Researchers Finally Solve Mystery of 'Alien' Skeleton ( 26

When the mummified remains of a six-inch humanoid were found in an abandoned mining town in Chile's Atacama desert 15 years ago, speculation on its origins ran wild. The skeleton, it is being reported, was so bizarre it appeared in a documentary as potential evidence for alien life. But now scientists in California have extracted DNA from the mummy's bones and pieced together the real and tragic story of the individual, known as Ata. Rather than a visitor from another world, Ata was a girl who appears to have been stillborn, or to have died immediately after birth, with devastating mutations that shaped her extraordinary body. From a report: Now, the authors of a study based on five years of genomic analysis want to set the record straight: Ata is human, albeit one with multiple bone disease-associated mutations. And they believe that their findings, published Thursday in the journal Genome Research, could help diagnose genetic mutation-based cases for living patients. In 2003, Ata was found in a deserted mining town called La Noria, in Chile's Atacama region. It was thought to be ancient at first, but initial analysis conducted in 2012 proved that the skeleton was only about 40 years old. This meant DNA would still be intact and could be retrieved for study.

SpaceX Indicates It Will Manufacture the BFR Rocket In Los Angeles ( 92

A new document from the Port of Los Angeles indicates that the company is moving ahead with plans to build a "state-of-the-art" industrial manufacturing facility near Long Beach, about 20 miles south of its headquarters. It's possible that the facility may be used to manufacture the company's Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR vehicle, which is expected to measure 106 meters tall and nine meters wide. The Long Beach location makes sense since the BFR will be so large that it needs to be built near water where it can be transported. Ars Technica reports: The company seeks to use an 18-acre site at Berth 240 in the port "for the construction and operation of a facility to manufacture large commercial transportation vessels." Operations at the site would include "research and development of transportation vessels and would likely include general manufacturing procedures such as welding, composite curing, cleaning, painting, and assembly operations." Completed vessels would need to be transported by water due to their size, the document states, as a means to explain why the company needs a facility immediately adjacent to the water. The document also noted that the 10-year lease, with up to two 10-year renewals, would "accommodate recovery operations undertaken by Space Exploration Technologies to bring to shore vehicles returning from space that are retrieved by an autonomous drone ship offshore." This would be for first-stage recoveries of the Falcon 9 rocket and probably payload fairings as well.
The Almighty Buck

Did Stephen Hawking Owe a Nobel Physicist a Subscription To a Softcore Porn Magazine? ( 104

dmoberhaus writes: In 1974, Stephen Hawking made a bet with Nobel Prize-winning cosmologist Kip Thorne about a black hole. The wager was a subscription to the softcore porn magazine Penthouse for Thorne or a subscription to "Private Eye" (basically the British equivalent of The Onion) for Hawking. Hawking ultimately lost the bet, but did he ever pay up? Motherboard dug around to find out if Hawking settled this infamous bet.

Motherboard's Daniel Oberhaus wasn't able to get ahold of Thorne, but did manage to track down a copy of the obscure 1997 straight-to-VHS documentary called Black Holes, which is the only evidence that the wager even happened. "In 1990, Stephen Hawking happened to be visiting Los Angeles and he broke into my office and thumb printed off on this bet," Thorne recalls in the video. Oberhaus writes: "Although the status of Cygnus X-1 was an open question in the 70s, by the 90s mounting evidence had forced Hawking to concede the wager. The bet was recorded in a handwritten note scrawled on a piece of card which is shown in the film. It read: 'Whereas Stephen Hawking has a large investment in general relativity and black holes and desires an insurance policy, and whereas Kip Thorne likes to live dangerously without an insurance policy, therefore be it resolved that Stephen Hawking bets 1 year's subscription to 'Penthouse' as against Kip Thorne's wager of a 4-year subscription to 'Private Eye,' that Cygnus X-1 does not contain a black hole of mass above the Chandrasekhar limit.' 'I had given Thorne a subscription to Penthouse, much to his wife's disgust,' a smiling Hawking says in the film."


Patients Regain Sight After Groundbreaking Trial ( 72

An anonymous reader quotes a report from the BBC: Doctors have taken a major step towards curing the most common form of blindness in the UK -- age-related macular degeneration. Douglas Waters, 86, could not see out of his right eye, but "I can now read the newspaper" with it, he says. He was one of two patients given pioneering stem cell therapy at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London. Cells from a human embryo were grown into a patch that was delicately inserted into the back of the eye.

