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Updated: 50 min 19 sec ago

Tax bill that passed the House would cripple training of scientists

Fri, 11/17/2017 - 14:33

Enlarge / Whatever you made in that flask, it's going to cost you. (credit: Oak Ridge National Lab)

Yesterday, the US House of Representatives passed its version of a tax bill that would drop corporate tax rates and alter various deductions. While most of the arguments about the bill have focused on which tax brackets will end up paying more, an entire class of individuals appears to have been specifically targeted with a measure that could raise their tax liability by 300 percent or more: graduate student researchers. If maintained, the changes could be crippling for research in the US.

Tuition waivers

Many graduate programs in areas like business, medicine, and law can afford to charge high tuitions. That's in part because these degrees are in high demand and in part because the students know that they'll have the potential to earn very large salaries after graduation.

PhD programs are nothing like this. Despite typically taking five to six years to complete, a PhD student is only likely to earn in the area of $44,000 after graduation if they're funded by the National Institutes of Health. Even four years of additional experience doesn't raise the salary above $50,000. As such, charging them tuition would leave them with no way to possibly pay back their student loans. Doing so would almost certainly discourage anyone but the independently wealthy from attending research-focused graduate programs.

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Swiss lab develops genetic tool kit to turn any cell into a tumor killer

Fri, 11/17/2017 - 11:11

Enlarge / T cells latch on to a cancer cell before killing it. (credit: NIH)

We've made some impressive advances towards inducing the immune system to attack cancers. One of these techniques, CAR-T cells, are amazing. They're made by inserting receptors that recognize cancerous cells into a leukemia patient’s own T cells. This induces those T cells to recognize the patient’s tumor as the threat that it is and destroy it.

But the fact that T cells mount such an effective immune response is their therapeutic weakness as well as their strength. Engineered immune cells like these can completely disrupt normal immune function, causing unpleasant conditions with names like macrophage activating syndrome, cytokine storms, and even neurotoxicity, all of which can be life-threatening. So a group of Swiss researchers have decided to engineer a killing system into non-immune cells to avoid all these side effects.

T cells target their tumor-killing immune response through cell-to-cell contact. This is a distinctive feature of how the T cell receptor works. It hangs out on the T cell's surface membrane, with some parts on the outside and some parts on the inside. When its external part contacts a particular feature on the surface of a cell, its intracellular part sends a signal through a cascade of molecules that eventually results in collection genes getting expressed. These genes include the ones needed to kill the target cell.

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First ever marijuana overdose death? Let’s review what “potential link” means

Fri, 11/17/2017 - 11:01

Enlarge / Even this baby is annoyed. (credit: Getty | VW Pics)

The US Drug Enforcement Administration plainly reports that no death from an overdose of marijuana has ever been reported—a tidbit often repeated by cannabis enthusiasts when discussing the potential harms of the popular drug. But this week, many news outlets coughed up headlines saying that the famous fact had gone up in smoke.

Those media reports dubbed the death of an 11-month-old Colorado boy as the first marijuana overdose death ever reported. They based that startling stat on a case report published in the August edition of Clinical Practice and Cases in Emergency Medicine.

But that’s not what the case report said—at all. And the doctors behind the report (who likely spent the week with their palms on their faces) are trying to set the record straight.

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Converting natural gas to hydrogen without any carbon emissions

Fri, 11/17/2017 - 09:28

Enlarge / Hard to believe that this stuff could cut carbon emissions. (credit: Department of Energy)

The boom in natural gas production has been essential to the drop in carbon emissions in the US, as methane, the primary component of natural gas, releases more energy for each carbon atom when burned. But there's still a carbon atom in each molecule of methane, so switching to natural gas will eventually lead to diminishing returns when it comes to emissions reductions. To keep our climate moderate, we'll eventually need to move off natural gas, as well.

But two new papers out this week suggest we could use natural gas without burning it. They detail efficient methods of converting methane to hydrogen in ways that let us capture much or all of the carbon left over. The hydrogen could then be burned or converted to electricity in a fuel cell—including mobile fuel cells that power cars. The supply obtained from methane could also be integrated with hydrogen from other sources.

The tech involved is also pretty cool in its own right, involving things like catalysts dissolved in liquid metal and solid materials that allow current to travel through them as protons, rather than as electrons.

