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Ars on your lunch break: the ins and outs of genomics, 30 minutes at a time

Tue, 06/12/2018 - 12:01

3d render of DNA spirals. (credit: Image courtesy of NIST)

Today we’re launching something of an experiment, connecting a podcast to the written pages here at Ars. For at least a few weeks, we’ll be running episodes of my tech- and science-heavy podcast in installments near the typical US lunch hour. To keep lunch from going long, we've got the episodes chopped up into 30-ish minute segments. Opening installments will go up on Tuesdays, then we’ll keep posting daily until the episode is complete (typically two to four days). If you prefer to read rather than listen, we've got transcripts available.

Your host will be me, Rob Reid—a long-time entrepreneur who now podcasts and writes science fiction. The name of both my podcast and my most recent novel is After On. The podcast consists of deep-dive interviews with world-class thinkers, founders, and scientists. My guests have included Rodney Brooks, the father of the Roomba and countless other robots; UCSF neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley, whose clinical video games fight ADHD and dementia and have been featured on the cover of Nature; and the ever-controversial Sam Harris, going deep into his personal history and opining up about terrorism.

I talk about my podcast’s approach in the introduction to today’s segment, and I won’t repeat myself here. Instead I’ll give you a quick preview of today’s installment: it features the legendary bioengineer and genomicist George Church, whose Harvard lab is one of the most celebrated fonts of innovation in the world of life science. As I say in the podcast, George was one of the earliest drivers behind the Human Genome Project. He’s also one of the most prominent co-inventors of the gene editing technology known as CRISPR, and he has co-founded 22 life-science companies (yes, really).

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Categories: News

This is what we learned about our science-reading audience

Tue, 06/12/2018 - 10:48

Enlarge (credit: Disney)

Thank you to everyone who took part in the survey of science readers we ran a couple weeks ago. It will take us some time to think about how to use what you've told us, but we can definitely let you know what you told us about yourself.

To begin with, you're generous. Well over 9,000 of you took the time to fill out the survey, and about 3,500 of you shared additional details via a text field. Public opinion companies would kill to have access to a test group like that.

Can’t get enough

Sort of. They would if you weren't so... weird. One of our hopes was that we might hear from people who aren't very interested in science but might occasionally read an article if it was pitched the right way. We didn't. There were nine people who said they were either indifferent to science news or avoided it. That's not nine percent of 9,000—it's nine total. Nearly 70 percent said they were very interested in science, and another 23 percent said they do it for a living.

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Categories: News

US pulls two more from Cuba amid puzzling health cases now affecting China

Mon, 06/11/2018 - 13:20

Enlarge / The US flag flies outside the US Embassy on October 14, 2017 in Havana, Cuba. (credit: Getty | Gary Hershorn)

The US government has withdrawn two more US workers from its embassy in Cuba following fresh accounts of bizarre noises followed by an array of symptoms consistent with mild traumatic head injuries, according to a series of reports from the Associated Press.

The two workers are considered “potentially new cases” in mysterious incidents plaguing Cuba and also workers in the US consulate in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, just northwest of Hong Kong.

The workers have been sent to the University of Pennsylvania for more neurological testing, where experts previously evaluated and treated 21 of the 24 confirmed US cases from Cuba and have begun evaluating workers evacuated from Guangzhou.

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Categories: News

Hurricanes are moving more slowly than they used to

Mon, 06/11/2018 - 10:30

Enlarge / Cyclone Mekunu caused severe flooding in Oman after making landfall on May 25 as a Category 3 storm. (credit: NASA Earth Observatory)

The formula for how much water a hurricane drops on you is pretty simple: how much rain is falling per hour times how many hours the storm is overhead. While this won't account for things like storm surges, it can give a strong sense of the problems inland areas will face. Hurricane Harvey took this formula to an extreme when it got stuck over Houston for several days, dumping incredible amounts of rain all the while.

Alterations in hurricane behavior due to climate change have been much dissected, from projections of stronger storms in a warming world to the unavoidable fact that a warmer atmosphere can carry more moisture. But there's also a second part to that simple formula—could hurricanes linger longer, adding to rainfall totals?

That question is complex, but a new study by NOAA’s James Kossin takes a look at one portion of it—whether hurricanes are moving more slowly than they did in the past.

