We pee or flush drugs into waterways—does that matter to aquatic life?

Image of a crayfish crawling.

Enlarge (credit: National Park Service)

When people flush their old prescription (or off-prescription) drugs, the compounds invariably make their way into the waters nearby. The same is true even when people using these chemicals urinate them into the sewage system. Once there, these compounds—from prozac to cocaine—can end up in the bodies of aquatic creatures. And, research suggests, the chemicals can impact them: birth control, for instance, affects frog breeding after it enters the water.

We metabolize many of the drugs we take, and water treatment plants remove some of rest. But some concentration can still remain as the water is released to the surrounding lakes and streams.

So far, there’s not been much research into how, if at all, other drugs like cocaine and various opioids, affect aquatic life—but scientists say negative effects are not wholly impossible. And there is now some evidence that at least some classification of drugs do cause trouble. New research suggests that a common antidepressant, citalopram, can change the behavior of crayfish, making them bolder than they would be otherwise.

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#animal-behavior, #antidepressants, #crayfish, #fentanyl, #pharmaceutical, #science, #shrimp, #waste-water

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“Black fungus” surges in India—thousands blinded, maimed, dead

A suspected mucormycosis black fungus patient receives examination at a hospital in Bhopal, India, on May 29, 2021.

Enlarge / A suspected mucormycosis black fungus patient receives examination at a hospital in Bhopal, India, on May 29, 2021. (credit: Getty| Xinhua News Agency)

So-called “black fungus” infections are surging in India in the wake of a devastating wave of COVID-19. The rare but devastating infection can destroy the eyes and spread to the brain.

Cases now top 31,000, rising from an estimate of dozens to a few hundred cases just last month. Media reports have tallied over 2,100 deaths, but federal health authorities have not released an official death count.

Past medical reviews have estimated that the fungal infection—mucormycosis—has an overall fatality rate of around 50 percent. However, mortality rates vary by patients’ underlying condition and what part of the body the mucormycetes fungi invade. Infection can take hold in the gastrointestinal tract, skin breaks, lungs, and the blood.

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#black-fungus, #covid-19, #diabetes, #india, #infectious-disease, #mucormycosis, #science

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The Ariane 6 debut is slipping again as Europe hopes for a late 2022 launch

Artist's view of the configuration of Ariane 6 using four boosters on the ELA-4 launch pad together with its mobile gantry.

Enlarge / Artist’s view of the configuration of Ariane 6 using four boosters on the ELA-4 launch pad together with its mobile gantry. (credit: ESA-D. Ducros)

Europe’s top space official said Monday that ensuring the first launch of the Ariane 6 rocket takes place in 2022 is a very high priority.

“This for me is a top, top priority,” said Josef Aschbacher, director general of the European Space Agency, at the Paris Air Forum. “Ariane 6 is our most important launcher to come. We have to put all the energy and all the emphasis into making the maiden flight as soon as possible.

Together with the leaders of the French space agency, CNES, and the Ariane 6’s prime contractor, Ariane Group, Aschbacher said he had put “a small group” together to make an independent assessment of the schedule for the final development phase of the Ariane 6 rocket. The goal of this task force will be to ensure that Europe does everything it needs to do launch on time.

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#ariane-6, #esa, #science

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Archaeologists recreated three common kinds of Paleolithic cave lighting

Spanish archaeologists recreated three common types of Paleolithic lighting systems.

Enlarge / Spanish archaeologists recreated three common types of Paleolithic lighting systems. (credit: Medina-Alcaide et al, 2021, PLOS ONE)

In 1993, a media studies professor at Fordham University named Edward Wachtel visited several famous caves in southern France, including Lascaux, Font-de-Gaume, Les Combarelles, and La Mouthe. His purpose: to study the cave art that has justly made these caves famous.  Wachtel was puzzled by what he called “spaghetti lines” on the drawings, partially obscuring them. There were also images of, say, an ibex with two heads, a mammal with three trunks, or a bull drawing superimposed over the drawing of a deer.

His guide for the La Mouthe tour was a local farmer, and since there were no electric lights in this cave, the farmer brought along a gas lantern. When the farmer swung the lantern inside the cave, the color schemes shifted, and the engraved lines seemed to animate. “Suddenly, the head of one creature stood out clearly,” Wachtel recalled. “It lived for a second, then faded as another appeared.” As for those mysterious spaghetti lines, “they became a forest or a bramble patch that concealed and then reveled the animals within.”

Wachtel subsequently published a paper entitled, “The First Picture Show: Cinematic Aspects of Cave Art,” in which he concluded that the cave drawings were meant to be perceived in three dimensions—one of them being time. These could have been the first “protomovies,” he thought.

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#archaeology, #gaming-culture, #history, #paleolithic, #science

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Two Viking burials, separated by an ocean, contain close kin

Two Viking burials, separated by an ocean, contain close kin

Enlarge (credit: Ida Marie Odgaard AFP)

Roughly a thousand years ago, a young man in his early 20s met a violent end in England. 800 kilometers (500 miles) away, in Denmark, an older man who had survived a lifetime of battles died sometime in his 50s. At first glance, there’s nothing to suggest a connection between them over such a distance. But according to a recent study of their DNA, the two men were second-degree relatives: half-siblings, uncle and nephew, or grandfather and grandson.

Today, their skeletons lie side-by-side in the National Museum of Denmark, reunited after centuries, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported.

Geneticists sequenced the pair’s DNA as part of a much larger study, which sampled and sequenced ancient DNA from more than 400 human skeletons at sites across Europe and Greenland. That data revealed that Vikings were much more ethnically diverse than historians have often assumed, and it helped track the migrations that defined the Viking Age. Against the backdrop of those larger patterns, the ancient DNA from two skeletons, buried hundreds of kilometers apart under very different circumstances, told a much more personal story.

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#anthropology, #archaeology, #biological-anthropology, #medieval-europe, #science, #skeletons, #viking-age, #vikings

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The efforts to make text-based AI less racist and terrible

The efforts to make text-based AI less racist and terrible

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images)

In July 2020, OpenAI launched GPT-3, an artificial intelligence language model that quickly stoked excitement about computers writing poetry, news articles, and programming code. Just as quickly, it was shown to sometimes be foulmouthed and toxic. OpenAI said it was working on fixes, but the company recently discovered GPT-3 was being used to generate child porn.

Now OpenAI researchers say they’ve found a way to curtail GPT-3’s toxic text by feeding the program roughly 100 encyclopedia-like samples of writing by human professionals on topics like history and technology but also abuse, violence, and injustice.

OpenAI’s project shows how the tech industry is scrambling to constrain the dark side of a technology that’s shown enormous potential but also can spread disinformation and perpetuate biases. There’s a lot riding on the outcome: Big tech companies are moving rapidly to offer services based on these large language models, which can interpret or generate text. Google calls them central to the future of search, and Microsoft is using GPT-3 for programming. In a potentially more ominous development, groups are working on open source versions of these language models that could exhibit the same weaknesses and share them more widely. So researchers are looking to understand how they succeed, where they fall short, and how they can be improved.

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#gpt-3, #machine-learning, #open-ai, #policy, #racism, #science

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Rocket Report: China launches crew mission, SpaceX runs into road troubles

A launching rocket leaves a trail of flame against a dark blue sky.

Enlarge / A Falcon 9 rocket goes supersonic on Thursday, launching a GPS III satellite for the Space Force. (credit: US Space Force)

Welcome to Edition 4.03 of the Rocket Report! This week saw two significant launches back-to-back. On Wednesday evening, US time, China launched its first crewed mission to its new space station, which was also the country’s first human spaceflight in nearly five years. And then, less than a day later, the US Space Force joined the ranks of reusable launch customers.

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.

Blue Origin sells first New Shepard seat for $28 million. A ticket to take a brief trip to space with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos on July 20 has been sold at auction for $28 million. The bidding process, which began in early May, drew offers from more than 7,000 participants from 159 countries, Blue Origin said. The price had stood at $4.8 million ahead of Saturday’s live auction, which was streamed online, the Financial Times reports.

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#rocket-report, #science

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FDA officials asked to step down after contentious Alzheimer’s drug approval

Words and symbols adorn a large outdoor sign.

