×
AI

Your Brain Uses 'Autocorrect' To Decipher Language and AI Just Helped Us Prove It, New Study Says (thedebrief.org) 52

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Debrief: How do we how know to speak and to read? These essential questions led to new research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that uses AI models to examine how and why our brains understand language. Oddly enough, your brain may work just like your smartphone's autocorrect feature. The new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that the function of these AI language models resembles the method of language processing in the human brain, suggesting that the human brain may use next-word prediction to drive language processing.

In this new study, a team of researchers at MIT analyzed 43 different language models, many of which were optimized for next-word prediction. These models include the GPT-3 (Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3), which can generate realistic text when given a prompt, or other ones designed to provide a fill-in-the-blanks function. Researchers presented each model with a string of words to measure the activity of its neural nodes. They then compared these patterns to activity in the human brain, measured when test subjects performed language tasks like listening, reading full sentences, and reading one word at a time. The study showed that the best performing next-word prediction models had activity patterns that bore the most resemblance to those of the human brain. In addition, activity in those same models also correlated with human behavioral measures, such as how fast people could read the text.

The new study results suggest that next-word prediction is one of the key functions in language processing, supporting a previously proposed hypothesis but has yet to be confirmed. Scientists have not found any brain circuits or mechanisms that conduct that type of processing. Moving forward, the researchers plan to build variants of the next-word prediction models to see how small changes between each model affect their processing ability. They also plan to combine these language models with computer models developed to perform other brain-like tasks, such as perception of the physical world.

Science

An Ultra-Precise Clock Shows How To Link the Quantum World With Gravity (quantamagazine.org) 73

Time was found to flow differently between the top and bottom of a single cloud of atoms. Physicists hope that such a system will one day help them combine quantum mechanics and Einstein's theory of gravity. From a report: The infamous twin paradox sends the astronaut Alice on a blazing-fast space voyage. When she returns to reunite with her twin, Bob, she finds that he has aged much faster than she has. It's a well-known but perplexing result: Time slows if you're moving fast. Gravity does the same thing. Earth -- or any massive body -- warps space-time in a way that slows time, according to Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity. If Alice lived her life at sea level and Bob at the top of Everest, where Earth's gravitational pull is slightly weaker, he would again age faster. The difference on Earth is modest but real -- it's been measured by putting atomic clocks on mountaintops and valley floors and measuring the difference between the two.

Physicists have now managed to measure this difference to the millimeter. In a paper posted earlier this month to the scientific preprint server arxiv.org, researchers from the lab of Jun Ye, a physicist at JILA in Boulder, Colorado, measured the difference in the flow of time between the top and the bottom of a millimeter-tall cloud of atoms. The work is a step toward studying physics at the intersection of general relativity and quantum mechanics, two theories that are famously incompatible. The new clock takes a fundamentally quantum system -- an atomic clock -- and intertwines it with gravity's pull. In the experiment, Ye's team used an optical lattice clock, a cloud of 100,000 strontium atoms that can get tickled by a laser. If the laser's frequency is just right, the electrons orbiting each atom will be excited to a higher, more energetic orbit. Because only a tiny range of laser frequencies motivate the electrons to move, measuring this frequency provides an extremely precise measurement of time. It's like a quantum grandfather clock, where the ticking comes from the oscillations of the laser light rather than the swing of a pendulum.

Space

Astronomers Find Nascent Exploding Star, 'Rosetta Stone' of All Supernovas (gizmodo.com) 27

"A star located 60 million light years away went supernova last year, and astronomers managed to capture all stages of the stellar explosion using telescopes both on the ground and in space," reports Gizmodo.

Long-time Slashdot reader spaceman375 shared Gizmodo's report: This awesome display of astronomical power has yielded a dataset of unprecedented proportions, with independent observations gathered before, during, and after the explosion. It's providing a rare multifaceted view of a supernova during its earliest phase of destruction. The resulting data should vastly improve our understanding of the processes involved when stars go supernova, and possibly lead to an early warning system in which astronomers can predict the timing of such events.

"We used to talk about supernova work like we were crime scene investigators, where we would show up after the fact and try to figure out what happened to that star," Ryan Foley, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the leader of the investigation, explained in a press release. "This is a different situation, because we really know what's going on and we actually see the death in real time."

Of course, it took 60 million years for the light from this supernova to reach Earth, so it's not exactly happening in "real time," but you get what Foley is saying... Observations of circumstellar material in close proximity to the star were made by Hubble just hours after the explosion, which, wow. The star shed this material during the past year, offering a unique perspective of the various stages that occur just prior to a supernova explosion. "We rarely get to examine this very close-in circumstellar material since it is only visible for a very short time, and we usually don't start observing a supernova until at least a few days after the explosion," said Samaporn Tinyanont, the lead author of the paper, which is set for publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. TESS managed to capture one image of the evolving system every 30 minutes, starting a few days before the explosion and ending several weeks afterward. Hubble joined in on the action a few hours after the explosion was first detected. Archival data dating back to the 1990s was also brought in for the analysis, resulting in an unprecedented multi-decade survey of a star on its way out...

In the press release, the researchers referred to SN 2020fqv as the "Rosetta Stone of supernovas," as the new observations could translate hidden or poorly understood signals into meaningful data.

Mars

Hear Sounds From Mars Captured By NASA's Perseverance Rover (space.com) 21

NASA's Perseverance rover has recorded up to five hours of sounds on the Mars, giving engineers a sense of how the Red Planet sounds different from Earth. Space.com reports: NASA now has a Perseverance rover website filling up with Martian audio, ranging from wind gusts to the sounds of rover driving as it seeks spots to hunt for the signs of life on the Red Planet. In March, we even heard its laser "snapping" (sadly, no pew-pew noise was evident.)

"It's like you're really standing there," Baptiste Chide, a planetary scientist who studies data from the Perseverance microphones, said in a statement from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). "Martian sounds have strong bass vibrations, so when you put on headphones, you can really feel it. I think microphones will be an important asset to future Mars and solar system science," added Chide, who works at France's Institute of Research in Astrophysics and Planetology. The SuperCam mics have been especially helpful for JPL to learn more about the environment in Jezero Crater, where Perseverance has been roaming for about seven Earth months.
In May, Perseverance was able to hear the sound of the Ingenuity drone's rotors buzzing from a distance of 262 feet away. "The audio has been useful for investigations ranging from how sound propagates on Mars, and keeping Perseverance well-maintained," the report adds.
Math

A Math Teacher is Putting Calculus Lessons on Pornhub (boingboing.net) 57

An anonymous reader shares a report: It's safe to assume that few Pornhub visitors are looking for hour-long calculus videos (by a fully-clothed instructor), but Taiwanese math teacher Changhsu puts them there anyway. His channel is filled with over 200 decidedly unsexy chalkboard lessons about topics like differential equations. The 34-year-old math tutor found the YouTube market for math explainers to be saturated, so he decided to expand his reach into Pornhub. He told Mel Magazine that he wants to reach a new market of mathematics learners.
Science

Memes About COVID-19 Helped Us Cope With Life in a Pandemic, a New Study Finds (npr.org) 18

Does a meme a day keep the doctor away? Not quite, but it looks like it might help, according to one recent study. From a report: Researchers with Pennsylvania State University and the University of California Santa Barbara found that memes helped people cope with life during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study published this week in the Psychology of Popular Media journal. Researchers found that those who viewed memes -- a type of humor they described as funny or cute pictures that reference pop culture -- reported "higher levels of humor" and more positive feelings, according to a news release from the American Psychological Association, which publishes the journal.

They surveyed 748 people online last December: 72% of those who responded were white, 54% identified as women, 63% didn't hold a college degree, and their ages ranged from 18 to 88, the release states. They were shown a variety of meme types, with different kinds of photos and captions, and asked to rate the cuteness, humor and emotional responses prompted by the materials, as well as how much the memes in question made them think about COVID-19. Those who viewed memes that specifically referenced the pandemic felt less stress than those who viewed non-pandemic-related memes. They also felt more capable of coping with the COVID-19 crisis and were better at processing information, according to the study. And they were also less likely to be stressed about the pandemic than those who didn't view memes related to COVID-19 at all, researchers concluded.

Medicine

India Crosses the Milestone of 1 Billion COVID-19 Vaccinations (npr.org) 41

India has administered 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine, officials said Thursday, passing a milestone for the South Asian country where the delta variant fueled its first crushing surge earlier this year. From a report: About 75% of India's total eligible adult population have received at least one dose, while around 30% are fully immunized. The country of nearly 1.4 billion people is the second to exceed a billion cumulative doses after the most populous country China did so in June. Coronavirus cases have fallen sharply in India since the devastating months at the start of the year when the highly transmissible delta variant, first detected in the country a year ago, was infecting hundreds of thousands daily, sending COVID-19 patients into overwhelmed hospitals and filling cremation grounds. Officials have bolstered the vaccination campaign in recent months, which experts say have helped control the outbreak since. The country began its drive in January. Still, there remains a worrying gap between those who have received one shot and those fully immunized. Ramping up the second dose is "an important priority," V K Paul, the head of the country's COVID-19 taskforce, said at a briefing last week.
ISS

Meet Starlab: Private Space Station Planned To Fly In 2027 (space.com) 38

Nanoracks, Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin announced today (Oct. 21) that they plan to get a free-flying private space station up and running in low Earth orbit (LEO) by 2027. Space.com reports: The outpost, called Starlab, is envisioned to be a tourist destination as well as a research and manufacturing hub that helps foster the growth of an off-Earth economy. "To meet U.S. government, international space agency and commercial needs in space, these industry leaders will develop Starlab specifically to enable the growing space economy and meet pent-up customer demand for space services such as materials research, plant growth and astronaut activity," the three companies said in a press release.

