Science Briefs

Grad student deciphers ancient Egyptian’s letter home

A newly deciphered 1,800-year-old letter written to his family by an Egyptian solider serving in a Roman legion in Europe shows striking similarities to what some modern soldiers may feel.

Rice University grad student Grant Adamson took up the task in 2011 when he was assigned the papyrus to work on during a summer institute hosted at Brigham Young University.

The private letter sent home by Roman recruit Aurelius Polion was discovered in 1899 in the ancient Egyptian city of Tebtunis. It had been cataloged and described briefly before, but no one had deciphered and published the letter, which was written mostly in Greek.

“Because it was in such bad shape, no one had worked much on it for about 100 years,” Adamson said. Even now portions of the letter’s contents are uncertain or missing and not possible to reconstruct.

Polion’s letter to his brother, sister and his mother, “the bread seller,” reads like one of a man who is very desperate to reach his family after sending six letters that have gone unanswered. Adamson believes Polion was stationed in the Roman province of Pannonia Inferior at Aquincum (modern-day Budapest, Hungary). See the letter and Adamson’s report in The Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists (at

New STEM shows debut on Nat Geo

A pair of STEM-oriented series debut March 24 on National Geographic Channel: “None of the Above” at 9 p.m. and “The Numbers Game” at 9:30.

In “None of the Above,” irreverent host Tim Shaw, an engineer, presents a situation; viewers can choose from among possible outcomes. Example: Pour a bottle of bourbon into an ice bucket, mix in several dollar bills and strike a match. What happens when the heat hits the liquor? A.) Nothing, because the match goes out; B.) it burns but the bills are unharmed; C.) it burns and the bills are destroyed or D.) none of the above.

In “The Numbers Game,” host Jake Porway, a data scientist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, examines the statistical data behind everyday situations by dissecting the science behind experiments. The first program’s topic: How likely is it that you’ll be a hero in your lifetime? Staff reports

Water detected at distant planet

A team from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and various American universities has detected water vapor in the atmosphere of a planet outside our solar system. The team applied a sophisticated Doppler technique to the infrared to directly detect the planet and demonstrate the presence of water in its atmosphere. The discovery is described in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The planet, named tau Boo b, orbits the nearby star tau Boötis (in the Boötis constellation) and belongs to a class of exotic planets called “hot Jupiters” that are not found in our solar system. A hot Jupiter is a massive extrasolar planet that orbits very close to its parent star. Unlike our Jupiter, which is fairly cold and has an orbital period of about 12 years, tau Boo b orbits its star every 3.3 days and is heated to extreme temperatures by its proximity to the star. Under these conditions, water will exist as a high temperature steam. While hot Jupiters are found to be relatively common in the galaxy, the origin and nature of these planets remain the subject of research.