Space

Space Is Not a Void (slate.com) 30

An anonymous reader shares an article: When President Kennedy announced the Apollo Program, he famously argued that we should go to the moon because it is hard. Solving the technical challenges of space travel is a kind of civilizational achievement on its own, like resolving an interplanetary Rubik's Cube. The argument worked, perhaps all too well. As soon as we landed on the moon, humanity's expansion into the cosmos slowed and then stopped (not counting robots). If you were to draw a graph charting the farthest distance a human being has ever been from the surface of Earth, the peak was in 1970 with Apollo 13. With the successful moon landings, we solved all of the fundamental challenges involved in launching humans into orbit and bringing them back safely. The people watching those early feats of exploration imagined we would soon be sending astronauts to Mars and beyond, but something has held us back. Not know-how, or even money, but a certain lack of imagination. Getting to space isn't the hard part -- the hard part is figuring out why we're there. Sure, we can celebrate the human spirit and the first person to do this or that, but that kind of achievement never moves beyond the symbolic. It doesn't build industries, establish settlements and scientific research stations, or scale up solutions from expensive one-offs to mass production. Furthermore, as five decades of failing to go farther than our own moon have demonstrated, that kind of symbolism can't even sustain itself, much less energize new activity.
Power

Solar Power and Batteries Are Encroaching On Natural Gas In Energy Production (electrek.co) 128

Socguy writes: The relentless downward march in cost of both solar and battery storage is poised to displace 10GW worth of natural gas peaker plant electricity production in the U.S. by 2027. Already we are seeing the net cost of combined solar and batteries cheaper than the equivalent natural gas peaker plant. Some particularly aggressive estimates from major energy companies predict that we may not see another natural gas peaker plant built in the U.S. after 2020. GE has already responded to the weakness in the gas turbine market by laying off 12,000 workers. Further reading available via Greentech Media.
Science

The Environmental Cost of Internet Porn (theatlantic.com) 277

An anonymous reader shares a report (condensed for space): Online streaming is a win for the environment. Streaming music eliminates all that physical material -- CDs, jewel cases, cellophane, shipping boxes, fuel -- and can reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 40 percent or more. Scientists who analyze the environmental impact of the internet tout the benefits of this "dematerialization," observing that energy use and carbon-dioxide emissions will drop as media increasingly can be delivered over the internet. But this theory might have a major exception: porn. Since the turn of the century, the pornography industry has experienced two intense hikes in popularity. In the early 2000s, broadband enabled higher download speeds. Then, in 2008, the advent of so-called tube sites allowed users to watch clips for free, like people watch videos on YouTube. Adam Grayson, the chief financial officer of the adult company Evil Angel, calls the latter hike "the great mushroom-cloud porn explosion of 2008." Precise numbers don't exist to quantify specifics, but the impression across the industry is that viewership is way, way up. Pornhub, the world's most popular porn site, provides some of the only accessible data on its yearly web-traffic report. The first Year In Review post in 2013 tabulated that 14.7 billion people visited the site. By 2016, the number of visitors had almost doubled, to 23 billion, and those visitors watched more than 4.59 billion hours of porn. And Pornhub is just one site. Using a formula that Netflix published on its blog in 2015, Nathan Ensmenger, a professor at Indiana University who is writing a book about the environmental history of the computer, calculates that if Pornhub streams video as efficiently as Netflix (0.0013 kWh per streaming hour), it used 5.967 million kWh in 2016. For comparison, that's about the same amount of energy 11,000 light bulbs would use if left on for a year. And operating with Netflix's efficiency would be a best-case scenario for the porn site, Ensmenger believes.
Education

Universities Spend Millions on Accessing Results of Publicly Funded Research (theconversation.com) 75

Mark C. Wilson, a senior lecturer at Department of Computer Science, University of Auckland, writing for The Conversation: University research is generally funded from the public purse. The results, however, are published in peer-reviewed academic journals, many of which charge subscription fees. I had to use freedom of information laws to determine how much universities in New Zealand spend on journal subscriptions to give researchers and students access to the latest research -- and I found they paid almost US$15 million last year to just four publishers. There are additional costs, too. Paywalls on research hold up scientific progress and limit the publicâ(TM)s access to the latest information.
Space