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Categories: News

To build the best bots, NASA happily looks to others here on Earth

Sun, 06/10/2018 - 10:00

Our Q&A with NASA's Terry Fong (click here for transcript). (video link)


NEW ORLEANS—“People who’ve met me keep asking ‘Hey, why is NASA here? You’re not a startup, not an investor,’” Terry Fong recalls. The lead for NASA’s Intelligent Robotics Group took the stage at the recent 2018 Collision Conference in between people preaching their coffee business models and others promoting everything from cloud services to Vespas. Fong’s organization may obviously be different, but he absolutely had his recruitment pitch as ready as the next attendee. Industries everywhere—NASA very much included—want to better leverage autonomous and intelligent systems to automate tasks and make new initiatives possible. So this senior scientist for autonomous systems found himself on the showroom floor in search of potential collaborators, just like everyone else.

“Tech development doesn’t exist in a bubble, and NASA doesn’t do everything end to end,” Fong tells Ars. “We exist in an ecosystem. There are things we want to pull in, whether from a startup or a large corporation, and there are things we’re trying to push out to industry. For me, it’s important to understand what NASA can reuse and not make ourselves, or what we can work with people to adapt in ways that are useful for our missions.”

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Categories: News

Anheuser-Busch pulls millions from controversial NIH alcohol study

Sat, 06/09/2018 - 09:30

Enlarge

Beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev is pulling millions of dollars in funding from a controversial study overseen by the National Institutes of Health that aimed to assess the health effects of moderate alcohol consumption, according to a report by The New York Times.

The 10-year, $100 million study had faced mounting criticism and was recently halted over concerns about how large beverage makers, including AB InBev, came to provide such financial support. A series of media investigations suggested that lead researchers and NIH officials had inappropriately wooed drink makers, getting them to pour millions into the work, while strongly hinting that it would end in their favor—i.e., showing that a daily drink is safe and could lower the risk of common diseases.

The large study, which was designed to include 7,800 participants at 16 sites worldwide, would be “necessary if alcohol is to be recommended as part of a healthy diet,” researchers wrote in a slide presentation provided to alcohol makers.

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Categories: News

Weird neutrino excess won’t go away, hints at new physics

Fri, 06/08/2018 - 14:14

Enlarge / The interior of the MiniBooNE detector. (credit: Los Alamos National Lab)

There are indications that for several scientific areas of study, our current understanding of the particles and forces that govern normal matter is wrong. Many of these areas seem to involve neutrinos, and that's in part because these particles rarely interact with normal matter, making them incredibly difficult to detect.

But we've gradually gotten better at building detectors, which has allowed us to discover that neutrinos have mass (something unaccounted for in the Standard Model) and shift among different identities as they travel. But the process has also revealed some persistent oddities. One oddity is a long-standing excess in one type of neutrino, first described by researchers from Los Alamos back in the 1990s. The same thing was seen at Fermilab in the initial runs of an experiment called MiniBooNE, but neither of them gathered enough data to announce discovery.

Now Fermilab is back with its latest update, using two additional years of MiniBooNE data. The excess is still there, and it has edged even closer to the statistical standards for discovery. If you combine the Fermi and Los Alamos data, we're already there. It's looking more and more like another break in the Standard Model, and the possible explanations include an entirely new type of neutrino.

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Categories: News

Ecological “law” turns out to just be the result of us fishing

Fri, 06/08/2018 - 10:46

Enlarge (credit: NOAA)

When studying populations of a flounder-like North Sea fish called plaice in the early 1900’s, a man named Heincke noticed that older, larger fish are found deeper in the water than younger, smaller fish. The same phenomenon was subsequently found for other North Atlantic species like cod, haddock, pollock, and some species of flatfish; it was thus dubbed Heincke’s Law and treated as an established fact. Biologists assumed it was ontogenic in nature, meaning that it must be connected to how the fish age and mature.

All the species in which older, bigger fish are found in deeper water have something else in common: we eat them. Could it be, some Canadian scientists wondered, that all the big fish are found in deeper water because we fished them out of shallower water? Apparently (and somewhat astonishingly) this possibility had never been evaluated. And the scientists found that not only could this be the case—it in fact was.

Explaining the law

Starting in the 1990s, a number of hypotheses were posited to explain Heincke’s Law. One is that larger, older fish gravitate down to cooler waters where the diminished metabolic demands can increase their lifespans. Another suggested that all fish prefer to be in shallower water, but when the population gets too big, the seniors get shunted out of prime territory by the youngsters and have to live in deeper waters. A third holds that juveniles hide in shallower waters from the threatening adults down in the depths.

