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D-Wave's 2,000-Qubit Quantum Annealing Computer Now 1,000x Faster Than Previous Generation ( 35

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Tom's Hardware: D-Wave, a Canadian company developing the first commercial "quantum computer," announced its next-generation quantum annealing computer with 2,000 qubits, which is twice as many as its previous generation had. One highly exciting aspect of quantum computers of all types is that beyond the seemingly Moore's Law-like increase in number of qubits every two years, their performance increases much more than just 2x, unlike with regular microprocessors. This is because qubits can hold a value of 0, 1, or a superposition of the two, making quantum systems able to deal with much more complex information. If D-Wave's 2,000-qubit computer is now 1,000 faster than the previous 1,000-qubit generation (D-Wave 2X), that would mean that, for the things Google tested last year, it should now be 100 billion times faster than a single-core CPU. The new generation also comes with control features, which allows users to modify how D-Wave's quantum system works to better optimize their solutions. These control features include the following capabilities: The ability to tune the rate of annealing of individual qubits to enhance application performance; The ability to sample the state of the quantum computer during the quantum annealing process to power hybrid quantum-classical machine learning algorithms that were not previously possible; The ability to combine quantum processing with classical processing to improve the quality of both optimization and sampling results returned from the system. D-Wave's CEO, Vern Brownell, also said that D-Wave's quantum computers could also be used for machine learning task in ways that wouldn't be possible on classical computers. The company is also training the first generation of programmers to develop applications for D-Wave quantum systems. Last year, Google said that D-Wave's 1,000 qubit computer proved to be 100 million times faster than a classical computer with a single core: "We found that for problem instances involving nearly 1,000 binary variables, quantum annealing significantly outperforms its classical counterpart, simulated annealing. It is more than 10^8 times faster than simulated annealing running on a single core," said Hartmut Neven, Google's Director of Engineering.

The United Nations Will Launch Its First Space Mission In 2021 ( 40

The United Nations will send its first ever mission to space in 2021. It said it intends to send Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser spacecraft into a two-week, low-Earth orbit flight in 2021. Sierra Nevada had signed the UN as a partner in June. Motherboard adds:As detailed for a small crowd at the International Astronautical Congress yesterday, the goal of the 2021 UN mission is to make space accessible to developing member states that lack the resources to develop a standalone, national space program. "One of UNOOSA's core responsibilities is to promote cooperation and the peaceful uses of outer space, but our work is about more than that," said Simonetta Di Pippo, the director of UNOOSA. "We have the vision of bringing the benefits of space to humankind, and that means helping developing countries access space technologies and their benefits."

Elon Musk: First Humans Who Journey To Mars Must 'Be Prepared To Die' ( 368

At a conference yesterday, Elon Musk outlined his company SpaceX's plan to send humans to Mars. The vehicle is called the Interplanetary Transport System and it is capable of carrying 100 tons of cargo (people and supplies). Musk added that this rocket ship could take people to Mars in just 80 days. But he also reminded that the first batch of people who are brave enough to go to Mars should be well aware that they are almost certainly going to die. The Verge adds:During the Q&A session that followed, the question inevitably came up: what sort of person does Musk think will volunteer to get strapped to that big rocket and fired toward the Red Planet? "Who should these people be, carrying the light of humanity to Mars for all of us?" an audience member asked. "I think the first journeys to Mars will be really very dangerous," answered Musk. "The risk of fatality will be high. There's just no way around it." The journey itself would take around 80 days, according to the plan and ideas that Musk put forward. "Are you prepared to die? If that's okay, then you're a candidate for going," he added. But Musk didn't want to get stuck talking about the risks and immense danger. "This is less about who goes there first... the thing that really matters is making a self-sustaining civilization on Mars as fast as possible. This is different than Apollo. This is really about minimizing existential risk and having a tremendous sense of adventure," he said.