Why Meteoroids Explode Before Hitting the Earth (qz.com) 57

According to a new study from Purdue University, scientists have figured out why meteoroids explode before hitting the Earth. "The research, published in the December issue of the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science, shows that as meteoroids plunge, the high-pressure air they push against find its way into the objects' pores and cracks, forcing their bodies apart from the inside," reports Quartz. "The result is a kind of detonation that looks like an explosion." From the report: To explain the astrophysics, researchers focused their work on a widely viewed February 2013 meteoroid explosion place over Chelyabinsk, Russia, a city of 1.1 million north of the Kazakhstan border. Researchers ran a computer program that allowed for them to simulate what happened to the meteoroid in the atmosphere. "Our simulations reveal a previously unrecognized process in which the penetration of high-pressure air into the body of the meteoroid greatly enhances the deformation and facilitates the breakup of meteoroids similar to the size of Chelyabinsk," the study states. The researchers added that while the air pressure is effective at breaking apart small meteoroids, larger ones would likely withstand the force as they come to Earth.
Politics

Paris Summit Finds New Money, Tech To Fight Climate Change (apnews.com) 202

An anonymous reader shares an Associated Press report: World leaders, investment funds and energy magnates promised Tuesday to devote new money and technology to slow global warming at a summit in Paris that President Emmanuel Macron hopes will rev up the Paris climate accord that U.S. President Donald Trump has rejected. Trump wasn't invited to the event but his name was everywhere. One by one, top world diplomats, former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, business leaders like Michael Bloomberg and even former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry insisted that the world will shift to cleaner fuels and reduce emissions regardless of whether the Trump administration pitches in or not. Central to Tuesday's summit was countering Trump's main argument that the 2015 Paris accord on reducing global emissions would hurt U.S. business. Macron, a 39-year-old former investment banker, argues that the big businesses and successful economies of the future will be making and using renewable energy instead of pumping oil. Macron's office announced a dozen international projects emerging from the summit that will inject hundreds of millions of dollars in efforts to curb climate change. "The United States did not drop out of the Paris agreement. Donald Trump got Donald Trump out of the Paris agreement," Schwarzenegger said. The projects also aim to speed up the end of the combustion engine to reduce the emissions that contribute to global warming. With that aim, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim announced that his agency would stop financing oil and gas projects in two years, except in special circumstances for very poor nations.
Sci-Fi

Ask Slashdot: What Is Your View On UFO Sightings? 379

dryriver writes: UFOs sightings have been reported in the tens of thousands over the last decades. In the past, some have seen flying cigar-shaped craft (blimps?), some flying triangles, some more rounded-looking flying saucers. Often the apparent spacecraft does something improbable like standing completely still in the sky and then shooting off to somewhere at an incredible speed. Some sightings are just lights or light formations flying around or dancing around in the night sky -- which could be military aircraft like helicopters and F16s training at night. There seem to be people who genuinely see stuff that is hard to explain, people who fake UFO sightings, photos and videos for profit to keep the "UFO industry" of websites, radio shows and magazines afloat, and yet others that think a regular airplane flying at night with its lights on is a UFO. What is your view on all this? Are we being visited from outer space? Is it prototype aircraft that look like UFOs to the untrained eye? Was some 190 IQ inventor-prankster having fun with quadcopter drones with colored lights four decades before quadcopters became a thing (hey, tons of people have created fake crop-circles in the past)? Where do all these supposed UFO sightings and reports come from? Did events like the famous "Battle Of Los Angeles" actually happen? And do you find any UFO reports credible at all?
Medicine

Synthetic DNA-Based Drug Is First To Slow Progress of Huntington's Disease (theguardian.com) 35

John.Banister writes: The Guardian reports of early success in the trial of a synthetic DNA based drug, Ionis-HTTRx, at University College London's Huntington's Disease Center. Bionews explains that this gene silencing drug binds to the RNA transcript of the faulty huntingtin gene, triggering its destruction before it can go on to make the huntingtin protein. There's much excited speculation that the same technique could be used for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, once people know which genes to target. "The trial involved 46 men and women with early stage Huntington's disease in the UK, Germany and Canada," reports The Guardian. "The patients were given four spinal injections one month apart and the drug dose was increased at each session; roughly a quarter of participants had a placebo injection. After being given the drug, the concentration of harmful protein in the spinal cord fluid dropped significantly and in proportion with the strength of the dose. This kind of closely matched relationship normally indicates a drug is having a powerful effect."
NASA

President Trump Is Sending NASA Back To The Moon (npr.org) 306

President Trump has formally told NASA to send U.S. astronauts back to the moon. From a report: "The directive I'm signing today will refocus America's space program on human exploration and discovery," he said. Standing at the president's side as he signed "Space Policy Directive 1" on Monday was Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, one of the last two humans to ever walk on the moon, in a mission that took place 45 years ago this week. Since that time, no human has ventured out beyond low-Earth orbit. NASA doesn't even have its own space vehicle, having retired the space shuttles in 2011. Americans currently ride up to the international space station in Russian capsules, though private space taxis are expected to start ferrying them up as soon as next year.
NASA

