You are here
Archaeologists are piecing together more details about how the Rapanui people once erected the formerly enigmatic stone statues, or moai. But one of the island’s lingering mysteries is how the Rapanui found enough water to sustain thousands of people on a small island. Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, has no permanent streams, and its three lakes are hard to reach and far from archaeological evidence of settlement. But when European colonists arrived in the late 1700s, thousands of people already lived on the island, and they had to be getting their drinking water somewhere.
According to geoscientist Tanya Brosnan of California State University, the Rapanui probably got at least some of their drinking water from places along the coast where fresh groundwater seeped out of the island’s bedrock and into the sea. The resulting mixture would have been brackish but safe to drink, and it could have sustained populations of thousands on an island with few other reliable sources of fresh water. That’s common knowledge among the modern Rapanui people, but it hasn’t been clear that pre-contact people got their water the same way.
“Our work was certainly not ‘discovering’ anything that people didn’t already know about. Rather, we worked to put together an overall picture of groundwater and its accessibility for past populations,” Binghamton University archaeologist Carl Lipo, a coauthor on the study, told Ars.
Climate models—computer simulations of Earth’s climate system—are crucial tools for scientists, given that it's impossible to run experiments on the entire planet. Access to these digital laboratories also gives people the option to occasionally play “mad scientist” and mess with the Earth a bit. One newly published study falls into that category, asking the question “What would happen if the Earth spun backward?” You can almost hear the maniacal laughter.Back flip
If you’ve ever learned about the atmosphere, you know that Earth’s rotation makes swirling weather like hurricanes possible through something called the Coriolis Effect. Simply put, fluids heading in a straight line on a spinning globe deflect off to the side—to the right in the Northern Hemisphere and to the left in the Southern Hemisphere. And if the Earth’s rotation reversed, fluids (including ocean currents) would deflect the other way.
It may sound like a trivial bit of pondering, but it’s actually a scientifically interesting question. A group led by Uwe Mikolajewicz of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology effectively set the planet spinning backward to find out just how many things would change when they let their model run for a few thousand years.
Today we’re presenting the second installment of my wide-ranging interview with outspoken author, podcaster, philosopher, and recovering neuroscientist Sam Harris. Part one ran yesterday. If you missed it, click right here. Otherwise, you can press play on the embedded audio player or pull up the transcript—both of which are below.
In today’s installment, we discuss some of the experiences that shaped Sam's perspectives and interests. His father was raised Quaker, and his mother was Jewish—but neither were at all religious, and Sam had a wholly secular upbringing. As a freshman at Stanford (where he and I happened to overlap as undergraduates), he recalls being irked by the special treatment he felt the Bible received in a required course on Western culture. However, he didn’t label himself an “atheist” at the time—although in retrospect, he essentially was one.
Everything changed when he tried the drug MDMA (which is more commonly known to its friends as "Molly" or "Ecstasy"). This wasn’t at a party or rave but part of a quiet exploration of the mind’s capabilities (more of a Timothy Leary experience than a Ken Kesey one, for those versed in the history of psychedelics).
Rocket Lab last launched its Electron vehicle nearly nine months ago, in January, from its New Zealand launch site. This was the vehicle's second flight and first successful orbital mission. Nine months is a long gulf between launches for a company that ultimately aspires to send rockets into space on a weekly basis.
However, Rocket Lab has not been idle for much of this year. Earlier this month, the company opened a second rocket development and production facility in Auckland, New Zealand. And on Wednesday, Rocket Lab announced the location of its second launch site, Wallops Island in Virginia, on the East Coast of the United States. It hopes to have the site operational about one year from now.
Each year, Nikon runs a microscopy competition honoring the best images of all things small. And, well, we're kind of suckers for it here at Ars. So when the company got in touch and offered us the chance to share a peek at this years' winners, how could we say no?
While most of you may know Nikon as a camera company, microscopy is a sibling of photography in many ways beyond the involvement of high-end lenses. While it might not matter for scientific purposes, a compelling microscope image depends on things like composition, lighting, exposure, and more. And these days, both fields rely heavily on post-processing. Many of the images you see above are the product of multiple exposures, each on a different focal plane, all stacked and flattened to provide a full three-dimensional view that's actually not possible from a microscope alone.
