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Space

John Glenn, First American To Orbit The Earth, Dies At 95 (npr.org) 65

BenBoy writes: John Herschel Glenn Jr. (July 18, 1921 -- December 8, 2016) was an American aviator, engineer, astronaut, and United States Senator from Ohio. He was one of the "Mercury Seven" group of military test pilots selected in 1959 by NASA to become America's first astronauts and fly the Project Mercury spacecraft. He passed away today at age 95.
Earth

First Dinosaur Tail Found Preserved in Amber (nationalgeographic.com) 42

The tail of a beautiful, feathered dinosaur has been found perfectly preserved in amber from Myanmar. It is a huge breakthrough that could help open a new window on the biology of a group that dominated Earth for more than 160 million years. From a report on the National Geographic: The semitranslucent mid-Cretaceous amber sample, roughly the size and shape of a dried apricot, captures one of the earliest moments of differentiation between the feathers of birds of flight and the feathers of dinosaurs. Inside the lump of resin is a 1.4-inch appendage covered in delicate feathers, described as chestnut brown with a pale or white underside. CT scans and microscopic analysis of the sample revealed eight vertebrae from the middle or end of a long, thin tail that may have been originally made up of more than 25 vertebrae. NPR has a story on how this amber was found. An excerpt from it reads: In 2015, Lida Xing was visiting a market in northern Myanmar when a salesman brought out a piece of amber about the size of a pink rubber eraser. Inside, he could see a couple of ancient ants and a fuzzy brown tuft that the salesman said was a plant. As soon as Xing saw it, he knew it wasn't a plant. It was the delicate, feathered tail of a tiny dinosaur.
Earth

Cesarean Births Could Be Affecting Human Evolution, Study Says (bbc.com) 244

CanadianRealist writes: Larger babies delivered by cesarean section may be affecting human evolution. Researchers estimate cases where the baby cannot fit down the birth canal have increased from 30 in 1,000 in the 1960s to 36 in 1,000 births today, [according to estimates from researchers at the University of Vienna in Austria.] Science Alert reports: "In the past, larger babies and mothers with narrow pelvis sizes might both have died in labour. Thanks to C-sections, that's now a lot less likely, but it also means that those 'at risk' genes from mothers with narrow pelvises are being carried into future generations. More detailed studies would be required to actually confirm the link between C-sections and evolution, as all we have now is a hypothesis based on the birth data." Agreed, more studies required part. Cesareans may simply be becoming more common with "too large" defined as cesarean seems like a better idea. It's reasonable to pose the question based simply on an understanding of evolution. Like it's reasonable to conjecture that length of human pregnancy is a compromise between further development in utero, and chance of mother and baby surviving the delivery.
Earth

Earth's Day Lengthens By Two Milliseconds a Century, Astronomers Find (theguardian.com) 112

Researchers at Durham University and the UK's Nautical Almanac Office compiled nearly 3,000 years of celestial records and found that with every passing century, the day on Earth lengthens by two milliseconds as the planet's rotation gradually winds down. The Guardian reports: The split second gained since the first world war may not seem much, but the time it takes for a sunbeam to travel 600km towards Earth can cost an Olympic gold medal, as the American Tim McKee found out when he lost to Sweden's Gunnar Larsson in 1972. For those holding out for a whole extra hour a day, be prepared for a long wait. Barring any change in the rate of slowing down, an Earth day will not last 25 hours for about two million centuries more. Researchers at Durham University and the UK's Nautical Almanac Office gathered historical accounts of eclipses and other celestial events from 720BC to 2015. The oldest records came from Babylonian clay tablets written in cuneiform, with more added from ancient Greek texts, such as Ptolemy's 2nd century Almagest, and scripts from China, medieval Europe and the Arab dominions. The ancient records captured the times and places that people witnessed various stages of solar and lunar eclipses, while documents from 1600AD onwards described lunar occultations, when the moon passed in front of particular stars and blocked them from view. To find out how the Earth's rotation has varied over the 2,735-year-long period, the researchers compared the historical records with a computer model that calculated where and when people would have seen past events if Earth's spin had remained constant. The astronomers found that Earth's spin would have slowed down even more had it not been for a counteracting process. Since the end of the most recent ice age, land masses that were once buried under slabs of frozen water have been unloaded and sprung back into place. The shift caused the Earth to be less oblate -- or squished -- on its axis. And just as a spinning ice skater speeds up when she pulls in her arms, so the Earth spins faster when its poles are less compressed. Changes in the world's sea levels and electromagnetic forces between Earth's core and its rocky mantle had effects on Earth's spin too, according to the scientists' report in Proceedings of the Royal Society.
Transportation

Paris Makes All Public Transportation Free In Battle Against 'Worst Air Pollution For 10 Years' (independent.co.uk) 213

