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Nobel prize: Svante Pääbo’s ancient DNA discoveries offer clues as to what makes us human

The Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for 2022 has been awarded to Svante Pääbo, whose discoveries have been pivotal to the way we understand our evolutionary history.
The Nobel prize in physiology or medicine for 2022 has been awarded to Svante Pääbo from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, “for his discoveries concerning the genomes of extinct hominins and human evolution”.
In other words, Pääbo has been awarded the prestigious prize for having sequenced the genomes of our extinct relatives, the Neanderthals and Denisovans, and for the fact that these discoveries have resulted in novel insights into human evolution.
BREAKING NEWS: The 2022 #NobelPrize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to Svante Pääbo “for his discoveries concerning the genomes of extinct hominins and human evolution.”
The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 3, 2022
Pääbo is widely regarded as having pioneered the field of ancient DNA, a research area dedicated to the recovery and analysis of DNA from historic and prehistoric remains.
Although Pääbo did his PhD in medical science at Uppsala University in Sweden in the early 1980s, he also studied Egyptology when he was at Uppsala. It was a logical next step that he took tools from molecular biology, garnered from his expertise in medical science, to better understand human prehistory.
Extracting DNA from ancient bones
Beginning in the 1980s, Pääbo studied ancient DNA in material ranging from mummified humans to extinct ground sloths. This work was technically challenging because ancient DNA is significantly degraded and can be contaminated.
In the decade that followed, he developed a series of methods and guidelines to recover and interpret authentic DNA and to minimise the risk of contamination from modern sources, especially from contemporary humans.
In the early 1990s, there was significant excitement in the field about the possibility of recovering DNA from dinosaurs. However, based on his knowledge of how DNA degrades over time, Pääbo remained sceptical that DNA could survive such a long time. He was later proven right.
For many of his colleagues, it was clear that Pääbo’s goal was always to recover Neanderthal DNA. But he took his time and carefully developed the methods for recovering and authenticating ancient DNA until these methods were mature enough to accomplish this objective.
Finally, in 1997, Pääbo and his colleagues published the first Neanderthal DNA sequences. In 2010 this was followed by the entire Neanderthal genome (that is, all the genetic information stored in the DNA of one ...

A winning strategy: Nurturing endurance and embracing change

In ‘Grin & Bear It!’, South African adventurer and conservationist Peter van Kets outlines a few ways that can help us nurture endurance.
Peter van Kets has had to defy his genetic predispositions to accomplish physical feats throughout his career. From rowing the Atlantic (twice) to mountain-biking the Namib, he explains that much of his success can be connected back to endurance. In his new book Grin & Bear It!, he shares 16 steps he believes can help us grow and nurture endurance. Here is an extract from a chapter on “Embracing Change”.
Plan A, B, C. and Z
“Change is inevitable in life. You can either resist it and potentially get run over by it, or you can choose to co-operate with it, adapt to it and learn how to benefit from it. When you embrace change, you will begin to see it as an opportunity for growth.” – Jack Canfield
One of the great perks of my life as an adventurer is that I get to speak at conferences all over the world. I get to meet some amazing speakers, and hear their incredible stories. To me, the most interesting of these speakers are the futurists.
The future! What does it hold for us, and this fragile planet of ours?
One thing the futurists all agree on is that the rate of change in our world is unprecedented. If we want to succeed in business and in life, we have to be able to exercise our ability to embrace change and cope with the unexpected.
Our Beyond the Rift Valley expedition in Rwanda provided the perfect example of the need for an adaptive approach. After encountering the unexpected, I had yet another opportunity in my adventuring career to learn first-hand the immense value of being able to quickly and graciously adapt to changes in conditions, and to adjust an existing strategy to new circumstances. We need to put ego aside and be comfortable with the constant possibility of Plan A becoming Plan B or C. or Z! In this instance, Jacques and I got together as expedition team leaders, and discussed options we’d become aware of during our pre-trip research. The result wasn’t first prize, of course – but it was the best possible solution under the circumstances. And the most important thing was not giving up.
I have learnt the lesson of flexible planning many times in my career, most profoundly during the Woodvale Atlantic ...

