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Project Loon team gave Puerto Rico connectivity—and assembled a helicopter

1 hour 39 min ago

AUSTIN, Texas—"So this happened—this is September 2017," Juan Ramírez Lugo, president of the AAAS Caribbean division, tells the audience at the 2018 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Conference. The slide that soon greets the room depicts an almost surreal reality: the available power (or lack thereof) on the island of Puerto Rico in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

"The island went dark; the Virgin Islands basically disappeared off the map. This blew my mind to not have my cell phone in this day and age," Ramírez Lugo continues. "The routine eventually became get up in the morning, then try to check the news and to see how much service has returned to normal."

Ramírez Lugo cited estimates that the cost of Hurricane Maria's damage will total 34.1 percent of Puerto Rico's GDP, so calling the storm devastating almost seems like an understatement. The routine Ramírez Lugo shared highlighted another crucial (re)building block for disaster recovery, one that's now joined general infrastructure and health needs: connectivity. With the vast amount of electrical grid and ground towers damaged, FEMA estimates put cell service availability at a mere 60 percent an entire month after the storm.

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Categories: News

Docu-comedy Poop Talk flushes stigma with full hour of well-formed humor

2 hours 40 min ago

 Poop Talk, loaded with renowned comedians. (credit: Copyright 2017 Comedy Dynamics and Party of Seven Entertainment)

For some, a 75-minute film of famous and talented comedians letting rip a steady stream of explicit jokes and messy misadventures involving fecal matter is an easy sell. Sign me up. For others, some pushing and straining may be needed to get them to plop down and watch.

Those hesitant viewers are just the ones the film’s creators are hoping to bag.

With the funny and sometimes cringe-inducing docu-comedy Poop Talk, comedians try—and do—use humor and tales of their deeply personal bodily functions to squeeze out the humanity of it all. The ultimate goal, its creators told Ars, is to flush the stigma associated with the stinky act—not to mention a whole host of gastrointestinal disorders.

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New studies zero in on roots of depression and why ketamine reverses it

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 09:45

Enlarge (credit: Wikimedia)

While we have a number of treatments available for clinical depression, many of them have a significant side effects, and a lot of people struggle to find a drug that they respond to. The situation is made worse by our limited understanding of the biology underlying depression. We don't know how to create targeted drugs, so most of the available treatments are blunt instruments that can take weeks to months before having an effect.

In that light, it came as a bit of a shock when we discovered a drug we'd been using recreationally and for anesthesia could lift the symptoms of depression in less than 24 hours. Unfortunately, the drug in question, ketamine, also has a collection of unpleasant side-effects, and we had no idea how it was working.

But there's been significant progress in unravelling the confusion over ketamine, with researchers identifying a ketamine derivative that tackles depression with far fewer side effects. And this week, a team of researchers at China's Zhejiang University announced that they've figured out where in the brain ketamine acts when it blocks depression, a finding that gives us significant insights into the biology of the disorder.

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A solar panel on every roof in the US? Here are the numbers

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 12:17

Enlarge (credit: Jon Callas)

When you’re scoping out possible futures, it’s useful to ask a lot of “what if?” questions. For example, what if we could install solar panels on every suitable roof in the United States? How much electricity would they generate?

Plenty of research has followed this line of thought, though much of it has necessarily focused on working out the details for individual cities or regions. But now with enough of these studies in the bank, a group of researchers from the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory decided to take another whack at a national estimate.

There are a lot of things you need to know to do this: number of buildings, size of roofs, direction the roofs are facing, strength of sunlight, number of sunny days, and so on. So first off, the researchers take advantage of a Department of Homeland Security program laser-mapping buildings, which now covers almost a quarter of buildings in the US. From this, you can get roof area, roof tilt, roof direction, and whether the roof is shaded by trees. Roofs were tossed out if they were too small, too steep, north-facing, or otherwise would lose more than 20 percent of their possible solar output, but most roofs were suitable.

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Oxygen ions may be an easy-to-track sign of life on exoplanets

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 10:23

Enlarge (credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser)

The search for extraterrestrial life is fairly synonymous with the search for life as we know it. We're just not that imaginative—when looking for other planets that could host life, we don’t know what to look for, exactly, if not Earth-like conditions. Everything we know about life comes from life on Earth.