Enlarge / The Food and Drug Administration headquarters in White Oak, Maryland. (credit: Getty | Congressional Quarterly)

A leading advocacy and watchdog group is calling for the ouster of three top officials at the Food and Drug Administration—including its acting commissioner—after the regulator issued a highly contentious approval last week of the unproven and now highly priced Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm (generic name: aducanumab).

The call for fresh FDA leadership comes atop a chorus of harsh criticism over the decision, which outside researchers and industry experts have called “disgraceful” and “dangerous,” among other things.

Since Aduhelm’s approval was announced June 7, three expert advisers to the FDA have resigned in protest, with one calling the decision “probably the worst drug-approval decision in recent US history.” The three experts were part of an 11-member advisory committee that reviewed the clinical data for the Alzheimer’s drug last November and voted nearly unanimously against approval (10 voted against, 1 voted “uncertain”).

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#aducanumab, #aduhelm, #alzheimers-drug, #biogen, #drug-approval, #fda, #public-citizen, #science

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Researchers cool a 40 kg object to near its quantum ground state

A researcher in protective gear examines an impossibly futuristic mirror.

Enlarge / One of the 40 kg mirrors that has approached its quantum ground state. (credit: Matt Heintze/Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab)

Objects that obey the rules of quantum mechanics behave very differently from those in the familiar world around us. That difference leads to an obvious question: is it possible to get an everyday item to start behaving like a quantum object?

But seeing quantum behavior requires limiting an object’s interactions with its environment, which becomes increasingly difficult as objects get larger. Still, there has been progress in increasing the size of the objects we can place in a quantum state, with small oscillators and even grains of sand being notable examples.

So far, researchers have approached this challenge largely by scaling up systems that were relatively easy to work with. But in today’s issue of Science, researchers report that they’ve gotten close to putting a big object into its quantum ground state—a really big object: the 40 kilogram mirrors of the gravitational-wave observatory known as LIGO.

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#gravity, #ligo, #physics, #quantum-mechanics, #science

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SpaceX to break the final frontier in reuse with national defense launch

The GPS III SV-05 vehicle is encapsulated in the Falcon 9 rocket's payload fairing.

Enlarge / The GPS III SV-05 vehicle is encapsulated in the Falcon 9 rocket’s payload fairing. (credit: Lockheed Martin)

A few years ago one of SpaceX’s earliest employees, Hans Koenigsmann, told me one of the company’s goals was to take the “magic” out of rocket launches. It’s just physics, he explained.

As its Falcon 9 rocket has become more reliable and flown more frequently—18 launches so far this year, and counting—it seems that SpaceX has succeeded in taking the magic out of launches. And while reliability should definitely be the goal, such regularity does distract from the spectacle of watching a rocket launch.

But there are still some special Falcon 9 missions, and that’s certainly the case with a launch expected to occur at 12:09 pm ET (16:09 UTC) on Thursday from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. With the launch of a next-generation GPS III spacecraft, SpaceX will fly a national security mission for the first time on a reused booster.

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#falcon-9, #gps, #science

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After ruining 75M J&J doses, Emergent gets FDA clearance for 25M doses

The Emergent BioSolutions plant, a manufacturing partner for Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine, in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 9, 2021.

Enlarge / The Emergent BioSolutions plant, a manufacturing partner for Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine, in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 9, 2021. (credit: Getty | Saul Loeb)

The US Food and Drug Administration is making progress in its efforts to sort out the fiasco at Emergent BioSolutions’ Baltimore facility, which, at this point, has ruined more than 75 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines stemming from what the regulator identified as significant quality control failures.

In March, news leaked that Emergent ruined 15 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine as well as millions more doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine. The spoilage happened when Emergent cross-contaminated batches of the two vaccines with ingredients from the other.

Last week, the FDA told Emergent to trash about 60 million more doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine due to similar contamination concerns, The New York Times reported.

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#astrazeneca, #covid-19, #emergent, #fda, #infectious-disease, #johnson-johnson, #pandemic, #public-health, #science, #vaccine

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Cold-War-era missile launches three modern-day spy satellites

A Minotaur rocket launches the NROL-111 mission on Tuesday.

Enlarge / A Minotaur rocket launches the NROL-111 mission on Tuesday. (credit: Trevor Mahlmann)

For the first time in nearly eight years, a Minotaur 1 rocket launched into space Tuesday from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The rocket, which is derived from Cold-War-era surplus missiles, carried three classified satellites into orbit for the US National Reconnaissance Office.

This was the first launch of the four-stage Minotaur 1 rocket since a demonstration mission for the Air Force in 2013, which also orbited 23 CubeSats. Although the current mission was delayed for more than two hours by poor weather on Tuesday morning, it successfully launched at 9:35 am ET (13:35 UTC).

The Minotaur 1, which has the capacity to launch a little more than 500 kg into low Earth orbit, is a mix of decades-old technology and modern avionics. The vehicle’s first and second stages are taken from a repurposed Minuteman I missile, the first generation of land-based, solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles. These missiles were in service from 1962 to 1965 before they were phased out in favor of the Minuteman II and Minuteman III missiles. The latter ICBMs are still in silos today.

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#minotaur, #nro, #science

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Someone stabbed a cave bear in the head with a spear 35,000 years ago

Someone stabbed a cave bear in the head with a spear 35,000 years ago

Enlarge (credit: Gimranov et al. 2021)

During the last Ice Age, more than 100 cave bears died in Imanay Cave, a 100-meter-long corridor of stone in Russia’s southern Ural Mountains. The dead bears, along with a cave lion and a few other Pleistocene mammals, left behind nearly 10,000 bones, which have mostly worn down to small fragments over the millennia. Most of them were so-called small cave bears, Ursus spelaeus eremus, notable for being smaller than the so-called large cave bear, Ursus spelaeus—and for their apparent habit of dying en masse while hibernating through the harsh Pleistocene winters, leaving behind huge assemblages of bones for modern paleontologists to find.

Most of the cave bear bones found in Eurasia, including the ones at Imanay Cave, show no signs of violence, butchering, or gnawing. They seem to have died quietly, perhaps of cold, starvation, or illness. But while cleaning one cave bear skull from Imanay, Dmitry Gimranov of the Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences and his colleagues noticed a rather suspicious hole in the parietal bone, near the back of the skull.

The lower edge of the hole is a gentle curve with a flattened base, while the upper edge is more uneven and widens sharply in the middle. Its shape is strikingly similar to the cross-section of stone projectile points unearthed in the same layer of cave sediment as most of the bear bones. Those points tend to have a flat ventral (or lower) side and a more curved dorsal (or upper) side with a sharp rib of stone sticking up along the center. And they’re about the same size as the hole in the bear skull.

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#ancient-people-did-stuff, #anthropology, #archaeology, #bears, #cave-bears, #hunter-gatherers, #ice-age, #pleistocene, #science, #zooarchaeology

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A cold spot and a stellar burp led to strange dimming of Betelgeuse

Thanks to a new study conducted with ESO telescopes, we now know that Betelgeuse’s dip in brightness was the result of a “dusty veil” that formed from material that emerged from the star. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada.

In December 2019, astronomers noticed a strange, dramatic dimming in the light from Betelgeuse, a bright red star in the Orion constellation. They puzzled over the phenomenon and wondered whether it was a sign the star was about to go supernova. Several months later, they had narrowed the most likely explanations to two: a short-lived cold patch on the star’s southern surface (akin to a sun spot), or a clump of dust making the star seem dimmer to observers on Earth. We now have our answer, according to a new paper published in the journal Nature. Dust is the primary culprit, but it is linked to the brief emergence of a cold spot.

As Ars’ John Timmer reported last year, Betelgeuse is 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.

One of these cycles is fairly regular, taking a bit over five years to complete. Layered on that is a shorter, more irregular cycle that takes anywhere from under a year to 1.5 years to complete. While they’re easy to track with ground-based telescopes, these shifts don’t cause the sort of radical changes in the star’s light that would account for the changes seen during the dimming event.

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#astronomy, #astrophysics, #betelgeuse, #physics, #science, #stardust

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A guide to living at a black hole

Even with today's real estate boom, a supermassive black hole in the neighborhood has to drive the asking price down a bit, right?