Corsets and waist trainers: how celebrities and influencers have driven our modern obsession with shapewear

This is something that has been going on for hundreds of years.
Throughout history, women have faced pressure to have certain body shapes – often leading them to use extreme methods to achieve them. So you’d think with a greater emphasis on body positivity in recent years that the days of wearing corsets and other restrictive undergarments would be behind us. In reality, the global shapewear industry is actually booming – with sales of these products projected to reach US$3.7 billion (£2.9 billion) by 2028.
While corsets can be traced back as far as the 16th century, it was in the 18th century that the hourglass shape became fashionable. Corsets had also come to represent elite status and physical fragility, which was symbolic of femininity.
Different body ideals have come in and out of fashion since, largely shaped by popular celebrities or even famous images and artworks. For example Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of beauty, was frequently depicted in paintings and sculptures with a curvaceous body.
While hourglass figures were popular throughout the 1950s due to celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, the 1960s saw a shift towards a slimmer physique – thanks in part to the celebrity model Twiggy. This skinny, waif-like look, remained fashionable well into the 1990s – again thanks to the continued popularity of models, such as Kate Moss.
The 2010s saw a shift towards a “curvy” silhouette, where a small waist and fuller hips became the ideal again. Just as in previous decades, this shift has been driven by celebrities, including Rihanna, Beyonce and – in particular – Kim Kardashian.
Social media trends
While social media has helped give space to celebrate a more diverse range of body shapes, there’s still continued pressure to conform to an ideal which may not entirely be natural. This is why shapewear remains popular – though the way these garments are perceived and worn has changed significantly since the 18th century.
Before the US-based underwear brand Spanx launched shaping leggings and underpants in 2000, shapewear was usually only something that was reserved for special occasions. But thanks to endorsements by celebrities and Instagram influencers, shapewear (including Spanx) is now an everyday clothing item, used to help improve appearance and achieve the ideal figure. Kim Kardashian and Victoria Beckham have both launched their own affordable shapewear lines.
We have now reached the point where young women are wearing shapewear as outer clothing instead of hiding it as underwear. Searches for ...

New study seeks to explain the ‘Mandela Effect’ – the bizarre phenomenon of shared false memories

People are puzzled when they learn they share the same false memories with others. That’s partly because they assume that what they remember and forget ought to be based only on personal experience.
Imagine the Monopoly Man.
Is he wearing a monocle or not?
If you pictured the character from the popular board game wearing one, you’d be wrong. In fact, he has never worn one.
If you’re surprised by this, you’re not alone. Many people possess the same false memory of this character. This phenomenon takes place for other characters, logos and quotes, too. For example, Pikachu from Pokémon is often thought to have a black tip on his tail, which he doesn’t have. And many people are convinced that the Fruit of the Loom logo includes a cornucopia. It doesn’t.
We call this phenomenon of shared false memories for certain cultural icons the “visual Mandela Effect.”
People tend to be puzzled when they learn that they share the same false memories with other people. That’s partly because they assume that what they remember and forget ought to be subjective and based on their own personal experiences.
However, research we have conducted shows that people tend to remember and forget the same images as one another, regardless of the diversity of their individual experiences. Recently, we have shown these similarities in our memories even extend to our false memories.
What is the Mandela Effect?
The term “Mandela Effect” was coined by Fiona Broome, a self-described paranormal researcher, to describe her false memory of former South African president Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the 1980s. She realized that many other people also shared this same false memory and wrote an article about her experience on her website. The concept of shared false memories spread to other forums and websites, including Reddit.
Since then, examples of the Mandela Effect have been widely shared on the internet. These include names like “the Berenstain Bears,” a children’s book series that is falsely remembered as spelled “-ein” instead of “-ain,” and characters like Star Wars’ C-3PO, who is falsely remembered with two gold legs instead of one gold and one silver leg.
The Mandela Effect became fodder for conspiracists – the false memories so strong and so specific that some people see them as evidence of an alternate dimension.
Because of that, scientific research has only studied the Mandela Effect as an example of how conspiracy theories spread on the internet. There has been very ...