The four-person Starlab station will be lofted in a single launch, which is expected to take place in 2027. The outpost will feature a habitat module with 12,000 cubic feet (340 cubic meters) of internal volume, a power and propulsion element, a laboratory setup and a large external robotic arm to service payloads and cargo, according to Nanoracks' Starlab page. For comparison, the International Space Station (ISS) has 32,333 cubic feet (916 cubic meters) of internal volume, which is equivalent to that of a Boeing 747 jet.

Science

Steak Knife Made From Hardened Wood Is Three Times Sharper Than Steel (newatlas.com) 91

Scientists have used a new form of hardened wood to create a steak knife that is nearly three times sharper than a stainless steel dinner table knife. It can even be washed in the dishwasher! New Atlas reports: This hardy new form of wood is the handiwork of scientists at the University of Maryland, who set out to supercharge the material's natural strength, which lies in the cellulose packed inside. Cellulose is the primary component of wood, accounting for 40 to 50 percent of the material, and itself has a higher strength-to-density ratio than many engineered materials, including ceramics, metals and polymers. But the remainder of wood, made up of the binding materials hemicellulose and lignin, dilutes its overall strength and limits its applications. The authors of the study set out remove these weaker parts of the wood while preserving the cellulose structures.

"It's a two-step process," says senior author Teng Li. "In the first step, we partially delignify wood. Typically, wood is very rigid, but after removal of the lignin, it becomes soft, flexible, and somewhat squishy. In the second step, we do a hot press by applying pressure and heat to the chemically processed wood to densify and remove the water." The hardened wood was then carved into a knife and coated in mineral oil, which counters the natural tendency of cellulose to absorb water, extending the lifespan of the material, preserving the blade's sharpness and making it dishwasher safe. According to the team, the hard wood knife is almost three times sharper than a stainless steel dinner table knife and is 23 times times harder than natural wood. It was used to cut through a medium-well done steak with ease.
The team was also able to produce nails using the new hard wood. Not only were they rust-resistant but they were just as sharp as regular steel nails.

The research was published in the journal Matter.
Medicine

VR Treatment For Lazy Eye In Children Gets FDA Approval (theverge.com) 11

The Food and Drug Administration approved a virtual reality-based treatment for children with the visual disorder amblyopia, or lazy eye, the company behind the therapy announced today. The Verge reports: Luminopia's approach uses TV and movies to develop the weaker eye and train the eyes to work together. Patients watch the show or movie through a headset that shows the images to each eye separately. The images shown to the stronger eye have a lower contrast, and the images are presented with overlays that force the brain to use both eyes to see them properly. Kids using the therapy and wearing glasses had more improvement in their vision than a similar group of kids who did not use the therapy and just wore corrective glasses full time during a clinical trial of the technology. After 12 weeks watching the shows one hour per day, six days per week, 62 percent of kids using the treatment had a strong improvement in their vision. Only around a third of the kids in the comparison group had similar improvements over the course of the 12 weeks.

Luminopia has over 700 hours of programming in its library, and it partnered with kids' content distributors like Nelvana and Sesame Workshop to develop the tool. The authors of the clinical trial wrote that they think that the option to pick popular videos might be one reason users stuck to the program -- people followed the treatment plan 88 percent of the time. Less than 50 percent of patients stick to eye patches or blurring drops. With the approval, Luminopia joins only a handful of companies with clearance to offer a digital therapeutic as a prescription treatment for medical conditions. Last year, the FDA approved a prescription video game called EndeavorRx, which treats ADHD in kids between eight and 12 years old. Luminopia said in a statement that it plans to launch the treatment in 2022.

Earth

Fossil Fuel Drilling Plans Undermine Climate Pledges, UN Report Warns (nytimes.com) 97

Even as world leaders vow to take stronger action on climate change, many countries are still planning to dramatically increase their production of oil, gas and coal in the decades ahead, potentially undermining those lofty pledges, according to a United Nations-backed report released Tuesday. From a report: The report looked at future mining and drilling plans in 15 major fossil fuel producing countries, including the United States, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Canada, China, India and Norway. Taken together, those countries are currently planning to produce more than twice as much oil, gas and coal through 2030 as would be needed if governments want to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. Scientists and world leaders increasingly say that holding global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is crucial if humanity wants to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change, such as ever-deadlier heat waves, large scale flooding and widespread extinctions. The world has already heated up roughly 1.1 degrees since the Industrial Revolution.

But the planned global expansion of fossil fuel extraction clashes sharply with those climate goals, the report found. If the world remains awash in oil, gas and coal for decades to come, then many countries could find it more difficult to shift to cleaner sources of energy. At the same time, many of the oil wells and coal mines now being approved and developed could prove deeply unprofitable if demand for fossil fuels shrinks, creating economic disruption. By 2030, the report found, the world's nations are planning to produce 240 percent more coal, 57 percent more oil and 71 percent more natural gas than would be needed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Medicine

WHO Asks South African Startup To Replicate Moderna's mRNA Vaccine 63

An anonymous reader quotes a report from NPR: The World Health Organization has hired the company, called Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, as part of a $100 million plan to figure out how to make an mRNA vaccine against COVID that is as close as possible to the version produced by Moderna. Until recently, Afrigen specialized in developing veterinary vaccines using fairly traditional methods. Now, says Afrigen's managing director, Petro Treblanche, the company's labs are a hive of research into the cutting-edge technology behind mRNA vaccines. Once Afrigen has sorted out all the complicated steps to make Moderna's shot on an industrial scale, WHO and other partners plan to pay Afrigen to become a teaching center.

"We call it a 'technology transfer hub,' " says Martin Friede, the WHO official in charge of this effort. "Manufacturers from around the world will be invited to come and learn the entire process. So this will accelerate the availability of the technology, not to one manufacturer but to many manufacturers." Friede says it makes sense to set up more manufacturers of mRNA vaccines in particular because the technology appears so effective against COVID -- and because it shows promise against other diseases including malaria and tuberculosis. As to why WHO has chosen to try to copy Moderna rather than the other mRNA COVID vaccine, which is made by Pfizer BioNTech, Friede says the choice was practical. "Moderna has reiterated on several occasions that they will not enforce their intellectual property during the pandemic," says Friede. In other words, a manufacturer probably won't face a lawsuit for producing a vaccine that's virtually identical to Moderna's. Also, says Friede, compared to Pfizer's vaccine, there just happens to be a lot more information in the public domain about how Moderna's vaccine is made.

But Afrigen's Petro Treblanche says there are still a lot of unknowns. Take Moderna's patent. "It's written very carefully and cleverly to not disclose absolutely everything," says Treblanche. So while Afrigen has been able to determine most of the equipment and specialized ingredients that are needed, "what we don't know is the exact concentrations," says Treblanche. "And we don't know some of the mixing times -- some of the conditions of mixing and formulating." A particularly vexing question is how to replicate Moderna's "lipid nano-particle" -- a special casing around the mRNA strand at the heart of the vaccine that keeps it stable as it travels through the body to, as Treblanche puts it, "essential places like the spleen and lymph nodes." "We understand other encapsulations," says Treblanche. But for all the expertise at Afrigen, "my team has never formulated a liquid nanoparticle."
Medicine

FDA Approves Mixing COVID Vaccines (apnews.com) 303

U.S. regulators on Wednesday signed off on extending COVID-19 boosters to Americans who got the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccine and said anyone eligible for an extra dose can get a brand different from the one they received initially. The Associated Press reports: The Food and Drug Administration's decisions mark a big step toward expanding the U.S. booster campaign, which began with extra doses of the Pfizer vaccine last month. But before more people roll up their sleeves, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will consult an expert panel later this week before finalizing official recommendations for who should get boosters and when.

The latest moves would expand by tens of millions the number of Americans eligible for boosters and formally allow "mixing and matching" of shots -- making it simpler to get another dose, especially for people who had a side effect from one brand but still want the proven protection of vaccination. Specifically, the FDA authorized a third Moderna shot for seniors and others at high risk from COVID-19 because of their health problems, jobs or living conditions -- six months after their last shot. One big change: Moderna's booster will be half the dose that's used for the first two shots, based on company data showing that was plenty to rev up immunity again. For J&J's single-shot vaccine, the FDA said all U.S. recipients should get a second dose at least two months following their initial vaccination.

Medicine

US Surgeons Successfully Test Pig Kidney Transplant In Human Patient (reuters.com) 66

For the first time, a pig kidney has been transplanted into a human without triggering immediate rejection by the recipient's immune system, a potentially major advance that could eventually help alleviate a dire shortage of human organs for transplant. Reuters reports: The procedure done at NYU Langone Health in New York City involved use of a pig whose genes had been altered so that its tissues no longer contained a molecule known to trigger almost immediate rejection. The recipient was a brain-dead patient with signs of kidney dysfunction whose family consented to the experiment before she was due to be taken off of life support, researchers told Reuters. For three days, the new kidney was attached to her blood vessels and maintained outside her body, giving researchers access to it.

Test results of the transplanted kidney's function "looked pretty normal," said transplant surgeon Dr. Robert Montgomery, who led the study. The kidney made "the amount of urine that you would expect" from a transplanted human kidney, he said, and there was no evidence of the vigorous, early rejection seen when unmodified pig kidneys are transplanted into non-human primates. The recipient's abnormal creatinine level - an indicator of poor kidney function - returned to normal after the transplant, Montgomery said.

