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Earth

The Health Benefits of Wind and Solar Exceed the Cost of All Subsidies (arstechnica.com) 432

New submitter TheCoroner writes: A paper in Nature Energy suggests that the benefits we receive from moving to renewables like wind and solar that reduce air pollution exceed the cost of the subsidies required to make them competitive with traditional fossil fuels. Ars Technica reports: "Berkeley environmental engineer Dev Millstein and his colleagues estimate that between 3,000 and 12,700 premature deaths have been averted because of air quality benefits over the last decade or so, creating a total economic benefit between $30 billion and $113 billion. The benefits from wind work out to be more than 7 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is more than unsubsidized wind energy generally costs.

This study ambitiously tries to estimate the benefits from emissions that were avoided because of the increase in wind and solar energy from 2007 through 2015, and to do so for the whole of the U.S. Millstein and colleagues looked at carbon emissions, as well as sulphur dioxides, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter, all of which contribute to poor air quality. There are other factors that also need to be considered. A rise in renewables isn't the only thing that has been changing in the energy sector: fuel costs and regulation have also played a role. How much of the benefit can be attributed to wind and solar power, and how much to other changes? The researchers used models that track the benefits attributable to renewable power as a proportion of the total reduction in emissions.

Science

Dilution of Whisky -- the Molecular Perspective (nature.com) 84

From a new published paper in Scientific Report by Bjorn C. G. Karlsson and Ran Friedman: Despite the growing knowledge of the nature of water-alcohol mixtures on a molecular level, much less is known on the interaction of water, alcohol and small solutes. In particular, the nature of the interaction between the solvent and taste-carrying molecules, such as guaiacol, is not known. To address this gap, we used MD simulations to study the distribution of guaiacol in water-alcohol mixtures of different concentrations. Our simulations revealed that guaiacol is present at the air-liquid interface at ethanol concentrations that correspond to the alcohol content of bottled or diluted whiskies. Because the drink is consumed at the interface first, our findings help to understand why adding water to whisky helps to enhance its taste. A molecular understanding of the nature of taste compounds in water-alcohol mixtures allows for optimizing the taste of alcoholic spirits. [...] Overall, there is a fine balance between diluting the whisky to taste and diluting the whisky to waste.
Google

Google Lunar X-Prize Extends Deadline Through March 2018 (space.com) 30

schwit1 writes: The Google Lunar X-Prize has announced that it has extended its contest deadline from the end of 2017 to the end of March 2018 for the finalists to complete their lunar rover mission and win the grand prize of $30 million. They also announced several additional consolation prizes that all of the remaining five contestants can win should they achieve lunar orbit ($1.75 million) or successfully achieve a soft landing ($3 million), even if they are not the first to do it. At least one team, Moon Express, will be helped enormously by the extra three months. This gives Rocket Lab just a little extra time to test its rocket before launching Moon Express's rover to the Moon.
United Kingdom

Deadly Drug-Resistant Fungus Sparks Outbreaks In UK (arstechnica.com) 146

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: More than 200 patients in more than 55 UK hospitals were discovered by healthcare workers to be infected or colonized by the multi-drug resistant fungus Candida auris, a globally emerging yeast pathogen that has experts nervous. Three of the hospitals experienced large outbreaks, which as of Monday were all declared officially over by health authorities there. No deaths have been reported since the fungus was first detected in the country in 2013, but 27 affected patients have developed blood infections, which can be life-threatening. And about a quarter of the more than 200 cases were clinical infections. Officials in the UK aimed to assuage fear of the fungus and assure patients that hospitals were safe. "Our enhanced surveillance shows a low risk to patients in healthcare settings. Most cases detected have not shown symptoms or developed an infection as a result of the fungus," Dr Colin Brown, of Public Health England's national infection service, told the BBC.

Yet, public health experts are uneasy about the rapid emergence and level of drug resistance the pathogen is showing. In a surveillance update in July, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that C. auris "presents a serious global health threat." It was first identified in the ear of a patient in Japan in 2009. Since then, it has spread swiftly, showing up in more than a dozen countries, including the U.S., according to the CDC. So far, health officials have reported around 100 infections in nine U.S. states and more than 100 other cases where the fungus was detected but wasn't causing an infection.

Power

Australian Scientists Figure Out How Zinc-Air Batteries Can Replace Lithium-Ion Batteries (gizmodo.com.au) 118

Researchers at the University of Sydney has figured out how to solve one of the biggest problems standing in the way for zinc-air batteries to replace lithium-ion batteries. The reason zinc batteries are so sought after is because they're powered by zinc metal -- the 24th most abundant element in Earth's crust. Not only are they cheaper to produce than lithium-ion batteries, they can theoretically store five times more energy, are much safer and environmentally friendly. The problem with zinc batteries stems around them being difficult to charge because of the lack of electrocatalysts needed to reduce and generate oxygen during the discharging and charging of a battery. labnet shares a report from Gizmodo: "Up until now, rechargeable zinc-air batteries have been made with expensive precious metal catalysts, such as platinum and iridium oxide. In contrast, our method produces a family of new high-performance and low-cost catalysts." These new catalysts are produced through the simultaneous control of the composition, size and crystallinity of metal oxides of earth-abundant elements like iron, cobalt and nickel. They can then be applied to build rechargeable zinc-air batteries. Researcher Dr Li Wei, also from the University's Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies, said trials of zinc-air batteries developed with the new catalysts had demonstrated "excellent rechargeability" -- including less than a 10 percent battery efficacy drop over 60 discharging/charging cycles of 120 hours. The research was published in the journal Advanced Materials.
Science

Tiny Robots Crawl Through Mouse's Stomach To Release Antibiotics (newscientist.com) 15

Tiny robotic drug deliveries could soon be treating diseases inside your body. For the first time, micromotors -- autonomous vehicles the width of a human hair -- have cured bacterial infections in the stomachs of mice, using bubbles to power the transport of antibiotics. From a report: "The movement itself improves the retention of antibiotics on the stomach lining where the bacteria are concentrated," says Joseph Wang at the University of California San Diego, who led the research with Liangfang Zhang. In mice with bacterial stomach infections, the team used the micromotors to administer a dose of antibiotics daily for five days. At the end of the treatment, they found their approach was more effective than regular doses of medicine. The tiny vehicles consist of a spherical magnesium core coated with several different layers that offer protection, treatment, and the ability to stick to stomach walls. After they are swallowed, the magnesium cores react with gastric acid to produce a stream of hydrogen bubbles that propel the motors around. This process briefly reduces acidity in the stomach. The antibiotic layer of the micromotor is sensitive to the surrounding acidity, and when this is lowered, the antibiotics are released.
Medicine

Energy Drinks May Trigger Future Substance Use, Says Study (medscape.com) 233

New research suggests persistent consumption of energy drinks may predispose young adults to substance use. "Investigators, led by Amelia M. Arria, PhD, School of Public Health, University of Maryland, College Park, found that college students who regularly drink highly caffeinated energy drinks were at increased risk for later use of alcohol, cocaine, or prescription stimulants," reports Medscape. From the report: The research included students enrolled in an ongoing longitudinal study that began in 2004 at a large public university. The analysis included 1099 participants (54% women; 72% non-Hispanic white) who completed at least one annual assessment in which patterns of energy drink consumption were assessed. In interviews, participants were asked which energy drinks they had consumed, and how often, in the past year. They were categorized into three patterns of use: Frequent (52 or more days); Occasional (12 - 51 days); Infrequent (1 - 11 days). The investigators found that sensation seeking, conduct problems, and behavioral dysregulation were all positively associated with a higher probability of energy drink consumption, with the nonuse group having the lowest and the persistent group the highest risk scores. The study was published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.
Medicine