Enlarge / Even with today’s real estate boom, a supermassive black hole in the neighborhood has to drive the asking price down a bit, right? (credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC) / Redfin / Nathan Mattise)

Black holes flood the Universe. The nearest one is a mere 1,500 lightyears away. A giant one, Sagittarius A*, sits in the center of the Milky Way about 25,000 lightyears away. While your typical space traveler might look for a home around a calm G-type star, some celestial citizens are brave enough to take up refuge around one of these monsters. It’s not an easy life, that’s for sure, but being neighbors with a black hole does mean you’ll almost certainly learn more about the fundamental nature of reality than anybody else.

Interested? What follows is a guide of what to expect should you make your home around a black hole. Good luck.

Black hole basics

Upon first arriving at a black hole, you will most likely be struck by how utterly, completely…boring it is. The black hole itself is simply a fathomless black orb hanging out somewhere in the distance. Black holes don’t really do anything except sit there and gravitate. In fact, they’re famously easy to miss: Unless they’re actively feeding on material or coincidentally bending/blocking the view to a star in the background, you simply can’t see them. Once you know one is there, though, you can start to have some fun.

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#black-holes, #features, #science, #space, #universe

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Mercury is accumulating in deep ocean trenches

Image of people on a boat about to lower equipment into the ocean.

Enlarge / Aboard the German research vessel Sonne off the coast of Chile, ready to take samples from eight kilometers deep in the Atacama Trench system. (credit: Anni Glud, SDU)

Although pollution controls have significantly reduced the mercury content of coal-fired plant emissions, the latest Global Mercury Assessment still estimates that there’s been a 20 percent increase in anthropogenic mercury emissions between 2010 and 2015. A new study provides some insight into where all that mercury might end up: there are unprecedented levels of mercury in up-to-now unmeasured deep-ocean trenches.

The WHO categorizes mercury as one of the top 10 chemicals of major health concern, and as of 2020, over 120 countries have been working together to reduce environmental mercury through the 2017 Minamata Convention on Mercury. In its elemental and mono-methylated form (methylmercury), mercury is a potent neurotoxin. Methylmercury in particular biomagnifies, which means it increases in concentration as it goes up the marine food chain. That has prompted lots of warnings about the consumption of fish and sea food.

This latest report is the first to measure mercury-accumulation rates in sediment cores from some of the deepest parts of the ocean—the hadal zones (>6 km depth). While the deep ocean is considered one of the most important, and relatively safest, places for mercury to end up, the rates of accumulation were up to 56 times greater than prior estimates. The highest measured concentrations were also nearly as high as some of the most contaminated bodies of water on the planet—a jarring finding given that these locations (the Atacama and Kermadec trenches) aren’t in the vicinity of any known mercury sources.

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#environmental-science, #mercury, #oceans, #pollution, #science

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Experts “extremely worried” about Delta variant as US death toll hits 600,000

A serious woman in military fatigues prepares an injection.

Enlarge / Combat medics from Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps vaccinate members of the public at a rapid vaccination centre, set up outside Bolton Town Hall on June 09, 2021 in Bolton, England. (credit: Getty | Christopher Furlong )

By many metrics, the US is currently doing relatively well against the pandemic coronavirus. National tallies of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are all at lows not seen since early last year. Several states have hit the goal of having 70 percent of adults vaccinated with at least one dose, and many areas are easing or lifting health restrictions in response to squashed transmission levels.

But those hard-fought gains are accompanied by a grim milestone today: the national death toll reached 600,000. That’s roughly the population size of Milwaukee or Baltimore. And experts are voicing concerns that the state of the pandemic could once again take a turn for the worse in the US.

New threat

The menacing coronavirus variant B 1.617.2 first seen in India—now dubbed Delta by the World Health Organization—is spreading rapidly around the globe, including in the US. It is estimated to be even more contagious than the worrisome B.1.1.7 variant first seen in the UK. That variant, now dubbed Alpha, is estimated to be about 50 percent more transmissible than the original coronavirus that mushroomed out of Wuhan, China, at the start of 2020. Delta is estimated to be 50 percent to 60 percent more contagious than Alpha.

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#coronavirus, #covid-19, #england, #infectious-disease, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science, #scotland, #vaccine, #vaccine-efficacy, #variants

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Medieval people suffered for fashion with their extremely pointy shoes

Detail showing fashionable pointed shoes of two English courtiers of Richard II, 14th century. One has two different colored shoes and chains hanging from his knees. Hand-painted copy of 14th-century art (c. 1847).

Enlarge / Detail showing fashionable pointed shoes of two English courtiers of Richard II, 14th century. One has two different colored shoes and chains hanging from his knees. Hand-painted copy of 14th-century art (c. 1847). (credit: Culture Club / Getty Images)

As many as one in three Americans suffer from bunions, those painful bumps that form on the outside of the big toe. Wearing high heels or ill-fitting shoes that cramp the toes can make the pain even worse, since constrained spaces increase pressure on the big toe joint. That doesn’t deter people from wearing them, however. It’s a well-established maxim that sometimes one must suffer in order to be fashionable.

According to a recent study published in the International Journal of Paleopathology, people in the European Middle Ages also endured pain in the name of fashion—in this case, with shoes with exaggerated pointed toes. University of Cambridge archaeologists studied skeletal remains excavated from Cambridge and found evidence that bunions were far more prevalent in remains from the 14th and 15th centuries than in those from earlier centuries, when more pragmatic footwear was popular. This may have increased the risk of suffering fractures from falls.

“We were quite fortunate that we happened to be studying a time period where there was a clear change in shoe fashion somewhere in the middle of our sample,” co-author Piers Mitchell told The Guardian. “People really did wear ridiculously long, pointy shoes, just like they did in [the] Blackadder [TV series].” (You can see series star Rowan Atkinson sporting such shoes below and in this clip from the season 1 episode “Born to Be King.”)

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#gaming-culture, #hallux-valgus, #history, #medieval-fashion, #science

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Researchers build a metadata-based image database using DNA storage

Fluorescent tagged DNA is the key to a new storage system.

Enlarge / Fluorescent tagged DNA is the key to a new storage system. (credit: Gerald Barber, Virginia Tech)

DNA-based data storage appears to offer solutions to some of the problems created by humanity’s ever-growing capacity to create data we want to hang on to. Compared to most other media, DNA offers phenomenal data densities. If stored in the right conditions, it doesn’t require any energy to maintain the data for centuries. And due to DNA’s centrality to biology, we’re always likely to maintain the ability to read it.

But DNA is not without its downsides. Right now, there’s no standard method of encoding bits in the pattern of bases of a DNA strand. Synthesizing specific sequences remains expensive. And accessing the data using current methods is slow and depletes the DNA being used for storage. Try to access the data too many times, and you have to restore it in some way—a process that risks introducing errors.

A team based at MIT and the Broad Institute has decided to tackle some of these issues. In the process, the researchers have created a DNA-based image-storage system that’s somewhere between a file system and a metadata-based database.

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#biology, #computer-science, #dna, #science, #storage

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Health care CEOs raked in $3.2 billion as pandemic raged

Health care CEOs raked in $3.2 billion as pandemic raged

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | Jonathan Kitchen)

As the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the country last year, the chief executive officers of 178 US healthcare companies saw their already lofty pay soar to even higher heights.

Collectively, the 178 CEOs took home $3.2 billion in 2020, according to a new analysis by Axios. Their median pay rose to $9 million, up from about $7.7 million in 2018 and $8 million in 2019. The 2019 US median household income was $68,703, according to the US Census Bureau. The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that the 2020 national median income for families was $78,500.

Thirty health care CEOs made over $30 million each. That list includes the CEOs of Regeneron ($174 million), Eli Lilly ($68 million), Teladoc ($45 million), UnitedHealth Group ($42 million), and Quest Diagnostics ($34 million).

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#ceo, #compensation, #covid-19, #for-profit, #health-insurance, #healthcare, #hospitals, #policy, #science

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Judge slams hospital staff for comparing COVID vaccine mandate to Nazi crimes

Multistory glass-and-steel hospital.