The macula is the part of the eye that allows you to see straight ahead -- whether to recognize faces, watch TV or read a book. The macula is made up of rods and cones that sense light and behind those are a layer of nourishing cells called the retinal pigment epithelium. When this support layer fails, it causes macular degeneration and blindness. Doctors have devised a way of building a new retinal pigment epithelium and surgically implanting it into the eye. The technique, published in Nature Biotechnology, starts with embryonic stem cells. These are a special type of cell that can become any other in the human body. They are converted into the type of cell that makes up the retinal pigment epithelium and embedded into a scaffold to hold them in place. The living patch is only one layer of cells thick -- about 40 microns -- and 6mm long and 4mm wide. It is then placed underneath the rods and cones in the back of the eye. The operation takes up to two hours.


Machine Learning Spots Treasure Trove of Elusive Viruses ( 28

Artificial intelligence could speed up metagenomic studies that look for species unknown to science. From a report: Researchers have used artificial intelligence (AI) to discover nearly 6,000 previously unknown species of virus. The work illustrates an emerging tool for exploring the enormous, largely unknown diversity of viruses on Earth. Although viruses influence everything from human health to the degradation of trash, they are hard to study. Scientists cannot grow most viruses in the lab, and attempts to identify their genetic sequences are often thwarted because their genomes are tiny and evolve fast.

For the latest study, Simon Roux, a computational biologist at the DOE Joint Genome Institute (JGI) in Walnut Creek, California, trained computers to identify the genetic sequences of viruses from one unusual family, Inoviridae. These viruses live in bacteria and alter their host's behaviour: for instance, they make the bacteria that cause cholera, Vibrio cholerae, more toxic. But Roux, who presented his work at the meeting in San Francisco, California, organized by the JGI, estimates that fewer than 100 species had been identified before his research began. Roux presented a machine-learning algorithm with two sets of data -- one containing 805 genomic sequences from known Inoviridae, and another with about 2,000 sequences from bacteria and other types of virus -- so that the algorithm could find ways of distinguishing between them.


How a Virus Spreads Through an Airplane Cabin ( 75

An anonymous reader shares a report: Traveling by plane greatly increases our chances of getting sick, or so many of us are wont to believe. To be fair, it's not uncommon to come down with a nasty illness after we return from a vacation or business trip. But is flying the culprit? The latest research suggests the answer is no -- but much of it depends on where we sit. New research published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that airline passengers infected with influenza -- a disease that spreads through the air -- aren't likely to infect other passengers who sit more than two seats to the left or right, or more than two seats in front or back. In other words, your chances of contracting the flu from an infected passenger are slim -- unless you're sitting within about three feet (one meter) of them. Given that three billion of us fly annually, combined with the popular conception that we often contract diseases inflight, it's surprising to learn that very few studies have looked into this issue in detail.

Lead Exposure Kills Hundreds of Thousands of Adults Every Year in the US, Study Finds ( 209

Bruce66423 shares a report from The Guardian: Last week, a massive new study concluded that lead is 10 times more dangerous than thought, and that past exposure now hastens one in every five U.S. deaths. Researchers at four North American universities, led by Bruce Lanphear, of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, studied the fate of 14,289 people whose blood had been tested in an official U.S. survey between 1988 and 1994. Four fifths of them had harbored levels of the toxic metal below what has, hitherto, been thought safe. The study found that deaths, especially from cardiovascular disease, increased markedly with exposure, even at the lowest levels. It concluded that lead kills 412,000 people a year -- accounting for 18% of all U.S. mortality, not much less than the 483,000 who perish as a result of smoking. The study has been published in the Lancet Public Health journal.

AI Can Diagnose Prostate Cancer As Well As a Pathologist ( 58

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Science Business: Chinese researchers have developed an artificial intelligence system which can diagnose cancerous prostate samples as accurately as any pathologist, holding out the possibility of streamlining and eliminating variation in the process of cancer diagnosis. The system may also help overcome shortages of trained pathologists and in the longer term lead to automated or partially-automated prostate diagnosis. Confirmation of a prostate cancer diagnosis normally requires a biopsy sample to be examined by a pathologist. Now the Chinese AI system has shown similar levels of accuracy to pathologists and can also accurately classify the level of malignancy of the cancer, eliminating the variability which can creep into human diagnoses. [Hongqian Guo, who led the research group] took 918 prostate samples from 283 patients and ran these through the AI system, with the software gradually learning and improving diagnosis. The pathology images were subdivided into 40,000 smaller samples of which 30,000 were used to train the software while the remaining 10,000 were used to test accuracy. The results showed an accurate diagnosis in 99.38 per cent of cases, using a human pathologist as a gold standard. Guo said that means the AI system is as accurate as a pathologist. The research was presented at the 33rd European Association of Urology Congress in Copenhagen.