Elon Musk Proposes Spaceship That Can Send 100 People To Mars In 80 Days ( 453

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Verge: Today, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk unveiled the Mars vehicle -- the spaceship his company plans to build to transport the first colonists to Mars. It will have a diameter of 17 meters. The plan is to send about 100 people per trip, though Musk wants to ultimately take 200 or more per flight to make the cost cheaper per person. The trip can take as little as 80 days or as many as 150 depending on the year. The hope is that the transport time will be only 30 days "in the more distant future." The rocket booster will have a diameter of 12 meters and the stack height will be 122 meters. The spaceship should hold a cargo of up to 450 tons depending on how many refills can be done with the tanker. As rumored, the Mars vehicle will be reusable and the spaceship will refuel in orbit. The trip will work like this: First, the spaceship will launch out of Pad 39A, which is under development right now at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida. At liftoff, the booster will have 127,800 kilonewtons of thrust, or 28,730,000 pounds of thrust. Then, the spaceship and booster separate. The spaceship heads to orbit, while the booster heads back to Earth, coming back within about 20 minutes. Back on Earth, the booster lands on a launch mount and a propellant tanker is loaded onto the booster. The entire unit -- now filled with fuel -- lifts off again. It joins with the spaceship, which is then refueled in orbit. The propellant tankers will go up anywhere from three to five times to fill the tanks of the spaceship. The spaceship finally departs for Mars. To make the trip more attractive for its crew members, Musk promises that it'll be "really fun" with zero-G games, movies, cabins, games, a restaurant. Once it reaches Mars, the vehicle will land on the surface, using its rocket engines to lower itself gently down to the ground. The spaceship's passengers will use the vehicle, as well as cargo and hardware that's already been shipped over to Mars, to set up a long-term colony. At the rate of 20 to 50 total Mars trips, it will take anywhere from 40 to 100 years to achieve a fully self-sustaining civilization with one million people on Mars, says Musk.

Aetna To Provide Apple Watch To 50,000 Employees, Subsidize Cost For Customers ( 135

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Mac Rumors: Insurance company Aetna today announced a major health initiative centered on the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch, which will see Aetna subsidizing the cost of the Apple Watch for both large employers and individual customers. Starting this fall during open enrollment season, Aetna will subsidize "a significant portion" of the Apple Watch cost and will offer monthly payroll deductions to cover the remaining cost. Aetna also plans to provide Apple Watches at no cost to all of its nearly 50,000 employees as part of a wellness reimbursement program to encourage them to live healthier lives. Aetna plans to develop several iOS health initiatives with "support" from Apple, debuting "deeply integrated" health apps for the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch that will be available to all Aetna customers. According to Aetna, these apps will "simplify the healthcare process" with features like care management to guide customers through a new diagnosis or a medication, medication reminders and tools for easy refills, quick contact with doctors, integration with Apple Wallet for paying bills and checking deductibles, and tools to help Aetna members get the most out of their insurance benefits. Aetna's health-related apps will be available starting in early 2017, but the Apple Watch initiative will begin in 2016. Aetna has not detailed how much of the cost will be subsidized or which Apple Watch models will be available to subscribers.

Google's New Translation Software Powered By Brainlike Artificial Intelligence ( 85

sciencehabit quotes a report from Science Magazine: Today, Google rolled out a new translation system that uses massive amounts of data and increased processing power to build more accurate translations. The new system, a deep learning model known as neural machine translation, effectively trains itself -- and reduces translation errors by up to 87%. When compared with Google's previous system, the neural machine translation system scores well with human reviewers. It was 58% more accurate at translating English into Chinese, and 87% more accurate at translating English into Spanish. As a result, the company is planning to slowly replace the system underlying all of its translation work -- one language at a time. The report adds: "The new method, reported today on the preprint server arXiv, uses a total of 16 processors to first transform words into a value known as a vector. What is a vector? 'We don't know exactly,' [Quoc Le, a Google research scientist in Mountain View, California, says.] But it represents how related one word is to every other word in the vast dictionary of training materials (2.5 billion sentence pairs for English and French; 500 million for English and Chinese). For example, 'dog' is more closely related to 'cat' than 'car,' and the name 'Barack Obama' is more closely related to 'Hillary Clinton' than the name for the country 'Vietnam.' The system uses vectors from the input language to come up with a list of possible translations that are ranked based on their probability of occurrence. Other features include a system of cross-checks that further increases accuracy and a special set of computations that speeds up processing time."

