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Updated: 47 min 44 sec ago

Perfect Wi-Fi energy harvester gathers scant bounty

Mon, 01/15/2018 - 13:24

I am pretty nutty when it comes to energy efficiency. It upsets me to know that if the morons who built my house had used the latest information available at the time, my house would require almost no heating. One thing that really gets me excited is the prospect of reusing waste energy. I like the idea of taking energy that would otherwise be destined to diffuse out into the environment and turning it into something useful.

As such, it was inevitable that a paper on recovering microwave energy would catch my eye. And, yes, I shall inflict it on you, too. Unfortunately, harvesting Wi-Fi radiation doesn't seem like it will win us very much. But before we get to that, let's take a look at the very cool ideas behind the harvester.

Stopping reflections

The basic idea behind harvesting Wi-Fi radiation is a very old one: just construct a circuit that absorbs all that microwave energy. Let's take a very artificial situation: imagine a microwave traveling along a bit of coaxial cable. A coaxial cable consists of a central conducting wire enclosed in a cylinder of non-conducting dielectric material, all wrapped in a conductor. The power from the microwaves is not transmitted "in" the central wire. It is actually in the electric and magnetic fields in the dielectric. These propagate as waves down the cable with a speed that is partially given by the properties of the dielectric material.

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The James Webb Space Telescope has emerged from the freezer

Mon, 01/15/2018 - 11:53


After spending three months at a temperature of just 20 degrees Celsius above absolute zero, the massive James Webb Space Telescope emerged from a large vacuum chamber at the end of 2017. Now, after reviewing data from testing done there, scientists have given the instrument a clean bill of health, moving it one step closer to space.

"We now have verified that NASA and its partners have an outstanding telescope and set of science instruments," said Bill Ochs, the Webb telescope project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "We are marching toward launch."

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A gene that keeps track of how often it’s made into a protein

Sun, 01/14/2018 - 10:00

Enlarge / Ribosomes sometimes ignore one of these. (credit: Noirathsi’s Eye / Flickr)

Folks in the Baranov lab in County Cork, Ireland, were just reviewing old data they had lying around—you, know, as one does on a slow, boring afternoon—and they noticed something weird. The complexes within a cell that translate RNA into proteins were piling up at the end of the RNA, long past the portion that encodes the protein. Hmm.

Ribosomes and the genetic code

Many of the genes held in our DNA encode proteins. But the process of translating DNA into protein goes through an RNA intermediate. That RNA is read by a complex called the ribosome, which recognizes the information in the RNA and uses it to create a string of amino acids in a specific order—the protein encoded by the gene. So ribosomes play a critical role in gene activity.

To find out more about that role, Pavel Baranov invented ribosome profiling in 2009. It allows researchers to identify which RNAs in a given cell are being translated by isolating only those RNAs with ribosomes attached. It also allows them to assess the relative levels at which different regions of RNA are being translated.

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When wildlife conservation meets war

Sun, 01/14/2018 - 08:00

Enlarge (credit: Calle v H / Flickr)

Much of the world’s conflict happens in areas rich in biodiversity, and war makes conservation a complicated issue. In 2016, a group of researchers published a paper exploring important questions about conflict and conservation: can conflict be included in planning for protected areas? What strategies actually work when wildlife and warfare mix?

The researchers from 2016 concluded that we need better, more fine-grained data on the impacts of conflict, and a new paper in this week’s Nature drills into historical data to provide just that. Authors Joshua H. Daskin and Robert M. Pringle report that “even low-grade, infrequent conflict is sufficient” to cause harm to wildlife. But they also conclude that the mere presence of conflict doesn’t mean that the wildlife in that region should be written off.

Decades of conflict

“Between 1950 and 2000,” write Daskin and Pringle, the majority of the world’s conflicts occurred in Africa and Asia, and “more than 80 percent of wars overlapped with biodiversity hotspots.” These hotspots are home to some of the world’s last “diverse large-mammal populations,” they write, which makes conflict in these regions all the more alarming for conservation.