How Einstein Lost His Bearings, and With Them, General Relativity ( 117

Kevin Hartnett, writing for Quanta magazine: Albert Einstein released his general theory of relativity at the end of 1915. He should have finished it two years earlier. When scholars look at his notebooks from the period, they see the completed equations, minus just a detail or two. "That really should have been the final theory," said John Norton, an Einstein expert and a historian of science at the University of Pittsburgh. But Einstein made a critical last-second error that set him on an odyssey of doubt and discovery -- one that nearly cost him his greatest scientific achievement. The consequences of his decision continue to reverberate in math and physics today.

Here's the error. General relativity was meant to supplant Newtonian gravity. This meant it had to explain all the same physical phenomena Newton's equations could, plus other phenomena that Newton's equations couldn't. Yet in mid-1913, Einstein convinced himself, incorrectly, that his new theory couldn't account for scenarios where the force of gravity was weak -- scenarios that Newtonian gravity handled well. "In retrospect, this is just a bizarre mistake," said Norton. To correct this perceived flaw, Einstein thought he had to abandon what had been one of the central features of his emerging theory. Einstein's field equations -- the equations of general relativity -- describe how the shape of space-time evolves in response to the presence of matter and energy. To describe that evolution, you need to impose on space-time a coordinate system -- like lines of latitude and longitude -- that tells you which points are where.
Another interesting read on Quanta: Why Stephen Hawking's Black Hole Puzzle Keeps Puzzling.

Are Research Papers Less Accurate and Truthful Than in the Past? ( 119

An anonymous reader shares an Economist report: An essential of science is that experiments should yield similar results if repeated. In recent years, however, some people have raised concerns that too many irreproducible results are being published. This phenomenon, it is suggested, may be a result of more studies having poor methodology, of more actual misconduct, or of both. Or it may not exist at all, as Daniele Fanelli of the London School of Economics suggests in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. First, although the number of erroneous papers retracted by journals has increased, so has the number of journals carrying retractions. Allowing for this, the number of retractions per journal has not gone up. Second, scientific-misconduct investigations by the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) in America are no more frequent than 20 years ago, nor are they more likely to find wrongdoing.

Once Written Off for Dead, the Aral Sea Is Now Full of Life ( 50

Years ago, the Aral Sea was the world's fourth-largest freshwater lake with an area of some 26,000 square miles. But in the 1950s, it became the victim of the Soviet Union's agricultural policies. Water from its two river sources -- the Amu Darya and Syr Darya -- was intentionally diverted for cotton cultivation. The Aral Sea began to disappear and nearly completely vanished. But things have changed for good. From a report: This rapid collapse over less than three decades -- which environmental scientists say is one of the planet's worst ecological disasters -- is marked today by the sea's reduced size. Its total area of water, straddling Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, is now a tenth of its original size. What's left has broken into two distinct bodies: the North and South Aral Seas. In Uzbekistan, the entire eastern basin of the South Aral Sea is completely desiccated, leaving merely a single strip of water in the west.

But Kazakhstan's North Aral Sea has seen a happier outcome, thanks to a nearly $86 million project financed in large part by the World Bank. Along with repairs to existing dikes around the basin to prevent spillage, an eight-mile dam was constructed just south of the Syr Darya River. Completed in the summer of 2005, this dam, named Kokaral, surpassed all expectations. It led to an 11-foot increase in water levels after just seven months -- a goal that scientists initially expected would take three years. This turnaround in the North Aral Sea's fate has meant that the fish stocks have returned to its waters, injecting new life into the local communities. Just as government policies had doomed the Aral Sea, careful planning and research helped revive at least part of it.


Can Problems From Climate Change Be Addressed With Science? ( 294

Slashdot reader bricko shares an article from Scientific American about two "ecomodernists" who argue that the problems of climate change can be addressed through science and technology. In his Breakthrough essay, Steven Pinker spells out a key assumption of ecomodernism. Industrialization "has been good for humanity. It has fed billions, doubled lifespans, slashed extreme poverty, and, by replacing muscle with machinery, made it easier to end slavery, emancipate women, and educate children. It has allowed people to read at night, live where they want, stay warm in winter, see the world, and multiply human contact. Any costs in pollution and habitat loss have to be weighed against these gifts...."