“Yesterday after I wrote to you, I had an attack of asthma,” Marcel Proust wrote to his mother in 1901. “[It] obliged me to walk all doubled up and light anti-asthma cigarettes at every tobacconist’s I passed.”
While that sounds a bit crazy by 2018 standards, Proust was far from alone: “Medicated cigarettes marketed for respiratory complaints continued to be endorsed, and smoked, by doctors until well after the Second World War,” writes medical historian Mark Jackson.
Of course, tobacco eventually joined the list of treacherous substances once thought to be healthy and subsequently discovered to be harmful, keeping excellent company alongside radium and mercury. It's enough to make people constantly wonder what else might make it onto the list of friends turned foe. Could coffee be next? Processed meat?
According to four people who spoke to Politico on conditions of anonymity, the Trump administration's plan to bail out coal and nuclear plants has hit a speed bump within the White House itself.
The most recent plan from the Department of Energy (DOE) involved invoking the Defense Production Act of 1950, a wartime rule that allows the president to incentivize and prioritize purchases from American industries that are considered vital to national security.
Another potential plan involved invoking Section 202(c) of the Federal Power Act to mandate that struggling coal and nuclear plants stay open either through compulsory purchases by grid managers or through subsidies. FirstEnergy, a power corporation whose coal and nuclear units are under Chapter 11 bankruptcy, petitioned the DOE to use this power in April.
We recently ran a little poll of our science readers to find out what they were looking for from our coverage. One of the things that was clear was that you wanted to know how things work—what's the technology that enables the latest science (and vice versa), and how does it operate?
These things can be a challenge to handle via text, since there are often a lot of moving parts, things that really require diagrams to explain, and so forth. In a lot of ways, this makes video a better tool for helping people visualize what's going on. Given that we've got access to people who make some fine videos, we decided to give it a try.
What you'll see above is our first go at explaining a pretty amazing bit of technology: the Large Hadron Collider. Nearly everything about the LHC—its detectors, the data filtering, the clusters that store, share, and analyze the data—is pretty astonishing. But at the heart of it all, the key to enabling everything, is the fact that we have a way to accelerate objects so that they are moving so close to the speed of light that the difference is a rounding error. How do we do that? Hopefully, after watching the video, you'll come away with a pretty good idea.
This week we are serializing yet another episode from the After On Podcast here on Ars. The broader series is built around deep-dive interviews with world-class thinkers, founders, and scientists, and tends to be very tech- and science-heavy. You can access the excerpts on Ars via an embedded audio player, or by reading accompanying transcripts (both of which are below).
This week my guest is Sam Harris: a neuroscientist turned bestselling author turned podcasting colossus. We’ll be running the episode in four installments, starting today. Harris has described his job as “thinking in public.” In doing this, he has never been one to shrink from controversy. He irked many by revealing himself as a committed atheist in his first book, 2004’s End of Faith. He’s spent much of the time since then articulating a genuinely heterodox set of political and other beliefs.
The uniqueness of Harris’ perspective is evidenced by his ability to trigger comparable gusts of outrage from both the left and the right (generally from the extremes of each camp). The many fans and supporters he has won likewise hail from throughout the political spectrum. I’ll add that a lot of Sam’s fascinations and domains of expertise are apolitical. These include meditation and the nature of consciousness, as well as both philosophy and neuroscience writ large.
The climate crises humanity is producing due to our profligate burning of fossil fuels is happening in the face of mounting evidence that said burning was very, very bad for the Earth. Some of the problems are now officially going to come even sooner than anticipated. If we want to have a hope of even mitigating these problems, we must change our habits, preferably yesterday.
While burning fossil fuels is a huge part of the problem, food production is also a primary driver of climate change. It is responsible for about 25 to 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Beyond that it also depletes groundwater, converts carbon-sequestering forest and jungle into cropland, and dumps excess nitrogen and phosphorous into soil, water, and air. Under business-as-usual scenarios, these effects will probably at least double by 2050 since the global population is slated to increase by about a third, and the income of the global population is also slated to increase—all of those new and newly rich(er) people are likely going to want to eat and eat well.
At that point, the environmental effects of food production will be “beyond the planetary boundaries that define a safe operating space for humanity.”
There's nothing quite like putting your feet up after a long, hot summer day and enjoying a refreshing cold brew if you're a beer lover. But a warming climate could give rise to global barley shortages, with a resulting shortage of beer. That's the conclusion of a new study just published in Nature Plants.
