Head Bones of a Very Distant Family Member / Freezing the Dead / Tobacco Dangers Greater Than Believed
This is Sarah Long. And this is Bob Doughty with SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, a VOA Special English program about recent developments in science. Today, we tell about the discovery of head bones from the earliest member of the human family. We tell about the science of freezing dead people. And we tell about the links between smoking tobacco and cancer.
An international team of anthropologists says it has discovered bones of the earliest member of the human family. The scientists say the creature may be the oldest ancestor of humans.
Michel Brunet (ME-shell broo-NAY) of the University of Poitiers (pwah-TEE-AY) in France and his team announced the discovery in the publication Nature last month. The group found the head bones of the creature last year in the central African nation of Chad. They say the creature was about the size of a modern chimpanzee, the animal most like humans. They say the brain area is like that of a chimpanzee. However, the face and teeth are more like those of a human. The discovery suggests that the head bones are closely related to the last common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans.
The scientists are not sure if the creature walked on two legs because they did not find any bones below the head. However, they say the place where the backbone extended into the head is similar to that of creatures that walked on two legs.
The scientists say the bones are almost seven-million years old. They say the bones represent the first human-like creature on Earth. Experts say the discovery pushed back the date of the beginning of human life to a period about which nothing is known. Until now, experts have believed that the first creature to walk on two legs lived about four-million years ago.
Experts say the skull is the oldest ever found. Its modern-looking face has only been seen on creatures thought to have lived about one-million years ago. Some experts say this means the creature was similar to humans, but did not survive into modern times. The anthropologists call the ancient creature "Toumai" (TOO-my). This means "hope of life" in the Goran language.
Five independent experts studied the bones. A few scientists do not agree about their meaning. One said he thinks the bones are the head of an ancient female gorilla. Two others described the creature as pre-human. They suggested further research is needed to find out if it was a human. The critics do agree, however, that the discovery is important for scientists studying how humans developed on Earth.
Other experts say it will never be possible to know exactly where or when human beings first developed. But they say the new discovery shows that the spread of human ancestors was not limited to eastern and southern Africa as had been thought.
Experts say the discovery means scientists will increase their explorations in Chad. The area in northern Chad where the bones were found is now a desert. But scientists believe it once had plants, trees and water. In the past eight years, experts have found more than ten-thousand bones from many different kinds of animals in the area. Many experts say the new discovery is a sign that many other kinds of bones will be found in the future. These discoveries may change what we know about how life on Earth developed.
Cryonics is a method of freezing the bodies of people who have died. Cryonics activists believe that scientific technology in the future could bring those people back to life. Public interest in cryonics has increased since the death of American baseball player Ted Williams. Williams died last month in Florida. He was eighty-three years old.
There were reports soon after Williams' death that his body had been transported to a cryonics company in Arizona. The company freezes and stores the bodies of people who have just died.
People have long talked about the idea of awakening someone from a suspended condition. Some people have made jokes about this. Cryonics has been shown in funny American movies including the "Austin Powers" series and Woody Allen's movie called "Sleeper."
However, other people are serious about cryonics. Robert Ettinger is the man most responsible for bringing cryonics into the real world. He became famous after the publication of his book, "The Prospect of Immortality," in nineteen-sixty-four. The book said that people in the future could possess the technology to bring dead people back to life and cure them.
Mr. Ettinger says an increasing number of people like the idea of being frozen after death. He formed the Cryonics Institute in Michigan. The business has frozen and stores forty-one bodies. The company is actively accepting bodies for what is called cryonic suspension.
There currently are about one-hundred people and animals in cryonic suspension in the United States. The first was frozen in nineteen-sixty-seven. It costs between thirty-thousand dollars and more than one-hundred-thousand dollars to freeze and store a body or a head. The Alcor Life Extension Foundation is the country's largest cryonics laboratory. Alcor was established in nineteen-seventy-two. It moved to Arizona eight years ago. The company reports that almost six-hundred people are waiting to have their remains frozen.
The process starts as soon as someone is declared legally dead. Special teams start preparations for freezing the remains. The body is taken to a cryonics laboratory immediately after death to slow the chemical break down of genetic material. The remains are put on dry ice and work begins on the heart and lungs. Then, blood is carefully removed from the body. A glycerin liquid is pumped in to protect the body from freeze damage.
Slowly, the body is cooled to a temperature of about one-hundred-ninety-six degrees below zero Celsius. The body is placed upside down in a tall metal container. Each month, liquid nitrogen is added to keep the body frozen.
The Alcor company argues that cryonics is not a way to store dead bodies. The company says it is a new method of saving lives. Alcor says the condition we call dying is not a sudden event. It is much more like a deep sleep. Alcor says studies have shown that individual cells in the body are still alive several hours after the declaration of death. It says these cells are still able to operate normally.However, scientists dispute this argument. They say there is no evidence to support the idea that future technology could bring anyone back from the dead.
A recent report by the International Agency for Research on Cancer says the dangers of tobacco smoke are greater than had been thought. The agency is part of the World Health Organization. The new report is part of a series written by independent international experts on the dangers of different chemicals.
A committee of twenty-nine experts from twelve countries developed the report. These scientists examined more than fifty medical studies concerning tobacco smoking. The group says that tobacco use is the largest cause of preventable cancers around the world. Experts say that more than one-thousand-million people around the world smoke tobacco.
The report says that one-half of all people who smoke cigarettes will die from diseases caused by smoking tobacco. These include cancers of the lung, stomach, liver, kidney and blood. The report also says tobacco use causes an even greater number of deaths from lung diseases, heart disease and stroke.
The report says other kinds of tobacco use also increase the chances of developing cancers of the lung, head and neck. These include smoking cigars, pipes and bidis -- tobacco rolled in a leaf that is popular in South Asia. The report also says that people who smoke endanger the health of non-smokers who breathe in tobacco smoke.
This SCIENCE IN THE NEWS program was written by Nancy Steinbach and George Grow. It was produced by George Grow. This is Sarah Long. And this is Bob Doughty. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.