Paris has barred some cars from its streets and has made public transportation free as it suffers from the worst and most prolonged winter pollution for at least 10 years, the Airparif agency said on Wednesday. The Independent reports: Authorities have said only drivers with odd-numbered registration plates can drive in the capital region on Wednesday. Drivers of even-numbered cars were given the same opportunity on Tuesday, but could now be fined up to 35 EUR if they are caught behind the wheel. More than 1,700 motorists were fined for violations on Tuesday. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo said images of smog blanketing the capital were proof of the need to reduce vehicle use in the city center. The air pollution peak is due to the combination of emissions from vehicles and from domestic wood fires as well as near windless conditions which means pollutants have not been dispersed, the Airparif agency said. "This is a record period (of pollution) for the last 10 years," Karine Leger of AirParif told AFP by telephone. For more than a week, Airparif has published readings of PM10 at more than 80 micrograms per cubic meter of air particles, triggering the pollution alert. Along with odd-numbered cars, hybrid or electric vehicles as well as those carrying three or more people will be allowed to roam the roads. Foreign and emergency vehicles will be unaffected.
NASA

NASA Awards $127 Million Contract For Refueling Mission Spacecraft (gizmodo.com) 37

Satellites cost millions of dollars to be launched into space and there's no guarantee that they will work without electrical or mechanical problems once in orbit. NASA has recently announced that it will award a $127 million contract to a company that aims to use a robotic spacecraft to fix satellites in space, thus potentially saving millions of dollars in the long-run by fixing satellites that would otherwise be "expensive e-waste." Gizmodo reports: NASA has just announced that it will award a $127 million contract to the California-based satellite company Space Systems/Loral for Restore-L, a robotic spacecraft capable of grasping, refueling and relocating a satellite in low Earth orbit, in addition to testing technologies for future missions. SSL has three years to build the bot, which is projected to launch in 2020. Without the ability to refuel, a satellite's lifespan is restricted by the amount of propellant engineers can pack in its tank at launch. That lifespan can be cut even shorter should the spacecraft encounter any electrical or mechanical problems on orbit. As more and more satellites reach the end of their operational lifespans, government agencies and private companies have been working to remedy this problem by developing robots that can give satellites a tune-up in zero-gravity. DARPA, for instance, recently launched a program aimed at designing robots capable of servicing satellites at the hard-to-reach but highly-desirable perch of geosynchronous orbit, 22,000 miles above Earth. NASA's Satellite Servicing Division, meanwhile, has a handful of on-orbit repair and refueling technology demonstrators in the works, including a robotic arm with the same range of motion as a human arm, a navigation system designed to help robots rendezvous with moving objects in space, and Restore-L, which combines these and other capabilities into a multi-purpose space mechanic. For now, Restore-L's primary goal is to refuel Landsat 7, a critical Earth-monitoring satellite operated by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey. If successful, the spacecraft may be modified for all sorts of other useful tasks, from mopping up the ever-growing halo of space junk encircling our planet, to servicing exciting new science missions like the Asteroid Redirect Mission, which will grab a multi-ton boulder from the surface of an asteroid and tow it back to orbit around the Moon.
AI

Microsoft Researchers Offer Predictions For AI, Deep Learning (theverge.com) 92

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Verge: Microsoft polled 17 women working in its research organization about the technology advances they expect to see in 2017, as well as a decade later in 2027. The researchers' predictions touch on natural language processing, machine learning, agricultural software, and virtual reality, among other topics. For virtual reality, Mar Gonzalez Franco, a researcher in Microsoft's Redmond lab, believes body tracking will improve next year, and then over the next decade we'll have "rich multi-sensorial experiences that will be capable of producing hallucinations which blend or alter perceives reality." Haptic devices will simulate touch to further enhance the sensory experience. Meanwhile, Susan Dumais, a scientist and deputy managing director at the Redmond lab, believes deep learning will help improve web search results next year. In 2027, however, the search box will disappear, she says. It'll be replaced by search that's more "ubiquitous, embedded, and contextually sensitive." She says we're already seeing some of this in voice-controlled searches through mobile and smart home devices. We might eventually be able to look things up with either sound, images, or video. Plus, our searches will respond to "current location, content, entities, and activities" without us explicitly mentioning them, she says. Of course, it's worth noting that Microsoft has been losing the search box war to Google, so it isn't surprising that the company thinks search will die. With global warming as a looming threat, Asta Roseway, principal research designer, says by 2027 famers will use AI to maintain healthy crop yields, even with "climate change, drought, and disaster." Low-energy farming solutions, like vertical farming and aquaponics, will also be essential to keeping the food supply high, she says. You can view all 17 predictions here.
Communications