Scientists Finally Unlock the Recipe For Magic Mushrooms (gizmodo.com) 132

An anonymous reader writes: Aside from being a schedule 1 drug, scientists haven't fully understood the chemistry behind how mushrooms produce the chemical psilocybin -- until now. A new study may finally lay the groundwork for a medical-grade psilocybin patients can take. Gizmodo reports: "Living things make molecules through a series of chemical reactions, similar to how car makers produce cars on assembly lines. Enzymes act as the workers/robots, speeding up the reactions by helping put the pieces together. Actually making psilocybin requires mapping the biological factory. A 1968 paper (obviously it was in 1968) offered a proposed order of events leading to a finished psilocybin molecule, by adding radioactive elements and watching what happened to them on the assembly line. The researchers thought that maybe tryptophan, the amino acid everyone wrongly says makes you sleepy, was the first piece, which then went through four successive steps to become the finished product. The new study shows that the 1968 paper got the order wrong, and introduces the responsible genes and enzymes, the workers that do the specific task to get the final product. This time around, mapping the factory required sequencing the genomes of two magic mushroom species, Psilocybe cubensis and Psilocybe cyanescens. Then, the researchers found exactly which genes produce the required enzymes and spliced them into E. coli bacteria. Using those enzymes, they were able to rebuild the factory and create their own psilocybin." The study has been published in the German journal Angewandte Chemie.
Medicine

Plants 'Hijacked' To Make Polio Vaccine (bbc.com) 59

Plants have been "hijacked" to make polio vaccine in a breakthrough with the potential to transform vaccine manufacture, say scientists. From a report: The team at the John Innes Centre, in Norfolk, says the process is cheap, easy and quick. As well as helping eliminate polio, the scientists believe their approach could help the world react to unexpected threats such as Zika virus or Ebola. Experts said the achievement was both impressive and important. The vaccine is an "authentic mimic" of poliovirus called a virus-like particle. Outwardly it looks almost identical to poliovirus but -- like the difference between a mannequin and person -- it is empty on the inside. It has all the features needed to train the immune system, but none of the weapons to cause an infection.
Science

Feeling Bad About Feeling Bad Can Make You Feel Worse (berkeley.edu) 102

An anonymous reader writes: Pressure to feel upbeat can make you feel downbeat, while embracing your darker moods can actually make you feel better in the long run, according to new UC Berkeley research. "We found that people who habitually accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions, which adds up to better psychological health," said study senior author Iris Mauss, an associate professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. At this point, researchers can only speculate on why accepting your joyless emotions can defuse them, like dark clouds passing swiftly in front of the sun and out of sight. "Maybe if you have an accepting attitude toward negative emotions, you're not giving them as much attention," Mauss said. "And perhaps, if you're constantly judging your emotions, the negativity can pile up."
NASA

NASA is Sending Bacteria Into the Sky on Balloons During the Eclipse (cnbc.com) 54

An anonymous reader shares a report: As the Moon blocks the Sun's light completely next week in a total solar eclipse, more than 50 high-altitude balloons in over 20 locations across the US will soar up to 100,000 feet in the sky. On board will be Raspberry Pi cameras, weather sensors, and modems to stream live eclipse footage. They'll also have metal tags coated with very hardy bacteria, because NASA wants to know whether they will survive on Mars. Every time we send a rover to the Red Planet, our own microorganisms latch on to them and hitch a ride across space. What happens to these bacteria once they're on Mars? Do they mutate? Do they die? Or can they continue living undisturbed, colonizing worlds other than our own? To answer these questions we need to run experiments here on Earth, and the eclipse on August 21st provides the perfect opportunity. The balloons are being sent up by teams of high school and college students from across the US as part of the Eclipse Ballooning Project, led by Angela Des Jardins of Montana State University. When Jim Greene, the director of planetary science at NASA, first heard that over 50 balloons were being flown to the stratosphere to live stream the eclipse, he couldn't believe his ears. "I said, oh my god, that's like being on Mars!" Greene tells The Verge. NASA couldn't pass on the opportunity.
Businesses

Behind the Hype of 'Lab-Grown' Meat (gizmodo.com) 342

In an exclusive report via Gizmodo, Ryan F. Mandelbaum discusses the hype surrounding "lab-grown" meat: Some folks have big plans for your future. They want you -- a burger-eatin', chicken-finger-dippin' American -- to buy their burgers and nuggets grown from stem cells. One day, meat eaters and vegans might even share their hypothetical burger. That burger will be delicious, environmentally friendly, and be indistinguishable from a regular burger. And they assure you the meat will be real meat, just not ground from slaughtered animals. That future is on the minds of a cadre of Silicon Valley startup founders and at least one nonprofit in the world of cultured meat. Some are sure it will heal the environmental woes caused by American agriculture while protecting the welfare of farm animals. But these future foods' promises are hypothetical, with many claims based on a futurist optimism in line with Silicon Valley's startup culture. Cultured meat is still in its research and development phase and must overcome massive hurdles before hitting market. A consumer-ready product does not yet exist and its progress is heavily shrouded by intellectual property claims and sensationalist press. Today, cultured meat is a lot of hype and no consumer product.

"Much of what happens in the world of cultured meat is done for the sake of PR," Ben Wurgaft, an MIT-based post-doctoral researcher writing a book on cultured meat, told Gizmodo. Wurgaft finds it hard to believe many predictions about cultured meat's future, including the promise of an FDA-approved consumer product within a year. The truth is that only a few successful prototypes have yet been shown to the public, including a NASA-funded goldfish-based protein in the early 2000s, and a steak grown from frog cells in 2003 for an art exhibit. More have come recently: Mark Post unveiled a $330,000 cultured burger in 2013, startup Memphis Meats has produced cultured meatballs and poultry last and this year, and Hampton Creek plans to have a product reveal dinner by the end of the year.

Earth

Popular Pesticides Keep Bumblebees From Laying Eggs (npr.org) 137

An anonymous reader quotes a report from NPR: Wild bees, such as bumblebees, don't get as much love as honeybees, but they should. They play just as crucial a role in pollinating many fruits, vegetables and wildflowers, and compared to managed colonies of honeybees, they're in much greater jeopardy. A group of scientists in the United Kingdom decided to look at how bumblebee queens are affected by some widely used and highly controversial pesticides known as neonicotinoids. What they found isn't pretty. Neonics, as they're often called, are applied as a coating on the seeds of some of the most widely grown crops in the country, including corn, soybeans and canola. These pesticides are "systemic" -- they move throughout the growing plants. Traces of them end up in pollen, which bees consume. Neonicotinoid residues also have been found in the pollen of wildflowers growing near fields and in nearby streams. The scientists, based at Royal Holloway University of London, set up a laboratory experiment with bumblebee queens. They fed those queens a syrup containing traces of a neonicotinoid pesticide called thiamethoxam, and the amount of the pesticide, they say, was similar to what bees living near fields of neonic-treated canola might be exposed to. Bumblebee queens exposed to the pesticide were 26 percent less likely to lay eggs, compared to queens that weren't exposed to the pesticide. The team published their findings in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.
NASA