Mere Immortals: PF Sloan, Barry McGuire and their epoch-defining Eve of Destruction

The year was late 1964 and 19-year-old PF Sloan was visited by a divinity, who told him to grab a paper and a pen. A few hours later, Eve of Destruction, a seminal song of the 1960s, was born.
Life was not plain sailing for Eve of Destruction, or for PF Sloan, however. He was given his first guitar lesson by Elvis Presley when he was 12, after a chance encounter in a record shop. He was a vastly talented, rebellious young man, but he wasn’t a showman. Others would end up singing his songs to greater acclaim than his melancholic, Bob Dylan-style voice and manner could hope to achieve.
His songs made many others famous and loved by the millions: acclaim he craved. But he was not superstar material. Much more profoundly, however, his work was anchored in times when songs often possessed deep meaning, when young folk could change the world, and make history, with just a few lines:
How many roads must the man walk down, before you can call him a man? Or When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose Or R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Or We shall overcome
The words meant something.
The songs were not end products of boardroom strategy presentations, they were not tested on sample groups, they were not on radio stations’ rotations, the videos were not pushed by merciless algorithms.
They did not need all that; they had their own deep meaning and truth. They found a way directly into people’s hearts. Deemed too dark and rebellious, Eve of Destruction was banned by governments and parents alike.
Young people of the 1960s, PF Sloan’s generation, wrote songs that imbued protest, anger and existential conflicts with words that transcended continents, races and generations. People pinned to these words their own dreams and hopes.
These were not soulless “products” shoved down people’s throats via big marketing budgets and distribution deals.
I often wondered how 19-year old PF Sloan, a child essentially, could write Eve of Destruction, such a definitive anti-Vietnam War anthem before the Vietnam War started? How could that young mind cram so much truth and fear and existential angst into just four verses? It boggles the mind.
I also cannot fathom why The Byrds refused to record it when he offered them the song. It was first recorded by The Turtles, but they failed to make much impact.
Then came Barry McGuire, former fisherman, pipe fitter and folk singer.
It turned out that Eve ...

The Agony and the Ecstasy of the Aphrodisiac Artichoke

Most vegetables these days, even the seasonal ones, can be grown or imported and enjoyed throughout the year but there is one vegetable that is synonymous with the month of October and is as elusive as the start of the summer rains on the Highveld – the aphrodisiac artichoke.
As a child of Italian immigrants, I have always thought that the hidden delight of savouring artichokes was “our” secret as most other South Africans then had no idea what they were and even today many only know artichokes as those in tins or bottled hearts that sometimes grace an almost authentic pizza or are served as part of an antipasto platter.
Much the same as growing up in the Sixties, when not only were we aware of apartheid, but we also had our very own “‘apartheid”. We were the immigrant “Ities” who, alongside the “Porras”, the Greeks, the Polish and even the Chinese (yes, the nuns at the convent were quite rebellious in defying the government’s ban on Chinese and coloureds attending their schools) were considered outsiders and mocked for the strange things we ate. This from the prim and proper English kids at our school to the rough Afrikaans “ducktails” who hung out in the streets of our neighbourhood, we were the odd ones out.
Perhaps my belief that no one, except us, enjoyed the delights of artichokes goes back to those school days when at break we opened our sandwiches and fell foul to ridicule as we had everything but peanut butter and jam, marmite or fish paste on our sarmies. The sight and smell of roasted garlic pork or leftover vitello tonnato on our sandwiches was greeted with turned-up noses and disgust.
Inviting friends over to our house was torture if my mother happened to be cooking il bollito (boiled meats served with a delicious salsa verde) or liver and onions à la Veneziana or, God forbid, trippa (tripe) and polenta! The horror on their faces as they turned up their noses; I wished then, more than anything, that I wasn’t Italian!.
But I had a more serious problem on my hands when they came over. and that was keeping them away from one of our back rooms in the yard where my father kept rabbits. An old fashioned patriarch who didn’t like children much, he banned us from cuddling the rabbits as they were only good for one thing – to ...