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What is Zuma? Mystery surrounds the payload SpaceX is launching today

Thu, 11/16/2017 - 09:23

Enlarge / The Falcon 9 rocket and Zuma have gone vertical on Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center. (credit: SpaceX)

Since earning certification from the Air Force to launch national security payloads—typically spy satellites and military communications satellites—SpaceX has flown two military missions. It launched a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office in May and an Air Force space plane in September.

On Thursday, SpaceX will attempt to launch its third and most secretive payload for the military. The mission was not even made public until a launch license was released a month ago, and the company didn't acknowledge the launch until this last week. The payload was developed by Northrup Grumman, and has the mysterious name "Zuma," which sounds similar to a carbonated, alcoholic beverage briefly popular in the 1990s, Zima. There are few clues in the launch's mission patch.

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What’s worse? Doctors who believe homeopathy or just use it for placebo effect

Thu, 11/16/2017 - 09:16

Enlarge / Doctor giving homeopathy to a child. (credit: Getty | BSIP)

It’s hard to predict which would be more disconcerting: Finding out that your doctor believes in notions that defy basic science—like, the pseudoscientific doctrine of homeopathy—or that they’ll prescribe you something they know doesn’t work in hopes you’ll be tricked into believing you’re better—achieving nothing more than placebo effect.

It might be a toss-up of which is worse. And if you get a homeopathic prescription in Switzerland, it’s also a toss-up of which kind of doctor you’re dealing with.

In a large survey of physicians around Zurich, only 50 percent of the doctors who prescribed homeopathic treatments did so firmly believing that they were treating their patients’ ailments. About 21 percent of doctors who prescribed homeopathic treatments did so explicitly to achieve placebo effect. And the rest provided incomplete responses or reported ambiguous intentions behind their dubious prescriptions.

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To think critically, you have to be both analytical and motivated

Wed, 11/15/2017 - 13:25

Enlarge (credit: Norwich University)

In a world where accusations of "fake news" are thrown around essentially at random, critical thinking would seem to be a must. But this is also a world where the Moon landings are viewed as a conspiracy and people voice serious doubts about the Earth's roundness. Critical thinking appears to be in short supply at a time we desperately need it.

One of the proposed solutions to this issue is to incorporate more critical thinking into our education system. But critical thinking is more than just a skill set; you have to recognize when to apply it, do so effectively, and then know how to respond to the results. Understanding what makes a person effective at analyzing fake news and conspiracy theories has to take all of this into account. A small step toward that understanding comes from a recently released paper, which looks at how analytical thinking and motivated skepticism interact to make someone an effective critical thinker.

Valuing rationality

The work comes courtesy of the University of Illinois at Chicago's Tomas Ståhl and Jan-Willem van Prooijen at VU Amsterdam. This isn't the first time we've heard from Ståhl; last year, he published a paper on what he termed "moralizing epistemic rationality." In it, he looked at people's thoughts on the place critical thinking should occupy in their lives. The research identified two classes of individuals: those who valued their own engagement with critical thinking, and those who viewed it as a moral imperative that everyone engage in this sort of analysis.

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Astronomers find an Earth-size world just 11 light years away

Wed, 11/15/2017 - 09:15

Enlarge / Artist’s impression of the planet Ross 128 b. (credit: ESO)

Astronomers have discovered a planet 35 percent more massive than Earth in orbit around a red dwarf star just 11 light years from the Sun. The planet, Ross 128 b, likely exists at the edge of the small, relatively faint star's habitable zone even though it is 20 times closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun. The study in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics finds the best estimate for its surface temperature is between -60 degrees Celsius and 20 degrees Celsius.

This is not the closest Earth-size world that could potentially harbor liquid water on its surface—that title is held by Proxima Centauri b, which is less than 4.3 light years away from Earth and located in the star system closest to the Sun. Even so, due to a variety of factors, Ross 128 b is tied for fourth on a list of potentially most habitable exoplanets, with an Earth Similarity Index value of 0.86.

In the new research, astronomers discuss another reason to believe that life might be more likely to exist on Ross 128 b. That's because its parent star, Ross 128, is a relatively quiet red dwarf star, producing fewer stellar flares than most other, similar-sized stars such as Proxima Centauri. Such flares may well sterilize any life that might develop on such a world.

