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[l] at 1/21/20 11:08am
Crews carrying out a prescribed burn in California's San Bernardino National Forest.

Enlarge / Crews carrying out a prescribed burn in California's San Bernardino National Forest. (credit: San Bernardino National Forest)

Whenever wildfires rip through an area, splashing nightmarish scenes across the evening news, people who live elsewhere seem to have a lot of suggestions. Why don’t they log the forest so there’s less to burn? Why don’t they get millions of goats to graze the brush? Why live in such a dangerous spot? But as with most things, there are usually complications when you look closer.

A new study led by Stanford’s Rebecca Miller analyzes one option for limiting fires in California: prescribed burns. The researchers interviewed experts in state government, federal agencies, non profits, and academia to find out what barriers are preventing greater use of prescribed burns.

Burning to avoid burns

Prescribed burns utilize low-intensity fires during favorable weather to safely remove some of the fuel that has accumulated on the ground—fuel present partly as a result of our past practice of putting out wildfires as aggressively as possible. It’s often combined with mechanical thinning of brush and trees that serve as “ladders” for fires to climb into treetops, with the resulting brush piles burned later. The researchers say that about 20 percent of the state—20 million acres—could benefit from prescribed burns to reduce the wildfire hazard. But California is not currently on pace to complete that monumental task any time soon.

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[Category: Science, wildfire]

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[l] at 1/21/20 9:43am
  • It exists, and Lego has already built it: the International Space Station kit arrives February 1. [credit: @LEGO on Instagram ]

Perhaps reinforcing the idea that waiting until the last minute can be good for gift-seekers, Lego today announced it has produced an International Space Station-inspired set that will be available on February 1 for $69.99. (Outside of an Ars subscription, this is the perfect Valentine's Day gift for any Arsian in your life.)

Like prior Lego space releases such as the Saturn V, this ISS model looks robust. The set contains 850-plus pieces and when built stands over 7-inches (20cm) high, 12-inches (31cm) long, and 19-inches (49cm) wide. According to the official company press release, loving details include a posable Canadarm2 and two rotating joints that coincide with eight adjustable solar panels. The set also comes with some delightful extras, such as a pair of astronaut minifigs, a brick-built mini space shuttle, and a 148-page booklet stuffed with info on the real ISS.

Besides being a drool-worthy addition to any brickhead's collection, the Lego ISS doubles as a celebration of the Lego Ideas initiative, which turns 10 this year. Ideas is a platform where users can submit proposals for future sets, and those submissions that garner enough support through votes can ultimately end up in production. (See that awesome Women of NASA set from 2017 as just one example.) Lego fan Christoph Ruge submitted his ISS proposal more than three years ago, but it resurfaced thanks to Lego revisiting popular ideas that hadn't been produced as a way of celebrating Ideas turning 10. Ruge's Ideas page is a nice collection of other space proposals, by the way: can we get a Baikonur or Hubble set sometime, too?

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[Category: Gaming & Culture, Science, iss, Lego]

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[l] at 1/21/20 9:43am
  • It exists, and Lego has already built it: the International Space Station kit arrives February 1. [credit: @LEGO on Instagram ]

Perhaps reinforcing the idea that waiting until the last minute can be good for gift-seekers, Lego today announced it has produced an International Space Station-inspired set that will be available on February 1 for $69.99. (Outside of an Ars subscription, this is the perfect Valentine's Day gift for any Arsian in your life.)

Like prior Lego space releases such as the Saturn V, this ISS model looks robust. The set contains 850-plus pieces and when built stands over 7-inches (20cm) high, 12-inches (31cm) long, and 19-inches (49cm) wide. According to the official company press release, loving details include a posable Canadarm2 and two rotating joints that coincide with eight adjustable solar panels. The set also comes with some delightful extras, such as a pair of astronaut minifigs, a brick-built mini space shuttle, and a 148-page booklet stuffed with info on the real ISS.

Besides being a drool-worthy addition to any brickhead's collection, the Lego ISS doubles as a celebration of the Lego Ideas initiative, which turns 10 this year. Ideas is a platform where users can submit proposals for future sets, and those submissions that garner enough support through votes can ultimately end up in production. (See that awesome Women of NASA set from 2017 as just one example.) Lego fan Christoph Ruge submitted his ISS proposal more than three years ago, but it resurfaced thanks to Lego revisiting popular ideas that hadn't been produced as a way of celebrating Ideas turning 10. Ruge's Ideas page is a nice collection of other space proposals, by the way: can we get a Baikonur or Hubble set sometime, too?

Read 2 remaining paragraphs | Comments

[Category: Gaming & Culture, Science, iss, Lego]

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[l] at 1/21/20 8:55am
A close-up view of the Starliner capsule with its service module immediately beneath it.