SpaceX Successfully Launches, Recovers Falcon 9 For CRS-12 (techcrunch.com) 71

Another SpaceX rocket has been successfully launched from NASA's Kennedy Space Center today, carrying a Dragon capsule loaded with over 6,400 pounds of cargo destined for the International Space Station. This marks an even dozen for ISS resupply missions launched by SpaceX under contract to NASA. TechCrunch reports: The rocket successfully launched from NASA's Kennedy Space Center at 12:31 PM EDT, and Dragon deployed from the second stage as planned. Dragon will rendezvous with the ISS on August 16 for capture by the station's Canadarm 2 robotic appendage, after which it'll be attached to the rocket. After roughly a month, it'll return to Earth after leaving the ISS with around 3,000 pounds of returned cargo on board, and splash down in the Pacific Ocean for recovery. There's another reason this launch was significant, aside from its experimental payload (which included a supercomputer designed to help humans travel to Mars): SpaceX will only use re-used Dragon capsules for all future CRS missions, the company has announced, meaning this is the last time a brand new Dragon will be used to resupply the ISS, if all goes to plan. Today's launch also included an attempt to recover the Falcon 9 first stage for re-use at SpaceX's land-based LZ-1 landing pad. The Falcon 9 first stage returned to Earth as planned, and touched down at Cape Canaveral roughly 9 minutes after launch.
Science

Device That Revolutionized Timekeeping Receives an IEEE Milestone (ieee.org) 46

An anonymous reader writes: The invention of the atomic clock fundamentally altered the way that time is measured and kept. The clock helped redefine the duration of a single second, and its groundbreaking accuracy contributed to technologies we rely on today, including cellphones and GPS receivers. Building on the accomplishments of previous researchers, Harold Lyons and his colleagues at the U.S. National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology), in Washington, D.C., began working in 1947 on developing an atomic clock and demonstrated it to the public two years later. Its design was based on atomic physics. The clock kept time by tracking the microwave signals that electrons in atoms emit when they change energy levels. This month the atomic clock received an IEEE Milestone. Administered by the IEEE History Center and supported by donors, the milestone program recognizes outstanding technical developments around the world.
Science

Scientists Discover 91 Volcanoes Below Antarctic Ice Sheet (theguardian.com) 181

Reader schwit1 writes: Scientists have uncovered the largest volcanic region on Earth -- two kilometres below the surface of the vast ice sheet that covers west Antarctica. The project, by Edinburgh University researchers, has revealed almost 100 volcanoes -- with the highest as tall as the Eiger, which stands at almost 4,000 metres in Switzerland. This is in addition to 47 already known about and eruption would melt more ice in region affected by climate change, the report added. Geologists say this huge region is likely to dwarf that of east Africa's volcanic ridge, currently rated the densest concentration of volcanoes in the world. And the activity of this range could have worrying consequences, they have warned. "If one of these volcanoes were to erupt it could further destabilise west Antarctica's ice sheets," said glacier expert Robert Bingham, one of the paper's authors. "Anything that causes the melting of ice -- which an eruption certainly would -- is likely to speed up the flow of ice into the sea.
Businesses

Some Retailers Criticize Amazon's Recall of Eclipse Glasses (kgw.com) 150

An anonymous reader quotes Portland TV station KGW: Amazon issued a widespread recall for solar eclipse glasses early Saturday morning, one week before the August 21 eclipse. That move stunned some sellers who say their glasses are verified safe.... "We recommend that you DO NOT use this product to view the sun or the eclipse," Amazon wrote... "Out of an abundance of caution, we have proactively reached out to customers and provided refunds for eclipse glasses that may not comply with industry standards." At least a dozen KGW viewers said they received recall notices from Amazon Saturday... KGW viewer Heather Andersen said she bought two separate sets of solar glasses and learned both were not verified. "I give up," she tweeted...

Manish Panjwani's Los Angeles-based astronomy product business, AgenaAstro, has sold three times its average monthly revenue in the past month. Ninety-five percent is related to the solar eclipse... Panjwani's eclipse glasses come from two NASA-approved sellers: Thousand Oaks Optical in Arizona and Baader Planetarium in Germany. He said he provided documentation to Amazon proving the products' authenticity weeks ago, with no response from Amazon. On Saturday morning, he woke up to 100 emails from customers after Amazon issued a recall for his products. "People have some of the best glasses in the world in their hands right now and they don't believe in that product," he said. "They're out there looking for something inferior." Panjwani said Amazon is temporarily retaining some of his profits because of the recall. He also has almost 5,000 glasses at an Amazon warehouse, which customers can no longer purchase. "That's just sitting there. I cannot sell it and I cannot get it back in time for the eclipse," he said.

Space

Astrophysicist Believes Technologically-Advanced Species Extinguish Themselves (sciencedaily.com) 435

Why haven't we heard from intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? wisebabo writes: In the Science Daily article "Where is everybody? The Implications of Cosmic Silence," the retired astrophysicist Daniel Whitmire explains that using the principle of mediocracy (a statistical notion that says, in the absence of more data, that your one data point is likely to be "average"), that not only are we the first intelligent life on earth but that we will likely be the only (and thus the last) intelligent life on this planet... Unfortunately that isn't the worst of it.

Coupled with the "Great Silence", it implies that the reason we haven't heard from anyone is that intelligent life, when it happens anywhere else in the universe, doesn't last and when it does it flames out quickly and takes the biosphere with it (preventing any other intelligent life from reappearing. Sorry dolphins!). While this is depressing in a very deep sense both cosmically (no Star Trek/Wars/Valerian universes filled with alien civilizations) and locally (we're going to wipe ourselves out, and soon) it is perhaps understandable given our current progress towards reproducing the conditions of the greatest extinction event in earth's history.

That last link (reprinting a New York Times opinion piece) cites the "Great Dying" of 90% of all land-based life in 252 million B.C., which is believed to have been triggered by "gigantic emissions of carbon dioxide from volcanoes that erupted across a vast swath of Siberia." But if we're not headed to the same inexorable doom, that raises an inevitable follow-up question.

If intelligence-driven extinction doesn't explain this great cosmic silence, then what does? Why hasn't our species heard from other intelligent civilizations elsewhere in the universe?
ISS

SpaceX Will Deliver The First Supercomputer To The ISS (hpe.com) 98

Slashdot reader #16,185, Esther Schindler writes: "By NASA's rules, not just any computer can go into space. Their components must be radiation hardened, especially the CPUs," reports HPE Insights. "Otherwise, they tend to fail due to the effects of ionizing radiation. The customized processors undergo years of design work and then more years of testing before they are certified for spaceflight." As a result, the ISS runs the station using two sets of three Command and Control Multiplexer DeMultiplexer computers whose processors are 20MHz Intel 80386SX CPUs, right out of 1988. "The traditional way to radiation-harden a spacecraft computer is to add redundancy to its circuits or by using insulating substrates instead of the usual semiconductor wafers on chips. That's expensive and time consuming. HPE scientists believe that simply slowing down a system in adverse conditions can avoid glitches and keep the computer running."