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Categories: News

Rocket Report: NASA chief sort of endorses SLS, Russia woes, Virgin Orbit

Fri, 06/08/2018 - 07:00

Enlarge / We need your help to produce a new newsletter to chronicle the dynamic launch industry. (credit: Aurich Lawson/background image United Launch Alliance)

Welcome to Edition 1.03 of the Rocket Report! This collaborative effort with readers of Ars Technica seeks to diversify our coverage of the blossoming launch industry. The Rocket Report publishes as a newsletter on Thursday and on this website every Friday morning.

We welcome reader submissions, and if you don't want to miss an issue, please subscribe in the box below. 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.

Virgin Orbit "months" away from first rocket launch. In an in-depth feature on Virgin Orbit, the company's VP of special projects, Will Pomerantz, told Ars that the LauncherOne rocket is nearing completion. "We are getting pretty darn close," Pomerantz said when Ars visited Virgin Orbit recently for a tour of the factory. "I'm always hesitant to put dates on it, because we're always wrong, like everyone in the industry. But I think we're months away."

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Categories: News

Training a neural network in phase-change memory beats GPUs

Thu, 06/07/2018 - 14:52

Enlarge (credit: Miguel Navarro / Getty Images)

Compared to a typical CPU, a brain is remarkably energy-efficient, in part because it combines memory, communications, and processing in a single execution unit, the neuron. A brain also has lots of them, which lets it handle lots of tasks in parallel.

Attempts to run neural networks on traditional CPUs run up against these fundamental mismatches. Only a few things can be executed at a time, and shuffling data to memory is a slow process. As a result, neural networks have tended to be both computationally and energy intensive. A few years back, IBM announced a new processor design that was a bit closer to a collection of neurons and could execute neural networks far more efficiently. But this didn't help much with training the networks in the first place.

Now, IBM is back with a hardware design that's specialized for training neural networks. And it does this in part by directly executing the training in a specialized type of memory.

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Categories: News

Finally, scientists have found intriguing organic molecules on Mars

Thu, 06/07/2018 - 14:00

Enlarge / Since 2012, NASA's Curiosity rover has been trying to find organic molecules. Now, it has succeeded. (credit: NASA)

After more than four decades of searching for organic molecules on the surface of Mars, scientists have conclusively found them in mudstones on the lower slopes of Mount Sharp. A variety of organic compounds were discovered by NASA's Curiosity rover, which heated the Martian rocks to 500° Celsius to release the chemicals.

The finding is significant—for life to have ever existed on Mars there would almost certainly need to be organic molecules to get it started; they're the basic building blocks of life as we know it. And if life did get started, it would have left organic molecules behind. However the confirmation of organics on Mars raises more questions than it answers. Based upon the information scientists have gleaned so far, they cannot determine whether these organics were produced by life, delivered to the surface of Mars by meteorites, or are the byproduct of geological processes on Mars.

The Viking landers reached the surface of Mars during the summer of 1976 amid some expectation that they might find evidence of past life, if not life itself. However, when Viking landers sampled the Martian soil they found no past life, nor did their gas chromatograph mass spectrometers find any organic molecules. Nada.

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Categories: News

Machines that suck CO₂ from the air might be cheaper than we thought

Thu, 06/07/2018 - 13:10

Enlarge / Carbon Engineering's pilot plant, which captures CO2 from the atmosphere. (credit: Stephen Hui, Pembina Institute)

When you spill a drink, you don’t say, “Oh well, the only thing we can do is spill fewer drinks in the future.” You grab a towel. So there’s also a natural attraction to the idea that we should develop a towel that can remove CO2 from the atmosphere. That isn’t as simple as grabbing one from a Home Goods store, however, and cost estimates have not fueled optimism for most methods of doing this.

Reforestation is an obvious option, but its potential impact is probably smaller than you think. Other biological schemes could include growing biofuels to burn in power plants that capture emissions and store them underground. Recently, we’ve also seen a couple of working pilot projects that look like a power plant run in reverse—they suck in air and harvest concentrated CO2, ready for storage.

One of those plants, located an hour north of Vancouver, British Columbia, is the brainchild of a company called Carbon Engineering. One of the founders of Carbon Engineering is Harvard’s David Keith, a researcher studying this and other conceivable methods of “geoengineering” our planet’s climate. This week, the Carbon Engineering team has published a nuts-and-bolts breakdown of its design, providing the first cost analysis of a working carbon capture plant.

