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Image: Elasmotherium
A painting by Heinrich Harder (circa 1920) provides a view of Elasmotherium, a horned animal that went extinct tens of thousands of years ago. (Credit: Heinrich Harder via Wikipedia / U.S. public domain)

Unicorns are real! Scientists propose cloaking device to protect Earth from aliens! Glow-in-the-dark skin grown in lab! Those may sound like April Fool’s headlines, but they’re actually amped-up twists on real-life science. Check out these five recent scientific revelations that take a walk on the weird side:

‘Unicorns’ were real, maybe 29,000 years ago

Scientists have long said that there really was a shaggy, one-horned animal that roamed the earth in prehistoric times, known as Elasmotherium sibiricum or the Siberian unicorn. This unicorn didn’t look anything like a white horse. It looked more like a 6-foot-tall, 4-ton woolly rhino with a longer, more slender horn.

Researchers previously thought that the Siberian unicorn died out 350,000 years ago. But a study published in the American Journal of Applied Sciences reports the discovery of an Elasmotherium skull in the Pavlodar region of Kazakhstan that was carbon-dated to about 29,000 years ago. The paleontologists who made the find theorize that the region might have served as a last refuge for the beast. Modern humans could have encountered the unicorn … and killed it off.

Cloaking device could protect Earth from aliens

Laser guide star
The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope uses a 22-watt laser as part of its adaptive optics system. Researchers say a suite of similar lasers could be used to hide the evidence of Earth’s existence, or broadcast it to a target star. (Credit: G. Hudepohl / ESO)

Astronomers are identifying thousands of planets using a technique known as the transit method, which looks for the telltale dip in starlight when a dark world passes over the disk of an alien sun. Aliens could use the same method to detect Earth, and perhaps even tell that it was inhabited by an industrial civilization. But what if we don’t want to let the aliens know we’re here?

In the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Columbia University astronomers David Kipping and Alex Teachey propose using well-timed emissions of laser light to smooth out the signature of our existence. The “cloaking device” would compensate for the dip in light from our sun. The laser would require 30 to 250 megawatts of power, depending on how effective we want the cloaking device to be. And if it turns out we want to let the aliens know we’re here, the lasers could be flashed in such a way to advertise our existence.

Glow-in-the-dark skin (with hair) grown from stem cells

Glow-in-the-dark skin
Bioengineered mouse skin tissue glows green after transplantation because the cells were labeled with a fluorescent GFP gene. (Credit: Takashi Tsuji / RIKEN)

Wouldn’t it be great to grow custom-made skin for burn victims? That’s what researchers from the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology and other Japanese labs did, albeit for mice rather than people. The team started out with induced pluripotent stem cells, also known as IPS cells. They were able to produce a bioengineered version of mouse skin that included all three layers of skin tissue as well as the sebaceous glands and hair follicles that go with them. Their study was published today in Science Advances.

The goal of the research is to produce better transplant tissue for patients suffering from severe burns and skin diseases, as well as synthetic skin that can be used for non-animal cosmetics testing. About that glow-in-the-dark feature: The researchers added a fluorescent GFP gene just to make sure they could tell which tissue was transplanted during their experiments. The glow won’t be included in the human tissue that’s eventually produced. Unless you want it to be.

Network analysis reveals who’s on top in ‘Game of Thrones’

Game of Thrones network analysis
A computer graphic shows the social network generated from “A Storm of Swords,” part of George R.R. Martin’s Ice and Fire series. The color of a vertex indicates its community. The size of a vertex corresponds to its PageRank value, and the size of its label corresponds to its betweenness centrality. An edge’s thickness represents its weight. Click on the image for a larger version. (Credit: Andrew J. Beveridge and Jie Shan / Macalester College via Math Horizons / MAA)

So many characters have risen and fallen on the HBO sword-sorcery-and-sex series “Game of Thrones” that it’s hard to tell who’s essential to the story. Ned Stark? King Joffrey? Stannis Baratheon? A network analysis produced by Macalester College’s Andrew Beveridge and Jie Shan makes sense out of the tangle by analyzing the literary links between characters in “A Storm of Swords,” the third book in the George R.R. Martin series on which the HBO shows are based. The study is published in Math Horizons.

As described on Quartz, the links are weighted based on how often references to two characters appear in close proximity. The mathematical analysis came up with communities paralleling the shifting alliances in the book without further intervention from the researchers.

So who’s most central to the plot? No surprise: It’s Tyrion Lannister, the wine-quaffing dwarf who knows the game of thrones as well as anybody. No. 2 is Jon Snow, the good-hearted bastard who goes on to become lord of the Night’s Watch (and the subject of last season’s heart-stopping cliffhanger). It’s important to note that this analysis is based on only one book, so we shouldn’t assume this says anything about the cliffhanger’s outcome. Or should we?

Astronomers watch birth of a baby Earth

TW Hydrae as seen by ALMA
Images from the ALMA telescope array show the protoplanetary disk around TW Hydrae. The inset image focuses in on the inner region of the disk. (Credit: ESO / NAOJ / NRAO / CfA)

Scientists have been looking for alien Earths for years, and the European Southern Observatory has just picked up the signs that such a planet is forming around a sunlike star called TW Hydrae, 175 light-years away in the constellation Hydra. ESO’s Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array in Chile, also known as ALMA, has spotted an intriguing gap in the broad protoplanetary disk of dust and ice surrounding TW Hydrae.

The gap is about as far away from the star as Earth is from the sun, which means that the right conditions are likely to exist for the creation of an Earth-size planet or a super-Earth. Other gaps in the disk suggest that other planets are taking shape as well. The study is published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The TW Hydrae system “may closely resemble the solar system when it was only 10 million years old,” David Wilner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics says in a news release. That means we may have to wait only 4 billion years or so for our bizarro TW Hydrae brethren to evolve.

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