So, assuming the August 15 SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch goes well, there will be a supercomputer headed into space -- using off-the-shelf hardware. Let's see if the idea pans out. "We may discover a set of parameters with which a supercomputer can successfully run for at least a year without errors," says Dr. Mark R. Fernandez, the mission's co-principal investigator for software and SGI's HPC technology officer. "Alternately, one or more components of the system will fail, in which case we will then do the typical failure analysis on Earth. That will let us learn what to change to make the systems more reliable in the future."

The article points out that the New Horizons spacecraft that just flew past Pluto has a 12MHz Mongoose-V CPU, based on the MIPS R3000 CPU. "You may remember its much faster ancestor: the chip that took you on adventures in the original Sony PlayStation, circa 1994."
Biotech

Study Finds Vaccine Science Outreach Only Reinforced Myths (arstechnica.com) 465

Ars Technica reports on a study suggesting that "Striking at a myth with facts may only shore it up." Applehu Akbar writes: Researchers at the University of Edinburgh studied public attitudes toward vaccination in a group whose opinions on the subject were polled before and after being shown three different kinds of explanatory material that used settled scientific facts about vaccines to explain the pro-vaccination side of the debate. Not only was the anti-vax cohort not convinced by any of the three campaigns, but their attitudes hardened when another poll was taken a week later.

What seems to have happened was that the pro-vax campaign was taken by anti-vaxers as just another attempt to lie to them, and as reinforcement for their already made-up minds on the subject. A previous study at Dartmouth College in 2014 used similar methodology and except for the 'hardening' effect elicited similar results. What's really scary about this is that while the Dartmouth subjects were taken from a large general population, the Edinburgh subjects were college students.

"The researchers speculate that the mere repetition of a myth during the process of debunking may be enough to entrench the myth in a believer's mind," writes Ars Technica, with one of the study's authors attributing this to the "illusory truth" effect.

"People tend to mistake repetition for truth."
NASA

NASA Looks At Reviving Atomic Rocket Program (newatlas.com) 122

Big Hairy Ian shares a report from New Atlas: When the first manned mission to Mars sets out, it may be on the tail of an atomic rocket engine. The Space Race vintage technology could have a renaissance at NASA after the space agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama signed a contract with BWXT Nuclear Energy to develop updated Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) concepts and new fuel elements to power them.

Today, with NASA once again considering the challenges of sending astronauts to Mars, the nuclear option is back on the table as part of the agency's Game Changing Development program. Under this, NASA has awarded BMXT, which supplies nuclear fuel to the U.S. Navy, a $18.8-million contract running through September 30, 2019 to look into the possibility of developing a new engine using a new type of fuel. Unlike previous designs using highly enriched uranium, BMXT will study the use of Low-Enriched Uranium (LEU), which has less than 20 percent of fissile uranium 235. This will provide a number of advantages. Not only is it safer than the highly enriched fuel, but the security arrangements are less burdensome, and the handling regulations are the same as those of a university research reactor. If NASA determines next month that the LEU engine is feasible, the project will conduct testing and refine the manufacturing process of the Cermet fuel elements over the course of a year, with testing of the full-length Cermet fuel rods to be conducted at Marshall.

Slashdot reader Big Hairy Ian adds: "At the very least it looks much more feasible than Project Orion."

Medicine

Vitamin B3 Supplement Can Prevent Miscarriages and Birth Defects, Says Study (news.com.au) 39

brindafella writes: The landmark finding about vitamin B3, made by the Victor Chang Institute in Sydney, Australia, has been described as "the most important discovery for pregnant women since folate." The study has been published in the New England Journal of Medicine. From News.com.au: "The historic discovery, believed to be among Australia's greatest ever medical achievements, is expected to forever change the way pregnant women are cared for around the globe. Every year 7.9 million babies are born with a birth defect worldwide and one in four pregnant women suffer a miscarriage in Australia. In the vast majority of cases the cause of these problems has remained a mystery. Until now. Professor Sally Dunwoodie from the Victor Chang Institute has identified a major cause of miscarriages as well as heart, spinal, kidney and cleft palate problems in newborn babies. The landmark study found that a deficiency in a vital molecule, known as NAD, prevents a baby's organs from developing correctly in the womb. Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) is one of the most important molecules in all living cells. NAD synthesis is essential for energy production, DNA repair and cell communication. Disrupting its production causes a NAD deficiency. The Victor Chang researchers have found this deficiency is particularly harmful during a pregnancy as it cripples an embryo when it is forming. At the heart of the paramount discovery is the dietary supplement vitamin B3, also known as niacin. Scientists at the Victor Chang Institute have discovered how to prevent miscarriages and birth defects by simply boosting levels of the nutrient during pregnancy."
Math

MIT Team's School-Bus Algorithm Could Save $5M and 1M Bus Miles (wsj.com) 104

An anonymous reader shares a report: A trio of MIT researchers recently tackled a tricky vehicle-routing problem when they set out to improve the efficiency of the Boston Public Schools bus system. Last year, more than 30,000 students rode 650 buses to 230 schools at a cost of $120 million. In hopes of spending less this year, the school system offered $15,000 in prize money in a contest that challenged competitors to reduce the number of buses. The winners -- Dimitris Bertsimas, co-director of MIT's Operations Research Center and doctoral students Arthur Delarue and Sebastien Martin -- devised an algorithm that drops as many as 75 bus routes. The school system says the plan, which will eliminate some bus-driver jobs, could save up to $5 million, 20,000 pounds of carbon emissions and 1 million bus miles (Editor's note: the link could be paywalled; alternative source). The computerized algorithm runs in about 30 minutes and replaces a manual system that in the past has taken transportation staff several weeks to complete. "They have been doing it manually many years," Dr. Bertsimas said. "Our whole running time is in minutes. If things change, we can re-optimize." The task of plotting school-bus routes resembles the classic math exercise known as the Traveling Salesman Problem, where the goal is to find the shortest path through a series of cities, visiting each only once, before returning home.
Space

Startup To Put Cellphone Tower on the Moon (space.com) 76

An astronaut wandering the moon next year could use a smartphone to call home. If everything goes according to a plan, that is. A German startup is preparing to set up the first telecommunication infrastructure on the lunar surface. From a report: The German company Part Time Scientists, which originally competed for the Google Lunar X Prize race to the moon, plans to send a lander with a rover in late 2018 to visit the landing site of Apollo 17. (Launched in 1972, this was NASA's final Apollo mission to the moon.) Instead of using a complex dedicated telecommunication system to relay data from the rover to the Earth, the company will rely on LTE technology -- the same system used on Earth for mobile phone communications. "We are cooperating with Vodafone in order to provide LTE base stations on the moon," Karsten Becker, who heads embedded electronics development and integration for the startup, told Space.com. "What we are aiming to do is to provide commercial service to bring goods to the moon and also to provide services on the surface of the moon," Becker added.
Space

Astronomers Detect Four Earth-Sized Planets Orbiting The Nearest Sun-Like Star (ucsc.edu) 102

Tim Stephens reports via The University of California in Santa Cruz: A new study by an international team of astronomers reveals that four Earth-sized planets orbit the nearest sun-like star, tau Ceti, which is about 12 light years away and visible to the naked eye. These planets have masses as low as 1.7 Earth mass, making them among the smallest planets ever detected around nearby sun-like stars. Two of them are super-Earths located in the habitable zone of the star, meaning they could support liquid surface water. The planets were detected by observing the wobbles in the movement of tau Ceti. This required techniques sensitive enough to detect variations in the movement of the star as small as 30 centimeters per second. The outer two planets around tau Ceti are likely to be candidate habitable worlds, although a massive debris disc around the star probably reduces their habitability due to intensive bombardment by asteroids and comets.
Security