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Boeing, SpaceX have razor-thin margins to fly crew missions in 2018

Fri, 01/12/2018 - 11:09

Enlarge / Commercial Crew Astronaut Eric Boe examines hardware during a tour of the SpaceX facility in Hawthorne, California. (credit: NASA)

Almost since the beginning of the commercial crew program in 2010, the old and new titans of the aerospace industry have been locked in a race to the launch pad. Boeing, with five decades of aerospace contracts, represented the old guard. SpaceX, founded in 2002, offered a new, leaner way of doing things.

Through the years, as other participants in the commercial crew program fell away, Boeing and SpaceX remained on course to deliver US astronauts into space. It has not been easy for either company or for their sponsor, NASA. The space agency has only ever led the development of four spacecraft that carried humans into orbit, and three of those programs came in the 1960s, with the fourth and final vehicle in the 1970s—the space shuttle.

As both companies sought to climb this steep learning curve, they have missed deadlines. An original deadline of 2015 melted away after some key members of Congress diverted funds for the commercial crew program to other NASA programs, notably the Space Launch System rocket. But in recent years, Congress has fully funded the efforts by Boeing and SpaceX, and they were told that would yield flights in 2017.

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Pentagon: Ask SpaceX about Zuma. SpaceX: That’s not our story to tell.

Thu, 01/11/2018 - 17:00

Enlarge / The launch of Zuma was pretty, but the aftermath has been anything but. (credit: SpaceX)

On Wednesday, during a Pentagon briefing, spokeswoman Dana White was asked whether the US Department of Defense considered the Zuma mission—a high-value, highly secretive US government payload—a success or a failure. White declined substantive comment, saying, “I would have to refer you to SpaceX, who conducted the launch."

Alas, SpaceX isn't talking Zuma's success (or otherwise) either. The company has twice stated that its rocket, both the first and second stages, performed nominally during the launch on Sunday evening. However, SpaceX has stopped short of saying the Zuma payload was successfully deployed into orbit.

On Thursday, a day after the Pentagon said the news media should ask SpaceX about mission success, the company's president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, appeared at a meeting of scientists and engineers in Houston called The Academy of Medicine, Engineering & Science of Texas. Dutifully asked about Zuma, Shotwell replied, "You know I can’t talk about that. It’s not my story to tell."

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Florida man’s latest worry: Killer herpes from wild monkeys

Thu, 01/11/2018 - 16:25

Enlarge / Rhesus Macaques in a tree (credit: Getty | IndiaPictures )

In the 1930s and ‘40s, the captain of a glass-bottom boat released a dozen or so rhesus macaques on an island in Florida’s Silver River, which snakes through Marion county in the center of the state. The idea was that the monkeys, native to Asia, would be a laugh for tourists passing by. But it seems the monkeys may be the ones to get the last laugh.

For one thing, macaques are excellent swimmers and promptly got themselves off the island. In the decades since, their population has exploded to upward of 800 in the surrounding Silver Spring State Park and nearby Ocala National Forest. A new study, out in the February issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, reveals that the population is also spreading a dangerous type of herpes. The virus—macacine herpesvirus 1 (McHV-1), aka herpes B or monkey B virus—is common and causes mild infections in macaques. But in humans, it can lead to severe, often lethal, illnesses.

The study authors, led by Samantha Wisely of the University of Florida, Gainesville, concluded that the monkeys must be considered a public health concern and "adequate public health measures should be taken."

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Large sheets of ice may have been spotted on Mars

Thu, 01/11/2018 - 15:20

Enlarge / Color enhanced images of the slopes, showing their distinctive blue tinge and layering.

Mars clearly had a watery past, and it's expected that much of the water is still on the planet. Figuring out where the ice is hiding could tell us a lot about the planet's climate history and something about Mars' current water cycle. It could also help direct future landers to sample the planet's water and possibly use it to support human landings.

While we've found plenty of ice near the pole during the Phoenix Lander mission, that's not a very convenient location for future landings (in part because the site ended up frozen over with dry ice during that pole's Martian winter). In today's issue of Science, researchers are reporting the likely presence of ice sheets in more temperate regions. The sheets are at least 100 meters thick and appear to preserve layers that may help us reconstruct how the water ended up frozen there.

MRO data

As with many things Martian, the work relies on data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. It has a variety of instruments that can probe the chemical composition and subsurface structure of Mars, along with the best camera we've ever sent to another planet. Over the years, MRO has built up a comprehensive catalog of features on the Martian surface, many of them imaged from multiple angles.

