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Many viruses activate a single RNA to enable successful infections

Tue, 10/31/2017 - 14:22

Enlarge / Zika virus. (credit: Getty | BSIP)

A gene is a DNA sequence that encodes the instructions for when and where to make a particular protein. But most of the DNA in our genome—well over ninety percent—is not composed of genes.

The argument over the role of this seemingly extraneous DNA has swung back and forth. In the 1970s, it was thought to be generally useless junk. But in 2012, the ENCODE consortium (the ENCyclopedia Of DNA Elements—cute, right?) posited that most of the DNA had some sort of activity. Earlier this year, a new analysis insisted again that it's just junk.

Even as that debate was raging among researchers, viruses have used some of the noncoding DNA for their own purposes: to hijack our cellular metabolism and promote their own replication. Results are reported in Science.

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New report: Entrepreneurial space age began in 2009

Tue, 10/31/2017 - 09:10

Enlarge / Equity investment in the space sector since the dawn of the "Entrepreneurial" space age. (credit: Space Angels)

In July 2009, SpaceX launched its first commercial payload—a 50kg Earth observation satellite for Malaysia—which flew into space aboard a privately developed rocket. According to a new space investment report that will be published Tuesday by the Space Angels, an angel fund and a venture capital fund focused on space, that marked a key inflection point between the "governmental" space age and the "entrepreneurial" space age.

"With that launch, SpaceX significantly lowered the barriers to entry in the space industry," the fund's chief executive, Chad Anderson, writes in the new report. "By vertically integrating, the company was able to drastically reduce the cost to get to orbit. But what deserves at least as much credit is their decision to publish their pricing, which fundamentally changed the way we do business in space. This transparency enabled would-be space entrepreneurs to develop a business plan and raise equity financing based on those cost assumptions."

The Space Angels organization prepares quarterly investment reports, but until this week has not published them for public consumption. (Ars will provide a link to the report when it goes online). The report breaks down equity investment in the space sector by year, since 2009, in angel, venture capital, corporate and other forms of non-governmental investment.

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What to worry about when you’re worrying about lithium-ion batteries

Mon, 10/30/2017 - 16:00

(credit: Tesla)

In late September, Volkswagen Group issued a call for long-term contracts with cobalt producers. Cobalt is an important component of lithium-ion batteries built for electric vehicles (EVs), and VW Group's call signaled that the company was ramping up its promise to focus on EVs in the aftermath of the company’s diesel emissions scandal.

But by mid-October, the Financial Times reported that VW Group’s overtures had failed, and the company could not find a company to contract with. Reportedly, the prices VW Group offered for cobalt were too low, and the German automaker wanted to agree on a fixed price for the duration of the contract—at a time when cobalt prices were going up.

VW Group's failure to secure a contract exposed a lurking problem with lithium-ion batteries—that is, development and mass production of them can be held up and complicated by materials other than lithium. And because there aren't always great alternatives for the lightweight, energy-dense materials that make up these batteries, researchers are concerned about supply chains for the materials that drive innovation. Do we have enough lithium? And do we have enough of the secondary materials that make lithium-ion batteries work, like cobalt, nickel, manganese, and natural graphite?

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On Monday, SpaceX seeks to double its record for annual launches

Mon, 10/30/2017 - 12:03

Enlarge / The Falcon 9 rocket and Koreasat-5A have gone vertical on Pad 39A in Florida. (credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX has launched, on average, about 1.5 times per month during this year. From that perspective, the company's 16th launch of 2017 may not seem all that spectacular. After all, sending something like the Koreasat-5A commercial communications satellite to a geostationary transfer orbit is becoming old hat for the new space company.

However, Monday's launch attempt is significant because it would double SpaceX's total number of launches for any given year, which was eight. Moreover, it is yet another commercial launch for SpaceX, which before 2017 had launched mostly government missions for NASA and NOAA. But this year, 11 of 16 SpaceX launches have been for private companies or foreign governments.

