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Creating goosebumps at will may be more interesting than it sounds

Mon, 08/06/2018 - 19:25

Enlarge / Some people can do raise goosebumps voluntarily, but how they do so is mysterious. (credit: Fuschia Foot / Flickr)

Imagine taking a popsicle stick and scraping it over your lower teeth. The feel of the wood's texture might give you a case of the squirms, but for Susan Wilson, it’s a gateway to an unusual ability: thinking about it gives her goosebumps, on demand.

Eating popsicles as a young child, she says, “There was a little bit that always stuck on that wooden stick, and you’d scrape—” she breaks off with a mild yelp. “Ooooooh, it’s happening, right now while I’m talking to you. And then I realized as I got older that I just had to think about it and it would give the exact same—oh, I can’t get rid of them now—it would give the same response.”

Based on what we currently know about the body, this probably shouldn’t be possible: the muscles that pull on individual hairs to raise them, goosebump-style, are smooth muscles that aren’t under your control the same way your biceps or quadriceps are. But a paper published last week makes a cautious start on studying the phenomenon, exploring the experiences of 32 people like Wilson. The research found that people who can trigger their own goosebumps describe very similar sensations and triggers—and that the interplay between goosebumps and personality could give useful insights into how emotion works.

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What is milk? Answer muddled after almond milk mixes with cow milk

Mon, 08/06/2018 - 18:20

Enlarge / A ceamy, white beverage of some sort. (credit: Getty / Thomas Trutschel)

Almonds surely don’t lactate—but keeping various milk products straight may not be a breeze.

HP Hood LLC is voluntarily recalling more than 145,000 half-gallon cartons of its Vanilla Almond Breeze almond milk after a batch was tainted with cow’s milk. “Employee error” was to blame for spoiling the non-dairy drink, according to the company, which announced the recall late last week.

The udder mix-up spilled the bitter truth about the almond milk’s production: it’s being processed in the same facility as cow’s milk, its legen-dairy rival. The revelation may leave a sour taste for some as regulators and lawmakers are currently grappling with the definition of “milk.” The dairy industry, of course, is continuing with its long-standing argument that companies selling non-dairy beverages are profiting off moo-juice’s good name.

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Just what’s happened to our neighborhood’s most violent star, η Carinae?

Mon, 08/06/2018 - 17:50

Enlarge / The massive stars of η Carinae are enshrouded in a cloud of their own creation. (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

During the 1840s, an apparently unremarkable star began to brighten. Over the course of roughly a decade, it became one of the brightest stars visible from Earth. Often, brightening like that means a supernova has destroyed the star, but η Carinae (or Eta Carinae) was still there when it was all over, and it underwent a number of smaller events over the ensuing century and a half.

Modern astronomy hardware has revealed that the resemblance to a supernova goes deeper than these early observations. Imaging of the complex nebula that surrounds η Carinae has revealed that a giant star had ejected roughly 10 times the Sun's mass worth of material into its surroundings during what's now known as the Great Eruption. Imaging also revealed that the system is a binary, containing a second enormous star in an eccentric orbit around the first.

We can't go back in time to observe the Great Eruption with modern instruments. But a team of researchers has been tracking its progress using echoes of light reflected off some dust that was more than 100 light years away from the star. The echoes reveal some material moving at a phenomenal speed—roughly 20,000 kilometers a second. That, combined with other unusual features of the system, led them to propose that there used to be three stars in η Carinae, and the outburst was the result of two of them merging.

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SpaceX organizes inaugural conference to plan landings on Mars

Mon, 08/06/2018 - 17:12

Enlarge / Elon Musk speaks at the International Astronautical Congress on September 29, 2017 in Adelaide, Australia. Behind him is a rendering of the Big Falcon Spaceship that could transport people to Mars. (credit: Mark Brake/Getty Images)

No one can deny that SpaceX founder Elon Musk has thought a lot about how to transport humans safely to Mars with his Big Falcon Rocket. But when it comes to Musk's highly ambitious plans to settle Mars in the coming decades, some critics say Musk hasn't paid enough attention to what people will do once they get there.

However, SpaceX may be getting more serious about preparing for human landings on Mars, both in terms of how to keep people alive as well as providing them something meaningful to do. According to private invitations seen by Ars, the company will host a "Mars Workshop" on Tuesday and Wednesday this week at the University of Colorado Boulder. Although the company would not comment directly, a SpaceX official said, "I can confirm the event and that we regularly meet with a variety of experts concerning our missions to Mars."

