More stories

  • in

    Becoming Cousteau review: A charming portrait of a conservation icon

    By Elle Hunt

    Jacques-Yves Cousteau was a pioneer of underwater researchThomas J. Abercrombie/National Geographic
    Becoming Cousteau
    Liz GarbusAdvertisement

    BY HIS own account, the film-maker and ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau hated it when his work was labelled as “documentary”. “That means a lecture by a guy who knows more than you,” he wrote. “Our films are true adventure films.”
    Becoming Cousteau, a new documentary about Cousteau’s life and legacy, captures that spirit without getting too swept away. The result is a captivating portrait of a complicated man who was as well-known and widely beloved as David Attenborough is today.
    Veteran film-maker Liz Garbus was first approached by National Geographic to make a film about Cousteau’s life in 2015. It was only in 2019, after years of negotiation, that Garbus was granted exclusive access to the Cousteau Society Archives, controlled by Cousteau’s widow Francine. Their children, Pierre-Yves and Diane, have co-producer credits on the film, but in Garbus’s hands, the involvement of those closest to Cousteau serves as an asset, not a liability, helping to paint a picture of a true original.
    Cousteau was a born explorer, with an insatiable drive to see the world and a talent for sharing what he found. He started making films aged 13 and, at 20, entered the French naval academy with a view to becoming a pilot. When his career in aviation was cut short by a car accident, he began swimming on the French Riviera to help heal his broken bones, before becoming fascinated with freediving.
    Soon, he became frustrated with the limits of freediving and, with his naval colleagues, experimented with breathing apparatus that would allow them to spend more time underwater. This led to the invention of the aqualung, which made diving more accessible for both scientists and amateur explorers.
    Archival footage captures the fear and thrill of those early dives, which weren’t so far removed from space exploration at the time in terms of the risks involved.
    In 1947, diver Maurice Fargues died while attempting to set a new depth record with the aqualung. This only focused Cousteau’s mind further. Fargues’s death must not be in vain, Cousteau said.
    “Cousteau abandoned his dream of undersea civilisations to fight for oceans that could support life at all”
    His ultimate goal, at that time, was utopian, “paving the way to a time when human beings will live continuously under the sea“. For Cousteau, diving proposed a route to liberation not just for him, but for all humankind, “to eliminate all ties to the surface”.
    The spirit of this mission was embodied by his research vessel the Calypso, spoken of by its crew as something between a safe haven and a spiritual calling. “This escape would not exist if people were happy on land,” says one sailor. Footage of life onboard from the mid-1950s through the 60s gave ocean exploration a certain glamour. It is no wonder Cousteau’s work inspired a generation of film-makers and seafarers.
    While celebrating Cousteau’s many triumphs, Garbus also engages with his life and work through a contemporary lens, interrogating the cowboyish tactics – such as blast-fishing with dynamite and slaughtering sharks as sailors’ revenge – that were in line with the pioneering spirit of the time, but are antithetical to conservation interests today.
    In 1953, the Calypso – only ever one cheque short of financial ruin – even accepted funding to search for oil in the Persian Gulf. “We just didn’t know any better at the time,” says a crew member.
    Cousteau himself was quick to change course. By the 1970s he had stopped showing his early films, saying “the mentality has changed”, and threw himself into lobbying for protection of the marine ecosystem.
    After documenting two decades of decline, he abandoned his dream of an under-the-sea civilisation to fight to ensure that oceans could support life at all. His series – “no more about dealing with beautiful little fishes, [but] the fate of mankind” – was dropped from US television for being doomsaying.
    Cousteau’s warnings for future generations are even harder to hear now, after 50-plus years of inaction. But his story inspires hope about what can be achieved by one person with a vision.

