Science

Arbitrary Deadlines Are the Enemy of Creativity, According to Harvard Research (qz.com) 123

Time can feel like the enemy to an employee in any role, and in any industry, but it's most acutely threatening to creative types. From a report: We may tease them for their diva-like behaviors when they feel persecuted by a deadline, but we have to admit that "develop an amazing new idea" is not something that slides into your schedule, like pick up lunch or respond to new clients. Nor can systems be tweaked and extra hands hired to help hit a goal that requires innovation, the way they can when mundane busy work is piling up. And yet deadlines are a fact of life for any company that wants to stay competitive. In a recent Harvard Business School podcast, professor Teresa Amabile, whose academic career has focused on individuals, teams, and creativity, offers some guidance for managers who struggle to support or coax their creative talent. She explains that although the creative process itself can't be controlled, certain structures can set up the conditions to move it along. When possible, managers should avoid tight deadlines for creative projects. In her work, Amabile found that creative teams can produce ideas on a deadline, and creative people may feel productive on high-pressured days, but their ideas won't be inspired.
Space

The Alien Megastructure Around Mysterious 'Tabby's Star' Is Probably Just Dust, Analysis Shows (theguardian.com) 75

An analysis by more than 200 astronomers has been published that shows the mysterious dimming of star KIC 8462852 -- nicknamed Tabby's star -- is not being produced by an alien megastructure. "The evidence points most strongly to a giant cloud of dust occasionally obscuring the star," reports The Guardian. From the report: KIC 8462852 is approximately 1,500 light years away from the Earth and hit the headlines in October 2015 when data from Nasa's Kepler space telescope showed that it was dimming by unexplainably large amounts. The star's light dropped by 20% first and then 15% making it unique. Even a large planet passing in front of the star would have blocked only about 1% of the light. For an object to block 15-20%, it would have to be approaching half the diameter of the star itself. With this realization, a few astronomers began whispering that such a signal would be the kind expected from a gigantic extraterrestrial construction orbiting in front of the star -- and the idea of the alien megastructure was born.

In the case of Tabby's star, the new observations show that it dims more at blue wavelengths than red. Thus, its light is passing through a dust cloud, not being blocked by an alien megastructure in orbit around the star. The new analysis of KIC 8462852 showing these results is to be published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. It reinforces the conclusions reached by Huan Meng, University of Arizona, Tucson, and collaborators in October 2017. They monitored the star at multiple wavelengths using Nasa's Spitzer and Swift missions, and the Belgian AstroLAB IRIS observatory. These results were published in The Astrophysical Journal.

Space

SpaceX's Latest Advantage? Blowing Up Its Own Rocket, Automatically (qz.com) 126

SpaceX has reportedly worked with the Air Force to develop a GPS-equipped on-board computer, called the "Automatic Flight Safety System," that will safely and automatically detonate a Falcon 9 rocket in the sky if the launch threatens to go awry. Previously, an Air Force range-safety officer was required to be in place, ready to transmit a signal to detonate the rocket. Quartz reports: No other U.S. rocket has this capability yet, and it could open up new advantages for SpaceX: The U.S. Air Force is considering launches to polar orbits from Cape Canaveral, but the flight path is only viable if the rockets don't need to be tracked for range-safety reasons. That means SpaceX is the only company that could take advantage of the new corridor to space. Rockets at the Cape normally launch satellites eastward over the Atlantic into orbits roughly parallel to the equator. Launches from Florida into orbits traveling from pole to pole generally sent rockets too close to populated areas for the Air Force's liking. The new rules allow them to thread a safe path southward, past Miami and over Cuba.

SpaceX pushed for the new automated system for several reasons. One was efficacy: The on-board computer can react more quickly than human beings relying on radar data and radio transmissions to signal across miles of airspace, which gives the rocket more time to correct its course before blowing up in the event of an error. As important, the automated system means the company doesn't need to pay for the full use of the Air Force radar installations on launch day, which means SpaceX doesn't need to pay for some 160 U.S. Air Force staff to be on duty for their launches, saving the company and its customers money. Most impressively, the automated system will make it possible for SpaceX to fly multiple boosters at once in a single launch.

The Internet

How Do Americans Define Online Harassment? (theverge.com) 148

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Verge: According to a new Pew Research Center survey, defining online harassment is just as complicated for the average American user as it is for huge social media companies -- and the line gets even more fuzzy when gender or race come into the picture. The survey polled 4,151 respondents on various scenarios and asked them whether each one crossed the threshold for online harassment. In one hypothetical, a private disagreement between a man and his friend David is forwarded to a third party and posted online, which escalates to David receiving "unkind" messages, "vulgar" messages, and eventually being doxxed and threatened. When asked whether or not David was harassed, 89 percent of respondents agreed that he was. However, opinions on exactly when the harassment began varied widely: 5 percent considered it harassment when David offends his friend; 48 percent said it's when the friend forwards the conversation; 54 percent said it's when the conversation is shared publicly. Others agreed it crossed the line when David received the unkind messages (72 percent), the vulgar messages (82 percent), is doxxed (85 percent), and threatened (85 percent). There was little difference in responses by gender.

