Earth

Human Race Just 0.01% of All Life But Has Destroyed 83% of Wild Mammals, Study Finds (theguardian.com) 50

An assessment of all life on Earth has revealed humanity's surprisingly tiny part in it as well as our disproportionate impact. From a report: The world's 7.6 billion people represent just 0.01% of all living things, according to the study. Yet since the dawn of civilisation, humanity has caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and half of plants, while livestock kept by humans abounds. The new work is the first comprehensive estimate of the weight of every class of living creature and overturns some long-held assumptions. Bacteria are indeed a major life form -- 13% of everything -- but plants overshadow everything, representing 82% of all living matter. All other creatures, from insects to fungi, to fish and animals, make up just 5% of the world's biomass.

Another surprise is that the teeming life revealed in the oceans by the recent BBC television series Blue Planet II turns out to represent just 1% of all biomass. The vast majority of life is land-based and a large chunk -- an eighth -- is bacteria buried deep below the surface. "I was shocked to find there wasn't already a comprehensive, holistic estimate of all the different components of biomass," said Prof Ron Milo, at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, who led the work, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Moon

China Launches Satellite To Explore Dark Side of Moon (reuters.com) 79

China launched a relay satellite early on Monday designed to establish a communication link between earth and a planned lunar probe that will explore the dark side of the moon, the official Xinhua news agency said. From a report: Citing the China National Space Administration, Xinhua said the satellite was launched at 5:28 a.m. (2128 GMT Sunday) on a Long March-4C rocket from the Xichang launch center in the southwest of the country. "The launch is a key step for China to realize its goal of being the first country to send a probe to soft-land on and rove the far side of the moon," Xinhua quoted Zhang Lihua, manager of the relay satellite project, as saying.
Data Storage

Scientists Transfer Memory Between Snails (scientificamerican.com) 83

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Scientific American: UCLA neuroscientists reported Monday that they have transferred a memory from one animal to another via injections of RNA, a startling result that challenges the widely held view of where and how memories are stored in the brain. The finding from the lab of David Glanzman hints at the potential for new RNA-based treatments to one day restore lost memories and, if correct, could shake up the field of memory and learning. The researchers extracted RNA from the nervous systems of snails that had been shocked and injected the material into unshocked snails. RNA's primary role is to serve as a messenger inside cells, carrying protein-making instructions from its cousin DNA. But when this RNA was injected, these naive snails withdrew their siphons for extended periods of time after a soft touch. Control snails that received injections of RNA from snails that had not received shocks did not withdraw their siphons for as long.

Glanzman's group went further, showing that Aplysia sensory neurons in Petri dishes were more excitable, as they tend to be after being shocked, if they were exposed to RNA from shocked snails. Exposure to RNA from snails that had never been shocked did not cause the cells to become more excitable. The results, said Glanzman, suggest that memories may be stored within the nucleus of neurons, where RNA is synthesized and can act on DNA to turn genes on and off. He said he thought memory storage involved these epigenetic changes -- changes in the activity of genes and not in the DNA sequences that make up those genes -- that are mediated by RNA. This view challenges the widely held notion that memories are stored by enhancing synaptic connections between neurons. Rather, Glanzman sees synaptic changes that occur during memory formation as flowing from the information that the RNA is carrying.
The study has been published in the journal eNeuro.
Space

Did Octopuses Come From Outer Space? 224

A scientific paper, originally published in March, from peer-reviewed journal Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology has found its way in this week's news-cycle. The paper, which is co-written by 33 authors including molecular immunologist Edward Steele and astrobiologist Chandra Wickramasinghe, suggests that octopuses could be aliens, adding legitimacy to a belief, which otherwise has been debunked several times in the recent years.