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A greener shade of blue

Thu, 01/11/2018 - 07:00

Enlarge (credit: Mo Berger)

Indigo plants have been used to dye fabric for thousands of years. Unlike other dyes, indigo does not end up chemically linked to textile fibers; rather, it adsorbs to the surface of the threads. This allows the fibers' white cores to show through to various degrees after abrasion. Hence that impossible-to-replicate look of perfectly worn-in jeans.

But indigo plants yield only a small amount of the dye. It's not nearly enough to keep pace with the enormous demand that Levi Strauss unleashed when he invented blue jeans in the 1870s. Now, after over a century of relying on a lot of toxic chemicals to make a synthetic version, researchers have engineered bacteria that will make it.

The demand for blue dye was handled by one of Strauss’ fellow Bavarians—Adolph von Baeyer, of aspirin fame. He found a way to make a synthetic version of indigo, for which he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1905.

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Mysterious explosion of a deadly plague may come down to a sugar in ice cream

Wed, 01/10/2018 - 18:21

Enlarge (credit: Zechariah Judy)

In the early 2000s, a deadly gut infection began to surge. After decades of lurking in intestines and hospitals—more opportunistic nuisance than lethal threat—the bacterium Clostridium difficile abruptly exploded, spreading rapidly and causing more severe diarrheal disease than ever before. By 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that C. diff infected nearly half a million people in the US that year, killing approximately 29,000.

Two strains led the deadly reign: RT027 and RT078 (named based on the genetic code of their ribosomes, or “ribotype”). But scientists could only speculate as to why this duo was suddenly so menacing. At least one of them turned up with resistance to a class of antibiotics called fluoroquinolones, which contains ciprofloxacin among other common antibiotics. This fact led some researchers to suggest that the bacteria’s rise may have been linked to development of that drug resistance.

But scientists had identified fluoroquinolone resistance in C. diff back in mid-80s. Why would it suddenly matter? There was another, cryptic factor at play, it seemed.

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NYC sues oil companies for the cost of adapting to climate change

Wed, 01/10/2018 - 18:14

Enlarge / New York City has extensive knowledge of the risks posed by climate-driven sea-level rise. (credit: Patrick Cashin, MTA)

Today, the city of New York joined a number of California cities in suing a group of major oil companies for the costs of climate change. The suit claims that these companies—by ignoring their own scientific experts and promoting the continued expansion of fossil fuel use—have created a public and private nuisance in addition to trespassing on city property. It seeks not only damages for past harms the city has suffered, but wants the oil companies to pay the cost of all the adaptation programs that it has had to start or plan.

In making the announcement, city officials announced they're putting their money where their lawsuit is. Over the next five years, New York City will divest its pension funds, which currently hold just under $200 billion dollars, from fossil fuel companies.

Creating a nuisance

New York City isn't the first to file suit against the oil companies. A number of California cities and counties, including San Francisco and Oakland, did so last year. Those suits targeted the same five companies named in the one announced today: Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, BP, and Royal Dutch Shell. These are the five largest companies, and the suit estimates that they are collectively responsible for over 10 percent of the total greenhouse gasses that have accumulated in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.

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Alas, that Japanese astronaut did not really grow 9cm in space

Wed, 01/10/2018 - 09:14

Enlarge / At the Korolev Museum at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Norishige Kanai signs a wall mural Dec. 13 as part of traditional pre-launch ceremonies. (credit: NASA)

On Tuesday, the spaceflight world twittered in amazement after a Japanese astronaut posted about his surprising growth spurt on Twitter. "I have a major announcement today," Norishige Kanai wrote. "We had our bodies measured after reaching space, and wow, I had actually grown by as much as 9cm!"

He had grown so much after just three weeks, the astronaut said, that he was concerned about fitting into his cramped Soyuz spacecraft seat for the ride back to Earth later this year. Each astronaut is measured for his or her seat in the tiny spacecraft used to ferry humans to and from the International Space Station. Some former NASA astronauts able to fly on the space shuttle, including Scott Parazynski at 6'4", were denied stints on the station because they were too tall to fly in the Soyuz.