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Categories: News

More Americans in China say they’re victims of mysterious health attacks

Thu, 06/07/2018 - 11:38

Enlarge / Consulate General of the United States in Guangzhou. (credit: WKDx417)

More US diplomats, employees, and their families in China are being medically evaluated and evacuated amid growing accounts of mysterious episodes involving sound and pressure that appear linked to the development of mild traumatic brain injuries, according to reports by The New York Times.

Last month, the State Department revealed that one US employee at the US consulate in the city of Guangzhou, just northwest of Hong Kong, reported experiencing “subtle and vague, but abnormal, sensations of sound and pressure” and sustained a mild traumatic brain injury despite no evidence of a blow to the head. The episode drew eerie parallels to the mysterious “health attacks” experienced by diplomats at the US embassy in Cuba, which left 24 Americans with similar brain injuries.

That unidentified employee in Guangzhou was evacuated and sent for more medical testing in the US. The State Department, meanwhile, issued a health alert on May 23 for those remaining in China. Though the department suggested vigilance, it added that it was “not aware of any similar situations in China, either inside or outside of the diplomatic community,” suggesting that the episode may have been an isolated event so far.

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Categories: News

Russia may lack the funds to compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket

Thu, 06/07/2018 - 08:52

Enlarge / Russia's plans to develop a newer Soyuz rocket may have hit a funding snag. (credit: NASA)

The Russian space program's budget process is not particularly transparent to outsiders, but it does appear likely that Roscosmos will face cuts in the coming years. According to Sputnik, a Russian government-controlled news agency, the Roscosmos state corporation will likely to suffer funding shortages amounting to 150 billion rubles (more than $2 billion) in the next three years, from 2019 to 2021.

The consequences of these cuts could be severe for Russia's much-vaunted launch industry. In particular, the reduced budget could forestall a rocket development project intended to compete with SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and a new super-heavy lift booster.

Unnecessary rockets

One expert observer of the Russian space program, Ivan Moiseev, the scientific leader of the Russian Space Policy Institute, says this is the case. Cuts in the Roscosmos budget will make it impossible to develop the new Soyuz-5 medium-lift booster, the Falcon 9 competitor, as well as imperil further development of a heavy-lift variant of the Russian Angara rocket.

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Categories: News

30,000-year-old jawbone records tough diet in Pleistocene Southeast Asia

Wed, 06/06/2018 - 18:28

Enlarge / Two human mandibles from Niah Caves in Borneo; the top jaw is 30,000 years old, and the bottom jaw 11,000 years old. (credit: Darren Curnoe)

Life wasn't easy for the first humans to settle in the islands of Southeast Asia. The rain forest was a completely new environment for people in the Late Pleistocene, so the learning curve was probably steep. A 28,000-year-old jawbone from Niah Cave in northeast Borneo reveals that Pleistocene people who first arrived there ate a tough diet.

The mandible belonged to a person who lived and died in Borneo nearly 10,000 years before the end of the last Ice Age, about 28,000-to-30,000 years ago, according to uranium-series dating (there wasn't enough collagen left in the bone for radiocarbon dating). It's small, but it's also unusually thick. Even without any other bones, the jaw tells us two important things about the Southeast Asians of the Pleistocene.

First, they were small. The jawbone is part of an adult mandible, but its height points to a person of short stature and small body size. That's something the ancient Niah Cave person has in common with modern indigenous people of the highlands of Borneo and the Philippines. It's also a very practical adaptation to life in the rain forest, according to University of New South Wales archaeologist Darren Curnoe—another way human diversity has been shaped by our long relationship with our environments.

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Categories: News

More evidence that the Universe is making lots of massive stars

Wed, 06/06/2018 - 15:00

Enlarge / A starburst galaxy, which produces stars at a high rate. (credit: NASA)

The size of a star determines its ultimate fate. The smallest stars will burn lighter elements for tens of billions of years; stars like the Sun will make some heavier elements before shrinking into white dwarfs; and massive stars will create the heavier elements and scatter them into the Universe as they explode. So knowing how many we have of each type of star form tells us a lot about what the Universe should look like.

Estimating the frequency at which different mass stars form is relatively easy—we can simply survey the Milky Way, counting how many of each type of star we see. That, however, assumes the Milky Way is typical of other galaxies out there. Earlier this year, we got a hint that it wasn't. Observations of one of the dwarf galaxies orbiting the Milky Way suggested a star-forming region within it had an excess of massive stars.

