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Elon Musk wins bet, finishing massive battery installation in 100 days

Thu, 11/23/2017 - 15:20

Enlarge (credit: Tesla)

Tesla has completed construction of a massive 100 megawatt, 129 MWh battery installation in South Australia. The new facility boasts the largest megawatt rating for any grid-connected battery installation in the world.

The project was completed less than two months after the contract was signed on September 29, putting it ahead of schedule. Musk had promised Australian authorities that he would complete the project in 100 days or the project would be free. Musk has said it would cost Tesla "$50 million or more" if the company failed to meet the deadline.

"Congratulations to the Tesla crew and South Australian authorities who worked so hard to get this manufactured and installed in record time!" Musk tweeted late on Wednesday night (Thursday in Australia).

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Here’s how to emotionally manipulate your family with alcohol this holiday

Thu, 11/23/2017 - 10:00

Keeping things chill (or slightly below room temperature). (credit: korafotomorgana)

When it comes to engineering the fickle emotions of humans, alcohol can do it all. It’s raised for successes and downed in sorrow. It can energize and relax us. It temporarily erases regrets while creating new ones. It’s liquid courage and a downer. It can smooth a first date or conjure tears alone. And this holiday—as with every holiday—it’s likely to both smother and ignite family blow-ups.

But not every drink offers the same mood maneuvering powers, according to a new study in BMJ Open. Sifting through drinking survey responses of nearly 30,000 people from 21 countries, researchers found that drinkers turn to different types of alcohol for different moods and purposes.

For instance, about 53 percent of respondents thought that red wine relaxed them, and 60 percent reported it made them sleepy. So, if you’re looking for a pacifier for any hot-headed in-laws this holiday, maybe turn to a mellow merlot. For your more enjoyable guests, go with a cocktail. Nearly 60 percent of respondents felt that spirits both energized them and boosted their confidence. And 42 percent said it made them feel sexy. But maybe keep the martinis away from that hot-headed relative—nearly 30 percent of the survey takers thought that spirits made them aggressive.

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Simple visual processing exercise is the first intervention to limit dementia

Wed, 11/22/2017 - 12:04

Enlarge / Exercises that help you to quickly pick out details seem to have the biggest effect on dementia. (credit: Flickr user City Lights)

Dementia strikes many people as they age, and there's currently not much we can do about it. It would be nice to think that there could be a fix to stave it off, like a computer game or something that could do more than help you improve at that computer game. Well now, for the first time, it seems like there may be.

The Advanced Cognitive Training in Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study was a randomized controlled trial in which thousands of healthy seniors got different kinds of cognitive training and had their cognition monitored over ten years. Importantly, the trial was registered at its outset at, so even if all of the results were negative (and therefore not likely to be published in an academic journal) they would still be on record and accessible.

After five years, all of the results were in fact negative. But after ten years, one of the interventions reduced dementia risk by about 30 percent.

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Decades later, Vietnam vets may be silently fighting cancer-causing parasite

Wed, 11/22/2017 - 10:58

Enlarge / An adult Clonorchis sinensis. (credit: PLoS Medicine)

A small pilot study hints that a startling number of Vietnam veterans may be infected with a liver parasite that can induce a rare type of cancer, the Associated Press reports.

The study, conducted by the Northport VA Medical Center in New York, involved blood samples from 50 Vietnam veterans. Testing performed at Seoul National University in South Korea found that more than 20 percent of those samples were positive or borderline positive for antibodies against the parasite, a liver fluke.

The results are preliminary and require follow-up research. It’s also unclear how the 50 blood samples were chosen. That said, the results hint that many veterans may have the cancer-inducing infection and not yet know. The study follows a report last year by the AP, which raised questions about the rate of that otherwise rare type of cancer in veterans.

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Chasing ‘Oumuamua—unfortunately human technology isn’t up to the task

Wed, 11/22/2017 - 10:45

Enlarge / An illustration of a New Horizons spacecraft atop an illustration of 'Oumuamua. Nothing is to scale. (credit: European Southern Observatory / M. Kornmesser )

A little more than a month ago, an interstellar visitor now known as 'Oumuamua passed within 24 million kilometers of Earth. It is now moving rapidly away from our planet at a velocity of approximately 26km/s. That is considerably faster than, say, the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which is hurtling beyond the Solar System at a velocity of 17km/s.