But conditions that clearly favor life here—liquid water, surface oxygen, ozone in the stratosphere, possibly a magnetic field—may not necessarily be prerequisites for its development elsewhere. Conversely, their presence does not guarantee life, either. So what can we look for that's an indication of life?

Skip the dwarfs

Most (about seventy percent) of the stars in our Galaxy are M dwarf stars, and many of them have associated planets. The search for signs of life has largely focused on these planets, primarily because there are so many of them. However, the environments do not seem to be especially welcoming. Because M dwarf stars are dim, the hospitable zones around them are very close to the star. As a result, the planets get stuck in a gravitational lock: their orbital period and their rotational period are the same. This means that (just like our moon) these planets always have the same hemisphere facing their sun.

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As satellite threat looms, Air Force moves to buy small rocket services

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 09:35

Enlarge / A dedicated 747-400 aircraft will carry Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne to an altitude of approximately 35,000 feet before release for its rocket-powered flight to orbit. (credit: Virgin Orbit)

The U.S. military apparently wants to get into the business of launching smaller satellites on smaller rockets. In the administration's proposed budget for fiscal year 2019, the Air Force budget contains a new "Rocket Systems Launch Program" item for the purpose of buying "small launch services" for the timely delivery of smaller payloads into low-Earth and geostationary transfer orbit.

The new program, which must be approved by Congress, provides $47.6 million in fiscal year 2019 and a total of $192.5 million over the next five years. It deals with the delivery into space of payloads weighing up to 8,000 pounds (about 3,600kg)—considerably less than the capability of an Atlas V or Falcon 9 rocket. This program comes just as several new US-based companies, including Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, Vector, Stratolaunch Systems, and more have developed, or are in the midst of developing, small satellite launch boosters.

“Like the commercial and entrepreneurial communities, the government needs small satellites and dedicated small launch vehicles to provide affordable, responsive space capabilities," Dan Hart, the chief executive of Virgin Orbit, told Ars. "This request is another important signal that the government is taking proactive steps to assure they can rapidly reconstitute and replenish critical space capabilities, which is something that the new generation of affordable, commercially developed launch vehicles are perfectly positioned to do. We are strongly supportive of this request.”

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Drug maker hikes price of 2-in-1 painkiller >2,000%—$36 drugs now $3,000

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 17:21

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Mario Tama)

Irish drug company Horizon Pharma has hiked the price of a two-in-one painkiller by more than 2,000 percent in the past five years, according to a report in Financial Times

A 60-pill bottle of the drug combo, Vimovo, cost $138 in 2013 when AstraZeneca sold it to Horizon. The bottle now costs $2,979 after Horizon raised the price on 11 occasions.

Vimovo is a combination of the common painkiller naproxen and esomeprazole. Naproxen is the active ingredient in Bayer’s over-the-counter painkiller Aleve. A side effect of naproxen is gastrointestinal issues, including stomach pain and heartburns. As such, Vimovo combines it with esomeprazole, a proton-pump inhibitor that treats heartburn. Esomeprazole is sold over the counter by AstraZeneca as Nexium.

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DNA from the poop of extinct four-meter-tall birds reveals lost ecosystem

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 16:15

Enlarge (credit: York Museums Trust staff)

A thousand years ago, gigantic 12-foot-tall flightless birds roamed New Zealand, snacking peacefully on plants and fungi. Then humans came along. Within two hundred years, the giant moa—along with a host of their close cousins—were dead at our species’ hands.

What did the world of the moa look like? Even though New Zealand has lots of well-preserved wilderness, studying that won't give us an answer. When a species disappears, it takes a chunk of its ecosystem with it, so understanding the ramifications of the moa extinction can help us better understand the environment that many surviving species—some of them critically endangered—evolved in.

Some important answers lie in something the moa left behind: ancient bird poop. It tells us that the moa were probably instrumental in spreading the fungi that play a critical role in New Zealand’s forests.

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Categories: News

Imaging at 1,000fps with a single pixel

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 13:20

Enlarge / No, not those ghosts. (credit: Eli Christman)

For the longest time, imaging was probably the most boring subject imaginable. Unless you were excited about comparing various mass-produced, brand-name lenses, there wasn't much to talk about. That changed briefly with the invention of the laser, but the actual imaging technology was still... yeah, boring.