Enlarge / An American flag flies outside the Houston Methodist Hospital at the Texas Medical Center (TMC) campus in Houston, Texas, on Wednesday, June 24, 2020. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

A federal judge over the weekend dismissed a lawsuit brought by 117 employees of a Houston-based hospital system, who, among other things, claimed that the hospital’s requirement that staff be vaccinated against COVID-19 was akin to medical atrocities carried out by Nazis.

US District Judge Lynn Hughes called that argument “reprehensible” and issued sweeping rejections of their other claims that the mandate violates state and federal laws. In the five-page ruling filed Saturday, Judge Hughes wrote that the lawsuit by the 117 employees—led by coronavirus-unit nurse Jennifer Bridges—contained false statements, misconstrued legal provisions, wrongly claimed coercion, and made otherwise invalid arguments.

Houston Methodist Hospital system issued a mandate April 1 that all staff must be vaccinated against the pandemic coronavirus. Though the vast majority of the hospital system’s nearly 26,000 employees readily complied, 178 did not meet the June 7 deadline and were suspended for two unpaid weeks. If they fail to get fully vaccinated in that window, they face termination.

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#covid-19, #hospital-staff, #houston, #science, #vaccination

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We have another highly effective COVID vaccine, based on different tech

Image of a man receiving an injection.

Enlarge / A participant gets his second dose of the Novavax vaccine during the clinical trial. (credit: Karen Ducey / Getty Images)

Today, a company called Novavax announced that it had completed a large efficacy trial of its COVID-19 vaccine, and the news was good. The vaccine is highly effective, it blocked severe disease entirely, and it appeared to work against some of the more recently evolved virus variants. The company says it can produce 150 million doses per month by the end of the year, and the vaccine is stable when stored in a normal freezer, so it could play a big part in the effort to administer vaccines outside of industrialized nations.

Different tech

So far, US citizens have had the choice of RNA-based vaccines, like the offerings from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, or a vaccine based on a harmless virus engineered to carry the coronavirus spike protein, as used in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. (The AstraZeneca and Sputnik vaccines are similar to J&J’s.) Outside the US, many countries have used vaccines based on an inactivated coronavirus, although these have turned out not to be very effective.

The Novavax vaccine uses an entirely different technology. Vaccine production starts by identifying a key gene from the pathogen of interest—the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, in this case—and inserting it into a virus that infects insect cells. Insect cells can easily be grown in culture, and they process any proteins they make in the same way that human cells do. (This processing can involve chemically linking sugars or cleaving off superfluous parts of the protein.) The activity ensures that the purified protein will be chemically identical to the spike protein found on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself.

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#biology, #medicine, #novavax, #science, #vaccines, #virology

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Metals from space descend on Boulder, Colorado, at dusk and dawn

Morning sun against the foothills of Boulder, Colorado, business area and campus.

Enlarge / Morning sun against the foothills of Boulder, Colorado, business area and campus. (credit: Fred Langer Photography | Getty Images)

Every day, the Sun rises and sets on Boulder, Colorado. And, like clockwork, a layer of sodium and other elements trickle down through the sky and hit the ground, a team of researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder found. These elements hail originally from space and, in various forms, hit the atmosphere before making their trek to the Earth’s surface.

The team published this discovery in Geophysical Research Letters. A decade ago, Xinzhao Chu, the lead author of the research, discovered these metal layers at the McMurdo research station in Antarctica. However, near the Earth’s polar south, these elements appear sporadically, rather than daily. This is the first time researchers have discovered a case where the layers drop at regular intervals.

These layers are not visible to the human eye. So, at the Table Mountain Observatory near Boulder, the team made use of a lidar system—which operates similarly to radar but use lasers instead of radio waves—to detect the minuscule sodium particles. While the lidar data from the region was taken a few years back, the team analyzed them last December and discovered our atmosphere’s metal cycle.

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#atmosphere, #cosmic-dust, #lidar, #metal, #science, #space

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Ticket for space flight with Jeff Bezos is auctioned for $28 million

New Shepard crew capsule seen landing in west Texas in April 2021.

Enlarge / New Shepard crew capsule seen landing in west Texas in April 2021. (credit: Blue Origin)

A ticket to take a brief trip to space with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos next month has been sold at auction for $28 million.

The bidding process, which began in early May, drew offers from more than 7,000 participants from 159 countries, Blue Origin said. The price had stood at $4.8 million ahead of Saturday’s live auction, which was streamed online.

The identity of the winning bidder has not yet been made public but will be revealed in the coming weeks, Blue Origin said.

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#blue-origin, #jeff-bezos, #new-shepard, #science, #spaceflight

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How to protect species and save the planet—at the same time

How to protect species and save the planet—at the same time

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images)

Humanity is struggling to contain two compounding crises: skyrocketing global temperatures and plummeting biodiversity. But people tend to tackle each problem on its own, for instance by deploying green energies and carbon-eating machines while roping off ecosystems to preserve them. But in a new report, 50 scientists from around the world argue that treating each crisis in isolation means missing out on two-fer solutions that resolve both. Humanity can’t solve one without also solving the other.

The report is the product of a four-day virtual workshop attended by researchers of all stripes and is a collaboration between the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In light of the Paris Agreement, it’s meant to provide guidance on how campaigns that address biodiversity might also address climate change, and vice versa.

The plain-language report should prove to be hugely influential not only among governmental policymakers and conservation groups, but also among corporations, says Betsy Beymer-Farris, a sustainability scientist at the University of Kentucky, who wasn’t involved in the report but did peer review it. “It’s hard for companies or even nation states to really distill academic literature,” Beymer-Farris says. The report both lays out the climate and biodiversity science and the social science of how to effect change with the help of the people who actually rely on the land for farming and grazing. “I definitely got excited when I reviewed the report,” Beymer-Farris adds. “I thought: OK, this is definitely different from what I’ve seen before because it’s a conscious and serious engagement with a more equitable and just way forward.”

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#biodiversity, #climate-change, #ecosystems, #policy, #science

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Three experts resign as FDA advisors over approval of Alzheimer’s drug

The Food and Drug Administration headquarters in White Oak, Maryland.

Enlarge / The Food and Drug Administration headquarters in White Oak, Maryland. (credit: Getty | Congressional Quarterly)

Fallout continues from the Food and Drug Administration’s contentious decision this week to approve Biogen’s Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm (aducanumab) despite a lack of efficacy data.

Three experts who sat on an advisory committee for the FDA have now resigned over the decision.

The advisory committee reviewed the data behind Aduhelm last November and voted overwhelmingly against approval. Of the 11 advisors on the committee, 10 voted “no” on the question of whether Biogen had collected enough evidence to indicate that the drug is effective. The remaining advisor voted “uncertain.”

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#alzheimers-disease, #biogen, #drug-approval, #fda, #science

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Trace fossils, the most inconspicuous bite-sized window into ancient worlds

Image of a rock with oval outlines embedded in it.

Enlarge / It may not look like much, but you can actually learn a lot from a fossilized leaf that preserves insect damage. (credit: Donovan et. al.)

He knew what it was as soon as he saw it: the signature sign of a bird landing. He’d seen hundreds of such tracks along the Georgia coast. He’d photographed them, measured them, and drawn them. The difference here? This landing track was approximately 105 million years old.

Dr. Anthony Martin, a popular professor at Emory University, recognized that landing track in Australia in the early 2000s when he passed by a fossil slab in a museum. “Because my eyes had been trained for so long from the Georgia coast seeing those kinds of patterns, that’s how I noticed them,” he said. “Because it literally was out of the corner of my eye. I was walking by the slab, I glanced at it, and then these three-toed impressions popped out at me.”

Impressions of toes may seem to be pretty dull compared to a fully reconstructed skeleton. But many of us yearn for a window into ancient worlds, to actually see how long-extinct creatures looked, lived, and behaved. Paleontology lets us crack open that window; using fossilized remains, scientists glean information about growth rates, diet, diseases, and where species roamed. But there’s a lesser-known branch of paleontology that fully opens the window by exploring what the extinct animals actually did.

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#biology, #dinosaurs, #features, #fossils, #giant-sloths, #mammoths, #paleontology, #science

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Rocket Report: Vandals spray paint Buran, China to launch first crew in 4 years

This is the rendering China's Dongfang Space released of its proposed rocket. It seems to be Kerbal-approved.

