A little taste of everything that’s out there

A little taste of everything that’s out there

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If the spectacular images from the NASA James Webb Space Telescope have you hankering to learn more about what’s Out There—or at least to see more pretty pictures of it—The Short Story of the Universe arrives just in time to sate your craving.

Like all of the books in the Short Story of… series, Gemma Lavender’s The Short Story of the Universe (Amazon, Bookshop) is organized into four cross-referenced sections. First is Structure, which begins with the Universe and ends with subatomic particles. Next is History and Future. It begins “Before the Beginning” (the “beginning” being the Big Bang, T=0, 13.8 billion years ago) and ends with “The Fate of the Universe” at T > 10100 years.

The shape of that future depends on how dark energy behaves. If dark energy weakens over time, “it may cause gravity to lead the Universe slowly to contract back on itself in a Big Crunch.” Alternatively, if dark energy strengthens or even stays the same over time, the Universe will just keep on expanding forever until either all matter entropically decays into radiation or the fabric of space-time gets torn in a Big Rip. We don’t know which path dark energy will take because we don’t yet know what dark energy is.

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#ars-shopping, #book-review, #cosmology, #physics, #science

How long will it take to understand long COVID?

How long will it take to understand long COVID?

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Rachel Robles contracted COVID in March 2020. The 27-year-old data analyst has not gone a single day without symptoms since. Most doctors did not believe her when she described how she had gone from running the Brooklyn Half Marathon the previous year to enduring such crippling fatigue that her couch felt like quicksand. How she suddenly struggled to put numbers together, despite her technical training. How no matter how many breaths she took, she always felt starved for air.

Three months in, one doctor told her, “COVID doesn’t last for 90 days. You either get over it or you die.”

That dichotomy—in which the only possible outcomes of COVID are either complete recovery or death—has turned out to be anything but true. Between 8 million and 23 million Americans are still sick months or years after being infected. The perplexing array of symptoms known as long COVID has left an estimated 1 million of those people so disabled they are unable to work, and those numbers are likely to grow as the virus continues to evolve and spread. Some who escaped long COVID the first time are getting it after their second or third infection. “It is a huge public health crisis in the wake of acute COVID infection,” says Linda Geng, a physician and codirector of Stanford Health Care’s long COVID clinic.

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#covid, #covid-19, #long-haul-covid, #science

Poliovirus detected in NYC sewage; health officials urge vaccination

Transmission electron micrograph of poliovirus type 1.

Enlarge / Transmission electron micrograph of poliovirus type 1. (credit: Getty | BSIP)

Health officials in New York are ramping up efforts to boost polio vaccination rates in local children as yet more poliovirus has surfaced in sewage sampling.

On Friday, August 12, New York state and New York City health officials announced that poliovirus had been detected for the first time in New York City sewage, suggesting local circulation of the virus.

The finding follows similar detections in sewage sampling in nearby Rockland and Orange counties during May, June, and July. On July 21, health officials in Rockland county reported a case of paralytic polio in a young, unvaccinated male resident who had not recently traveled out of the country. The man’s symptoms began in June.

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#infectious-disease, #london, #new-york, #new-york-city, #polio, #science, #vaccination, #vaccination-exemptions, #vaccine

Betelgeuse is bouncing back after blowing its top in 2019

Artist’s conception in 2021 provided a close-up of Betelgeuse’s irregular surface and its giant, dynamic gas bubbles, with distant stars dotting the background.

Enlarge / Artist’s conception in 2021 provided a close-up of Betelgeuse’s irregular surface and its giant, dynamic gas bubbles, with distant stars dotting the background. (credit: European Southern Observatory)

Astronomers are still making new discoveries about the red supergiant star Betelgeuse, which experienced a mysterious “dimming” a few years ago. That dimming was eventually attributed to a cold spot and a stellar “burp” that shrouded the star in interstellar dust. Now, new observations from the Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories have revealed more about the event that preceded the dimming.

It seems Betelgeuse suffered a massive surface mass injection (SME) event in 2019, blasting off 400 times as much mass as our Sun does during coronal mass ejections (CMEs). The sheer scale of the event is unprecedented and suggests that CMEs and SMEs are distinctly different types of events, according to a new paper posted to the physics arXiv last week. (It has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.)

Betelgeuse is a bright red star in the Orion constellation—one of the closest massive stars to Earth, about 700 light-years away. It’s an old star that has reached the stage where it glows a dull red and expands, with the hot core only having a tenuous gravitational grip on its outer layers. The star has something akin to a heartbeat, albeit an extremely slow and irregular one. Over time, the star cycles through periods when its surface expands and then contracts.

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#astronomy, #astrophysics, #betelgeuse, #physics, #science, #stars, #stellar-evolution, #surface-mass-injections

The Soviet Union once hunted endangered whales to the brink of extinction

Soviet whalers manning mechanized harpoons in 1960.

Enlarge / Soviet whalers manning mechanized harpoons in 1960. (credit: Marka/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Every year, an estimated 13 million people go whale-watching around the world, marveling at the sight of the largest animals ever to inhabit Earth. It’s a dramatic reversal from a century ago, when few people ever saw a living whale. The creatures are still recovering from massive industrial-scale hunting that nearly wiped out several species in the 20th century.

The history of whaling shows how humans have wreaked careless havoc on the ocean, but also how they can change course. In my new book, Red Leviathan: The Secret History of Soviet Whaling, I describe how the Soviet Union was central both to this deadly industry and to scientific research that helps us understand whales’ recovery.

A humpback whale breaches in Boston Harbor on August 2, 2022. Whaling greatly reduced humpback whale numbers, but the species is recovering under international protection.

From wood to steel and bad to worse

At the start of the 20th century, it seemed whales might gain a reprieve after years of hunting. The era of whaling from sailboats, depicted in such memorable detail by Herman Melville in Moby-Dick, had nearly wiped out slow, fat species like right and bowhead whales and also wreaked substantial harm to sperm whales.

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#science

Rocket Report: SpaceX sees rideshare demand, Russia’s odd launch deal with Iran

India's Small Satellite Launch Vehicle takes flight on Sunday.

Enlarge / India’s Small Satellite Launch Vehicle takes flight on Sunday. (credit: ISRO)

Welcome to Edition 5.06 of the Rocket Report! The big news this week is Northrop Grumman’s deal with both Firefly and SpaceX to make sure it can continue flying Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station. This is a bold move that draws upon the deep US commercial space industry in order to meet NASA’s needs in space. It is great to see this kind of cooperation in the aerospace community.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Astra pivots to larger rocket. Astra will shift away from its previous mantra of being lean in terms of staffing, moving at breakneck speed, and tolerating some failure in launch vehicles, Ars reports. It will also go bigger in terms of its rocket size. “First, we’ve increased the payload capacity target for launch system 2.0 from 300 kg to 600 kg,” CEO Chris Kemp said. “Second, we’re working with all of our launch service customers to re-manifest on launch system 2.0. As such, we will not have any additional flights in 2022. And third, we’re increasing investments in testing and qualification.”

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#rocket-report, #science, #space

CDC no longer gently recommends COVID precautions most weren’t following anyway

Huge facade for CDC headquarters against a beautiful sky.

Enlarge (credit: Bloomberg | Getty Images)

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its pandemic guidance today, offering slightly looser recommendations that likely won’t change much about how Americans handle the pandemic these days.

According to the updated guidance, people who are not up-to-date on their vaccinations—i.e., unvaccinated people or people who have not received the recommended number of boosters—no longer need to quarantine if they know they’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19. Instead, if a not up-to-date person is exposed, the CDC now recommends they wear a mask for 10 days after the exposure and get tested for COVID-19 on day 5. Currently, roughly 68 percent of the US population is not up to date on their COVID-19 vaccination.