Beer brewers account for roughly 17 percent of the barley consumption worldwide, although it varies from region to region, with the vast majority of crops harvested as feed for livestock. If barley becomes too scarce, more of it will be funneled to livestock, since beer is technically a luxury good. The shortage of barley will give rise to steep price hikes and corresponding decreases in global consumption. While the most affluent beer lovers will still be able to indulge in a pint or two, "Future climate and pricing conditions could put beer out of reach for hundreds of millions of people around the world," says study co-author Steven Davis of the University of California, Irvine.
Davis himself is a beer aficionado and home brewer, who frequently travels to China for research collaborations. During one such trip a couple of years ago, he spoke with a scientist at the Chinese Agricultural Academy of Sciences, who was studying the global supply of beer. (China is currently the largest consumer of beer and thus would be hit hard by a severe barley shortage.) They decided to collaborate on a study investigating the impact of climate change on beer, partnering with other researchers in the United Kingdom and Mexico.
A couple of years ago, I received a review copy of a book titled Sekret Machines: Gods, which was billed as an "investigation of the UFO phenomenon." The lead author was Tom DeLonge, a founder of the rock band Blink 182, and its former, long-time lead singer.
I'd been a fan of the irreverent band in my younger days, and my now-wife and I had attended a few concerts and enjoyed ourselves. It was difficult for me to imagine that the former lead singer of a band with an album titled Take Off Your Pants and Jacket had engaged in any kind of serious scholarship or research. Queen guitarist Brian May, however, went on to earn a PhD in astrophysics, so you never know.
I made it about half way through the book before I gave up. The authors, DeLonge and Peter Levenda, spent most of the pages I slogged through cherry-picking ancient cultures and religion to find curious or unexplained things. Then, they attribute these experiences to mysterious alien influences.
In 1999, an English solicitor named Sally Clark went on trial for the murder of her two infant sons. She claimed both succumbed to sudden infant death syndrome. An expert witness for the prosecution, Sir Roy Meadow, argued that the odds of SIDS claiming two children from such an affluent family were 1 in 73 million, likening it to the odds of backing an 80-1 horse in the Grand National four years in a row and winning every time. The jury convicted Clark to life in prison.
But the Royal Statistical Society issued a statement after the verdict insisting that Meadow had erred in his calculation and that there was "no statistical basis" for his stated figure. Clark's conviction was overturned on appeal in January 2003, and the case has become a canonical example of the consequences of flawed statistical reasoning.
A new study in Frontiers in Psychology examined why people struggle so much to solve statistical problems, particularly why we show a marked preference for complicated solutions over simpler, more intuitive ones. Chalk it up to our resistance to change. The study concluded that fixed mindsets are to blame: we tend to stick with the familiar methods we learned in school, blinding us to the existence of a simpler solution.
Archaeologists have discovered the skeleton of a 10-year-old child at an ancient Roman site in Italy with a rock carefully placed in its mouth. This suggests those who buried the child—who probably died of malaria during a deadly fifth century outbreak—feared it might rise from the dead and spread the disease to those who survived. Locals are calling it the "Vampire of Lugnano."
"This is a very unusual mortuary treatment that you see in various forms in different cultures, especially in the Roman world," says Jordan Wilson, a graduate student in bio-archaeology at the University of Arizona who studied the remains. He added that this could "indicate a fear that this person might come back from the dead and try to spread disease to the living."
Pretty much every culture on Earth has some version of a vampire (or proto-vampire) myth. Chinese folklore has the k'uei, which are reanimated corpses that rise from the grave to prey on the living; one type has sharp fangs, the better to bite into the neck of said prey. Russian, Albanian, Indian, and Greek folklore have similar undead monsters. Russian villagers in the Middle Ages often drove stakes into the bodies of suspected vampires upon burial to keep them from rising again.
Health officials in Michigan this week honored Dr. Eden Wells with the state’s top award for an eminent career in public health—despite that Wells is currently facing several charges in connection with the Flint water crisis, including involuntary manslaughter.
On Wednesday, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) announced that Wells was awarded the Roy R. Manty Distinguished Service Award from the Michigan Association for Local Public Health (MALPH) and the Michigan Public Health Association (MPHA).