Enlarge / A close-up view of the Starliner capsule with its service module immediately beneath it. (credit: Trevor Mahlmann )

Nearly one month ago, Boeing completed the first orbital test flight of its Starliner spacecraft with a near-perfect landing at White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico.

The mission had to be cut short due to a well-publicized timing error that delayed the spacecraft's service module from performing an orbital insertion burn. This caused the thrusters on board the service module, which provides power to Starliner during most of its mission, to fire longer than expected. As a result, the spacecraft did not have enough fuel to complete a rendezvous with the International Space Station, a key component of the test flight in advance of crewed missions.

Since providing some initial information during a post-flight news conference, NASA and Boeing have gone mostly quiet about the investigation into the timing error. Two weeks ago, the space agency said it had initiated two investigations. One would find the root cause of the "mission elapsed timer anomaly" over the course of about two months, and the second will determine whether another uncrewed test flight of Starliner is required before astronauts fly on the vehicle.

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[Category: Science]

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[l] at 1/21/20 7:16am
Could you resist these Oreos? Maybe if you depended on a friend to help you delay gratification.

Enlarge / Could you resist these Oreos? Maybe if you depended on a friend to help you delay gratification. (credit: Pranee Tiangkate/iStock/Getty Images)

In the 1970s, the late psychologist Walter Mischel explored the importance of the ability to delay gratification as a child to one's future success in life, via the famous Stanford "marshmallow experiment." Now a team of German researchers has adapted the classic experimental setup with German and Kenyan schoolchildren and found that kids are more likely to delay gratification when they depend on each other. They described their findings in a recent paper in Psychological Science.

As we previously reported, Mischel's landmark behavioral study involved 600 kids between the ages of four and six, all culled from Stanford University's Bing Nursery School. He would give each child a marshmallow and give them the option of eating it immediately if they chose. But if they could wait 15 minutes, they would get a second marshmallow as a reward. Then Mischel would leave the room, and a hidden video camera would tape what happened next.

Some kids just ate the marshmallow right away. Others found a handy distraction: covering their eyes, kicking the desk, or poking at the marshmallow with their fingers. Some smelled it, licked it, or took tiny nibbles around the edges. Roughly one-third of the kids held out long enough to earn a second marshmallow. Several years later, Mischel noticed a strong correlation between the success of some of those kids later in life (better grades, higher self-confidence) and their ability to delay gratification in nursery school. Mischel's follow-up study confirmed the correlation.

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[Category: Science, delayed gratification, Marshmallow Test, psychology, science]

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[l] at 1/20/20 3:50pm
Images of white, fuzzy dots on a blue background.

Enlarge / Colonies of genetically modified yeast. (credit: Conor Lawless)

A little while ago, we covered the idea of using photovoltaic materials to drive enzymatic reactions in order to produce specific chemicals. The concept is being considered mostly because doing the same reaction in a cell is often horribly inefficient because everything else in the cell is trying to regulate the enzymes, trying to use the products, trying to convert the byproducts into something toxic, or up to something even more annoying. But in many cases, these reactions rely on chemicals that are only made by cells, leaving some researchers to suspect it still might be easier to use living things in the end.

A new paper in Nature Catalysis may support or contradict this argument, depending on your perspective. In the end, the authors of the new paper re-engineer standard brewer's yeast to produce molecules that can be used as fuel for internal combustion engines. The full catalog of changes they have to make is a bit mind-numbing and most achieve a small, incremental increase in production. The end result is a large step forward toward biofuel production, but the effort involved is intimidating.

Making fuel

Brewer's yeast, as the name implies, can already produce a biofuel: alcohol. But ethanol isn't a drop-in replacement for many current uses, which raises questions about its overall utility. If we have to re-engineer both our engines and our infrastructure in order to use it to replace fossil fuels, then there's not much space for a smooth transition away from gasoline and other liquid fuels.

Read 17 remaining paragraphs | Comments

[Category: Science, biochemistry, biofuels, Biology, genetic engineering, yeast]

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[l] at 1/20/20 3:50pm
Images of white, fuzzy dots on a blue background.

Enlarge / Colonies of genetically modified yeast. (credit: Conor Lawless)

A little while ago, we covered the idea of using photovoltaic materials to drive enzymatic reactions in order to produce specific chemicals. The concept is being considered mostly because doing the same reaction in a cell is often horribly inefficient because everything else in the cell is trying to regulate the enzymes, trying to use the products, trying to convert the byproducts into something toxic, or up to something even more annoying. But in many cases, these reactions rely on chemicals that are only made by cells, leaving some researchers to suspect it still might be easier to use living things in the end.

A new paper in Nature Catalysis may support or contradict this argument, depending on your perspective. In the end, the authors of the new paper re-engineer standard brewer's yeast to produce molecules that can be used as fuel for internal combustion engines. The full catalog of changes they have to make is a bit mind-numbing and most achieve a small, incremental increase in production. The end result is a large step forward toward biofuel production, but the effort involved is intimidating.