SpaceX Shows Off Its Interplanetary Transport System in New Video ( 195

Elon Musk's SpaceX plans to send humans to Mars with a ship called the Interplanetary Transport System, the company announced today in a video, revealing how the ITS will actually work. The ITS will be capable of carrying up to 100 tons of cargo -- people and supplies -- and it will utilize a slew of different power sources en route to Mars. From a report on TechCrunch: SpaceX has released a new video showing a CG concept of its Interplanetary Transport System, the rocket and spacecraft combo it plans to use to colonize Mars. The video depicts a reusable rocket that can get the interplanetary spacecraft beyond Earth's orbit, and a craft that uses solar sails to coast on its way to a Mars entry. The booster returns to Earth after separating from the shuttlecraft to pick up a booster tank full of fuel, which it then returns to orbit to fuel up the waiting spaceship. The booster craft then also returns to Earth under its own power, presumably also for re-use. The solar arrays that the spacecraft employs provide 200 kW of power, according to captions in the video.The Verge is live blogging SpaceX's conference, and has details on specs.

World's First Baby Born With New '3 Parent' Technique ( 190

A five-month-old baby boy has been revealed as the first kid in the world with three biological parents, reports New Scientist. The baby boy was apparently conceived by a technique that has been legally approved in the UK, and lets parents with genetic disorders have healthy babies. Though, the method used in this particular cases was slightly different from one legalized in the UK. From the report: Zhang (a doctor) took a different approach, called spindle nuclear transfer. He removed the nucleus from one of the mother's eggs and inserted it into a donor egg that had had its own nucleus removed. The resulting egg -- with nuclear DNA from the mother and mitochondrial DNA from a donor -- was then fertilised with the father's sperm. Zhang's team used this approach to create five embryos, only one of which developed normally. This embryo was implanted in the mother and the child was born nine months later. "It's exciting news," says Bert Smeets at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. The team will describe the findings at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine's Scientific Congress in Salt Lake City in October.

Jupiter's Moon Europa May Have Water Plumes That Rise Up About 125 Miles ( 91

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope released new images Monday, which will be published in The Astrophysicial Journal later this week, that show what appears to be plumes of water vapor erupting out of the icy surface of Jupiter's moon Europa. The discovery is especially intriguing as it means that the ocean below Europa's surface could be probed without having to drill through miles of ice. NPR reports: Europa is one of the most intriguing places in the solar system because it's thought to have a vast subterranean ocean with twice as much water as Earth's oceans. This saltwater ocean is a tempting target for astrobiologists who want to find places beyond Earth that could support life. The trouble with exploring this ocean is that the water is hidden beneath an icy crust that's miles thick. But if plumes are indeed erupting from Europa, a spacecraft could potentially fly through them and analyze their chemistry -- much like NASA's Cassini probe did recently when it sped close to Enceladus, a moon of Saturn that has small geysers. Scientists used Hubble to watch Europa's silhouette as the moon moved across Jupiter's bright background. They looked, in ultraviolet light, for signs of plumes coming from the moon's surface. They did this 10 separate times over a period of 15 months, and saw what could be plumes on three occasions. NASA says the plumes are estimated to rise up about 125 miles, and presumably material then rains back down onto Europa's surface. Using Hubble in a different way, scientists previously saw hints that salty water occasionally travels up to the moon's surface. In 2012, the telescope detected evidence of water vapor above Europa's south polar region, suggesting the existence of plumes that shoot out into space. The agency's Juno spacecraft is currently in orbit around Jupiter, but it isn't slated to take any observations of Europa.

SpaceX Tests Its Raptor Engine For Future Mars Flights ( 111

Thelasko writes: Elon Musk is preparing to unveil his plans to colonize Mars at the 67th annual International Astronautical Congress tomorrow. As a tease to his lecture, he has released some details about the Raptor engine on Twitter, including pictures. Mr. Musk states that, "Production Raptor coal is specific impulse of 382 seconds and thrust of 3 MN (~310 metric tons) at 300 bar." He goes on to note that the specific impulse spec is at Mars ambient pressure. The Raptor interplanetary engine is designed for use with Space X's Mars Colonial Transporter craft. Musk notes that the "chamber pressure runs three times what's present in the Merlin engine currently used to power Falcon 9," according to TechCrunch. "Merlin has specific impulse of 282 seconds (311 seconds in the vacuum of space), and a relatively paltry 654 kilonewton (0.6 MN) at sea level, or 716 kN (0.7 MN) in a vacuum. You can view a picture of the "Mach diamonds" here, which are visible in the engine's exhaust.