Questions regarding sexual harassment, perhaps unsurprisingly, are more divisive -- especially between men and women. In a second example, a woman named Julie receives "vulgar messages" about her looks and sexual behavior after posting on social media about a controversial issue. Women were about three times more likely than men (24 percent vs. 9 percent) to label it online harassment when Julie's post is shared by a popular blogger with thousands of followers. Fifty percent of women vs. 35 percent of men consider it harassment when Julie starts getting unkind messages. When it comes to vulgar messages, threats, or Julie's photo being edited to include sexual imagery, 8 out of 10 men consider it harassment, as opposed to 9 out of 10 women.

There's also a curious division between acknowledging something as harassment and believing that action should be taken by social media platforms. In the case of sexual harassment, for example, 43 percent of respondents considered the unkind messages harassment -- yet only 20 percent thought the social media platform should intervene. In a scenario where a woman's picture is edited to include sexual imagery, 84 percent called it harassment, but only 71 percent thought platforms should step in. The same can be said of an example involving racial harassment. Although 82 percent of respondents called messages with racial slurs and insults harassment, only 57 percent thought the platform should step in; the same goes for the person having their picture edited to include racially insensitive images (80 percent vs. 57 percent) and threats (82 percent vs. 67 percent). In both cases, respondents' gender is not provided.

Stats

The Most Productive Days and Times In 2017 (rescuetime.com) 31

In a blog post, personal analytics service RescueTime revealed exactly what days and times we were most productive in 2017, by studying the anonymized data of how people spent their time on their computers and phones over the past 12 months. From the report: Simply put, our data shows that people were the most productive on November 14th. In fact, that entire week ranked as the most productive of the year. Which makes sense. With American Thanksgiving the next week and the mad holiday rush shortly after, mid-November is a great time for people to cram in a few extra work hours and get caught up before gorging on Turkey dinner. On the other side of the spectrum, we didn't get a good start to the year. January 6th -- the first Friday of the year -- was the least productive day of 2017.

One of the biggest mistakes so many of us make when planning out our days is to assume we have 8+ hours to do productive work. This couldn't be further from the truth. What we found is that, on average, we only spend 5 hours a day working on a digital device. And with an average productivity pulse of 53% for the year, that means we only have 12.5 hours a week to do productive work. Our data showed that we do our most productive work between 10 and noon and then again from 2-5pm each day. However, breaking it down to the hour, we do our most productive work on Wednesdays at 3pm.
RescueTime has a separate blog post detailing how they calculate their productivity scores.
Math

Largest Prime Number Discovered – With More Than 23m Digits (mersenne.org) 117

chalsall writes: Persistence pays off. Jonathan Pace, a GIMPS volunteer for over 14 years, discovered the 50th known Mersenne prime, 2^77,232,917 -- 1 on December 26, 2017. The prime number is calculated by multiplying together 77,232,917 twos, and then subtracting one. It weighs in at 23,249,425 digits, becoming the largest prime number known to mankind. It bests the previous record prime, also discovered by GIMPS, by 910,807 digits. You can read a little more in the press release.
Earth

Oceans Suffocating as Huge Dead Zones Quadruple Since 1950, Scientists Warn (theguardian.com) 190

Ocean dead zones with zero oxygen have quadrupled in size since 1950, scientists have warned, while the number of very low oxygen sites near coasts have multiplied tenfold. From a report: Most sea creatures cannot survive in these zones and current trends would lead to mass extinction in the long run, risking dire consequences for the hundreds of millions of people who depend on the sea. Climate change caused by fossil fuel burning is the cause of the large-scale deoxygenation, as warmer waters hold less oxygen. The coastal dead zones result from fertiliser and sewage running off the land and into the seas. The analysis, published in the journal Science, is the first comprehensive analysis of the areas and states: "Major extinction events in Earth's history have been associated with warm climates and oxygen-deficient oceans." Denise Breitburg, at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in the US and who led the analysis, said: "Under the current trajectory that is where we would be headed. But the consequences to humans of staying on that trajectory are so dire that it is hard to imagine we would go quite that far down that path." "This is a problem we can solve," Breitburg said. "Halting climate change requires a global effort, but even local actions can help with nutrient-driven oxygen decline." She pointed to recoveries in Chesapeake Bay in the US and the Thames river in the UK, where better farm and sewage practices led to dead zones disappearing.
Beer