This appears to be the first meeting of such magnitude, however, with nearly 60 key scientists and engineers from industry, academia, and government attending the workshop, including a handful of leaders from NASA's Mars exploration program. The invitation for the inaugural Mars meeting encourages participants to contribute to "active discussions regarding what will be needed to make such missions happen." Attendees are being asked to not publicize the workshop or their attendance.

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Rocket Lab delays its third launch again but plans back-to-back flights

Mon, 08/06/2018 - 11:10

Enlarge / In January, 2018, Rocket Lab reached orbit for the first time with the second launch of its Electron vehicle. (credit: Rocket Lab)

Rocket Lab has announced another delay to the launch of its "It's Business Time" mission, this time until November. However the rocket company seems confident enough that it has addressed an issue with the rocket motor controller that is has scheduled another launch to take place within weeks of the "It's Business Time" flight.

Originally, the third flight of Rocket Lab's Electron launcher was due to occur in April 2018, and this was eventually delayed until June. After engineers discovered an issue with the rocket's motor controller, the company stood down its launch attempt this summer. According to a news release from the company, this additional time allowed for more analysis, and the motor controllers have been modified and undergone new qualification testing ahead of the next launch.

The company appears to have softened the blow of this additional launch delay until November by promising that the fourth flight of the Electron vehicle will occur "within weeks" of the third flight. That mission is tentatively scheduled for December.

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Tonight: SpaceX to reuse its first Block 5 variant of the Falcon 9

Mon, 08/06/2018 - 08:53

Enlarge / A Block 5 variant of the Falcon 9 rocket launches in July. (credit: Trevor Mahlmann)

On May 11, SpaceX launched the new, optimized-for-reuse Block 5 variant of its Falcon 9 rocket for the first time. Just before the flight, Ars asked company founder Elon Musk how long it would be before we saw the first reflight of a Block 5 booster.

"We are going to be very rigorous in taking this rocket apart and confirming our design assumptions to be confident that is indeed able to be reused without taking apart,” Musk said at the time. “Ironically, we need to take it apart to confirm it does not need to be taken apart.”

Apparently it did not take that long to tear the first stage of this rocket apart, because less than three months later, this booster is back on the launch pad for a geostationary mission set to launch late Monday night. SpaceX is targeting launch of the Merah Putih satellite to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit during a two-hour launch window that opens at 1:18am ET Tuesday (5:18 UTC). The launch will occur from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The first stage will attempt to make a landing on the Of Course I Still Love You drone ship after completing its primary mission. Weather conditions appear favorable.

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Hospital superbugs are evolving to survive hand sanitizers

Sun, 08/05/2018 - 09:00

Enlarge / A woman wearing a surgical mask washing her hands with a hand sanitizer. (credit: Getty | Andia)

Popular hand sanitizers may be heading the way of antibiotics, according to a study published this week in Science Translational Medicine.

Bacteria gathered from two hospitals in Australia between 1997 and 2015 appeared to gradually get better at surviving the alcohol used in hand sanitizers, researchers found. The bacteria’s boost in booze tolerance seemed in step with the hospitals’ gradually increasing use of alcohol-based sanitizers within that same time period—an increase aimed at improving sanitation and thwarting the spread of those very bacteria. Yet the germ surveillance data as well as a series of experiments the researchers conducted in mice suggest that the effort might be backfiring and that the hooch hygiene may actually be encouraging the spread of drug-resistant pathogens.

The researchers, led by infectious disease expert Paul Johnson and microbiologist Timothy Stinear of the University of Melbourne, summarized the findings, writing:

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Metamaterial-equipped endoscope reveals your innermost secrets

Sat, 08/04/2018 - 12:45

Enlarge / An endoscope lens. Metamaterials may allow us to replace the traditional optics of this element with an aberration-free, flat lens. (credit: Carnegie-Mellon)

What is the first indication of skin cancer? An odd-looking mole on the skin. How about cervical cancer? We search for cells that look abnormal. The eyeball, whether aided by microscopes or not, has a critical role to play in medicine, since it feeds information to a brain that is very good at picking out subtle differences.

