Mascot for Spring Festival Gala released, showing Chinese cultural connotations

Named Long Chenchen, or the "dragon of Chenchen," the mascot for China's upcoming Dragon Spring Festival Gala has been released, with a lot of design details showing the aesthetics of Chinese cultural elements. 

To celebrate 2024, which will be the Year of the Dragon in Chinese culture, "Long Chenchen" has been designed as a cute yet lively dragon, colored orange and red and with a pair of doll eyes. 

The seemingly cute-looking dragon takes inspiration from Chinese archaeological discoveries. The design of its nose was inspired by a dragon shaped jade item that was discovered in the Erlitou Ruins, a major site in Luoyang, Central China's Henan province that witnessed the rise and fall of the Xia (c.2070BC-c.1600BC) and Shang (c.1600BC-1046BC) dynasties. 

The fire shape pattern on its shoulder was inspired by a bronze piece with cloud patterns that dates back to the Spring and Autumn Period (770BC-476BC). 

The bronze piece has 12 vividly depicted dragon sculptures, showing ancient Chinese creativity as well as skill for handicrafts. 

Another source of inspiration was a gilded dragon sculpture that is currently in the Xi'an Museum. 

The dragon mascot has been praised by netizens on China's social media platforms such as Sina Weibo. Some said Chenchen looks "amiable" and can bring more international visitors to see the profound yet adorable Chinese culture. 

"I like this cartoon version of a dragon, as it is amiable and friendly. Those characteristics also represent the modern China," a netizen posted on Sina Weibo. 

Despite receiving many likes, the mascot has also sparked criticism. It has four claws, some of which have five toes and others have three. This made some netizens speculate the dragon character might have been synthesized by artificial intelligence.

"The Spring Festival Gala is the gala of the year for all of us in China. It deserves a professional team to design a character for it," one netizen wrote. 

On Thursday morning, China Media Group (CMG), the media platform that is going to be in charge of the gala, officially declared on Sina Weibo that the dragon mascot was created entirely by human beings but not AI.

Admitting that it has some "imperfections," CMG said that it was created by designers "one stroke after another." All the details about the dragon, including its patterns, colors and face have been revised by designers through many versions. 

Along with such verbal explanations, a short video showing the design team working on the mascot has been posted on Sina Weibo by CMG. The media group's response to the character's design has become a trending topic on Sina Weibo and has been viewed by more than 200 million netizens. 

"Whether it was created by AI or human beings, I think the mascot has successfully delivered the spirit of the dragon. The dragon is important to show the life-force of Chinese culture," one netizen posted on Sina Weibo. 

Cherishing life permeates Tibetan culture

Sichuan is experiencing light rain as Wu Lian walks on her way to work. Meanwhile, the earthworms emerging from the muddy ground along the road are also undergoing a migration. 

However, some earthworms are getting stranded on the cement pavement. At moments like these, Wu Lian picks them up one by one and places them back into the soil, despite her hands getting covered in mud. 

"Otherwise, they could easily be stepped on by passersby," she says. This unique habit stems from her trip to Lhasa, capital of the Xizang Autonomous Region, three years ago.

This "Earthworm Rescue Operation" is a very unique manifestation of the spirit of cherishing and protecting life that the Tibetan people have continued for centuries. 

Near the Potala Palace, in the vicinity of Zong Juelu Kang (Dragon King Pond), during the rainy season, you can see people of all ages bending down to gently pick up earthworms that haven't been able to complete their journey and placing them back onto the grass. 

This is because once the sun comes out in Lhasa, the worms quickly lose moisture and face danger. Some local children even take the initiative to inform unaware tourists to watch their step. Of course, this isn't just about rescuing earthworms; it's just that because earthworms are particularly fragile and inconspicuous, such a scene arises.

Even today, many Tibetan people still recite a protective mantra when drinking water, intending to liberate the microorganisms in the water about to be consumed. And they will tell their grandchildren the story of this small ritual like a tale. 

Similar to how the Han people usually call for compassion for even the tiniest of ants, Tibetans start from rescuing earthworms. This custom originates from the core doctrine of "equality of all sentient beings" in Tibetan Buddhism. 

Carried on to the present day, it can be said that rather than merely being a religious tradition, it has long been internalized as a guiding principle in the daily lives of ordinary people.

Another story is about the origin of the Shoton Festival. Before the 17th century, the Shoton Festival was a primitive religious celebration. 

According to folk tradition, as the weather warmed in the summer and all living things revived, monks going out for activities would inadvertently harm living creatures, violating the precept of "do not kill." 