This guidance update essentially ends all COVID-19-related quarantine recommendations since the CDC had previously said that those who are up to date on their vaccines do not need to quarantine but only wear a mask for 10 days and test.

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#cdc, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #distancing, #infectious-disease, #isolation, #pandemic, #public-health, #quarantine, #science, #vaccination, #vaccines

Sauropods had soft foot pads to help support their massive weight

A 3D paleoreconstruction of a sauropod dinosaur has revealed that the hind feet had a soft tissue pad beneath the "heel," cushioning the foot to absorb the animals immense weight.

Enlarge / A 3D paleoreconstruction of a sauropod dinosaur has revealed that the hind feet had a soft tissue pad beneath the “heel,” cushioning the foot to absorb the animals immense weight. (credit: Andreas Jannel)

Ask people to think of a dinosaur, and they’ll likely name Tyrannosaurus Rex, the carnivorous antagonist prominently featured in the Jurassic Park and Jurassic World film franchises. But an equally well-known dinosaur clade are the herbivorous sauropods, which include Brachiosaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Argentinosaurus, and Brontosaurus. Australian paleontologists have digitally reconstructed these plant-munching giants to glean insight into how their feet managed to support their enormous weight, according to a new paper published in the journal Science Advances.

“We’ve finally confirmed a long-suspected idea and we provide, for the first time, biomechanical evidence that a soft tissue pad—particularly in their back feet—would have played a crucial role in reducing locomotor pressures and bone stresses,” said co-author Andreas Jannel, who worked on the project while completing doctoral studies at the University of Queensland. “It is mind-blowing to imagine that these giant creatures could have been able to support their own weight on land.”

Sauropods (clade name: Sauropoda, or “lizard feet”) had long-necked, long-tailed bodies that made them the lengthiest animals to have roamed the Earth. They had thick and powerful hind legs, club-like feet with five toes, and more slender forearms. It’s rare to find complete Sauropod fossils, and even those that are mostly complete still lack the heads, tail tips, and limbs. Scientists have nonetheless managed to learn a great deal about them, and digital reconstruction is proving to be a valuable new tool in advancing our knowledge even further.

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#biology, #biomechanics, #dinosaurs, #evolution, #paleontology, #sauropods, #science

Did giant impacts start plate tectonics?

Artist's depiction of a crater-covered early Earth.

Enlarge (credit: Simone Marchi/SwRI)

One of Earth’s defining features is its plate tectonics, a phenomenon that shapes the planet’s surface and creates some of its most catastrophic events, like earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. While some features of plate tectonics have been spotted elsewhere in the Solar System, the Earth is the only planet we know of with the full suite of processes involved in this phenomenon. And all indications are that it started very early in our planet’s history.

So what started it? Currently, two leading ideas are difficult to distinguish based on our limited evidence of the early Earth. A new study of a piece of Australia, however, argues strongly for one of them: the heavy impacts that also occurred early in the planet’s history.

Options and impacts

Shortly after the Earth formed, its crust would have been composed of a relatively even layer of solid rock that acted as a lid over the still-molten mantle below. Above that, there was likely a global ocean since plate tectonics wasn’t building mountains yet. Somehow, this situation was transformed into what we see now: The large regions of moving, buoyant crust of the continental plates and the constantly spreading deep ocean crust formed from mantle materials, all driven by the heat-induced motion of material through the mantle.

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#earth-science, #impacts, #meteors, #planetary-science, #plate-tectonics, #science

Backyard hens’ eggs contain 40 times more lead on average than shop eggs

Backyard hens’ eggs contain 40 times more lead on average than shop eggs

Enlarge (credit: Cavan Images | Getty)

There’s nothing like the fresh eggs from your own hens, the more than 400,000 Australians who keep backyard chooks will tell you. Unfortunately, it’s often not just freshness and flavor that set their eggs apart from those in the shops.

Our newly published research found backyard hens’ eggs contain, on average, more than 40 times the lead levels of commercially produced eggs. Almost one in two hens in our Sydney study had significant lead levels in their blood. Similarly, about half the eggs analyzed contained lead at levels that may pose a health concern for consumers.

Even low levels of lead exposure are considered harmful to human health, including among other effects cardiovascular disease and decreased IQ and kidney function. Indeed, the World Health Organization has stated there is no safe level of lead exposure.

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#agriculture, #backyard-chicken-coops, #chickens, #eggs, #gardening, #lead-pollution, #science

Were bones of Waterloo soldiers sold as fertilizer? It’s not yet case closed

<em>The Morning after the Battle of Waterloo</em>, by John Heaviside Clark, 1816.

Enlarge / The Morning after the Battle of Waterloo, by John Heaviside Clark, 1816. (credit: Public domain)

When Napoleon was infamously defeated at Waterloo in 1815, the conflict left a battlefield littered with thousands of corpses and the inevitable detritus of war. But what happened to all those dead bodies? Only one full skeleton has been found at the site, much to the bewilderment of archaeologists. Contemporary accounts tell of French bodies being burned by local peasants, with other bodies being dumped into mass graves. And some accounts describe how scattered bones were collected and ground up into meal to use as fertilizer.

It’s that last claim that particularly interests Tony Pollard, director of the Center for Battlefield Archaeology at the University of Glasgow. He has examined historical source materials like memoirs and journals of early visitors, as well as artworks, to map the missing grave sites on the Waterloo battlefield in hopes of finding a definitive answer. He recently provided an update on his efforts thus far in a recent paper published in the Journal of Conflict Archaeology.

Napoleon had initially been defeated and deposed as emperor of France in 1813, ending up in exile on the island of Elba in the Mediterranean. He briefly returned to power in March 1815 for what is now known as the Hundred Days. Several states opposed to his rule formed the Seventh Coalition, including a British-led multinational army led by the Duke of Wellington, and a larger Prussian army under the command of Field Marshal von Blücher. Those were the armies that clashed with Napoleon’s Armée du Nord at Waterloo.

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#archaeology, #battle-of-waterloo, #forensic-archaeology, #forensics, #gaming-culture, #history, #military-history, #napoleon-bonaparte, #science

It’s not just social media: Cable news has bigger effect on polarization

It’s not just social media: Cable news has bigger effect on polarization

Enlarge (credit: simonkr | Getty Images)

The past two election cycles have seen an explosion of attention given to “echo chambers,” or communities where a narrow set of views makes people less likely to challenge their own opinions. Much of this concern has focused on the rise of social media, which has radically transformed the information ecosystem.

However, when scientists investigated social media echo chambers, they found surprisingly little evidence of them on a large scale—or at least none on a scale large enough to warrant the growing concerns. And yet, selective exposure to news does increase polarization. This suggested that these studies missed part of the picture of Americans’ news consumption patterns. Crucially, they did not factor in a major component of the average American’s experience of news: television.

To fill in this gap, I and a group of researchers from Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania and Microsoft Research tracked the TV news consumption habits of tens of thousands of American adults each month from 2016 through 2019. We discovered four aspects of news consumption that, when taken together, paint an unsettling picture of the TV news ecosystem.

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#cable-news, #polarization, #policy, #science, #social-media

Putting together the Webb telescope’s mid-infrared eyes

Image of an oval-shaped galaxy.

Enlarge / The dust in this galaxy, shaded red, required the MIRI instrument to resolve. (credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI)

There is more than one reason why the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) on board the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is considered to be pioneering. Of the four instruments on JWST, it’s the only one that observes in the mid-infrared range, from 5 to 28 microns; the other three are near-infrared devices with a wavelength range of 0.6 to 5 microns. To reach these wavelengths, MIRI had to be kept the coldest of any instrument on JWST, meaning it essentially set the requirements for the telescope’s cooling system.