Enlarge / This is the rendering China’s Dongfang Space released of its proposed rocket. It seems to be Kerbal-approved. (credit: Dongfang Space)

Welcome to Edition 4.02 of the Rocket Report! This week there’s news about the space race between two rocket billionaires, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, and still more news about Branson’s other space company. Thanks for reading and contributing.

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.

Bezos going to space, but will Branson beat him? Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said on Monday he would fly on the first human spaceflight of his company’s New Shepard spacecraft. This mission will launch from Blue Origin’s spaceport in West Texas on July 20, which is the anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in 1969. With this timeline, Bezos seemed almost certain to get to orbit before his suborbital, space-tourism rival Sir Richard Branson, whose flight was scheduled for later this summer.

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#rocket-report, #science

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Biggest health insurer plans to deny ER bills if it doubts you had an emergency

Multistory glass-and-brick building with UnitedHealthcare logo on exterior.

Enlarge / UnitedHealth Group Inc. headquarters stands in Minnetonka, Minnesota, U.S., on Wednesday, March 9, 2016. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

Doctors and hospitals are condemning plans by UnitedHealthcare—the country’s largest health insurance company—to retroactively deny emergency medical care coverage to members if UHC decides the reason for the emergency medical care wasn’t actually an emergency.

In the future, if one of UHC’s 70 million members submits a claim for an emergency department visit, UHC will carefully review what health problems led to the visit, the “intensity of diagnostic services performed” at the emergency department (ED), and some context for the visit, like the member’s underlying health conditions and outside circumstances. If UHC decides the medical situation didn’t constitute an emergency, it will provide “no coverage or limited coverage,” depending on the member’s specific insurance plan.

Emergency medical doctors and hospitals were quick to rebuke the plan. They say it sets a dangerous precedent of requiring patients to assess their own medical problems before seeking emergency care, which could end up delaying or preventing critical and even life-saving treatment.

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#acep, #american-hospital-association, #emergency-medical-care, #health-insurance, #hospitals, #policy, #science, #unitedhealthcare

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Keystone XL pipeline canceled after Biden scraps US permit

Opponents of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines hold a rally as they protest US President Donald Trump's executive orders advancing their construction, at Columbus Circle in New York on January 24, 2017.

Enlarge / Opponents of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines hold a rally as they protest US President Donald Trump’s executive orders advancing their construction, at Columbus Circle in New York on January 24, 2017. (credit: AFP | Getty)

Construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline was officially terminated on Wednesday, handing a big victory to environmentalists who fought the project for more than a decade as they intensified their battles against other fossil fuel development.

The decision by TC Energy and the government of Alberta to pull the plug on the $8 billion pipeline had been widely expected after Joe Biden scrapped the permit to build its US leg in one of his first acts as president.

“We remain disappointed and frustrated with the circumstances surrounding the Keystone XL project, including the cancellation of the presidential permit for the pipeline’s border crossing,” said Jason Kenney, Alberta premier.

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#alberta, #canada, #climate-change, #energy-policy, #keystone-xl, #oil-sands, #pipelines, #policy, #science

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NASA doesn’t need to test SLS anymore, but the Senate mandates it anyway

Photo of SLS core stage hot fire test.

Enlarge / During a second attempt, the SLS core stage fires for a full eight minutes at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. (credit: Trevor Mahlmann )

After spending more than 15 months at the Stennis Space Center in Southern Mississippi, the core stage of NASA’s large Space Launch System rocket departed for Florida in late April. Preparations are now underway for launching this mammoth rocket from Kennedy Space Center, likely sometime in early 2022.

For US Senator Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, the months with the SLS rocket nestled onto a test stand in his home state kindled memories of NASA’s glory days, when engine and rocket test firings were more common at the space center. “Seeing and hearing all four engines of the SLS core stage fire together for the first time was thrilling,” Wicker said after one of the SLS test firings.

But even as he was celebrating the Stennis hot fire tests, Wicker must have been wondering what his center would do after the SLS rocket was gone. During the 15-month test campaign, officials from NASA and the core stage contractor, Boeing, made it plain that they only needed to perform ground test firings of this vehicle one time. Future SLS rockets would ship straight from the factory in Michoud, Louisiana, to the Florida launch site.

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#mississippi, #nasa, #science, #sls-rocket

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Physicists find “definitive evidence” of mechanism behind brightest auroras

Physicists report definitive evidence that auroras that light up the sky in the high latitudes are caused by electrons accelerated by a powerful electromagnetic force called Alfvén waves.

Enlarge / Physicists report definitive evidence that auroras that light up the sky in the high latitudes are caused by electrons accelerated by a powerful electromagnetic force called Alfvén waves. (credit: Austin Montelius, University of Iowa)

In August and September 1859, there was a major geomagnetic storm—aka, the Carrington Event, the largest ever recorded—that produced dazzling auroras visible throughout the US, Europe, Japan, and Australia. Scientists have long been fascinated by the underlying physical processes giving rise to such displays, but while the basic mechanism is understood, our understanding is still incomplete. According to a new paper published in the journal Nature Communications, electrons in the Earth’s ionosphere catch a plasma wave in order to accelerate toward Earth with sufficient energy to produce the brightest types of auroras.

The spectacular kaleidoscopic effects of the so-called northern lights (or southern lights if they are in the Southern Hemisphere) are the result of charged particles from the Sun being dumped into the Earth’s magnetosphere, where they collide with oxygen and nitrogen molecules—an interaction that excites those molecules and makes them glow. Auroras typically present as shimmering ribbons in the sky, with green, purple, blue, and yellow hues. The lights tend to only be visible in polar regions because the particles follow the Earth’s magnetic field lines, which fan out from the vicinity of the poles.

There are different kinds of auroral displays, such as “diffuse” auroras (a faint glow near the horizon), rarer “picket fence” and “dune” displays, and “discrete aurora arcs”—the most intense variety, which appear in the sky as shimmering, undulating curtains of light. Discrete aurora arcs can be so bright, it’s possible to read a newspaper by their light. (Astronomers have concluded that the phenomenon that earned the moniker STEVE (Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement) several years ago is not a true aurora after all, since it is caused by charged particles heating up high in the ionosphere.) Scientists believe there are different mechanisms by which precipitating particles are accelerated to produce each type.

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#alfven-waves, #astronomy, #auroras, #physics, #plasmas, #resonance-acceleration, #science

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Decades-old ASCII adventure Nethack may hint at the future of AI

Machine learning models have already mastered Chess, Go, Atari games, and more, but in order for it to ascend to the next level, researchers at Facebook intend for AI to take on a different kind of game: the notoriously difficult and infinitely complex Nethack.

“We wanted to construct what we think is the most accessible ‘grand challenge’ with this game. It won’t solve AI, but it will unlock pathways towards better AI,” said Facebook AI Research’s Edward Grefenstette. “Games are a good domain to find our assumptions about what makes machines intelligent and break them.”

You may not be familiar with Nethack, but it’s one of the most influential games of all time. You’re an adventurer in a fantasy world, delving through the increasingly dangerous depths of a dungeon that’s different every time. You must battle monsters, navigate traps and other hazards, and meanwhile stay on good terms with your god. It’s the first “roguelike” (after Rogue, its immediate and much simpler predecessor) and arguably still the best — almost certainly the hardest.

(It’s free, by the way, and you can download and play it on nearly any platform.)

Its simple ASCII graphics, using a g for a goblin, an @ for the player, lines and dots for the level’s architecture, and so on, belie its incredible complexity. Because Nethack, which made its debut in 1987, has been under active development ever since, with its shifting team of developers expanding its roster of objects and creatures, rules, and the countless, countless interactions between them all.

And this is part of what makes Nethack such a difficult and interesting challenge for AI: It’s so open-ended. Not only is the world different every time, but every object and creature can interact in new ways, most of them hand-coded over decades to cover every possible player choice.

Nethack with a tile-based graphics update – all the information is still available via text.

“Atari, Dota 2, StarCraft 2… the solutions we’ve had to make progress there are very interesting. Nethack just presents different challenges. You have to rely on human knowledge to play the game as a human,” said Grefenstette.

