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Russia is down to a single female cosmonaut, and she may never fly

Fri, 08/17/2018 - 16:38

Enlarge / Russia's newest class of cosmonauts is all male. (credit: Roscosmos)

The Russian space program gets a lot of credit for flying the first woman in space. In fact, the Soviet Union flew the first two women: Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. NASA waited until the space shuttle era before selecting female astronauts, and Sally Ride did not become the first American woman in space until 1983.

However, since Ride broke the US space gender barrier 35 years ago, 50 other American women have flown into space. By contrast, just two other women from Russia have flown into space since then, Yelena Kondakova (1994 and 1997) and Yelena Serova (2014). Two women from China, Japan, and Canada have also flown into space, as well as one woman each from the countries France, India, Italy, South Korea, and the United Kingdom.

Widening gap

This disparity seems likely to only widen in the future. Of NASA's last two astronaut classes, in 2013 and 2017, nine of the 20 chosen candidates were women. Of Russia's last two classes in 2012 and 2018, just a single woman, Anna Kikina, was picked. Selected in 2012, Kikina was subsequently expelled from the cosmonaut corps in 2014 for unspecified reasons. After a public outcry, Kikina was reinstated, but it is not clear whether she will ever fly.

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Categories: News

African palm oil expansion is bad news for the continent’s primates

Fri, 08/17/2018 - 12:18

Enlarge / The palm nuts satiating the world's hunger for vegetable oil and fueling habitat loss. (credit: flickr user: Carsten ten Brink)

Palm oil is ubiquitous and is set to become more so over the next few decades. The oil is used in food, cleaning, and beauty products and as biofuel, so demand is set to grow rapidly. With this skyrocketing demand comes a need for the land on which to grow more oil palms—and a threat to the ecosystems currently using that land.

Currently, Southeast Asia is the oil palm hotspot, and the deforestation and ensuing damage in the region have been well publicized. But much of the future expansion may happen in Africa, introducing the likelihood of new conservation problems. A paper published in this week’s PNAS argues that there's a huge overlap between the land where oil palms could be grown and the land that houses the continent’s primates. “Large-scale expansion of oil palm cultivation in Africa will have unavoidable, negative effects on primates,” write Giovanni Strona and his colleagues.

Growth in demand, loss in habitat

The tree that provides us with palm oil (which is pressed from its fruit) is a tropical species. Currently, palm oil agriculture uses approximately 20 million hectares. One million hectares (or 10,000 km2) is about half the area of New Jersey; 20 million is about the area of Nebraska. Most of these plantations are in Indonesia and Malaysia.

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Categories: News

Reveal metal objects with Wi-Fi; overexcited engineers think security

Fri, 08/17/2018 - 10:34

Enlarge / Even in 2018, there's still a wooden sign proudly advertising "Free Wi-Fi." (credit: Cyrus Farivar)

One of the least fun jobs when writing a scientific paper is coming up with a motivation. It should be easy and fun: look at this awesomely cool thing we did—aren’t the results interesting? Instead, we typically have to claim to reveal the secrets of the Universe, cure cancer, or protect the public. Preferably all three at the same time.

A recent paper (PDF) on using Wi-Fi as an environmental sensor has some really exciting results. But my heart shrunk three sizes after reading the following: “Traditional baggage check involves either high manpower for manual examinations or expensive and specialized instruments, such as X-ray and CT. As such, many public places (i.e., museums and schools) that lack of strict security check are exposed to high risk.”

As I said, the research is totally cool. It's just not likely to ever help with security unless molesting people with hip replacements is your version of improved security.

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Categories: News

Years after Mylan’s epic EpiPen price hikes, it finally gets a generic rival

Fri, 08/17/2018 - 10:05

Enlarge / EpiPen two-pack. (credit: Getty | Joe Raedle)

Mylan’s life-saving epinephrine auto-injector EpiPen now has a generic rival, the Food and Drug Administration triumphantly announced.

Teva Pharmaceuticals USA now has FDA approval to market a direct generic competitor of the device, as well as a version for pediatric patients, a generic EpiPen Jr. Both products are used in emergency situations to auto-inject a dose of epinephrine into a person’s thigh to thwart deadly allergic reactions, namely anaphylactic shock.

The approval comes years after Mylan outraged patients and lawmakers by ruthlessly hiking the price of its product by more than 400 percent. Mylan purchased the rights to EpiPen in 2007 and gradually raised the list price from about $50 per auto-injector to slightly over $600 for a two-pack. The move boosted EpiPen profits to $1.1 billion a year. In step, Mylan CEO Heather Bresch saw her salary soar by millions, reaching nearly $19 million in 2015—a point lawmakers hammered her for during a House Oversight committee hearing in September of 2016.