The first interstellar object is doubly intriguing because humans have never been able to study something from beyond the Solar System up close. Moreover, recent observations have shown that 'Oumuamua has a reddish color, astronomers say, and unexpected oblong shape, like that of a giant, 400-meter-long cigar. Already, the object is fading from view, and we will never see it again as it zooms away.

But what if we could? NASA is building what will be the world's most powerful rocket, the Space Launch System. Would it be capable of launching a small probe to catch 'Oumuamua? Do we have any technology that can catch this interstellar interloper?

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New paper makes the case that Mars is dry

Wed, 11/22/2017 - 09:31

Enlarge / Those dark streaks come and go with the seasons. We still don't know what causes them. (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

Mars clearly had extensive water in the past, and there's still plenty of it locked up as ice in glaciers and the polar ice caps. But the atmosphere is too thin and cold to allow liquid water to exist on the surface, which makes prospects for life on the red planet far less likely.

Back in 2011, however, researchers suggested that, contrary to our expectations, there might still be some water seeping out onto Mars' surface. Darkened features were identified on a variety of slopes, and they seemed to appear during warmer seasons and vanish as temperatures plunged again. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter appeared to detect water at the site. But other researchers proposed a physical mechanism that didn't involve water that could account for the seasonal changes.

Now, a review of the evidence in Nature Geoscience argues that there are problems with almost all of the potential causes for these seasonal features. And, in the absence of a compelling case for water, it's best to assume that the harsh conditions mean what we typically thought they did: Mars is a dry planet.

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Before Peter Thiel invested, research on herpes vaccine began in US hotel rooms

Tue, 11/21/2017 - 20:11

(credit: ZaldyImg)

The researcher who conducted a controversial 2016 herpes vaccine trial on the island of St. Kitts without federal safety oversight had secretly begun the trial in the US three years earlier. He began them in hotel rooms not far from his academic lab. That’s according to a new investigation by Kaiser Health News.

That researcher, the late Dr. William Halford of Southern Illinois University, administered shots to at least eight people with herpes in 2013. Without any federal or institutional approval or oversight, he administered the shots himself in rooms at a Holiday Inn Express and a Crowne Plaza Hotel within a short drive from SIU. Halford, who passed away from cancer in June of this year, was a microbiologist, not a physician.

Several people who received the vaccine have since complained to the FDA and SIU. They reported potential side effects of the vaccine including large, painful rashes and becoming infected with a strain of herpes different from their initial infection.

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British water utilities admit they use divining rods to find leaks

Tue, 11/21/2017 - 18:00

Enlarge / A woman—but probably not a British water professional—uses a divining rod. (credit: VeloBusDriver)

Ten out of 12 water utilities in the United Kingdom admitted that their technicians use divining rods to find underground leaks or water pipes, according to an investigation by science blogger Sally Le Page.

Dowsing is a centuries-old technique for locating underground water. Someone searching for water holds two parallel sticks—or sometimes a single Y-shaped stick—called divining rods while walking in an area where there might be water under the surface. The branches supposedly twitch when they're over a water source.

Needless to say, there's zero scientific evidence that this technique actually works better than random chance. But Le Page got a bunch of UK water companies to admit that their technicians still employ the superstitious practice.

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Drugs that switch your brain into squirrel-mode may save you from a stroke

Tue, 11/21/2017 - 16:50

Enlarge / Aww. Well, if the 13-lined ground squirrel doesn’t save your brain, maybe it’ll warm your heart. (credit: Phil Myers, Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan)

Stroke treatments have been a tough nut to crack. So, naturally, scientists have turned to squirrels for inspiration.

In the latest cache of data, researchers dug up a drug that can essentially flip a hibernation switch in brain cells, mimicking conditions in the noggins of dormant squirrels and potentially cushioning the blow from strokes and other cardiovascular incidents. In early tests, the drug protected cells in lab from oxygen and glucose depletion—cell-killing conditions during strokes and hibernation. The drug could also activate those protective hibernation conditions in the brains of live, non-hibernating mice.

The drug development is in its earliest phases—many, many years will have to pass before it finds its way into a clinic, if it even makes it that far (most early drug candidates don’t). But, this latest research follows years of fundamental work on making our brains act more like that of a hibernating squirrel in dire situations. And researchers are still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about the approach.