Saving Earth from asteroids – Nasa’s DART mission

On 26 September, DART successfully slammed into an asteroid in the name of planetary defence. Here’s why Nasa is hurling spacecraft at space rocks.
A week ago, Nasa tested for the first time its latest planetary defence system, designed to save Earth from asteroids heading our way. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) successfully collided with the asteroid Dimorphos, and experts are now waiting to see how effective this method is.
“DART is turning science fiction into science fact and is a testament to Nasa’s proactivity and innovation for the benefit of all,” said Nasa administrator Bill Nelson.
“In addition to all the ways Nasa studies our universe and our home planet, we’re also working to protect that home, and this test will help prove out one viable way to protect our planet from a hazardous asteroid should one ever be discovered that is headed toward Earth.”
What is DART?
DART is the world’s first test of defending the planet from asteroids using kinetic impact, but the goal is not to destroy the offending space rock but rather to alter its orbit. This is achieved by crashing into the asteroid, at speed and with force, to knock it slightly off course so it passes by Earth, instead of potentially crashing into it. Specifically, DART’s mission was to see how effective this would be as a way to protect Earth, and how much, if at all, the asteroid could be shifted.
DART was launched to deliberately collide with Dimorphos, a moonlet of a larger asteroid, Didymos. Didymos was discovered in 1996 by researcher Joseph Montani, and seven years later the existence of Dimorphus was confirmed. In Greek, dimorphos and didymos mean twin; having two forms, and the two asteroids are a binary pair, with the egg-shaped Dimorphos orbiting Didymos. Neither is actually a threat to Earth, but they are close by, so this made Dimorphos the perfect test subject.
Just like Earth, the asteroid pair orbit the Sun, and do come close to Earth at times during this rotation. At its closest, the pair passed only 0.048 AU from Earth (something like 7,180,697km) – where one unit AU is the distance from the Sun to the human planet – and at its farthest, on the other side of the Sun, around 3 AU away. Didymos, the larger of the two, is about 780 metres in diameter, while the moonlet is only 160 metres, spinning rapidly around its neighbour ...

Could biomimicry solve humanity’s biggest problems? A new docuseries explores

Maverick Life interviewed Wildlife TV presenter Patrick Aryee about ‘Evolve’ — a docuseries on how unique animal adaptations could inspire tech innovations that change the course of our species.
Evolve is a science communication adventure series exploring the practical application of biomimetics — human technologies that emulate naturally evolved systems. Each episode follows charming British TV presenter Patrick Aryee on a globetrotting quest to observe the specialised adaptations that allow animals to thrive in their environments.
With the help of experts in all sorts of scientific disciplines, Aryee explains how the refined anatomy of each of these elegantly complex organisms is inspiring human innovations, and the astounding futures that might be possible were these technologies fully adopted.
“Biomimicry is a process of looking towards natural systems, the natural world, animals, plants, to figure out what challenges they’ve had over the 3.8 billion years that life has been around on this planet, and how they’ve managed to overcome those challenges — how they managed to evolve. My mission is to discover if our future could lie within their natural history,” says Aryee.
Science communication programmes, particularly those that explore speculative science often stretch out their wildlife or animated footage because acquiring it is expensive and they need to make the most of what they have. Evolve has access to abundant footage of many different kinds, from wildlife photography to landscape drone pans, talking heads and animated simulations and overlays. It does not draw out its many segments any further than need be to make its point, transitioning speedily from each adaptation and innovation to the next. The pace is consistent and the type of content changes frequently so that it never feels boring or repetitive.
Aryee’s overwhelming enthusiasm persuades you to consider creatures we’re fairly familiar with from a fresh perspective. One gains a new appreciation for these animals when learning, for example, how the structure of a camel’s nasal cavity is being copied to create water-efficient greenhouses; or how the high blood pressure of the gravity-defying giraffe inspired G-raffe suits, which use body compression to increase pilots’ resistance to G-force; or how wood frog hibernation may hold the key to cryogenics that one day enables long-term space travel. The list goes on and on.
Inspiring involvement in science
These cutting-edge inventions are mostly linked in some way to combatting (or dealing with the imminent fallout of) the climate crisis — which is now an inseparable part of ...

