This week’s newsletter is guest written by staff reporter Michael Greshko, author of the October 2020 magazine cover story on reimagining dinosaurs.
Fifty years to the day that astronauts touched down on the moon, I saw signs of life on the surface of Mars. Well, at least that’s how it felt at the time. Last July, I was in the Sahara, following National Geographic Explorer Nizar Ibrahim to southeastern Morocco. The trek took me to an outcrop of reddish sandstone that held the bones of the predatory dinosaur Spinosaurus. I was lucky enough to help find a piece of that one-of-a-kind skeleton.
I’ll never forget that scene: team paleontologist Gabriele Bindellini pausing my rock hammer; expert digger M’barek Fouadassi kneeling in to see what we had found; my heart starting to race. Then, the call: “Bone! Bone!” In that moment, the dust, the constant battle to stay hydrated, the heady smell of jackhammer fuel—all of it vanished. Only the awe of discovery remained.
I’m far from alone in feeling that rush. An explosion in fossil finds, along with advancements in analytical techniques, mean that paleontologists have learned more about dinosaurs in the past 25 years than in the previous 250. That’s why now is the best possible time to bring you a sweeping update on the new science of dinosaurs.
Spinosaurus is as good a symbol as any for scientists’ incredible progress. Less than two weeks after seeing Spinosaurus emerge from the rock, I was standing in a robotics lab at Harvard University in Massachusetts, watching as scientists tested a model of the dinosaur’s tail in a high-tech flume. Staring into that tank, watching that robot-mounted model flap back and forth, was every bit as magical as finding a dinosaur bone in the field. Both experiences got me that much closer to seeing how dinosaurs really were—not just as movie monsters, but as animals with rich lives all their own.
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Today in a minute
Hurricane Sally: The latest hurricane in a busy season hit Alabama’s Gulf Coast today, dumping torrential rains and threatening to linger. Sally unleashed dangerous flooding from Mississippi to the Florida Panhandle (pictured above, nearly three feet of water in the streets of downtown Pensacola). “It’s not common that you start measuring rainfall in feet,” National Weather Service forecaster David Eversole told the AP from Mobile, Alabama. “It’s just a nightmare.” Here’s how hurricanes form—and why they’re so destructive.
Life on Venus? The basis of this week’s scientific hoo-hah is a smelly, flammable gas called phosphine, which annihilates life-forms reliant on oxygen. It’s made naturally by bacterial organisms that live in the oxygen-starved environments. Now astronomers report that phospine may be found on the broiling, acidic planet next door. It shouldn’t be there, Nat Geo’s Nadia Drake reports. The initial detection needs to be verified. If by chance it is confirmed, then Drake says “alien life-forms are deftly linking together phosphorus and hydrogen atoms, or...some completely unanticipated chemistry is crafting phosphine in the absence of life.”
Saving lives: Hundreds of thousands of people could be saved if the world distributed a COVID-19 equitably. That’s the conclusion of a report released Tuesday by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The report found that the coronavirus has reversed two decades of improvement in cutting back world poverty, Nat Geo’s Oliver Whang writes. The pandemic has pushed an estimated 37 million people into extreme poverty, and plans by the world’s wealthy nations to buy up vaccines threaten the lives of many in poorer nations.
Flu or COVID-19? How will you know which you have? For flu, a doctor can prescribe an antiviral medication. But with coronavirus, you may need to go to the hospital and be prescribed steroids or experimental medication, Sarah Elizabeth Richards writes. But why find yourself in this position? Get a flu shot now, doctors advise. Only 45 percent of U.S. adults got one last year, according to the CDC.
Where did water come from? Much of the material of early Earth resembles enstatite chondrite, which we see on meteorites. A new study of 13 enstatite chondrite meteorite samples shows a much higher than expected hydrogen content. If it were Earth’s early building material, it would have resulted in a high initial water content, as well as the makings for atmospheric nitrogen. The conclusion, as reported by Scientific American: Our Earth was wet from the beginning.
Your Instagram photo of the day
A new look: “We find ourselves unexpectedly living in an age when body temperature has assumed a new set of implications: we’re all potential carriers and spreaders of COVID-19,” photographer Giles Price says. As part of a conceptual series of images shot on assignment during the pandemic, Price used a thermal camera to show a participant in the Oxford University COVID-19 vaccine trial having her blood taken by a member of the Vaccine Institute, St George’s, University of London and St George’s University Hospitals NHS Trust.
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This week in the night sky
Zoodical light: About an hour before sunrise for the next two weeks, keen sky-watchers in the Northern Hemisphere can hunt down one of the most elusive of astronomical phenomena—Zodiacal light. This pyramid-shaped beam of light is easily mistaken for the lights of a far-off city just over the dark horizon. It has also been called the “false dawn.” But this light is more ethereal; it is caused by sunlight reflecting off billions of cosmic dust grains between the planets formed about 4.6 billion years ago. The best time to catch this ghostly sky light is about an hour before sunrise, looking toward the western horizon from the dark countryside. The patch of light will appear titled towards the right and run through the constellation of Leo, the lion and may surround the brilliant star-like Venus. —Andrew Fazekas
The big takeaway
Autopsy shortage: Even before the pandemic, the autopsy rate in the U.S. had been in decline. The autopsy shortage is a result of infection control guidelines, increased caseloads, and fewer pathologists who are comfortable performing the task, writes Carrie Arnold for Nat Geo. That has provided an opportunity to private, but often costly, providers. Pathologies say the procedure is useful, pointing to a 2003 study in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology that found the official diagnosis of death was wrong in 28 percent of the 429 reviewed cases. (Pictured above, autopsy specimen containers sit in a private lab.)
In a few words
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On Thursday, Rachael Bale covers the latest in animal news. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Whitney Johnson on photography, Debra Adams Simmons on history, and George Stone on travel.
The last glimpse
A GPS of Earth for the ages: That’s how Nat Geo’s Nadia Drake describes a new map that could help beings in space find their way to Earth. A half century ago, Nadia’s dad, astronomer Frank Drake, helped with a map that NASA launched into space in 1972. The new map by astronomer Scott Ransom adds characteristics that will remain after current visual cues, such a star formations, change positions. In case you're wondering, Nadia’s dad approves of the updated map. (Above, a copy of the original map by Frank Drake, Carl Sagan, and Linda Salzman Sagan.)
Subscriber exclusive: Updating a cosmic map to point aliens toward Earth