The stunning images taken by MIRI are a testimony to the remarkable engineering feats that went into it, feats that were achieved by overcoming formidable challenges through meticulous transatlantic teamwork and coordination.

Making MIRI

“I remember being told in the early days that the instrument will never be built. Some people at NASA looked at the block diagram of our management structure and said it will never work,” Professor George Rieke, who leads the science team of MIRI, recalled.

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#astronomy, #esa, #miri, #nasa, #science, #webb-telescope

SpaceX breathes fire in South Texas for the first time in 2022

SpaceX conducts a hot fire test of the Booster 7 rocket on Tuesday, August 9, 2022.

Enlarge / SpaceX conducts a hot fire test of the Booster 7 rocket on Tuesday, August 9, 2022. (credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX ignited engines on both the first and second stages of its Starship launch system on Wednesday, signaling that it is getting closer to a test flight of the massive rocket later this year.

On Monday evening at 5:20 pm local time in South Texas, engineers ignited a single Raptor engine on the Super Heavy booster that serves as the rocket’s first stage. This is the first time the company has ever conducted a static fire test of the booster, which will ultimately be powered by 33 Raptor rocket engines.

About three hours later, on a separate mount at its “Starbase” facility in Texas, SpaceX ignited two engines on the Starship upper stage of the rocket. The company later shared a short video on Twitter of the evidently successful test.

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#science, #space, #spacex, #starship, #super-heavy

Everything you need to know about the monkeypox health emergency

A negative stain electron micrograph of a monkeypox virus virion in human vesicular fluid.

Enlarge / A negative stain electron micrograph of a monkeypox virus virion in human vesicular fluid. (credit: Getty | BSIP)

On May 7, health officials in the UK reported a case of monkeypox in a person who had recently traveled to Nigeria. The case was very rare but not necessarily alarming; a small number of travel-related cases of monkeypox pop up now and then. The UK logged seven such cases between 2018 and 2021. But this year, the cases kept coming.

By May 16, the UK had reported six additional cases, mostly unconnected, and all unrelated to travel, suggesting domestic transmission. On May 18, Portugal reported five confirmed cases and more than 20 suspected ones. The same day, health officials in Massachusetts reported the first US case. Spain, meanwhile, issued an outbreak alert after 23 people showed signs of the unusual infection. Cases in Italy and Sweden followed.

In the past, monkeypox transmission largely fizzled out on its own. Experts did not consider the virus to be easily transmissible. Still, the cases kept coming. By May 26, the multinational outbreak had exceeded 300 cases in over 20 countries. At the time, the US had only nine cases confirmed, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it presumed domestic community transmission was already underway. In early June, the global tally exceeded 1,300 from 31 countries, including 45 cases in the US.

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#cdc, #features, #guide, #infection, #infectious-disease, #monkeypox, #outbreak, #public-health, #science, #vaccine, #virus, #who

These researchers watched dead fish rot for 70 days—for science

These researchers watched dead fish rot for 70 days—for science

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson/T. Clements et al.)

Sometimes science can be a messy endeavor—not to mention “disgusting and smelly.” That’s how British researchers described their experiments monitoring dead sea bass carcasses as they rotted over the course of 70 days. In the process, they gained some fascinating insights into how (and why) the soft tissues of internal organs can be selectively preserved in the fossil record, according to a new paper published in the journal Palaeontology.

Most fossils are bone, shells, teeth, and other forms of “hard” tissue, but occasionally rare fossils are discovered that preserve soft tissues like skin, muscles, organs, or even the occasional eyeball. This can tell scientists much about aspects of the biology, ecology, and evolution of such ancient organisms that skeletons alone can’t convey. For instance, earlier this year, researchers created a highly detailed 3D model of a 365-million-year-old ammonite fossil from the Jurassic period by combining advanced imaging techniques, revealing internal muscles that had never been previously observed.

“One of the best ways that soft tissue can turn into rock is when they are replaced by a mineral called calcium phosphate (sometimes called apatite),” said co-author Thomas Clements of the University of Birmingham. “Scientists have been studying calcium phosphate for decades trying to understand how this process happens—but one question we just don’t understand is why some internal organs seem more likely to be preserved than others.”

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#biochemistry, #biology, #fish, #fossilization, #fossils, #paleobiology, #paleontology, #science

China’s secretive space plane flies higher and longer than before

A Long March 2F carrier rocket carrying the Shenzhou-14 spacecraft blasts off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on June 5, 2022.

Enlarge / A Long March 2F carrier rocket carrying the Shenzhou-14 spacecraft blasts off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on June 5, 2022. (credit: VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

Last week one of China’s most reliable rockets, the Long March 2F vehicle, took off from a spaceport in the Gobi Desert carrying a secretive space plane.

In a short report on the launch by China’s state-owned Xinhua news service, the government provided little detail about the “reusable test spacecraft” beyond saying it would remain in orbit for “a period of time” and providing technical verification of reusable and in-orbit services.

This is the second time China launched what is believed to be a small space plane, likely similar in size and scope to the US Space Force’s experimental X-37B vehicle. This uncrewed X-37B resembles NASA’s space shuttle, but at less than 10 meters in length, it is considerably smaller. The vehicle’s cargo bay can hold something about the size of a standard refrigerator.

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#china, #science, #space, #space-plane

Jumping spiders may experience something like REM sleep

This little guy looks too perky to need a nap.

Enlarge / This little guy looks too perky to need a nap. (credit: Tony Liu)

Our sleep is marked by cycles of distinct brain activity. The most well-known of these is probably rapid eye movement, or REM sleep, which is characterized by loss of muscle control leading to twitching and paralysis, along with its eponymous eye movements. REM sleep is widespread in vertebrates, appearing in many mammals and birds; similar periods have also been observed in lizards.

Figuring out what might be going on beyond vertebrates can get a bit challenging, however, as identifying what constitutes sleep isn’t always clear, and many animals don’t have eyes that move in the same way as those of vertebrates. (Flies, for example, must move their entire head to reorient their eyes.) But an international team of researchers identified a group of jumping spiders that can reorient internal portions of their eyes during what appears to be sleep.

And according to this team, the spiders experience all the hallmarks of REM sleep, with periods of rapid eye movements associated with muscle twitching.

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#behavioral-science, #biology, #rem, #science, #sleep, #spiders

Scientists hid encryption key for Wizard of Oz text in plastic molecules

Scientists from the University of Texas at Austin encrypted the key to decode text of the <em>The Wizard of Oz</em> in polymers.

Enlarge / Scientists from the University of Texas at Austin encrypted the key to decode text of the The Wizard of Oz in polymers. (credit: S.D. Dahlhauser et al., 2022)

Scientists from the University of Texas at Austin sent a letter to colleagues in Massachusetts with a secret message: an encryption key to unlock a text file of L. Frank Baum’s classic novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The twist: The encryption key was hidden in a special ink laced with polymers, They described their work in a recent paper published in the journal ACS Central Science.

When it comes to alternative means for data storage and retrieval, the goal is to store data in the smallest amount of space in a durable and readable format. Among polymers, DNA has long been the front runner in that regard. As we’ve reported previously, DNA has four chemical building blocks—adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G), and cytosine (C)—which constitute a type of code. Information can be stored in DNA by converting the data from binary code to a base-4 code and assigning it one of the four letters. A single gram of DNA can represent nearly 1 billion terabytes (1 zettabyte) of data. And the stored data can be preserved for long periods—decades, or even centuries.

There have been some inventive twists on the basic method for DNA storage in recent years. For instance, in 2019, scientists successfully fabricated a 3D-printed version of the Stanford bunny—a common test model in 3D computer graphics—that stored the printing instructions to reproduce the bunny. The bunny holds about 100 kilobytes of data, thanks to the addition of DNA-containing nanobeads to the plastic used to 3D print it. And scientists at the University of Washington recently recorded K-Pop lyrics directly onto living cells using a “DNA typewriter.”