From Dust to Dust: The ascent to glory in worlds great and small

Ascending Buffelskop, near Cradock, on a pilgrimage to visit the gravesite of Olive Schreiner is as sacred as it is rare.
Perhaps this is what is meant by World Without End. Not that our world will never end, this tiny, finite existence of ours on this planet, but that there is no end to the universe, that it goes on and on forever and ever. But without an amen, because the amen only comes at the end, and if there is no end, there is no amen.
The dust rises behind the wheels as we climb the mountain; it settles again as we drive on, up and up. The blue sky of the day shuts out the stars of the pending night. How gently they must shine on the grave up there, unseen from within the little tomb that holds legend and light from an earlier time, now to be honoured as she rightly should.
Your world is suddenly inverted. What was large behind us has grown smaller and smaller as we climbed; what was far away, in her eyrie where a pair of eagles circle overhead, is now close, intimate. Here she is, lying in dust. The long-held dream has become real.
The hero who has brought you here is Olive Schreiner, and you’re within touching distance of her now. The tomb of stone is so small, and she is not alone in it; Cron, or Cronwright-Schreiner, who took his wife’s name, lies here too, and her baby, and the pet dogs she called Nita. But we imagine her alone in there, somehow; there seems scarcely space for one small person. How petite she is, yet how great. A giant mind in the smallest frame; proof, or evidence, that it is what we do with our minds that matters.
The previous evening, I’d given a talk on the Karoo and food at the base camp down there, a lodge called Dirosie on a farm called Buffelshoek. It is the farm near Cradock named after its mountain, at the top of which Schreiner wished to be entombed. As long as I’ve been visiting, and now living in, Cradock, I have wanted to climb to the top of Buffelskop to pay my respects. Petty human ailments kept me from it (osteoarthritis in the knees), but this time I knew I had to do it. Opportunities to do this are rare.
We gathered at Dirosie the previous night ...

Comic Con Africa 2022 is over but there are other Stranger Things to look forward to – all eyes on Cape Town 2023

With Comic Con Africa 2022 done and dusted, we look back at the long-awaited return of the pop culture festival.
It’s hard to form an objective opinion on Comic Con Africa 2022 (CCA 2022) without it being coloured by the feeling that it’s great to be back. Conventions are about people and making connections; virtual gatherings generally don’t deliver the shared excitement and happiness that comes from interacting face-to-face over shared passions.
One of the bonuses of pop culture conventions is that, for a few days, they provide attendees with a much-needed shot of positivity and creative inspiration.
This year’s Comic Con Africa (despite being a business-minded event) delivered and created an environment where all kinds of fans – whether into comics, movies, series, video games, boardgames and tabletop roleplaying, cosplay, streaming, fan art, collecting and even tattoos – could come together.
CCA 2022 was the first Comic Con Africa in three years, due to pandemic restrictions. The inaugural CCA took place in Johannesburg at the Kyalami Expo Centre back in 2018, before making a move to the bigger Gallagher Estate venue in 2019. For this year’s four-day event, from 22-25 September, CCA 2022 moved yet again to the Johannesburg Expo Centre, Nasrec.
Overall, if you look at the three “Cons” together, you can recognise the formula of a blockbuster movie trilogy: a rough-around-the-edges start; a much bigger sequel that builds on the original’s success but fumbles in certain areas; and a final instalment with a “MOAR” mindset that refocuses on giving fans what they love, delivered in a sleek package.
The organisers of CCA have clearly learned from each event, taking feedback to heart. While there are still niggles (and some may never be solved), improvements have been made every time.
Now let’s take a closer look at what worked, and what was less successful, at the third CCA.
The build-up
Celebrity guest cancellations are to be expected, given the nature of the entertainment industry – but it was great to see Jamie Campbell Bower as this year’s legitimate big-name drawcard. It wasn’t quite William Shatner, but Bower is huge right now thanks to Stranger Things.
What did feel very last minute about the event, though, was its marketing. Everything seemed to be crammed into the last couple of weeks before the festival. Announcements before this were difficult to find, even though there was a lot going on that could have been used to stoke hype.
CCA 2022 included an ...

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