Montgomery's team theorized that knocking out the pig gene for a carbohydrate that triggers rejection - a sugar molecule, or glycan, called alpha-gal - would prevent the problem. The genetically altered pig, dubbed GalSafe, was developed by United Therapeutics Corp's Revivicor unit. It was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December 2020, for use as food for people with a meat allergy and as a potential source of human therapeutics. Other researchers are considering whether GalSafe pigs can be sources of everything from heart valves to skin grafts for human patients.

Social Networks

Doctors Blame TikTok For Surge In Teen Girls Experiencing Tics (people.com) 60

An anonymous reader quotes a report from People: Doctors around the world are seeing a rise in cases of tic-like behaviors in teen girls, which they believe could be caused by watching TikTok videos about Tourette syndrome. Pediatric hospitals have reported an increase in teen girls coming in after developing tics, sudden twitches or noises that are a common symptom of Tourette syndrome, during the pandemic. The sudden rise is unusual, with tics typically occurring in boys, not girls. Experts in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Australia studied the patients for months and consulted between hospitals, finding that the common factor between the girls was an interest in watching TikTok videos from influencers who said they have Tourette syndrome, The Wall Street Journal reported.

According to the outlet, Texas Children's Hospital said they've had around 60 teens come in with tics since March 2020, compared to just one or two a year before then, while at Johns Hopkins University Tourette's Center, the number of patients reporting tic-like behaviors has jumped from 2 to 3% a year to 10 to 20%. And Rush University Medical Center in Chicago had 20 patients with tics over just four months this year, compared to 10 all of last year. Researchers from pediatric hospitals around the world found that referrals for tic-like behaviors soared during the pandemic, especially in girls aged 12 to 25, they wrote in a study published in August in the journal Movement Disorders. Since March 2020, referrals in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Germany and Australia went from 1 to 2% to 20 to 35%. The researchers wrote that they've seen a "similarity between the tics or tic-like behaviors shown on social media and the tic-like behaviors of this group of patients."
Another group of doctors say they "believe this to be an example of mass sociogenic illness," where people are copying the behaviors they see in the videos. Doctors recommend therapy to treat kids experiencing these symptoms. They also advise parents to require their teens to "take a social media break or block Tourette videos on their TikTok account," adds the report.
Medicine

Homeopathy Doesn't Work. So Why Do So Many Germans Believe in It? (bloomberg.com) 221

How Natalie Grams, who once abandoned her medical education to study alternative therapies, became Germany's most prominent homeopathy skeptic. From a report: The pseudoscience of homeopathy was invented in Germany in the 18th century by a maverick physician named Samuel Hahnemann. His theory was based on the ancient principle of like cures like -- akin to the mechanism behind vaccines. The remedies Hahnemann developed, meant to help the body heal on its own, originate as substances that with excess exposure (like pollen) can make a patient ill (in this case, with hay fever) -- or kill them: Arsenic is used as a treatment for digestive problems, and the poisonous plant belladonna is meant to counteract pain and swelling. These substances are diluted -- again and again -- and shaken vigorously in a process called "potentization" or "dynamization." The resultant remedies typically contain a billionth, trillionth, orâ...âwellâ...âa zillionth (10 to the minus 60th, if you're counting) of the original substance.

Today, homeopathy is practiced worldwide, particularly in Britain, India, the U.S. -- where there's a monument to Hahnemann on a traffic circle six blocks north of the White House -- and, especially, Germany. Practitioners, however, differ greatly in their approach. Some only prescribe remedies cataloged in homeopathic reference books. Others take a more metaphoric bent, offering treatments that contain a fragment of the Berlin Wall to cure feelings of exclusion and loneliness or a powder exposed to cellphone signals as protection from radiation emitted by mobile handsets. Grams, the daughter of a chemist, first turned to homeopathy in 2002. While she was attending medical school to become a surgeon, a highway accident left her car in the ditch with the windshield shattered. Grams walked away unhurt, but she soon began to suffer from heart palpitations, panic attacks, and fainting spells that doctors couldn't explain. Her roommate suggested she visit a heilpraktiker, a type of German naturopath that offers alternative therapies ranging from acupuncture and massage to reiki and homeopathy.

Homeopaths typically spend a lot of time with patients, asking not just about symptoms but also about emotions, work, and relationships. This is all meant to find the root cause of a patient's suffering and is part of its appeal. The heilpraktiker asked Grams about her feelings and the accident, things she hadnâ(TM)t spoken about with her doctors -- or anyone -- thinking they weren't important in understanding what was wrong. The heilpraktiker prescribed her belladonna globules and recommended she visit a trauma therapist. Steadily, her symptoms fell away. She was healed. Soon after, Grams dropped the idea of becoming a surgeon, opting for a future as a general practitioner while taking night courses in alternative therapies. After completing her medical degree, she began a five-year residency to qualify as a GP. But three years in, Grams abandoned conventional medicine and began an apprenticeship with a homeopath near Heidelberg.

Medicine

The FDA Wants You To Be Able To Buy a Hearing Aid Without a Prescription (npr.org) 76

People with mild or moderate hearing loss could soon be able to buy hearing aids without a medical exam or special fitting, under a new rule being proposed by the Food and Drug Administration. The agency says 37.5 million American adults have difficulties hearing. From a report: "Today's move by FDA takes us one step closer to the goal of making hearing aids more accessible and affordable for the tens of millions of people who experience mild to moderate hearing loss," Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said as he announced the proposed rule on Tuesday. There is no timeline yet for when consumers might be able to buy an FDA-regulated over-the-counter hearing aid. The proposed rule is now up for 90 days of public comment. The Hearing Loss Association of America, a consumer advocacy group, welcomed the proposal. "This is one step closer to seeing OTC hearing devices on the market," Barbara Kelley, HLAA's executive director said in an email to NPR. "We hope adults will be encouraged to take that important first step toward good hearing health."
Earth

99.9% of Scientists Agree Climate Emergency Caused by Humans (theguardian.com) 281

knaapie writes: It may still be fuel for hot debate on social media, but 99.9% of scientist actually agree on the fact that humans are altering the climate. The Guardian reports that the degree of scientific certainty about the impact of greenhouse gases is now similar to the level of agreement on evolution and plate tectonics, the authors say, based on a survey by Cornell University of nearly 90,000 climate-related studies. This means there is practically no doubt among experts that burning fossil fuels, such as oil, gas, coal, peat and trees, is heating the planet and causing more extreme weather.

"It is really case closed. There is nobody of significance in the scientific community who doubts human-cased climate change," said the lead author, Mark Lynas, a visiting fellow at Cornell University. In contrast, the paper cites a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center that found only 27% of US adults believed that "almost all" scientists agreed the climate emergency was caused by human activity. And according to the Center for American Progress, 30 US senators and 109 representatives "refuse to acknowledge the scientific evidence of human-caused climate change." Several big media organisations and social networks also promote climate-sceptical views that have little or no basis in science. Lynas said the study should encourage them to review their policies. "This puts the likes of Facebook and Twitter in a quandary. It is pretty similar to vaccine misinformation; they both lack a basis in science and they both have a destructive impact on society. Social networks that allow climate misinformation to spread need to look at their algorithms and policies or to be forced to do so by regulators."

Space

Star's Strange Path Around Black Hole Proves Einstein Right -- Again (science.org) 61

Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity has aced another test. From a report: Following nearly 3 decades of monitoring, researchers have detected a subtle shift in the orbit of the closest known star to the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way -- and the movement matches Einstein's theory precisely. The star, known as S2, follows an elliptical 16-year orbit. It made a close approach -- within 20 billion kilometers -- to our black hole, Sagittarius A*, last year. If Isaac Newton's classic description of gravity holds true, S2 should then continue along exactly the same path through space as on its previous orbit. But it didn't. Instead, it followed a slightly diverging path, the axis of its ellipse shifting slightly, a team using the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope reports today in Astronomy & Astrophysics. The phenomenon, known as Schwarzschild precession, would, in time, cause S2 to trace out a spirographlike flower pattern in space -- as general relativity predicts.
Power

Radiant Aims To Replace Diesel Generators With Small Nuclear Reactors (newatlas.com) 266

An anonymous reader quotes a report from New Atlas: California company Radiant has secured funding to develop a compact, portable, "low-cost" one-megawatt nuclear micro-reactor that fits in a shipping container, powers about 1,000 homes and uses a helium coolant instead of water. Founded by ex-SpaceX engineers, who decided the Mars colony power sources they were researching would make a bigger impact closer to home, Radiant has pulled in $1.2 million from angel investors to continue work on its reactors, which are specifically designed to be highly portable, quick to deploy and effective wherever they're deployed; remote communities and disaster areas are early targets.

The military is another key market here; a few of these could power an entire military base in a remote area for four to eight years before expending its "advanced particle fuel," eliminating not just the emissions of the current diesel generators, but also the need to constantly bring in trucks full of fuel for this purpose. Those trucks will still have to run -- up until the point where the military ditches diesel in all its vehicles -- but they'll be much less frequent, reducing a significant risk for transport personnel. Radiant says its fuel "does not melt down, and withstands higher temperatures when compared to traditional nuclear fuels." Using helium as the coolant "greatly reduces corrosion, boiling and contamination risks," and the company says it's received provisional patents for ideas it's developed around refueling the reactors and efficiently transporting heat out of the reactor core.