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#chemistry, #cryptography, #digital-encryption, #digital-keys, #molecular-encryption, #polymers, #science

Peter Beck explains why Electron may only ever launch 10-15 times a year

An Electron rocket launches a mission for the US National Reconnaissance Office on August 4, 2022.

Enlarge / An Electron rocket launches a mission for the US National Reconnaissance Office on August 4, 2022. (credit: Rocket Lab)

For a rocket named after a negatively charged particle, the Electron launch vehicle has generated a lot of positive news lately.

Rocket Lab’s small booster has already tied its record for annual launches with six this year, and it recently stepped up its cadence to complete three Electron missions in just five weeks. And these were not just any launches; they were arguably the most consequential missions since Rocket Lab began flying in May 2017.

On June 28, Electron launched the CAPSTONE mission to the Moon, demonstrating that a small rocket could launch a deep space mission and proving out the capability of the company’s Photon satellite bus for complex in-space operations. And then, on July 13 and August 4, Electron launched a pair of missions for the US National Reconnaissance Office that showcased the company’s “responsive” space capabilities.

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#electron, #rocket-lab, #science, #space

Locked-in syndrome and the misplaced presumption of misery

Locked-in syndrome and the misplaced presumption of misery

Enlarge (credit: Amy DiLorenzo | Getty Images)

In 1993, Julio Lopes was sipping a coffee at a bar when he had a stroke. He fell into a coma, and two months later, when he regained consciousness, his body was fully paralyzed.

Doctors said the young man’s future was bleak: Save for his eyes, he would never be able to move again. Lopes would have to live with locked-in syndrome, a rare condition characterized by near-total paralysis of the body and a totally lucid mind. LIS is predominantly caused by strokes in specific brain regions; it can also be caused by traumatic brain injury, tumors, and progressive diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

Yet almost 30 years later, Lopes now lives in a small Paris apartment near the Seine. He goes to the theater, watches movies at the cinema, and roams the local park in his wheelchair, accompanied by a caregiver. A small piece of black, red, and green fabric with the word “Portugal” dangles from his wheelchair. On a warm afternoon this past June, his birth country was slated to play against Spain in a soccer match, and he was excited.

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#bci, #locked-in-syndrome, #neurology, #science

58% of human infectious diseases can be worsened by climate change

Flooding from hurricanes like Irma in Florida can overwhelm sewer systems and spread pathogens in other ways.

Enlarge / Flooding from hurricanes like Irma in Florida can overwhelm sewer systems and spread pathogens in other ways. (credit: Brian Blanco | Getty Images)

Climate change can exacerbate a full 58% of the infectious diseases that humans come in contact with worldwide, from common waterborne viruses to deadly diseases like plague, our new research shows.

Our team of environment and health scientists reviewed decades of scientific papers on all known pathogenic disease pathogens to create a map of the human risks aggravated by climate-related hazards.

The numbers were jarring. Of 375 human diseases, we found that 218 of them, well over half, can be affected by climate change.

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#climate-change, #disease, #pathogens, #science

Fecal fountains: CDC warns of diarrheal outbreaks linked to poopy splash pads

A 2-year-old enjoys the spray of water in a splash pad in Los Angeles on June 20, 2022.

Enlarge / A 2-year-old enjoys the spray of water in a splash pad in Los Angeles on June 20, 2022. (credit: Getty | Al Seib)

In this summer’s record-blazing heat, a spritz of crisp, cool water sounds like delicious bliss. Each drop offering brisk relief as it pitter-patters on your face, quenching your sizzling skin.

But if you find such euphoric respite at a children’s splash pad, that soothing spray could quickly turn to a sickening spew, as the drips and drops may be doused with diarrheal pathogens. Each patter may offer a splat of infectious germs that, if accidentally ingested, could transform you into a veritable fecal fountain in the ensuing days.

That’s the warning from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least. This week the agency published a report outlining two gastrointestinal outbreaks linked to a single recreational splash pad in Kansas. The two outbreaks, which days apart in June 2021, involved two different pathogens—Shigella bacteria and norovirus—and collectively sickened at least 27 people. Although some circumstances are specific to that particular splash pad in Kansas, the outbreaks highlight the common risk of such facilities, which are often unregulated.

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#cdc, #gastrointestinal, #infectious-disease, #norovirus, #pathogen, #public-health, #science, #shigella, #splash-pad

As losses mount, Astra announces a radical pivot to a larger launch vehicle

Rocket 3.0 is seen on the launch pad in June 2022 ahead of the launch of a TROPICS mission for NASA.

Enlarge / Rocket 3.0 is seen on the launch pad in June 2022 ahead of the launch of a TROPICS mission for NASA. (credit: Astra/Brady Kenniston)

Astra Space emerged from stealth mode two and a half years ago with a bold vision: It would build inexpensive rockets quickly and with a tolerance for some failure. The idea was simple. If Astra’s small satellite customers would accept a bit of risk, the launch company could cut down on its testing, analysis, and redundancy in design. In turn, Astra would pass those launch savings along to customers.

“It’s a no-brainer from an economics perspective that for these kinds of payloads, you should not be targeting 100 percent reliability,” Astra co-founder Adam London said in February 2020.

At the time, the company was preparing for the first flight of its Rocket 3 vehicle, a micro launcher capable of lofting about 50 kg into low Earth orbit. That rocket exploded in March 2020 during a wet dress rehearsal test on the launch pad.

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#astra, #rocket, #science, #space

Rocket Report: SpaceX launches Korea to the Moon, Georgia’s litigious spaceport

An Atlas V rocket launches a Space Based Infrared System satellite on Thursday morning from Cape Canaveral Space Force Base.

Enlarge / An Atlas V rocket launches a Space Based Infrared System satellite on Thursday morning from Cape Canaveral Space Force Base. (credit: Trevor Mahlmann)

Welcome to Edition 5.05 of the Rocket Report! Don’t look now, but we could be fewer than four weeks away from the launch of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket. I have covered this booster for a dozen years and I’m so ready for this to finally happen. I’ve got plenty of coverage planned in the weeks ahead.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Georgia spaceport sues to force land sale. First Camden County citizens voted overwhelmingly against a proposed spaceport in southeastern Georgia. Then, the owner of 4,000 acres sought by the spaceport proponents said it would end an agreement to sell the land to backers of the Spaceport Camden project. Even so, Camden County commissioners refuse to give up the dream of building a spaceport that local residents don’t want, and for which the land owner doesn’t want to sell. So they’ve taken the land owner, Union Carbide Corporation, to court, News4Jax reports.

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#rocket-report, #science, #space

“Black widow” neutron star devoured its mate to become heaviest found yet

A spinning neutron star periodically swings its radio (green) and gamma-ray (magenta) beams past Eart. A black widow pulsar heats the facing side of its stellar partner to temperatures twice as hot as the Sun's surface and slowly evaporates it.

Enlarge / A spinning neutron star periodically swings its radio (green) and gamma-ray (magenta) beams past Eart. A black widow pulsar heats the facing side of its stellar partner to temperatures twice as hot as the Sun’s surface and slowly evaporates it. (credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

Astronomers have determined the heaviest neutron star known to date, weighing in at 2.35 solar masses, according to a recent paper published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. How did it get so large? Most likely by devouring a companion star—the celestial equivalent of a black widow spider devouring its mate. The work helps establish an upper limit on just how large neutron stars can become, with implications for our understanding of the quantum state of the matter at their cores.

