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Staring at Firefly Aerospace’s hot rocket-engine flames in a Texas pasture

Sat, 03/17/2018 - 13:30

Pro tip: If you just want to see the raw engine fire, skip ahead to the ~3:15 mark. (video link)

CEDAR PARK, Texas—"Last time you came out here, it was just a pile of dirt," Firefly Aerospace CEO and rocket scientist Tom Markusic tells me. I looked it up afterwards—he's not lying. Back in 2014 when Ars Senior Editor Lee Hutchinson traveled just north of Austin to visit Markusic's then-infant new space company, he essentially got a rocket science lesson (charts and everything) and walked the patch of non-grass where the company would one day build its engine testing facilities. It looked like this...

Lee Hutchinson

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Part of the Great Barrier Reef exposed to more CO₂; results are grim

Fri, 03/16/2018 - 12:25

Enlarge / Water carrying a dye and added CO₂ is bubbled over the Great Barrier Reef. (credit: Aaron Takeo Ninokawa )

Coral reefs are not just pretty and cool—beyond tourism dollars and once-in-a-lifetime diving experiences, they provide real utility to human society. They provide homes to about a quarter of the world’s fish, which many people rely on as a food source. They can act as a barrier to rising sea levels, and they can protect coastlines from eroding.

But thanks to all the carbon we’ve pumped into the air, coral reefs are disappearing. Fast. Part of that is heat stress, but CO2 can also influence coral's ability to form reefs in the first place. A new experiment gives us our first look at how much this affects a complete reef ecosystem.

When oceans take up atmospheric carbon dioxide, they acidify. This in turn depresses the concentration of carbonate ions in the water. When there is a dearth of carbonate ions in seawater, coral reefs, made of carbonates, dissolve to restore the balance. So it stands to reason that increasing carbon dioxide in the water would spell trouble for the corals.

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Pfizer CEO gets 61% pay raise—to $27.9 million—as drug prices continue to climb

Fri, 03/16/2018 - 11:45

Enlarge / Ian Read, chairman and chief executive officer of Pfizer Inc. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

As drug giant Pfizer Inc. hiked the price of dozens of drugs in 2017, it also jacked up the compensation of CEO Ian Read by 61 percent, putting his total compensation at $27.9 million, according to financial filings reported by Bloomberg.

Pfizer’s board reportedly approved the compensation boost because they saw it as a “compelling incentive” to keep Read from retiring. He turns 65 in May. As part of the deal, Read has to stay on through at least next March and is barred from working with a competitor for a minimum of two years after that.

According to Bloomberg, Read’s compensation included in part a salary of $1.96 million, a $2.6 million bonus, $13.1 million in equity awards linked to financial goals and stock price, as well as an $8 million special equity award that will vest if the company’s average stock return goes above 25 percent for 30 consecutive trading days before the end of 2022.

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Quantum computing’s future is almost semi-here—are we ready for it?

Fri, 03/16/2018 - 11:30

Enlarge / The future of computing is... a big metal tank? If it turns out there's just a guy with a laptop in there doing Google searches, I'm going to be very disappointed. (credit: John Timmer)

YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, NY—I'm in a room with one possible future for computing. The computer itself is completely unimposing, looking like a metal tank suspended from the ceiling. What makes an impression is the noise, a regular metallic ping that dominates the room. It's the sound of a cooling system designed to take hardware to the edge of absolute zero. And the hardware being cooled isn't a standard chip; it's IBM's take on quantum computing.

In 2016, IBM made a lot of noise when it invited the public to try out an early iteration of its quantum computer, hosting only five qubits—far too few qubits to do any serious calculations but more than enough for people to gain some real-world experience with programming on the new technology. Amidst some rapid progress, IBM installed more tanks in its quantum computing room and added new processors as they were ready. As the company scaled up the number of qubits to 20, it optimistically announced that 50-qubit hardware was on its way.

During our recent visit to IBM's Thomas Watson Research Center, the company's researchers were far more circumspect, being clear they weren't making promises and that 50-qubit hardware is just a stepping stone toward quantum computing's future. But they did make the case that IBM was well-positioned to be part of that future, in part because of the ecosystem the company is building up around these early efforts.