The award is described by the two associations as the “highest individual award given by the local public health community.”
The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court last week raised fears of a hyper-partisan SCOTUS and loss of public trust in the institution—particularly in light of Kavanaugh's highly emotional and partisan testimony during the Senate hearing on the sexual assault allegations against him. But a new study offers a glimmer of hope, concluding that in the long run, there is more consensus than partisan difference in SCOTUS decisions.
It's the first quantitative model to capture detailed correlations in voting patterns of the SCOTUS justices across time. Cornell University graduate student Eddie Lee created a hypothetical "Super Court" to study the voting patterns of Supreme Court justices serving from 1946 through 2016. Neither Kavanaugh nor the other recently confirmed justice, Neil Gorsuch, is included in the analysis, which was recently published in the Journal of Statistical Physics. It builds on Lee's 2015 study examining the voting patterns of the second Rehnquist court (1994-2005), which found justices were far more prone to unanimity in their decisions despite their ideological differences.
It might seem strange to create such a Super Court scenario, but Lee argues that it makes sense to do so, given how much different justices overlap with each other because of their lifelong tenure. So even if Justice A never actually voted with Justice C, both likely served at the same time (and thus voted with) Justice B. This makes it possible to infer from that when Justices A and C might have voted together.
Below, you’ll find the third installment of this week’s After On podcast interview. It’s with University of California, San Francisco neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley, about his trailblazing efforts to develop the medical potential (if any!) latent in video games. Check out part one and part two if you missed them. Otherwise, press play on the embedded player, or pull up the transcript—both of which are below.
The main topic today is consciousness. Adam has his own rather eclectic take on this mysterious force and presence. His perspective actually inspired several elements my most recent novel (which like my podcast is called After On). Adam and I discuss his views, and how they infiltrated my writing.
The final chunk of the podcast is a conversation between me and podcasting superstar Tom Merritt. In it, Tom and I discuss my interview with Adam—as well as a chunk of the novel After On. You may want to skip this closing portion.
The US Food and Drug Administration made clear on Thursday, October 11, that it has a major bone to pick with an electronic-cigarette vendor that illegally pumped prescription erectile dysfunction drugs into unapproved e-liquid products intended for vaping.
The cocky company, HelloCig Electronic Technology Co. Ltd, even advertised the vape liquids with labels and images using drug brand names. For instance, it sold one of the vaping liquids as “E-Cialis HelloCig E-Liquid” alongside an image of a bottle and tablets of Eli Lilly’s erectile dysfunction drug Cialis. It also sold a product with the brand of an anti-obesity drug that had been pulled from the market in Europe for causing psychiatric disorders. The e-liquid really contained the erectile dysfunction drug in Viagra, the FDA found.
In other instances, the company falsely claimed that e-liquid products were “FDA approved product[s] with FDA.”
First Man movie
First things first: If you're interested in space, don't hesitate before seeing the new movie about Neil Armstrong's life, First Man. I'm passionate about space history, NASA, commercial space, and the whole enterprise of trying to push things and people off this planet and deeper into space. And I absolutely loved this movie. It opens Friday across the United States.
This is a movie of two parts. The first storyline pertains to Armstrong and his family life, his relationship with his wife Janet, a daughter named Karen who died young, and his two boys, Rick and Mark. This part of the film is often a bit melancholy, as Armstrong struggles with Karen's death and how to communicate the risks of his profession with his family. The humanity of these scenes will appeal to some, but not others seeking a purely action movie. I found the scenes between Ryan Gosling, who does a fine job as Armstrong, and Claire Foy as his wife, to be compelling.
Welcome to Edition 1.21 of the Rocket Report! This week, one space tourism company says it is coming to space "within weeks" while another company says it won't fly humans there until early 2019. Meanwhile, there's no shortage of big rocket news, including a report critical of Boeing's management of the Space Launch System rocket.
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 delays first New Shepard flights. The space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos is now planning to send its first crew on a suborbital space trip during the first half of 2019, GeekWire reports. Blue Origin's plan calls for its own employees to get aboard for the first crewed flights. The company already has former space shuttle astronauts on its payroll, including Nicholas Patrick and Jeff Ashby. When the publication asked Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith whether the first crew has been selected, he replied, "I'm not going to comment on that."