An excerpt from the paper, which makes the bold claim: The genetic divergence of Octopus from its ancestral coleoid sub-class is very great ... Its large brain and sophisticated nervous system, camera-like eyes, flexible bodies, instantaneous camouflage via the ability to switch color and shape are just a few of the striking features that appear suddenly on the evolutionary scene. [...] It is plausible then to suggest they [octopuses] seem to be borrowed from a far distant 'future' in terms of terrestrial evolution, or more realistically from the cosmos at large."Ephrat Livni of Quartz questions the basis of the finding: To make matters even more strange, the paper posits that octopuses could have arrived on Earth in "an already coherent group of functioning genes within (say) cryopreserved and matrix protected fertilized octopus eggs." And these eggs might have "arrived in icy bolides several hundred million years ago." The authors admit, though, that "such an extraterrestrial origin...of course, runs counter to the prevailing dominant paradigm." Indeed, few in the scientific community would agree that octopuses come from outer space. But the paper is not just about the provenance of cephalopods. Its proposal that octopuses could be extraterrestrials is just a small part of a much more extensive discussion of a theory called "panspermia," which has its roots in the ideas of ancient Greece. Newsweek spoke with Avi Loeb, the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, who told the publication that the paper has raised "an interesting but controversial possibility." However, he added, that it offers no "indisputable proof" that the Cambrian explosion is the result of panspermia.

Further reading: Cosmos magazine has outlined some flaws in the assumptions that the authors made in the paper. It has also looked into the background of some of the authors. The magazine also points out that though the paper has made bold claims, it has yet to find support or corroboration from the scientific community. News outlet Live Science has also questioned the findings.
Earth

Anti-GMO Activists Slow Scientists Breeding a CO2-Reducing Superplant (thebulletin.org) 192

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists calls it "a plant that could save civilization, if we let it." Slashdot reader meckdevil writes: A "super chickpea plant" now in development could remove huge amounts of excess atmospheric carbon dioxide and fix it in the soil, greatly diminishing the impacts of climate change (not to mention producing large amounts of tasty hummus). But fear of anti-GMO activists has so far deterred her from using the CRISPR gene-editing tool to speed work on the plant.
The effort is led by Joanne Chory, director of the Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences -- who according to the article will make much slower progress without CRISPR. "Even with advanced breeding techniques, Chory estimates that developing a super plant in this fashion would take around 10 years..."

"She estimates that if 5 percent of the world's cropland, approximately the total area of Egypt, were devoted to such super plants, they could capture about 50 percent of current global carbon dioxide emissions."
Space

Astronomers Discovered the Fastest-Growing Black Hole Ever Seen (wral.com) 68

Long-time Slashdot reader Yhcrana shares "some good old fashioned astronomy news." Astronomers have discovered "a black hole 20 billion times the mass of the sun eating the equivalent of a star every two days," reports the New York Times. The black hole is growing so rapidly, said Christian Wolf, of the Australian National University, who led the team that found it in the depths of time, "that it is probably 10,000 times brighter than the galaxy it lives in." So bright, that it is dazzling our view and we can't see the galaxy itself. He and his colleagues announced the discovery in a paper to be published in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia...

The blaze from material swirling around this newly observed drainpipe into eternity -- known officially as SMSS J215728.21-360215.1 -- is as luminous as 700 trillion suns, according to Wolf and his collaborators. If it were at the center of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, it would be 10 times brighter than the moon and bathe the Earth in so many X-rays that life would be impossible. Luckily it's not anywhere nearby. It is in fact 12 billion light years away, which means it took that long for its light to reach us, so we are glimpsing this cataclysm as it appeared at the dawn of time, only 2 billion years after the Big Bang, when stars and galaxies were furiously forming.

Medicine

Can This New Treatment Stop the Common Cold? (fortune.com) 66

"Researchers may have identified a compound that can stop some of the most common cold viruses, the rhinovirus, in its tracks, according to a new report published in the journal Nature." An anonymous reader quotes Fortune: The scientists' work is early-stage. But the mechanism it uses to tackle colds is striking. Developed at the Imperial College London, the molecule targets a protein in human cells that cold viruses use in order to replicate and conquer. By targeting this specific pathway, the compound could theoretically be used to thwart most viruses (and since it focuses on human proteins, it may not cause the virus to mutate its way away from danger)...

"The common cold is an inconvenience for most of us, but can cause serious complications in people with conditions like asthma and [chronic lung disease]," said lead researcher Ed Tate in a statement. "A drug like this could be extremely beneficial if given early in infection, and we are working on making a version that could be inhaled, so that it gets to the lungs quickly."