Neutron stars are the remnants of supernovae. As Ars Science Editor John Timmer wrote last month:

The matter that forms neutron stars starts out as ionized atoms near the core of a massive star. Once the star’s fusion reactions stop producing enough energy to counteract the draw of gravity, this matter contracts, experiencing ever-greater pressures. The crushing force is enough to eliminate the borders between atomic nuclei, creating a giant soup of protons and neutrons. Eventually, even the electrons in the region get forced into many of the protons, converting them to neutrons.

This finally provides a force to push back against the crushing power of gravity. Quantum mechanics prevent neutrons from occupying the same energy state in close proximity, and this prevents the neutrons from getting any closer and so blocks the collapse into a black hole. But it’s possible that there’s an intermediate state between a blob of neutrons and a black hole, one where the boundaries between neutrons start to break down, resulting in odd combinations of their constituent quarks.

Short of black holes, the cores of neutron stars are the densest known objects in the Universe, and because they are hidden behind an event horizon, they are difficult to study. “We know roughly how matter behaves at nuclear densities, like in the nucleus of a uranium atom,” said Alex Filippenko, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley and co-author of the new paper. “A neutron star is like one giant nucleus, but when you have 1.5 solar masses of this stuff, which is about 500,000 Earth masses of nuclei all clinging together, it’s not at all clear how they will behave.”

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#astronomy, #astrophysics, #neutron-stars, #physics, #science

Biden administration declares monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency

Health workers sit at a check-in table at a pop-up monkeypox vaccination clinic, which was opened by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health at the West Hollywood Library on August 3, 2022, in West Hollywood, California.

Enlarge / Health workers sit at a check-in table at a pop-up monkeypox vaccination clinic, which was opened by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health at the West Hollywood Library on August 3, 2022, in West Hollywood, California. (credit: Getty | Mario Tama)

The Biden administration on Thursday declared the explosive monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency, clearing the way for more resources to slow the rise in US cases, which now total 6,617 across 48 states. No deaths have been reported in the US.

The country’s cases are part of an international outbreak that the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) on July 23. The global case count is now over 26,000 across 87 countries. At least 10 deaths have been reported from six countries. The US has the largest tally of cases of any other country, behind Spain, which has documented over 4,500 cases.

In a press briefing Thursday, US officials said the emergency declaration would allow federal, state, and local officials to better coordinate and respond to the outbreak. “We are prepared to take our response to the next level,” Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said after announcing the emergency declaration. “We urge every American to take monkeypox seriously.”

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#infectious-disease, #monkeypox, #public-health, #science, #virus

Key Russian official confirms his country’s commitment to the space station

Roscosmos cosmonaut and Executive Director for Piloted Spaceflights Sergey Krikalev speaks during an astronaut panel discussion at the 70th International Astronautical Congress in 2019.

Enlarge / Roscosmos cosmonaut and Executive Director for Piloted Spaceflights Sergey Krikalev speaks during an astronaut panel discussion at the 70th International Astronautical Congress in 2019. (credit: NASA)

A senior Russian official on Thursday said that his country’s space program intends to cooperate with NASA and other partners on the International Space Station for as long as technically possible.

Previously, NASA has said it would like to fly the station through 2030, and it has built support in the US Congress and White House for such a plan. Because the current agreement only runs through 2024, there have been questions about whether Russia would go along with an extension, especially with heightened tensions surrounding the war in Ukraine.

However, Sergei Krikalev, who serves as executive director of human spaceflight for Roscosmos, confirmed Thursday that his government and other countries, including the United States, are having productive discussions about possible extensions. He spoke through a translator at a news conference for an upcoming crew launch that includes both NASA and Russian astronauts.

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#nasa, #russia, #science, #space, #space-station

With help from BA.5, new COVID hospitalizations quadrupled since April

A thrown-away surgical mask lays on the ground.

Enlarge / A thrown-away surgical mask lays on the ground. (credit: Getty | David Gannon)

As the wave of omicron coronavirus subvariant BA.5 continues to flood the US, daily COVID-19 hospitalizations are four times higher than four months ago, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The data reflects the high ongoing transmission of coronavirus subvariants adept at evading fading immune responses in a population that is largely unboosted.

In early April, as the US fell into a brief pandemic lull in the wake of the towering BA.1 omicron wave, the seven-day rolling average for new hospitalizations sunk to around 1,420 per day nationwide. Now, after waves of subvariants BA. 2, BA.2.12.1, and the current BA.5, hospitalizations have floated back up. The current seven-day rolling average is nearing 6,300. Overall, more than 37,000 people in the US are currently hospitalized with COVID-19.

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#ba-5, #biology, #booster, #covid-19, #deaths, #hospitalizations, #infectious-disease, #medicine, #omicron, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science, #subvariants, #transmission, #vaccine

With solar arrays now operational, Lucy’s got some shimmering to do

A NASA rendering of the Lucy spacecraft before efforts were made to fully open one of its solar arrays in May and June.

Enlarge / A NASA rendering of the Lucy spacecraft before efforts were made to fully open one of its solar arrays in May and June. (credit: NASA)

NASA confirmed this week that its Lucy mission to explore a series of asteroids has a clean bill of health as it approaches a key gravity assist maneuver in October.

In a new update, the space agency said Lucy’s solar arrays are “stable enough” for the $1 billion spacecraft to carry out its science operations over the coming years as it visits a main-belt asteroid, 52246 Donaldjohanson, and subsequently flies by eight Trojan asteroids that share Jupiter’s orbit around the Sun.

The fate of the Lucy mission had been in question since the first hours after it launched on an Atlas V rocket last October when one of its two large solar arrays failed to fully open and securely latch. Each of the arrays was intended to unfurl like a hand fan.

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#asteroid, #lucy, #nasa, #science, #space

Record-short days could speed up debate on leap seconds

An atomic clock based on a fountain of atoms.

An atomic clock based on a fountain of atoms. (credit: National Science Foundation)

Meta recently joined the ranks of tech giants calling for the end of the leap second, the fascinatingly complex way humans account for tiny changes in the Earth’s rotation timing. The owner of Facebook and Instagram adds to a chorus that’s been growing for years, and the debate could come to a head at a global conference in 2023—or even sooner if the Earth keeps having record-short days.

Facebook, like many large-scale tech companies, is tired of trying to time a global network of servers against leap seconds, which add between 0.1 and 0.9 seconds to Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) every so many years. There have been 27 leap seconds added since 1972. In a post on Meta’s engineering blog, Oleg Obleukhov and Ahmad Byagowi say 27 is quite enough for non-solar-scientist types—”enough for the next millennium.”

International timekeeping bodies add leap seconds at unpredictable intervals because the things that cause them—the braking action of tides on rotation, moon position, the distribution of ice caps on mountaintops, mantle flow, earthquakes—are unpredictable. When the Earth’s speed varies too much from atomic time-keeping, a leap second is called for by the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS).

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#earth, #leap-second, #leap-second-smearing, #leap-seconds, #meta, #policy, #science, #tech

DIY Tinycade aims to bring Alt Ctrl games to the masses

DIY Tinycade aims to bring Alt Ctrl games to the masses

Enlarge (credit: P. Gyory et al., 2022)

What’s a frustrated game designer to do when stuck at home during a global pandemic? If that designer is Peter Gyory, a graduate student at the University of Colorado, Boulder, you figure out how to make a game out of the piles of discarded cardboard lying around the house.

The result is Tinycade, created by Gyory and several colleagues at UCB’s ATLAS Institute. All you need to make your own Tinycade game is some cardboard, a smartphone, two small mirrors, rubber bands, and toothpicks. “The restriction I gave myself was that if you couldn’t go to the grocery store and buy it, I couldn’t use it in Tinycade,” said Gyory. He and his collaborators presented their work in June at the Association for Computing Machinery on Creativity and Cognition in Venice, Italy, with a paper published in the conference proceedings.