The launch window for Monday's attempt from Kennedy Space Center opens at 3:34pm ET and will remain open until 5:58pm ET. The webcast below should begin about 15 minutes before the launch window opens. After delivering the satellite into orbit, the Falcon 9 rocket's first stage will attempt a landing on the “Of Course I Still Love You” drone ship at just under 9 minutes after launch. The satellite will be deployed about 36 minutes after liftoff.

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I didn’t follow Cassini carefully, but I still miss it

Sun, 10/29/2017 - 12:00

Enlarge / Saturn glows as Cassini spies the planet eclipsing the Sun. (credit: NASA)

I've now been writing about science for nearly a dozen years, which means my career more or less overlaps with that of the Cassini probe. Unlike that spacecraft, fortunately, nobody's directed me to burn up in the atmosphere of Saturn. But, given the overlap between us, you might think I'd be saddened and nostalgic when the last signal arrived from the ringed planet, which, due to the distance, arrived well after Cassini tumbled out of control and came apart. After all, we'd no longer be graced by the steady flow of stunning pictures from a set of worlds that are amazingly foreign.

I am a bit saddened by Cassini's planned destruction, but it's not going to leave a hole in my emotional well-being, at least not in death. Instead, the sadness came years ago, from the realization that Cassini would probably be the last of its kind in my lifetime.

Why so sad?

Will I miss the stunning photos? A bit, I guess. But I wasn't the sort of person to carefully pay attention to JPL's servers to track when new pixels made their way in from Saturn. And, to a certain extent, Cassini was a victim of its own success. Over the years, it sent home so many spectacular images of Saturn, its rings, and its moons, that the newer ones tended to have an air of familiarity about them.

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Emissions, eschmissions: How to (simply) reduce your carbon footprint in 2017

Sat, 10/28/2017 - 08:00

Winter is coming—and not in that Game of Thrones sense. Many people are starting to button up across the US, but while you might have to turn the heater up too, there’s reason to stop and think before blasting the warm air. Like so many of the best aspects of modern living, heaters aren’t necessarily great for the environment. In fact, your heating habit may be bloating your carbon footprint dramatically.

With the Trump administration ditching the Paris Climate Agreement, of course, there may be no federal mandate for individuals and organizations to shrink their carbon footprint. But many people—for reasons ranging from the financial to the environmental—still want to find out how to shrink their impact on the Earth. While it’s hard, there is a way.

Carbon footprints are essentially a convenient way for scientists and environmental advocates to provide you with a number—typically in tons—of the C02 emissions you produce each year. Calculated based on a number of factors including where you live, what you eat, and how you get around, the size of each person’s C02 footprint varies widely. Things are especially different between city slickers and suburbanites, as urban living lowers carbon emissions by 20 percent. Still, the average American clocks in at 16.4 metric tons, or some 36,00 pounds, of carbon dioxide and its greenhouse gas equivalents each year, according to the World Bank. That made for a shared national footprint of about 5,300 million metric tons in 2015, which continues to contribute to the acceleration of global climate change.

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Here are humanity’s best ideas on how to store energy

Sat, 10/28/2017 - 07:30

Historically, the vast majority of the world’s power has been consumed as quickly as it is made, or it's wasted. But climate change has made governments interested in renewable energy, and renewable energy is variable—it can't be dispatched on demand. Or can it? As research into utility-sized batteries receives more attention, the economics of adding storage to a grid or wind farm are starting to make more sense.

But grid-tied energy storage is not new; it has just always been limited to whatever resources a local power producer had at the time. Much like electricity production itself, storage schemes differ regionally. Power companies will invest in batteries that make sense on a local level, whether it is pumped storage, compressed air, or lithium-ion cells.

Looking at the kinds of storage that already exist is instructive in helping us see where storage is going to go, too. Lots of the latest battery projects merely build on engineering that has been in service for decades. To better see our way forward, we collected a number of images and diagrams of the world’s biggest energy storage schemes.

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Star’s magnetic field could turn habitable-zone planets into magma soup

Fri, 10/27/2017 - 13:30

Enlarge (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

In the search for new planets, a lot of the focus has been on finding some that reside in what's called the habitable zone. This is an area between where a planet's orbit receives enough starlight to keep water liquid, but not so much light that it all boils off as steam. Planets in habitable zone orbits are expected to have better prospects of harboring life as we know it from Earth's example.