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Two months of daily GTA causes “no significant changes” in behavior

Thu, 03/15/2018 - 16:07

Enlarge / No word on whether study participants were more likely to do a cool walk away from explosions without looking back. (credit: Rockstar Games)

A new, longer-term study of video game play from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Germany's University Clinic Hamburg-Eppendorf recently published in Molecular Psychiatry found that adults showed "no significant changes" on a wide variety of behavioral measures after two straight months of daily violent game play.

Most scientific studies on the effects of video game violence measure participants right after the completion of a gameplay session, when the adrenaline prompted by the on-screen action is likely still pumping. Researcher Simone Kuhn and her co-authors argue that "effects observed only for a few minutes after short sessions of video gaming are not representative of what society at large is actually interested in, namely how habitual violent video game play affects behavior on a more long-term basis."

To correct for the "priming" effects inherent in these other studies, researchers had 90 adult participants play either Grand Theft Auto V or The Sims 3 for at least 30 minutes every day over eight weeks (a control group played no games during the testing period). The adults chosen, who ranged from 18 to 45 years old, reported little to no video game play in the previous six months and were screened for pre-existing psychological problems before the tests.

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Modern humans interbred with Denisovans more than once

Thu, 03/15/2018 - 15:45

Excavations in the Denisovan Cave have yielded tiny bone fragments that have had an outsized impact on our understanding of human evolution. (credit: Bence Viola)

For a brief period in our species’ history, we shared our world with other sapient humans, closely related to us but distinct. We don’t know much about how our ancestors interacted with these other now-extinct hominins, but we know that at least some of those interactions were pretty intimate, because many modern humans now carry traces of DNA from Neanderthals and another ancient hominin group called Denisovans.

Most modern people of European and Asian descent carry between one- and three-percent Neanderthal DNA, and most people of Asian and Oceanian descent carry up to five-percent Denisovan DNA. Because Neanderthals and Denisovans arose outside Africa, the ancestors of modern African people would never have encountered them, although researchers have suggested that a so-far unidentified hominin species in Africa mingled with our ancestors there, so all of us may carry traces of that distant relative as well.

These weren’t isolated incidents. The genetic legacy that many of us now carry is probably the mark of years of sustained contact between two groups. Consistent with that, it now turns out that humans may have had contact with Denisovans not just at one place and time, but two.

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Researchers find dramatic health effects in people hit hard by Great Recession

Thu, 03/15/2018 - 14:20

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Joe Raedle)

The Great Recession from 2007 to 2009 not only claimed millions of jobs and houses, it took a toll on our health, too, according to a new study published in PNAS this week.

After the financial crisis, researchers studying a cohort of nearly 4,600 middle-aged and older adults found significant boosts in blood pressure and blood glucose levels—both contributors to health problems such as heart disease. Because the researchers had years’ worth of baseline health data on the group, they could determine that the increases were well beyond what was expected for the group based on aging and progression of preexisting health conditions alone. However, some of the increases—but not all—could be explained by some participants who stopped taking or decreased their blood pressure and diabetes medication after the recession. This appeared to be another harmful side-effect of the economic downturn.

Overall, the participants who appeared to take the hardest knocks to their health were those who were already taking medications before the recession and had the most to lose: middle-aged adults in the workforce who may fear job loss and older, more highly educated adults who owned their homes and were most likely to have invested in the stock market.

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Scott Kelly’s medical monitoring has spawned some horrific press coverage

Thu, 03/15/2018 - 13:55

Scott Kelly, here shown giving Ars readers a visual tour of the ISS.

Something very strange happened in the world of science news this week. A month-and-a-half-old press release, which reiterated news that was released in 2017, suddenly spawned a flurry of coverage. To make matters worse, a lot of that coverage repeated claims that range from biologically nonsensical to impossible. So if you've seen any mention of astronaut Scott Kelly's DNA this week, it's probably best if you immediately forget anything you read about it.