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Categories: News

Rocket Report: China aims for the Moon, SpaceX gets approval for load-and-go

Fri, 08/17/2018 - 07:00

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson/SpaceX)

Welcome to Edition 1.13 of the Rocket Report! This week's issue covers a lot of ground, from more commercial space activity in China, to new Russian launch pads, and finally a not-so-brief history of SpaceX's Big Falcon Rocket. We're also looking forward to the next flight of the Vega rocket, carrying an important weather satellite.

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.

Chinese startup raises $44 million. The Chinese rocket company OneSpace, which aims to attempt its first orbital launch late this year, has raised $43.6 million in Series B financing, SpaceNews reports. This fourth round of financing brings the total raised since the founding of OneSpace in August 2015 to $116 million.

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Categories: News

The nightmarishly complex wheat genome finally yields to scientists

Thu, 08/16/2018 - 16:50

Enlarge (credit: State Historical Society of North Dakota)

Bread, like wine, is pivotal in Judeo-Christian rituals. Both products exemplify the use of human ingenuity to re-create what nature provides, and the fermentation they both require must have seemed nothing less than magical to ancient minds. When toasted, rubbed with garlic and tomato, doused with olive oil and sprinkled with salt like the Catalans do, there are few things more delicious than bread.

Wheat is the most widely cultivated crop on the planet, accounting for about a fifth of all calories consumed by humans and more protein than any other food source. Although we have relied on bread wheat so heavily and for so long (14,000 years-ish), an understanding of its genetics has been a challenge. Its genome has been hard to solve because it is ridiculously complex. The genome is huge, about five times larger than ours. It's hexaploid, meaning it has six copies of each of its chromosomes. More than 85 percent of the genetic sequences among these three sets of chromosome pairs are repetitive DNA, and they are quite similar to each other, making it difficult to tease out which sequences reside where.

The genomes of rice and corn—two other staple grain crops—were solved in 2002 and 2009, respectively. In 2005, the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium determined to get a reference genome of the bread wheat cultivar Chinese Spring. Thirteen years later, the consortium has finally succeeded.

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After coffee brewhaha, CA fears cancer warnings have “gone seriously wrong”

Thu, 08/16/2018 - 16:31

Enlarge / Delicious, non-cancerous, coffee. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

After a judge ruled in March that coffee should be served with jolting labels that alert drinkers to a cancer risk, the state of California seems to have woken up to the concern that its pervasive health warnings may have gone too far.

There’s a danger to overwarning—it’s important to warn about real health risks,” Sam Delson told The New York Times.

Delson is the deputy director for external and legislative affairs for California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. The office proposed a regulation shortly after a March ruling that would unequivocally declare that any cancer-linked components of roasted and brewed coffee “pose no significant risk of cancer.” Today, August 16, the proposed regulation is getting a public hearing in Sacramento.

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Ancient Egyptians had been making mummies longer than anyone thought

Thu, 08/16/2018 - 10:18

Enlarge (credit: Dr. Stephen Buckley, University of York)

Ancient Egyptians started embalming their dead about 1,500 years earlier than archaeologists previously realized, according to chemical analysis of the funerary wrappings of a young man who died in Upper Egypt around 3600 BCE. University of York archaeologist Stephen Buckley and his colleagues identified embalming compounds in organic residues from the mummy’s linen wrappings. They also examined the microscopic structure of the wrappings’ fibers and radiocarbon dated the mummy to between 3700 and 3500 BCE.

That’s about 500 years before Egypt was even a unified country. It took until 3100 BCE for an Upper (southern) Egyptian ruler named Narmer to conquer Lower (northern) Egypt, merging the two into a single kingdom.

Egyptian embalming is thought to have gotten its start in that predynastic period, or even earlier, when people noticed that the arid heat of the sand tended to dry and preserve bodies buried in the desert. Eventually, the idea of preserving the body after death worked its way into Egyptian religious beliefs. When people began to bury the dead in rock tombs, away from the desiccating sand, they used chemicals like natron salt and plant-based resins for embalming.