Scientists Create DNA-Based Exploit of a Computer System (technologyreview.com) 43

Archeron writes: It seems that scientists at University of Washington in Seattle have managed to encode malware into genomic data, allowing them to gain full access to a computer being used to analyze the data. While this may be a highly contrived attack scenario, it does ask the question whether we pay sufficient attention to data-driven exploits, especially where the data is instrument-derived. What other systems could be vulnerable to a tampered raw data source? Perhaps audio and RF analysis systems? MIT Technology Review reports: "To carry out the hack, researchers led by Tadayoshi Kohno and Luis Ceze encoded malicious software in a short stretch of DNA they purchased online. They then used it to gain 'full control' over a computer that tried to process the genetic data after it was read by a DNA sequencing machine. The researchers warn that hackers could one day use faked blood or spit samples to gain access to university computers, steal information from police forensics labs, or infect genome files shared by scientists. To make the malware, the team translated a simple computer command into a short stretch of 176 DNA letters, denoted as A, G, C, and T. After ordering copies of the DNA from a vendor for $89, they fed the strands to a sequencing machine, which read off the gene letters, storing them as binary digits, 0s and 1s. Yaniv Erlich, a geneticist and programmer who is chief scientific officer of MyHertige.com, a genealogy website, says the attack took advantage of a spill-over effect, when data that exceeds a storage buffer can be interpreted as a computer command. In this case, the command contacted a server controlled by Kohno's team, from which they took control of a computer in their lab they were using to analyze the DNA file." You can read their paper here.
Earth

Global Investment Firm Warns 7.8 Degrees of Global Warming Is Possible (vice.com) 292

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Motherboard: A leading British global investment firm has a warning for its clients: If we keep consuming oil and gas at current rates, our planet is on course to experience a rise in global average temperatures of nearly 8 Celsius (14 Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. This would make Earth basically uninhabitable for humans. Although this is the darkest scenario we've seen so far, there's reason for cautious optimism: the new projections point out that it's unlikely investors will simply ignore this risk, meaning that our present level of fossil fuel consumption could decrease. Still, by current climate research standards, this is a pretty wild number. It is four times as high as the "safe limit" for increasing temperatures caused by climate change, internationally recognized to be around 2 Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. Schroders, the British investment firm which controls assets worth $542 billion, released this forecast as part of a range of potential scenarios in its "Climate Progress Dashboard" in late July.
Software

Researchers Build True Random Number Generator From Carbon Nanotubes (ieee.org) 144

Wave723 writes: IEEE Spectrum reports on a true random number generator that was created with single-walled semiconducting carbon nanotubes. Researchers at Northwestern University printed a SRAM cell with special nanotube ink, and used it to generate random bits based on thermal noise. This method could be used to improve the security of flexible or printed electronics. From the report: "Once Mark Hersam, an expert in nanomaterials at Northwestern University, and his team had printed their SRAM cell, they needed to actually generate a string of random bits with it. To do this, they exploited a pair of inverters found in every SRAM cell. During normal functioning, the job of an inverter is to flip any input it is given to be the opposite, so from 0 to 1, or from 1 to 0. Typically, two inverters are lined up so the results of the first inverter are fed into the second. So, if the first inverter flips a 0 into a 1, the second inverter would take that result and flip it back into a 0. To manipulate this process, Hersam's group shut off power to the inverters and applied external voltages to force the inverters to both record 1s. Then, as soon as the SRAM cell was powered again and the external voltages were turned off, one inverter randomly switched its digit to be opposite its twin again. 'In other words, we put [the inverter] in a state where it's going to want to flip to either a 1 or 0,' Hersam says. Under these conditions, Hersam's group had no control over the actual nature of this switch, such as which inverter would flip, and whether that inverter would represent a 1 or a 0 when it did. Those factors hinged on a phenomenon thought to be truly random -- fluctuations in thermal noise, which is a type of atomic jitter intrinsic to circuits." Hersam and his team recently described their work in the journal Nano Letters.
Moon

Moon Had Magnetic Field At Least a Billion Years Longer Than Thought, Says Study (theguardian.com) 41

While the moon has no global magnetic field nowadays, it did have one in the past and researchers believe it lasted at least a billion years longer than previously thought. The Guardian reports: Between 4.25 billion and 3.56 billion years ago, the lunar magnetic field was similar to that of the Earth. The field is thought to have been generated by the churning movement of fluids within the moon's molten core -- a sort of lunar dynamo. But scientists have long puzzled over when the magnetic field disappeared, with previous research unable to tell whether the field had disappeared completely by 3.19 billion years ago or had lingered on in a weaker form. Writing in the journal Science Advances, Sonia Tikoo, a planetary scientist and co-author of the research from Rutgers University, and colleagues from the University of California, Berkeley and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, describe how they set about unpicking the conundrum by analyzing a lunar rock brought back by the Apollo 15 mission in 1971. The sample contains fragments of basalt that had broken off larger rocks. According to a dating technique based on the ratio of different isotopes of argon, the basalt formed from lava flows about 3.3 billion years ago. These fragments are bound together in the sample by a glassy material, which the team say probably formed when some of the basalt melted following a meteorite impact. The researchers dated the formation of the glassy material to between 1 billion and 2.5 billion years ago. Crucially, the impact also melted iron-containing grains within the basalt. These crystalized again within the glassy material as it quickly cooled, capturing a record of the magnetic field of the moon at that time.
AI

Blizzard and DeepMind Turn StarCraft II Into An AI Research Lab (techcrunch.com) 52

Last year, Google's AI subsidiary DeepMind said it was going to work with Starcraft creator Blizzard to turn the strategy game into a proper research environment for AI engineers. Today, they're opening the doors to that environment, with new tools including a machine learning API, a large game replay dataset, an open source DeepMind toolset and more. TechCrunch reports: The new release of the StarCraft II API on the Blizzard side includes a Linux package made to be able to run in the cloud, as well as support for Windows and Mac. It also has support for offline AI vs. AI matches, and those anonymized game replays from actual human players for training up agents, which is starting out at 65,000 complete matches, and will grow to over 500,000 over the course of the next few weeks. StarCraft II is such a useful environment for AI research basically because of how complex and varied the games can be, with multiple open routes to victory for each individual match. Players also have to do many different things simultaneously, including managing and generating resources, as well as commanding military units and deploying defensive structures. Plus, not all information about the game board is available at once, meaning players have to make assumptions and predictions about what the opposition is up to.

It's such a big task, in fact, that DeepMind and Blizzard are including "mini-games" in the release, which break down different subtasks into "manageable chunks," including teaching agents to master tasks like building specific units, gathering resources, or moving around the map. The hope is that compartmentalizing these areas of play will allow testing and comparison of techniques from different researchers on each, along with refinement, before their eventual combination in complex agents that attempt to master the whole game.