How did Scott Kelly's genes end up one of the hottest news stories? I really have no idea. The "news" apparently traces back to a NASA press release that came out on the last day of January. That release uses a lot of words to say that attendees of a recent workshop had agreed that preliminary findings NASA had announced a year earlier were legit. So really, the "news" here is well over a year old. Yet somehow, this release has triggered a geyser of news coverage at major outlets including CNN, USA Today, and many others.

While this would clearly be an odd situation, it wouldn't be much of a problem if most of the coverage didn't involve a horrific butchering of biology. To understand the story, we have to understand the biology—and why Scott Kelly's journey through space could tell us something about it.

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NATO leaders unite in blaming Russia for nerve agent attack on ex-spy

Thu, 03/15/2018 - 12:05

On March 14, UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats in response to a March 4 "military grade" nerve agent attack that poisoned former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, as well as a police detective who visited his home in Salisbury, England. Dozens of other people may have also been exposed to the nerve agent in a pub and restaurant the Skripals visited before they were found unconscious on a bench.

UK law enforcement and security officials have said that the nerve agent used in the attack was one of a series of chemical weapons developed by the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War known as Novichok, or "newcomer." Today, the leaders of the UK, the US, France, and Germany issued a joint statement condemning Russia for the attack, demanding full disclosure of the Novichok program by Russia to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg offered "practical support" if May's government requests it, saying the attack "has no place in a civilized world." And further diplomatic action from France and Germany against Russia is expected.

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Planting GMOs kills so many bugs that it helps non-GMO crops

Thu, 03/15/2018 - 09:54

(credit: St. Louis County, MN)

One of the great purported boons of GMOs was that they could allow farmers to use fewer pesticides, some of are known to be harmful to humans or other species. Bt corn, cotton, and soybeans have been engineered to express insect-killing proteins from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, and they have indeed been successful at controlling the crops' respective pests. They even protect the non-Bt versions of the same crop that must be planted in adjacent fields to help limit the evolution of Bt resistance.

But new work shows that Bt corn also controls pests in other types of crops planted nearby, specifically vegetables. And, in doing so, it cuts down on the use of pesticides on these crops, as well.

Entomologists and ecologists compared crop damage and insecticide use in four agricultural mid-Atlantic states: New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. Their data came from the years before Bt corn was widespread (1976-1996) and continued after it was adopted (1996-2016). They also looked at the levels of the pests themselves: two different species of moths, commonly known as the European corn borer and corn earworm. They were named as scourges of corn, but their larvae eat a number of different crops, including peppers and green beans.

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Research hints at tipping point in the Atlantic’s currents

Wed, 03/14/2018 - 16:00

Enlarge / Preparing to monitor conditions in the Imringer Sea. (credit: National Science Foundation)

All of the world's oceans have a similar pattern of currents. Surface waters warm near the equator, then flow toward the poles, where they cool and sink. The cold, dense bottom water makes its way back to restart the cycle. This pattern has particular significance in the North Atlantic, where the flow of warm surface water helps moderate the climate of Northern Europe, parts of which might otherwise resemble Greenland.

A lot of people have pondered whether the warming induced by climate change could interfere with this conveyor belt, preventing the water that nears the Arctic from cooling and sinking. Most analyses, however, suggest that this could only happen after the world had warmed enough that Europe wouldn't need the currents to moderate its temperature.

A new study, however, suggests that there's a tipping point for the Atlantic conveyor that could be reached much sooner. It only relies indirectly on warm temperatures; instead, it is driven by the melting of the Greenland Icecap. And the new research suggests we've already gone nearly halfway to the tipping point.

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Linguistic time capsule in South America sheds light on human migration

Wed, 03/14/2018 - 12:44

Enlarge / One indication of Suriname's complicated past is its large Hindu population. (credit: David Stanley)

Tiny Suriname, the smallest country in South America, punches far above its weight in linguistic diversity. Many people speak Dutch, but if you visit, you're also likely to hear Hindi, Javanese, a variety of indigenous languages, Portuguese, Cantonese, and possibly others. This real-world Babel, in a country of fewer than 600,000 people, is a relic of Suriname’s colonial history.