Software

In Virtual Reality, How Much Body Do You Need? (nytimes.com) 34

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The New York Times: Will it soon be possible to simulate the feeling of a spirit not attached to any particular physical form using virtual or augmented reality? If so, a good place to start would be to figure out the minimal amount of body we need to feel a sense of self, especially in digital environments where more and more people may find themselves for work or play. It might be as little as a pair of hands and feet, report Dr. Michiteru Kitazaki and a Ph.D. student, Ryota Kondo. In a paper published Tuesday in Scientific Reports, they showed that animating virtual hands and feet alone is enough to make people feel their sense of body drift toward an invisible avatar (Warning: source may be paywalled; alternative source). Their work fits into a corpus of research on illusory body ownership, which has challenged understandings of perception and contributed to therapies like treating pain for amputees who experience phantom limb.

Using an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and a motion sensor, Dr. Kitazaki's team performed a series of experiments in which volunteers watched disembodied hands and feet move two meters in front of them in a virtual room. In one experiment, when the hands and feet mirrored the participants' own movements, people reported feeling as if the space between the appendages were their own bodies. In another experiment, the scientists induced illusory ownership of an invisible body, then blacked out the headset display, effectively blindfolding the subjects. The researchers then pulled them a random distance back and asked them to return to their original position, still virtually blindfolded. Consistently, the participants overshot their starting point, suggesting that their sense of body had drifted or "projected" forward, toward the transparent avatar.

Government

US Government Wants To Start Charging For Landsat, the Best Free Satellite Data On Earth (qz.com) 238

The U.S. government may begin charging users for access to five decades of satellite images of Earth. Quartz reports: Nature reports that the Department of Interior has asked an advisory board to consider the consequences of charging for the data generated by the Landsat program, which is the largest continuously collected set of Earth images taken in space and has been freely available to the public since 2008. Since 1972, Landsat has used eight different satellites to gather images of the Earth, with a ninth currently slated for a December 2020 launch. The data are widely used by government agencies, and since it became free, by an increasing number of academics, private companies and journalists. "As of March 31, 2018, more than 75 million Landsat scenes have been downloaded from the USGS-managed archive!" the agency noted on the 10th anniversary of the program.

Now, the government says the cost of sharing the data has grown as more people access it. Advocates for open data say the public benefit produced through research and business activity far outweigh those costs. A 2013 survey cited by Nature found that the dataset generated $2 billion in economic activity, compared to an $80 million budget for the program.

Music

'Yanny vs. Laurel' Reveals Flaws In How We Listen To Audio (theproaudiofiles.com) 232

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past few days, you've probably heard about the controversy over "Yanny" and "Laurel." The internet has been abuzz over an audio clip in which the name being said depends on the listener. Some hear "Laurel" while others hear "Yanny." Ian Vargo, an audio enthusiast who spends most of his working hours of the day listening to and editing audio, helps explain why we hear the name that we do: Human speech is actually composed of many frequencies, in part because we have a resonant chest cavity which creates lower frequencies, and the throat and mouth which creates higher frequencies. The word "laurel" contains a combination of both which are therefore present in the original recording at vocabulary.com, but the clip that you most likely heard has accentuated higher frequencies due to imperfections in the audio that were created by data compression. To make it worse, the playback device that many people first heard the audio clip playing out of was probably a speaker system built into a cellular phone, which is too small to accurately recreate low frequencies.

This helpful interactive tool from The New York Times allows you to use a slider to more clearly hear one or the other. Pitch shifting the audio clip up seems to accentuate "laurel" whereas shifting it down accentuates "yanny." In summary, this perfect storm of the human voice creating both low and high frequencies, the audio clip having been subject to data compression used to create smaller, more convenient files, and our tendency to listen out of devices with subpar playback components lead to an apparent near-even split of the population hearing "laurel" or "yanny."

United States

US Births Dip To 30-Year Low (npr.org) 569

An anonymous reader quotes a report from NPR: The birthrate fell for nearly every group of women of reproductive age in the U.S. in 2017, reflecting a sharp drop that saw the fewest newborns since 1978, according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were 3,853,472 births in the U.S. in 2017 -- "down 2 percent from 2016 and the lowest number in 30 years," the CDC said. The general fertility rate sank to a record low of 60.2 births per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44 -- a 3 percent drop from 2016, the CDC said in its tally of provisional data for the year. The results put the U.S. further away from a viable replacement rate -- the standard for a generation being able to replicate its numbers. "The rate has generally been below replacement since 1971," according to the report from CDC's National Center for Health Statistics. "The decline in the rate from 2016 to 2017 was the largest single-year decline since 2010," the CDC said. The 2017 numbers also represent a 10-year fall from 2007, when the U.S. finally broke its post-World War baby boom record, with more than 4.3 million births.
Earth

