Top stories: Honoring Stephen Hawking, excavating eruptions, and solving an ancient skull mystery | Science

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Top stories: Honoring Stephen Hawking, excavating eruptions, and solving an ancient skull mystery | Science


Stephen Hawking, who shined a light on black holes, dies at age 76

Stephen Hawking, the prodigious British theoretical cosmologist who became an international celebrity, died this week at the age of 76. Hawking suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative nerve disease that confined him to a wheelchair for most of his adult life and eventually rendered him capable of speaking only through a computer-controlled voice synthesizer. Nevertheless, Hawking made seminal contributions to astrophysics, particularly in the study of black holes, veritable holes in the fabric of the universe.

How ancient humans survived global ‘volcanic winter’ from massive eruption

About 74,000 years ago, a colossal volcano in Sumatra named Toba blew its top in the largest eruption to occur anywhere on Earth in the past 2 million years. Gas and ashes spewed into the atmosphere and spread around the world within weeks, and some scientists think they triggered a global “volcanic winter” that may have lasted decades, leading to massive die-offs and the near-extinction of the human species. But a new study suggests that the eruption’s effects were less dramatic.

Flooding has flushed 43 billion plastic pieces out to sea

The Mersey River Basin near Manchester, U.K., is the most plastic polluted watershed in the world, with more than half a million plastic particles per square meter of riverbed. That’s one of the most dramatic findings of the first global map of aquatic plastic pollution, published this week. When large storms flood rivers, the plastic collected there washes out to sea, making rivers a significant source of such pollution in the world’s oceans.

Strange, elongated skulls reveal medieval Bulgarian brides were traded for politics

In a handful of medieval Bavarian farming hamlets populated mostly by blue-eyed blondes, more than a dozen women with dark hair, dark eyes, and unusual elongated skulls would have stood out. A new DNA study suggests that these women, whose striking skulls have been unearthed from nearby grave sites, were high-ranking “treaty brides” from Romania and Bulgaria, married off to cement political alliances.

There’s a new aurora in subpolar skies. Its name is Steve

The northern and southern lights have dazzled sky watchers for millennia with their eerie, greenish glows. Now, a new purplish aurora is joining the show, stretching from east to west at lower latitudes. Discovered by citizen scientists, and substantiated by professional scientists using photographs and satellite data, the new type of aurora is similar to a previously measured—but never seen—atmospheric phenomenon. Its nickname: Steve.

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