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New hardware lets any computer run an interactive, 3D interface

Tue, 11/21/2017 - 10:44

Video shot and edited by Justin Wolfson. Click here for transcript. (video link)

My first experience with a hologram was, like so many other people's, completely fictional: a small, blue figure projected from R2-D2 in the original Star Wars. About a decade later, I got a taste of the real-world state of the art from New York City's Museum of Holography, now closed. Holograms did exist in all their 3D glory, but they were static. You committed to displaying one image when the hologram was made, and that was it. No animated messages from princesses.

But there has been progress since. Holographic displays with actual refresh rates—albeit painfully slow ones—and other approaches have been described, but products based on any of this have yet to appear. Meanwhile, non-holographic approaches to 3D have taken off. TV and movie screens feature 3D viewing with simple glasses but don't allow interactions. Immersive goggles and gear do allow interaction, but only for the people wearing the goggles, which isolates them from anyone nearby.

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A new law gives Air Force some wiggle room in picking its new rockets

Tue, 11/21/2017 - 08:59

Enlarge / Blue Origin's BE-4 engine hot fire test could have major implications for the next round of Air Force contract awards. (credit: Blue Origin)

On Monday, US aerospace companies submitted their final bids to capture some of the $1.2 billion on offer from the Air Force over the next five years to develop new launch systems for military purposes. The “Launch Services Agreement” competition has been closely watched in the aerospace industry, because the winners will help determine the future of US rocketry.

Through the competition, the Air Force seeks to end its dependence on Russian-made engines to get its spy and communications satellites into space. It wants commercial companies to provide two US-manufactured launch systems that can meet all of the national security requirements, including the launch of complex and heavy payloads.

Previously for this program, the Air Force has invested in technology development, and in 2016 it provided rocket engine development awards to SpaceX, Orbital ATK, United Launch Alliance, and Aerojet Rocketdyne. In future awards, the Air Force is likely to eventually winnow the number of participants. But which way would it go?

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If you liked the Cambrian Explosion, you’ll love the Ordovician Radiation

Mon, 11/20/2017 - 19:05

Enlarge / During the Ordovician, life was literally great. Multicellular plants and animals diversified and moved into ecological niches throughout the globe. This is probably what it was like on a typical Ordovician day, hanging out with cephalopods, crinoids, and coral at the edge of a supercontinent that covered the South Pole. I think a colony of graptolites is floating in the distance. (credit: Fritz Geller-Grimm)

Over half a billion years ago, during the Cambrian geological period, life on Earth started to get a lot more interesting. Thanks to the rise in free oxygen generated mostly by photosynthesizing algae, lifeforms could draw much more energy out of the environment. That meant the rise of multicellularity and the beginnings of a world full of the macro-sized plants and animals we know and love. That moment, full of weird-ass animals like Anomalocaris, is called the Cambrian Explosion.

The Cambrian Explosion gets a lot of play because it was the first time multicellular creatures ruled the planet. What few people (other than geologists and paleontologists) realize is that there was an even crazier time for early life. It came during the Ordovician period, right after the Cambrian came to a close 485 million years ago. The Ordovician Radiation, also called the Great Ordovician Diversification Event (GOBE), saw a quadrupling of diversity at the genus level (that's the category one step above species). Life also started occupying new ecological niches, clinging to plants floating in the ocean's water column and burrowing deep into the seabed.

Like the Cambrian, the Ordovician was a period when all of life still existed underwater. Most of the continents had formed a supercontinent called Gondwana over the south pole, creating the largest tropical coastline in our planet's history. (There were no polar ice caps during this period.) The warm coastal waters surrounding Gondwana were perfect for new kinds of animals, like brachiopods, crinoids, ostracodes, cephalopods, corals, and bryozoans. Plus, everybody's favorite Cambrian animal, the trilobite, diversified like crazy and moved into many new habitats during this time.

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First-known interstellar visitor is a bizarre, cigar-shaped asteroid

Mon, 11/20/2017 - 15:12

Enlarge / An artist’s impression of the oddly shaped interstellar asteroid `Oumuamua. (credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser)

Since mid-October, the astronomy community has been buzzing about what might be our Solar System’s first confirmed interstellar visitor. An automated telescope spotted an object that appeared as if it had been dropped on the Solar System from above, an angle that suggests it arrived from elsewhere. Now, a team of astronomers has rushed out a paper that describes the object's odd properties and gives it the name “1I/2017 U1 ‘Oumuamua.” In Hawaiian, ‘Oumuamua roughly means “first messenger,” and the 1I indicates that it’s the first interstellar object.