Google's Machine Learning Is Analyzing Data From NASA's Kepler Space Telescope (nasa.gov) 27

NASA writes: NASA will host a media teleconference at 1 p.m. EST Thursday, Dec. 14, to announce the latest discovery made by its planet-hunting Kepler space telescope. The discovery was made by researchers using machine learning from Google. Machine learning is an approach to artificial intelligence, and demonstrates new ways of analyzing Kepler data... When Kepler launched in March 2009, scientists didn't know how common planets were beyond our solar system. Thanks to Kepler's treasure trove of discoveries, astronomers now believe there may be at least one planet orbiting every star in the sky.
Space.com adds: Kepler spots alien worlds by noticing the tiny brightness dips they cause when they cross the face of their host star from the spacecraft's perspective. Kepler is the most accomplished planet hunter in history. It has found more than 2,500 confirmed alien worlds -- about 70 percent of all known exoplanets -- along with a roughly equal number of "candidates" that await confirmation by follow-up observations or analyses. The vast majority of these discoveries have come via observations that Kepler made during its original mission, which ran from 2009 to 2013. Study of these data sets is ongoing; over the past few years, researchers have used improved analysis techniques to spot many exoplanets in data that Kepler gathered a half-decade ago or more.
Space.com describes Thursday's announcement as an exoplanet discovery. (Earlier they reported on the discovery of "a possibly habitable alien world" about 2.2 times the size of earth orbiting a dwarf star "within the range of distances where liquid water could exist on a world's surface".)

Slashdot reader schwit1 points out that other less-credible sites speculate NASA's announcement will be "a major discovery about life beyond earth."
Medicine

Researchers Say Human Lifespans Have Already Hit Their Peak (newsweek.com) 246

An anonymous reader quotes Newsweek: We have reached our peak in terms of lifespan, athletic performance and height, according to a new survey of research and historical records... "These traits no longer increase, despite further continuous nutritional, medical, and scientific progress," said Jean-FranÃois Toussaint, a physiologist at Paris Descartes University, France, in a press release... For the study, published in the journal Frontiers in Physiology, a team of French scientists, including Toussaint, from a range of fields analyzed 120 years' worth of historical records and previous research to gauge the varying pace of changes seen in human athletic performance, human lifespan and human height. While, as they observe, the 20th century saw a surge in improvements in all three areas that mirrored industrial, medical and scientific advances, the pace of those advances has slowed significantly in recent years.

The team looked at world records in a variety of sports, including running, swimming, skating, cycling and weight-lifting. Olympic athletes in those sports continually toppled records by impressive margins from the early 1900s to the end of the 20th century, according the study. But since then, Olympic records have shown just incremental improvements. We have stopped not only getting faster and stronger, according to the study, but also growing taller... [D]ata from the last three decades suggest that heights have plateaued among high-income countries in North America and Europe... As for our human lifespan, life expectancy in high-income countries rose by about 30 years from 1900 to 2000, according to a National Institutes of Health study cited by the authors, thanks to better nutrition, hygiene, vaccines and other medical improvements. But we may have maxed out our biological limit for longevity. The researchers found that in many human populations, says Toussaint, "it's more and more difficult to show progress in lifespan despite the advances of science."

Space

New Satellite Experiment Helps Confirm Einstein's Equivalence Principle (presse.cnes.fr) 71

Part of Einstein's theory of general relativity posits that gravity equals inertial mass -- and for the first time in 10 years, there's new evidence that he's right. Slashdot reader orsayman reports: Most stories around space today seem to revolve around SpaceX, but let's not forget that space is also a place for cool physics experiments. One such experiment currently running into low orbit is the MICROSCOPE satellite launched in 2016 to test the (weak) Equivalence Principle (also knows as the universality of free fall) a central hypothesis in General Relativity.

The first results confirm the principle with a precision ten times better than previous experiments. And it's just the beginning since they hope to increase the precision by another factor of 10. If the Equivalence Principle is still verified at this precision, this could constrain or invalidate some quantum gravity theories. For those of you who are more satellite-science oriented, the satellite also features an innovative "self destruct" mechanism (meant to limit orbit pollution) based on inflatable structures described in this paper.