Gyory is part of a growing community of game developers interested in building Alt Ctrl (alternative controller) games, which employ novel physical interfaces for players. Hot Swap, for example, involves steering and managing the sails of a ship with individual inputs that must be swapped while playing. Octopad will turn a Nintendo Entertainment System controller into eight distinct parts, turning any game played on the system into “a real-time co-op strategy game,” per the authors, while Cook Your Way “educates players on how the immigration process strips people of their culture with its faux kitchen controller, complete with a knife and pot.”

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#alt-ctrl-games, #arcade-games, #computing-machinery, #diy-science, #game-design, #gaming-culture, #science, #tinycade

Russia wants a better look at what America’s newest spy satellite can do

The NROL-87 mission successfully launched on February 2, 2022, from Vandenberg Space Force Base on a Falcon 9 rocket.

Enlarge / The NROL-87 mission successfully launched on February 2, 2022, from Vandenberg Space Force Base on a Falcon 9 rocket. (credit: NRO)

A Russian Soyuz rocket launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome on Monday around midnight local time. The military mission’s payload was classified but has been designated Kosmos 2558 for tracking purposes.

The Russian satellite has since been placed in a nearly circular, 435 km by 452 km orbit, with an inclination of 97.25 degrees. This is notable, satellite trackers say, because it will allow the Kosmos 2558 satellite to come very close to a recently launched US spy satellite, which was designated NROL-87.

This US national security payload was designed and built for the National Reconnaissance Agency and launched on February 2 into orbit by a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

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#nro, #russia, #science, #space, #spy-satellite, #us

Mexican farmers and scientists share a mission: Saving a wetland

The Aztec canals at the floating gardens of Xochimilco, The land was constantly replenished with soil dredged from the bottom of the lake and is extremely fertile.

Enlarge / The Aztec canals at the floating gardens of Xochimilco, The land was constantly replenished with soil dredged from the bottom of the lake and is extremely fertile. (credit: Werner Farmer | Getty Images)

On the southern edge of Mexico City, on a patch of land surrounded by water, a farmer and a scientist recently inspected rows of small cubes of mud that had sprouted seedlings. They were crouching on a chinampa, an island that appears to float in Lake Xochimilco, part of a complex ecosystem where the Aztec Empire once flourished.

The farmer, Dionisio Eslava, expects a good harvest of the mix of crops he planted this year. On this spring day in May of last year, he showed the agricultural scientist, Carlos Sumano, the sowing cubes he created with mud he scooped up from the bottom of canals, a Mesoamerican farming technique called chapín. “They’re just about ready for transplanting,” said Eslava, carefully pulling a single cube from the ground and, after a closer look, returning it to its place with other chili pepper plants.

Eslava and Sumano are working together to preserve the region’s chinampas, remnants of the branch and reed rafts that Mesoamerican farmers covered in nutrient-rich lake mud to grow fruits, vegetables, and flowers. They are part of a conservation partnership that is tapping Indigenous agricultural knowledge and scientific expertise to prevent the demise of Xochimilco, an ecosystem of more than 6,000 acres of protected wetlands that provides multiple environmental benefits, including food production, groundwater recharge, and carbon sequestration.

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#agriculture, #environment, #farming, #science

Why space debris keeps falling out of the sky—and will continue to do so

The Wentian experimental module and the Long March 5B rocket are seen near its launch site on July 18, 2022.

Enlarge / The Wentian experimental module and the Long March 5B rocket are seen near its launch site on July 18, 2022. (credit: CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

Things have been falling out of the sky of late. Fortunately, no one has been hurt, but two recent space debris events offer a good reminder that what goes up often does come down.

This past weekend, a huge Chinese rocket broke apart in the atmosphere above Southeast Asia, with large chunks of the 24-metric-ton booster landing in Indonesia and Malaysia. Some of this debris fell within about 100 meters of a nearby village, but there have been no reported injuries.

The debris came from a Chinese Long March 5B rocket launched on July 24 to deliver a module to the country’s new Tiangong space station. The large rocket has a core stage and four solid rocket boosters mounted to its side. With the rocket’s design, the core stage also acts as the upper stage, delivering its payload into orbit. Because the YF-77 engines cannot restart, the core stage typically reenters the atmosphere about one week after launching when used for low Earth orbit missions.

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#debris, #long-march-5b, #science, #space, #spacex

The age of brain-computer interfaces is on the horizon

The age of brain-computer interfaces is on the horizon

Enlarge (credit: Synchron)

Thomas Oxley has a love-hate relationship with Black Mirror. On the one hand, he can appreciate the show’s “gripping” appeal. On the other hand, it means facing a deluge of accusations that he’s spearheading humanity’s dystopian future.

Oxley is the founder and CEO of Synchron, a company creating a brain-computer interface, or BCI. ​​These devices work by eavesdropping on the signals emanating from your brain and converting them into commands that then enact a movement, like moving a robotic arm or a cursor on a screen. The implant essentially acts as an intermediary between mind and computer.

“[Black Mirror is] so negative, and so dystopian. It’s gone to the absolute worst-case scenario … so much good stuff would have happened to have gotten to that point,” he says, referring to episodes of the show that demonstrate BCI technology being used in ethically dubious ways, such as to record and replay memories. The “good stuff” is what Oxley is trying to do with his company. And on July 6, the first patient in the US was implanted with Synchron’s device at a hospital in New York. (The male patient, who has lost the ability to move and speak as a result of having amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—a progressive disease that affects nerve cells— has requested anonymity on the basis that he did not wish to promote the device before “experiencing its pros and cons.”)

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#als, #bci, #brain-computer-interfaces, #science

NY county with polio has pitiful 60% vaccination rate; 1,000s may be infected

Transmission electron micrograph of poliovirus type 1.

Enlarge / Transmission electron micrograph of poliovirus type 1. (credit: Getty | BSIP)

The vaccine-derived poliovirus that left an unvaccinated US resident with the country’s first case of paralytic polio in nearly a decade has been genetically linked to spread in two other countries: the United Kingdom and Israel. Now that it has been detected in the US, health officials fear it has spread to hundreds or even thousands of people in a poorly vaccinated New York county.

On Monday, officials in New York urgently encouraged unvaccinated residents to get vaccinated “as soon as possible” to prevent further spread of the virus.

“Polio is very contagious, and an individual can transmit the virus even if they aren’t sick,” the New York State Department of Health said in a news release today. The virus spreads easily via a fecal-oral route through poor hygiene and sanitation. The virus transmits through direct contact with an infected person or contaminated food or water. “Symptoms, which can be mild and flu-like, can take up to 30 days to appear, during which time an infected individual can be shedding virus to others,” the health department added.

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#cdc, #infectious-disease, #new-york, #paralysis, #paralytic-polio, #polio, #public-health, #rockland-county, #science, #vaccine-derived-polio, #vaccines

We’re about to enter the heart of the Atlantic hurricane season

Released in May, this was the NOAA forecast for Atlantic hurricane activity in 2022.

Enlarge / Released in May, this was the NOAA forecast for Atlantic hurricane activity in 2022. (credit: NOAA)

Take a deep breath, everyone—the Atlantic hurricane season is one-third over. And there’s some good news to report.

To date, the Atlantic has produced three named storms, Alex, Bonnie, and Colin. Historically, three named storms before the beginning of August would represent a busier-than-usual start to a season that officially lasts six months, from June 1 to November 30. But a simple storm count is a superficial measure of activity.

None of these storms has exceeded tropical storm strength, and they lasted only about a day. By other more revealing measures, the Atlantic is having a relatively slow start. At the beginning of August, an average year produces nearly nine days on which a tropical storm or hurricane has been active. This year, the number of “named storm days” is just 3.25. And by the measure of “accumulated cyclone energy,” which accounts for both storm duration and intensity, the Atlantic basin is only producing about 30 percent of its normal activity.

