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PSU professor finds first wooly mammoth fossil in NH - a tooth, but a very cool tooth

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PSU photo: Plymouth State University Professor Fred Prince displays a fragment of a wooly mammoth tooth he discovered in the Pemigewasett River Valley. The fossil is the first confirmed evidence of the prehistoric mammal living within New Hampshire.

By Bruce Lynde,PSU News Services Manager

Nearly ten years ago, Plymouth State University biology professor Fred Prince was fly-fishing on a remote stream in Campton, when a strange object caught his eye in the streamside gravel. He picked up the odd, laminated structure and turned it over and over in the bright sunlight. He knew it was unique, but had no idea what it was.

I threw it away, I just dropped it back into the gravel,” Prince said. “It was ten years after the fact when I realized what I had done.”

This past January he acquired a wooly mammoth molar and a partial molar from an acquaintance in The Netherlands, specimens dredged up in the North Sea. “As soon as I put that partial molar in my hand I was back ten years ago beside that stream,” Prince noted. “I felt sick knowing what I tossed aside.”

He started researching the woolly mammoth, detailing the prehistoric mammal’s anatomy, evolution and habitat. Now armed with the knowledge of how a mammoth molar was constructed, he vowed to find another one. In April, he climbed into his truck and headed back into the Upper Pemigewasett Valley.

“I told my wife, ‘I’m going to go look for a mammoth molar,’ and I found this in a decades-old gravel pit; it was the third place I looked,” Prince said. “It was embedded into the surface of the ground, and I could see those contours on top. I know it’s hard to believe, but that’s what happened. I went out specifically to find a mammoth tooth and I did.”

“You can tell it’s a woolly mammoth because the black enamel thickness is only one millimeter,” said Prince. “With the Columbian mammoth, so common in the western and central US, the enamel thickness is 2 to 2.5 millimeters.”

Prince sent photos of the specimen to Dr. Larry Agenbroad, Director of The Mammoth Site in South Dakota, who confirmed it was from a woolly mammoth.

After visual confirmation by Dr. Agenbroad, most of the specimen was sent to the Accelerator Mass Spectrometry lab at the University of Arizona for radiocarbon dating. Unfortunately the collagen was not preserved so the specimen could not be dated.

The woolly mammoth was about the size of a modern African elephant; a male woolly mammoth’s shoulder height was 9 to 11 feet tall and weighed around 6 tons. The woolly mammoth, however, is more closely related to the Asian elephant. The last woolly mammoths went extinct about 11,000 years ago worldwide, with the exception of a small colony that survived on Wrangel Island until 4,000 years ago; their habitat was the mammoth steppe, a tundra-like area stretching from northern Eurasia to North America.

Mammoth remains are very rare in New England; they include a tooth and a tusk excavated near Mt. Holly, Vt. in 1848 during railroad construction and a partial skeleton found in 1959 near Scarborough, Maine. The closest finding to the Granite State was a tooth dredged from the sea in early 2013 near the Isles of Shoals, off Rye. Prince said he wouldn’t be surprised if other people have found woolly mammoth fossils, but, like him, they didn’t realize what they were holding.

“I wouldn’t doubt there are people who have picked up something like this and did the same thing I did ten years ago. I think people have assumed some were here in New England, but there isn’t much evidence, in part due to the acidity of our soil and in part likely a result of low population density,” Prince added.

Prince, a 64 year-old Pennsylvania native, has worked at PSU since 1985. He continues to search for woolly mammoth fossils and is currently writing a research paper on this initial New Hampshire finding and his ideas on the changes in climate and vegetation across New England following the retreat of the ice at the end of the Pleistocene age. His other research interests are primarily about cell biology, including human muscle fibers, myelin development, steroid-cell structure and development and mitochondrial structure.

New England has a lot more tornadoes than I thought

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New Hampshire's tornado history. The numbers reflect the Fujita scale, a measure of damage: 3 means "roofs and some walls torn off well-constructed houses; trains overturned; most trees in forest uprooted; heavy cars lifted off the ground." Source: http://www.tornadohistoryproject.com

Massachusetts has had 159 tornadoes since 1951, according to the Tornado History Database, and New Hampshire has had 87 of them. Most were small, of course - this isn't Kansaa - but such storms are more common in this part of New England than you'd think.

A tornado did a lot of damage in Revere, Mass., yesterday, hence the interest.

I learned about the database from this Slate post.

California says: For crying out loud, don't fly drones over wildfires we're fighting! 

The LA Times reports that folks fighting wildfires in California "encountered a civilian-piloted drone over the weekend for the first time while fighting a large wildfire" and "banished ir from the sky to keep it from disrupting flight operations."