In the last decade or so, though, things really have changed, in part because of new ways of thinking about what an image actually is. Among the many fascinating variations on traditional imaging is something called ghost imaging. The idea of ghost imaging was to use the quantum nature of light to image an object by detecting photons that had never actually encountered the object. This is a mind-blowing idea that has now been developed to the point where it might actually be practical in some circumstances—especially when you can acquire about 1,000 ghost images per second.

Am I seeing ghosts, or using ghosts to see?

The original idea behind ghost imaging made use of something called quantum entanglement. Imagine that I have a single photon that I slice into two photons. Because the Universe doesn't create or destroy things like energy, momentum, or angular momentum, the energy contained in the two photons has to sum to the value of the energy contained by the first photon.

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“Injury to widespread brain networks” in victims of mystery attacks in Cuba

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 11:36

Enlarge / A general view of Embassy of the United State of America in Cuba, Havana on September 18, 2017. (credit: Getty | Anadolu Agency)

A preliminary case report on the victims of mysterious “health attacks” in Havana, Cuba details the results of extensive clinical evaluations, concluding that the individuals appear to have sustained “injury to widespread brain networks without an associated history of head trauma.”

The report offers the first medical glimpse of the victims—US government personnel and their families who were serving on diplomatic assignment in Havana. From late 2016 to August 2017, they reported experiencing bizarre and inexplicable sonic and sensory episodes. The episodes tended to include directional, irritating sounds, such as buzzing and piercing squeals, as well as pressure and vibrations. Afterward, the victims developed a constellation of neurological symptoms.

In clinical evaluations of 21 of 24 individuals affected, an interdisciplinary team of doctors at University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine retrospectively pieced together symptoms—an average of 203 days after individuals were exposed. They found that the most common issues persisting more than three months after exposure were cognitive impairment (17/21); balance issues (15/21); visual (18/21) and hearing (15/21) problems; sleep impairment (18/21); and headaches (16/21).

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As we age, cancer rates go up as immune system winds down

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 11:22

Enlarge / T cells are central to the immune system's response to cancer. (credit: NIAID)

The dominant idea about how cancer gets started is called the "two-hit hypothesis." First proposed by Alfred Knudson in 1971, it holds that a cancer starts when one cell gets a mutation in both of its copies of a gene that normally blocks cancer formation (two hits). These two mutations disable the tumor-suppressing function in that cell, which then becomes cancerous. Eventually, the idea was expanded to include two hits not necessarily in the same gene but, rather, in genes controlling the same tumor-suppressing pathway.

But a new idea is challenging the two-hit hypothesis, shifting the focus to the role of the immune system in suppressing cancers. It's an idea that could have big implications for treatments.

Taking a hit

Getting two hits in one cell was considered to be a random and unlucky event. Since mutations occur each time a cell divides, the more times each cell divides, the greater the chances that it would happen. This was why, it was thought, cancer incidence increases with age; the longer a cell has been around, and the more times it has divided, the more opportunities it has had to accrue the two requisite mutations in the same tumor-suppressor pathway.

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Audit reveals Office of Fossil Energy approved millions for lobbying, spas

Wed, 02/14/2018 - 18:06

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images)

The internal watchdog at the Department of Energy released an audit report (PDF) this month detailing profligate spending, approved by the Office of Fossil Energy, on a clean coal initiative that was supposed to result in a 400MW carbon capture-enable plant.

The Office of Fossil Energy had partnered with a private company called Summit Texas Clean Energy LLC (owned by the Seattle-based Summit Power) to complete the project. Fossil Energy committed to funding $450 million of the $1.8 billion project, which would have been built outside of Odessa, Texas. Summit claimed that its plant would have captured 90 percent of the carbon it created.

Instead, Fossil Energy broke off the partnership in June 2016 when the same DOE internal watchdog (known formally as the Office of the Inspector General, or OIG) issued a report pointing out significant project delays and the inability of Summit to secure enough additional private funding to complete the project. In October 2017, Summit Texas Clean Energy declared bankruptcy.