    More on these topics: More

  • in

    We now know Vikings were in the Americas exactly 1000 years ago

    By Michael Marshall

    A panoramic view of L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, CanadaBob Hilscher/Getty Images
    Before Christopher Columbus, Vikings were the first Europeans to reach the Americas. We now know to the year when they were there. Norse people were chopping down trees in Newfoundland in the year AD 1021, so they must have crossed the Atlantic Ocean by then.
    “Exactly a millennium ago, human beings for the first time in history had got across [the Atlantic],” says Michael Dee at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.
    Evidence for a Norse presence in North … More

  • in

    Why the ancestors of dogs were our colleagues not friends

    By Simon Ings

    WHEN Spanish and other European forces entered South America in the 15th century, they used dogs as weapons to massacre the indigenous human population. Sometimes, their mastiffs, enormous brutes trained to chase and kill, even fed on the bodies of their victims.
    This didn’t quell the affection in South America for dogs, though. Ferocious as they were, these beasts were also novel, loyal and intelligent and a trade in them spread across the continent.
    What is it about dogs that makes them so irresistible?
    In Our Oldest Companions, anthropologist Pat Shipman traces the ancient drivers that led to our species’ special relationship with dogs. It is an epic, and occasionally unnerving, tale of love and loyalty, hunting and killing, gleaned from a huge amount of archaeological and palaeogenetic research.
    In Shipman’s view, there was nothing inevitable about the development of the grey wolf – a fierce, meat-eating competitor – into the playful friends that we know today. As Shipman puts it: “Who would select such a ferocious and formidable predator as a wolf for an ally and companion?”
    To find the answer, says Shipman, forget the old tale in which someone captures a baby animal, tames it, raises it, selects a mate for it and brings up the friendliest babies.
    Instead, she argues, it was the particular ecology of Europe about 50,000 years ago that drove grey wolves and human interlopers from Mesopotamia to develop a symbiotic relationship that set the stage for our future friendship.
    “Who would select such a ferocious and formidable predator as a wolf for an ally and companion?”
    Working together allowed humans to tap into the wolves’ superior speed and senses, and to gain their protection against other large predators including lions. The wolves, in turn, benefited from a human’s ability to kill prey at a distance with spears or arrows.
    It was a partnership that allowed them to net enough food to share, and to outcompete the indigenous Neanderthals who didn’t have a team of super-fast predators to help them.
    This idea was explored in Shipman’s 2015 book The Invaders In Our Oldest Companions, she develops her argument by exploring parts of the world where dogs and humans didn’t evolve similar behaviours.
    Australia provides Shipman with her most striking example. When Homo sapiens arrived in Australia, around 65,000 years ago they came without domesticated dogs, because, at the time, there was no such thing.
    When the ancestors of today’s dingoes were brought to Australia about 3000 years ago, their charisma earned them a central place in Indigenous Australian folklore, but there was no incentive for the two species to live and work together. Australia was less densely populated by large animals than Europe and there were only two large mammalian predators, the Tasmanian tiger and the marsupial lion, to deal with. As a result, says Shipman, while dingoes are eminently tameable, they have never been domesticated.
    With the story of humans and dogs in Asia, Shipman goes against the grain. While some researchers argue that the bond between wolf and man was first established here, Shipman is having none of it. She points to a crucial piece of non-evidence: if dogs first arose in Asia, then where are the ancient dog burials?
    Cute, but there was never a good enough reason to team up with dingoesJulie Fletcher/Getty Images
    “Deliberate burial,” writes Shipman, “is just about the gold standard in terms of evidence that an animal was domesticated.” There are no such ancient graves in Asia, she points out. It is on the right bank of the Rhine in what is now Germany, that the earliest remains of a clearly domesticated dog were discovered. Known as the Bonn-Oberkassel dog, and dating from 14,200 years ago, it was found in 1914, tucked between two human skeletons, the grave decorated with works of art made of bones and antlers.
    From there, domesticated dogs remained firmly in our hearts and homes There are now more than 300 subspecies, although overbreeding has left hardly any that are capable of carrying out their intended functions of hunting, guarding or herding.
    Shipman passes no comment on this, but I can’t help but think it is a sad end to a story that began among mammoths and lions.