Roller Coasters Could Help People Pass Kidney Stones, Says Study ( 124

An anonymous reader quotes a report from NBC News: Two researchers who took science to the amusement park say they've found that a thrilling roller coaster ride just might help people shake out pesky kidney stones. Dr. David Wartinger of Michigan State University said he'd heard patient after patient tell him about how they had passed kidney stones after riding one particular ride: the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster at Walt Disney World in Orlando. He and a colleague, Dr. Marc Mitchell, had also seen some media reports about people who passed kidney stones while bungee jumping and riding roller coasters. So they decided to leave East Lansing to head to Orlando in the name of medical research. To simulate the human body as best they could, they made an artificial human kidney model out of clear silicone gel and loaded it up with real human kidney stones. They rode the roller coaster holding their kidney contraption between them in a backpack positioned at kidney height. They took 20 rides and noted what happened to each kidney stone. Riding in the back of the roller coaster train seemed to really knock the kidney stones out, they reported in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association. "Front seating on the roller coaster resulted in a passage rate of four of 24," they wrote. "Rear seating on the roller coaster resulted in a passage rate of 23 of 36." They mainly tested the one roller coaster ride, and it's a fairly simple one. "The Big Thunder Mountain roller coaster is not a terribly dynamic ride," Wartinger said. "It's not very fast. It is not very tall. It makes sharp left and right turns that have some vibration." Wartinger suspects many different thrill rides would have the same effect. "It's not like there anything unique about this one coaster," he said. The pair have now run their test 200 more times and say the findings are consistent. Now they want to try other amusement park rides.

Study: Earth Is At Its Warmest In 120,000 Years ( 178

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Washington Post: As part of her doctoral dissertation at Stanford University, Carolyn Snyder, now a climate policy official at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, created a continuous 2 million year temperature record, much longer than a previous 22,000 year record. Snyder's temperature reconstruction, published Monday in the journal Nature, doesn't estimate temperature for a single year, but averages 5,000-year time periods going back a couple million years. Snyder based her reconstruction on 61 different sea surface temperature proxies from across the globe, such as ratios between magnesium and calcium, species makeup and acidity. But the further the study goes back in time, especially after half a million years, the fewer of those proxies are available, making the estimates less certain, she said. These are rough estimates with large margins of errors, she said. But she also found that the temperature changes correlated well to carbon dioxide levels. Temperatures averaged out over the most recent 5,000 years -- which includes the last 125 years or so of industrial emissions of heat-trapping gases -- are generally warmer than they have been since about 120,000 years ago or so, Snyder found. And two interglacial time periods, the one 120,000 years ago and another just about 2 million years ago, were the warmest Snyder tracked. They were about 3.6 degrees (2 degrees Celsius) warmer than the current 5,000-year average. Snyder said if climate factors are the same as in the past -- and that's a big if -- Earth is already committed to another 7 degrees or so (about 4 degrees Celsius) of warming over the next few thousand years. "This is based on what happened in the past, Snyder noted. "In the past it wasn't humans messing with the atmosphere."

Researcher Modifies Sieve of Eratosthenes To Work With Less Physical Memory Space ( 77

grcumb writes: Peruvian mathematician Harald Helfgott made his mark on the history of mathematics by solving Goldbach's weak conjecture, which states that every odd number greater than 7 can be expressed as the sum of three prime numbers. Now, according to Scientific American, he's found a better solution to the sieve of Eratosthenes: "In order to determine with this sieve all primes between 1 and 100, for example, one has to write down the list of numbers in numerical order and start crossing them out in a certain order: first, the multiples of 2 (except the 2); then, the multiples of 3, except the 3; and so on, starting by the next number that had not been crossed out. The numbers that survive this procedure will be the primes. The method can be formulated as an algorithm." But now, Helfgott has found a method to drastically reduce the amount of RAM required to run the algorithm: "Now, inspired by combined approaches to the analytical 100-year-old technique called the circle method, Helfgott was able to modify the sieve of Eratosthenes to work with less physical memory space. In mathematical terms: instead of needing a space N, now it is enough to have the cube root of N." So what will be the impact of this? Will we see cheaper, lower-power encryption devices? Or maybe quicker cracking times in brute force attacks? Mathematician Jean Carlos Cortissoz Iriarte of Cornell University and Los Andes University offers an analogy: "Let's pretend that you are a computer and that to store data in your memory you use sheets of paper. If to calculate the primes between 1 and 1,000,000, you need 200 reams of paper (10,000 sheets), and with the algorithm proposed by Helfgott you will only need one fifth of a ream (about 100 sheets)," he says.