In these other games, there’s a more or less obvious strategy to winning. Of course it’s more complex in a game like Dota 2 than in an Atari 800 game, but the idea is the same — there are pieces the player controls, a game board of environment, and win conditions to pursue. That’s kind of the case in Nethack, but it’s weirder than that. For one thing, the game is different every time, and not just in the details.

“New dungeon, new world, new monsters and items, you don’t have a save point. If you make a mistake and die you don’t get a second shot. It’s a bit like real life,” said Grefenstette. “You have to learn from mistakes and come to new situations armed with that knowledge.”

Drinking a corrosive potion is a bad idea, of course, but what about throwing it at a monster? Coating your weapon with it? Pouring it on the lock of a treasure chest? Diluting it with water? We have intuitive ideas about these actions, but a game-playing AI doesn’t think the way we do.

The depth and complexity of the systems in Nethack are difficult to explain, but that diversity and difficulty make the game a perfect candidate for a competition, according to Grefenstette. “You have to rely on human knowledge to play the game,” he said.

People have been designing bots to play Nethack for many years that rely not on neural networks but decision trees as complex as the game itself. The team at Facebook Research hopes to engender a new approach by building a training environment that people can test machine learning-based game-playing algorithms on.

Nethack screens with labels showing what the AI is aware of.

The Nethack Learning Environment was actually put together last year, but the Nethack Challenge is only just now getting started. The NLE is basically a version of the game embedded in a dedicated computing environment that lets an AI interact with it through text commands (directions, actions like attack or quaff)

It’s a tempting target for ambitious AI designers. While games like StarCraft 2 may enjoy a higher profile in some ways, Nethack is legendary and the idea of building a model on completely different lines from those used to dominate other games is an interesting challenge.

It’s also, as Grefenstette explained, a more accessible one than many in the past. If you wanted to build an AI for StarCraft 2, you needed a lot of computing power available to run visual recognition engines on the imagery from the game. But in this case the entire game is transmitted via text, making it extremely efficient to work with. It can be played thousands of times faster than any human could with even the most basic computing setup. That leaves the challenge wide open to individuals and groups who don’t have access to the kind of high-power setups necessary to power other machine learning methods.

“We wanted to create a research environment that had a lot of challenges for the AI community, but not restrict it to only large academic labs,” he said.

For the next few months, NLE will be available for people to test on, and competitors can basically build their bot or AI by whatever means they choose. But when the competition itself starts in earnest on October 15, they’ll be limited to interacting with the game in its controlled environment through standard commands — no special access, no inspecting RAM, etc.

The goal of the competition will be to complete the game, and the Facebook team will track how many times the agent “ascends,” as it’s called in Nethack, in a set amount of time. But “we’re assuming this is going to be zero for everyone,” Grefenstette admitted. After all, this is one of the hardest games ever made, and even humans who have played it for years have trouble winning even once in a lifetime, let alone several times in a row. There will be other scoring metrics to judge winners in a number of categories.

The hope is that this challenge provides the seed of a new approach to AI, one that more fundamentally resembles actual human thinking. Shortcuts, trial and error, score-hacking, and zerging won’t work here — the agent needs to learn systems of logic and apply them flexibly and intelligently, or die horribly at the hands of an enraged centaur or owlbear.

You can check out the rules and other specifics of the Nethack Challenge here. Results will be announced at the NeurIPS conference later this year.

#artificial-intelligence, #facebook, #facebook-ai-research, #facebook-research, #gaming, #machine-learning, #nethack, #science

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Hospital suspends 178 health care workers for failing to get COVID vaccine

Multistory glass-and-steel hospital.

Enlarge / An American flag flies outside the Houston Methodist Hospital at the Texas Medical Center (TMC) campus in Houston, Texas, on Wednesday, June 24, 2020. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

As of Tuesday, 178 health care workers employed by a Houston-based hospital system are on a two-week unpaid suspension after failing to meet the hospital system’s mandate to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Monday, June 7.

Houston Methodist CEO Marc Boom announced the mandate in April, telling hospital staffers that if they failed to get vaccinated, they would be fired. The 178 suspended employees now have the two unpaid weeks to become fully vaccinated before termination. They can do so by getting the one-shot COVID-19 vaccine by Johnson & Johnson or a second dose of either of the two mRNA vaccines. Boom noted in a letter to employees sent Tuesday that 27 of the 178 suspended employees have received one dose of vaccine.

The Texas hospital system stood out in issuing the vaccination mandate. Many employers have shied away from mandates, though more employers have followed Houston Methodist’s lead in recent weeks. Overall, the mandate appears successful: about 97 percent of the hospital’s nearly 26,000 employees are fully vaccinated. Boom reported that 24,947 staffers were fully vaccinated, while 285 received a medical or religious exemption, and 332 were granted deferrals for pregnancy and other reasons.

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#covid-19, #healthcare-workers, #hospital, #houston, #infectious-disease, #public-health, #science, #vaccine-mandates, #vaccines

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A “disgraceful decision:” Researchers blast FDA for approving Alzheimer’s drug

A “disgraceful decision:” Researchers blast FDA for approving Alzheimer’s drug

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Congressional Quarterly)

The US Food and Drug Administration on Monday approved the antibody drug Aduhelm (generic name aducanumab) to treat Alzheimer’s disease. Aduhelm is the first new Alzheimer’s drug to earn FDA approval since 2003. It’s also the first drug to target a theoretical cause of the irreversible neurodegenerative disease—clumps of beta-amyloid peptides that build up in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients—rather than just treating the disease’s symptoms.

The approval is, without a doubt, a landmark. It could provide hope to millions of patients, who currently have few options. And, given those limited options, it will certainly provide a massive money-maker for its developer, Biogen, which has already set the list price for a year’s worth of Aduhelm at $56,000. Analysists estimate that the drug will bring in $5 billion to $6 billion worth of sales per year in the US alone.

But, the FDA’s approval is far from a celebrated decision and the drug is far from a clear success. Since the FDA’s approval yesterday, researchers and pharma watchers have called the agency’s decision “disgraceful,” “a grave error” and a “dangerous precedent” that will end up “eroding confidence in the agency as a whole.”

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#aduhelm, #alzheimers-drug, #clinical-trials, #drug-approval, #fda, #science

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Branson may make a last-ditch effort to beat Bezos into space

Sir Richard Branson takes his shirt off.

Enlarge / Sir Richard Branson takes off his shirt to don a T-shirt that says “Future Astronaut Training Program” that was given to him by Virgin Galactic Test Pilot Mark “Forger” Stucky as Air and Space Museum Director Ellen Stofan looks on. (credit: JIM WATSON / AFP / Getty Images)

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said on Monday he would fly on the first human spaceflight of his company’s New Shepard spacecraft. This mission will launch from Blue Origin’s spaceport in West Texas on July 20, which is the anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in 1969.

With this timeline, Bezos seemed almost certain to beat his suborbital space tourism rival, Sir Richard Branson, into space. Setting aside whether Branson’s VSS Unity vehicle reaches space—its maximum altitude is just below the Kármán line, or 100 km—this is nonetheless a meaningful milestone.

Both Bezos and Branson have been investing in the space industry for about two decades, and both men have made clear they intend to fly on their own spacecraft as soon as practically possible.

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#blue-origin, #science, #virgin-galactic

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Solar farms could double as pollinator food supplies

Solar farms could double as pollinator food supplies

Enlarge (credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Pollinator habitats and solar farms may seem like ecologically great neighbors, but we still don’t understand very much about that relationship. A team of researchers recently published a paper surveying the ins and outs of keeping solar production alongside the kinds of plants that pollinators like bees and butterflies love. The paper notes that there’s a good amount of potential here, but more work needs to be done to fully understand the potential partnership.

“I think in some ways, it sounds like a no-brainer that we should be implementing pollinator habitats at these types of facilities. And on one hand, I agree with that, but I think it really does benefit us to figure out the most efficient ways to get these kinds of benefits out there,” Adam Dolezal, assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s department of entomology, told Ars.

More than 100 crops in the US rely on pollinators. However, around the world, the number of pollinators has been in decline. Habitat loss is a significant reason for the decline, though there are others, including climate change and invasive species.

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#bees, #pollination, #science, #solar-energy, #solar-power

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Relativity has a bold plan to take on SpaceX, and investors are buying it

A rendering of the Terran R rocket in flight.