Making fuel

Brewer's yeast, as the name implies, can already produce a biofuel: alcohol. But ethanol isn't a drop-in replacement for many current uses, which raises questions about its overall utility. If we have to re-engineer both our engines and our infrastructure in order to use it to replace fossil fuels, then there's not much space for a smooth transition away from gasoline and other liquid fuels.

Read 17 remaining paragraphs | Comments

[Category: Science, biochemistry, biofuels, Biology, genetic engineering, yeast]

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[l] at 1/20/20 2:26pm
A person in full, white protective suit, blue face mask, and goggles, helps wheel a patient on a gurney into a hospital. His hand is outstretched as if he is signaling someone not to come near.

Enlarge / Medical staff transfer patients to Jin Yintan hospital on January 17, 2020 in Wuhan, Hubei, China. (credit: Getty )

An outbreak of a never-before-seen coronavirus in the Chinese city of Wuhan dramatically worsened over the last few days with the case count more than tripling, cases appearing in new cities, and confirmation that the virus is spreading person-to-person.

The World Health Organization announced Monday that it will convene an emergency meeting on Wednesday, January 22, to assess the outbreak and how best to manage it

On Saturday, January 18, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission reported 136 newly identified cases of the viral pneumonia and one additional death. On Tuesday, January 21 (local time 4:18am), the commission reported another death. That brings Wuhan’s totals to 198 cases and four deaths. Just one day earlier, on January 17, the health commission had reported just 62 cases and two deaths.

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[Category: Science, china, coronavirus, Infectious disease, pneumonia, public health, virus, wuhan]

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[l] at 1/20/20 9:57am
The Zwicky Transient Facility at Palomar Observatory in California.

Enlarge / The Zwicky Transient Facility at Palomar Observatory in California. (credit: Caltech Optical Observatories)

Astronomers have found nearly 1 million asteroids in our Solar System, with the vast majority located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

It is far rarer to find asteroids with orbits closer to the Sun, and especially inside the orbit of Earth, due to Jupiter's gravitational influence. There are only about 20 known asteroids with orbits entirely inside that of Earth's. They are called Atira asteroids.

Many of these Atira asteroids have orbits that are substantially tilted away from the plane of the Solar System, suggesting past encounters with Mercury or Venus.

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[Category: Science]

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[l] at 1/20/20 8:20am
Fictional detective Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub) famously suffered from OCD, with a powerful germ phobia, among many others. Perhaps "multi sensory stimulation therapy" would have helped.

Enlarge / Fictional detective Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub) famously suffered from OCD, with a powerful germ phobia, among many others. Perhaps "multi sensory stimulation therapy" would have helped. (credit: USA Network)

Chances are good that you've seen entertaining footage of the so-called "rubber hand illusion," where someone becomes convinced that a fake rubber hand is actually their own. It's more than a clever party trick, however. Not only does the illusion shed light on how the brain "maps" our physical bodies, it could also prove to be an effective treatment for patients suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), according to a recent paper published in Frontiers in Neuroscience.

German philosopher Martin Heidegger introduced the notion of "ready-to-hand" in the 1930s to describe how the body can incorporate our most familiar functional tools into its concept of the self, much like a blind person who regularly uses a cane to navigate his or her surroundings. As far as the brain is concerned, the cane becomes an extension of the physical body.

Studies have shown a similar effect when we regularly use a computer mouse. It might even be true of our avatars in virtual space. Virtual reality guru Jaron Lanier introduced the concept of "homuncular flexibility" in the 1980s to describe how the brain could become unable to distinguish between our real and virtual bodies over time. If something bad happens to you in the virtual world, the same neural circuitry is activated that would be engaged if it happened to you in the "real" world.

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[Category: Science, body maps, Neuroscience, psychiatry, rubber hand illusion, science]

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[l] at 1/20/20 6:00am
Spilled garbage on the beach off the Black Sea in Bulgaria.

Enlarge / Spilled garbage on the beach off the Black Sea in Bulgaria. (credit: iStock / Getty Images Plus)

The English metallurgist Alexander Parkes never saw the widespread realization of his spectacular 19th-century invention, celluloid, the first plastic. While a revolutionary breakthrough, Parkesine, as it was called, was expensive and brittle. It was used in objects like buttons and combs, but ultimately quality control issues led Parkes’ company to bankruptcy in 1868 just 12 years after the discovery.

Parkesine, however, was also the first bioplastic—a plastic made from renewable plant material instead of fossil fuels. And today with the environmental impact of plastics increasingly on the public mind, bioplastics are making a big comeback. They’re proposed by some as the solution to beaches deluged with plastic and fish bellies stuffed with bottle caps. And perhaps bioplastics can replace oil-based polymers that commonly trash oceans with materials that can break down more easily and would protect a planet already smothered in these resilient substances.