‘Oumuamua was first spotted on October 19 by the Pan-STARRS1 automated telescope system. Pan-STARRS1 turned out to have captured images of the object the day previously, but the automated analysis software hadn’t identified it. Further images over the next few days allowed researchers to refine its travel through our Solar System, confirming that ‘Oumuamua was making the most extreme approach toward the inner Solar System of any object we’ve ever seen. In essence, it appeared to have been dropped onto the Solar System from above, plunging between the Sun and the orbit of Mercury. It was also moving extremely quickly.

The Solar System was formed from a flattened disk of material, and all of the planets orbit roughly in the plane of that disk. Smaller objects, like dwarf planets and comets, may take somewhat more erratic approaches with orbits tilted out of that plane, but they still roughly aligned with it. We had literally never seen anything like ‘Oumuamua.

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Nebraska approves controversial Keystone XL pipeline with conditions

Mon, 11/20/2017 - 13:44

Enlarge / This is the pipeline pumping station for the Keystone operations in Steele City, Nebraska. Steele City is a strategic location for the Keystone Pipeline projects. (credit: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Image)

On Monday, the Nebraska Public Service Commission issued its final order (PDF) on the fate of energy company TransCanada’s controversial Keystone XL pipeline. The commission conditionally approved the pipeline, but it ordered the pipeline to be moved east of Nebraska’s ecologically sensitive Sandhills region.

The condition sets up a hurdle for TransCanada—now the company needs to seek the approval of different local landowners, according to The Washington Post. Still, the approval likely means Keystone XL will be able to deliver tar sands crude oil from Alberta, Canada to refineries in Texas in the near future. Reuters called the Nebraska approval "the last big regulatory obstacle" to the completion of the pipeline.

The pipeline, which was proposed in 2008, has become a political football in a partisan world. In 2015, the Obama administration’s State Department denied approval for a large section of the pipeline, saying that it wouldn’t meaningfully contribute to the US economy, and already-low US gas prices wouldn’t be affected by the influx of Canadian oil. After the Trump administration took over, the new president signed an executive order reversing the Obama administration’s 2015 decision and its 2016 decision to rescind approval for the also-controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.

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Amid soaring drug prices, FDA reverses stance and cracks down on cheap imports

Mon, 11/20/2017 - 12:23

Enlarge / Sixty-one-year-old US citizen Shirley Wilford hops the border to buy prescription drugs in a pharmacy in Hemmingford, Canada. (credit: Getty | Darren McCollester)

Late last month, the Food and Drug Administration raided nine stores in Central Florida that help customers illegally order affordable prescription drugs from verified pharmacies overseas, particularly those in Canada, according to a report by Kaiser Health News.

The agency sent in criminal investigation agents with search warrants for computer files and any paperwork related to sales of foreign drugs. The agents also took files on customers and the stores’ financial records. They left behind a letter for store owners to sign, acknowledging that the practice of importing foreign medicines is illegal.

Although none of the stores has closed due to the activity, the owners are spooked by the turn of events—and puzzled by the timing.

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America’s oldest rocket just made its penultimate flight

Mon, 11/20/2017 - 09:35


The Delta II rocket first launched in 1989, making it the oldest US orbital launch system still flying today. However, the heritage of this launch system is much older still. The Delta II rocket's first stage is derivative of the Thor intermediate range ballistic missile—the first operational ballistic missile used by the United States Air Force in the 1950s. Thus, the Delta II rocket can trace its roots to the beginning of US rocketry.

But now the end is near for the Delta II rocket. For United Launch Alliance, it is costly to keep supply lines open for the medium-lift rocket (three to six tons to low-Earth orbit) that has flown just three times since 2012. On Saturday morning, the Delta II made its penultimate launch by carrying the first Joint Polar Satellite System spacecraft into orbit for NASA and NOAA. The flight occurred from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

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Delhi smog levels drop from severe to very poor—you know, half-marathon weather

Mon, 11/20/2017 - 08:38

Enlarge / A man wears a face mask as he takes part in the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon 2017 in New Delhi on November 19, 2017. (credit: Getty | SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP)

Despite extremely dangerous levels of air pollution smothering Delhi and creating “gas chamber” conditions, thousands took to the streets to run a half marathon Sunday. Most ran without masks that would filter out harmful pollution.