The language that enables everyone to communicate is Sranan. It's a creole that serves as a linguistic time capsule, capturing Suriname’s brief tenure as a British colony before the territory was ceded to the Dutch in 1667. This time capsule status has allowed a group of researchers to use Sranan to reconstruct details about migration to the colony from England in the 1600s. Their results show how cultural artifacts could be used to trace human migration—and might one day help researchers trace the origins of enslaved people.

A living linguistic fossil

Creole languages arise in relatively extreme situations, when different groups of people find themselves in prolonged contact without a shared language—like in a young colony. People use bits of different languages to try to communicate, and over generations, these halting “pidgin” languages become fully fledged natural human languages: creoles.

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Trump really wants to kill ARPA-E; federal agency says that’s folly

Wed, 03/14/2018 - 08:32

Enlarge / The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy annual summit opens. (credit: Megan Geuss)

WASHINGTON, DC—Ten years ago, a bipartisan group of lawmakers created ARPA-E, or the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy. Today, the agency may be living on borrowed time. Or maybe not.

The Trump administration has, for two years in a row, recommended that ARPA-E be defunded and mothballed. But last year, a Republican-led Congress actually voted to increase the agency's budget from its 2016 levels.

But until Congress passes a new budget, the fate of ARPA-E is uncertain. In the face of that uncertainty, the agency's annual summit still convened in Washington, DC, this week, and its leaders addressed the crowd of scientists and entrepreneurs with words that seemed to be more for administration higher-ups than for the choir to whom they preached.

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Stephen Hawking, legendary theoretical physicist, dies at 76

Wed, 03/14/2018 - 00:29

Enlarge / Professor Stephen Hawking addressing The Cambridge Union on November 21, 2017 in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire. (credit: Photo by Chris Williamson/Getty Images)

Stephen Hawking, the British physicist and author of A Brief History of Time, has passed away at the age of 76.

"He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years," according to a statement released to British media early Wednesday morning.

"His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humour inspired people across the world. He once said, 'It would not be much of a universe if it wasn't home to the people you love.' We will miss him for ever."

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Pre-Columbian people spread fruit species across Latin America

Tue, 03/13/2018 - 16:11

Enlarge / A sapodilla, one of the fruits used by the native inhabitants of Central America. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Prehistoric humans helped spread edible fruit species across Central and South America, even as they wiped out the megafauna that had done so previously. In the process, we maintained and even expanded the plants’ habitats, increased biodiversity, and engineered ecosystems on two continents. Today, these fruit species could be important in 21st-century efforts to diversify human diets, address food scarcity, and improve agricultural sustainability.

Fruiting plants have evolved a very solid strategy for getting their offspring out into the world. Animals eat the fruit, they drop the seeds, and the next generation of plants takes root, often quite a distance away from their parents. Before about 12,000 years ago, animals like the giant sloth, elephant-like mammals called gomphotheres, and native horses did most of the work of seed dispersal in Latin America.

When those animals died out around the end of the Pleistocene, many of the fruit species they’d helped spread found their ranges contracting. But as the early Holocene climate shifted toward warmer, wetter conditions, humans picked up the slack in a big way for some fruit species.

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Harsh winter weather in eastern US could be due to warmer Arctic

Tue, 03/13/2018 - 14:47

Enlarge / Temperatures at the start of 2018—a familiar pattern as of late. (credit: NASA Earth Observatory)

Without some historical context, it’s easy to over-interpret an unusual weather event, especially when it's fresh in your mind. At this time of year in the US, that means cold snaps or unseasonably warm weather—and the storms that accompany them. Are they tied in with our changing climate?

There’s a legitimately controversial proposal that they are. The idea that warming in the Arctic (and shrinking sea ice coverage) has been making northern mid-latitude winters “weirder” has drawn a lot of attention in recent years. But does it explain the weather you complained about last week?