This is why endoscopes are so useful: they allow doctors to see what would otherwise be hidden. But even then, most endoscopes only show the surface features of organs, while a good diagnosis requires looking at cells that are hidden beneath the surface. This is exactly the problem that a large group of scientists, doctors, and engineers has addressed. The researchers have developed an endoscope that is much better at revealing hidden features.

Water is transparent

In some ways, we should be surprised that we cannot see beneath the surface of our skin. If you’ve ever looked at cells under a microscope, it is really hard to make anything out. You see a couple of thin, barely visible membranes and a few mostly transparent lumps. A cell is mostly water, and most of the light simply passes through it.

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After seven difficult years, a fine day for NASA and human spaceflight

Fri, 08/03/2018 - 18:08

NASA/Bill Ingalls

HOUSTON, Texas—For the first time since September 2010, NASA has named a new, All-American crew that will launch into space from the United States. In fact, the organization announced four of them on Friday, selecting the first two crews that will fly aboard SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft on their test and operational flights.

NASA celebrated the announcement with all the pomp and circumstance one would expect from an agency that has chafed under a spaceflight gap during which America has relied on Russia for human access to space. As they were announced Friday, each of the nine crew members exulted as he or she walked across the stage. Some raised their arms in triumph. Others pumped their fists. It was a cathartic day in Houston, Texas as a crowd of onlookers in a large auditorium cheered.

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Gene editing crunches an organism’s genome into single, giant DNA molecule

Fri, 08/03/2018 - 10:44

Enlarge / Individual chromosomes (right) have a complex organization when packed inside a cell's nucleus (left). (credit: Thomas Ried/NIH)

Complex organisms have complex genomes. While bacteria and archaea keep all of their genes on a single loop of DNA, humans scatter them across 23 large DNA molecules called chromosomes; chromosome counts range from a single chromosome in males of an ant species to more than 400 in a butterfly.

There have been indications that chromosomes matter for an organism's underlying biology. Specialized structures within them influence the activity of nearby genes. And studies show that areas on different chromosomes will consistently be found next to each other in the cell, suggesting their interactions are significant.

So how do we square these two facts? Chromosome counts vary wildly and sometimes differ between closely related species, suggesting the actual number of chromosomes doesn't matter much. Yet the chromosomes themselves seem to be critical for an organism's genome to function as expected. To explore this issue, two different groups tried an audacious experiment: using genome editing, they gradually merged a yeast's 16 chromosomes down to just one giant molecule. And, unexpectedly, the yeast were mostly fine.

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Salt-infused graphene creates an infrared cloaking device

Fri, 08/03/2018 - 10:09

Enlarge / That's not a Warhol. That's the material described here, showing fine control over whether it's hotter or colder than its surroundings.

I love light and the various manners in which we can control it. It's a good time for me, as we are truly in a golden age of light control. We can manipulate it to see details that would otherwise be invisible. We can guide it around objects so that they are invisible. Light has been made to stand still and dance on the pointy end of pins.

All this control of light is indirect, coming via our control of materials that the light interacts with. Now, researchers have crafted a material that adapts its properties so that its infrared appearance is either hotter or colder than the object it encloses. In other words, hot objects appear cold, or cold objects can appear hot—it's infrared camouflage.

It’s all about those electrons

So, do you make yourself some infrared camo gear? The basic procedure is to control the efficiency with a material that can emit infrared radiation. Take gold as an example. Gold is a nearly perfect metal: it has high conductivity and does not absorb infrared radiation very easily. That means it will reflect incoming radiation; this is why emergency blankets have a thin gold coating: the gold reflects your own infrared radiation back to you to keep you warm.

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Compulsive gambling, sex from popular drug? Answer to 100s of lawsuits looms

Fri, 08/03/2018 - 09:40

Enlarge / Bottles of Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. Abilify brand medication sits on a pharmacy shelf in Princeton, Illinois, on Wednesday, October 22, 2014. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

Makers of the blockbuster drug Abilify have until September 1 to come up with a way to settle more than 800 lawsuits that claim the anti-psychotic and anti-depressive drug spurred uncontrollable urges to gamble, binge eat, shop, and have sex—all without any warning.

The deadline for that “global settlement” was ordered recently by Judge M. Casey Rodgers in the Northern District Court of Florida, which is handling all the lawsuits in a lumped process called multidistrict litigation (MDL).