Science

MIT Researchers Create 'Robotic' Textiles To Make Breath-Regulating Garments (mit.edu) 18

A new kind of fiber developed by researchers at MIT and in Sweden can be made into clothing that senses how much it is being stretched or compressed, and then provides immediate tactile feedback in the form of pressure, lateral stretch, or vibration. Such fabrics, the team suggests, could be used in garments that help train singers or athletes to better control their breathing, or that help patients recovering from disease or surgery to recover their breathing patterns. From a report: The multilayered fibers contain a fluid channel in the center, which can be activated by a fluidic system. This system controls the fibers' geometry by pressurizing and releasing a fluid medium, such as compressed air or water, into the channel, allowing the fiber to act as an artificial muscle. The fibers also contain stretchable sensors that can detect and measure the degree of stretching of the fibers. The resulting composite fibers are thin and flexible enough to be sewn, woven, or knitted using standard commercial machines. The fibers [are] dubbed OmniFibers [...].

The new fiber architecture has a number of key features. Its extremely narrow size and use of inexpensive material make it relatively easy to structure the fibers into a variety of fabric forms. It's also compatible with human skin, since its outer layer is based on a material similar to common polyester. And, its fast response time and the strength and variety of the forces it can impart allow for a rapid feedback system for training or remote communications using haptics (based on the sense of touch). As an initial test application of the material, the team made a type of undergarment that singers can wear to monitor and play back the movement of respiratory muscles, to later provide kinesthetic feedback through the same garment to encourage optimal posture and breathing patterns for the desired vocal performance. Though this initial testing is in the context of vocal pedagogy, the same approach could be used to help athletes to learn how best to control their breathing in a given situation, based on monitoring accomplished athletes as they carry out various activities and stimulating the muscle groups that are in action. Eventually, the hope is that such garments could also be used to help patients regain healthy breathing patterns after major surgery or a respiratory disease such as Covid-19, or even as an alternative treatment for sleep apnea.

Space

A Meteorite Crashed Through Somebody's Ceiling and Landed on Their Bed (chicagotribune.com) 197

The New York Times reports: Ruth Hamilton was fast asleep in her home in British Columbia when she awoke to the sound of her dog barking, followed by "an explosion." She jumped up and turned on the light, only to see a hole in the ceiling. Her clock said 11:35 p.m.

At first, Hamilton thought that a tree had fallen on her house. But, no, all the trees were there. She called 911 and, while on the phone with an operator, noticed a large charcoal gray object between her two floral pillows.

"Oh, my gosh," she recalled telling the operator, "there's a rock in my bed."

A meteorite, she later learned.

The 2.8-pound rock the size of a large man's fist had barely missed Hamilton's head, leaving "drywall debris all over my face," she said. Her close encounter on the night of Oct. 3 left her rattled, but it captivated the internet and handed scientists an unusual chance to study a space rock that had crashed to Earth.

"It just seems surreal," Hamilton said in an interview Wednesday. "Then I'll go in and look in the room and, yep, there's still a hole in my ceiling. Yep, that happened."

The Times reports that Peter Brown, a professor at the University of Western Ontario, places the odds of a meteor crashing into someone's bed at 1 in 100 billion.
Moon

The Moon Will Soon Have Its Own Internet (autoevolution.com) 59

"Humanity will return to the lunar surface in 2024 as part of the Artemis program," writes the Auto Evolution site. "However, before NASA begins shuttling people to our natural satellite, it has to build a network there that will go beyond Earth's low orbit and connect space to Earth in a sort of Internet connection..." The network's name? LunaNet: Astronauts will be able to use the LunaNet via numerous nodes and communicate with the crew on and around the Moon in the same manner that we use Wi-Fi here on Earth. In addition, missions using the network will have access to position and time signals, allowing astronauts and rovers to navigate the rugged lunar terrain and return to their base. LunaNet will also use space-weather instruments to identify potentially dangerous solar activity, such as flares that erupt from the Sun and send harsh radiation towards the astronauts. With this new connectivity, the crew can be directly alerted. This will cut down the time it takes for network management on Earth to do so. These warnings will be comparable to the ones we receive on our phones when there is hazardous weather. The architecture's capabilities will also include a lunar search and rescue capability...

Researchers could also use LunaNet antennas to peer into deep space and search for radio signals from distant celestial objects. Altogether, the architecture's capabilities will give scientists a new platform to test space theories, allowing them to extend their scientific knowledge. Recently, NASA released the "Draft LunaNet Interoperability Specification" in order to kickstart the development of this new "lunar internet." Technical discussions among industry experts from around the world are expected to follow.

United States

American Bumblebees Have Disappeared From 8 States and Could Face Extinction (usatoday.com) 131

Long-time Slashdot reader phalse phace quotes USA Today: The dwindling populations of the American bumblebee and their complete disappearance from eight states has led to a call for the bee to be placed under the Endangered Species Act before they face extinction.

Maine, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, Idaho, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Oregon each have zero or close to zero American bumblebees left, according to a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity and Bombus Pollinators Association of Law Students...

Over the last two decades, the American bumblebee population has decreased by 89% across the U.S. New York had a decline of 99% and they disappeared from the northern part of Illinois that has seen a 74% decrease in population since 2004, the petition said.

Climate change, pesticides, disease, habitat loss and competition from honey bees are listed as driving the bee to extinction... The loss of the insect could cause serious repercussions to the environment and crop production due to them being essential pollinators in agriculture. If the American bumblebee is added to the endangered species list, it will join the rusty-patched bumblebee, and If granted federal protection, anyone found to have killed or harmed the bee could face up to $13,000 in fines.

Space

China Launches 6-Month Crewed Mission, Cements Position as Global Space Power (cnn.com) 69

"China launched a three-person crew into space in the early hours of Saturday," reports CNN, calling it "a major step for the country's young space program, which is rapidly becoming one of the world's most advanced..." They will dock at China's new space station, Tiangong (which means Heavenly Palace), six and a half hours after launch. They will live and work at the station for 183 days, or just about six months... "This will certainly be their longest mission, which is quite impressive when you consider how early it is in their human spaceflight regimen," said Dean Cheng, senior research fellow at the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy.

This is the second crewed mission during the construction of the space station, which China plans to have fully crewed and operational by December 2022. The first crewed mission, a three-month stay by three other astronauts, was completed last month. Six more missions have been scheduled before the end of next year, including two crewed missions, two laboratory modules and two cargo missions. "For the Chinese, this is still early in their human spaceflight effort as they've been doing this for less than 20 years ... and for fewer than 10 missions," Cheng added. "In the past, the Chinese put up a crewed flight only once every two to three years. Now, they're sending them up every few months."

"If the Chinese maintain this pace ... it reflects a major shift in the mission tempo for their human spaceflight efforts...."

China successfully landed an exploratory rover on the moon last December and one on Mars in May. The first module of the Tiangong space station launched in April. Just last week, an international team of scientists released their findings from the moon rocks China brought back to Earth... "The European Space Agency, Russia, India, and Israel have suffered Moon or Mars probe failures in recent years; China succeeded with both on the first tries," David Burbach, associate professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College, told CNN via email. Though the US still has the world's leading space program, he said, "there's no doubt that China is the world's Number 2 space power today."

China's ambitions span years into the future, with grand plans for space exploration, research and commercialization. One of the biggest ventures will be building a joint China-Russia research station on the moon's south pole by 2035 — a facility that will be open to international participation... Chinese astronauts have long been locked out of the International Space Station due to US political objections and legislative restrictions — which is why it has been a long-standing goal of China's to build a station of its own...

One reason space research cannot be divorced from terrestrial politics, and why the issue is so complicated, is because "the Chinese space program is heavily influenced, and its human and lunar programs are overseen, by the Chinese military," Cheng said. "Cooperating with China in space means cooperating with the Chinese military."

ISS

Russian Spacecraft's Thrusters Tilt the International Space Station - Again (space.com) 44

"Unplanned thruster firings by a Russian spacecraft briefly knocked the International Space Station off-kilter Friday, the second such incident in less than three months," reports Space.com: The spacecraft involved today was the Soyuz MS-18, which is scheduled to bring cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy, film director Klim Shipenko and actor Yulia Peresild back to Earth early Sunday morning (Oct. 17)... "Within 30 minutes, flight controllers regained attitude control of the space station, which is now in a stable configuration," NASA officials wrote in an update this afternoon. "The crew was awake at the time of the event and was not in any danger."

The orbiting lab briefly tilted from its normal orientation this morning by 57 degrees, according to the Russian news agency Interfax, which cited communications between Novitskiy and Vladimir Solovyov, the flight director of the station's Russian segment.

Space station managers don't yet know what caused the anomalously long firing... It's also unclear why the MS-18's thrusters stopped firing, though the station's handlers have some ideas. "We think — and we haven't got confirmation — we think the thrusters stopped firing because they reached their prop[ellant] limit," NASA flight director Timothy Creamer told agency astronauts shortly after the thrusters shut down, according to The New York Times. "Moscow is checking into it and doing their data analysis."

Space

Astronomers Spot First Known Exoplanet To Survive Its Dying Star (theconversation.com) 12

"In our new paper, published in Nature, we report the discovery of the first known exoplanet to survive the death of its star without having its orbit altered by other planets moving around -- circling a distance comparable to those between the Sun and the Solar System planets," writes one of the study's authors, Dimitri Veras, in an article for The Conversation. From the report: This new exoplanet, which we discovered with the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, is particularly similar to Jupiter in both mass and orbital separation, and provides us with a crucial snapshot into planetary survivors around dying stars. A star's transformation into a white dwarf involves a violent phase in which it becomes a bloated "red giant," also known as a "giant branch" star, hundreds of times bigger than before. We believe that this exoplanet only just survived: if it was initially closer to its parent star, it would have been engulfed by the star's expansion. When the Sun eventually becomes a red giant, its radius will actually reach outwards to Earth's current orbit. That means the Sun will (probably) engulf Mercury and Venus, and possibly the Earth -- but we are not sure.