But it's important to recognize that habitable zone doesn't mean habitable. If a habitable zone's planet's surface reflects enough light, it could end up as a frozen snowball. If its atmosphere has enough greenhouse gasses, it could end up a baking hell like Venus.

Now, a team of European researchers has identified something else that could have an immense effect on habitability: the star's magnetic field. Under the right conditions, planets close to a star will experience a strong but variable magnetic field, which can cause induction heating. In the case of one system with several habitable zone planets, the induction heating could be strong enough to convert them into oceans of magma.

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SpaceX unlocks “steamroller” achievement as company eyes 19 launches in 2017

Fri, 10/27/2017 - 09:21


Prior to this year, the most successful launches SpaceX had performed in any given year was eight. But in 2017 the company has been able to put together a more efficient production flow, a maturing Falcon 9 rocket, and an experienced workforce to put its launch capabilities into overdrive. On Monday, SpaceX will go for its 16th launch of the year, doubling its previous record.

This year has seen a number of firsts for the company—first reflight of a Falcon 9 booster, first reuse of a Dragon cargo spacecraft, first national security payload, and a remarkable dozen landings. But probably the biggest achievement has been finally delivering on the promise of a high flight rate.

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Inspired by brain’s visual cortex, new AI utterly wrecks CAPTCHA security

Thu, 10/26/2017 - 18:00

Enlarge / A representation of how physically close feature recognition units are built hierarchically to create an object hypothesis. (credit: Vicarious AI)

Computer algorithms have gotten much better at recognizing patterns, like specific animals or people's faces, allowing software to automatically categorize large image collections. But we've come to rely on some things that computers can't do well. Algorithms can't match their image recognition to semantic meaning, so today you can ensure a human's present by asking them to pick out images of street signs. And algorithms don't do especially well at recognizing when familiar images are distorted or buried in noise, either, which has kept us relying on text-based CAPTCHAs, the distorted text used to verify a human is interacting with Web services.

Or we had relied on them 'til now, at least. In today's issue of Science, a Bay Area startup called Vicarious AI describes an algorithm they created that is able to take minimal training and easily handle CAPTCHAs. It also managed general text recognition. Vicarious' secret? They modeled the structure of their AI on information we've gained from studying how the mammalian visual cortex processes images.

Thinking visually

In the visual cortex, different groups of neurons recognize features like edges and surfaces (and others identify motions, which aren't really relevant here). But rather than viewing a scene or object as a collection of these parts, the neurons start communicating among each other, figuring out by proximity which features are part of a single object. As objects are built up and recognized, the scene is built hierarchically based on objects instead of individual features.

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Doctors warn new parents: Step away from the vaginal fluid swabs

Thu, 10/26/2017 - 17:13

Enlarge (credit: Getty | BSIP)

To slather, or not to slather—that is the question that has been roiling doctors, scientists, and new parents recently. And a new ruling by a doctor’s group stands to muck up the debate further.

Amid the birth of microbiome research, some scientists have advocated for smearing bacteria-laden vaginal secretions on any newborns who missed out—namely those born via Caesarian section. Scientists keenly hypothesize that such a gooey glaze can “seed” a more-or-less sterile infant with life-long microbial companions. These wee chums may help train an infant's immune system and dodge issues like allergies and asthma later in life. Several studies have indeed found correlations between C-section deliveries and higher risks of those conditions.

With that, motherly coatings caught on. More and more parents are now requesting “vaginal seeding” for babies delivered via C-section. But infectious disease experts, pediatricians, obstetricians, and gynecologists have pushed back, questioning the safety and noting that there’s no evidence of a health benefit.

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Who needs a CPU? Phase change memory acts as an analog computer

Thu, 10/26/2017 - 13:00

Enlarge (credit: IBM Research)

Historically, one of the larger bottlenecks to computing performance hasn't been processor speed; it's been getting data and instructions to and from the processor. Working with memory isn't only a performance bottleneck, as the multiple layers of caches and high speed memory add significantly to a computer's power budget. Other systems, like the extremely power-efficient neuron, mix processing and memory in individual cells.