The idea suggests that the weirdness is driven by the fact that the Arctic is warming faster than any other region, which slightly decreases the temperature difference from equator to pole. A number of researchers think this can cause the jet stream (which separates frigid polar air from warmer midlatitude air) to get more wiggly—allowing cold air to spill southward more frequently. On the opposite side of those wiggles, warm air will get pulled north to normally frigid regions.

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Doctors shocked by 3.5-inch air bubble where part of man’s brain should be

Tue, 03/13/2018 - 12:10

An 84-year-old man in Ireland stunned doctors when scans revealed that he seemed to be missing a large chunk of his brain. Instead of brain tissue, the doctors found a 9cm (~3.5 inch) pressurized pocket of air where much of his right frontal lobe ought to be. The doctors reported the discovery recently in BMJ Case Reports.

The empty head space was particularly surprising because the man arrived in the emergency department with afflictions otherwise common for his age. He had been complaining to his regular doctor about repeated falls and feeling unsteady in recent months. When the man added left-sided arm and leg weakness to the list of complaints, his doctor advised him to go to the emergency room, fearing a possible stroke.

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New York commits $1.4 billion to renewable energy projects

Mon, 03/12/2018 - 14:00

Enlarge / MADISON, New York - 2015/10/11: Wind farm with autumn color. (credit: John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)

On Friday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that his state would commit $1.4 billion to 26 renewable projects, including 22 solar farms, three wind farms, and one hydroelectric project. The outlay is a huge sum compared to what most states spend on renewable energy.

At the same time, the governor denounced the Trump administration's plan to open nearly 90 percent of offshore federal waters to oil drilling. Cuomo asked that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke exclude two areas off the New York coast from lease sales, citing concerns about oil spills like the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. Cuomo noted that Florida has been able to obtain verbal approval that lease sales won't be held in waters adjacent to the Florida coast (although some officials in the administration have contradicted that exemption).

The renewable projects will be sited throughout the state and were chosen by New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) based on the proposed cost of each project, the project's ability to create local jobs, and developer experience in building renewable projects in New York.

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In Salt Lake City, suburban sprawl is bad news for climate change

Mon, 03/12/2018 - 13:47

Enlarge (credit: Garrett / Flickr)

Over the past few years, momentum has been building to make cities a focus of climate change action. “Although they cover less than 2 percent of the earth’s surface, cities consume 78 percent of the world’s energy,” reports the UN, “and produce more than 60 percent of all carbon dioxide and significant amounts of other greenhouse gas emissions.”

But there’s a problem: there’s a lot we don’t know about emissions in cities, because the ability to detect emissions on local, fine-grained scales is a relatively recent development. This technology is improving steadily, and this week, a paper in PNAS reports results from a detailed analysis of Salt Lake City. Its findings add to growing evidence that dense urban populations, rather than suburban sprawl, has an important role to play in climate action.

A one-of-a-kind case study

Salt Lake City has an emissions sensor network that is ahead of the game. There have been urban CO2 monitoring projects in Pasadena and Heidelberg (Germany) for more than 10 years, but only at a single location in each city. That makes it impossible to get a multi-faceted picture of how emissions vary across the different spaces in the city.

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Survey: Most people don’t understand science, want their kids to do it

Sun, 03/11/2018 - 11:00

Enlarge / Is robotics science? A lot of people would apparently say no. (credit: Ariel Skelley / Getty Images)

Recently, we had a look at a global survey of the state of science, which tracked the efforts different countries are putting into training scientists and pursuing research. That set of "science indicators" included a bit of information on how the public viewed science, even though that wasn't the primary purpose of the report.

So we were happy to find out that someone had done a thorough job of looking into the global attitudes toward science. 3M, a company that views itself as research-driven, commissioned surveys in 14 different countries with a mix of developed and developing economies, and the results are pretty encouraging. Despite the many cultural differences, people consistently feel that science has an overall positive impact on global society, and they're excited by what we learn.

But buried in the positives are a few areas of concern. Most people don't recognize the impact that science has had on their daily lives and view it as something that their kids might be involved with. Yet younger people are more likely to view themselves as skeptical of science and not trusting of what scientists have discovered.

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