Jupiter, and its moons, have been expected to survive, although we previously didn't know for sure. But with our discovery of this new exoplanet, we can now be more certain that Jupiter really will make it. Moreover, the margin of error in the position of this exoplanet could mean that it is almost half as close to the white dwarf as Jupiter currently is to the Sun. If so, that is additional evidence for assuming that Jupiter, and Mars, will make it. So could any life survive this transformation? A white dwarf could power life on moons or planets that end up being very close to it (about one-tenth the distance between the Sun and Mercury) for the first few billion years. After that, there wouldn't be enough radiation to sustain anything. [...]

The new white dwarf exoplanet was found with what is known as the microlensing detection method. This looks at how light bends due to a strong gravitational field, which happens when a star momentarily aligns with a more distant star, as seen from Earth. The gravity from the foreground star magnifies the light from the star behind it. Any planets orbiting the star in the foreground will bend and warp this magnified light, which is how we can detect them. The white dwarf we investigated is one-quarter of the way towards the centre of the Milky Way galaxy, or about 6,500 light years away from our Solar System, and the more distant star is in the centre of the galaxy.

Medicine

Drones Have Now Been Used To Deliver Lungs For Medical Transplant (extremetech.com) 22

An anonymous reader quotes a report from ExtremeTech: The world's first drone delivery of lungs has gone down in history as a success. Unither Bioelectronique, a bioengineering firm focused on organ transportation, recently completed a "proof-of-concept" flight in which a pair of human lungs were shipped via drone to the transplant site in about six minutes. The lungs were flown from the Toronto Western Hospital to Toronto General Hospital, where Dr. Shaf Keshavjee, surgeon-in-chief of Canada's University Health Network, received the cargo at about 1 a.m. He needed the lungs for a transplant he was performing that very day on a male engineer who'd soon become the first transplant patient to receive his "new" lungs by drone.

Though the circumstances of the trip were urgent, the trip itself was 18 months in the making. Organs have been shipped by drone before, but lungs are particularly sensitive to environmental shifts during transport, with a majority of donated lungs rendered unusable by insufficient oxygenation. In order to make the trip worthwhile, engineers at Unither Bioelectronique had to design a lightweight carbon fiber shipping container that could withstand vibrations and in-flight changes in elevation and barometric pressure. Preparation involved practice flights and drop tests using simulation lung packages. The drone and its container counterpart were fitted with a parachute and an advanced GPS system, as the drone would fly through the air unmanned.
"This innovation in the transportation of organs has the potential to significantly increase the transfer efficiency between donors and recipients, especially in congested urban areas," Unither Bioelectronique says of the trip on their website. "Through this project, we have established an important stepping stone for future organ delivery that ultimately will open the door for large-scale adoption of larger fully autonomous, electrically-powered, environmentally-friendly drones... for transplant across trans-continental distances."
Medicine

Chemicals Used In Packaging May Play Role In 100,000 US Deaths a Year (theguardian.com) 113

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Guardian: The group of chemicals called phthalates, also known as plasticizers, may contribute to the early deaths of 91,000 to 107,000 older adults in the US each year, according to a new study. Adults between 55 and 64 with the highest concentrations of phthalates in their urine were more likely to die of any cause, especially heart disease, than adults with lesser exposure, according to the study published on Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Pollution. The study also estimated that this loss of life could cost the US between $40 billion and $47 billion each year. In the US, three types of phthalates have been restricted or banned in toys, but are less restricted in cosmetics and food packaging materials. Researchers said the study "focuses substantial urgency" in putting further limits on phthalates in food packaging materials and other consumer goods. Phthalates, a group of chemicals most commonly used to make plastic harder to break, can interfere with the function of hormones, and researchers plan to examine what role the chemical plays in hormone regulation and inflammation in the body. "Our research suggests that the toll of this chemical on society is much greater than we first thought," said the study's lead author, Dr Leonardo Trasande. "The evidence is undeniably clear that limiting exposure to toxic phthalates can help safeguard Americans' physical and financial wellbeing." He cautioned that the biological connection between phthalates and early deaths has not been established, so the study does not prove phthalates were the direct cause of these early deaths.
Earth

Countries Are Gathering In an Effort To Stop a Biodiversity Collapse (nytimes.com) 70

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The New York Times: As 20,000 government leaders, journalists, activists and celebrities from around the world prepare to descend on Glasgow for a crucial climate summit starting late this month, another high-level international environmental meeting got started this week. The problem it seeks to tackle: A rapid collapse of species and systems that collectively sustain life on earth. The stakes at the two meetings are equally high, many leading scientists say, but the biodiversity crisis has received far less attention. "If the global community continues to see it as a side event, and they continue thinking that climate change is now the thing to really listen to, by the time they wake up on biodiversity it might be too late," said Francis Ogwal, one of the leaders of the working group charged with shaping an agreement among nations. Because climate change and biodiversity loss are intertwined, with the potential for both win-win solutions and vicious cycles of destruction, they must be addressed together, scientists say. But their global summits are separate, and one overshadows the other.

This week, environment officials, diplomats and other observers from around the world gathered online, and a small group assembled in person in Kunming, China, for the meeting, the 15th United Nations biodiversity conference. The United States is the only country in the world besides the Vatican that is not a party to the underlying treaty, the Convention on Biological Diversity, a situation largely attributed to Republican opposition. American representatives participate on the sidelines of the talks, as do scientists and environmental advocates. Because of the pandemic, the conference has been broken into two parts. While this virtual portion was largely about drumming up political will, nations will meet again in China in the spring to ratify a series of targets aimed at tackling biodiversity loss. The aim will be to adopt a pact for nature akin to the Paris Agreement on climate change, said Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the executive secretary of the convention.

Last year, officials reported that the world's nations largely failed to achieve the targets of the previous global agreement on biodiversity, made in 2010. If the new commitments are not translated into "effective policies and concrete actions," Ms. Mrema said this week at the meeting, "we risk repeating the failures of the last decade." The working draft includes 21 targets that act as a blueprint for reducing biodiversity loss. Many are concrete and measurable, others more abstract. None are easy. They include, in summary: Create a plan, across the entire land and waters of each country, to make the best decisions about where to conduct activities like farming and mining while also retaining intact areas; Ensure that wild species are hunted and fished sustainably and safely; Reduce agricultural runoff, pesticides and plastic pollution; Use ecosystems to limit climate change by storing planet-warming carbon in nature; Reduce subsidies and other financial programs that harm biodiversity by at least $500 billion per year, the estimated amount (PDF) that governments spend supporting fossil fuels and potentially damaging agricultural practices; and Safeguard at least 30 percent of the planet's land and oceans by 2030.

Medicine

Acer Launches Bacteria-Resistant PCs (arstechnica.com) 69

During its next@Acer event today, the company announced three new PCs -- a laptop, a two-in-one, and a tablet -- that will be joining its antimicrobial lineup. Ars Technica reports: Something is considered antimicrobial if it's capable of "destroying or inhibiting the growth of microorganisms, and especially pathogenic microorganisms." That means it fights disease-causing things you can't see. Acer claims its Antimicrobial 360 Design, as it brands the feature, fights germs in two ways. First, high-touch surfaces -- such as the chassis's exterior and hinge, the keyboard, the touchpad, and the fingerprint reader -- are coated with a silver-ion agent. For years, research has pointed to silver ions' ability to fight bacteria. As a more recent report published in ACS Applied Bio Materials explains, "They can readily adsorb to most biomolecules (DNA, membrane protein, enzymes, or intracellular cofactors) in bacteria to inactivate their functions." Acer's silver-ion agent is compliant with regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Biocidal Products Regulation; it can cut the bacteria count to 1,000 after a 99.9 percent reduction, based on the International Organization for Standardization 22196 test protocol. The 22196 standard specifies methods for testing the "antibacterial activity of antibacterial-treated plastics and other non-porous surfaces of products."

The products also use Corning Gorilla Glass coated with the silver-ion product. "This is done via trace amounts of silver ions leaching to the glass surface to eliminate the surface bacteria, while still offering other benefits such as improved durability and improved scratch resistance," Acer said. Acer introduced new antimicrobial PCs to its lineup in 2020 but is still adding to the roster. The company sees its antimicrobial coating expanding even further "across multiple product lines," an Acer spokesperson told Ars.

Medicine

Aspirin Use To Prevent 1st Heart Attack or Stroke Should Be Curtailed, US Panel Says 87

Doctors should no longer routinely start most people who are at high risk of heart disease on a daily regimen of low-dose aspirin, according to new draft guidelines by a U.S. panel of experts. The New York Times reports: The proposed recommendation is based on mounting evidence that the risk of serious side effects far outweighs the benefit of what was once considered a remarkably cheap weapon in the fight against heart disease. The U.S. panel also plans to retreat from its 2016 recommendation to take baby aspirin for the prevention of colorectal cancer, guidance that was groundbreaking at the time. The panel said more recent data had raised questions about the benefits for cancer, and that more research was needed.

On the use of low-dose or baby aspirin, the recommendation by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force would apply to people younger than 60 who were at high risk of heart disease and for whom a new daily regimen of the mild analgesic might have been a tool to prevent a first heart attack or stroke. The proposed guidelines would not apply to those already taking aspirin or those who have already had a heart attack. The U.S. task force also wants to strongly discourage anyone 60 and older from starting a low-dose aspirin regimen, citing concerns about the age-related heightened risk for life-threatening bleeding. The panel had previously recommended that people in their 60s who were at high risk for cardiovascular disease consult their doctors to make a decision. A low dose is 81 milligrams to 100 milligrams.