In recent weeks, air pollution measurements around the sprawling megacity have been off the charts, hitting levels around 30 times those considered safe by the World Health Organization. Authorities blamed the toxic smog on seasonal crop burns in nearby areas as well as calm winds and the usual emissions from vehicles and industry.

Exasperated doctors explained that it was harmful to merely walk around in the smog, let alone run. The thick pollution can spark asthma attacks, lung and heart damage, and sudden cardiac arrest, they warned. And they implored race organizers and authorities to cancel or postpone the event, which has been long set for November 19.

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Archaeologists find mysterious, 4,000-year-old dog sacrifices in Russia

Sun, 11/19/2017 - 16:00

A map of the area on the northern Russian steppes where the sacrificial dogs were found. The Krasnosamarskoe settlement was a tiny ritual center, part of the larger Indo-European Srubnaya culture in the late Bronze Age. (credit: Journal of Anthropological Archaeology)

4,000 years ago in the northern steppes of Eurasia, in the shadow of the Ural Mountains, a tiny settlement stood on a natural terrace overlooking the Samara River. In the late twentieth century, a group of archaeologists excavated the remains of two or three structures that once stood here, surrounded by green fields where sheep and cattle grazed. But the researchers quickly discovered this was no ordinary settlement. Unusual burials and the charred remains of almost fifty dogs suggested this place was a ritual center for at least 100 years.

Hartwick College anthropologist David Anthony and his colleagues have excavated for several years at the site, called Krasnosamarskoe, and have wondered since that time what kind of rituals would have left this particular set of remains behind. Anthony and his Hartwick College colleague Dorcas Brown offer some ideas in a paper published recently in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.

The people who lived at Krasnosamarskoe were part of an Indo-European cultural group called Srubnaya, with Bronze Age technology. The Srubnaya lived in settlements year-round, but were not farmers. They kept animals, hunted for wild game, and gathered plants to eat opportunistically. Like many Indo-European peoples, they did not have what modern people would call an organized religion. But as Krasnosamarskoe demonstrates, they certainly had beliefs that were highly spiritual and symbolic. And they engaged in ritualistic practices over many generations.

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How an unpaid UK researcher saved the Japanese seaweed industry

Sun, 11/19/2017 - 08:41

Enlarge / A nori farm off the coast of Japan. (credit: H. Grobe)

The tasty Japanese seaweed nori is ubiquitous today, but that wasn't always true. Nori was once called “lucky grass” because every year's harvest was entirely dependent on luck. Then, during World War II, luck ran out. No nori would grow off the coast of Japan, and farmers were distraught. But a major scientific discovery on the other side of the planet revealed something unexpected about the humble plant and turned an unpredictable crop into a steady and plentiful food source.

Nori is most familiar to us when it's wrapped around sushi. It looks less familiar when floating in the sea, but for centuries, farmers in Japan, China, and Korea knew it by sight. Every year, they would plant bamboo poles strung with nets in the coastal seabed and wait for nori to build up on them.

At first it would look like thin filaments. Then, with luck, it grew into healthy, harvestable plants with long, green leaves. The farmers never saw seeds or seedlings, so no one could cultivate it. The filaments simply appeared every year. That is, they appeared until after World War II, when pollution, industrialization along the coast, and a series of violent typhoons led to a disastrous drop in harvests. By 1951, nori production in Japan had been all but wiped out.

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Hairy situation: DC’s rail system may be taken down by human shedding

Fri, 11/17/2017 - 15:45

Enlarge / The DC Metro, when it's not on fire. (credit: Getty | Bill Clark)

For residents of our nation’s capital, news of a fire on the city’s rapid transit system—the Washington Metro—is not surprising. It catches fire and smokes quite regularly. At some points last year, there were reports of more than four fires per week (although there’s some dispute about that rate). There’s even the handy site——to check the current blaze status.

Yet, despite the common occurrence, residents may be surprised to learn a potential contributor to the system-wide sizzling: their own hair.

According to a safety specialist with the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), a thick, felt-like layer of human hair, skin, and other debris has collected on the aging tracks of the city’s rails. In particular, hair has built up on insulators supporting the transit system’s electrified third rails, which run cables carrying 750 Volts of electricity to power the trains. The hair coating delivers a real threat of electrical sparks and fire.

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