That's inspired some computer scientists to try to figure out if we could do the same. Resistance-based memory, like memristors and phase-change memory, operate based on physics that make them amenable to performing calculations, and a few proof-of-concept demonstrations have been done using them. But a team from IBM Zurich has now gone beyond proof of concept, and they've used an array of a million phase change memory bits as an analog computer, performing tests for temporal correlations on real-world weather data.

Memory as an analog computer

Phase change memory is based on materials that can take two different forms as a solid. When cooled slowly from a liquid state, they'll form a crystalline material that's a decent conductor of electricity. Cooled quickly, and they form a glassy, disordered structure that's an insulator. Once set, the states remain stable, allowing it to provide long-term memory storage even in the absence of power.

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Saudi Arabia invests $1 billion in Richard Branson’s space plane and rocket

Thu, 10/26/2017 - 12:45

Saudi Press Agency

On Thursday, the government of Saudi Arabia made a big splash in the aerospace community by announcing its intentions to invest $1 billion in Virgin Galactic and that company's efforts to develop a commercial tourism space plane and a small-satellite launcher. In addition, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al-Saud also discussed creating a space-centric entertainment industry.

"The future of Saudi Arabia is one of innovation, as showcased at this week’s Future Investment Initiative, and it’s through partnerships with organizations like Virgin Group that we will make active contributions to those sectors and technologies that are driving progress on a global scale," the crown prince said in a statement.

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SLS rocket advancing, but its launch date may slip to 2020

Thu, 10/26/2017 - 09:45


NASA will soon set a new date for the maiden flight of its massive Space Launch System rocket, which will send the Orion spacecraft on a test flight around the Moon. Previously, this flight had been scheduled for 2018, but NASA officials acknowledged earlier this year that the launch date would slip into 2019.

Now, there is the possibility of further delays, although NASA isn't saying this publicly just yet. On Wednesday, at the Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium in Huntsville, Ala., a key official said a 2019 date is still on the table, because Marshall Space Flight Center expects to deliver the rocket's core stage to the launch site in Florida by the end of 2018.

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US Government Accountability Office argues for acting on climate change

Wed, 10/25/2017 - 15:02

Enlarge / A recent drought in Texas, which led to agricultural losses, has been tied to our warming planet. (credit: Bob Nichols, USDA)

The US Government Accountability Office is a nonpartisan organization that performs analysis and investigations for the Senate and House. Recently, two senators—Maine Republican Susan Collins and Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell—asked it to look into what has become a contentious political issue: the government's response to climate change. The report that resulted suggests that the US is already spending money to respond to climate change, and it will likely spend more as the Earth continues to warm. But it suggests that the US has no plans for figuring out how best to minimize these costs.

It's a message that's unlikely to go over well with either the current administration or the Republican majority in either house of Congress.

Climate and the economy

The report focuses on the economic costs of climate change and how those costs end up being covered by the federal government. It concludes that the feds faced a bill of $350 billion due to extreme weather and fires, including more than $200 billion for aid and recovery, $90 billion for payouts on crop and flood insurance, and nearly $30 billion for repair to federal facilities. US government scientists expect that extreme events are likely to increase in a warming climate, and the GAO sees no reason to doubt that conclusion, accepting a figure of between $12 and $35 billion of added annual expenses by mid-century. For comparison, the annual budget of NASA is $18 billion.

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Human water use is draining the world’s saline lakes

Wed, 10/25/2017 - 14:20

Enlarge / The two brown, rocky areas near the water's edge used to be islands. (credit: NASA)

Saline lakes, like the Caspian Sea, the Dead Sea, the Salton Sea, and of course the Great Salt Lake, have served as recreational playgrounds and tourist attractions, supported thriving fishing and shipping industries, and yielded minerals to be extracted for commercial and industrial applications. A slightly less quantifiable benefit they used to grant was providing habitats for waterbirds.

But these lakes are getting smaller and smaller—and becoming saltier and saltier—as we siphon off ever more of their water, predominantly for agricultural purposes. A perspective piece published in Nature Geoscience this week entitled “Decline of the world’s saline lakes” bemoans that “the ecosystem services provided by saline lakes are real, but less easily quantified [than the benefits of water consumption], and may have a constituency that is less well established in law, business, and social practice."