The task force proposals follow years of changes in advice by several leading medical organizations and federal agencies, some of which had already recommended limiting the use of low-dose aspirin as a preventive tool against heart disease and stroke. Aspirin inhibits the formation of blood clots that can block arteries, but studies have raised concerns that regular intake increases the risk of bleeding, especially in the digestive tract and the brain, dangers that increase with age. "There's no longer a blanket statement that everybody who's at increased risk for heart disease, even though they never had a heart attack, should be on aspirin," said Dr. Chien-Wen Tseng, a member of the national task force who is the research director of family medicine and community health at the University of Hawaii. "We need to be smarter at matching primary prevention to the people who will benefit the most and have the least risk of harms." Those who are already taking baby aspirin should talk to their doctor.
Space

Captain Kirk Safely Goes To Space and Back (bbc.com) 108

New submitter pele writes: Captain Kirk alias William Shatner has just safely completed his first trip to space and back, and in the process has become the oldest person ever to have been to space. More news and coverage at BBC and Evening Standard. Blue Origin took the 90-year-old just about 60 miles (100km) above the Earth's surface where those aboard got to experience a short period of weightlessness. The trip only lasted about 10 minutes.

"Everybody in the world needs to do this," the Canadian actor told Mr Bezos after landing back on Earth. "It was unbelievable." In tears, he added: "What you have given me is the most profound experience. I'm so filled with emotion about what just happened. I hope I never recover from this. I hope I can retain what I feel now. I don't want to lose it."
China

China's Solar Power Has Reached Price Parity With Coal (arstechnica.com) 102

Like everywhere else, China has seen the cost of solar power dive over the last decade, with a 63 percent drop between 2011 and 2018 alone. In line with that, the installation of solar has risen dramatically. From a report: Currently, a third of the entire planet's new solar capacity is being commissioned in China; the country passed the installed capacity of the US in 2013 and Germany in 2015, and it now has over 250 GW active -- well more than double what its economic plan had specified by this point. Given that China plans to hit net zero emissions by 2060, it is likely to continue this building spree. But the forecast is not all rosy. Most of China's population is located in the country's southeast. The best solar resources (in terms of cloudless days and available land) are in the northwest, which also happens to be sparsely populated.

This mismatch has left solar facing constraints due to limits in the ability of China's grids to shift power across its vast distances. The output of solar plants in the northwest has frequently ended up curtailed, as there's no capacity to send it where it's needed. As a result, it's been somewhat difficult to fully understand the economics of solar power in China. To get a clearer picture, the researchers built a model that takes into account most of the factors influencing solar's performance. The model tracks changes in technology, economics, solar resources, and the Chinese grid for the period from 2020 to 2060. It used six years of satellite weather data to estimate typical productivity in different areas of the country, and it included information on existing land use that would interfere with solar-farm siting.

Science

FAST, the World's Largest Radio Telescope, Zooms in on a Furious Cosmic Source (scientificamerican.com) 18

China's Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope has detected more than 1,600 fast radio bursts from a single enigmatic system. From a report: Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are one of the greatest mysteries of our universe. Coming from deep space, these outbursts can flash and fade in a matter of milliseconds, yet in each instance can release as much energy as the sun does in a year. They pop up all across the sky multiple times a day, but most appear to be one-off events and are thus hard to catch. First discovered in 2007, FRBs have challenged and tantalized scientists seeking to uncover their obscure origins and to use them as unique tools for probing the depths of intergalactic space. Now, using the world's largest single-dish radio telescope, an international team has reported the largest set of FRB events ever detected in history.

According to their paper published in Nature today, between August and October 2019 the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) in southwestern China recorded a total of 1,652 such brief and bright outbursts from a single repeating FRB source in a dwarf galaxy three billion light years away. Besides dramatically boosting the total number of known FRB events, the observations also revealed a very wide range of brightnesses among the recorded events, offering new clues about the astrophysical nature of their mysterious source. "The study is very thorough, with a level of details and sensitivity we've never had before," says astrophysicist Emily Petroff from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and McGill University in Canada, who is not involved in the research. "Such in-depth analyses of individual sources will be a top priority in FRB research in the near future."

Medicine

Neuroscientists Claim To Have Pinpointed the Brain States Unique To 'Team Flow' (sciencealert.com) 49

An anonymous reader quotes a report from ScienceAlert: At some point in life, you have probably enjoyed a 'flow' state -- when you're so intensely focused on a task or activity, you experience a strong sense of control, a reduced awareness of your environment and yourself, and a minimized sense of the passing of time. It's also possible to experience 'team flow,' such as when playing music together, competing in a sports team, or perhaps gaming. In such a state, we seem to have an intuitive understanding with others as we jointly complete the task at hand. An international team of neuroscientists now thinks they have uncovered the neural states unique to team flow, and it appears that these differ both from the flow states we experience as individuals, and from the neural states typically associated with social interaction.

Researchers found increased beta and gamma brain wave activity in the left middle temporal cortex. This region of the brain is typically associated with information integration and key functions like attention, memory, and awareness, which are "consistent with higher team interactions and enhancing many flow dimensions," the team writes. However, what was unique about team flow, was that participants' neural activity appeared to synchronize. When participants were performing the task as a unit, their brains would mutually align in their neural oscillations (beta and gamma activity), creating a "hyper-cognitive state between the team members." If brains can be functionally connected through inter-brain synchrony, does this mean it is not only our brain that contributes to our consciousness? It's a curious question, but the authors warn it is much too soon to tell. "Based on our findings, we cannot conclude that the high value of integrated information correlates with a modified form of consciousness, for instance, 'team consciousness'," they write. "Its consistency with neural synchrony raises intriguing and empirical questions related to inter-brain synchrony and information integration and altered state of consciousness."
The study was published in the journal eNeuro.
Space

Star Trek's William Shatner On His Plan To Boldly Go Into Space (cbsnews.com) 118

In an interview with Gayle King on "CBS Mornings," Star Trek's William Shatner talks about his plan to boldly go into space, becoming the oldest person to do so. He's planning to launch to the final frontier on Wednesday, courtesy of Jeff Bezos and his rocket company Blue Origin. CBS News reports: Shatner joked that he'll be able to brag about the age record. But he said his actual motivation was "to have the vision. I want to see space. I want to see the Earth. I want to see what we need to do to save Earth." "I want to have a perspective that hasn't been shown to me before," he said. "That's what I'm interested in seeing."

Shatner will eclipse Funk's record by eight years and John Glenn's mark before that by 13. "I'm looking forward to the whole thing," Shatner told CNN's Anderson Cooper. "Imagine being weightless and staring into the blackness and seeing the Earth, that's what I want to absorb." But he added, smiling: "Things like that go up and boom in the night. It's a little scary, I'll tell you." The most difficult challenges for 90-year-old Shatner likely will be climbing the seven flights of stairs required to reach the gangway to board the New Shepard capsule and then enduring more than five times the normal force of gravity during descent. But Funk had no problems, and Blue Origin officials presumably expect the same for Shatner.

Science

Can Nuclear Fusion Put the Brakes on Climate Change? (newyorker.com) 293

Amid an escalating crisis, the power source offers a dream -- or a pipe dream -- of limitless clean energy. From a report: Let's say that you've devoted your entire adult life to developing a carbon-free way to power a household for a year on the fuel of a single glass of water, and that you've had moments, even years, when you were pretty sure you would succeed. Let's say also that you're not crazy. This is a reasonable description of many of the physicists working in the field of nuclear fusion. In order to reach this goal, they had to find a way to heat matter to temperatures hotter than the center of the sun, so hot that atoms essentially melt into a cloud of charged particles known as plasma; they did that. They had to conceive of and build containers that could hold those plasmas; they did that, too, by making "bottles" out of strong magnetic fields. When those magnetic bottles leaked -- because, as one scientist explained, trying to contain plasma in a magnetic bottle is like trying to wrap a jelly in twine -- they had to devise further ingenious solutions, and, again and again, they did. Over decades, in the pursuit of nuclear fusion, scientists and engineers built giant metal doughnuts and Gehryesque twisted coils, they "pinched" plasmas with lasers, and they constructed fusion devices in garages. For thirty-six years, they have been planning and building an experimental fusion device in Provence. And yet commercially viable nuclear-fusion energy has always remained just a bit farther on.

As the White Queen, in "Through the Looking Glass," said to Alice, it is never jam today, it is always jam tomorrow. The accelerating climate crisis makes fusion's elusiveness more than cutely maddening. Solar energy gets more efficient and affordable each year, but it's not continuously available, and it still relies on gas power plants for distribution. The same is true for wind power. Conventional nuclear power has extremely well-known disadvantages. Carbon capture, which is like a toothbrush for the sky, is compelling, but after you capture a teraton or two of carbon there's nowhere to put it. All these tools figure extensively in decarbonization plans laid out by groups like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but, according to those plans, even when combined with one another the tools are insufficient. Fusion remains the great clean-energy dream -- or, depending on whom you ask, pipe dream. Fusion, theoretically, has no scarcity issues; our planet has enough of fusion's primary fuels, heavy hydrogen and lithium, which are found in seawater, to last thirty million years.