    More on these topics: More

  • in

    Why psychologists can't decide if moral disgust is even a thing

    By Ana Aznar

    Michelle D’urbano
    WE SHOULD really care about disgust. Not only does it protect us from coming into contact with possibly dangerous substances, such as rotting meat, but it is also central to understanding our moral compasses.
    Yet, up until around 20 years ago, it was essentially absent from psychological research. Today, it is still shrouded in confusion. All other basic emotions, such as sadness and happiness, have a clear definition, but when it comes to disgust, psychologists are divided over whether it should actually be split into physical disgust and moral disgust, or whether it is only physical disgust that exists.
    Physical disgust is that feeling caused by things such as vomit or faeces. This varies between people, but it helps protect us from touching or ingesting potentially dangerous substances that could put our survival at risk.Advertisement
    Moral disgust, on the other hand, is normally described as the feeling you get when hearing someone has broken social norms or moral codes. Seeing a person steal or hearing about someone having an affair, for example, might be enough to set off this emotion in you.
    Some psychologists argue that physical and moral disgust are two sides of the same coin. Others insist that, although the word “disgust” is used in both situations, when moral norms are broken, what people are actually experiencing is anger.
    Disgust and anger are both negative emotions that have been linked with morality, but whereas disgust motivates us to avoid things, anger pushes us to confront whatever it is that is making us angry.
    In my latest research, I have been examining the schism in psychology on disgust further using parent-child conversations. These are a valuable tool for developmental psychology as parents use them to teach their children about emotions, values and moral issues. They may also be particularly relevant to our understanding of disgust because children only begin to understand it when they are 3 to 4 years old, around a year later than the other basic emotions. This suggests there is a social component to disgust and that children’s understanding of it may be partly learned from their parents.
    In the research, my colleagues and I asked 68 English-speaking mothers and their 4, 6 or 8-year-old children to discuss a series of short stories. In each of them, the main character performed either a physical transgression, such as wearing dirty clothes or sitting on a dirty chair, or a moral one, such as copying someone’s homework or jumping a queue. We then asked the mothers and children to talk about the emotion that they would feel after each transgression.
    We found that both were more likely to say that they were disgusted by physical transgressions than they were angry. In contrast, when discussing moral transgressions, they were more likely to say that they made them angry rather than disgusted. Mothers and children also often said that these actions were wrong.
    What this seems to suggest is that mothers and children are more likely to link disgust with physical transgressions and anger with moral ones.
    Does this mean there is no such thing as moral disgust? We think it certainly points that way.
    Our research won’t settle the controversy around the existence of moral disgust on its own. However, the more we learn about it, the closer we get to understanding how we develop a sense of morality.

    More on these topics: More

  • in

    Ancient faeces show Iron Age miners ate blue cheese and drank beer

    By Carissa Wong

    Ancient faeces found in salt mines in Hallstatt, AustriaAnwora/NHMW
    Fungi found in faeces from Iron Age people who worked in salt mines in what is now Austria suggest that people were eating blue cheese and beer at least 2700 years ago.
    There is earlier evidence for ancient cheese, found in Early Bronze Age tombs in Western China from nearly 4000 years ago, but these fossilised faeces provide the earliest evidence that “people produced cheese with even a flavour that is found in blue cheese”, says Frank Maixner at Eurac Research in … More

  • in

    A Jupiter-like planet orbiting a white dwarf hints at our solar system’s future

    A glimpse of our solar system’s future has appeared thousands of light-years away in the constellation Sagittarius. There a giant planet like Jupiter orbits a white dwarf, a dim, dense star that once resembled the sun.

    In 2010, that star passed in front of a much more distant star. Like a magnifying glass, the white dwarf’s gravity bent the more distant star’s light rays so that they converged on Earth and made the distant star look hundreds of times brighter. A giant planet orbiting the white dwarf star also “microlensed” the distant star’s light, revealing the planet’s presence.

    In 2015, 2016 and again in 2018 astrophysicist Joshua Blackman of the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Australia and colleagues pointed the Keck II telescope in Hawaii at the far-off system, which lies some 5,000 to 8,000 light-years from Earth. The team was in search of the giant planet’s star, but saw, well, nothing.