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#hurricanes, #science, #tropical-activity

Milky seas, a bioluminescent event visible from space

Black and white satellite image shows an island covered in intense lighting just north of a dimly lit swirl of ocean.

Enlarge / The boat trip went through an area of milky sea south of the lights of an island. (credit: Steven Miller, Leon Schommer, and Naomi McKinnon)

On some moonless nights, enormous patches of the Northwest Indian Ocean and seas around Indonesia begin to glow. This event has been witnessed by hundreds of sailors, but only one research vessel has ever, by pure chance, come across this bioluminescent phenomenon, known as milky seas. Thanks to that vessel, samples showed that the source of the light was a bacteria called V. harveyi, which had colonized a microalgae called Phaocystis. But that was back in 1988, and researchers have yet to be in the right place and the right time to catch one of these events again.

Both the bacteria and algae are common to those waters, so it’s not clear what triggers these rare events. To help understand why milky seas form, researchers have gotten much better at spotting these swaths of bioluminescence from the skies. With the help of satellites, Stephen Miller, a professor of atmospheric science, has been collecting both images and eyewitness accounts of milky seas for nearly 20 years. Thanks to improvements in the imaging capabilities over the past decades, Miller published a compilation last year of probable milky seas in the time frame of 2012 to 2021, including one occurrence south of Java, Indonesia, in summer 2019.

But these satellite observations lacked surface confirmation—that is, until the crew of the yacht Ganesha reached out to Miller with their first-hand account of what they had experienced during their trip through the seas around Java that August, which was recently published in PNAS. Their eyewitness corroboration—along with the first photographs of a milky sea—show that these satellites are indeed a powerful tool for spotting these events.

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#biology, #bioluminescence, #oceans, #science

US regulators will certify first small nuclear reactor design

NuScale's reactor-in-a-can.

Enlarge / NuScale’s reactor-in-a-can. (credit: NuScale)

On Friday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) announced that it would be issuing a certification to a new nuclear reactor design, making it just the seventh that has been approved for use in the US. But in some ways, it’s a first: the design, from a company called NuScale, is a small modular reactor that can be constructed at a central facility and then moved to the site where it will be operated.

The move was expected after the design received an okay during its final safety evaluation in 2020.

Small modular reactors have been promoted as avoiding many of the problems that have made large nuclear plants exceedingly expensive to build. They’re small enough that they can be assembled on a factory floor and then shipped to the site where they will operate, eliminating many of the challenges of custom, on-site construction. In addition, they’re structured in a way to allow passive safety, where no operator actions are necessary to shut the reactor down if problems occur.

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#energy, #nuclear-power, #nuclear-reactor, #nuscale, #science, #small-modular-reactor

As BA.5 continues to blaze across US, feds scrap summer booster plans

As BA.5 continues to blaze across US, feds scrap summer booster plans

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

Federal officials have reportedly scrapped plans to expand access to second COVID-19 booster doses this summer, opting instead to pressure vaccine-makers Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech to produce their next-generation BA.5-targeting boosters even faster than before, possibly in September.

Currently, people ages 50 and over, as well as those 12 and up with certain health conditions, can received a second COVID-19 booster dose. But, with the ultratransmissible BA.5 wave threatening more infections and reinfections at a time when vaccine protections are fading, officials earlier this month toyed with the idea of opening second boosters to all adults. At the time, they were expected to decide the matter within the following weeks.

That decision window has now closed. And although BA.5 is still raging, the Biden administration has reportedly abandoned the plan to instead focus on the new booster vaccines for those 12 and up, which were previously expected to roll out in October and November.

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#ba-5, #biden-administration, #biology, #boosters, #cdc, #covid-19, #fda, #infectious-disease, #medicine, #omicron, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science, #vaccines

Inflating spider corpse creates robotic claw game of nightmares

(credit: Preston Innovation Laboratory)

Shortly after the Preston Innovation Lab was set up at Rice University, graduate student Faye Yap was rearranging a few things when she noticed a dead curled-up spider in the hallway. Curious about why spiders curl up when they die, she did a quick search to find the answer. And that answer—essentially, internal hydraulics—led to delightfully morbid inspiration: Why not use the bodies of dead spiders as tiny air-powered grippers for picking up and maneuvering tiny electronic parts?

Yap and her colleagues—including adviser Daniel Preston—did just that. They transformed a dead wolf spider into a gripping tool with just a single assembly step—essentially launching a novel new research area they have cheekily dubbed “necrobotics.” They outlined the process in detail in a new paper published in the journal Advanced Science. The authors suggest the gripper could be ideal for delicate “pick-and-place” repetitive tasks and could possibly be used one day in the assembly of microelectronics.

Preston’s lab specializes in so-called soft robotics, which eschews the usual hard plastics, metals, and electronics in favor of more nontraditional materials. Hydrogels and elastomers, for example, can serve as actuators powered by chemical reactions, pneumatics, or even light. Roboticists have also long found inspiration for their designs in nature, studying the locomotion of such animals as cheetahs, snakes, insects, starfish, jellyfish, and octopuses. (See, for example, our story on the development of the OctaGlove, designed to grip slippery objects underwater.)

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#biology, #biomechanics, #biomimicry, #mechanical-engineering, #necrobotics, #science, #soft-robotics, #spiders

Boosting one gene in rice yields more grain using less fertilizer

Image of a series of steps in a hillside, each covered in green vegetation.

Enlarge / A terraced rice field in Vietnam. (credit: Getty Images)

Nitrogen fertilizer is made from natural gas. Extracting and burning natural gas is harming life on our planet, so we should probably stop doing it (or at least try to cut back considerably). But food crops, like all plants, need that nitrogen. It’s quite the conundrum, especially since the human population relying on those crops is slated to grow over the next few decades, while the acreage of arable land is slated to drop.

In response, genetic engineers in China have been developing crops that can thrive with less nitrogen, and they made a strain of rice with a yield that’s 40 to 70 percent higher than that of regular rice. It has more grain per branch, each grain particle is bigger and denser, and the plants flowered earlier. Most breeding methods currently used in cereal crops can only generate a yield increase of less than one percent, so this is a pretty big deal.

One gene alters many

The scientists started by looking at proteins called transcription factors, which often control the expression of a set of genes that are often involved in varying aspects of a single physiological function. In this case, the focus was on transcription factors that were already known to regulate photosynthesis.

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#agriculture, #biology, #fertilizer, #genetic-engineering, #rice, #science

DeepMind research cracks structure of almost every known protein

An image released by the EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute showing the structure of a human protein that was modeled by the AlphaFold computer program.

Enlarge / An image released by the EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute showing the structure of a human protein that was modeled by the AlphaFold computer program. (credit: EMBL-EBI/AFP/Getty Images)

Artificial intelligence has surpassed the limits of scientific knowledge by predicting the shape of almost every known protein, a breakthrough that will significantly reduce the time required to make biological discoveries.

The research was done by London-based AI company DeepMind—owned by Google parent Alphabet—which used its AlphaFold algorithm to build the most complete and accurate database yet of the more than 200mn known proteins.

Prediction of a protein’s structure from its DNA sequence alone has been one of biology’s greatest challenges. Current experimental methods to determine the shape of a single protein take months or years in a laboratory, which is why only about 190,000, or 0.1 percent of known protein structures, have been solved.

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#science

Record-breaking UK heat “extremely unlikely” without climate change

A red-orange sky over the Houses of Parliament.

Enlarge (credit: Peter Zelei Images)

Early last week, the UK experienced something it is very much not known for—extremely hot and dry weather. The heatwave shattered all-time national records, surpassing a 38.6° C (101.5° F) mark set in 2019 by crossing 40° C (104° F) for the very first time.