"The science phase of the mission began in December 2016," reports France's space agency, "and has already collected data from 1,900 orbits, the equivalent of a free fall of 85 million kilometres or half the Earth-Sun distance."
Books

Reading Information Aloud To Yourself Improves Memory (qz.com) 53

According to a study in the journal Memory, reading aloud works by creating a "production effect" which cements information in your memory. Meanwhile, hearing words said in your own voice personalizes the references and enhances recollection, according to psychology professor Colin MacLeod and researchers from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. Quartz reports: The findings are based on a study of 95 students (75 of whom returned for a second session) at the University of Waterloo. The students were tested on their ability to recall written information inputted in four different ways -- reading silently, hearing someone else read, listening to a recording of oneself reading, and reading aloud in real time. They were tested on recollection of short, four-to-six letter words on a list of 160 terms. The results show that reading information aloud to oneself led to the best recall. Oral production is effective because it has two distinctive components, a motor or speech act and a personal auditory input, the researchers explain. "[The] results suggest that production is memorable in part because it includes a distinctive, self-referential component. This may well underlie why rehearsal is so valuable in learning and remembering," the study concludes. "We do it ourselves, and we do it in our own voice. When it comes time to recover the information, we can use this distinctive component to help us to remember."
Earth

Toyota's New Power Plant Will Create Clean Energy From Manure (usatoday.com) 74

schwit1 shares a report from Futurism: Japanese automobile giant Toyota is making some exciting moves in the realm of renewable, clean energy. The company is planning to build a power plant in California that turns the methane gas produced by cow manure into water, electricity, and hydrogen. The project, known as the Tri-Gen Project, was unveiled at this year's Los Angeles Auto Show. The plant, which will be located at the Port of Long Beach in California, will be "the world's first commercial-scale 100% renewable power and hydrogen generation plant," writes USA Today. Toyota is expecting the plant to come online in about 2020.

The plant is expected to have the capability to provide enough energy to power 2,350 average homes and enough fuel to operate 1,500 hydrogen-powered vehicles daily. The company is estimating the plant to be able to produce 2.35 MW of electricity and 1.2 tons of hydrogen each day. The facility will also be equipped with one of the largest hydrogen fueling stations in the world. Toyota's North America group vice president for strategic planning, Doug Murtha, says that the company "understand[s] the tremendous potential to reduce emissions and improve society."

Science

'Nature' Editorial Juxtaposes FOIA Email Release With Illegal Hacking (vice.com) 69

Jason Koebler and Sarah Emerson, reporting for Motherboard: Private emails between scientists working on a controversial genetic technology called "gene drive" were released last week. Obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, their publication has been criticized by some as an attempt to discredit the science community. Gene drives are a genetic engineering approach with huge implications. They're meant to seed genetic traits -- one that stops mosquitoes from carrying malaria, for instance, or hampers invasive rodents' ability to reproduce -- in a population, and with terrifyingly high odds of inheritance. If things go wrong, gene drives could destabilize ecosystems. (So far, they've only been applied to yeast, fruit flies, and mosquitoes in a lab setting.) More ideally, they could wipe out deadly plagues by targeting their vectors, or give threatened species a fighting chance. Like any young technology, there are a lot of unknowns, and stakeholders are hoping to provide clarity at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity next year; the same convention where a proposed gene drive moratorium was rejected in 2016. The emails and other documents reveal details about gene drive's biggest funders, including DARPA, the US military's research agency.
Space

Almost All Bronze Age Artifacts Were Made From Meteorite Iron (sciencealert.com) 132

dryriver shares a report from Science Alert: According to a new study, it's possible that all iron-based weapons and tools of the Bronze Age were forged using metal salvaged from meteorites. The finding has given experts a better insight into how these tools were created before humans worked out how to produce iron from its ore. While previous studies had found specific Bronze Age objects to be made from meteoric metal -- like one of the daggers buried with King Tutankhamun -- this latest research answers the question of just how widespread the practice was. Albert Jambon, from the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France, studied museum artifacts from Egypt, Turkey, Syria, and China, analyzing them using an X-Ray Fluorescence Spectrometer to discover they all shared the same off-world origins. "The present results complementing high quality analyses from the literature suggest that most or all irons from the Bronze Age are derived from meteoritic iron," writes Jambon in his published paper. "The next step will be to determine where and when terrestrial iron smelting appeared for the first time."
Mars

Boeing CEO Says Boeing Will Beat SpaceX To Mars (space.com) 128

Boeing's CEO says the megarocket his company is helping to build for NASA will deliver astronauts to the Red Planet before billionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX. Space.com reports: According to Fortune, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg was speaking on CNBC today when host Jim Cramer asked whether Boeing or SpaceX would "get a man on Mars first." "Eventually we're going to go to Mars, and I firmly believe the first person that sets foot on Mars will get there on a Boeing rocket," Muilenburg said, according to Fortune. Boeing is the main contractor for the first stage of NASA's giant Space Launch System , which is designed to launch astronauts on deep-space missions using the space agency's new Orion spacecraft. (United Launch Alliance, Orbital ATK and Aerojet Rocketdyne are also SLS contractors.) NASA hopes to build a "Deep Space Gateway" near the moon before using SLS and Orion vehicles to send explorers to Mars. The first test launch is scheduled for 2019. "Do it," Musk tweeted.
Medicine

