Earth

A Fleet of Sailing Robots Sets Out To Quantify the Oceans (bloomberg.com) 76

pacopico writes: A start-up in California called Saildrone has built a fleet of robotic sailboats that are gathering tons of data about the oceans. The saildrones rely on a hard, carbon-fiber sail to catch wind, and solar panels to power all of their electronics and sensors. "Each drone carries at least $100,000 of electronics, batteries, and related gear," reports Businessweek. "Devices near the tip of the sail measure wind speed and direction, sunlight, air temperature and pressure, and humidity. Across the top of the drone's body, other electronics track wave height and period, carbon dioxide levels, and the strength of the Earth's magnetic field. Underwater, sensors monitor currents, dissolved oxygen levels, and water temperature, acidity, and salinity. Sonars and other acoustic instruments try to identify animal life." So far they've been used to find sharks, monitor fisheries, check on climate change and provide weather forecasts. Saildrone just raised $90 million to build a fleet of 1,000 drones, which it thinks will be enough to measure all of the world's oceans.
Java

California Bypasses Science To Label Coffee a Carcinogen (undark.org) 277

travers_r writes: Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle affirmed last week that all coffee sold in California must come with a warning label stating that chemicals in coffee (acrylamide, a substance created naturally during the brewing process) are known to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm. But judges, journalists, and environmental advocates fail to recognize the critical difference between probably and certainly, which fuels the inaccurate belief that cancer is mostly caused by things in the environment. From a report at Undark: "IARC is one of the leading scientific bodies in the world, and it is also one of several expert panels on which California relies for scientific opinions in such cases. The IARC has concluded that while there is sufficient evidence to consider acrylamide carcinogenic in experimental animals, there is insufficient evidence for carcinogenicity in humans. Therefore, its overall evaluation is that 'acrylamide is probably carcinogenic to humans.'
[...]
Leading experts, in fact, believe that roughly two-thirds of all cancers are the result of mutations to DNA that are caused by natural bodily processes, not exposure to environmental chemicals. This is quite the opposite of the prevailing belief among the public that most cancers are caused by exogenous substances imposed on us by the products and technologies of the modern world. It's this belief -- this fear -- that prompted voters to pass Proposition 65 in 1986. It was a time when fear of hazardous waste and industrial chemicals was high, when chemophobia -- a blanket fear of anything having to do with the word 'chemicals' -- was being seared into the public's mind."

NASA

Moon of Jupiter Prime Candidate For Alien Life After Water Blast Found (theguardian.com) 133

A NASA probe that explored Jupiter's moon Europa flew through a giant plume of water vapour that erupted from the icy surface and reached a hundred miles high, according to a fresh analysis of the spacecraft's data. An anonymous reader shares a The Guardian report: The discovery has cemented the view among some scientists that the Jovian moon, one of four first spotted by the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei in 1610, is the most promising place in the solar system to hunt for alien life. If such geysers are common on Europa, NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) missions that are already in the pipeline could fly through and look for signs of life in the brine, which comes from a vast subsurface ocean containing twice as much water as all the oceans on Earth.

NASA's Galileo spacecraft spent eight years in orbit around Jupiter and made its closest pass over Europa, a moon about the size of our own, on 16 December 1997. As the probe dropped beneath an altitude of 250 miles, its sensors twitched with unexpected signals that scientists were unable to explain at the time. Now, in a new study, the researchers describe how they went back to the Galileo data after grainy images beamed home from the Hubble space telescope in 2016 showed what appeared to be plumes of water blasting from Europa's surface.

Medicine

California Study To Examine the Influence of a Healthy Diet On Patients (nytimes.com) 242

"According to The New York Times, the state of California is funding an experiment through The Ceres Community Project to test the influence of a healthy diet on the recovery of state Medicaid patients with long-term serious illnesses," writes Slashdot reader MonteCarloMethod. From the report: Over the next three years, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, and Stanford will assess whether providing 1,000 patients who have congestive heart failure or Type 2 diabetes with a healthier diet and nutrition education affects hospital readmissions and referrals to long-term care, compared with 4,000 similar Medi-Cal patients who don't get the food.