But a dwarf galaxy is even more likely to have an atypical star-formation process than the Milky Way. So we really needed more general measures of the sizes of stars being formed in the larger Universe. We now have one, and big stars are still showing up at much higher rates than previous estimates would suggest.

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Categories: News

NASA’s priorities appear to be out of whack with what the public wants

Wed, 06/06/2018 - 10:32

A little more than half a day at 2012 DA 14's closest approach a meteor measuring about 20 meters across broke apart in Earth's atmosphere above Chelyabinsk, Russia. Thousands of buildings were damaged, but fortunately no one died. (credit: Alex Alishevskikh/Flickr)

The Trump administration has vowed to make America great again in spaceflight, and the centerpiece of its space policy to date has been a re-prioritization of human spaceflight as central to NASA's activities. As part of this initiative, the White House has sought to reduce funding for satellites to observe environmental changes on Earth and eliminate NASA's office of education.

However, a new survey of 2,541 Americans by Pew Research Center, which aims to represent the views of US adults, finds that these views appear to be out of step with public priorities.

The survey asked respondents about their top priorities for NASA, and the highest support came for "monitor key parts of the Earth's climate system" (63 percent) and "monitor asteroids/objects that could hit the Earth" (62 percent). Sending astronauts to Mars (18 percent), and the Moon (13 percent), lagged far behind as top priorities for respondents.

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Categories: News

Judge orders EPA to disclose any science backing up Pruitt’s climate claims

Tue, 06/05/2018 - 21:25

Enlarge (credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

In March 2017, Scott Pruitt, the new administrator of Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency, appeared on CNBC and said that carbon dioxide was not known to be a major factor in climate change. “I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see,” Pruitt said, adding, “there’s a tremendous disagreement about the degree of the impact” of “human activity on the climate.”

Based on what?

The next day, a group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the EPA, asking for any agency documents that Administrator Pruitt may have relied on to come to his conclusions. Since Pruitt’s words contradicted scientific evidence shared by the EPA before the administrator took office, PEER's request might turn up some recent document that indicated Pruitt had new information.

Instead, the EPA stalled and refused to provide any information to PEER. The employee group then sued the agency.

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Categories: News

92 million MyHeritage users had their data quietly swiped

Tue, 06/05/2018 - 18:38

Enlarge / MyHeritage offers DNA testing and ancestry services. (credit: MyHeritage)

Email addresses and hashed passwords of more than 92 million MyHeritage users were exposed in a cybersecurity breach on October 26, 2017, the popular genealogy company reported Monday, June 4, 2018.

MyHeritage said that it only learned of the breach earlier that day—more than seven months after the fact—when an unidentified “security researcher” sent the company’s chief information security officer a message. The researcher said they had found a file containing users’ data on a private server and passed a copy of the file along.

MyHeritage, which allows users to set up family trees and probe their DNA for clues about their ancestry, promptly reported the breach in a blog post, writing:

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Categories: News

Researchers predict economic downturn if fossil fuel investment goes unchecked

Tue, 06/05/2018 - 15:20

Enlarge / Exxon Mobil oil-processing towers and gas-processing infrastructure. (credit: Dimas Ardian/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

An economic downturn on the level of the 2008 recession is coming if we keep investing in fossil fuels, researchers say. If fossil fuel-producing countries like the US, Canada, and Russia don't guide their economies away from oil, gas, and coal, then low-carbon technology could render at least some of those investments worthless. According to a paper in Nature Climate Change, approximately $1 trillion to $4 trillion could be lost from the global economy, even taking into account the fact that the Trump administration has hit the brakes on a lot of climate change policy in the US.

With or without the US federal government, countries and regions around the world (including US states) are pursuing policies to meet the 2°C climate change goals from the Paris Agreement. At the same time, investment in fossil fuel assets continues. These assets, like drill rigs and pipelines, generally have long lifetimes, so as the world moves to low-carbon and zero-carbon technologies, we can expect that some fossil fuel assets will become valueless before the end of their projected lifetimes. Investors call these valueless assets "stranded."

"Irrespective of whether or not new climate policies are adopted, global demand growth for fossil fuels is already slowing in the current technological transition," the researchers from Radboud University in the Netherlands write. "The question then is whether, under the current pace of low-carbon technology diffusion, fossil fuel assets are bound to become stranded due to the trajectories in renewable-energy deployment, transport fuel efficiency, and transport electrification."

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