Enlarge / A rendering of the Terran R rocket in flight. (credit: Relativity Space)

Relativity Space announced Tuesday morning that it has raised an additional $650 million in private capital and that this money will fuel an ambitious agenda of 3D printing large, reusable rockets.

The new funding will accelerate development of the “Terran-R” launch vehicle, Relativity Chief Executive Tim Ellis said in an interview. This large orbital rocket will be about the same size as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. However, Ellis said, the entire vehicle will be reusable—the first and second stages, as well as the payload fairing. And it will have the capacity to lift 20 tons to low Earth orbit in reusable mode, about 20 percent more than a Falcon 9 booster that lands on a drone ship.

With the Terran-R vehicle, therefore, Ellis said Relativity Space aspires to not just match the remarkably capable Falcon 9 rocket but to exceed its performance.

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#relativity-space, #science, #spacex, #terran-r

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These forged 17th-century music books went undetected for a century

Considered as a set, the three books Penn State musicologist Marica Tacconi found to be forgeries nonetheless preserve 61 genuine compositions by 26 Italian composers, all written during the period from 1600 to 1678.

Enlarge / Considered as a set, the three books Penn State musicologist Marica Tacconi found to be forgeries nonetheless preserve 61 genuine compositions by 26 Italian composers, all written during the period from 1600 to 1678. (credit: Michel Garrett, Penn State)

Penn State musicologist Marica Tacconi wasn’t planning on discovering forged music books when she started her sabbatical research at the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice in 2018. But when she encountered an embellished, leather-bound music book ostensibly from the 17th century, something about it struck her as off. Subsequent analysis showed that her instincts had been right: the book was an early 20th-century forgery, as were two other music books, supposedly from the same period, that she examined in the collection. Tacconi gives a full account of her investigations in a recent paper published in the Journal of Seventeenth Century Music.

The Marciana Library acquired the music books—catalogued as MSS 740, 742, and 743—in 1916 and 1917 from a musician and book dealer named Giovanni Concina. But before Tacconi undertook her analysis, the books had neither received much scholarly attention nor been studied as a set.

At first glance, the books appear genuine enough. Per Tacconi, the worn leather and the paper look and feel authentic, as does the music calligraphy. They exhibit the mild deterioration and occasional wormhole one would expect with 17th-century tomes. MS 740 bears the coat of arms of the influential Contarini family in the bottom margin and again at the end of the manuscript. MS 742 is a bit smaller, with richly decorated pages, including illuminated initial capital letters for each composition. There is a bookplate on the first flyleaf for Caterina Dolfin, a prominent late-18th-century figure in Venice who hosted salons and intellectual soirees. MS 743’s binding and ornate style are nearly identical to MS 742, and the first page also features the Contarini coat of arms.

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#baroque, #gaming-culture, #history, #illuminated-manuscripts, #music, #music-history, #musicology, #science

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US may miss July 4 vaccination target as number of daily doses plummet

A mostly deserted convention center.

Enlarge / A deserted walk-in COVID-19 mass vaccination site at the Convention Center in downtown Washington, DC, on June 1, 2021. (credit: Getty | ANITA BEATTIE )

The rate of COVID-19 vaccinations in the US has now slowed to a crawl after weeks of decline in the number of doses given out each day. The continued trend threatens to further drag out the devastating pandemic. It also now imperils a goal set just last month by President Joe Biden to have 70 percent of American adults vaccinated with at least one dose by July 4.

On Monday, the country’s seven-day average of doses administered per day was again below 1 million, where it has been now for several days. The average hasn’t been this low since January 22. In mid-April, the average peaked at nearly 3.4 million doses a day, following a record of over 4.6 million doses administered in a single day.

With less than a month to go until Independence Day, there’s a real possibility that the US will fall shy of Biden’s 70-percent goal. Currently, about 63.7 percent of adults in the country have received at least one dose. But a chunk of daily doses are now going to adolescents ages 12 to 17, who became eligible for vaccination last month. And total vaccination numbers are still on a significant decline. If current trends hold, the US may only have about 67 percent of adults vaccinated with at least one dose by the Fourth of July, according to one analysis conducted by USA Today.

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#biden, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #infectious-disease, #public-health, #science, #vaccine

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Jeff Bezos says he will fly into space next month

Jeff Bezos speaking at the unveiling of the Blue Origin New Shepard system during the Space Symposium on Wednesday, April 5, 2017.

Enlarge / Jeff Bezos speaking at the unveiling of the Blue Origin New Shepard system during the Space Symposium on Wednesday, April 5, 2017. (credit: Matthew Staver/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has revealed on Instagram that he plans to fly on Blue Origin’s first human spaceflight next month.

“I want to go on this flight because it’s a thing I’ve wanted to do all my life,” Bezos, the richest person in the world, said in a post published Monday morning. “It’s an adventure. It’s a big deal for me.”

Bezos said he invited his younger brother, Mark, whom he described as his best friend, to go along. The two brothers will join the winner of an auction for a third seat on the flight, which is set to take place on July 20 of this year. Bidding for this seat is already at $2.8 million but is likely to go higher during a live auction on July 12. Proceeds from this auction will be donated to Blue Origin’s foundation, Club for the Future.

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#blue-origin, #jeff-bezos, #science

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Woman in Motion tells story of how Star Trek’s Uhura changed NASA forever

Actress Nichelle Nichols’ role as a NASA ambassador to bring diversity to the space program is the subject of the documentary Woman in Motion, now streaming on Paramount+.

Actress Nichelle Nichols will forever be remembered for playing Uhura in Star Trek: The Original Series—one of the first Black women to play a prominent role on television—as well as engaging in the first interracial kiss on scripted television in the US. Less known is her equally seminal role as an ambassador for NASA  in the 1970s, working tirelessly to bring more diversity to the agency’s recruitment efforts. That work is highlighted in Woman in Motion, a new documentary directed by Todd Thompson that is now streaming on Paramount+.

Thompson himself was not a hardcore Star Trek fan growing up, although he had seen most of the movies and was certainly familiar with Nichols’ portrayal of Uhura. His producing partners were fans, however, and when they told him about Nichol’s contributions to NASA, he decided it was a story that had to be told. Over the course of production, he interviewed dozens of people about how Nichols inspired them, and also spent a considerable amount of time with the actress herself, now 88.

“She’s the definition of Hollywood royalty for me,” Thompson told Ars. “How she carries herself, how she treats others, how she engages with you—she’s so incredibly magnetic. What she did was so paramount to giving us a blueprint of where we need to go, how we need to be, if we’re going to make any sort of progress here on Earth and beyond the stars. I was very humbled by the responsibility to tell her story and tell it the right way.”

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#documentary, #film, #gaming-culture, #nasa, #nichelle-nichols, #paramount-plus, #science, #space, #star-trek-tos, #uhura

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When the bison come back, will the ecosystem follow?

When the bison come back, will the ecosystem follow?

Enlarge (credit: Scott Kublin)

On a blustery October afternoon at the Wolfcrow Bison Ranch in southern Alberta, Canada, Dan Fox and his ranch hand, Man Blackplume, tried to wrestle fence panels into place despite a 60 mph wind. The next day was weaning day—and the fence needed to be rock solid so the bison calves could be separated from their mothers.

The two members of the Kainai First Nation, also known as the Blood Tribe, braced their bodies against the 12-foot-high fence panels so they could nail them to the posts, but the panels flapped in the wind like giant wooden flags. Across the pasture, 30 bison stood huddled together in the corner, unfazed by the commotion. They were part of the first bison herd to grace the Blood Reserve in 150 years, Fox says. The Kainai First Nation is one of four tribal groups within the Blackfoot Confederacy, which includes the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana.

Fox, 63, believes the animals may have helped extend his life. He experienced a cancer scare more than 20 years ago, and at the suggestion of a Blackfoot healer and naturopath, he changed his diet, replacing processed food with bison meat and other ancestral foods. His health improved, and today he says he feels better than ever. He is convinced that his family and his community will benefit, as he did, by having the buffalo back on the land and in their lives. (Bison bison is the scientific name for the animal, but buffalo is the word that most Indigenous people use.)