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More nightmare fuel: Bedbugs create cesspool of poop and histamine in your bed

Wed, 02/14/2018 - 15:56

Enlarge (credit: DeVries et al.)

It’s official: pooping the bed is not the worst thing you can do. Letting bedbugs do it is worse.

As the creepy critters bite you while you slumber, they also squeeze out poops loaded with histamine, a chemical that our own bodies push out during an inflammatory response to allergens. Histamine can trigger itchiness, watery eyes, sneezing, trouble breathing, headaches, and asthma attacks, among other problems. Homes with bedbug infestations can become histamine Dutch ovens, according to a new study led by entomologists and health experts at North Carolina State University. The researchers found that histamine levels in infested homes were at least 20-times higher than levels in bed-bug free homes.

And that’s not all. Researchers writing in PLOS ONE also found that those histamine levels linger. In infested homes that were heat treated—which involves circulating hot air (~50 ̊C) into a home to wipe out the bugs—histamine levels remained high for months afterward.

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In wars with termites, ants rescue and care for their wounded

Wed, 02/14/2018 - 12:41

Enlarge / This won't hurt a bit. (credit: Erik T. Frank)

Deadly battles play out several times a day in the Ivory Coast’s Comoé National Park, leaving wounded behind. The fights break out when hundreds of African Matabele ants march off to raid a nearby termite mound to slaughter termite workers and haul them back to the nest to feed the colony. But termites, with their strong, sharp mandibles, aren’t easy prey, and raiders often get limbs bitten off in the fight.

In the aftermath of a raid, researchers are finding evidence that the ants care for their wounded. The wounded ants secrete a pheromone that calls other returning raiders to carry their injured comrades home. Back at the nest, healthy nest-mates clean the injured ants’ wounds. And the behavior of injured ants even creates a triage system so that only the ants that might actually be saved get rescued.

“It’s only a flesh wound!”

Ants that are only missing a leg or two can generally make the 50-meter trek back to the nest, but their injuries make them more vulnerable to predators, so about a third of injured ants who try to walk home won’t make it. So when nest-mates are nearby, injured ants slow down and even develop a sudden tendency to fall over.

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The Falcon Heavy is an absurdly low-cost heavy lift rocket

Wed, 02/14/2018 - 08:51

Twenty-seven engines on the Falcon Heavy rocket, all burning their happy little flames. (credit: SpaceX)

One may criticize the Falcon Heavy rocket for having a short launch manifest, as it has only two confirmed flights in the next year or so. There just aren't that many commercial customers right now for the heavier-lift rocket when a cheaper Falcon 9 or another medium-lift class of booster will suffice. But when one considers the more extreme cases—such as big Department of Defense missions to geostationary orbit or potential human exploration plans—the Falcon Heavy shines.

Now that SpaceX's new rocket is finally flying, we can directly compare costs between this new booster and an existing rocket in its class, the Delta IV Heavy, as well as NASA's upcoming heavy lift booster, the Space Launch System. And upon direct comparison, the cost disparities are sobering, proving that commercial development of large rockets likely represents the future of the industry.

Delta IV Heavy

The Falcon Heavy rocket, with reusable side boosters, costs $90 million. For a fully expendable variant of the rocket, which can lift a theoretical maximum of 64 tons to low-Earth orbit, the price is $150 million. While it is not certified yet, SpaceX says its rocket can hit all Department of Defense reference orbits; however big and gnarly the military wants to build its satellites, and whatever crazy orbit it wants to put them into, the Falcon Heavy can do it.

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Op-ed: The story behind the satellite that Trump wants dead

Tue, 02/13/2018 - 15:35

Enlarge (credit: NASA)

There were plenty of striking things about Monday's budget news, given that it contained lots of draconian cuts that were simultaneously restored because Congress had boosted spending the week before. But perhaps the most striking among them was an item in the proposed budget for NASA: Trump wants to block the follow on to a highly successful NASA mission.

To truly appreciate just how awful this is, you have to understand the history of that satellite and what it means to the scientific community as a whole. So let's step back and take a look at why the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (or OCO) exists in the first place. It turns out it was built specifically to handle some outstanding questions of the sort that people in the administration say are important, and killing its successor would mean the existing mission never lives up to its full potential.