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Colorado DOT is partnering with Hyperloop offshoot to build Denver test track

Tue, 11/14/2017 - 19:46


A Hyperloop-related startup called Arrivo is building a $15 million test center and test track in the Denver Metro area, with the blessing of the Colorado Department of Transportation (DOT). The deal will be the second Hyperloop-related project for Colorado, after startup Hyperloop One and engineering firm Aecom announced in September that they would begin feasibility studies for a Rocky Mountain Hyperloop that would extend from Pueblo, Colorado, to Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Arrivo is headed by a name that may be familiar to Ars readers: Brogan BamBrogan. BamBrogan was an engineer at SpaceX and later the Chief Technology Officer at Hyperloop One. He quit, along with a small cadre of Hyperloop One executives, amid a flurry of lawsuits accusing the remaining executives on the Hyperloop One team of mismanagement and harassment. Hyperloop One sued back, accusing BamBrogan and his group of breaches of duty. The two sides quietly settled last November, and BamBrogan focused on building Arrivo while Hyperloop One moved forward with its Nevada test track.

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University could lose millions from “unethical” research backed by Peter Thiel

Tue, 11/14/2017 - 19:10

Enlarge / Peter Thiel is serious. (credit: Getty | Alex Wong)

Questionable herpes vaccine research backed by tech heavyweight Peter Thiel may have jeopardized $15 million in federal research funding to Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. That’s according to documents obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request by The State Journal Register.

In August, Kaiser Health News reported that Thiel and other conservative investors had contributed $7 million for the live-but-weakened herpes virus vaccine, developed by the late SIU researcher William Halford. The investments came after Halford and his private company, Rational Vaccines, had begun conducting small clinical trials in the Caribbean nation of St. Kitts and Nevis. With the off-shore location, Rational Vaccines’ trial skirted federal regulations and standard safety protocols for human trials, including having approval and oversight from an institutional review board (IRB).

Experts were quick to call the unapproved trial “patently unethical,” and researchers rejected the data from publication, calling the handling of safety issues “reckless.” The government of St. Kitts opened an investigation into the trial and reported that health authorities there had been kept in the dark.

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Even 8,000 years ago, a meal without wine was like a day without sunshine

Tue, 11/14/2017 - 12:07

Enlarge / The first vineyards probably weren't this orderly and certainly lacked the barn. (credit: New York State)

PIiny the Elder knew that truth comes out in it. Aeschylus called it the mirror of the mind. Robert Louis Stevenson said it was bottled poetry. Mark Twain compared the books of great geniuses to it. It is no wonder that wine—which perfectly complements food, inhibits inhibitions, and alters perceptions—has been inseparable from civilization from time immemorial. But when, exactly, "immemorial" started is still being investigated.

The absolute earliest confirmation of grape wine production, at about 7000 BCE, actually comes from China. But wine production started in the Near East. Canaanites brought it to Egypt by 3000 BCE, and from there it eventually swept through Europe. The earliest evidence of Neolithic Near Eastern wine had been from 5400-5000 BCE in the northwestern Zagros mountains of Iran. Now, new evidence pushes the start date about five hundred years back and a thousand kilometers north, to 6000-5800 BCE in the South Caucasus.

Back in the 1960s, a pottery sherd (not a typo—it’s the word archaeologists use for shards, for some reason) from a dig near Tbilisi tested positive for tartaric acid. That's the principal biomarker for wine, as it's not present in most fruits but is the most abundant acid in grapes. But in the 1960s it was standard practice to wash sherds in hydrochloric acid, and, anyway, this sherd was found on the surface, so who knows what it was exposed to in the environment. Point is, this was not the most reliable of artifacts.

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Experts raise eyebrows at digital pill to monitor patients with schizophrenia

Tue, 11/14/2017 - 11:55

Enlarge (credit: Getty | BSIP)

The Food and Drug Administration announced its approval Monday for the first digital medicine—a melding of a long-standing drug for schizophrenia—Abilify (aripiprazole tablets)—with an edible sensor that reports when it’s ingested. Together, they make Abilify MyCite.

Though the approval is a long time coming, the choice of an antipsychotic medicine for this advance is raising the eyebrows of some experts.

The digital ingestion tracking system works by embedding each Abilify tablet with a sensor “the size of a grain of sand,” according to the company behind it, Proteus Digital Health. The ingestible sensor is activated by gastric juices and sends a unique, identifying signal to a wearable patch. That patch automatically logs the date and time of the signal (as well as other basic health information) and can transmit that information via Bluetooth to a paired mobile device. The patient can sign consent forms to allow their doctors and up to four other people to receive the data. But, the app that works with the digital drug system allows patients to revoke access to data at any time.