Therefore, the Gelug sect's monastic rules stipulated that from the fourth to the sixth month of the Tibetan calendar, monks could only recite scriptures and practice in the temples. 

On the day the ban was lifted, monks would leave the temples and descend from the mountains. To thank the monks, local residents would prepare yogurt and organize outings and feasts, including traditional Tibetan opera performances, to celebrate the occasion.

It can be said that the practice of loving and protecting life is the starting point of the socialization process for Tibetan children. Life is adorable, life is respectable.

Tibetans believe that one should do everything possible to avoid harming any life. If there is truly no choice, then one should still hold an attitude of respect and gratitude. 

Such beliefs permeate through people's daily lives, in the cycles of seasons, and in their daily activities. 

The fundamental principle that every newborn baby first learns is a profound empathy toward the existence of any life. As an extension of this spirit, ­Tibetans often exhibit the utmost ­compassion toward the weak. 

The essence of compassion includes, but is not limited to, "tolerance." Its broader meaning encompasses ­acknowledgment, empathy, and an emotionally driven commitment to action. 

In Xizang, during feasts, not only were beggars not driven away, but they were also treated as honored guests. 

Even in contemporary urban life, Tibetans are still able to treat all members of society more equally. On this land, the quality of being "snobbish" is disliked by everyone.

Faith is not confined to temples but also ingrained in everyday activities. When we talk about culture, it is never limited to external forms like singing, dancing, or intricate artwork. 

The local people's outlook on life has gradually extended beyond the region with the opening up of Xizang. 

Therefore, when you hear tourists from other regions or countries expressing admiration for how Tibetan culture has purified their souls, it is likely not an exaggeration.

Detachable scales turn this gecko into an escape artist

Large, detachable scales make a newly discovered species of gecko a tough catch. When a predator grabs hold, Madagascar’s Geckolepis megalepis strips down and slips away, looking more like slimy pink Silly Putty than a rugged lizard.

All species of Geckolepis geckos have tear-off scales that regrow within a few weeks, but G. megalepis boasts the largest. Some of its scales reach nearly 6 millimeters long. Mark Scherz, a herpetologist and taxonomist at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, and colleagues describe the new species February 7 in PeerJ.

The hardness and density of the oversized scales may help the gecko to escape being dinner, Scherz says. Attacking animals probably get their claws or teeth stuck on the scales while G. megalepis contracts its muscles, loosening the connection between the scales and the translucent tissue underneath. The predator is left with a mouthful of armor, but no meat. “It’s almost ridiculous,” Scherz says, “how easy it is for these geckos to lose their scales.”

In 1967, LSD was briefly labeled a breaker of chromosomes

Two New York researchers have found the hallucinogenic drug will markedly increase the rate of abnormal change in chromosomes. [Scientists] tested LSD on cell cultures from the blood of two healthy individuals … [and] also found similar abnormal changes in the blood of a schizophrenic patient who had been treated with [LSD]. The cell cultures showed a two-fold increase in chromosomal breaks over the normal rate. — Science News, April 1, 1967

Psychedelic-era reports that LSD damages chromosomes got lots of press but fell apart within a few years. A review in Science in 1971 concluded that ingesting moderate doses of LSD caused no detectable genetic damage. Researchers are still trying to figure out the molecular workings of the drug. Recent evidence suggests that the substance gets trapped in a pocket of the receptor for serotonin, a key chemical messenger in the brain. Its prolonged stay may explain why LSD trips can last up to a day or more (SN: 3/4/17, p. 16).

Event Horizon Telescope to try to capture images of elusive black hole edge

The Milky Way’s black hole may finally get its close-up.

Beginning on April 5, scientists with the Event Horizon Telescope will attempt to zoom in on a never-before-imaged realm: a black hole’s event horizon. That’s the boundary at which gravity’s pull becomes so strong that nothing can escape.

In the telescope’s cross hairs are two supermassive black holes, one at the center of the Milky Way, the other in the nearby galaxy M87. Scientists hope to capture the light emitted by a halo of gas that swirls just outside the event horizon as the black hole swallows it up.

The Event Horizon Telescope is not one telescope, but eight radio observatories linked together into a massive network that spans the globe. The new observations will be the first that include the ultrasensitive Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile’s Atacama Desert, increasing the possibility that the image will reveal new details. Astronomers will take data for five nights within a 10-day period.

This is no Polaroid picture, though — it will be months before the data have been crunched and the portrait is ready for prime time.

