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departments

Benchmarks: August 2, 1922: Marines invade Teapot Dome, deepen scandal

Early in the morning of Aug. 2, 1922, soldiers from the United States Marine Corps arrived at the train station in Casper, Wyo. They had been traveling for three days from the East Coast to reach an important government facility, officially designated the Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 3 (NPR-3), better known as Teapot Dome. Their orders, which President Warren Harding had approved only the week before, were to evict trespassers from a small oil claim in the northern end of the reserve. Following a quick breakfast, the soldiers proceeded north by car under the command of Capt. George K. Shuler. He had hand-picked the men, with whom he had fought in World War I.
 
02 Aug 2010

Benchmarks: July 11, 1997: Neanderthal DNA unraveled

On July 11, 1997, six scientists announced they had sequenced DNA from a Neanderthal fossil. It was the first time anyone had analyzed the genetics of an extinct hominin, and the findings gave paleoanthropologists a new perspective on Neanderthals’ place in the human family tree.
The team, led by Svante Pääbo, then at the University of Munich in Germany, recovered the DNA from an upper arm bone. The bone was part of a collection of fossils discovered in 1856. Quarrymen working in the Feldhofer Cave in Germany’s Neander Valley found 16 bone fragments — including a skullcap, ribs, arms, legs and part of a hip — from several different individuals. The bones resembled human bones, but there were some striking differences: The skull had pronounced brow ridges and a low, sloping forehead, and the limb bones were extraordinarily thick.
11 Jul 2010

Benchmarks: June 30, 1972: Timekeepers add first "leap second" to clocks

On June 30, 1972, at exactly 11:59 p.m. and 60 seconds, timekeepers did something most people only dream about: They added more time to the day.
 
30 Jun 2010

Gain some, lose some

Scientists now know that Earth’s rotation is very slowly decelerating, such that the length of the rotational day is about two milliseconds longer than the 86,400 seconds it was nearly two centuries ago. But that doesn’t mean Earth’s rotation is always slowing down. The tidal force of the moon acts to slow Earth’s rotation by taking away some of the planet’s energy. But other factors, such as the expansion and contraction of the atmosphere with the seasons, the churning of material within Earth’s core, and the rebounding of Earth’s surface as the weight of glaciers is removed, can sometimes act to speed up Earth’s rotation by redistributing its mass, thereby altering Earth’s moment of inertia and thus its speed of rotation.

30 Jun 2010

Benchmarks: May 18, 1952: Stonehenge's age solved with Carbon-14

Like sentinels standing guard over a millennia-old secret, the 8-meter-tall stones of Stonehenge rise above the rolling green hills of England’s Salisbury Plain. The origin, date and purpose of the arrangement of the giant standing stones, located about 145 kilometers west of London, have puzzled people for thousands of years. But in 1952, physical chemist Willard Libby, a professor at the University of Chicago in Illinois, finally provided a concrete answer to one of the site’s most enduring questions: when it was built. To do this, Libby used a brand-new geochemical technique that he had been developing based on the radioactive isotope carbon-14. Only a few years later, his work on this groundbreaking technique earned him a Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

18 May 2010

Benchmarks: April 1, 1877: Prospector begins search for Tombstone's silver

On April 1, 1877, Ed Schieffelin arrived at Fort Huachuca in southeastern Arizona. Schieffelin, a prospector who had tried his luck all across the West, came to the desert looking for untapped riches. The soldiers at the fort warned him that the only thing he’d find was his own tombstone. But by Aug. 1, Schieffelin found what he was looking for: silver. He named his first mining claim Tombstone.

22 Apr 2010

Benchmarks: January 13, 1404: England prohibits Alchemy

Alchemy, in both ancient and medieval times, wasn’t just about turning lead into gold, although such “transmutation” was certainly one desirable goal. In a broader sense, alchemists were both philosophers and the precursors to modern chemists, in that they sought to understand thedifferent states of matter, the interactions of metals, and the way in which elements were created from the original chaos. There were thought to be four elements — earth, air, fire and water — and combining them properly could produce any substance on Earth, from medicines to gold. Among the more lofty ambitions of alchemists was the search for the fabled Philosopher’s Stone, a substance that was supposed to enable the transmutation of one substance into another (and perhaps act as an elixir of life).
 
13 Jan 2010

Benchmarks: December 1, 1959: Antarctic Treaty Signed

Science trumps all in Antarctica. For the past 50 years, Antarctica has remained a military-free, globally shared continent, dedicated to peace and scientific advancement, thanks to the Antarctica Treaty.
 
01 Dec 2009

Benchmarks: November 22, 1859: "On the Origin of Species" published

By David B. Williams

About a decade ago, I was fortunate enough to hold in my hands a first edition of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” The green cover was cracked and frayed. The cardboard backing protruded through the torn corners. I put the book down and stared at it in awe. The owner of this book was Asa Gray, one of America’s greatest botanists, an important early American supporter of natural selection, and a friend of Darwin’s.

23 Nov 2009

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