The California study will build on more modest and less rigorous earlier research. A study in Philadelphia by the Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance retroactively compared health insurance claims for 65 chronically ill Medicaid patients who received six months' of medically tailored meals with a control group. The patients who got the food racked up about $12,000 less a month in medical expenses. Another small study by researchers at U.C.S.F. tracked patients with H.I.V. and Type 2 diabetes who got special meals for six months to see if it would positively affect their health. The researchers found they were less depressed, less likely to make trade-offs between food and health care, and more likely to stick with their medications.

Science

Plastic Bag Found at the Bottom of World's Deepest Ocean Trench (nationalgeographic.com) 166

The Mariana Trench -- the deepest point in the ocean -- extends nearly 36,000 feet down in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean. But if you thought the trench could escape the global onslaught of plastics pollution, you would be wrong. From a report: A recent study revealed that a plastic bag, like the kind given away at grocery stores, is now the deepest known piece of plastic trash, found at a depth of 36,000 feet inside the Mariana Trench. Scientists found it by looking through the Deep-Sea Debris Database, a collection of photos and videos taken from 5,010 dives over the past 30 years that was recently made public.
Science

Stephen Hawking Service: Possibility of Time Travellers 'Can't Be Excluded' (bbc.com) 199

Organisers of Prof Stephen Hawking's memorial service have seemingly left the door open for time travellers to attend. From a report: Those wishing to honour the theoretical physicist, who died in March aged 76, can apply via a public ballot. Applicants need to give their birth date - which can be any day up to 31 December 2038. Prof Hawking's foundation said the possibility of time travel had not been disproven and could not be excluded. It was London travel blogger IanVisits who noticed that those born from 2019 to 2038 were theoretically permitted to attend the service at Westminster Abbey. He said: "Professor Hawking once threw a party for time travellers, to see if any would turn up if he posted the invite after the party. None did, but it seems perfect that the memorial website allows people born in the future to attend the service. Look out for time travellers at the Abbey."
Medicine

James Harrison, Who Has Helped Save Lives of More Than 2.4 Million Australian Babies, Retires (cnn.com) 97

Most people, when they retire, get a gold watch. James Harrison deserves so much more than that. From a report: Harrison, known as the "Man With the Golden Arm," has donated blood nearly every week for 60 years. After all those donations, the 81-year-old Australian man "retired" Friday. The occasion marked the end of a monumental chapter. According to the Australian Red Cross Blood Service, he has helped saved the lives of more than 2.4 million Australian babies. Harrison's blood has unique, disease-fighting antibodies that have been used to develop an injection called Anti-D, which helps fight against rhesus disease. This disease is a condition where a pregnant woman's blood actually starts attacking her unborn baby's blood cells. In the worst cases, it can result in brain damage, or death, for the babies.
Science

Reporter Shares Experience of Visiting a Flat Earth Convention (vice.com) 356

Tom Usher, reporting for Vice: I arrived at the venue -- a Jurys Inn hotel -- on a wet Saturday morning, to discover that the event was essentially a small carpeted convention room boasting a few cameras, some stalls selling merchandise, and 70 or so attendees watching PowerPoint presentations beamed onto a wall. As I entered, I was offered a gift of "fluoride-free" toothpaste. This made perfect sense, given the location. A popular conspiracy theory states that governments across the world have been putting fluoride in our water supply to tranquilize the masses, despite the fact the only piece of "evidence" for this theory -- which involves both the Nazis and the Communists -- has been widely discredited. With the tone set for the day, I sat down to watch some speeches.

The speakers all seemed well aware of how "globe-earthers" view the idea of a flat Earth, i.e. ludicrous, and their talk of the current scientific establishment felt very "us versus them" -- a nice bit of truther tribalism. One speaker talked at length about the moon, and how its orbit proved the Earth couldn't be spherical, which seemed a little counterintuitive. Another talked about how the Egyptian pyramid structure points toward clues that the Earth is a flat diamond shape, supported by pillars. Between sounding off about the Vatican and the fact that the establishment has indoctrinated us to believe all sorts of things, including that the Earth is a sphere, a third speaker suggested that cancer is caused by negative emotions and argued that dinosaurs didn't exist.
The story also explores why some people still believe these long-debunked theories. Further reading: The bizarre tale of the flat-Earth convention that fell apart (CNET).
AI