Bioplastic items already exist, of course, but whether they’re actually better for the environment or can truly compete with traditional plastics is complicated. Some bioplastics aren’t much better than fossil fuel-based polymers. And for the few that are less injurious to the planet, cost and social acceptance may stand in the way. Even if widespread adoption of bioplastics occurs down the line, it won’t be a quick or cheap fix. In the meantime, there is also some pollution caused by bioplastics themselves to consider. Even if bioplastics are often less damaging than the status quo, they aren’t a flawless solution.

Read 33 remaining paragraphs | Comments

[Category: Features, Science]

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[l] at 1/20/20 6:00am
Spilled garbage on the beach off the Black Sea in Bulgaria.

Enlarge / Spilled garbage on the beach off the Black Sea in Bulgaria. (credit: iStock / Getty Images Plus)

The English metallurgist Alexander Parkes never saw the widespread realization of his spectacular 19th-century invention, celluloid, the first plastic. While a revolutionary breakthrough, Parkesine, as it was called, was expensive and brittle. It was used in objects like buttons and combs, but ultimately quality control issues led Parkes’ company to bankruptcy in 1868 just 12 years after the discovery.

Parkesine, however, was also the first bioplastic—a plastic made from renewable plant material instead of fossil fuels. And today with the environmental impact of plastics increasingly on the public mind, bioplastics are making a big comeback. They’re proposed by some as the solution to beaches deluged with plastic and fish bellies stuffed with bottle caps. And perhaps bioplastics can replace oil-based polymers that commonly trash oceans with materials that can break down more easily and would protect a planet already smothered in these resilient substances.

Bioplastic items already exist, of course, but whether they’re actually better for the environment or can truly compete with traditional plastics is complicated. Some bioplastics aren’t much better than fossil fuel-based polymers. And for the few that are less injurious to the planet, cost and social acceptance may stand in the way. Even if widespread adoption of bioplastics occurs down the line, it won’t be a quick or cheap fix. In the meantime, there is also some pollution caused by bioplastics themselves to consider. Even if bioplastics are often less damaging than the status quo, they aren’t a flawless solution.

Read 33 remaining paragraphs | Comments

[Category: Features, Science]

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[l] at 1/19/20 9:07am
Image of a rocket above a large plume of flame.

Enlarge / The Falcon 9 during the launch of the abort test.

Today, SpaceX attempted a critical test of its ability to launch humans to orbit: the ability to get them away from the rocket if things go wrong. Shortly after liftoff, the company shut down the main engines of its Falcon 9 rocket, and fired off the system that's meant to return the crewed capsule safely to Earth.

Everything about the flight appeared to have worked just as planned. The Dragon capsule accelerated away from its Falcon 9 launch vehicle, oriented properly, deployed parachutes, and splashed down successfully.

Getting a capsule gently off a rocket in the midst of what might be a catastrophic failure is (as you might imagine) not a simple task. Engines on the capsule have to fire with sufficient power to cause the capsule to accelerate away from a rocket that may still be accelerating itself, all without subjecting the crew to excessive forces. Once free, the capsule has to jettison its service module, and then be oriented so its parachute systems can be deployed safely. Those parachutes then need to make sure the return to Earth's surface is equally gentle.

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[Category: Science, dragon, falcon, NASA, spacex]

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[l] at 1/19/20 9:07am
Image of a rocket above a large plume of flame.

Enlarge / The Falcon 9 during the launch of the abort test.

Today, SpaceX attempted a critical test of its ability to launch humans to orbit: the ability to get them away from the rocket if things go wrong. Shortly after liftoff, the company shut down the main engines of its Falcon 9 rocket, and fired off the system that's meant to return the crewed capsule safely to Earth.

Everything about the flight appeared to have worked just as planned. The Dragon capsule accelerated away from its Falcon 9 launch vehicle, oriented properly, deployed parachutes, and splashed down successfully.

Getting a capsule gently off a rocket in the midst of what might be a catastrophic failure is (as you might imagine) not a simple task. Engines on the capsule have to fire with sufficient power to cause the capsule to accelerate away from a rocket that may still be accelerating itself, all without subjecting the crew to excessive forces. Once free, the capsule has to jettison its service module, and then be oriented so its parachute systems can be deployed safely. Those parachutes then need to make sure the return to Earth's surface is equally gentle.

Read 5 remaining paragraphs | Comments

[Category: Science, dragon, falcon, NASA, spacex]

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[l] at 1/19/20 7:00am
Clamshells displayed against a black background.

Enlarge / Because Mediterranean smooth clams live up to their name, their shells produce a cleaner cutting edge than others. (credit: Villa et al. 2020)

There may be a little more evidence to suggest that Neanderthals waded, swam, and even dove to gather resources along the shores of the Mediterranean. A new study claims Neanderthals at a coastal cave in Italy waded or dove to get clamshells straight off the seafloor to make scraping tools.

