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Sugar High: The Dark History and Nasty Methods Used to Feed Our Sweet Tooth

sugar
© Unknown
Sugar is now 20 percent of the American diet, but it's not just our health that suffers from its pervasiveness.

Americans think an awful lot about sucrose -- table sugar -- but only in certain ways. We crave it and dream up novel ways to combine it with other ingredients to produce delectable foods; and we worry that we eat too much of it and that it is making us unhealthy or fat. But how often do Americans think about where sugar actually comes from or the people who produce it? As a tropical crop, sugarcane cannot grow in most U.S. states. Most of us do not smell the foul odors coming from sugar refineries, look out over vast expanses of nothing but sugarcane, or speak to those who perform the hard labor required to grow and harvest sugarcane.

Of course, sugar can be made from beets, a temperate crop, and more than half of sugar produced in the United States is. But globally, most of the story of sugar, past and present, centers around sugarcane, not beets, and as biofuels become more common, it is sugarcane that is cultivated for ethanol. What's more, some conscious eaters avoid beet sugar as most of it is now made from genetically modified sugar beets.

While I do not fool myself that sugar is "healthy," if I am going to satisfy my sweet tooth, I prefer cane sugar, maple syrup, agave nectar, or honey over the other choices: beet sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial sweeteners. Of the bunch, most Americans can find only honey and perhaps maple syrup sustainably and locally produced, but cane sugar is often the most versatile product for baking.

As a major consumer of cane sugar, I was disturbed to learn the realities of cane sugar production when I visited a sugarcane-producing area in Bolivia.
Einstein

Einstein Letters About Nazis to be Auctioned in US

Albert Einstein
Three letters by Albert Einstein to a American-German group which campaigned against the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s will go on the auction block in Los Angeles next week.

In one, the father of relativity praises the "Friends of Truth," a Cincinnati-based German-American group, for not allowing Jews to join it because it would weaken their anti-Nazi message.

"I welcome your association and their work from the bottom of my heart," Einstein, who made his home in the United States after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, wrote in an August 1934 letter to group member August Hamelberg.

"Every German who has the opportunity, by living away from Germany, to be healthy and stay out of life-threatening danger, should see it as their obligation to do so.
Sherlock

Ancient Walled City, Older than Egypt's Pyramids, Unearthed off US Georgia Coast

Sapelo- an artist's rendition.
© Gary C. Daniels, LostWorlds.org
Sapelo- an artist's rendition.
Six hours southeast of Atlanta off the Georgia coast on Sapelo Island, archaeologists have unearthed the remains of an ancient walled city which predates the construction of Egypt's pyramids. Known as the Sapelo Shell Ring Complex, this ancient city was constructed around 2300 B.C. and featured three neighborhoods each surrounded by circular walls twenty feet in height constructed from tons of seashells. Some of the earliest pottery in North America was also found buried in the remains of this lost city.

The site is quite an enigma because at the time of its construction the Native Americans living in the area were simple hunters and gatherers who had yet to invent agriculture. Many scholars believe agriculture is a prerequisite for civilization. Did these simple tribal people somehow make the leap from hunting-and-gathering to civilization in a single bound producing not only a walled city but also the new technology of pottery without the benefit of agriculture? Or did an already civilized people arrive on the coast of Georgia from elsewhere and, if so, where did they come from and why?

Just thirty years before the construction of the Sapelo Shell Rings researchers have noted that Bronze Age civilizations around the world show a pattern of collapse. According to the website LostWorlds.org:
Info

Sex, Beer & Politics: Riddles Reveal Life of Ancient Mesopotamians

Babylon Ruins
© G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, in public domain
At the time the tablet was written, more than 3,500 years ago, Babylon (shown here as seen in 1932) Babylon was one of the most important cities in southern Mesopotamia, controlling an empire in the region. It's possible the writer of the tablet's riddles lived within this kingdom. The tablet's current location is unknown.
Millennia before modern-day Americans made fun of their politicians or cracked crude jokes over a cold one, people in ancient Mesopotamia were doing much the same thing.

The evidence of sex, politics and beer-drinking comes from a newly translated tablet, dating back more than 3,500 years, which reveals a series of riddles.

The text is fragmentary in parts and appears to have been written by an inexperienced hand, possibly a student. The researchers aren't sure where the tablet originates, though they suspect its scribe lived in the southern part of Mesopotamia, near the Persian Gulf.

The translation, by Nathan Wasserman, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Institute of Archaeology, and Michael Streck, a professor with the Altorientalisches Institut at Universität Leipzig, is detailed in the most recent edition of the journal Iraq.
Boat

7,500-Year-Old Fishing Seines and Traps Discovered in Russia

An international team of archaeologists led by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) has found a series of more than 7,500-year-old fish seines and traps at an archaeological site near Moscow.