AI Systems Should Debate Each Other To Prove Themselves, Says OpenAI (fastcompany.com) 56

tedlistens shares a report from Fast Company: To make AI easier for humans to understand and trust, researchers at the [Elon Musk-backed] nonprofit research organization OpenAI have proposed training algorithms to not only classify data or make decisions, but to justify their decisions in debates with other AI programs in front of a human or AI judge. In an experiment described in their paper (PDF), the researchers set up a debate where two software agents work with a standard set of handwritten numerals, attempting to convince an automated judge that a particular image is one digit rather than another digit, by taking turns revealing one pixel of the digit at a time. One bot is programmed to tell the truth, while another is programmed to lie about what number is in the image, and they reveal pixels to support their contentions that the digit is, say, a five rather than a six.

The image classification task, where most of the image is invisible to the judge, is a sort of stand-in for complex problems where it wouldn't be possible for a human judge to analyze the entire dataset to judge bot performance. The judge would have to rely on the facets of the data highlighted by debating robots, the researchers say. "The goal here is to model situations where we have something that's beyond human scale," says Geoffrey Irving, a member of the AI safety team at OpenAI. "The best we can do there is replace something a human couldn't possibly do with something a human can't do because they're not seeing an image."

The Courts

Illinois To Sue EPA For Exempting Foxconn Plant From Pollution Controls (reuters.com) 127

Last week, Reuters reported that "Illinois' Attorney General said she plans to sue the EPA for allowing a proposed Foxconn plant in neighboring Wisconsin to operate without stringent pollution controls." From the report: On Tuesday, the EPA identified 51 areas in 22 states that do not meet federal air quality requirements for ozone, a step toward enforcing the standards issued in 2015. An exempted area was Racine County, Wisconsin, just north of the Illinois border that is known to have heavily polluted air, where Taiwan-based Foxconn is building a $10 billion liquid-crystal display plant. Pollution monitoring data show the county's ozone levels exceed the 70 parts per billion (ppb) limit. If Racine County had been designated a "non-attainment" area, it would have required Foxconn to install stringent pollution control equipment.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan said she would file a lawsuit in the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals challenging the EPA's ozone designations, saying its failure to name Racine County a "non-attainment" area puts people at risk. "Despite its name, the Environmental Protection Agency now operates with total disregard for the quality of our air and water, and in this case, the U.S. EPA is putting a company's profit ahead of our natural resources and the public's health," Madigan said in a statement.

Science

Scientists To Grow 'Mini-Brains' Using Neanderthal DNA (theguardian.com) 71

Scientists will grow small amounts of tissue, known as brain organoids, from human stem cells that have been edited to contain "Neanderthalized" versions of several genes. "The lentil-sized organoids, which are incapable of thoughts or feelings, replicate some of the basic structures of an adult brain," reports The Guardian. "They could demonstrate for the first time if there were meaningful differences between human and Neanderthal brain biology." From the report: The latest work focuses on differences in three genes known to be crucial for brain development. Using the editing technique Crispr, changes have been introduced into human stem cells to make them closer to Neanderthal versions. The stem cells are coaxed using chemical triggers to become neurons, which spontaneously clump together and self-organize into miniature brain-like structures that grow to a few millimeters in diameter. The lack of any sensory input means the internal wiring is haphazard and varies from one blob to the next. The scientists will compare the Neanderthalized organoids and the fully human ones to assess the speed at which the stem cells divide, develop and organize into three-dimensional brain structures and whether the brain cells wire up differently. The work won't reveal which species is "smarter," but could hint at differences in the ability to plan, socialize and use language.
NASA