Weather Channel To Breitbart: Stop Citing Us To Spread Climate Skepticism (weather.com) 550

Breitbart.com published an article last week that erroneously claims global warming is coming to an end, claiming "global land temperatures have plummeted by 1 degree Celsius since the middle of the year -- the biggest and steepest fall on record." The Weather Channel finds this report especially upsetting as it's not only inaccurate but it features a video from weather.com at the top of the article. The Weather Channel reports: Breitbart had the legal right to use this clip as part of a content-sharing agreement with another company, but there should be no assumption that The Weather Company endorses the article associated with it. The Breitbart article -- a prime example of cherry picking, or pulling a single item out of context to build a misleading case -- includes this statement: "The last three years may eventually come to be seen as the final death rattle of the global warming scare." In fact, thousands of researchers and scientific societies are in agreement that greenhouse gases produced by human activity are warming the planet's climate and will keep doing so. Along with its presence on the high-profile Breitbart site, the article drew even more attention after a link to it was retweeted by the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. The Breitbart article heavily references a piece that first appeared on U.K. Daily Mail's site. The Weather Channel went on to refute the Breitbart article's hypothesis: This number comes from one satellite-based estimate of temperatures above land areas in the lower atmosphere. Data from the other two groups that regularly publish satellite-based temperature estimates show smaller drops, more typical of the decline one would expect after a strong El Nino event. Temperatures over land give an incomplete picture of global-scale temperature. Most of the planet -- about 70 percent -- is covered by water, and the land surface warms and cools more quickly than the ocean. Land-plus-ocean data from the other two satellite groups, released after the Breitbart article, show that Earth's lower atmosphere actually set a record high in November 2016.
Cellphones

Former Samsung Engineers Build Smart Umbrella That Tells If It's Going To Rain (mashable.com) 89

A team of former Samsung engineers have developed a smart umbrella, dubbed Opus One, that tells its owner if it's going to rain with the shake of the handle. International Business Times reports: Developed by a team of former Samsung engineers, Opus One smart umbrella works when it is connected to the smartphone via Bluetooth 4.1 through its companion app Jonas. The device gets weather reports every morning from credible sources and sends alert to its owner when its handle is shaken. Red light on the device indicates rain on that particular day, while a green one indicates clear skies. Jonas collects weather data of select cities and sends the information to Opus One smart umbrella, thus helping the owner to know if it's going to rain on a particular day. The device notifies its owner by vibrating if the smartphone connected to the app receives calls, emails or text messages. The smart umbrella also vibrates if its owner leaves behind the smartphone that is connected to it before the user gets too far away. The smartphone too will vibrate and alert its owner if the smart umbrella is left behind. This will help prevent loss of both the products. The umbrella runs on AAA batteries and costs about $105.
Robotics

Scientists Develop Robotic Hand For People With Quadriplegia (phys.org) 22

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Phys.Org: Scientists have developed a mind-controlled robotic hand that allows people with certain types of spinal injuries to perform everyday tasks such as using a fork or drinking from a cup. The low-cost device was tested in Spain on six people with quadriplegia affecting their ability to grasp or manipulate objects. By wearing a cap that measures electric brain activity and eye movement the users were able to send signals to a tablet computer that controlled the glove-like device attached to their hand. Participants in the small-scale study were able to perform daily activities better with the robotic hand than without, according to results published Tuesday in the journal Science Robotics. It took participants just 10 minutes to learn how to use the system before they were able to carry out tasks such as picking up potato chips or signing a document. According to Surjo R. Soekadar, a neuroscientist at the University Hospital Tuebingen in Germany and lead author of the study, participants represented typical people with high spinal cord injuries, meaning they were able to move their shoulders but not their fingers. There were some limitations to the system, though. Users had to have sufficient function in their shoulder and arm to reach out with the robotic hand. And mounting the system required another person's help.
AI

Apple To Start Publishing AI Research To Hasten Deep Learning (bloomberg.com) 26

In what is a major deviation in its strategy, Apple will allow its artificial intelligence teams to publish research papers for the first time. From a report on Bloomberg: When Apple introduced its Siri virtual assistant in 2011, the company appeared to have a head start over many of its nearest competitors. But it has lost ground since then to the likes of Alphabet's Google Assistant and Amazon's Alexa. Researchers say among the reasons Apple has failed to keep pace is its unwillingness to allow its AI engineers to publish scientific papers, stymieing its ability to feed off wider advances in the field. That policy has now changed, Russ Salakhutdinov, an Apple director of AI research, said Monday at the Neural Information Processing Systems conference in Barcelona. One attendee posted a photo of a slide from Salakhutdinov's presentation stating "Can we publish? Yes. Do we engage with academia? Yes."
Education