Businesses

Americans Are Dying Younger, Saving Corporations Billions (bloomberg.com) 274

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Bloomberg: Steady improvements in American life expectancy have stalled, and more Americans are dying at younger ages. But for companies straining under the burden of their pension obligations, the distressing trend could have a grim upside: If people don't end up living as long as they were projected to just a few years ago, their employers ultimately won't have to pay them as much in pension and other lifelong retirement benefits. In 2015, the American death rate -- the age-adjusted share of Americans dying -- rose slightly for the first time since 1999. And over the last two years, at least 12 large companies, from Verizon to General Motors, have said recent slips in mortality improvement have led them to reduce their estimates for how much they could owe retirees by upward of a combined $9.7 billion, according to a Bloomberg analysis of company filings. "Revised assumptions indicating a shortened longevity," for instance, led Lockheed Martin to adjust its estimated retirement obligations downward by a total of about $1.6 billion for 2015 and 2016, it said in its most recent annual report.

Mortality trends are only a small piece of the calculation companies make when estimating what they'll owe retirees, and indeed, other factors actually led Lockheed's pension obligations to rise last year. Variables such as asset returns, salary levels, and health care costs can cause big swings in what companies expect to pay retirees. The fact that people are dying slightly younger won't cure corporate America's pension woes -- but the fact that companies are taking it into account shows just how serious the shift in America's mortality trends is.

Science

Blocking a Key Enzyme May Reverse Memory Loss, MIT Study Finds (mit.edu) 29

A better treatment for Alzheimer's patients may be on the horizon thanks to new research from MIT. Researchers at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory have discovered that they can reverse memory loss in mice by blocking an enzyme called HDAC2. From the study: For several years, scientists and pharmaceutical companies have been trying to develop drugs that block this enzyme, but most of these drugs also block other members of the HDAC family, which can lead to toxic side effects. The MIT team has now found a way to precisely target HDAC2, by blocking its interaction with a binding partner called Sp3. "This is exciting because for the first time we have found a specific mechanism by which HDAC2 regulates synaptic gene expression," says Li-Huei Tsai, director of MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the study's senior author. Blocking that mechanism could offer a new way to treat memory loss in Alzheimer's patients. In this study, the researchers used a large protein fragment to interfere with HDAC-2, but they plan to seek smaller molecules that would be easier to deploy as drugs. Picower Institute postdocs Hidekuni Yamakawa, Jemmie Cheng, and Jay Penney are the lead authors of the study, which appears in the Aug. 8 edition of Cell Reports.
Businesses

Monsanto Was Its Own Ghostwriter For Some Safety Reviews (bloomberg.com) 48

Reader schwit1 writes: Dozens of internal Monsanto emails, released on Aug. 1 by plaintiffs lawyers who are suing the company, reveal how Monsanto worked with an outside consulting firm to induce the scientific journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology to publish a purported independent review of Roundups health effects that appears to be anything but. The review, published along with four subpapers in a September 2016 special supplement, was aimed at rebutting the 2015 assessment by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen (PDF). That finding by the cancer-research arm of the World Health Organization led California last month to list glyphosate as a known human carcinogen. It has also spurred more than 1,000 lawsuits in state and federal courts by plaintiffs who claim they contracted non-Hodgkin lymphoma from Roundup exposure. Monsanto disclosed that it paid Intertek Group Plc consulting unit to develop the review supplement, entitled An Independent Review of the Carcinogenic Potential of Glyphosate. But that was the extent of Monsantos involvement, the main article said. The Expert Panelists were engaged by, and acted as consultants to, Intertek, and were not directly contacted by the Monsanto Company, according to the reviews Declaration of Interest statement. Neither any Monsanto company employees nor any attorneys reviewed any of the Expert Panels manuscripts prior to submission to the journal.
Science

Playing Action Video Games May Be Bad For Your Brain, Study Finds (www.cbc.ca) 116

An anonymous reader shares a report:Playing first-person shooter video games causes some users to lose grey matter in a part of their brain associated with the memory of past events and experiences, a new study by two Montreal researchers concludes. Gregory West, an associate professor of psychology at the Universite de Montreal, says the neuroimaging study, published Tuesday in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, is the first to find conclusive evidence of grey matter loss in a key part of the brain as a direct result of computer interaction. "A few studies have been published that show video games could have a positive impact on the brain, namely positive associations between action video games, first-person shooter games, and visual attention and motor control skills," West told CBC News. To date, no one has shown that human-computer interactions could have negative impacts on the brain -- in this case the hippocampal memory system." The four-year study by West and Veronique Bohbot, an associate professor of psychiatry at McGill University, looked at the impact of action video games on the hippocampus, the part of the brain that plays a critical role in spatial memory and the ability to recollect past events and experiences.
Space

Can Primordial Black Holes Alone Account For Dark Matter? 135

thomst writes: Slashdot stories have reported extensively on the LIGO experiments' initial detection of gravity waves emanating from collisions of primordial black holes, beginning, on February 11, 2016, with the first (and most widely-reported) such detection. Other Slashdot articles have chronicled the second LIGO detection event and the third one. There's even been a Slashdot report on the Synthetic Universe supercomputer model that provided support for the conclusion that the first detection event was, indeed, of a collision between two primordial black holes, rather than the more familiar stellar remnant kind that result from more recent supernovae of large-mass stars.

What interests me is the possibility that black holes of all kinds -- and particularly primordial black holes -- are so commonplace that they may be all that's required to explain the effects of "dark matter." Dark matter, which, according to current models, makes up some 26% of the mass of our Universe, has been firmly established as real, both by calculation of the gravity necessary to hold spiral galaxies like our own together, and by direct observation of gravitational lensing effects produced by the "empty" space between recently-collided galaxies. There's no question that it exists. What is unknown, at this point, is what exactly it consists of.

The leading candidate has, for decades, been something called WIMPs (Weakly-Interacting Massive Particles), a theoretical notion that there are atomic-scale particles that interact with "normal" baryonic matter only via gravity. The problem with WIMPs is that, thus far, not a single one has been detected, despite years of searching for evidence that they exist via multiple, multi-billion-dollar detectors.

With the recent publication of a study of black hole populations in our galaxy (article paywalled, more layman-friendly press release at Phys.org) that indicates there may be as many as 100 million stellar-remnant-type black holes in the Milky Way alone, the question arises, "Is the number of primordial and stellar-remnant black holes in our Universe sufficient to account for the calculated mass of dark matter, without having to invoke WIMPs at all?"