Kilauea Volcano Erupts On Hawaii's Big Island (nytimes.com) 56

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The New York Times: The Kilauea volcano erupted from its summit on Thursday morning (Warning: source may be paywalled; alternative source), spewing an ash plume that reached 30,000 feet above the island of Hawaii, the authorities said. The eruption was the most forceful new explosion so far at Kilauea, one of the world's most active volcanoes. Kilauea has already been triggering small earthquakes, creating gas-emitting fissures and releasing flows of lava that have destroyed dozens of homes this month. The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory issued a "code red" warning that additional activity could be expected. "At any time, activity may again become more explosive, increasing the intensity of ash production and producing ballistic projectiles near the vent," the observatory said. But Dr. Michelle Coombs of the United States Geological Survey said that ash fall from the eruption, which occurred shortly after 4 a.m., was "pretty limited" to the area around Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. She emphasized that the new eruption wasn't the "big one" that some are fearing, drawing a contrast with the eruption in 1980 of Mount St. Helens in Washington State that killed 57 people.
ISS

NASA's Atomic Fridge Will Make the ISS the Coldest Known Place in the Universe (vice.com) 97

An anonymous reader shares a report: Later this year, a small part of the International Space Station will become 10 billion times colder than the average temperature of the vacuum of space thanks to the Cold Atom Lab (CAL). Once it's on the space station, this atomic fridge will be the coldest known place in the universe and will allow physicists to 'see' into the quantum realm in a way that would never be possible on Earth.

In a normal room, "atoms are bouncing off one another in all directions at a few hundred meters per second," Rob Thompson, a NASA scientist working on CAL explained in a statement. CAL, however, can reach temperatures that are just one ten billionth of a degree above absolute zero -- the point at which matter loses all its thermal energy -- which means that this chaotic atomic motion comes to a near standstill.

CAL uses magnetic fields and lasers traps to capture the gaseous atoms and cool them to nearly absolute zero. Since all the atoms have the same energy levels at that point, these effectively motionless atoms condense into a state of quantum matter called a Bose-Einstein condensate. This state of matter means that the atoms have the properties of one continuous wave rather discrete particles.

Science

First Measurement of Distribution of Pressure Inside a Proton (phys.org) 174

Okian Warrior shares a report from Phys.Org: Inside every proton in every atom in the universe is a pressure cooker environment that surpasses the atom-crushing heart of a neutron star. That's according to the first measurement of a mechanical property of subatomic particles, the pressure distribution inside the proton, which was carried out by scientists at the Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility. The nuclear physicists found that the proton's building blocks, the quarks, are subjected to a pressure of 100 decillion Pascal (1035) near the center of a proton, which is about 10 times greater than the pressure in the heart of a neutron star. The result was recently published in the journal Nature.
Earth

NASA Says Humans Are Causing Massive Changes In Location of Water Around the World (desertsun.com) 99

Using measurements from Earth-observing satellites, NASA scientists have found that humans have dramatically altered the location of water around the world. "The team of researchers analyzed 14 years of data from NASA's twin GRACE satellites and studied regions that have seen large increases or decreases in the total amount of freshwater, including water in lakes and rivers and water stored in underground aquifers, soil, snow and ice," reports The Desert Sun. From the report: The scientists examined precipitation trends and other data to determine the most likely causes of these huge losses and gains of water around the world. Their findings in a new study reveal that of the 34 "hotspots" of water change in places from California to China, the trends in about two-thirds of those areas may be linked to climate change or human activities, such as excessive groundwater pumping in farming regions. In eight of the 34 regions, the researchers said the trends reflect "possible" or "probable" impacts of climate change, including losses of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, precipitation increases in the high latitudes of Eurasia and North America, the retreat of Alaska's glaciers and melting ice fields in Patagonia.

They ascribed changes in 12 regions to natural variability, including a progression from a dry period to a wet period in the northern Great Plains, a drought in eastern Brazil and wetter periods in the Amazon and tropical West Africa. In 14 of the areas -- more than 40 percent of the hotspots -- the scientists associated the water shifts partially or largely with human activity. That included groundwater depletion combined with drought in Southern California and the southern High Plains from Kansas to the Texas Panhandle, as well as in the northern Middle East, northern Africa, southern Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
The first-of-its-kind study has been published in the journal Nature.

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