Elongation in outer space is normal, as the spine spreads out in microgravity. Typically, astronauts grow by about 2 to 5cm during a six-month stay aboard the space station, and then return to a normal height within a day or two of coming back to Earth's gravity.

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Some Great Barrier Reef turtle populations produce nothing but females

Tue, 01/09/2018 - 18:12

Enlarge / Sea turtle. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Humans figure out whether to develop as males or females based on the presence of a single gene on the Y chromosome. But that's just one of a dizzying number of ways that plants and animals determine their sex. A large group of reptiles, including crocodilians and many species of turtles, use the ambient temperature. If the eggs are above a certain temperature during a critical period in their incubation, the animal will be likely to develop as a female; below that temperature, you're more likely to get a male.

And that, in a world where temperatures are rising, is a problem.

A new study of sea turtles that live near the Great Barrier Reef has found that populations closest to the equator, where the temperatures are warmest, have been producing over 99 percent females for two decades. While turtles have obviously weathered changing climates in the past, the current rate of change, coupled with sea turtles' long life span, raise concerns about how well they'll cope with our current warming.

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NOAA recaps 2017’s near-biblical collection of weather extremes

Tue, 01/09/2018 - 14:04

Enlarge / Members of the Texas Army National Guard moved through flooded Houston streets as floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey continued to rise on August 28, 2017. More than 12,000 members of the Texas National Guard were called out to support local authorities in response to the storm. (credit: Zachary Wes)

The figures for 2017's global temperatures aren't out yet, but data from earlier months indicate it will involve a small drop after two years of record-setting heat. NOAA, however, has run the numbers on 2017's impact on the US, finding it to be the third warmest on record and associated with lots of extreme weather events. Amazingly, NOAA's brief report on 2017's climate managed to mention all of this without once mentioning climate change.

A changing climate, however, is implicit in the very first paragraph. 2017, it notes, is the 21st consecutive year with above-average temperatures in the US. It ranks third on the all-time heat list, coming in at 1.45 degrees Celsius (2.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 20th century average. The US' five warmest years on record, NOAA notes, have all occurred after 2006. It was also the third consecutive year in a row that every single state experienced above-average temperatures. For five states, 2017 was the warmest year on record. All of which indicates a major trend in the US' temperatures.

Although the temperatures didn't set a new record, the cost of weather events in 2017 did. The US saw 16 weather and climate disasters that each cost more than $1 billion, with total costs rising above $300 billion. That's nearly $100 billion more than the next closest year (2005), which featured Hurricanes Katrina, Wilma, and Rita. Last year's trifecta featured Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma at total costs of $125 billion, $90 billion, and $50 billion, respectively. All three placed in the top five costliest disasters of all time in the US. These disasters also killed 362 people directly.

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The Zuma satellite appears lost—here’s what we know so far

Tue, 01/09/2018 - 08:44


On Sunday night, SpaceX launched a classified payload known only as "Zuma" for the US government. But once in space, something went wrong. Here's what we know so far.

What is Zuma?

It was a government satellite or spacecraft built by Northrop Grumman, which contracted with SpaceX to launch it into low-Earth orbit. By various accounts, this was a hugely valuable asset, potentially worth a billion dollars or more. (SpaceX founder Elon Musk reportedly told some of his employees it was the most important thing the company had ever launched). There has also been a huge amount of secrecy around the launch, even more so than with typical national security payloads, to the point that the government agency paying for and using it have not been disclosed.

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Small study suggests ibuprofen alters testosterone metabolism

Tue, 01/09/2018 - 07:45

Enlarge (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A new study is hinting that a common over-the-counter painkiller, ibuprofen, may be linked to a male reproductive disorder. While the study uses a pretty small sample of male subjects, it's backed up by a set of consistent experiments from isolated cells, and earlier studies had hinted there might be something strange here.

The good news is that the problems required multiple weeks of constant ibuprofen use, so there's no indication that handling the odd muscle ache or hangover with ibuprofen will cause problems. The bad news is the ibuprofen is one of a large class of related drugs that includes aspirin, and the likelihood that other drugs will have similar effects is high.


Ibuprofen belongs to a group of drugs called non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, or NSAIDs. This group includes aspirin, and it generally works by blocking the production of hormone-like signaling molecules called prostaglandins, thereby cutting down on pain and inflammation.