Logarithms turn 400 this year (that's 10^2.6020599913)

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My slide rule is so rarely used, I didn't realize that the cursor (in pre-digital usage) has fallen off.

Logarithms are a way to do multiplication by adding, which is a lot less work than doing multiplication by multiplying. Scottish mathematician John Napier presented them to the world 400 years ago in a book called "A Description of the Admirable Table of Logarithms" with a wonderful subtitle: "With a Declaration of the most plentifil, easy and speedy use thereof in both kindes of Trigonometrie, as also in all Mathematicall calculations." Science News has a nice piece of the birthday of this valuable mathematical tool.

A logarithm tells you how many times you have to multiply one number, such as 10, times itself to get another number, such as 100. In that case the answer is easy (it's 2 - as in, 10^2 = 100), but if you wanted to know how many times you multiplied 10 by itelf to get 90, you'd be stumped without a log table to show you the answer of 1.9542425094 ... . This sounds clumsy but it was an incredibly useful calculating tool for centuries - you can multiply 90 by 90 just by adding their logarithms and then taking the anti-log. OK, so that isn't a very good example, but still, the joke is that logarithms doubled the lifespan of mathematicians by increasing their productivity.

Logariths are best known to those of a certain vintage for being the basis of slide rules, the ubiquitous calculating device of the pre-computer era. Slide rules let you slide one logarithmic scale over another one to do various calculations (but not addition or subtraction, despite a geekily famous error from the move "Apollo 13").

I learned to use slide rules in high school, but mostly as a novelty. They were already dying as Texas Instruments calculators began infiltrating our lives.

I still use a slide rule's cursor (the sliding glass window whose hairline let you see the answer more easily) as the icon for the Twitter feed of GraniteGeek.

Hopefully, it's in the nonfiction section

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A screenshot from the Merrimack Library seismograph.

The Merrimack town library has the state's first public seismograph. We're not exactly California in New England (or even fracking-quake-spurred Oklahoma) but it's interesting.

I leanred about it from this NH Public Radio story, which notes:

The library partnered with the Weston Observatory at Boston College, which has been working for the past decade to get publically-available seismographs into schools and libraries across Massachusetts. “And now we’re expanding out to New Hampshire and there is so much good data already flowing. It’s incredible,” said Marilyn Bibeau, administrator of the Weston Observatory and associate director of the Boston College Educational Seismology Project.

Liquified natural gas plant for NH on hold

This is more a business story than a geek story, but I just got back from 10 days vacation WITH NO INTERNET (aaaaah ... delightful) so I'm a little behind. It will have to do!

The Union-Leader reports that plans for a liquified natural gas plant in Groveton are "on hold." It's hard to know what that means, since the phrase is business-speak for anything from "I need a little more money" to "this was the stupidest idea since CueCat." Read the whole story here.

It seems this would have been a plant to liquify natural gas brought in by pipeline, not to accept LNG from truck/tanker and put it into the pipeline, which is really what New England needs.

GraniteGeek is going to hide under a rock for a week or so - see you then 

I'm about to go on vacation with the family and doing it tech free (without paying for a Tech-Free Camp, thank you), so GraniteGeek is going to enter another land ...the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge ... or something like that.

In other words, this blog is going on hiatus until near the end of the month.

See you then.

Electricity from leaky landfills is bigger than solar power in NH

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Staff photo by Don Himsel

Fortistar, which converts gas to electricity at the Four Hills Landfill in Nashua, is shown Thursday.

Nashua is in the process of signing a new contract with a company called PPL to operate the electricity-generating system at the city landfill (story here), currently sized at 800 kilowatts but growing 1.6 megawatts if all goes as planned.

PPL, a Pennsylvania firm, operates 64 such systems around the county with a combined capacity of 64 megawatts, 800 kilowatts at the Colebrook landfill. That's not much in the electricity-generating scheme of things - it's the size of one small power plant - but biogas has an extra benefit. It burns methane generated by decomposition of organic trash that would otherwise enter the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. Plus, methane smells - better to burn it than stink up the neighborhood.

Waste Management, the gigantic trash-collection firm, also generates electricity from landfill methane at a number of locations. And there are startups, such as New Hampshire's Neo Energy, working on new systems to get more energy (and/or nutrients) out of food waste.

You can't mention biogas in New Hampshire without tipping your hat to UNH: Its EcoLine project burns methane taken from the massive Turnkey Landfill in Rochester via a 13-mile buried pipeline. This methane fuels a 7.9-megawatt cogeneration plant that provides much of the Durham campus' energy - most of its electricty and part of its heating from hot water.

