

Adds Harvard astronomy professor Daniel Eisenstein, “For a lot of questions, this is a very useful scale of a map.”

The map’s elongated, plank-like shape reflects one admitted constraint of the study: because of bad weather and the short data collection time, the astronomers could map only a limited volume of space. The next order of business is for Keck I to cover a larger patch of sky, revealing huge swathes of the adolescent universe. From this map astronomers will not just be able to see the appearance of the cosmos a short while after the Big Bang, but also tease out a little bit of information about the clumping of matter that allowed galaxies to form in some regions while leaving others empty.

Next-generation super-telescopes will no doubt be useful for both these questions, able to quadruple the density of the data as well as help scientists figure out how the universe looked even closer to the Big Bang than 11 billion years ago. For now, though, telescopes like Keck I will tell us plenty. “Noisy data doesn’t scare me,” Lee said.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the strength of light sources in the distant galaxies. They are 15 million times dimmer than the faintest stars that can be seen with the naked eye.

TIME behavior

Breaking Bad Action Figures? Really, Toys R Us?

No, you're not hallucinating, that really is a Walter White doll.
No, you're not hallucinating, that really is a Walter White doll.

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

In a spectacularly bad bit of judgment, the big box store puts a meth manufacturer on its shelves.

Human history is often defined by its very worst pitch meetings. Take the one in 1812, when one of Napoleon’s generals told the Great Emperor, “I’ve got an idea. Let’s invade Russia—in the winter!” Or the one in 1985, when the anonymous product developer at Coca-Cola said, “How ’bout we take a product everyone loves, quit making it and replace it with a different formulation no one is asking for! What could go wrong?”

So too it must have gone in the executive suites of Toys R Us, when someone made the compelling case for stocking a brand-new line of action figures based on the wildly successful Breaking Bad series. After all, nothing quite says holiday shopping like a bendable, fully costumed figurine of Walter White—the murderous chemistry teacher turned crystal meth manufacturer—and Jesse Pinkman, his former student and current bag man. And you want accessories? We’ve got accessories—including a duffle bag stuffed with imaginary cash and a plastic bag of, yes, faux crystal meth for White. Pinkman comes with a gas mask, because the folks at Toys R Us are not the kind to forget about corporate responsibility. If your kids are going to grow up to run a meth lab, it’s never too early to teach them basic safety.

It might not surprise you to learn that Toys R Us has faced a teensy bit of blowback from this curious marketing decision. Florida mom Susan Schrivjer has posted a petition on Change.org that has just exceeded 2,000 signatures, demanding that the company pull the products. She also appeared on The Today Show to make her case more publicly.

“Anything to do with drugs is not doing the right thing,” she said. “I just think they need to look at their vision and values as they call them.”

The part that’s more surprising—but sadly only a little—is that even after being called on its appalling lack of judgment, Toys R Us has not responded with the quickest, loudest, most abject oops in corporate history. Instead, it is standing its ground. Why? Because the dolls are sold only in the “adult section” of the store, of course—the ones intended for shoppers 15 and up.

OK, let’s start with the fact that Toys R Us has an adult section at all—something I never knew and I suspect many other parents didn’t either. So what will they stock there next? A line of Toys R Us hard cider? Toys R Us adult literature? A Toys R Us edition of Fifty Shades of Gray—which is really OK because hey, it actually comes with a set of 50 gray crayons? If an adult section must exist at all, at what point does full disclosure require the company to rebrand itself “Toys as Well as Other Things Not Remotely Appropriate For Children But Don’t Worry Because We Keep Them in a Separate Section, R Us”?

More important, let’s look at above-15 as the dividing line for the adult section—a distinction that makes perfect sense because if there’s anything 15 year olds are known for, it’s their solid judgment, their awareness of consequences, their exceptional impulse control and their utter imperviousness to the siren song of drugs and alcohol. Oh, and they never, ever emulate bad role models they encounter on TV, in the movies or among their peers. What’s more, kids below the age of 15 never, ever run wild in a sensory theme park like a big box toy store, finding themselves in departments not meant for them and seeing products they shouldn’t see. Toys R Us, you’ve thought this one out to the last detail!

What the company’s consumer researchers probably know and if they don’t they ought to, is that the brain’s frontal lobes—where higher order executive functions live—aren’t even fully myelinated until we reach our late 20s, which is why young people can be so spectacularly reckless, why soldiers and political firebrands tend to be young and why judges, heads of state and clerical leaders tend to be old. The adult fan of Breaking Bad might actually enjoy the new toys as collectors items–something to be bought or given as a gift with a little twinkle of irony, a this-is-so-wrong-it’s-right sort of thing. But that kind of nuance isn’t remotely within a child’s visible spectrum.

Really, Toys R Us, there is absolutely no surviving this one. Back up the truck, pack up the toys and send them to a landfill. And if you’re even thinking about following this one up with a Boardwalk Empire board game complete with a Nucky Thompson plush toy, stop now. Or at the very least, invite me to the pitch meeting.

Read next: Toys R Us ‘Breaks Bad’ with New Crystal Meth Toys

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME space

Watch a Giant, 4.6 Billion-Year-Old Comet Fly By Mars

Watch highlights of Comet Siding Spring zoom past Mars and get roughly within 87,000 miles of the red planet — the closest any comet has gotten to it in a long, long time.

The livestream from the Slooh Community Observatory was hosted by expert astrobiologist David Grinspoon and featured special guests.

“We’re going to observe an event that happens maybe once every million years,” Jim Green, planetary science division director at NASA, said this month at a press conference. “This is an absolutely spectacular event.”

Siding Spring is estimated to be 4.6 billion years old with a core somewhere between half a mile and 5 miles wide. Looking the comet’s close brush with Mars could teach scientists a lot about the planet’s atmosphere, writes Mike Wall at Space.com. Studying the comet could also provide insight into how planets are formed: Siding Spring is believed to have been created in an area of our solar system between Jupiter and Neptune, but unlike most objects in that part of space at the time, it never was incorporated into a planet.

TIME weather

This Is What Hurricane Gonzalo Looks Like From Space

Tropical Weather
Hurricane Gonzalo seen from the International Space Station as it moves toward Bermuda on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014. Alexander Gerst—ESA/NASA/AP

The Category 2 storm is headed north this weekend

Hurricane Gonzalo smashed into Bermuda Friday, with winds reaching 110mph and waves approaching heights of 40 feet as the Category 2 storm swept northward, according to USA Today. Approximately 30,600 customers of Bermuda’s power company were without power as of late Friday night, while the National Hurricane Center warned of “a life-threatening storm surge.”

The storm is headed for the North Atlantic this weekend.

From space, Gonzalo is a massive, white vortex—but despite its size, it really looks quite serene. This photo comes care of Alexander Gerst, a European astronaut currently aboard the International Space Station.

 

 

TIME

Pictures of the Week: Oct. 10 – Oct. 17

From Malala Yousafzai winning a Nobel Peace Prize and the return of Kim Jong Un to Ebola diagnoses in Dallas and Angelina Jolie becoming a Dame, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

Read next: The Most Beautiful Wildfire Photos You’ll Ever See

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