Judge Rodgers made the call after Abilify’s makers, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Otsuka, settled three lawsuits from the MDL individually earlier this year. All three were settled for undisclosed sums. Those cases had been carefully selected by the court and used as so-called bellwether trials. That is, they were test cases for the rest, thus they set a precedent for settlement. In the event that Bristol-Myers Squibb and Otsuka fail to come up with a way to settle the rest by the deadline, the court will move a fresh batch of lawsuits from the MDL to trial.

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People buried at Stonehenge may have come from as far away as Wales

Fri, 08/03/2018 - 09:15

Enlarge / Archaeologists excavate ancient human remains re-interred in Aubrey Hole 7 in the 1920s. (credit: Adam Stanford of Aerial-Cam Ltd)

New chemical analysis of cremated remains unearthed at Stonehenge suggests that several of the people buried there came from farther west, possibly even from the same area of Wales as the “bluestones,” the shorter, bluish-gray stones that form the inner ring of the monument.

Over the last century, archaeologists have pored over the details of Stonehenge’s construction, but they’ve largely ignored the 58 people interred in a ring of 56 shallow pits, now called Aubrey holes, around the monument. Until recently, the cremated remains of these ancient Britons didn’t have much to tell archaeologists, because the heat of cremation tends to destroy most of the evidence about where people came from and how they lived.

But strontium turns out to withstand the heat, and it’s giving archaeologists new clues about where the people buried at Stonehenge spent the last few years of their lives.

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Rocket Report: Japan chasing SpaceX, missile-test failure, Russian trolling

Fri, 08/03/2018 - 07:00

Enlarge (credit: Rocket Lab/Aurich Lawson)

Welcome to Edition 1.11 of the Rocket Report! This week we have scads of news, including some rocket failures in America and big plans among Chinese rocket companies. Also, the Japanese space agency seems alarmed at the rise of reusable rockets and is now doing what it can to catch up to SpaceX.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don't want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Virgin reaches 52km in latest Unity flight. During the third powered flight of the VSS Unity vehicle, the spacecraft reached an altitude of 52km, just over halfway toward the Kármán line, which generally is regarded as the beginning of outer space. This is the first time that Virgin Galactic has flown into the mesosphere, Ars reports.

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How can NASA return to the Moon? By making everything reusable, chief says

Thu, 08/02/2018 - 17:00

Enlarge / On Thursday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, left, was shown the Orion test crew capsule that will be used for the Ascent Abort-2 test. NASA's Jon Olansen, second from left, speaks as Orion Program Manager Mark Kirasich looks on. (credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

One thing new NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has shown is that he appreciates space policy history. In his first public speech last May after taking the reins of NASA, when discussing the Trump administration's preference to return to the Moon, Bridenstine cited a number of past human exploration programs proposed by Republican and Democratic presidents that fell by the wayside. "Times have changed," Bridenstine said. "This will not be Lucy and the football again."

This week Bridenstine visited Johnson Space Center for the first time as administrator. On Friday, he will unveil the first astronauts that will fly into space on board the Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Dragon commercial crew vehicles in about a year. As part of the visit, he also answered questions for an hour from a handful of media on Thursday. Ars pressed Bridenstine on why things would be different from past failures to return astronauts to the Moon or go on to Mars.

In short, he believes reusability—from rockets to lunar landers—is the game-changing technology that enables deep-space exploration.

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The modern pygmies of Flores are not related to Homo floresiensis

Thu, 08/02/2018 - 14:00

Liang Bua, the limestone cave on the Indonesian island of Flores where the H. floresiensis remains were found. (credit: Liang Bua Team)

On the Indonesian island of Flores, less than a mile from the cave where archaeologists discovered the fossil remains of the small-statured hominin Homo floresiensis, there's a village called Rampasasa that is home to a small population of pygmies. “Pygmy” is the scientific term for a group of people where adult males are less than about 4.7 feet tall but whose bodies have average human proportions. Most of the people living in Rampasasa fit that description.

It would be easy to assume they’re related to the other short-statured residents of Flores, and in fact some of the Rampasasans themselves have made that claim in the past. But a new genetic study says that’s not the case. These people show no signs of H. floresiensis in their ancestry, but their genomes do show evidence of a relatively recent adaptation toward shorter height. That means that people with short stature evolved twice on the same island, tens of thousands of years apart.

The hobbits are gone

Evolutionary biologist Serena Tucci of Princeton University and her colleagues obtained DNA samples from 32 people in Rampasasa. They sequenced the full genomes of 10 of those people and looked for signs of an ancient encounter with H. floresiensis or some other unknown hominin relative.