I don't personally have the mathematical knowledge to even begin to answer that question, but I'm curious to find out what the professional cosmologists here think of the idea.
Earth

Leaked Federal Climate Report Finds Link Between Climate Change, Human Activity (washingtonpost.com) 452

An anonymous reader shares a report from The New York Times (Warning: source may be paywalled; alternative source): The average temperature in the United States has risen rapidly and drastically since 1980, and recent decades have been the warmest of the past 1,500 years, according to a sweeping federal climate change report awaiting approval by the Trump administration. The draft report by scientists from 13 federal agencies, which has not yet been made public, concludes that Americans are feeling the effects of climate change right now. It directly contradicts claims by President Trump and members of his cabinet who say that the human contribution to climate change is uncertain, and that the ability to predict the effects is limited. "Evidence for a changing climate abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans," a draft of the report states. A copy of it was obtained by The New York Times. The authors note that thousands of studies, conducted by tens of thousands of scientists, have documented climate changes on land and in the air. "Many lines of evidence demonstrate that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse (heat-trapping) gases, are primarily responsible for recent observed climate change," they wrote. The report was completed this year and is a special science section of the National Climate Assessment, which is congressionally mandated every four years. The National Academy of Sciences has signed off on the draft report, and the authors are awaiting permission from the Trump administration to release it. "The report concludes that even if humans immediately stopped emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the world would still feel at least an additional 0.50 degrees Fahrenheit (0.30 degrees Celsius) of warming over this century compared with today," reports The New York Times. "The projected actual rise, scientists say, will be as much as 2 degrees Celsius." Given the Trump administration's stance on climate change, some of the scientists who worked on the report are concerned that the report will be suppressed.
Robotics

AI Factory Boss Will Tell Workers and Robots How To Work Together (fastcompany.com) 54

tedlistens writes from a report via Fast Company: Robots are consistent, indefatigable workers, but they don't improvise well. Changes on the assembly line require painstaking reprogramming by humans, making it hard to switch up what a factory produces. Now researchers at German industrial giant Siemens say they have a solution: a factory that uses AI to orchestrate the factory of the future, by both programming factory robots and handing out assignments to the humans working alongside them. The program, called a "reasoner," figures out the steps required to make a product, such as a chair; then it divides the assignments among machines based their capabilities, like how far a robotic arm can reach or how much weight it can lift. The team has proved the technology can work on a small scale with a test system that uses just a few robots to make five types of furniture (like stools and tables), with four kinds of leg configurations, six color options, and three types of floor-protector pads, for a total of 360 possible products.

Siemens's originally gave its automated factory project the badass Teutonic moniker "UberManufacturing." They weren't thinking of the German word connoting "superior," however, but rather of the on-demand car service. Part of their vision is that automated factories can generate bids for specialty, limited-run manufacturing projects and compete for customers in an online marketplace. "You could say, 'I want to build this stool,' and whoever has machines that can do that can hand in a quote, and that was our analogy to Uber," says Florian Michahelles, who heads the research group.

Businesses

China Built the World's Largest Telescope, But Has No One To Run It (arstechnica.com) 122

An anonymous reader shares a report: China has built a staggeringly large instrument in the remote southern, mountainous region of the country called the Five hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST. The telescope measures nearly twice as large as the closest comparable facility in the world, the US-operated Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. According to the South China Morning Post, the country is looking for a foreigner to run the observatory because no Chinese astronomer has the experience of running a facility of such size and complexity. The Chinese Academy of Sciences began advertising the position in western journals and job postings in May, but so far there have been no qualified applicants. One reason is that the requirements are fairly strict: The candidate must have at least 20 years of previous experience in the field, and he or she must have taken a leading role in large-scale radio telescope project with extensive managerial experience. The candidate must also hold a professorship, or equally senior position, in a world-class research institute or university. Nick Suntzeff, an astronomer at Texas A&M University who helped lead the discovery of dark energy and is involved with construction of the optical Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile, said there are probably about 40 or so astronomers in the world who would qualify for such a job. Compared to other astronomy disciplines, radio astronomy is a relatively small field. "I am sure they will find someone," he said. "But most astronomers in the United States do not like to work abroad. It was hard to get people to apply to work in La Serena, something I could never understand, considering how beautiful it is and how nice the Chilean people are." Among the western community of astronomers there are also questions about the scientific purpose of the FAST telescope. As part of a recent National Science Foundation review of its facilities, US officials placed the similar Arecibo radio telescope near the bottom of its priorities list.
Space

SpaceX Releases Animation of Planned Falcon Heavy Launch (gizmodo.com.au) 108

intellitech writes: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk recently shared a new (and, really freaking cool) animation demonstrating how the company plans to launch the maiden flight of their Falcon Heavy system later this year, which will be the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V used for the moon landings during the Apollo-era. According to Elon Musk's Instragram post, "FH is twice the thrust of the next largest rocket currently flying and ~2/3 thrust of the Saturn V moon rocket." He also reiterates that there's a "lot that can go wrong in the November launch."

Direct link to the YouTube video.

Power

New Catalyst Is Better At Splitting Water Into Hydrogen And Oxygen (phys.org) 133

schwit1 shared an article from Phys.org: Splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen to produce clean energy can be simplified with a single catalyst developed by scientists at Rice University and the University of Houston. The electrolytic film produced at Rice and tested at Houston is a three-layer structure of nickel, graphene and a compound of iron, manganese and phosphorus. The foamy nickel gives the film a large surface, the conductive graphene protects the nickel from degrading and the metal phosphide carries out the reaction... Rice chemist Kenton Whitmire and Houston electrical and computer engineer Jiming Bao and their labs developed the film to overcome barriers that usually make a catalyst good for producing either oxygen or hydrogen, but not both simultaneously... Whitmire said the material is scalable and should find use in industries that produce hydrogen and oxygen or by solar- and wind-powered facilities that can use electrocatalysis to store off-peak energy.
In a comment on the original submission, Slashdot reader Martin S. opines, "If we can crack H20 and C02 we could make fuel to run existing vehicles with existing infrastructure and that fuel could be carbon neutral by using off peak renewable energy from wind farms and solar."
NASA

Celebrate Voyager's 40th Anniversary By Beaming A Message Into Outer Space (nytimes.com) 83

Long-time Slashdot reader Noryungi writes: NASA will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the launch of the twin Voyager probes next month. So let us celebrate both the probes and the people who are still working on them, and nursing them in their final years.
The New York Times fondly profiles Voyager's nine aging flight-team engineers who "may be the last people left on the planet who can operate the spacecraft's onboard computers, which have 235,000 times less memory and 175,000 times less speed than a 16-gigabyte smartphone." NASA reports that now "Voyager 1 is in 'Interstellar space' and Voyager 2 is currently in the 'Heliosheath' -- the outermost layer of the heliosphere where the solar wind is slowed by the pressure of interstellar gas. " But the Times notes that the probes "are running out of fuel. (Decaying plutonium supplies their power.) By 2030 at the latest, they will not have enough juice left to run a single experiment."

NASA is now inviting the public to submit positive messages to be considered for beaming into space on September 5th -- the 40th anniversary of Voyager 1's launch. "Messages can have a maximum of 60 characters and be posted on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Google+ or Tumblr using the hashtag #MessageToVoyager," until August 15th, after which humanity will vote on which message should be sent.
Power

Startup Unveils Revolutionary New Rechargeable Alkaline Batteries (nytimes.com) 137

Slashdot reader cdreimer quotes the New York Times: Alkaline batteries can be made far more cheaply and safely than today's lithium-ion batteries, but they are not rechargeable... Ionic Materials could change that equation with an alkaline battery the company said could be recharged hundreds of times. One additional benefit of the company's breakthrough: An alkaline battery would not be as prone to the combustion issues that have plagued lithium-ion batteries in a range of products, most notably some Samsung smartphones. Cheaper and more powerful batteries are also considered by many to be the driver needed to make the cost of renewable energy technologies like wind and solar competitive with the coal, gas and nuclear power that support the national energy grid.
The company "has demonstrated up to 400 recharge cycles for its prototypes," and it's now even investigating aluminum-based alkaline batteries which would also be lighter than lithium-ion batteries. The company is backed by Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy, who also envisions the batteries being used in electric cars.
Biotech

How Apple Is Putting Voices In Users' Heads -- Literally (wired.com) 91

schwit1 shared WIRED's report on "a life-changing technology." Steven Levy spoke with Mathias Bahnmueller as he tested a new Apple sound processor that beams digital audio directly into hearing aids. Bahnmueller suffers from hearing loss so severe that a year ago he underwent surgery to install a cochlear implant -- an electronic device in the inner ear that replaces the usual hearing mechanism. Around a million patients have undergone this increasingly mainstream form of treatment, and that's just a fraction of those who could benefit from it. (Of the 360 million people worldwide with hearing loss, about 10 percent would qualify for the surgery.) "For those who reach a point where hearing aids no longer help, this is the only solution," says Allison Biever, an audiologist in Englewood, CO who works with implant patients. "It's like restoring a signal in a radio station."