Alcohol Can Cause Irreversible Genetic Damage To Stem Cells, Says Study (theguardian.com) 145

A new study, published on Wednesday, states that drinking alcohol produces a harmful chemical in the body which can lead to permanent genetic damage in the DNA of stem cells, increasing the risk of cancer developing. From a report: The research, using genetically modified mice, provides the most compelling evidence to date that alcohol causes cancer by scrambling the DNA in cells, eventually leading to deadly mutations. During the past decade, there has been mounting evidence of the link between drinking and the risk of certain cancers. "How exactly alcohol causes damage to us is controversial," said Prof Ketan Patel, who led the work at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. "This paper provides very strong evidence that an alcohol metabolite causes DNA damage [including] to the all-important stem cells that go on to make tissues." The study builds on previous work that had pinpointed a breakdown product of alcohol, called acetaldehyde, as a toxin that can damage the DNA within cells. However, these earlier studies had relied on extremely high concentrations of acetaldehyde and used cells in a dish rather than tracking its effects within the body.
Medicine

Price Tag On Gene Therapy For Rare Form of Blindness: $850K (apnews.com) 218

A first-of-its kind genetic treatment for blindness will cost $850,000, less than the $1 million price tag that had been expected, but still among the most expensive medicines in the world. Several readers have shared an Associated Press report: Spark Therapeutics said Wednesday it decided on the lower price for Luxturna (Lux-turn-a) after hearing concerns from health insurers about their ability to cover the injectable treatment. Consternation over skyrocketing drug prices, especially in the U.S., has led to intense scrutiny from patients, Congress, insurers and hospitals. "We wanted to balance the value and the affordability concerns with a responsible price that would ensure access to patients," said CEO Jeffrey Marrazzo, in an interview with The Associated Press. Luxturna is still significantly more expensive than nearly every other medicine on the global market, including two other gene therapies approved earlier last year in the U.S. Approved last month, Luxturna, is the nation's first gene therapy for an inherited disease. It can improve the vision of those with a rare form of blindness that is estimated to affect just a few thousand people in the U.S. Luxturna is an injection -- one for each eye -- that replaces a defective gene in the retina, tissue at the back of the eye that converts light into electric signals that produce vision. The therapy will cost $425,000 per injection.
Earth

Scientists Can Now Blame Individual Natural Disasters On Climate Change (scientificamerican.com) 318

In 2003, the predominant view in the scientific community was that there was no way to determine the exact influence of climate change on any individual event. "There are just too many other factors affecting the weather, including all sorts of natural climate variations," reports Scientific American. But Myles Allen, a climate expert at the University of Oxford, believes scientists can blame individual natural disasters on climate change. Scientific American reports of how extreme event attribution is one of the most rapidly expanding areas of climate science: Over the last few years, dozens of studies have investigated the influence of climate change on events ranging from the Russian heat wave of 2010 to the California drought, evaluating the extent to which global warming has made them more severe or more likely to occur. The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society now issues a special report each year assessing the impact of climate change on the previous year's extreme events. Interest in the field has grown so much that the National Academy of Sciences released an in-depth report last year evaluating the current state of the science and providing recommendations for its improvement. And as the science continues to mature, it may have ramifications for society. Legal experts suggest that attribution studies could play a major role in lawsuits brought by citizens against companies, industries or even governments. They could help reshape climate adaptation policies throughout a country or even the world. And perhaps more immediately, the young field of research could be capturing the public's attention in ways that long-term projections for the future cannot.

In 2004, Allen and Oxford colleague Daithi Stone and Peter Stott of the Met Office co-authored a report that is widely regarded as the world's first extreme event attribution study. The paper, which examined the contribution of climate change to a severe European heat wave in 2003 -- an event which may have caused tens of thousands of deaths across the continent -- concluded that "it is very likely that human influence has at least doubled the risk of a heat wave exceeding this threshold magnitude." Before this point, climate change attribution science had existed in other forms for several decades, according to Noah Diffenbaugh, a Stanford University climate scientist and attribution expert. Until 2004, much of the work had focused on investigating the relationship between human activity and long-term changes in climate elements like temperature and precipitation. More recently, scientists had been attempting to understand how these changes in long-term averages might affect weather patterns in general.