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With ingestible pill, you can track fart development in real-time on your phone

Tue, 01/09/2018 - 07:30

Enlarge / The ingestible electronic pill. (credit: RMIT University)

Scientists often hope to break ground with their research. But a group of Australian researchers would likely be happy with breaking wind.

The team developed an ingestible electronic capsule to monitor gas levels in the human gut. When it’s paired with a pocket-sized receiver and a mobile phone app, the pill reports tail-wind conditions in real-time as it passes from the stomach to the colon. The researchers, led by Kourosh Kalantar-Zadeh of RMIT University and Peter Gibson of Monash University, reported their invention Monday in Nature Electronics.

The authors are optimistic that the capsule’s gas readings can help clear the air over the inner workings of our intricate innards and the multitudes of microbes they contain. Such fume data could clarify the conditions of each section of the gut, what microbes are up to, and which foods may cause problems in the system. Until now, collecting such data has been a challenge. Methods to bottle it involved cumbersome and invasive tubing and inconvenient whole-body calorimetry. Popping the electronic pill is a breeze in comparison. And early human trials have already hinted that the pill can provide new information about intestinal wind patterns and gaseous turbulence from different foods.

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Rick Perry’s proposed coal, nuclear compensation rule denied by US regulator

Mon, 01/08/2018 - 17:28

Enlarge / Industry. (credit: Kym Farnik)

On Monday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) denied a rule proposed by Energy Secretary Rick Perry earlier this year (PDF) to compensate coal and nuclear generation facilities over and above the compensation they currently receive if they kept 90 days' worth of fuel on site.

Perry's rule was written to be fuel agnostic at face value, but its details would have bolstered coal and nuclear plants in the energy market because natural gas- and oil-fed generators generally can't keep 90 days' worth of fuel onsite (they receive their fuel via pipeline), and renewable energy generation is variable. One of President Trump's key campaign promises has been to revive the coal industry, which has suffered in the shadow of plentiful, cheap natural gas.

In Monday's notice, FERC wrote that the proposed rule never met the threshold requirement of showing that grid managers are currently offering "unjust and unreasonable" compensation to existing coal and nuclear plants.

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It’s not official, but sources say the secretive Zuma satellite was lost

Mon, 01/08/2018 - 16:34

Enlarge / The Zuma satellite and Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad. (credit: SpaceX)

On Sunday night SpaceX launched the Zuma satellite into space. What we know for sure is that the first stage of the rocket behaved nominally enough such that it was able to safely return to Earth and make a land-based landing along the Florida coast.

SpaceX, however, never officially confirmed mission success. On Monday, Ars began to hear discussion from sources that the mysterious Zuma spacecraft—the purpose of which was never specified, nor which US military or spy agency had backed it—may not have survived. According to one source, the payload fell back to Earth along with the spent upper stage of the Falcon 9 rocket.

Later on Monday afternoon another space reporter, Peter B. de Selding, reported on Twitter that he too had been hearing about problems with the satellite. "Zuma satellite from @northropgrumman may be dead in orbit after separation from @SpaceX Falcon 9, sources say," de Selding tweeted. "Info blackout renders any conclusion - launcher issue? Satellite-only issue? — impossible to draw."

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Nuclear reactor maker Westinghouse, energy company Scana find buyers

Sun, 01/07/2018 - 18:00

Enlarge / Virgil C. Summer Nuclear Station, Unit 1 (credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

2017 was undoubtedly a challenging year for nuclear power in the US. But last week, two of the major players in 2017's nuclear power drama may have found a path forward, subject to regulator approval.

Westinghouse, the nuclear reactor company owned by Toshiba that went bankrupt in early 2017, may have found a buyer in a Canadian company called Brookfield Business Partners. Similarly Scana, the energy company that owned 55 percent of the VC Summer nuclear buildout in South Carolina, may also be bought up by Virginia-based Dominion Energy.

The drama started early last year, when Westinghouse announced its bankruptcy in March. Westinghouse had been contracted to build four Generation III+ AP1000 reactors for two nuclear plants—Summer in South Carolina and Vogtle in Georgia. The new AP1000 reactors were supposed to be safer and more reliable than previous reactors, but constant conflict with contractors left Westinghouse mired in lawsuits and severely behind schedule and over budget.

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