The economic benefits of taking water from these lakes for agriculture is apparent, whereas the costs of doing so are not as obvious. But the costs are there. The lakes’ decreasing surface may render their shores inaccessible for mineral extraction. Their increasing salinity may cause the collapse of recreation, tourism, fisheries, and ecosystems, as the species that used to thrive in them can’t tolerate all that salt.

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Higgs boson uncovered by quantum algorithm on D-Wave machine

Wed, 10/25/2017 - 10:42

Enlarge / See a Higgs there? A quantum AI might. (credit: Los Alamos National Lab)

Machine learning has returned with a vengeance. I still remember the dark days of the late '80s and '90s, when it was pretty clear that the current generation of machine-learning algorithms didn't seem to actually learn much of anything. Then big data arrived, computers became chess geniuses, conquered Go (twice), and started recommending sentences to judges. In most of these cases, the computer had sucked up vast reams of data and created models based on the correlations in the data.

But this won't work when there aren't vast amounts of data available. It seems that quantum machine learning might provide an advantage here, as a recent paper on searching for Higgs bosons in particle physics data seems to hint.

Learning from big data

In the case of chess, and the first edition of the Go-conquering algorithm, the computer wasn't just presented with the rules of the game. Instead, it was given the rules and all the data that the researchers could find. I'll annoy every expert in the field by saying that the computer essentially correlated board arrangements and moves with future success. Of course, it isn't nearly that simple, but the key was in having a lot of examples to build a model and a decision tree that would let the computer decide on a move.

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Colliding neutron stars decapitate zombie theory of gravity

Wed, 10/25/2017 - 09:03

Enlarge / Neutron star mergers, the slayers of zombies. (credit: NASA)

Theoreticians claim to love data. Data is the thing that allows them to test their theories and prove that they are right. Unfortunately for them, the data often doesn't support the theory. In those cases, the data has just stabbed your labor of love right in the heart, and you are expected to say "thank you, sir. May I have another?"

The recent observation of the in-spiral and merger of two neutron stars has done just that to a room full of theorists working on gravitational theories that try to get rid of dark matter.

Illuminating dark matter

Dark matter is a particle that is posited to exist in large quantities in the Universe. Physicists did not dream it up because they were bored, but because the internal gravitational structure of galaxies could not be explained by the distribution of visible matter. After the existence of dark matter was first proposed, it got some critical supporting evidence. The cosmic microwave background—the radiation emitted during the Big Bang that permeates the Universe—has features that, at the moment, we can only explain with dark matter.

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Ancient mutation helped create delicious, fatty pork. Scientists just fixed it

Tue, 10/24/2017 - 18:08

Enlarge (credit: Getty |Mark Boster)

Of all the frights you might experience between now and Halloween, this one might be the worst: Chinese scientists have genetically engineered pigs to be reduced-fat.

They meant well.

The engineering created hardier, leaner pigs that the scientists argue will improve pig welfare and cut losses and energy use on farms. Publishing data on their genetically modified pigs in PNAS, the scientists don’t mention anything about how the new pigs will taste.

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Judge overturns $417M verdict over Johnson & Johnson baby powder

Tue, 10/24/2017 - 17:58

Enlarge / Johnson's baby powder, stocked at a supermarket shelf in Alhambra, California. (credit: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

A judge has thrown out a $417 million verdict against Johnson & Johnson, which came about when a jury sided with a terminally ill plaintiff who said that Johnson's baby powder caused her ovarian cancer.

On Friday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Maren Nelson granted (PDF) J&J's motion for a new trial (PDF). The plaintiff, Eva Echeverria, won $70 million in compensatory damages and $347 million in punitive damages following a trial. Echeverria's trial date was accelerated because of her poor medical condition, and she has since died.

More than 5,000 lawsuits have been filed against J&J alleging that baby powder, which contains talc, is linked to ovarian cancer. The lawsuits typically allege that J&J had a duty to warn consumers about the connection between cancer and baby powder. J&J has maintained that its product is safe and any warning would be misleading.

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