Medicine

Scientists Get Closer To Replicating Human Sperm (engadget.com) 224

Rachel England reports via Engadget: Scientists have taken an important step forward in recreating the way the human body makes sperm, which could one day mean creating artificial sperm and eggs for infertility treatment. The researchers, from the University of Cambridge's Gurdon Institute, are thought to be the first team to have reached the "halfway point" -- a significant milestone -- on the path between stem cells and immature sperm. This pathway -- which the team are attempting to track and understand -- involves embryonic cells turning into immature sperm via a series of complex steps known as meiosis. Cells follow the same journey for around eight weeks, before taking different directions depending on whether they're to be sperm or eggs. Previously, the team had managed to track this pathway to the four-week mark. Now, using new technology in the form of miniature artificial testicles (called "gonadal organoids"), it's on track to pass this point and gain new, deep insight into the process of sperm creation. Further reading: The Guardian
Power

Energy Department Permanently Closes Damaged Hanford Nuclear Reservation Tank (tri-cityherald.com) 69

The Department of Energy has decided to close the oldest double-shell tank at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The department says that Tank AY-102 has widespread damage and should not be repaired. The Tri-City Herald reports: DOE was required by Ecology, a regulator for Hanford's tanks storing radioactive and chemical waste, to empty enough waste from the tank to determine the cause of the leak by spring 2017. DOE confirmed in 2012 that waste from the inner shell of the tank was slowly leaking into the space between its inner and outer shells. No waste is known to have breached the outer shell to contaminate the soil beneath the tank. One of the goals of the inspection was to decide whether the tank could be repaired and returned to service, a scenario that appeared unlikely. Hanford has just 27 double-shell tanks, excluding Tank AY-102, to hold waste emptied from 149 leak-prone single shell tanks until the waste can be treated for disposal. Plans call for glassifying much of the waste at the vitrification plant under construction at Hanford. The waste is left from World War II and Cold War production of plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program.
Earth

It's So Cold Outside That Sharks Are Actually Freezing to Death (vice.com) 424

An anonymous reader writes: As climate change ushers in another year of extreme global temperatures -- a phenomenon President Trump seems a little confused about -- cities up and down the East Coast are facing record-breaking snowfall and subzero temperatures. But while city dwellers might be able to hide indoors and crank up the heat, some animals aren't so lucky. According to the Cape Cod-based Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, it's gotten so cold that sharks in the area have been washing up on the shore and essentially freezing to death. This week, the organization responded to three thresher sharks that likely suffered "cold shock" in the surrounding waters. Organisms suffer cold shock when they're exposed to extreme dips in temperature and can sometimes experience muscle spasms or cardiac arrest. Scientists believe the sharks swimming off the coast of Cape Cod -- where temperatures have dropped to 6 degrees -- suffered cold shock in the water, and then wound up getting stranded on the shore, where they likely suffocated. "If you've got cold air, that'll freeze their gills up very quickly," Greg Skomal, a marine scientist, told the New York Times. "Those gill filaments are very sensitive and it wouldn't take long for the shark to die."
Space

First Blue Moon Total Lunar Eclipse in 150 Years Coming This Month (space.com) 59

An anonymous reader writes, citing a report: The first eclipse of 2018 will be a lunar one that comes at the very end of the month, on Jan. 31. It will be a total eclipse that involves the second full moon of the month, popularly referred to as a Blue Moon. Such a skywatching event hasn't happened for more than 150 years. The eclipse will take place during the middle of the night, and the Pacific Ocean will be turned toward the moon at the time. Central and eastern Asia, Indonesia, New Zealand and most of Australia will get a fine view of this moon show in the evening sky. Heading farther west into western Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, the eclipse will already be underway as the moon rises.
Science

Want to Be Happy? Think Like an Old Person (nytimes.com) 187

The New York Times: Older people report higher levels of contentment or well-being than teenagers and young adults. The six elders put faces on this statistic. If they were not always gleeful, they were resilient and not paralysed by the challenges that came their way. All had known loss and survived. None went to a job he did not like, coveted stuff she could not afford, brooded over a slight on the subway or lost sleep over events in the distant future. They set realistic goals. Only one said he was afraid to die. Gerontologists call this the paradox of old age: that as people's minds and bodies decline, instead of feeling worse about their lives, they feel better (Editor's note: the link may be paywalled; alternative source). In memory tests, they recall positive images better than negative; under functional magnetic resonance imaging, their brains respond more mildly to stressful images than the brains of younger people. John Sorensen, who liked to talk, brought cheer to every conversation, even those about wanting to die. Helen Moses and Ping Wong knew exactly what they wanted: for Ms Moses, it was her daughter and Mr Zeimer; for Ms Wong, it was mah-jongg and the camaraderie it entailed, even if the other players spoke a different dialect or followed the rules of a different home region. Mr Jones, Ms Willig and Mr Mekas all spent their energy on the things they could still do that brought them satisfaction, not on what they had lost to age.

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