Moving the moai
Moving the moai
National Geographic, July
The title of Hannah Bloch’s story about Easter Island and its famous monoliths is “If They Could Talk” — but maybe it should be “If They Could Walk.” Bloch describes theories about the collapse of the Rapa Nui civilization, which created those mysterious stone visages, or moai, and she goes on to give the latest ideas about how the monoliths were hauled out of the quarry and around the island. The moai, which can weigh more than 80 tons, were not easy to lug around, especially since the islanders had no draft animals.
For years, scientists have tested several possibilities, including dragging the maoi, rolling them on logs and swinging them forward a few steps at a time from a wooden hoist. The most recent effort drew on the island’s oral tradition, which maintains that the statues stood up and walked. With that in mind, archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo tried moving a statue by hoisting it upright with rope and using three teams – two to push, one to stabilize – to swivel it forward. They found that, by using the walking technique, as few as 18 people could move a five-ton statue a few hundred yards “relatively quickly.”
The game of life
EteRNA is an online puzzle game that asks players to design strands of ribonucleic acid, or RNA — the molecules that help to build proteins and regulate genes. Players who succeed in crafting intricate designs get more than just bragging rights on a high-scores list; they also get the chance to see how their designs fare in real life after being synthesized in a laboratory.
As Brendan Koerner describes in an article in Wired, EteRNA was developed by researchers at Stanford and Carnegie Mellon universities who hoped that it could serve as a scientific crowdsourcing tool, a way to rally large amounts of human brainpower to help gain deeper insight into how RNA molecules function. While computer-based algorithms work very well in systems where the rules are fully understood, such as chess, they aren’t as reliable in situations that involve unknowns, such as RNA synthesis. Humans, on the other hand, can use intuition to solve problems through trial and error. The players — who are often puzzle-game aficionados, rather than scientists — have already guided researchers toward a few breakthroughs, identifying new rules of RNA construction. Says Rhiju Das, one of the program’s designers, “If you look at what they’re doing, it’s much better work than some of the best graduate-level scientists.”
— Aaron Leitko