We can solve problems related to climate change, Pinker argues, "if we sustain the benevolent forces of modernity that have allowed us to solve problems so far, including societal prosperity, wisely regulated markets, international governance, and investments in science and technology... Since 1970, when the Environmental Protection Agency was established, the United States has slashed its emissions of five air pollutants by almost two-thirds. Over the same period, the population grew by more than 40 percent, and those people drove twice as many miles and became two and a half times richer. Energy use has leveled off, and even carbon dioxide emissions have turned a corner."

The essay also cites ecomodernist Will Boisvert, who believes climate change will be cataclysmic but not apocalyptic, bringing large upheaval but a small impact on human well-being. "Global warming won't wipe us out or even stall our progress, it will just marginally slow ordinary economic development that will still outpace the negative effects of warming and make life steadily better in the future, under every climate scenario.... Our logistic and technical capacities are burgeoning, and they give us ample means of addressing these problems."

Google Open Sources Its Exoplanet-Hunting AI ( 16

dmoberhaus writes: Last December, NASA announced that two new exoplanets had been hiding in plain sight among data from the Kepler space telescope. These two new planets weren't discovered by a human, however. Instead, an exoplanet hunting neural network -- a type of machine learning algorithm loosely modeled after the human brain -- had discovered the planets by finding subtle patterns in the Kepler data that would've been nearly impossible for a human to see. Last Thursday, Christopher Shallue, the lead Google engineer behind the exoplanet AI, announced in a blog post that the company was making the algorithm open source. In other words, anyone can download the code and help hunt for exoplanets in Kepler data.
Google's research blog called the December discovery "a successful proof-of-concept for using machine learning to discover exoplanets, and more generally another example of using machine learning to make meaningful gains in a variety of scientific disciplines (e.g. healthcare, quantum chemistry, and fusion research)."

Researchers Claim They Can Predict Where Lightning Is Likely To Strike ( 37

Long-time Slashdot reader conner_bw shared an article from the CBC: A study by researchers at the University of Calgary's Schulich School of Engineering suggests it's possible to predict where lightning will strike and how often.They say satellite data and artificial intelligence can help foresee where lightning poses a greater risk to spark wildfires... "Those events don't just randomly happen," said Dr. Xin Wang, one of three researchers involved in the study. "They also have spatial and temporal patterns."
One of the paper's authors says their analysis can predict areas with a high chance of wildfires with an accuracy greater than 90%.
United States

The Ordinary Engineering Behind the Horrifying Florida Bridge Collapse ( 271

An anonymous reader quotes a report from WIRED: The people of Sweetwater, Florida were supposed to wait until early 2019 for the Florida International University-Sweetwater University City Bridge to open. Instead, they will wait about that long for an official assessment from the National Transportation Safety Board of why it collapsed just five days after its installation, killing at least six people. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, many queries have centered on the unconventional technique used to build the bridge, something called Accelerated Bridge Construction, or ABC. But ABC is more complicated than its acronym suggests -- and it's hardly brand new. ABC refers to dozens of construction methods, but at its core, it's about drastically reducing on-site construction time. Mostly, that relies on pre-fabricating things like concrete decks, abutments, walls, barriers, and concrete topped steel girders, and hauling them to the work site. There, cranes or specialized vehicles known as Self-Propelled Modular Transporter install them. A video posted online by Florida International University, which helped fund the bridge connects to its campus, showed an SPMT lifting and then lowering the span into place.

In a now-deleted press release, the university called the "largest pedestrian bridge moved via SPMT in U.S. history," but that doesn't seem to mean much, engineering-wise. SPMTs have been around since the 1970s, and have moved much heavier loads. In 2017, workers used a 600-axle SPMT to salvage the 17,000 ton ferry that sank off the coast of South Korea in 2014. The ABC technique is much more expensive than building things in place, but cities and places like FIU like it for a specific reason: Because most of the work happens far away, traffic goes mostly unperturbed. When years- or months-long construction projects can have serious effects on businesses and homes, governments might make up the money in the long run. Workers installed this collapsed span in just a few hours. These accelerated techniques are also much safer for workers, who do most their work well away from active roads.
The report goes on to note that the bridge collapse is still under investigation and the search for a culprit is ongoing. "The answers could run the gamut, from design flaws to fabrication flubs to installation issues," reports WIRED. As of publication, The Washington Post is reporting that an engineer called the state to report cracking two days before its collapse.

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