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Categories: News

High-energy protons emitted after hooking up with neutrons

Thu, 08/16/2018 - 10:01

Enlarge / Abstract image of electrons and protons. (credit: Kevin Dooley)

If you hit an atom's nucleus hard enough, it will fall apart. But exactly how it falls apart tells us something about the internal structure of the nucleus and perhaps about the interior of neutron stars. One of the unexpected things we seem to be learning is that the way particles in the nucleus pair up allows them to reach higher energies than expected, and having excess neutrons only encourages this behavior.

To someone like me—I never took any courses on nuclear physics—the nucleus is a bit like visiting a familiar beach and discovering a colony of dragons. The nucleus consists of protons, which are positively charged. These should repel each other, but the nucleus doesn’t explode because of neutrons. Neutrons are, as the name suggests, neutral. However, they are the glue that binds the protons together.

This description makes the nucleus sound like a disorganized mess of protons and neutrons, but it isn’t. The nucleus has a structure remarkably similar to the electrons orbiting the nucleus.

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Please join us in welcoming Ars’ newest contributor, Jennifer Ouellette

Thu, 08/16/2018 - 09:36

Readers who pay careful attention may have noticed a new byline attached to an article yesterday. And, if any of you follow physics—which seems to be a lot of you—they will be excited to have learned about our newest writer that way. For the rest of you, we're pleased to announce that Jennifer Ouellette is joining the Ars staff.

Jennifer will be familiar to many of you because of her deep background in science coverage. She has contributed as a freelancer to more places than is convenient to list. She has blogged on the field at Cocktail Party Physics and shares a huge range of science stories on social media. Her most recent staff position was as a Senior Science Editor at Gizmodo. In short, she's been immersed in science for years, and brings a wealth of experience to a field we don't cover as thoroughly as we'd often like to.

But, if I could channel my best informercial voice, that's not all. One of her interests in covering science has been to bring forward the science behind the everyday world around us—the sort of cocktail party physics that gave her blog its name. This is not something we've always done well (when we've done it at all). This is the sort of coverage that bleeds over into technology and our wider culture, which makes her a fantastic fit for Ars.

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Categories: News

New sponge for cleaning harbor oil leaks has a successful real world test

Wed, 08/15/2018 - 20:00

Enlarge / "Seth Darling, Jeff Elam, Ed Barry conduct research experiments with the Oleo Sponge in Santa Barbara, California." (credit: Argonne National Laboratory)

In March 2017, Ars wrote about a new material that could soak up oil like a sponge. The so-called Oleo Sponge could be wrung out, the oil could be collected, and the sponge could be used again. The material had just been developed at Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) outside of Chicago, so it was still being tested in controlled environments.

Now, Argonne has announced a successful real-world test of the Oleo Sponge at an oil seep in a channel near Goleta, California.

The test, conducted in April, involved immersing the Oleo Sponge in the Coal Oil Point Seep Field in the Santa Barbara Channel. The oil seep field is natural and one of the largest in the known world (PDF). Not only does it release lots of methane every day, but it also releases oil into the channel water. A press release from ANL notes, "the seeps have been active for at least 500,000 years and release roughly 40 tons of methane, 19 tons of other organic gases, and more than 100 barrels of liquid petroleum daily."

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DNA reveals ancient parrot breeder supplied US Southwest peoples

Wed, 08/15/2018 - 18:11

Enlarge / Chaco Canyon ruins in New Mexico. (credit: Erik Terdal / Flickr)

Lots of macaw parrot skeletons and feathers have turned up at human settlements in the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico dating back to at least 900 CE. Given that these sites are at least 1,000 kilometers north of the bird’s natural range, it has long been clear that there was an interesting story here. How were macaws traded between cultures and over such long distances, long before the arrival of the Spanish and their horses?

Between 1250 and 1450, a settlement discovered at Paquimé in Mexico seems to have hosted a macaw-breeding program that must have met the demand for this culturally significant bird in the region. But what about before Paquimé? Archaeologists have debated the possibilities: that traders frequently traveled the long route to bring back macaws, that birds were haphazardly traded between settlements, or that there was an earlier breeding post.

A study led by Penn State’s Richard George sought to answer this question using DNA from scarlet macaw skeletons found at New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon and Mimbres settlements. Techniques to recover fairly complete DNA sequences from archaeological specimens have advanced in recent years, allowing researchers to test hypotheses with much more confidence.

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Categories: News

MIT scientists crack the case of breaking spaghetti in two

Wed, 08/15/2018 - 16:10

The trick to breaking spaghetti in half is to bend and twist, new MIT study says. (credit: Tom Smith / EyeEm: Getty Images)

Pasta purists insist on plonking dry spaghetti into the boiling pot whole, but should you rebel against convention and try to break the strands in half, you'll probably end up with a mess of scattered pieces.