Swiping seashells straight from the seafloor?

Neanderthals who lived at Grotta dei Moscerini around 100,000 years ago used the sturdy shells of Mediterranean smooth clams to make sharp-edged scraping tools. Clamshells wash up on beaches all the time, but University of Colorado archaeologist Paola Villa and her colleagues say that some of the worked shell tools at Moscerini look less like flotsam and more like someone scooped them off the seafloor while they were still fresh.

Shells that wash ashore after their former tenants die usually show signs of sanding and polishing, as they spend time being bounced along the sandy bottom by waves. Many also feature small holes where a marine predator drilled its way inside. But nearly a quarter of the 171 shells at Moscerini looked surprisingly pristine, aside from the changes made by Neanderthals.

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[Category: Science, ancient hominins, ancient people did stuff, Archaeology, hominin evolution, hominins, Neanderthals, paleolithic, paleolithic europe, science]

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[l] at 1/18/20 6:45am
Small flasks of green liquid on a lab bench near a sand-colored arch.

Enlarge / The cyanobacteria in flasks contribute to the structure at right. (credit: Cell Press)

It seems like every week, I can do an article on some interesting science that ended up buried under hyperbolic headlines and overly credible coverage. This week's victim is "living concrete." It only sort of exists, in that the material can either be living or concrete, but not really both. It doesn't heal itself either. But none of that means the publication has no merit, as it does show that the concept more or less works, and it identifies a number of areas that need further study in order for "living concrete" to actually become useful.

La vida concrete

The idea of mixing living things and concrete isn't quite as strange as it sounds. Part of concrete's strength comes from carbonates that are formed during the curing process. Lots of living things also produce structures made of carbonates; these include some very robust structures that are a mix of proteins and carbonates, like the shells of many aquatic animals.

As such, there's been a lot of research around the periphery of structural concrete that's involved biology. This has mostly involved lots of work on trying to figure out how the shells of living creatures get some of their impressive properties. But it's also included the idea that living things could form structural carbonates, including a few attempts to make concrete that self-heals thanks to the presence of carbonate-producing microbes embedded in it.

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[Category: Science, biochemistry, Biology, concrete, materials science]

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[l] at 1/18/20 4:00am
  • Launch pad weather on Saturday morning was fine for a critical in-flight escape test of the Dragon spacecraft. [credit: Trevor Mahlmann for Ars Technica ]

Saturday, 6am ET Update: SpaceX announced early Saturday that it will stand down from its Crew Dragon launch escape test attempt due to sustained winds and rough seas in the recovery area. The company will now target a six-hour launch window that opens on Sunday at 8am ET (13:00 UTC) for the test.

Original post: Officials from NASA and SpaceX said final preparations were underway for a critical flight test of Crew Dragon's launch escape system on Saturday morning from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The four-hour launch window opens at 8am ET (13:00 UTC), and SpaceX indicated it may use much of that time to find an ideal slot due to weather conditions.

At the beginning of the launch window, weather at the pad should be ideal, but forecasters have concerns about offshore winds and waves. Later in the morning on Saturday, weather at the recovery site is expected to improve, which means the launch may well slip closer to noon than the top of the window. SpaceX may also seek to extend the window, if necessary. If the launch slips a day, conditions are reversed Sunday, with less favorable weather at the launch site but better conditions offshore.

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[Category: Science]

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[l] at 1/17/20 8:43am
X-rays reveal the faded colors of a 1,300-year-old Inca idol

Enlarge (credit: Sepulveda et al. 2020)

The idol of Pachacamac was already 700 years old when Spanish conquistadors arrived in Peru, according to radiocarbon dating of the wood. People journeyed from all over the Andes to consult the statue, believed to be an important oracle of the Inca gods, leaving behind offerings of gold, silver, and valuable fabrics. In 1533, Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro ordered his followers to knock the oracle from its pedestal in front of horrified onlookers. Centuries later, microscopes and X-ray fluorescence shed light on the lost colors of Inca religious life.

Long-lost colors

After roughly 1,300 years, the carvings on the surface of the oracle still survive in rich detail. Two people in elaborate clothing stand side by side in the top section; one wears a headdress of feathers, and the other wears a snake headdress. On the much taller middle segment, richly attired people mingle with jaguars, two-headed snakes, and an assortment of human-headed animals, interspersed with geometric designs. The base is blank and probably once fit into a hole in a pedestal. But as elaborate as the carvings are, they’re missing something important: color.

Much of the color of the ancient world has been lost to us for centuries, and modern technologies are only starting to show us how vivid the past really was. Greek and Roman statues weren't sterile white; medieval cathedrals were full of color; and the animals, spirits, and people carved into the wood of the Pachacamac Idol once stood out in vivid red, white, and yellow.