NASA Will Send Helicopter To Mars To Test Otherworldly Flight (bbc.com) 103

NASA is sending a small, autonomous rotorcraft to Mars via the agency's Mars 2020 rover mission, currently scheduled to launch in July 2020. NASA says the goal of the mission is to "demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet." BBC reports: Its design team spent more than four years shrinking a working helicopter to "the size of a softball" and cutting its weight to 1.8kg (4lbs). It is specifically designed to fly in the atmosphere of Mars, which is 100 times thinner than Earth's. NASA describes the helicopter as a "heavier-than-air" aircraft because the other type -- sometimes called an aerostat -- refers to aircraft like balloons and blimps. The helicopter's two blades will spin at close to 3,000 revolutions a minute, which NASA says is about 10 times faster than a standard helicopter on Earth.
Space

SpaceX Successfully Launches Satellite With New Upgraded 'Block 5' Falcon 9 Rocket (theverge.com) 85

Thelasko shares a report from The Verge: This afternoon, SpaceX landed the most powerful version yet of its Falcon 9 rocket, after launching the vehicle from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The so-named Block 5 upgrade took off from the company's launchpad at Kennedy Space Center, sending a communications satellite into orbit for Bangladesh and then touched down on one of the company's drone ships in the Atlantic. It was the 25th successful rocket landing for SpaceX, and the 14th on one of the company's drone ships.

It also marks the first launch of the Block 5, the vehicle that will carry humans to space for NASA. The Block 5 is meant to be SpaceX's most reusable rocket yet, with many upgrades put in place that negate the need for extensive refurbishment between flights. In fact, the first Block 5 rockets will eventually be able to fly up to 10 times without the need for any maintenance after landings, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said during a pre-launch press conference. Ideally, once one of these rocket lands, SpaceX will turn it horizontal, attach a new upper stage and nose cone on top, turn it vertical on the launchpad, fill it with propellant, and then launch it again. Musk noted that the vehicles would need some kind of moderate maintenance after the 10-flight mark, but it's possible that each rocket could fly up to 100 times in total.

Space

Earth's 'Bigger, Older Cousin' Maybe Doesn't Even Exist (npr.org) 52

Ever since astronomers started to detect planets beyond our solar system, they've been trying to find another world just like Earth. And few years ago, they announced that they'd found a planet that was the closest match yet -- Kepler-452b. Trouble is, some astronomers now say it's not possible to know for sure that this planet actually exists. From a report: "There's new information that we can now quantify which tells us something that we didn't know before," says Fergal Mullally, who used to be an astronomer on the science team for NASA's Kepler Space Telescope. In 2015, NASA declared that Kepler-452b was the first near-Earth-sized planet orbiting in the "habitable" zone around a star very similar to our sun. The space agency called it Earth's "bigger, older cousin," and scientists were so enthusiastic that one began quoting poetry at a news conference. The original science wasn't shoddy, Mullally says. It's just that, since then, researchers have learned more about the telescope's imperfections.
Software

'Father of GPS' Receives the IEEE Medal of Honor (eetimes.com) 22

"A former paperboy from Wisconsin passionate about maps led the team in the Air Force responsible for designing the navigation system we use everyday," writes Slashdot reader dkatana. IoT Times reports: At the IEEE honors ceremony today in San Francisco, Bradford Parkinson, a retired Air Force colonel who spent his life between maps and navigation systems, will be awarded the 2018 IEEE Medal of Honor, "For fundamental contributions to and leadership in developing the design and driving the early applications of the Global Positioning System." The current Global Positioning System (GPS) did not exist until 1995, just 22 years ago, and the engineer who led the project for the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) was Mr. Parkinson.

Parkinson, whose first job was delivering newspapers, had a passion for maps. He used those maps when canoeing to navigate the lakes and streams of Minnesota, aided by a hand compass. When he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1957 with a Bachelor of Science in Engineering, he joined the Air Force to study navigation systems. In 1960, when his superiors saw his engineering potential, they sent him to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to pursue graduate studies. He became a protegee of Charles Stark (Doc) Draper, the father of inertial navigation, who was teaching at MIT at the time. Draper was the lead engineer developing the computer systems for NASA's Apollo program. [...] It was in 1972 when his path on inertial navigation collided with satellite systems. He had been recently promoted to colonel when he received a call from another colonel who was part of the Air Force inertial guidance "mafia." He moved to Los Angeles and joined the group, a bunch of Air Force engineers from MIT. Then Parkinson asked to work on the Air Force 621B program, the genesis of GPS.

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