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Science Notes

New Players In Race to the New World

Could an unknown Carthaginian captain dethrone Leif Eriksson and Christopher Columbus as the discoverers of the New World?

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It's possible, says Mark McMenamin, a geology professor at Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. The hints come from computer-enhanced images of what he says are stylized maps found on 14 Carthaginian gold coins. The coins date between 350 and 320 BC.

Until about 1963, the images were thought to be inscriptions, but then the "letters" in the inscription were found not to exist in the Carthaginian alphabet when the coins were minted.

Another numismatist later noted that one of the oldest Greek maps is found on a coin minted in ancient Rhodes. Other Greek coins have carried maps of the Ephesus region. When Dr. McMenamin looked at the images on the Carthaginian coins from that perspective, he clearly saw schematics of the Mediterranean region. If this view is correct, the coins could represent the earliest evidence of mapping the Mediterranean.

Even more intriguing, McMenamin says, is a large land mass that appears west of the Straight of Gibraltar on the "maps." He notes that the Carthaginians were expert seamen who had perfected nighttime navigation and had colonized parts of the West African coast.

He also notes that Greek historian Diodorus refers to Carthaginian stories of a "large island" far to the west with mountains and navigable rivers - a description that rules out the Azores or Canary Islands. These explorers, McMenamin says, may have crossed the Atlantic from the Azores to what is now Brazil. Hence, the land mass on the coin could be the first representation of the New World.

Hyakutake's torch

Comet Hyakutake, which last spring gave millions of people their best view of a comet in years, has given astronomers their first look at cometary acetylene. The gas, used on earth in welding torches and never before seen in comets, represents a significant confirmation that many comets carry materials left over from the earliest days of the solar system.

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An international team of astronomers found that Hyakutake was losing about 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of acetylene a second, versus about 6,000 kilograms of water per second, as it neared the sun. The ratio of acetylene to water closely matches the ratio that computer simulations yield for the tenuous collection of gas, dust, and ice between stars, known as interstellar dust. Their findings are reported in the current issue of the journal Nature.

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