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[Category: Science, Archaeology, conquistadors, inca, indigenous south america, peru, Pre-Columbian civilizations, science, wari, x-ray fluorescence]

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[l] at 1/17/20 5:00am
The Rocket Report is published weekly.

Enlarge / The Rocket Report is published weekly. (credit: Arianespace)

Welcome to Edition 2.28 of the Rocket Report! As we get deeper into 2020, we could see as many as a half-dozen new orbital rockets debut this year, with a mixture from the United States, China, Europe, and India. It will be fun to track how many of them—big and small—actually make it to the launch pad. And how many of them are successful, of course!

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.

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[Category: Science]

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[l] at 1/17/20 1:01am
This is the exact moment in <em>the goop lab</em>'s third episode in which Gwyneth Paltrow admits she doesn't know the difference between a vagina and a vulva. She's making a hand gesture to say what she thought the "vagina" was.

Enlarge / This is the exact moment in the goop lab's third episode in which Gwyneth Paltrow admits she doesn't know the difference between a vagina and a vulva. She's making a hand gesture to say what she thought the "vagina" was. (credit: Netflix)

Disclaimer: This review contains detailed information about the Netflix series the goop lab with Gwyneth Paltrow. If you plan to watch the show (please, don't) and do not wish to know details in advance, this is not the review for you. Normally, we would refer to such information as "spoilers," but in our editorial opinion, nothing in this series is spoil-able.

In the third episode of Goop's Netflix series, a female guest remarks that we women are seen as "very dangerous when we're knowledgeable." [Ep. 3, 33:35]

"Tell me about it," Gwyneth Paltrow knowingly replies amid "mm-hmms"—as if she has a first-hand understanding of this.

But after watching just a few minutes of any of the six episodes of the goop lab—or knowing pretty much anything about her pseudoscience-peddling "contextual commerce" company "Goop"—one might be skeptical that Paltrow has ever borne any such burden of knowledge in her life.

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[Category: Features, Gaming & Culture, Science, anti-aging, dieting, energy healing, fasting, Goop, Netflix, paltrow, Pseudoscience, psychedelic, psychics, the goop lab, wim hof]

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[l] at 1/15/20 10:30am
Temperature above or below the 1950-1981 average, in kelvins (equivalent to degrees C).

Enlarge / Temperature above or below the 1950-1981 average, in kelvins (equivalent to degrees C). (credit: NASA)

It’s mid-January, which means the jokes about New Year’s resolutions are hopefully fading out along with your seasonal depression. Oh, and NOAA’s and NASA’s final 2019 global temperature analyses have dropped. (No need to get the party hats and noisemakers back out.)

Let’s start with the numbers. Last year comes in as the second warmest on record in almost every dataset. The UK Met Office dataset has it in third place, as does one satellite dataset (though it is a bit out of step with other satellite records). Satellite datasets measure temperatures higher in the atmosphere rather than surface temperatures, so small differences are not uncommon. Surface temperature datasets generally go back to the late 1800s, while satellite datasets begin in 1979.

(credit: NASA)

The biggest piece of context you need to understand these annual updates is the El Niño Southern Oscillation—a see-saw of Pacific Ocean temperatures that pushes the global average a little above or below the long-term trend each year. In an El Niño pattern, warm water from the western equatorial Pacific drifts toward South America. In a La Niña pattern, strong winds hold that warm water back, pulling up deep, cold water along South America. Years in which El Niño dominates tend to have a higher global average surface temperature, while La Niña years are a little cooler.

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[Category: Science, climate change, global temperature]

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[l] at 1/15/20 6:36am
Image of a rock with a feather fossil that preserves many fine branches.

Enlarge / One of the spectacular feather fossils that has been sitting in a museum's sample collection for decades. (credit: Melbourne Museum)

Researchers have described ten fossil feathers from the polar regions of the former continent Gondwana for the first time. The collection, documented in a recent paper in Gondwana Research, contains a highly diverse array of feathers collected from the 118 million-year-old Koonwarra Fossil Bed in Victoria, Australia.  

The paper describes what is potentially the earliest evidence of a flight feather, and the first-ever non-avian dinosaur feathers found within the Antarctic Circle. It also documents dark coloration and insulating branching structures on some of the feathers, providing valuable insight into how polar dinosaurs might have stayed warm during long, dark winters.  

The fossils were initially discovered in the 1960s, but most of the technologies and knowledge used to understand the feathers described in this study didn’t yet exist at that point. Since then, they were tucked away in a drawer in the Melbourne Museum for decades, until lead author Martin Kundrát happened across an old paper in 2012 that described one of the feathers.  

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[Category: Science, dinosaurs, feathers, fossils, paleontology]

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[l] at 1/15/20 5:30am
Giant airplane carrying smaller spacecraft.