Fusion requires no major advances in batteries, it would be available on demand, it wouldn't cause the next Fukushima, and it wouldn't be too pricey -- if only we could figure out all the "details." (A joke I heard is that fusion operates according to the law of the "conservation of difficulty": when one problem is solved, a new one of equal difficulty emerges to take its place.) The details are tremendously complex, and the people who work to figure them out have for years been dealing with their own scarcities -- scarcities of funding and scarcities of faith. Fusion, as of now, has no place in the Green New Deal. In 1976, the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration published a study predicting how quickly nuclear fusion could become a reality, depending on how much money was invested in the field. For around nine billion a year in today's dollars -- described as the "Maximum Effective Effort" -- it projected reaching fusion energy by 1990. The scale descended to about a billion dollars a year, which the study projected would lead to "Fusion Never." "And that's about what's been spent," the British physicist Steven Cowley told me. "Pretty close to the maximum amount you could spend in order to never get there."

Space

New Studies Argue Distant Cosmic Gamma-Ray Explosion Was Actually Just Russian Space Junk (science.org) 16

"Last year, a team of astronomers made a blockbuster claim, saying they had captured the most distant cosmic explosion ever — a gamma ray burst in a galaxy called GN-z11," reports Science magazine.

"But that flash of light — supposedly from the most distant galaxy known — has a far more prosaic explanation: It was a glinting reflection from a tumbling, spent Russian rocket that happened to photobomb observers at just the right moment, two new studies claim..." Although they happen all the time, the chances of catching one when a telescope is pointed at a particular galaxy are quite slim. So it was even more surprising when astronomer Linhua Jiang of Peking University and colleagues claimed — using data from the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii — to find a burst coming from GN-z11, a galaxy dating back to a mere 420 million years after the big bang. Indeed, the team itself reported in December 2020 that the odds of catching such a burst were one in 10 billion.

Those odds raised red flags for Charles Steinhardt, an astronomer at the University of Copenhagen. "You start asking," he says, "'Are there any other causes that are more likely?'"

That's where the Russian rocket comes in. Humans have launched and left behind large numbers of objects in orbit around Earth, including satellites, rocket boosters, and even screwdrivers gone missing during spacewalks. Up to half a million bits of metal larger than 1 centimeter are thought to be tumbling around our planet. Glints of sunlight reflecting off this debris could be responsible for as many as 10,000 flashes of light per hour throughout the night sky, estimates Eran Ofek, an astrophysicist at the Weizmann Institute of Science who has published independent analyses of this phenomenon. The vast majority are invisible to the naked eye, he says, but they can be discernable to astronomical observatories.

Given such potential light pollution, the possibility of finding a debris glint in a random telescope image is somewhere between one in 1000 and one in 10,000, Steinhardt and his collaborators calculate in one of the new studies, published today in Nature Astronomy. That seems more likely than the one-in-10-billion chance of a gamma ray burst, Steinhardt says. "If you have to pick between the two answers, yes they're both unlikely, but one of them is millions of times more likely."

Science

Did Death Cheat Stephen Hawking of a Nobel Prize? (msn.com) 60

"Did death cheat Stephen Hawking of a Nobel Prize?" asks the New York Times: When the iconic physicist died on March 14, 2018, data was already in hand that could confirm an ominous and far-reaching prediction he had made more than four decades before. Dr. Hawking had posited that black holes, those maws of gravitational doom, could only grow larger, never smaller — swallowing information as they went and so threatening our ability to trace the history of the universe. That data was obtained in 2015 when the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, recorded signals from two massive black holes that had collided and created an even more massive black hole. Dr. Hawking's prediction was a first crucial step in a series of insights about black holes that have transformed modern physics. At stake is whether Einsteinian gravity, which shapes the larger universe, plays by the same rules as quantum mechanics, the paradoxical rules that prevail inside the atom.

A confirmation of Dr. Hawking's prediction was published this summer in Physical Review Letters. A team led by Maximiliano Isi, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his colleagues had spent years digging into the details of the LIGO results, and in July they finally announced that Dr. Hawking was right, at least for this particular black hole collision. "It's an exciting test because it's a long-desired result that cannot be achieved in a lab on Earth," Matthew Giesler, a researcher at Cornell University and part of Dr. Isi's team, said in an email. "This test required studying the merger of two black holes over a billion light years away and simply could not be accomplished without LIGO and its unprecedented detectors."

Nobody claims to know the mind of the Nobel Prize committee, and the names of people nominated for the prize are held secret for another 50 years. But many scientists agree that Dr. Isi's confirmation of Dr. Hawking's prediction could have made Dr. Hawking — and his co-authors on a definitive paper about it — eligible for a Nobel Prize.

But the Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously. Dr. Isi's result came too late.

ISS

Astronaut Spots Rare and Ethereal 'Transient Luminous Event' From ISS (cnet.com) 11

"Transient luminous event" sounds like a euphemism for a ghost, but it's actually a beautiful phenomenon that can sometimes be seen from the International Space Station. European Space Agency astronaut and current ISS resident Thomas Pesquet shared a view of an ethereal blue glow emerging over Europe. CNET reports: Transient luminous events are caused by upper-atmospheric lightning. This one happened in early September and Pesquet tweeted about it this week, calling it "a very rare occurrence." "What is fascinating about this lightning is that just a few decades ago they had been observed anecdotally by pilots and scientists were not convinced they actually existed," Pesquet said on Flickr. "Fast forward a few years and we can confirm elves, and sprites are very real and could be influencing our climate too!" Pesquet's image represents a single frame from a time-lapse taken from the station. The image would be a beauty just for the way it shows the curve of Earth and the twinkling lights of Europe below. The transient luminous event captured at its finest moment takes it to the next level.
Science

Neuroscientists Roll Out First Comprehensive Atlas of Brain Cells (sciencedaily.com) 11

A slew of 17 studies reveals the first comprehensive list of all cell types in the primary motor complex, offering "a starting point for tracing cellular networks to understand how they control our body and mind and how they are disrupted in mental and physical disorders," reports ScienceDaily. From the report: The 17 studies, appearing online Oct. 6 in the journal Nature, are the result of five years of work by a huge consortium of researchers supported by the National Institutes of Health's Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative to identify the myriad of different cell types in one portion of the brain. It is the first step in a long-term project to generate an atlas of the entire brain to help understand how the neural networks in our head control our body and mind and how they are disrupted in cases of mental and physical problems. [...] Individual researchers have previously identified dozens of cell types based on their shape, size, electrical properties and which genes are expressed in them. The new studies identify about five times more cell types, though many are subtypes of well-known cell types. For example, cells that release specific neurotransmitters, like gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) or glutamate, each have more than a dozen subtypes distinguishable from one another by their gene expression and electrical firing patterns.

While the current papers address only the motor cortex, the BRAIN Initiative Cell Census Network (BICCN) -- created in 2017 -- endeavors to map all the different cell types throughout the brain, which consists of more than 160 billion individual cells, both neurons and support cells called glia. The BRAIN Initiative was launched in 2013 by then-President Barack Obama. [Researchers] have already used CRISPR-Cas9 to create mice in which a specific cell type is labeled with a fluorescent marker, allowing them to track the connections these cells make throughout the brain. For the flagship journal paper, the Berkeley team created two strains of "knock-in" reporter mice that provided novel tools for illuminating the connections of the newly identified cell types.

"The big advance by the BICCN is that we combined many different ways of defining a cell type and integrated them to come up with a consensus taxonomy that's not just based on gene expression or on physiology or morphology, but takes all of those properties into account," [UC Berkeley colleague Dirk Hockemeyer] said. "So, now we can say this particular cell type expresses these genes, has this morphology, has these physiological properties, and is located in this particular region of the cortex. So, you have a much deeper, granular understanding of what that cell type is and its basic properties." [F]uture studies could show that the number of cell types identified in the motor cortex is an overestimate, but the current studies are a good start in assembling a cell atlas of the whole brain.

Medicine

WSU Will Lead $125 Million Global Project To Find, Analyze Animal Viruses (geekwire.com) 34

Washington State University this week launched a new $125 million program to collect and analyze animal viruses with the aim of preventing the next pandemic. GeekWire reports: The program is funded with an award from the U.S. Agency for International Development and includes researchers at the University of Washington and the Seattle-based nonprofit PATH. The project will partner with up to 12 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to build up lab capacity for surveillance of animal viruses that have the potential to "spillover" into humans and cause disease. The project will survey wildlife and domesticated animals for three families of viruses -- coronaviruses, filoviruses (which includes Ebola), and paramyxoviruses (which are in the same family as the measles and Nipah viruses). Researchers will not be working in the lab with the live viruses and will kill them as part of the collection process.

The team aims to collect more than 800,000 samples in the five years of the project, called Discovery & Exploration of Emerging Pathogens -- Viral Zoonoses, or DEEP VZN. The project is expected to yield 8,000 to 12,000 novel, previously unknown, viruses for analysis. The program has parallels with another USAID-funded program, STOP Spillover, which assesses risk factors for animal-to-human disease transmission and implements interventions to stop it. DEEP VZN will select partner sites outside the U.S. based on factors such as commitment to data sharing and whether there are lots of interactions between humans and animals in the region. Other partners for the project include Washington University in St. Louis and the nonprofit FHI 360.

Science

A French Company Is Using Enzymes To Recycle One of the Most Common Single-Use Plastics (technologyreview.com) 64

In late September, Carbios, a French startup, opened a demonstration plant in central France to test the use of enzymes to recycle PET, one of the most common single-use plastics and the material used to make most beverage bottles. MIT Technology Review reports: While we've had mechanical methods for recycling some plastics, like PET, for decades, chemical and enzyme-based processes could produce purer products or allow us to recycle items like clothes that conventional techniques can't process. [...] Carbios's new reactor measures 20 cubic meters -- around the size of a cargo van. It can hold two metric tons of plastic, or the equivalent of about 100,000 ground-up bottles at a time, and break it down into the building blocks of PET -- ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid -- in 10 to 16 hours. The company plans to use what it learns from the demonstration facility to build its first industrial plant, which will house a reactor about 20 times larger than the demonstration reactor. That full-scale plant will be built near a plastic manufacturer somewhere in Europe or the US, and should be operational by 2025, says Alain Marty, Carbios's chief science officer.