The scientists behind the World Weather Attribution project use a standardized (and peer-reviewed) method to rapidly analyze weather extremes like this in the context of climate change. While there is more nuance to this science than saying an event should or shouldn’t be blamed on climate change, we can say something about the role that climate change plays. And for heatwaves, that role is often quite clear: In a warming world, the statistics of heatwaves will necessarily shift toward hotter temperatures.

The analysis of this event involves two complementary steps. First, the historical data is used to calculate the rarity of this extreme weather event in today’s climate—and what it would have been before the world warmed by about 1.2° C (2.2° F). Second, large collections of climate model simulations with and without human-caused warming are similarly examined for trends in the type of regional weather pattern that produced the event.

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#climate-change, #science, #weather-attribution

Russia: We’re not leaving the Space Station until our own is ready

Humans have lived aboard the International Space Station for more than two decades.

Humans have lived aboard the International Space Station for more than two decades. (credit: NASA)

Earlier this week, Russia indicated that it was not extending the current cooperation agreement for the International Space Station, which expires in 2024, and would be departing the project after that. Nearly everyone noticed that there was no actual departure date specified, leaving open the possibility that it would continue its participation without a formal agreement in place. That now seems to be what will happen.

Reuters is reporting that a senior NASA official has indicated that Russia will continue to operate its portion of the ISS until it has its own station in orbit, something that’s currently targeted for 2028. Earlier statements from Russian officials indicated that construction of that station would be started in 2024 but had not provided a completion date. On Wednesday, Roscosmos also posted a video indicating that completion would come in 2028, and the agency would “need to continue operating the ISS” until that date.

Given that it’s extremely unlikely that Russia will manage to get a station built at all while under severe sanctions, this raises the prospect that Roscosmos will have no alternatives in orbit until after 2030, the year NASA has targeted for ending occupation of its portion of the ISS.

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#international-space-station, #iss, #nasa, #roscosmos, #science, #space

NASA revises Mars’ sample return plan to use helicopters

Image of all the vehicles involved in the planned NASA sample return.

Enlarge (credit: NASAJPL-Caltech)

On Wednesday, NASA announced that it had made major changes to its plan for returning samples from the surface of Mars in the early 2030s. Currently being collected by the Perseverance rover, the samples are set to be moved to Earth by a relay of rovers and rockets. Now, inspired by the success of the Ingenuity helicopter, NASA is saying it can lose one of the rovers, replacing it with a pair of helicopters instead.

The Mars sample return plan involves a large collection of challenges, but a central one is that the samples are currently in Perseverance, but eventually have to end up in a rocket that takes off from the surface of Mars. That means that Perseverance will have to get close enough to the rocket’s landing site—which we can’t choose precisely—to exchange the samples, possibly diverting it from scientific objectives. It also can’t be too close when the rocket lands since the rocket’s landing and its associated hardware could pose a risk to the rover and its samples.

The original plan included a contingency. Perseverance would approach after the rocket had landed, and the samples would be transferred directly. If that didn’t work out for whatever reason, a second rover sent to Mars by the ESA would act as an intermediary, visiting a site where the samples had been cached, retrieving them, and then delivering them to the rocket.

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#esa, #mars, #nasa, #perseverance, #science, #space

Gulf Coast tests confirm deadly tropical soil bacterium now endemic to US

<Em>Burkholderia pseudomallei</em> grown on sheep blood agar for 24 hours. <em>B. pseudomallei</em> is a Gram-negative aerobic bacteria, and it's the causative agent of melioidosis.

Enlarge / Burkholderia pseudomallei grown on sheep blood agar for 24 hours. B. pseudomallei is a Gram-negative aerobic bacteria, and it’s the causative agent of melioidosis. (credit: Getty | CDC/Courtesy of Larry Stauffer, Oregon State Public Health Laboratory)

For years, health officials in the US noted sporadic, mysterious cases of a foreign bacterial infection, called melioidosis. The infection—which is difficult to diagnose, tricky to treat, and often deadly—was thought to only strike travelers or those who came in contact with contaminated imported goods or animals. Yet, now and then, an American would inexplicably fall ill—no recent travel, no clear links.

Now, health officials have a definitive explanation. And it confirms a dreaded, long-held suspicion: The deadly bacterium is foreign no more. Rather, it’s a permanent US resident entrenched in American soil.

Three samples taken from soil and puddle water in the Gulf Coast region of southern Mississippi tested positive for the bacterium, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Wednesday. The sampling was part of an investigation into two mysterious cases in the area that occurred in 2020 and 2022. The positive test results mark the first time that investigators have caught the deadly germ in US environmental samples, though they’ve been looking for it for years.

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#bacteria, #burkholderia-pseudomallei, #cdc, #infection, #infectious-disease, #melioidosis, #public-health, #science

What’s inside the US’s first big climate bill?

Joe Manchin and Chuck Schumer, who negotiated the new deal, talk earlier in the year.

Enlarge / Joe Manchin and Chuck Schumer, who negotiated the new deal, talk earlier in the year. (credit: Chip Somodevilla )

At the end of June, the Supreme Court sent a message to the Biden administration: Any significant actions on the climate couldn’t come through existing environmental laws. Instead, a clear Congressional mandate for emissions reduction would be required. The administration had been working on getting such legislation through a narrowly divided Congress but continually ran afoul of Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), who represents a conservative, coal-producing state and is personally invested in a coal-fired power plant.

On Wednesday, Manchin finally signaled that a deal was in place, in the form of a 725-page long package of legislation that’s being termed the “Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.” While its branding comes from changes in the tax code and a new drug pricing plan, the bill is heavily tilted toward actions to limit climate change, with billions of dollars of tax breaks going to renewable energy. While it’s not guaranteed that this package will become law, having Manchin signed on greatly increases its chances.

Inflation? Tax breaks? I thought this was climate stuff

The structure of the package is the result of some quirks of the US political system. First, opposing climate legislation has become necessary to remain a Republican in good standing, meaning that this sort of bill needs to be passed purely on the strength of Democratic votes. That’s no problem in the House of Representatives, where Democrats hold a slim majority. But in the Senate, which is split 50/50 between the two parties, any bills will be subject to a Republican filibuster that requires 60 votes to overcome.

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#policy, #science

OctaGlove brings the underwater gripping power of the octopus to humans

Researchers have developed an octopus-inspired OctaGlove that can securely grip objects under water. Credit: Virginia Tech

Any rescue diver or salvage worker knows it can be tricky to grab hold of slippery objects in a watery environment, particularly if a more delicate touch is required. That’s why scientists looked to the octopus for inspiration when they were developing a novel “OctaGlove,” a wearable system for gripping underwater objects that mimics the arm of an octopus, according to a recent paper published in the journal Science Advances.

There are several examples in nature of efficient ways to latch onto objects in underwater environments, per the authors. Mussels, for instance, secrete adhesive proteins to attach themselves to wet surfaces, while frogs have uniquely structured toe pads that create capillary and hydrodynamic forces for adhesion. But cephalopods like the octopus have an added advantage: The adhesion supplied by their grippers can be quickly and easily reversed, so the creatures can adapt to changing conditions, attaching to wet and dry surfaces.

“When we look at the octopus, the adhesive certainly stands out, quickly activating and releasing adhesion on demand,” said co-author Michael Bartlett, a mechanical engineer at Virginia Tech. “What is just as interesting, though, is that the octopus controls over 2,000 suckers across eight arms by processing information from diverse chemical and mechanical sensors. The octopus is really bringing together adhesion tunability, sensing, and control to manipulate underwater objects.”

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#animals, #biology, #biomechanics, #biomimicry, #mechanical-engineering, #octopuses, #robotics, #science