White House Silence Seems To Confirm $4 Billion 'Computer Science For All' K-12 Initiative Is No More 278

theodp writes: "2016 as a year of action builds on a decade of national, state, and grassroots activity to revitalize K-12 computer science education," reads the upbeat White House blog post kicking off Computer Science Education Week. But conspicuous by its absence in the accompanying fact sheet for A Year of Action Supporting Computer Science for All is any mention of the status of President Obama's proposed $4 billion Computer Science For All initiative, which enjoyed support from the likes of Microsoft, Facebook, and Google. On Friday, tech-backed Code.org posted An Update on Computer Science Education and Federal Funding, which explained that Congress's passage of a 'continuing resolution' extending the current budget into 2017 spelled curtains for federal funding for the program in 2016 and beyond. "We don't have any direct feedback yet about the next administration's support for K-12 CS," wrote CEO Hadi Partovi and Govt. Affairs VP Cameron Wilson, "other than a promise to expand 'vocational and technical education' as part of Trump's 100-day plan which was published in late October. I am hopeful that this language may translate into support for funding K-12 computer science at a federal level. However, we should assume that it will not."
Government

California State Senator Introduces Bill That Would Mandate Reporting of 'Superbug' Infections, Deaths (reuters.com) 75

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Reuters: A California state senator introduced a bill on Monday that would mandate reporting of antibiotic-resistant infections and deaths and require doctors to record the infections on death certificates when they are a cause of death. The legislation also aims to establish the nation's most comprehensive statewide surveillance system to track infections and deaths from drug-resistant pathogens. Data from death certificates would be used to help compile an annual state report on superbug infections and related deaths. In September, a Reuters investigation revealed that tens of thousands of superbug deaths nationwide go uncounted every year. The infections are often omitted from death certificates, and even when they are recorded, they aren't counted because of the lack of a unified national surveillance system. Because there is no federal surveillance system, monitoring of superbug infections and deaths falls to the states. A Reuters survey of all 50 state health departments and the District of Columbia found that reporting requirements vary widely. Hill's bill would require hospitals and clinical labs to submit an annual summary of antibiotic-resistant infections to the California Department of Health beginning July 1, 2018; amend a law governing death certificates by requiring that doctors specify on death certificates when a superbug was the leading or a contributing cause of death; and require the state Health Department to publish an annual report on resistant infections and deaths, including data culled from death certificates.
Facebook

Tech Billionaires Award Top Scientists $25 Million In 'Breakthrough' Prizes (fortune.com) 56

Tonight at NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, Morgan Freeman emceed a glamorous, Oscars-style celebration that recognizes scientific achievements with money from tech billionaires. An anonymous reader writes: Donors for the Breakthrough Prize included Google's Sergey Brin, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, Alibaba founder Jack Ma and his wife Cathy Zhang, and billionaire venture capitalist Yuri Milner, according to an article in Fortune. TechCrunch has a list of the winners, which included Princeton math professor Jean Bourgain, who won a $3 million prize "for his many contributions to high-dimensional geometry, number theory, and many other theoretical contributions."

Three more physics researchers -- two from Harvard, and one from U.C. Santa Barbara -- will share a $3 million prize recognizing "meaningful advances in string theory, quantum field theory, and quantum gravity." And another $1 million prize honored the leaders of three teams responsible for "collaborative research on gravitational waves and its implications for physics and astronomy," with another $2 million to be shared among the 1,012 members of their research groups.

17-year-old Deanna See from Singapore also won the $250,000 "Breakthrough Junior Challenge" prize -- and more money for her teachers and school -- for her video about antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Google has created a special page where you can read more about some of the other winners.
EU

CO2 Researchers Are Now Hacking Photosynthesis (chicagotribune.com) 119

Remember that story about the "artificial leaf" solar cells? Long-time Slashdot reader managerialslime quotes the Chicago Tribune: University of Illinois at Chicago researchers have developed a way to mimic plants' ability to convert carbon dioxide into fuel, a way to decrease the amounts of harmful gas in the atmosphere and produce clean energy. The artificial leaf essentially recycles carbon dioxide. And it's powered entirely by the sun, mimicking the real photosynthesis process.
But meanwhile, in Germany: Biochemists led by Tobias Erb at the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology...have developed a new, super-efficient method for living organisms to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. Plants, algae, and other organisms turn CO2 into fuel. Erb and his colleagues reengineered this process, making it about 25 percent more energy efficient and potentially up to two or three times faster... Erb hopes that one day the CETCH cycle could be genetically engineered into living organisms, helping them more rapidly reduce atmospheric CO2 while producing useful materials.
The researchers created their new CO2-transforming cycle using 11 carefully chosen enzymes.

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