    “We expected that we’d see a star similar to the sun,” Blackman says. “And so we spent quite a few years trying to figure out why on Earth we didn’t see the star which we expected to see.”

    Sign Up For the Latest from Science News

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox

    Thank you for signing up!

    There was a problem signing you up.

    After failing to detect any light from the spot where the planet’s star should be, Blackman’s team concluded that the object can’t be a typical star like the sun — also known as a main sequence star, which generates energy by converting hydrogen into helium at its center. Instead, the star must be something much fainter. The microlensing data indicate that the star is roughly half as massive as the sun, so the object isn’t massive enough to be a neutron star or black hole. But a white dwarf star fits the bill perfectly, the researchers report online October 13 in Nature.

    “They’ve carefully ruled out the other possible lens stars — neutron stars and black holes and main sequence stars and whatnot,” says Ben Zuckerman, an astronomer at UCLA, who was not involved with the work. He notes that only a handful of planets have ever been found orbiting white dwarfs.

    The new planet is the first ever discovered that is orbiting a white dwarf and resembles Jupiter in both its mass and its distance from its star. Blackman’s team estimates that the planet is one to two times as massive as Jupiter and probably lies 2.5 to six times farther from the white dwarf star than Earth does from the sun. For comparison, Jupiter is 5.2 times farther out from the sun than Earth is. The white dwarf is somewhat larger than Earth, which means the planet is much bigger than its host star.

    The white dwarf formed after a sunlike star expanded and became a red giant star. Then the red giant ejected its outer layers, exposing its hot core. That former core is the white dwarf star.

    Our sun will turn into a white dwarf about 7.8 billion years from now, so the new discovery is “a snapshot into the future of our solar system,” Blackman says. As the sun becomes a red giant, it will engulf and destroy its innermost planet, Mercury, and perhaps Venus too. But Mars, Jupiter and more distant planets should survive.

    And Earth? No one yet knows what will happen to it. More

  • in

    The fastest-spinning white dwarf ever seen rotates once every 25 seconds

    The sun turns once a month and the Earth once a day, but a white dwarf star 2,000 light-years away spins every 25 seconds, beating the old champ by five seconds. That makes it the fastest-spinning star of any sort ever seen — unless you consider such exotic objects as neutron stars and black holes, some of which spin even faster, to be stars (SN: 3/13/07).  

    About as small as Earth but roughly as massive as the sun, a white dwarf is extremely dense. The star’s surface gravity is so great that if you dropped a pebble from a height of a few feet, it would smash into the surface at thousands of miles per hour. The typical white dwarf takes hours or days to spin.

    The fast-spinning white dwarf, named LAMOST J0240+1952 and located in the constellation Aries, got in a whirl because of its ongoing affair with a red dwarf star that revolves around it. Just as falling water makes a waterwheel turn, so gas falling from the red companion star made the white dwarf twirl.

    The discovery occurred the night of August 7, when astronomer Ingrid Pelisoli of the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, and her colleagues detected a periodic blip of light from the dim duo. The blip repeated every 24.93 seconds, revealing the white dwarf star’s record-breaking rotation period, the researchers report August 26 at

    The star’s only known rival is an even faster-spinning object in orbit with the blue star HD 49798. But that rapid rotator’s nature is unclear, with some recent studies saying it is likely a neutron star, not a white dwarf. More

  • in

    Ancient seeds reveal we began using tobacco at least 12,300 years ago

    By Carissa Wong

    Modern cultivated tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) seed vesselsblickwinkel / Alamy
    Seeds discovered at an ancient campsite in Nevada indicate people have been using tobacco for at least 12,300 years, which is far longer than previously thought.
    Tobacco plants are native to North America, and humans are thought to have reached the continent around 20,000 to 16,000 years ago. “This suggests that people learned the intoxicant properties of tobacco relatively early in their time here rather than only with domestication and agriculture thousands of years later,” says Daron Duke at the … More