Now, two MIT mathematicians have figured out the trick to breaking spaghetti strands neatly in two: add a little twist as you bend. They outlined their findings in a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This isn't the first time scientists have been fascinated by the physics of breaking spaghetti. The ever-curious Richard Feynman famously spent hours in his kitchen one night in a failed attempt to successfully break spaghetti strands neatly in half. It should have worked, he reasoned, because the strand snaps when the curvature becomes too great, and once that happens, the energy release should reduce the curvature. The spaghetti should straighten out and not break any further. But no matter how hard he tried, the spaghetti would break in three or more pieces.

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The road to bipedalism wasn’t straight and narrow

Wed, 08/15/2018 - 11:55

Enlarge / The 3.32 million-year-old foot from an Australopithecus afarensis toddler from different angles on the left, next to the fossil remains of an adult Australopithecus foot on the right. Credit: Jeremy DeSilva & Cody Prang (credit: Jeremy DeSilva and Cody Prang)

Early hominins' four smaller toes had adapted to bipedal walking by around 4.4 million years ago, but the big toe remained better-suited to grasping and climbing for a few million more years, until sometime early in the evolution of our genus, Homo. That’s the conclusion of a new study by Stony Brook University anthropologist Peter Fernandez and his colleagues, who studied the size and shape of the metatarsals (the bones of the mid-foot) in modern humans, fossil hominins, and an assortment of monkeys and apes.

Spring in our step

Primate feet evolved mostly to grasp while climbing, which is why chimpanzees have more flexible feet than humans and why their big toes are opposable, like our thumbs. Humans—and our hominin predecessors—are the weird exceptions in the primate family tree, with the basic architecture of our feet adapted to bear weight while walking.

Some of those adaptations, like the one Fernandez and his colleagues studied, look pretty subtle to anyone who’s not a specialist in primate foot anatomy. Their study focused on how much the head of the metatarsal protrudes toward the top of the foot, sticking out above the shaft of the bone like a dome, at the joint with the phalanx (one of the bones that make up the toes) at the base of the toe.

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Oscillating brain goes regular before migraine pain hits

Wed, 08/15/2018 - 10:31

Enlarge (credit: Lisa Brewster)

Migraines suck—understatement of the year right there. Migraines are also poorly understood, and it's kind of hard to come up with effective remedies if you don’t understand what you are treating.

One way to understand migraines is through physics. The brain is a network of neurons that are constantly talking to each other. This, in physics-speak, is a dynamical system. Dynamical systems can have more than one stable operating point. A horrible consequence of this particular system might be that migraines represent a stable operating point of the brain.

No going back

A recent paper—one that isn’t especially exciting—has forced me to write about oscillating brains. I’ve talked about chaotic systems, nonlinear dynamics, and dynamical systems before. I won’t repeat everything written previously, but I do want to emphasize the concept of transitions that don’t easily reverse. 

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“Natural” birth-control app dogged by unwanted pregnancies gets FDA approval

Wed, 08/15/2018 - 07:30

Enlarge (credit: Natural Cycles)

An app to prevent unwanted pregnancies by tracking a woman’s body temperature has scored a first-of-its-kind marketing approval from the Food and Drug Administration, the agency announced.

The US stamp of approval—which clears the way for similar apps to get the green light—lands as the app’s Swedish maker faces investigations by European authorities into its advertising claims, plus criticism from health experts and reports of dozens of unwanted pregnancies.

The sleek mobile app, called Natural Cycles, boasts 900,000 users worldwide as well as approval from the EU to act as a form of contraceptive. Yet it’s essentially riff on an old-school “natural family planning” method dressed up for the digital age. An $80 annual subscription for the app comes with an oral thermometer and relies on a user’s basal body temperature (BBT) to estimate the time of ovulation (when an egg is released from an ovary and wanders down the fallopian tube for a potential sperm-rendezvous, which happens at approximately day 14 of a textbook, 28-day cycle).

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Small nudges add up to big electric savings

Wed, 08/15/2018 - 06:45

Enlarge (credit: jill, jellidonut... whatever / Flickr)

Not all electricity is created equal. Utilities prioritize getting power from the cheapest sources available. That means that, as use rises to what's typically a mid-afternoon peak, utilities end up sourcing ever more expensive supplies of electricity. By the time we reach the use typical of a late afternoon during a heat wave, the utilities have to call in the most expensive forms of power around—typically, the oldest, least-efficient, and most-polluting plants.