Carbios has been developing enzymatic recycling since the company was founded in 2011. Its process relies on enzymes to chop up the long chains of polymers that make up plastic. The resulting monomers can then be purified and strung together to make new plastics. Researchers at Carbios started with a natural enzyme used by bacteria to break down leaves, then tweaked it to make it more efficient at breaking down PET. Carbios estimates that its enzymatic recycling process reduces greenhouse gas emissions by about 30% compared to virgin PET. Marty says he expects that number to increase as they work out the kinks. In a recent report, researchers estimated that manufacturing PET from enzymatic recycling could reduce greenhouse gas emissions between 17% and 43% compared to making virgin PET. The report wasn't specifically about Carbios, but it's probably a good estimate for its process, according to Gregg Beckham, a researcher at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory and a co-author of the report.

Carbios's product is about twice as expensive as virgin PET, Marty says. By comparison, mechanically recycled PET is only about 50% more expensive than virgin. Marty points out that Carbios's PET would still only cost about two cents for a small, clear plastic bottle, which he argues is a relatively small expense for manufacturers. Companies may be willing to pay. In a press release earlier this year, Carbios revealed demonstration bottles from partner brands that included PepsiCo and Nestle. Carbios recycled discarded plastic and handed it off to the companies, which used it to make new bottles. Eventually, enzymatic recycling may be able do things that mechanical recycling can't, like recycle clothes or mixed streams of plastics.

Medicine

A Controversial Autism Treatment Is About To Become a Very Big Business (vice.com) 141

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Motherboard: At Duke University's Marcus Center for Cellular Cures, parents can enroll their children into a number of clinical trials that aim to study the effects of cells derived from umbilical cord blood on treating the effects of autism and brain injuries; adults can also participate in a trial testing whether cord blood can help them recover from ischemic strokes. And when parents can't get their children into any of these clinical trials, particularly for autism, they often opt for what's called the Expanded Access Program (EAP), in which they pay between $10,000 and $15,000 to get their kids a single infusion. All of the trials use products derived from human umbilical cord blood, which is a source of stem cells as well as other types of cells. The autism trials are using a type of immune cells called monocytes, according to Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg, a well-respected Duke professor who's conducting clinical trials into whether cord blood can help with autism, and who has been researching stem cells since the early '90s. (On ClinicalTrials.gov, however, these trials are listed as using mesenchymal stromal cells, which are a completely different type of cord blood cell.)

Now, a for-profit company called Cryo-Cell International with ties to Duke researchers has indicated that it plans to open clinics promoting these treatments, under a licensing agreement with the renowned North Carolina university. In their investor presentation, Cryo-Cell said they plan to become "an autonomous, vertically integrated cellular therapy company that will treat patients." Duke and Cryo-Cell's rush to monetize a procedure before it's shown to have solid benefits has created concern, though, across the community of scientists, clinicians, and medical ethicists who study autism treatments. The hope is that these cord blood infusions can improve some autism symptoms, like socialization and language, or decrease the inflammation that some parents and clinicians think might exacerbate autism symptoms. Early study results, however, haven't been very promising.

A large randomized clinical trial, the results of which were released in May 2020, showed that a single infusion of cord blood was not, in the words of the researchers, "associated with improved socialization skills or reduced autism symptoms." This is why Duke's latest move comes as such a surprise: The university and Cryo-Cell have told investors that they're planning to open a series of "infusion centers." At these clinics, Cryo-Cell will use Duke's technology and methods to offer cord blood treatments for $15,000 per infusion. In an exuberant presentation for investors (PDF), Cryo-Cell said it estimates an annual revenue of $24 million per clinic; it hasn't disclosed how many clinics it plans to open. At least one will reportedly open in Durham, North Carolina. The move follows a June 2020 announcement that Cryo-Cell had entered into an exclusive patent-option agreement with Duke, allowing it to manufacture and sell products based on patents from Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg.

China

China PCR Purchases Spiked In Months Before First Known Covid Cases, Firm Says (bloomberg.com) 219

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Bloomberg: The Chinese province that was the initial epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak made significant purchases of equipment used to test for infectious diseases months before Beijing notified international authorities of the emergence of a new coronavirus, according to research by a cybersecurity company. The province's purchase of polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, testing equipment, which allows scientists to amplify DNA samples to test for infectious disease or other genetic material, shot upward in 2019, with most of the increase coming in the second half of the year, the Australian-U.S. firm Internet 2.0 found. Hubei province is home to Wuhan, the large Chinese city where the first known cases of the virus emerged. The World Health Organization reported that its China Country Office was informed on Dec. 31, 2019, that cases of pneumonia from an unknown cause had been detected in the city.

Based on the research, Internet 2.0 concluded with "high confidence that the pandemic began much earlier than China informed the WHO about Covid-19," according to the report. The cybersecurity firm, which specializes in digital forensics and intelligence analysis, called for further investigation. But several medical experts said the Internet 2.0 report wasn't enough information to draw such conclusions. For one thing, PCR testing, which has been in broad use for several decades, has been been growing in popularity as it has become a standard method to test for pathogens, according to one of the experts. In addition, PCR equipment is widely used in laboratories to test for many other pathogens beside Covid-19, including in animals, and is commonly found in modern hospitals and labs. China was also dealing with an outbreak of African swine fever across the country in 2019.

Earth

Earth Is Getting Dimmer (gizmodo.com) 40

Earth is losing some of its glow, a study published in Geophysical Research Letters last week shows. It appears climate change and a natural climate shift have essentially scuffed up our planet. From a report: The study takes a look at earthshine, or the light reflected from the planet that casts a faint light on the surface of the Moon. It's also known as the Da Vinci Glow, because Leonardo da Vinci was the first person to formally write about it. Research has advanced quite a bit since da Vinci's writing 500 years ago, and the new findings use two decades of earthshine data collected at Big Bear Solar Observatory using a special type of telescope to view the Moon. The best time to observe earthshine is when the Moon is waxing or waning. Look at the Moon then, and you may be able to make out a faint outline of the whole Moon in addition to the sliver brightly illuminated by the Sun. That ghostly outline is thanks to earthshine, caused by the sunlight reflecting off our planet.

The observatory is perfectly situated to measure earthshine for 40% of the planet, spanning the Pacific and parts of North America. Analyzing the data for roughly 800 nights between 1998 and 2017 showed a small but significant decline in earthshine. There were some year-to-year shifts, but the paper notes that those are "quite muted, with a long-term decline dominating the time series." The scientists used satellite data to gauge what drove the dimming. Land, ice, clouds, and open ocean all have different levels of reflectivity that contribute to earthshine. (The reflectivity of different surfaces is also referred to as albedo.) The findings point to the disappearance of clouds in the tropical Pacific as the culprit in dulling Earth's shine. "The albedo drop was such a surprise to us when we analyzed the last three years of data after 17 years of nearly flat albedo," said Philip Goode, a researcher at New Jersey Institute of Technology and the lead author of the report, in a statement.

Earth

Historic Go-ahead for Malaria Vaccine To Protect African Children (bbc.com) 67

Children across much of Africa are to be vaccinated against malaria in a historic moment in the fight against the deadly disease. From a report: Malaria has been one of the biggest scourges on humanity for millennia and mostly kills babies and infants. Having a vaccine -- after more than a century of trying -- is among medicine's greatest achievements. The vaccine -- called RTS,S -- was proven effective six years ago. Now, after the success of pilot immunisation programmes in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi, the World Health Organization says the vaccine should be rolled out across sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions with moderate to high malaria transmission. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO said it was "a historic moment." "The long-awaited malaria vaccine for children is a breakthrough for science, child health and malaria control." Using the vaccine on top of existing tools "could save tens of thousands of young lives each year," he said.
Science

Nobel Prize in Chemistry Awarded To Scientists for Creating a Tool To Build Molecules (nytimes.com) 22

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded on Wednesday to Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan for their development of a new tool to build molecules, work that has spurred advances in pharmaceutical research and lessened the impact of chemistry on the environment. From a report: Their work, while unseen by consumers, is an essential part in many leading industries and is crucial for research. Chemists are among those tasked with constructing molecules that can form elastic and durable materials, store energy in batteries or inhibit the progression of diseases. But that work requires catalysts, which are substances that control and accelerate chemical reactions without becoming part of the final product. "For example, catalysts in cars transform toxic substances in exhaust fumes to harmless molecules," the Nobel committee said in a statement. "Our bodies also contain thousands of catalysts in the form of enzymes, which chisel out the molecules necessary for life." The problem was that there were just two types of catalysts available: metals and enzymes.

In 2000, Dr. List and Dr. MacMillan -- working independently of each other -- developed a new type of catalysis that reduced waste and allowed for novel ways to construct molecules. It is called asymmetric organocatalysis and builds upon small organic molecules. "This concept for catalysis is as simple as it is ingenious, and the fact is that many people have wondered why we didn't think of it earlier," said Johan Aqvist, chairman of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry. Virtually everyone on the planet has come across a product that has benefited from a chemist's expertise. The process of using catalysts to break down molecules or join them together is essential in industry and research.

Slashdot Top Deals