Enlarge / Is this the year paying customers fly into space on VSS Unity and White Knight Two? (credit: GENE BLEVINS/AFP/Getty Images)

This year could see the fulfillment of a number of long-promised achievements in human spaceflight. For the first time, private companies could launch humans into orbit in 2020, and two different companies could send paying tourists on suborbital missions. The aerospace community has been watching and waiting for these milestones for years, but 2020 is probably the year for both.

We may also see a number of new rocket debuts this year, both big and small. A record number of missions—four—are also due to launch to Mars from four different space agencies. That's just the beginning of what promises to be an exciting year; here's a look at what we're most eagerly anticipating in the coming 11.5 months.

Commercial crew

Yes, it's happening. Probably. Both SpaceX and Boeing have made considerable progress toward launching humans to the International Space Station from Florida. They've also had setbacks. SpaceX's Crew Dragon performed a successful test back in March, but a month later the capsule exploded during a thruster test. Boeing completed an orbital uncrewed test flight in December, but it was hampered by a software issue and unable to perform the primary task of its flight, approaching and docking with the International Space Station.

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[Category: Features, Science]

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[l] at 1/14/20 4:03pm
Image of a seated person gesturing.

Enlarge (credit: Bloomberg/Getty Images)

When it comes to taking action on climate change, the world has entered a very strange place. Scientific results continue to indicate that the consensus on our role in driving climate change has every reason to be accepted. Several years of the predicted impacts of climate change—record-high temperatures, massive storms, and out-of-control wildfires—have left ever more of the public ignoring the few skeptics and denialists who persist. Aside from a handful of holdouts, governments have accepted that they need to do something about climate change.

Despite all that, we continue to do very little, and carbon emissions have continued to rise. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the financial markets. It's very clear that companies are assigning value to the rights to extract fossil fuel deposits, even though governments will almost certainly block some of them from being developed. And they continue to do so because governments and investors allow them to.

Divestment campaigns have started to change that, causing $12 trillion in assets to be pulled from businesses dependent upon fossil fuels. But the movement may have picked up some significant additional momentum this week as one of the largest investment firms, BlackRock, announced that it will be making sustainability, and climate change in particular, central to its strategies. Included in its announcement is that it would immediately begin pulling out of many coal investments and complete the change before the year is out.

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[Category: Science, Blackrock, business, climate change, investing]

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[l] at 1/14/20 9:56am
Cheerful pretty girl holding umbrella while strolling outside.

Enlarge (credit: YakobchukOlena)

A research team at Google has developed a deep neural network that can make fast, detailed rainfall forecasts.

The researchers say their results are a dramatic improvement over previous techniques in two key ways. One is speed. Google says that leading weather forecasting models today take one to three hours to run, making them useless if you want a weather forecast an hour in the future. By contrast, Google says its system can produce results in less than 10 minutes—including the time to collect data from sensors around the United States.

This fast turnaround time reflects one of the key advantages of neural networks. While such networks take a long time to train, it takes much less time and computing power to apply a neural network to new data.

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[Category: Science, CNNs, deep learning, google, machine learning, weather forecasts]

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[l] at 1/14/20 7:26am
The warm waters of the gulf stream as they pass the US East Coast.

Enlarge / The warm waters of the gulf stream as they pass the US East Coast. (credit: NASA)

While we track climate change as a gradual rise in temperatures, most of its effects are going to be anything but gradual: an increased risk of extreme temperatures and storms, extended droughts, expanded fire seasons, and so on. There's also the risk of pushing the climate past some tipping points, which can change the state of entire areas of the globe. But it can be difficult to understand the impact of tipping points, given that they're occurring against a backdrop of all those other climate changes.

For example, one of the major potential tipping points we're aware of is the shutdown of the North Atlantic's current system, which brings warm water north, moderating the climate of Europe. The loss of this warm water would obviously result in a cool down in Northern Europe. But calculations indicate that the shutdown isn't likely to take place until after the planet had warmed enough to offset this cooling.

But temperatures aren't the only thing affected by some of the tipping points we've looked at. And a new study manages to separate out the effect of shutting down the gulf stream from the general impact of a warming climate. And it finds that, for the UK, changes in precipitation may have a larger impact than changes in temperature.

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[Category: Science, agriculture, climate change, gulf stream]

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[l] at 1/14/20 7:07am
Anti-vaccine protesters outside the NJ State House.

Enlarge / Anti-vaccine protesters outside the NJ State House. (credit: Twitter | NJ.com politics)

Amid raucous protest from hundreds of anti-vaccination advocates, state lawmakers in New Jersey have abandoned legislation to ban vaccination exemptions based on religious beliefs.