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Harvey-scale rains could hit Texas 18x more often by the end of the century

Mon, 11/13/2017 - 17:52

Enlarge / Members of the Texas Army National Guard move through flooded Houston streets as floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey continue to rise on August 28, 2017. More than 12,000 members of the Texas National Guard have been called out to support local authorities in response to the storm. (credit: Zachary Wes)

Hurricanes strike the US with regularity, but there's nothing on record that is at all like Hurricane Harvey's pummeling of Houston. Understanding the risk of that kind of wind and rainfall happening again is critical if we intend to rebuild infrastructure that's going to survive to its expected expiration date. But freakish storms like Harvey make risk calculations challenging. These storms have no historic precedent, so we have no idea how often they occur; and the underlying probability of these events is shifting as our planet grows warmer.

An MIT professor named Kerry Emanuel, however, has helped develop a system that analyzes hurricane frequency in a warming world. Using it, he has found that Harvey-sized rainfall could go from being extremely rare to having an 18-percent chance of happening in any given year by the end of this century.

“Biblical” rainfall

Rainfall experiences a lot of local variations, and sites within a few miles of each other can often see very different numbers. To get a clearer picture of a storm's damage, the research community has settled on a figure called the "area integrated rainfall." By that measure, Harvey is the largest storm on record, having dumped 850 millimeters on the Houston area. That's extreme, but there are other storms of similar magnitude. Texas saw more than 500mm of rain from the remnants of hurricane Patricia just two years earlier.

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Some state-level policies really do curb energy sector emissions

Mon, 11/13/2017 - 14:00

(credit: EPA)

Researchers studying state-level climate policy in the US confirm what high school teachers already know: if you make an assignment voluntary and offer no incentives for completing it, no one’s gonna do it.

In an assessment of 17 climate and energy policies enacted by US states between 1990 and 2014, researchers from Emory University found that mandatory policies usually had a positive effect on emissions reduction while voluntary policies always had negligible or no effect.

What may be more interesting, however, is to look at which policies worked best. Such an analysis has growing practical implications. This year, the Trump Administration reversed many of the Obama Administration’s federal emissions-reducing guidelines, rules, and regulations, meaning states that want to curb emissions are left to their own devices. Legislators that are serious about crafting good environmental policy would do well to look at what’s worked for others before making proposals.

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2017 to see carbon emissions rise for the first time in years

Mon, 11/13/2017 - 13:45

Enlarge (credit: Global Carbon Project 2017)

For the last few years, global carbon dioxide emissions have done something surprising—they haven’t really gone up. The most optimistic among us may have felt there was a change in the wind, but it was too early to call this the peak of our emissions. And in fact it wasn't, as the preliminary analysis for 2017 shows that emissions will once again tick upward.

Every year, a huge group of researchers publishes an analysis of the global carbon cycle, projecting the final tally for human emissions for the year based on data through September. At the same time, they make any necessary revisions to the numbers for previous years, based on new data or improved estimates. The team estimates not just the emissions from burning fossil fuels and other industrial activities, but from the other terms in the global equation, too. That includes the emissions caused by human land use changes (like deforestation) and the carbon absorbed and released by Earth’s land ecosystems and oceans.

Last year’s global human emissions projection for 2016, an increase of just 0.2 percent, held up when the final numbers came in. But the projection for 2017 shows an increase of 2.0 percent—a disappointing bump.

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Sex unlikely to stop your heart—but if it does, your partner may let you die

Mon, 11/13/2017 - 13:24

Enlarge (credit: Getty | ullstein bild)

Your next romp with a paramour may blow your mind, but it’s unlikely to stop your heart, according to research presented this weekend at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2017 in Anaheim, California.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that if you do suffer cardiac arrest from an amorous encounter, there’s a decent chance your partner will just let you croak.

In an analysis of 4,557 adult cases of cardiac arrest in a Northwestern US community between 2002 and 2015, only 34 of them occurred during or within an hour of sexual intercourse. Of those, 32 were in men. That means that sex is linked to only about one in a hundred cases of cardiac arrest in men. For women, the rate is around one in a thousand.

