Q. What amazing feat did Apollo 8 achieve seven months before Apollo 11’s historic lunar landing? And what little-known part did astronaut Jim Lovell’s wife play?
A. The Apollo 8 flight in which astronauts Lovell, Frank Borman and Bill Anders circumnavigated the moon in December, 1968, was “certainly more radical” than Apollo 11, say William Sheehan and Kevin Schindler in “Discover” magazine. “As the first manned mission to leave Earth orbit and reach the moon’s sphere of gravitational influence, it accomplished a truly astronomical leap forward in distance. It would be as if the Wright brothers, after Kitty Hawk, immediately set out to fly around the globe.”
One important task of Apollo 8 was to locate suitable landmarks along Apollo 11’s approach to its likely landing site in the Sea of Tranquility, and as Lovell studied the lunar surface, he noted a triangular mountain range with more sun-angle contrast. He called it Mount Marilyn after his wife. That remained its unofficial name until 2017, when the International Astronomical Union accepted the designation, though it stressed the name was not meant to commemorate any specific person (Marilyn Lovell, Marilyn Monroe, or anyone else).
Conclude the authors: Mount Marilyn will remind future explorers that the wives of the astronauts “helped make history, and the triumph belongs as much to them as to their husbands who actually went to the moon.”
BTW, “in the latest count of the more than 1,600 craters on the moon, only about 30 bear a woman’s name.”
Q. Did you ever play hide-and-seek with your kids when they were young? Do you know what animal also seems to like to play the game?
A. “Rats quickly learned the game and learned to alternate between hiding vs. seeking roles,” reports Annika Stefanie Reinhold et al. in “Science” magazine. As seekers, rats searched for the hidden humans and kept on until they were found. Rats turned out to be “strategic players,” using visual cues and targeting past hiding locations. During this stage, they were highly vocal and looked like they were having fun, teasing the experimenter and executing “joy jumps.” As hiders, the rats tended to remain silent and preferred opaque enclosures and changing hiding locations.
Researchers did not offer food reward for playing the game but rather engaged in playful interactions with the rats after the game was over. Also, neuronal recordings revealed “intense prefrontal cortex activity” that varied with game events and with the two roles.
At present, it is unclear how widespread animal play behavior is and what its evolutionary function might be.
Q. Prehistoric spouted vessels dating back around 3,000 years may actually have been baby bottles. What is the significance of this discovery?
A. “The pots are a window on a key stage in human history when there was rapid population growth aided by the ability to nourish babies with something other than human breast milk,” says Julie Dunne of the University of Bristol, UK, as reported by Claire Wilson in “New Scientist” magazine. Since breastfeeding women are less able to get pregnant, modern hunter-gatherers tend to breastfeed for up to five years, thus spacing out their children and freeing adults from managing lots of babies when they’re on the move. As Dunne explains, in farming communities, “feeding infants with something other than breast milk would have let families have children in quicker succession and boost the population.”
Analyzing chemical residues from spouted pots in the graves of three young children, Dunne’s team discovered that two had fatty acids found in milk from goats, sheep or cattle; the third apparently had contained both animal and breast milk at various times. The vessels could have been used to wean babies off breast milk or given to those whose mothers had died.