China's Giant Radio Telescope Begins Searching For Signals From Space ( 47

Years of work and millions of dollars later, China finished its alien-hunting telescope in May this year. Now the country says its telescope has begun its operation. The company flipped the switch over the weekend, hoping to find signals from stars and galaxies -- and more importantly from extraterrestrial life. The telescope also illustrates China's growing ambition to stay among the frontrunners in space efforts. AP reports: Beijing has poured billions into such ambitious scientific projects as well as its military-backed space program, which saw the launch of China's second space station earlier this month. Measuring 500 metres in diameter, the radio telescope is nestled in a natural basin within a stunning landscape of lush green karst formations in southern Guizhou province. It took five years and $180 million to complete and surpasses that of the 300-meter Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, a dish used in research on stars that led to a Nobel Prize. The official Xinhua News Agency said hundreds of astronomers and enthusiasts watched the launch of the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, in the county of Pingtang. Researchers quoted by state media said FAST would search for gravitational waves, detect radio emissions from stars and galaxies and listen for signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life. "The ultimate goal of FAST is to discover the laws of the development of the universe," Qian Lei, an associate researcher with the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told state broadcaster CCTV. "In theory, if there is civilization in outer space, the radio signal it sends will be similar to the signal we can receive when a pulsar (spinning neutron star) is approaching us," Qian said.

Scientists Study How Non-Scientists Deny Climate Change ( 654

A new research paper suggest climate change opponents are "simulating coherence by conspiracism". Slashdot reader Layzej says the paper "examines this behavior at the aggregate level, but gives many examples where contradictory ideas are held by the same individual, and sometimes are presented within a single publication." From the paper: Claims that the globe "is cooling" can coexist with claims that the "observed warming is natural" and that "the human influence does not matter because warming is good for us". Coherence between these mutually contradictory opinions can only be achieved at a highly abstract level, namely that "something must be wrong" with the scientific evidence in order to justify a political position against climate change mitigation...

In a nutshell, the opposition to greenhouse gas emission cuts is the unifying and coherent position underlying all manifestations of climate science denial... Climate science denial is therefore perhaps best understood as a rational activity that replaces a coherent body of science with an incoherent and conspiracist body of pseudo-science for political reasons and with considerable political coherence and effectiveness.

"I think that people who deny basic science will continue to do so, no matter how contradictory their arguments may be," says one of the paper's authors, who suggests that the media should be wary of self-contradicting positions.

The Ig Nobel Awards Celebrate Their 26th First Annual Awards Ceremony ( 35

Thursday Harvard's Sanders Theatre hosted the 26th edition of the humorous research awards "that make people laugh, then think...intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative -- and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology." One of this year's winners actually lived as a goat, wearing prosthetic extensions on his arms and legs so he could travel the countryside with other goats. Long-time Slashdot reader tomhath writes: The Journal of Improbable announced these winners:

REPRODUCTION PRIZE [EGYPT] -- The late Ahmed Shafik, for studying the effects of wearing polyester, cotton, or wool trousers on the sex life of rats, and for conducting similar tests with human males.

ECONOMICS PRIZE [NEW ZEALAND, UK] -- Mark Avis, Sarah Forbes, and Shelagh Ferguson, for assessing the perceived personalities of rocks, from a sales and marketing perspective...

PEACE PRIZE [CANADA, USA] -- Gordon Pennycook, James Allan Cheyne, Nathaniel Barr, Derek Koehler, and Jonathan Fugelsang for their scholarly study called 'On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit'...

PERCEPTION PRIZE [JAPAN] -- Atsuki Higashiyama and Kohei Adachi, for investigating whether things look different when you bend over and view them between your legs.

The Improable Research site lists the rest of this year's 10 winners, as well as every winner for the previous 25 years.