According to the CSIC, the newly discovered seines and traps display a great technical complexity and are among the oldest fishing equipment ever found in Europe.
© Dr. Ignacio Clemente/CSIC
Tools found at the Zamostje 2 site
"Until now, it was thought that the Mesolithic groups had seasonal as opposed to permanent settlements. According to the results obtained during the excavations, in both Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, the human group that lived in the Dubna river basin, near Moscow, carried out productive activities during the entire year," said Dr. Ignacio Clemente, a researcher at the CSIC.
Info

Origin of Ancient Jade Tool Baffles Scientists

Jade Tools
© Les O’Neil, University of Otago
A composite photograph of the front and back of the jade gouge shown with a centimeter scale.

The discovery of a 3,300-year-old tool has led researchers to the rediscovery of a "lost" 20th-century manuscript and a "geochemically extraordinary" bit of earth.

Discovered on Emirau Island in the Bismark Archipelago (a group of islands off the coast of New Guinea), the 2-inch (5-centimeters) stone tool was probably used to carve, or gouge, wood. It seems to have fallen from a stilted house, landing in a tangle of coral reef that was eventually covered over by shifting sands.

The jade gouge may have been crafted by the Lapita people, who appeared in the western Pacific around 3,300 years ago, then spread across the Pacific to Samoa over a couple hundred years, and from there formed the ancestral population of the people we know as Polynesians, according to the researchers.

Jade gouges and axes have been found before in these areas, but what's interesting about the object is the type of jade it's made of: it seems to have come from a distant region. Perhaps these Lapita brought it from wherever they originated.
Sherlock

Ancient Dog Skull Suggests We've Lived with Dogs for 33,000 Years

dog skull
© Nikolai D. Ovodov
A dog skull unearthed in a Siberian cave presents some of the oldest known evidence of dog domestication and suggests modern dogs may be descended from multiple ancestors.

The ancient skull, preserved in a cave in the Altai Mountains of Siberia for 33,000 years, presents some of the oldest known evidence of dog domestication and, together with equally ancient dog remains from a cave in Belgium, indicates that domestication of dogs may have occurred repeatedly in different geographic locations rather than with a single domestication event.

In other words, today's dogs might have originated from more than one ancient ancestor, contrary to what some DNA evidence previously has indicated.

Greg Hodgins, a researcher at the University of Arizona's Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory is co-author of the study that reported the find. He said:
Both the Belgian find and the Siberian find are domesticated species based on morphological characteristics. Essentially, wolves have long thin snouts and their teeth are not crowded, and domestication results in this shortening of the snout and widening of the jaws and crowding of the teeth.
Info

Ancient Astronomers Were No Fools

Ancient Astronomers
© Casey Reed

There's no doubt ancient astronomers were clever folk. Realizing Earth was round, estimating the Sun's distance, discovering heliocentricity - it's quite a list. But Brad Schaefer (Louisiana State University) suggested at the recent American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin that we should add another light bulb to the glow shining from history: ancient astronomers may have corrected for dimming caused by the atmosphere, centuries before anyone came up with a physical model for it.

This dimming is called atmospheric extinction. Extinction happens because starlight has to pass through Earth's atmosphere in order to reach us. But the effect isn't uniform: if you spend time stargazing you've probably noticed that a star high up in the sky's dome looks brighter than it does as it slides toward the horizon. That's because light coming to us from near the horizon passes through more atmosphere than if it shines straight down from overhead. (The Sun looks redder at sunset and sunrise for the same reason.)

Astronomers have catalogued stars' magnitudes for at least two millennia, all the way back to an ancient document called the Almagest. It was the Almagest that Schaefer began with - but his goal wasn't to determine if astronomers in olden days accounted for extinction. He wanted to use the brightnesses reported in it to decide a long-standing debate over who wrote the catalog in the first place, Hipparchus of Rhodes (circa 150 BC) or Ptolemy of Alexandria (circa AD 150).
Boat

Aegean Sea: Hunt for the ancient mariner

Armed with high-tech methods, researchers are scouring the Aegean Sea for the world's oldest shipwrecks

Brendan Foley peels his wetsuit to the waist and perches on the side of an inflatable boat as it skims across the sea just north of the island of Crete. At his feet are the dripping remains of a vase that moments earlier had been resting on the sea floor, its home for more than a millennium. "It's our best day so far," he says of his dive that morning. "We've discovered two ancient shipwrecks."

© J. Hios/akg-images
The Minoans were pioneers in long-distance ocean travel, as seen in this sixteenth-century BC wall mural from the Greek island of Santorini, which depicts Minoan ships.
Better Earth

Space station sees southern lights

We've been talking a lot about the northern lights lately, but here's a must-see view of the southern lights, as captured by the crew of the International Space Station on Jan. 3.

The time-lapse video begins over the Indian Ocean, with the camera looking eastward toward southern Australia. The red and green lights of the aurora shimmer just before sunrise, which comes when the station is south of Australia and west of Tasmania. Go full screen for the full effect.


The differences in the colors of the aurora are due to the various emissions sparked by the interaction of solar particles with oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the upper atmosphere. This previous posting delves into the colors of the auroral sky as seen from space.

I've got to think the space station's astronauts are closely watching the current uptick in solar activity. NASA says the solar storm poses no danger to the crew, so they'll be free to snap photos and send them along to the Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth, which is the source of this imagery. Be sure to check out Jason Major's report on Universe Today about the whole space-storm safety issue as it relates to the station's crew.

Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor.
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