What It Looks Like When You Fry Your Eye In An Eclipse (npr.org) 135

An anonymous reader quotes a report from NPR: Doctors in New York say a woman in her 20s came in three days after looking at the Aug. 21 eclipse without protective glasses. She had peeked several times, for about six seconds, when the sun was only partially covered by the moon. Four hours later, she started experiencing blurred and distorted vision and saw a central black spot in her left eye. The doctors studied her eyes with several different imaging technologies, described in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology, and were able to observe the damage at the cellular level.

"We were very surprised at how precisely concordant the imaged damage was with the crescent shape of the eclipse itself," noted Dr. Avnish Deobhakta, an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine, in an email to NPR. He says this was the most severely injured patient they saw after the eclipse. All in all, 22 people came to their urgent care clinic with concerns about possible eclipse-related damage, and most of them complained of blurred vision. Of those, only three showed some degree of abnormality in the retina. Two of them had only mild changes, however, and their symptoms have gone away. The young woman described in this case report, at last check, still has not recovered normal vision.
For your viewing pleasure, The Verge has embedded several images of the woman's retinas in their report.
Earth

The Firestorm This Time: Why Los Angeles Is Burning (wired.com) 231

The Thomas Fire spread through the hills above Ventura, in the northern greater Los Angeles megalopolis, with the speed of a hurricane. Driven by 50 mph Santa Ana winds -- bone-dry katabatic air moving at freeway speeds out of the Mojave desert -- the fire transformed overnight from a 5,000-acre burn in a charming chaparral-lined canyon to an inferno the size of Orlando, Florida, that only stopped spreading because it reached the Pacific. Several readers have shared a Wired report: Tens of thousands of people evacuated their homes in Ventura; 150 buildings burned and thousands more along the hillside and into downtown are threatened. That isn't the only part of Southern California on fire. The hills above Valencia, where Interstate 5 drops down out of the hills into the city, are burning. Same for a hillside of the San Gabriel Mountains, overlooking the San Fernando Valley. And the same, too, near the Mount Wilson Observatory, and on a hillside overlooking Interstate 405 -- the flames in view of the Getty Center and destroying homes in the rich-people neighborhoods of Bel-Air and Holmby Hills. And it's all horribly normal. [...] Before humans, wildfires happened maybe once or twice a century, long enough for fire-adapted plant species like chapparal to build up a bank of seeds that could come back after a burn. Now, with fires more frequent, native plants can't keep up. Exotic weeds take root. Fires don't burn like this in Northern California. That's one of the things that makes the island on the land an island. Most wildfires in the Sierra Nevadas and northern boreal forests are slower, smaller, and more easily put out, relative to the south. Trees buffer the wind and burn less easily than undergrowth. Keeley says northern mountains and forests are "flammability-limited ecosystems," where fires only get big if the climate allows it -- higher temperatures and dryer conditions providing more fuel. Climate change makes fires there more frequent and more severe.
Earth

Earth Will Likely Be Much Warmer In 2100 Than We Anticipated, Scientists Warn (vice.com) 378

According to a new analysis of the most realistic climate models to date, global temperature rise by 2100 could be 15 percent higher than the highest projections from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). What this means is that cuts in greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) will have to be even greater than expected to meet the Paris climate target of keeping global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius. Motherboard reports: The world is a long way from making sufficient emission reductions to meet the Paris climate targets to begin with -- nevermind cutting out another 15 percent. But there's some good news, too. Both rich and poor countries have begun to move away from coal and oil, the two biggest CO2 sources, according to many energy analysts. Patrick Brown is a researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Pasadena, California, a co-author of the study published Wednesday in Nature. "Our results imply 15 percent less cumulative emissions than previously calculated [are needed] in order to stay below 2 degrees Celsius," he told me. Brown and co-authors focused on finding out what future warming might be, using only the climate models that best replicate observations over the last 15-20 years. On a business-as-usual emissions trajectory, they found that the mean global temperature rise would be 4.8 degrees Celsius by 2100, compared to the IPCC estimate of 4.3 degrees Celsius. The latter estimate is considered catastrophic for our planet, and would lead to sea level rise of over 30 feet, potentially putting the homes of 600 million people underwater.

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