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Russia has a plan to compete with SpaceX—but it has a flaw

Mon, 11/13/2017 - 11:43

Enlarge / A Soyuz rocket launches from Baikonur, Kazakhstan. (credit: NASA)

As recently as 2013, Russia's venerable fleet of rockets commanded nearly half of the global share of the commercial launch market. Since then, the emergence of other players, most notably SpaceX, has considerably shrunk the once-dominant Russian position.

This year, although Russia has made 17 successful orbital launches, only about a third of them have flown for paying customers other than the Russian government or the International Space Station. By contrast, SpaceX has made 16 launches this year, 11 of which have been for commercial customers. A SpaceX projection for 2018 suggests that disparity will continue to grow if the company continues to increase the flight rate of its Falcon 9 rocket.

Recognizing its dimming market position, the Russian rocket corporation, Energia, has fast-tracked development of a new medium-class launch vehicle that it is calling Soyuz-5. This rocket could replace the existing Soyuz rocket that carries cosmonauts and astronauts into space while competing with SpaceX for commercial payloads.

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Nearly 7 weeks after hurricane, more than 50% of Puerto Rico without power

Sun, 11/12/2017 - 15:45

US Army’s 249th Power Division works on a distribution line in the northeast part of Puerto Rico, Oct. 30. (Photo by Jeff Miller) (credit: Western Area Power)

Since Puerto Rico was struck by Hurricane Maria in late September, the island has struggled to repair power lines, water pumps, cell phone towers, roads, and bridges. The electrical system has come under the most scrutiny. The commonwealth’s power provider—Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority or PREPA—was bankrupt going into the disaster, and has faced scandal after scandal in recent weeks. After reconnecting more than 40 percent of its customers early last week, a major power line failed on Thursday, reducing the number of reconnected PREPA customers to 18 percent. Although the line was quickly fixed, currently only 47 percent of PREPA’s customers have power now, according to statistics from the Puerto Rican government.

That means that more than 50 percent of previously-connected Puerto Ricans have been living off generators or solar panels for nearly 7 weeks, or they live without power.

On Thursday, Governor Ricardo Rosselló demanded that his entire cabinet submit undated letters of resignation to his office, according to the New York Times. Rosselló said he hoped to cut cabinet members to form a more nimble government.

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Giving agriculture a global do-over could feed nearly a billion more people

Sun, 11/12/2017 - 11:00

Enlarge (credit: USGS)

As the human population grows and the human middle class grows in developing countries, we are going to need more. More food, more meat, more energy. And producing more is going to require more resources. Since we are just about tapped out of the resources required for food production—namely water and land—we are going to have to figure out how to use these limited resources as efficiently as possible.

A number of suggestions have been made to try to achieve this, from the lower tech—like curbing animal consumption and minimizing food waste—to the higher tech, like planting GMOS that might improve yields, developing better fertilizers, and maximizing irrigation efficiency. A new analysis in Nature Geoscience offers up one more: switching what we grow where.

The authors write: “We find that the current distribution of crops around the world neither attains maximum production nor minimum water use.” This is hardly surprising, since agriculture developed in a haphazard, piecemeal way, pushed by different political entities with different agendas over centuries. No one ever sat down with the whole globe before to determine what would grow best in each region.

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Enceladus heats up because its core is like a sponge

Sun, 11/12/2017 - 09:00

Enlarge (credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech)

On Earth, the heat that drives geology is partly leftover from the planet's formation and partly the result of radioactive decay. For the smaller bodies of our Solar System, neither of these should be big factors. Yet many of them are geologically active, thanks to heat generated by gravitational interactions. Uneven gravitational forces throughout a moon's orbit leads to internal flexing, generating enough heat to power geysers and volcanoes.

Or we think. In the case of Enceladus, Saturn's geyser-riddled moon, calculations suggest that the heat generated by orbital torques would only be enough to keep the moon's internal ocean liquid for about 30 million years. And, once its sub-surface ocean freezes, the moon's ability to flex goes down, which means less internal friction to warm it back up again. So why does Enceladus have an ocean at all, billions of years after it formed?

According to new research published in Nature Astronomy, that ocean survives because the core of the moon isn't a solid sphere of rock and metal; instead, it's a porous, loosely aggregated hunk of rock. Its sponge-like nature allows tidal heating to warm up its water to roughly 90°C.

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