This means that burning gas from leaky landfills generates at least as much electricity in New Hampshire as do our solar panels, which total somewhere around 8 megawatts when you add in all the small rooftop systems.

Government can improve with A/B testing, which is good: unless they experiment on me, of course

The tech world loves A/B testing - basically releasing two versions of a product or website or marketing campaign out into the real world and seeing which one does better. There's an argument that the government should do more of such testing with programs, instead of just assuming that they'll work the way they're designed. As the NY Times' Upshot blog (successor to Pete Silver's blog) says in this piece:

The White House is also pushing for an expansion of randomized controlled trials to evaluate government programs. ... Using science as a model, researchers randomly select some people to enroll in a government program and others not to enroll. The researchers then study the outcomes of the two groups.

One current trial is evaluating whether federal workplace inspections improve worker safety. Another looks at one-on-one counseling that tries to help low-income students graduate from college. A third trial is examining whether nurses in Durham, N.C., improve infants’ health by visiting them in their homes. The most expensive of these three trials costs just $183,000.

Sounds like a no-brainer. But there is a problem: It's one thing to be given a different version of search results as part of a company's A/B test, but what if your kid doesn't get a nursing visit because of the way you've been assigned in a study? Would you say "I don't mind - it's for the good of society!" I doubt it.

One of the biggest complaints you hear about any change in public school curriculum is that "they're experimenting with my child!" People don't like that, and I suspect such an attitude will limit A/B testing's use in government.

For example, an A/B test might help determine the effects of drug legalization. Don't see that happening soon.

Teaching chess in school is a good idea - but where will you get the teachers?

This is a week for celebrating chess (as in my column today, anticipating the first junior Womens Championship, taking place at UNH-Manchester this week) so it's also a week for contemplating the issue: If we want more kids to learn chess, who will teach them?

Consider this scenario -- you are helping out at a local elementary school chess club. You hear a tussle at one of the boards. It’s two of the second graders. The conflict: is it checkmate? An easy question if you are an avid chess player, but what if you are not? There is so much demand for scholastic chess that there are not enough experienced chess facilitators to go around. Could technology help?

This is from a blog piece that celebrates the use of tablets to teach kids chess. It includes some intriguing ideas - RFID-chipped chess pieces that feed into software.

Although I'm a chess player and fan, I've always been a bit dubious of claims that learning chess has extensive benefits in other areas of education. Sometimes a game is just a game.

By the way, one of my favorite Wikipedia articles, titled "List of chess-related deaths," has been deleted by a cabal of humorless editors who didn't think it was encyclopediac enough. Drat!

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About this blog

David Brooks has written a science column for the Nashua (N.H.) Telegraph since 1991 - yes, that long - and has overseen this blog since 2006.

He chats weekly with New Hampshire Public Radio about GraniteGeek topics, around 5:50 p.m. on Tuesdays. You can listen to old sessions here.

Contact:   E-mail or call 603-594-6531.

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Free, informal get-togethers at a bar that feature discussion among the audience (everybody is welcome) and experts in various fields. Check the website here.

NEXT CAFE: September (we take the summer off)

TOPIC: To be decided

Location: Killarney's Irish Pub, 9 Northeastern Boulevard (Holiday Inn, just west of Exit 4 on the turnpike).

PAST TOPICS:

2014:
June:
Fluoridation in public water. May: Organic gardening. April: Tele-medicine, or doctoring from afar. March: Bitcoin - what is it? February: The science of allergies. January: Electric cars.

2013:
November:
Multiple sclerosis. October: Genetically modified organisms. September: Aquaponics. June: Flying robots (drones!) May: PTSD and brain tauma in veterans. April: Cats vs. wildlife in NH. March: Mosquito-borne disease. February: The science of brewing. January: 3-D printing, with MakeIt Labs.

2012:
November:
"Dark skies and light pollution" with Discovery Center. October: "The science of concussion." September: "The science of pain management." June: "Arsenic in our environment." May: "Invasive species in New Hampshire" April: "Nanotechnology in business and the lab". March: "Lyme disease in NH". Feb: "Seasonal Affective Disorder." Jan: "Biomass energy"

2011:
Nov.: "Science of Polling." Oct.: "Digital Privacy." Sept: "Vaccinations." June: "Future of Food." May 2011: "Climate Change"

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Alternative power map

Click here to see my alternative-power Google map showing large-scale solar, wind, hydro and nuclear plants in N.H., plus intriguing alternative-power items.

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