So cutting down on energy use during these peak demand events is in a utility's interests. And, since it's an economic problem, a lot of the solutions have also been economic, like setting higher electricity rates during these times to encourage customers to cut back on use. But a new study suggests that something as simple as a gentle reminder to customers can have a noticeable affect, and stacking reminders can have as much of an impact as raising power prices by 70 percent.

A gentle nudge

We've done studies of how people change their energy use in response to economic incentives before, but the effects have generally been pretty small. If you've ever been confronted by a confusion of possible calling/data plans and can't be bothered to figure out which one is the best deal, you probably understand why—the economic incentives often aren't large enough to drive much interest. That's especially true of things like heat-wave-driven electricity peaks, when any altered pricing is likely to last just a few days.

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SpaceX reveals the controls of its Dragon spacecraft for the first time

Tue, 08/14/2018 - 11:00

Enlarge / NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins meets with employees at SpaceX on Monday. (credit: SpaceX)

HAWTHORNE, Calif.—Across the cavernous rocket factory, the buzz, whirr, and whine of various machinery never ebbed. Even when the president of SpaceX and four blue-suited astronauts strode confidently onto the factory floor Monday afternoon and took up microphones to address several dozen reporters, the incessant work inside the SpaceX Falcon 9 hatchery continued.

On one side of the factory, technicians produced rolls of carbon fiber and built myriad payload fairings, which cannot yet be reused during a launch. To meet its cadence of a launch every other week, SpaceX must build at least two of these each month. Another section of the factory fabricated the Merlin 1-D rocket engines that power the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage. And in another large white room behind glass, several Dragon spacecraft were in various states of completion.

So when Gwynne Shotwell stopped in front of this Dragon clean room, held a microphone aloft, and welcomed her “extraordinary” astronaut guests to the factory, the noise did not abate. Rather, it seemed to crescendo as Shotwell raised her voice to introduce the crew of SpaceX’s first human mission, NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken. Likewise, the din continued as she welcomed Mike Hopkins and Victor Glover, crew members for the second flight of the Dragon spacecraft.

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Einstein’s equivalence principle updated with a dash of quantum

Tue, 08/14/2018 - 10:36

Enlarge / From left to right, a time lapse of a Bose-Einstein condensate forming. (credit: NASA/JPL)

At the heart of Einstein’s theory of gravity (general relativity) is the equivalence principle. The equivalence principle says that there is no difference between being stationary and subject to gravity tugging you and accelerating in a vehicle that's free of gravitational pull. 

In practice, this means that there is no difference between inertial mass (the mass a rocket works on) and gravitational mass (the mass the Earth tugs on). This equivalence has been measured time and time again with no violation ever found. But these tests assumed that quantum mechanics didn’t change the equivalent principle: that assumption is partially wrong.

Some quantum in your equivalence

In relativity, mass and energy are two sides of the same coin. For very small objects, we need to think about that in terms of quantum mechanics, where a particle can be in a superposition of energy states. A particle in a superposition of energy states has two energies at the same time until it is measured, whereupon it has a single fixed energy. An object in a superposition of energetic states can have a superposition of inertial masses. But does it have the same superposition of gravitational masses? 

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Archaeologists use ancient dirty dishes to reconstruct climate shifts

Mon, 08/13/2018 - 15:35

Enlarge / Artist's reconstruction of the east and west mounds at Çatalhöyük. In the foreground, you can see the newer west mound, with the older east mound decaying in the background. (credit: Çatalhöyük Research Project)

Around 8,200 years ago, melting glaciers poured fresh, cold water into the North Atlantic, causing the climate in Europe and Southwest Asia to turn suddenly colder and drier for about the next 160 years. Evidence of that event shows up in ice cores from Greenland, tree rings and lake sediments in Europe, and lake sediments and peat deposits in Southwest Asia.

How did it affect people who were only beginning to adapt to agriculture? Archaeologists can’t confidently link what was happening at an archaeological site, like Çatalhöyük in Turkey, with what pollen and oxygen isotopes say was happening 160km (99.4 miles) away at Lake Nar, because local conditions can vary.

New chemical analysis of animal-fat residue in broken pottery has now given us a clearer look at how changes in the North Atlantic impacted life at Çatalhöyük. Local climate turned slightly cooler year-round and noticeably drier in the summer, which would have reduced crop yields and food availability for local farmers’ cattle and goats. Equipped with direct evidence of local climate shifts, archaeologists examined artifacts at the site to understand how people coped with the lean times.

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