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Physicists’ simple spanks economists’ complex in economic growth forecasts

Thu, 08/02/2018 - 12:49

Enlarge (credit: CreditDebitPro)

Physicists have a reputation for being a bunch of stickybeaks—they will jump into unrelated fields and tell everyone that they are doing it wrong. This reputation is so well deserved that there is even a relevant XKCD. Sometimes, though, it all works out—usually because the physicists stick to their area of expertise, which just happens to be relevant to the problem.

In this case, we are talking about economics. It just so happens that the economy falls into the category of a complex system, which various physicists spend a lot of time playing with.

The paper in question seems to bring together a number of slowly developing concepts in economics. Taken together, and adding a touch of dynamical modeling, their merger leads to better forecasts for gross domestic product (GDP)—and I expect that other economic indicators can be attacked by a similar procedure.

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Boeing shifts schedule for Starliner, calls 2019 crew launch “realistic”

Wed, 08/01/2018 - 18:34

Enlarge / An artist's view of the Starliner spacecraft en route to the International Space Station. (credit: Boeing)

On Wednesday, Boeing's John Mulholland, who manages the company's commercial crew program, provided an update on Boeing's development of its Starliner spacecraft. And, as was widely expected, the company moved its schedule to the right.

Now, instead of August 2018, Boeing will target the end of this year (or early 2019) for an uncrewed, orbital flight test of its Starliner vehicle. And the first flight of the spacecraft with astronauts aboard, which had been set for November 2018, will slip to mid-2019, Mulholland said. He added that NASA is working toward these dates as well, and he said that the company believes they are realistic.

Problems can always occur during the test phase of a spacecraft, of course. "There are certainly potential risks in front of us as we move through the remaining test program," Mulholland said. "There is always, by its nature, the risk of discovery." The biggest risk will come during the finalization of the test program and the discovery of new items that must be addressed before flight. "These development programs are hard," he said. "Especially for human spacecraft."

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Doctors cut out a large chunk of a boy’s brain—now he’s doing just fine

Wed, 08/01/2018 - 17:05

Enlarge / A researcher working with slices of human brains. (credit: Getty | Barcroft Media)

A boy who had large parts of the right side of his brain removed due to a slow-growing tumor made a nearly full recovery in the three years after his surgery, with other areas of his brain compensating for the loss, researchers reveal this week in Cell Reports.

Their case study highlights the brain’s tremendous ability to adapt to such losses and will help researchers better understand how, exactly, parts of the brain can accommodate such losses, the researchers write.

The boy, identified as UD in the case study, was a healthy, normal kid—up until he suddenly suffered a seizure at age four. He subsequently developed intractable epilepsy due to the tumor. When he was nearly seven years old, his parents and doctors made the tough decision to surgically remove the mass. That also meant removing the entire right side of his occipital lobe and part of his temporal lobe on his right side. Together, the extracted sections accounted for a third of the right hemisphere of UD’s brain.

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Blue diamonds come from ocean floor that is pushed nearly to Earth’s core

Wed, 08/01/2018 - 15:54

Enlarge / A 0.03 carat blue diamond analyzed for this study. The visible black specks are minerals trapped inside the diamond. (credit: Evan M. Smith/© 2018 GIA)

Diamonds have a lot going on. Besides their sought-after clarity, extreme hardness, and entanglement in civil wars, diamonds tell unique geologic stories. Contrary to the convenient idea that they are born from a magical transformation of compressed coal, diamonds actually form deep within the Earth and blast to the surface in unusually rapid volcanic eruptions.

What a jeweler might call an “impurity” in a diamond, a geologist calls an “inclusion.” These bits of other minerals trapped inside can tell you where that diamond came from and what it was like down there. In a new study of rare blue diamonds (like the famous Hope Diamond), a team led by Evan Smith of the Gemological Institute of America discovered that they appear to form at exceptional depths—yet are tinted blue by boron from ancient oceans.

Feeling blue

Only about 0.02 percent of diamonds are blue, making them a rarity among rarities. They’ve been found around the world, though, in volcanic deposits as old as 1.2 billion years and as young as 90 million. The weird thing about them is that the boron that turns them blue is exceedingly rare down in the Earth’s mantle and much more common in the Earth’s crust.

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