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#bison, #science

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Reducing poverty can actually lower energy demand, finds research

Ethiopians carrying jerrycans of water.

Ethiopians carrying jerrycans of water. (credit: UNICEF Ethiopia/2011/Lemma)

As people around the world escape poverty, you might expect their energy use to increase. But my research in Nepal, Vietnam, and Zambia found the opposite: lower levels of deprivation were linked to lower levels of energy demand. What is behind this counter-intuitive finding?

After all, the prevailing strategy to end extreme poverty relies on the belief that we need to grow the economic “pie,” so we can produce more goods and services, at the same time as households and government spending capacity increases to consume those goods and services. And so, when poverty is “diagnosed” by income, the “remedy” is said to be economic growth.

However with widening inequalities and an acute sanitation crisis in much of the world, many still evade the promised benefits of economic growth. It turns out that poverty is not only about income: it consists of multiple deprivations.

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#climate-change, #science

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China ramps up vaccinations as other countries back away from its vaccines

Vials of the Sinopharm vaccine in Beijing on June 1.

Enlarge / Vials of the Sinopharm vaccine in Beijing on June 1. (credit: Getty | Xinhua News Agency)

Despite a sluggish start, China is now vaccinating its people against COVID-19 at an impressive clip, currently averaging nearly 20 million doses administered per day. As of Friday, the country had given more than 720 million vaccinations since mid-December, with nearly 400 million of those were given in May alone.

The dramatic ramp up comes at an awkward time, however. Early adopters of China’s vaccines have seen dramatic surges in COVID-19 cases—despite high vaccination rates—and are now backing away from the country’s offerings.

In Bahrain, for instance, officials are now offering high-risk people who have already received two doses of China’s Sinopharm vaccine a third vaccine dose—but one made by Pfizer-BioNTech. The apparent vote of no confidence by officials is striking: Bahrain was one of the first countries to back and rollout Sinopharm’s vaccine, and it has had a highly successful vaccination campaign. Nearly 58 percent of the Persian Gulf country has received at least one dose of a vaccine, and most of the vaccines given in Bahrain are from Sinopharm. But the country is now seeing its worst wave of COVID-19 yet and the government has recently issued a two-week lockdown to try to get transmission under control.

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#china, #covid-19, #science, #sinopharm, #sinovac, #vaccine, #who

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Your dog’s desire to communicate with you just might be in the genes

Gimme five! New University of Arizona study finds puppies are wired to communicate with people. "There's definitely a strong genetic component, and they're definitely doing it from the get-go."

Enlarge / Gimme five! New University of Arizona study finds puppies are wired to communicate with people. “There’s definitely a strong genetic component, and they’re definitely doing it from the get-go.” (credit: Anita Kot/Getty Images)

That special social bond between dogs and humans might be a genetic trait that evolved as dogs became domesticated and diverged from wolves, according to a new study published in the journal Current Biology, looking at the cognitive and behavioral social skills of hundreds of adorable puppies.

“People have been interested in dogs’ abilities to do these kinds of things for a long time, but there’s always been debate about to what extent is this really in the biology of dogs, versus something they learn by palling around with humans,” said co-author Evan MacLean, director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “We found that there’s definitely a strong genetic component, and they’re definitely doing it from the get-go.”

His co-author, Emily Bray, an anthropology postdoc at the university, has spent the last ten years studying how dogs think and solve problems, in conjunction with Canine Companions, a California-based service dog organization catering to people with disabilities. It’s known that human children can reason about the physical world, and have sufficient social cognitive skills for cooperative communication by the age of two-and-a-half years. But according to the authors, there is also a growing body of research showing evidence that domesticated dogs share similar social cognitive skills, although possible biological bases for those abilities had not been tested.

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#animal-behavior, #animals, #anthropology, #biology, #cognitive-science, #puppies, #science

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Yes, the military is serious about rocketing supplies around the planet

Smoke and flame surround a squat rocket as it lifts off.

Enlarge / A SpaceX Starship prototype takes flight in April, 2021. (credit: SpaceX)

The Air Force confirmed a strong interest in delivery of cargo around the world—by rockets—during an hourlong conference call with reporters on Friday. Military officials said they were elevating the cargo initiative to become the newest “Vanguard Program,” indicating a desire to move the concept from an experimental state into an operational capability.

“This idea has been around since the dawn of spaceflight,” said Dr. Greg Spanjers, an Air Force scientist and the Rocket Cargo Program Manager. “It’s always been an intriguing idea. We’ve looked at it about every 10 years, but it’s never really made sense. The reason we’re doing it now is because it looks like technology may have caught up with a good idea.”

Ars first reported about the “Rocket Cargo” program in the Air Force’s budget request on Monday. As part of its $200 billion annual budget, the Air Force is seeking $47.9 million to leverage emerging commercial rocket capabilities to launch cargo from one location and land elsewhere on Earth.

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#air-force, #point-to-point, #science, #starship

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Researchers perform magic tricks for birds, who are not amused

A Eurasian jay takes a skeptical view of magic.

Enlarge / A Eurasian jay takes a skeptical view of magic. (credit: Luc Viatour)

Most magic tricks require a fairly sophisticated understanding of how humans perceive the world. To fall for a trick, people have to see things they perceive as important and ignore things that are actually important. Understanding why magic works can tell us important things about how humans direct their attention and form expectations.

At some point, behavioral scientists realized they could take this idea and apply it to animals. If animals are also fooled by magic tricks, we can identify where our cognitive skills overlap. If the trick fails, we can identify points where our understandings of the world diverge. Unsurprisingly, most early experiments were done with other primates, as they would likely have a lot of overlap with us. But a new study attempts magic with birds and finds that many tricks just don’t work with them.

Not easily fooled

The birds in the study were Eurasian jays, who are part of a family (corvids) known to be unusually intelligent. Many species of jays cache food (if you’ve ever found that oak trees have been seeded in your flower pots, jays are probably why) and often engage in elaborate deceptions to keep their fellow jays from stealing their caches. So it’s not a stretch to think that magic might be something birds could comprehend.

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#behavioral-science, #biology, #birds, #magic, #science

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Rocket Report: SpaceX breaks streak of used launches, FAA clears Electron

A rising rocket leaves a tongue of flame in its wake.

Enlarge / Liftoff of SpaceX’s 22nd operational cargo resupply mission to the Space Station for NASA at 1:29:15 pm June 3, 2021. (credit: Trevor Mahlmann / Ars Technica)

Welcome to Edition 4.01 of the Rocket Report! Yes, we’ve already reached our third anniversary, and I can’t say enough about all of our readers who have contributed story ideas over the last three years. The Rocket Report is a much, much richer product thanks to your help.

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.

Virgin Galactic announces another science mission. Virgin Galactic revealed a new contract Thursday for human-tended research aboard its suborbital spacecraft, VSS Unity. The company said that Kellie Gerardi, a researcher and science communicator, would conduct two experiments during an upcoming flight that could happen as early as 2022, Ars reports.

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#science

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Researchers rewire the genetics of E. coli, make it virus-proof

Image of a woman holding bacterial plates.

Enlarge / On the outside, these heavily engineered bacteria look no different from their normal peers. (credit: Raphael Gaillarde / Getty Images)

Many of the fundamental features of life don’t necessarily have to be the way they are. Chance plays a major role in evolution, and there are alternate paths that were never explored, simply because whatever evolved previously happened to be good enough. One instance is the genetic code, which converts the information carried by our DNA into the specific sequence of amino acids that form proteins. There are scores of potential amino acids, many of which can form spontaneously. But most life uses a genetic code that relies on just 20 of them.

Over the past couple of decades, researchers have shown that it doesn’t have to be that way. If you supply bacteria with the right enzyme and an alternative amino acid, they can use it. But bacteria won’t use the enzyme and amino acid very efficiently, as all the existing genetic code slots are already in use.

Now, researchers have managed to edit bacteria’s genetic code to free up a few new slots. They then filled those slots with unnatural amino acids, allowing the bacteria to produce proteins that would never be found in nature. One side effect of the reprogramming? No viruses could replicate in the modified bacteria.

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#amino-acids, #biology, #genetic-code, #genetic-engineering, #genetics, #science, #synthetic-biology

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