Real uncertainty

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory's primary job is to see what's happening to the carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere. You may think that's a solved issue: we're emitting a lot, and levels are going up. And that's true to a point. But once you pass that point, you enter a world where there are lots of details, and many of them matter.

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Woman pulls wiggling cattle worms from her eyeball—makes medical history

Tue, 02/13/2018 - 14:23

Enlarge / Gross. (credit: Getty | Tim Graham)

A 26-year-old Oregon woman has received the undesirable title of the first human to have tiny parasitic worms previously only ever seen in cattle squirming around in her eyeball.

Infectious disease experts reported that the woman had a total of 14 of the wriggling parasites pulled from her left eyeball after she experienced eye irritation. This happened in August 2016, although the experts only published on Monday, February 12. The woman pulled most of the worms out herself over a 20-day period, despite visiting several doctors. The translucent worms were less than a half-inch long. Since then, she’s made a full recovery, with no more irritation or any evidence of additional worms.

Several of the parasites pulled from her peepers were sent to experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Parasitic Diseases Reference Laboratory. There, the worms were identified as Thelazia gulosa, a type of tiny worm that’s known to infect the eyeballs of cattle in the US and Southern Canada, as well as Europe, Central Asia, and Australia—but never seen in humans before. They report the find in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

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Yes, sea level rise really is accelerating

Tue, 02/13/2018 - 12:37

Enlarge / A family of sea-level-measuring satellites. (credit: NASA)

Some people have eyeballed satellite measurements of sea level rise and claimed that there is no sign of acceleration—just a linear increase. Then, ignoring the physics of melting glacial ice and the expansion of warming water, they declare that future sea level rise won’t be a big deal. Many studies have demonstrated accelerating rates of sea level rise over the past millennia, as well as the tide gauge record spanning the 20th century. But the short satellite record—which only started in 1993—is a slightly different question.

While the global satellite record is in many ways cleaner than coastal measurements that can be affected by processes that raise or lower the ground that the tide gauge sits on, there are still complications to account for. Since the record is still short, a small wiggle of natural variability can have a significant impact on seeing the subtle acceleration. The back and forth between El Niño and La Niña, for example, causes sea level to vary from year to year by changing the amount of precipitation that temporarily shifts water onto continents.

Accounting for all of this is complicated, but that hasn't stopped researchers from trying.

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West sent lizards as nuclear spies, claims Iran defense official

Tue, 02/13/2018 - 11:20

Enlarge / A senior military advisor to Iran's supreme leader claims reptiles can be used for nuclear espionage because they "attract atomic waves." (credit: Dorit Hockman)

The senior military advisor to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claimed in a press conference in Tehran today that Western nations had deployed reptiles as nuclear spies. Agence France-Presse reports that Hassan Firuzabadi, previously chief of staff of Iran's military, justified the recent arrest of environmentalists by claiming that the West had used scientists and environmental activists to spy on Iran's nuclear program by deploying lizards that could "attract atomic waves."

There has been a recent wave of arrests of prominent Iranian environmentalists. Kavous Seyed Emami, a sociology professor and environmental activist who also held Canadian citizenship, was arrested last month and died in prison this past weekend—reportedly hanging himself while held in solitary confinement. Emami was the founder of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, a group dedicated to protection of Iran's endangered species.

A number of other activists associated with the Foundation were also arrested in the sweep last month, including Iranian-American businessman Morad Tahabaz—a board member—and Hooman Jokar, a vice-chairman of the Foundation and head of the Asiatic Cheetah desk at Iran's Department of the Environment. Kaveh Madani was also arrested and briefly held over the weekend.

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The Greatest Leap, part 6: After Apollo, NASA still searching for an encore

Tue, 02/13/2018 - 07:45

Video shot by Joshua Ballinger, edited and produced by Jing Niu and David Minick. Click here for transcript. (video link)

Apollo: The Greatest Leap View more stories

And then it was all over.

After the drama of Apollo 13, the final four human missions to the Moon in 1971 and 1972 flew smoothly. With each successive, increasingly routine landing, astronauts made longer forays out onto the dusty lunar terrain and delved deeper into the scientific secrets hidden there.

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