Cisco Blamed A Router Bug On 'Cosmic Radiation' ( 144

Network World's news editor contacted Slashdot with this report: A Cisco bug report addressing "partial data traffic loss" on the company's ASR 9000 Series routers contended that a "possible trigger is cosmic radiation causing SEU [single-event upset] soft errors." Not everyone is buying: "It IS possible for bits to be flipped in memory by stray background radiation. However it's mostly impossible to detect the reason as to WHERE or WHEN this happens," writes a Redditor identifying himself as a former [technical assistance center] engineer...
"While we can't speak to this particular case," Cisco wrote in a follow-up, "Cisco has conducted extensive research, dating back to 2001, on the effects cosmic radiation can have on our service provider networking hardware, system architectures and software designs. Despite being rare, as electronics operate at faster speeds and the density of silicon chips increases, it becomes more likely that a stray bit of energy could cause problems that affect the performance of a router or switch."

Friday a commenter claiming to be Xander Thuijs, Cisco's principal engineer on the ASR 9000 router, posted below the article, "apologies for the detail provided and the 'concept' of cosmic radiation. This is not the type of explanation I would like to see presented to the respected users of our products. We have made some updates to the DDTS [defect-tracking report] in question with a more substantial data and explanation. The issue is something that we can likely address with an FPD update on the 2x100 or 1x100G Typhoon-based linecard."
United States

US Panel Extends Nuclear Power Tax Credit ( 246

Slashdot reader mdsolar quotes The Hill: The House Ways and Means Committee voted Wednesday to remove a key deadline for a nuclear power plant tax credit... The credit was first enacted in 2005 to spur construction of new nuclear plants, but it has gone completely unused because no new plants have come online since then...

It would likely benefit two reactors under construction at Southern Co.'s Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Georgia and another two at Virgil C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station in South Carolina. Both projects are at risk of missing the 2020 deadline... "When Congress passed the 2005 act, it could not have contemplated the effort it would take to get a nuclear plant designed and licensed," said representative Tom Rice (R-S.C.).

Although one Democrat criticized the extension by arguing that nuclear power "does better in a socialist economy than in a capitalist one, because nuclear energy prefers to have the public do the cleanup, do the insurance, cover all of the losses and it only wants the profits."

Poor Scientific Research Is Disproportionately Rewarded ( 81

A new study calculates a low probability that real effects are actually being detected in psychology, neuroscience and medicine research paper -- and then explains why. Slashdot reader ananyo writes: The average statistical power of papers culled from 44 reviews published between 1960 and 2011 was about 24%. The authors built an evolutionary computer model to suggest why and show that poor methods that get "results" will inevitably prosper. They also show that replication efforts cannot stop the degradation of the scientific record as long as science continues to reward the volume of a researcher's publications -- rather than their quality.
The article notes that in a 2015 sample of 100 psychological studies, only 36% of the results could actually be reproduced. Yet the researchers conclude that in the Darwin-esque hunt for funding, "top-performing laboratories will always be those who are able to cut corners." And the article's larger argument is until universities stop rewarding bad science, even subsequent attempts to invalidate those bogus results will be "incapable of correcting the situation no matter how rigorously it is pursued."

Our Atmosphere Is Leaking Oxygen and Scientists Don't Know Why ( 166

The Earth's atmosphere has been leaking oxygen and scientists don't know why. Researchers discovered that over the past 800,000 years, atmospheric oxygen levels have dropped by 0.7 percent. How exactly did they discover the leak? By observing ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica, which contain trapped air bubbles representing snapshots of our atmosphere over the past million-odd years. Gizmodo reports: By examining the ratio of oxygen to nitrogen isotopes within these cores, the researchers were able to pull out a trend: oxygen levels have fallen by 0.7 percent over the past 800,000 years, meaning sinks are roughly 2 percent larger than sources. Writing today in Science, the researchers offer a few possible explanations. For one, erosion rates appear to have sped up in recent geologic history, causing more fresh sediment to be exposed and oxidized by the atmosphere, causing more oxygen to be consumed. Long-term climate change could also be responsible. Recent human-induced warming aside, our planet's average temperature had been declining a bit over the past few million years. [Princeton University geologist Daniel Stolper] added that there could be other explanations, too, and figuring out which is correct could prove quite challenging. But learning what controls the knobs in our planet's oxygen cycle is worth the effort. It could help us understand what makes a planet habitable at all -- something scientists are rather keen on, given recent exoplanet discoveries. Stolper's analysis excluded one very unusual part of the record: the last 200 years of industrial human society. "We are consuming O2 at a rate a factor of a thousand times faster than before," Stolper said. "Humankind has completely short-circuited the cycle by burning tons of carbon."

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