Cochlear implants bypass the usual hearing process by embedding a device in the inner ear and connecting it via electrodes to the nerve that sends audio signals to the brain... The system Bahnmueller was using came from a collaboration between Apple and Cochlear, a company that has been involved with implant technology since the treatment's early days. The firms announced last week that the first product based on this approach, Cochlear's Nucleus 7 sound processor, won FDA approval in June -- the first time that the agency has approved such a link between cochlear implants and phones or tablets. Those using the system can not only get phone calls directly routed inside their skulls, but also stream music, podcasts, audio books, movie soundtracks, and even Siri -- all straight to the implant... Apple will offer the technology free to qualified manufacturers.

Google's accessibility team for Android has no public timeline for any similar hearing aid support, though according to the article it's "on the roadmap."
Biotech

Could Diabetes Spread Like Mad Cow Disease? (sciencemag.org) 128

sciencehabit quotes Science magazine: Prions are insidious proteins that spread like infectious agents and trigger fatal conditions such as mad cow disease. A protein implicated in diabetes, a new study suggests, shares some similarities with these villains. Researchers transmitted diabetes from one mouse to another just by injecting the animals with this protein. The results don't indicate that diabetes is contagious like a cold, but blood transfusions, or even food, may spread the disease.

The work is "very exciting" and "well-documented" for showing that the protein has some prionlike behavior, says prion biologist Witold Surewicz of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, who wasn't connected to the research. However, he cautions against jumping to the conclusion that diabetes spreads from person to person. The study raises that possibility, he says, but "it remains to be determined."

Medicine

Lovers Share Colonies of Skin Microbes, Study Finds (metro.co.uk) 93

Aneri Pattani reports via The New York Times (Warning: source may be paywalled; alternate source): Couples who live together share a lot of things: beds, bathrooms, food, toiletries. But one thing they might not expect to share? Skin bacteria. In a study published Thursday in mSystems, an open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology, researchers studied the skin microbiomes of 10 sexually active, heterosexual couples living together. A microbiome is a mini-ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microorganisms living on and in the body. Each square centimeter of skin hosts between one million and one billion microorganisms, according to the study. After analyzing 330 skin swabs collected from 17 parts of the body on each participant, the researchers found that each person significantly influenced the microbial communities on a lover's skin. In fact, computer algorithms relying on microbial data were able to accurately match couples with up to 86 percent accuracy.
Education

Vermont Medical School Says Goodbye To Lectures (npr.org) 116

The University of Vermont's Larner College of Medicine has begun phasing out lectures in favor of what's known as "active learning" and plans to be done with lectures altogether by 2019. NPR spoke with William Jeffries, a dean at the school who's leading the effort, about the thinking behind this move. From the report: Why are lectures bad? Well, I wouldn't say that they're bad. The issue is that there is a lot of evidence that lectures are not the best way to accumulate the skills needed to become a scientist or a physician. We've seen much evidence in the literature, accumulated in the last decade, that shows that when you do a comparison between lectures and other methods of learning -- typically called "active learning" methods -- that lectures are not as efficient or not as successful in allowing students to accumulate knowledge in the same amount of time.

Give us an example of a topic taught in a traditional lecture versus an "active learning" setting. A good example would be the teaching of what we would call pharmacokinetics -- the science of drug delivery. So, how does a drug get to the target organ or targeted receptor? A lot of the science of pharmacokinetics is simply mathematical equations. If you have a lecture, it's simply presenting those equations and maybe giving examples of how they work. In an active learning setting, you expect the students to learn about the equations before they get there. And when you get into the classroom setting, the students work in groups solving pharmacokinetic problems. Cases are presented where the patient gets a drug in a certain dose at a certain time, and you're looking at the action of that over time and the concentration of the drug in the blood. So, those are the types of things where you're expecting the student to know the knowledge in order to use the knowledge. And then they don't forget it.

Transportation

Electric Cars Are Not the Answer To Air Pollution, Says Top UK Adviser (theguardian.com) 296

Cars must be driven out of cities to tackle the UK's air pollution crisis, not just replaced with electric vehicles, according to the UK government's top adviser. From a report: Prof Frank Kelly said that while electric vehicles emit no exhaust fumes, they still produce large amounts of tiny pollution particles from brake and tyre dust, for which the government already accepts there is no safe limit. Toxic air causes 40,000 early deaths a year in the UK, and the environment secretary, Michael Gove, recently announced that the sale of new diesel and petrol cars will be banned from 2040, with only electric vehicles available after that. But faced with rising anger from some motorists, the plan made the use of charges to deter dirty diesel cars from polluted areas a measure of last resort only. Kelly's intervention heightens the government's dilemma between protecting public health and avoiding politically difficult charges or bans on urban motorists. "The government's plan does not go nearly far enough," said Kelly, professor of environmental health at King's College London and chair of the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, official expert advisers to the government. "Our cities need fewer cars, not just cleaner cars."
Science

Why We Can't Have the Male Pill (bloomberg.com) 347

Reader joshtops shares a report: For years, headlines have promised an imminent breakthrough in male contraception. Time and again, these efforts have fallen short. Last October, for instance, researchers reported that a hormone cocktail they'd been testing curbed sperm production and prevented pregnancies. But they'd had to halt the study early because men were reporting troubling side effects, including mood changes and depression. "The joke in the field is that the male contraceptive has been five years away for the last 40 years," says John Amory, a research physician at the University of Washington School of Medicine who has been working on the challenge for two decades. A new form of male birth control would be a public-health triumph and could snag a significant piece of the contraceptive market -- which is expected to surpass $33 billion by 2023, according to research firm Global Market Insights Inc -- or possibly expand it further. In a 2002 German survey of 9,000 men in nine countries, including Brazil, France, Germany, Mexico, and the U.S., more than 55 percent of the respondents said they'd be willing to use a new form of male birth control. A later study by Johns Hopkins University estimated that the demand could yield 44 million customers in those nine countries alone. And yet major pharmaceutical companies have mostly abandoned the chase.
Math

Math Journal Editors Resign To Start Rival Journal That Will Be Free To Read (insidehighered.com) 59

An anonymous reader writes: To protest the high prices charged by their publisher, Springer, the editors of the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics will start a rival journal that will be free for all to read. The four editors in chief of the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics have informed their publisher, Springer, of their intention to launch a rival open-access journal to protest the publisher's high prices and limited accessibility. This is the latest in a string of what one observer called "editorial mutinies" over journal publishing policies. In a news release, the editors said their decision was not made because of any "particular crisis" but was the result of it becoming "more and more clear" that Springer intended to keep charging readers and authors large fees while "adding little value."

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