Seeds coated in a common pesticide might affect birds’ migration

MINNEAPOLIS — Pesticides that kill insects can also have short-term effects on seed-eating birds. Ingesting even small amounts of imidacloprid, a common neonicotinoid pesticide, can disorient migratory white-crowned sparrows, researchers report.

Neonicotinoid pesticides were designed to be safer than traditional pesticides: toxic to insects, but comparatively harmless to other animals. But the new findings add to evidence suggesting that the widely used pesticides, which are chemically similar to nicotine, might be sending ecological ripples beyond the intended targets.
In lab studies, researchers captured wild white-crowned sparrows, Zonotrichia leucophrys, that were migrating north and fed them small doses of imidacloprid for three days — the amount that birds would get from eating a few pesticide-coated wheat seeds. The birds that ate the pesticides lost weight, study coauthor Margaret Eng reported November 15 at the annual meeting of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry North America.

And when placed in a large, inverted funnel used to study birds’ migratory orientations, the neonic-fed birds tried to fly in directions other than north. Birds that consumed sunflower oil instead showed no ill effects.

For the birds that ate pesticides, the damage was temporary — after two weeks, the birds regained normal function and body weight, Eng, a toxicologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada, and her colleagues also reported November 9 in Scientific Reports.

The fact that the effects reverse after a period of time is “good news,” says Thomas Bean, a toxicologist at the University of Maryland in College Park who wasn’t part of the study. The short-term malaise might incentivize birds to avoid that food in the future. Bean has found that Japanese quail, Coturnix japonica, also show similar temporary behavioral effects in response to neonicotinoids.
Preliminary results from field studies also appear to confirm the published lab findings. Eng’s team outfitted white-crowned sparrows in the wild with tiny tracking tags. The scientists gave the birds small amounts of pesticides, held the birds for six hours, and then released them.

When released, the birds still had traces of the chemicals in their blood plasma, the researchers reported at the November meeting. On average, there wasn’t a difference between groups in how long the birds hung around before resuming migration, but all of the birds that waited an abnormally long time had eaten neonics. Those animals’ flight paths also appeared to be slightly skewed from the route favored by the control birds.

Those analyses are preliminary, cautions Eng, and a closer look at the data could change the story.

First pedestrian death from a self-driving car fuels safety debate

The first known pedestrian fatality involving a fully autonomous self-driving car will most likely raise questions about the vehicles’ safety.

But “until we know what happened, we can’t really know what this incident means” for the future of self-driving vehicles, says Philip Koopman, a robotics safety expert at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Only when we know more about the crash, including details on the actions of the pedestrian as well as data logs from the car, can we make judgments, he says.
The incident took place late Sunday night when a self-driving car operated by Uber hit and, ultimately, killed a woman crossing the street in Tempe, Ariz. Early reports indicate that a human safety driver was at the wheel, and the car was in autonomous mode. In response, Uber has suspended testing of its fleet of self-driving cars in Tempe and other cities across the nation. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating, the New York Times reports.

The NTSB has previously conducted an investigation into the 2016 death of a man who was driving a partly autonomous Tesla, concluding that the driver ignored multiple safety warnings.

Self-driving cars already face high levels of mistrust from other motorists and potential passengers. In a AAA survey in 2017, 85 percent of baby boomers and 73 percent of millennials reported being afraid to ride in self-driving cars (SN Online: 11/21/17).

It is widely accepted by experts such as Koopman that autonomous cars will eventually be safer drivers than the average person, because the vehicles don’t get distracted, among other things. But proving that safety may be time-consuming. A 2016 study by Nidhi Kalra, an information scientist at the RAND Corporation in San Francisco, found that self-driving cars might have to drive on roads for decades to statistically prove their superior safety.
When — or if — self-driving cars are proven safer than human drivers, the vehicles will still have to contend with other questions, such as whether to take steps to protect passengers or pedestrians in a collision (SN: 12/24/16, p. 34).

Homo naledi may have lit fires in underground caves at least 236,000 years ago

An ancient hominid dubbed Homo naledi may have lit controlled fires in the pitch-dark chambers of an underground cave system, new discoveries hint.

Researchers have found remnants of small fireplaces and sooty wall and ceiling smudges in passages and chambers throughout South Africa’s Rising Star cave complex, paleoanthropologist Lee Berger announced in a December 1 lecture hosted by the Carnegie Institution of Science in Washington, D.C.

“Signs of fire use are everywhere in this cave system,” said Berger, of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

H. naledi presumably lit the blazes in the caves since remains of no other hominids have turned up there, the team says. But the researchers have yet to date the age of the fire remains. And researchers outside Berger’s group have yet to evaluate the new finds.