The bill, S2173, collapsed in the state Senate Monday as lawmakers realized it was a single vote shy of passage, according to The New York Times. The defeat came after a last-ditch effort to amend the beleaguered legislation, which ultimately generated new opposition.

S2173 would have prohibited parents from using religious beliefs as an excuse to get out of providing standard, life-saving immunizations for their children. Instead, only children with medical conditions that preclude a child from being vaccinated—as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—would be granted an exemption.

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[Category: Science, anti-vax, CDC, immunization, Infectious disease, measles, outbreak, public health, religious vaccination exemptions, vaccine]

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[l] at 1/13/20 2:15pm
Closeup photograph of fish face.

Enlarge / Local Fish Surprised by Results of Experiment. (credit: Klaus Stiefel / Flickr)

In the academic equivalent of "shots fired," a newly published paper evaluates a number of prior studies on the effects of ocean acidification on fish—and finds it can't replicate any of the results.

A number of studies in recent years has conducted experiments on the behavior of coral fish in normal and high-CO2 water. (Increasing dissolved CO2—which is happening due to human-caused emissions—lowers the pH of seawater, hence the term "acidification.") These studies have found some surprising impacts, from a failure to recognize and avoid the smell of a predator to a loss of "handedness" (preferring left or right turns) during development. These behaviors have been linked to CO2 interfering with a specific receptor in the brain.

Individual variation

But a group of researchers found itself skeptical of these results and hatched a plan to replicate them in a standardized experimental setup. Over the course of several years, the researchers repeated some of these experiments with a variety of fish species, carefully documenting and filming each step to create an accessible database of results. And those results seem markedly different.

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[Category: Science, ocean acidification]

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[l] at 1/13/20 1:15pm
People in breathing masks stand on the pavement and take orders.

Enlarge / Security guards stand in front of the closed Huanan wholesale seafood market, where health authorities say a man who died from a respiratory illness had purchased goods from, in the city of Wuhan, Hubei province, on January 12, 2020. (credit: Getty | Noel Celis)

A never-before-seen virus that sparked an outbreak of viral pneumonia in the Chinese city of Wuhan has now killed one person and spread to Thailand via a sick traveler.

On Saturday, January 11, officials in Wuhan reported that a 61-year-old man died January 9. Testing indicated he was carrying the virus, which researchers have confirmed is a novel strain of coronavirus.

His is the first recorded death in the outbreak, which erupted last month in Wuhan and has been linked to a live-animal market there. Officials said that the man had been admitted to the hospital with respiratory failure and severe pneumonia. However, they also noted that he had other health issues, namely abdominal tumors and chronic liver disease.

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[Category: Science, china, coronavirus, outbreak, pneumonia, public health, WHO, wuhan]

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[l] at 1/13/20 11:52am
  • This is a gallery of stills from an animation of SpaceX's in-flight abort test. [credit: SpaceX ]

Over the weekend, SpaceX performed a static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket that will launch its Crew Dragon on a key test this coming Saturday. The company is aiming for the top of a four-hour launch window, which opens at 8am ET (13:00 UTC), to conduct its in-flight abort test.

During the test, the Falcon 9 will launch a Crew Dragon spacecraft. Then, at an altitude of about 21km, when the launch vehicle reaches a critical velocity, Dragon's SuperDraco thrusters will ignite for several seconds to pull the capsule away from the rocket—simulating escaping from a rocket emergency.

The test is a critical one. An accident with the SuperDraco system destroyed a Crew Dragon spacecraft test in April, and the company and NASA have since said they have identified the cause of the problem. Approximately 100 milliseconds prior to ignition of Crew Dragon's eight SuperDraco thrusters, a leaking component allowed about one cup of liquid oxidizer (nitrogen tetroxide, or NTO) into the wrong fuel tank plumbing. The company has implemented a fix. Saturday's flight will also showcase the newer parachute system that will bring Dragon safely back down to the ocean.

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[Category: Science]

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[l] at 1/12/20 1:35pm
Higher minimum wages linked to reduced suicide rate

Enlarge

In the US, suicide is a major public health issue, with double-digit percentages of the preventable deaths for adults under 45. And, disconcertingly, the rates have been rising over recent decades. But recognizing this as a source of preventable deaths is very different from actually figuring out how to prevent them.

One of the challenges is that a variety of factors feed into the depression and stress that are associated with suicide, so identifying which ones play the most significant roles, and figuring out how to address them, is a challenge. A number of studies, however, have indicated that financial stressors are a significant contributor. And a few recent studies have suggested a public policy that can reduce financial stress does seem to have an influence on suicide rates: the minimum wage.

Now, researchers from Emory University have followed those up with a comprehensive look at the correlations between suicide rate and minimum wage laws. They find that the correlation does hold up, but only among those with a high school education or less, and only during times of high unemployment.

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[Category: Policy, Science, Economics, epidemiology, minimum wage, public health, suicide]

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