H. naledi fossils date to between 335,000 and 236,000 years ago (SN: 5/9/17), around the time Homo sapiens originated (SN: 6/7/17). Many researchers suspect that regular use of fire by hominids for light, warmth and cooking began roughly 400,000 years ago (SN: 4/2/12).

Such behavior has not been attributed to H. naledi before, largely because of its small brain. But it’s now clear that a brain roughly one-third the size of human brains today still enabled H. naledi to achieve control of fire, Berger contends.

Last August, Berger climbed down a narrow shaft and examined two underground chambers where H. naledi fossils had been found. He noticed stalactites and thin rock sheets that had partly grown over older ceiling surfaces. Those surfaces displayed blackened, burned areas and were also dotted by what appeared to be soot particles, Berger said.

Meanwhile, expedition codirector and Wits paleoanthropologist Keneiloe Molopyane led excavations of a nearby cave chamber. There, the researchers uncovered two small fireplaces containing charred bits of wood, and burned bones of antelopes and other animals. Remains of a fireplace and nearby burned animal bones were then discovered in a more remote cave chamber where H. naledi fossils have been found.

Still, the main challenge for investigators will be to date the burned wood and bones and other fire remains from the Rising Star chambers and demonstrate that the fireplaces there come from the same sediment layers as H. naledi fossils, says paleoanthropologist W. Andrew Barr of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., who wasn’t involved in the work.

“That’s an absolutely critical first step before it will be possible to speculate about who may have made fires for what reason,” Barr says.

Mangrove forests expand and contract with a lunar cycle

The glossy leaves and branching roots of mangroves are downright eye-catching, and now a study finds that the moon plays a special role in the vigor of these trees.

Long-term tidal cycles set in motion by the moon drive, in large part, the expansion and contraction of mangrove forests in Australia, researchers report in the Sept. 16 Science Advances. This discovery is key to predicting when stands of mangroves, which are good at sequestering carbon and could help fight climate change, are most likely to proliferate (SN: 11/18/21). Such knowledge could inform efforts to protect and restore the forests.
Mangroves are coastal trees that provide habitat for fish and buffer against erosion (SN: 9/14/22). But in some places, the forests face a range of threats, including coastal development, pollution and land clearing for agriculture. To get a bird’s-eye view of these forests, Neil Saintilan, an environmental scientist at Macquarie University in Sydney, and his colleagues turned to satellite imagery. Using NASA and U.S. Geological Survey Landsat data from 1987 to 2020, the researchers calculated how the size and density of mangrove forests across Australia changed over time.

After accounting for persistent increases in these trees’ growth — probably due to rising carbon dioxide levels, higher sea levels and increasing air temperatures — Saintilan and his colleagues noticed a curious pattern. Mangrove forests tended to expand and contract in both extent and canopy cover in a predictable manner. “I saw this 18-year oscillation,” Saintilan says.

That regularity got the researchers thinking about the moon. Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor has long been known to help drive the tides, which deliver water and necessary nutrients to mangroves. A rhythm called the lunar nodal cycle could explain the mangroves’ growth pattern, the team hypothesized.

Over the course of 18.6 years, the plane of the moon’s orbit around Earth slowly tips. When the moon’s orbit is the least tilted relative to our planet’s equator, semidiurnal tides — which consist of two high and two low tides each day — tend to have a larger range. That means that in areas that experience semidiurnal tides, higher high tides and lower low tides are generally more likely. The effect is caused by the angle at which the moon tugs gravitationally on the Earth.

Saintilan and his colleagues found that mangrove forests experiencing semidiurnal tides tended to be larger and denser precisely when higher high tides were expected based on the moon’s orbit. The effect even seemed to outweigh other climatic drivers of mangrove growth, such as El Niño conditions. Other regions with mangroves, such as Vietnam and Indonesia, probably experience the same long-term trends, the team suggests.

Having access to data stretching back decades was key to this discovery, Saintilan says. “We’ve never really picked up before some of these longer-term drivers of vegetation dynamics.”

It’s important to recognize this effect on mangrove populations, says Octavio Aburto-Oropeza, a marine ecologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., who was not involved in the research.

Scientists now know when some mangroves are particularly likely to flourish and should make an extra effort at those times to promote the growth of these carbon-sequestering trees, Aburto-Oropeza says. That might look like added limitations on human activity nearby that could harm the forests, he says. “We should be more proactive.”