Watch how crowdsourced citizen data demonstrated how tornadoes form

The deadly 2013 El Reno tornado was 2.5 miles (4 km) wide and killed a team of tornado experts. But as Anton Seimon explains, his colleagues turned that tragedy into an opportunity to confirm a key element of tornado formation. Read the rest

This is how some snakes can fly

Some snakes have evolved the ability to glide through the air. For example, paradise tree snakes in southeastern Asia can launch off from a branch and fly as far as 10 meters. Scientists have known that the snakes flatten their bodies to gain lift but new research reveals that they also undulate their bodies as they're gliding in order to remain stable. Johns Hopkins University mechanical engineer Isaac Yeaton and colleagues from Virginia Tech put reflective tape on snakes' bodies and then used high-speed cameras to record their movements in the air. From Science News:

Gliding snakes undulate their bodies both side to side and up and down, the researchers found, and move their tails above and below the level of their heads.

Once the researchers had mapped out the snakes’ acrobatics, they created a computer simulation of gliding snakes. In the simulation, snakes that undulated flew similarly to the real-life snakes. But those that didn’t wriggle failed spectacularly, rotating to the side or falling head over tail, rather than maintaining a graceful, stable glide.

If confined to a single plane instead of wriggling in three dimensions, the snakes would tumble.

"Undulation enables gliding in flying snakes" (Nature Physics)

image: Sri Lanka Flying Snake by Gihan Jayaweera (CC BY-SA 3.0) Read the rest

A Scheme of Heaven is a deep investigation of astrology from a scientist’s perspective

We humans are castaways on an ocean of uncertainty. Since the beginnings of history, our ancestors sought knowledge and understanding about their lives, their relationship with the cosmos, and perhaps take a peek into their future. In such effort—long before the answers of science—earthlings developed a rich variety of divination practices and systems. Many forms of divination survive to this day, and can't be easily dismissed as irrational nonsense, or mere curiosities of a bygone age. On the contrary, divination seems to be essential to culture.

So much so, that perhaps our modern obsessions with predictive algorithms and numerical forecasts are best understood as a continuation of this ancient divinatory impulse. This is the provocative thesis of Alexander Boxer’s fascinating new book, A Scheme of Heaven: The History of Astrology and the Search for Our Destiny in Data

A Scheme of Heaven

 Astrology is indeed the most historically relevant of all divination practices, its aim having been nothing short of a systematic account linking the nature of the heavens to our own human nature. Across civilizations, human beings have proven to be superb stargazers. Entranced by heavenly patterns and periodicities—through sheer naked-eye observation—our ancestors were able to crack with uncanny precision the workings of the cosmos. Exact geometric relationships and precise mathematical elegance spoke of divine design and transcendent beauty.

For a long time, astronomy and astrology were one and the same magical “enterprise.” Alexander Boxer, a data scientist, whose eclectic erudition includes a PhD. in physics from MIT and degrees in the history of science and classics writes:

“Astrology was the ancient world’s most ambitious applied mathematics problem, a grand data-analysis enterprise sustained for centuries by some of history’s most brilliant minds, from Ptolemy to al-Kindi to Kepler.”

Read the rest

NASA delivers first grant in 30 years to support the search for extraterrestrial intelligence

NASA has funded a new research collaborative research effort between Harvard, the Smithsonian Institutions, and the University of Rochester to search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). This is the first NASA grant for SETI in three decades and the first ever to search for signs of ET that aren't radio transmissions. Instead, the scientists will look for technosignatures in the atmosphere that reveal the use of advanced technology on other planets. From Harvard:

"Technosignatures relate to signatures of advanced alien technologies similar to, or perhaps more sophisticated than, what we possess," said Avi Loeb, Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard. "Such signatures might include industrial pollution of atmospheres, city lights, photovoltaic cells (solar panels), megastructures, or swarms of satellites." [...]

"We pollute Earth’s atmosphere with our industrial activity," said Loeb. “If another civilization had been doing it for much longer than we have, then their planet's atmosphere might show detectable signs of artificially produced molecules that nature is very unlikely to produce spontaneously, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)." The presence of CFCs—or refrigerant—therefore, could indicate the presence of industrial activity. [...]

"My hope is that, using this grant, we will quantify new ways to probe signs of alien technological civilizations that are similar to or much more advanced than our own," said Loeb. "The fundamental question we are trying to address is: are we alone? But I would add to that: even if we are alone right now, were we alone in the past?"

image: "3D rendering of a Dyson sphere utilizing large, orbiting panels," Kevin Gill (CC BY 2.0 Read the rest

Scientists have mapped 20 percent of the ocean floor

In ten years, scientists hope to have mapped the entire ocean floor in high resolution. This week, the Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 Project announced that they've completed 20 percent of the map. A full mapping to "modern standards" is useful for conservation and also to support scientific understanding of ocean systems, weather, tsunami wave propagation, tides, and, of course, the impact of climate change. From the BBC News:

The map at the top of this page illustrates the challenge faced by GEBCO in the coming years.

Black represents those areas where we have yet to get direct echosounding measurements of the shape of the ocean floor. Blues correspond to water depth (deeper is purple, shallower is lighter blue)[...]

This is information required to improve the models that forecast future climate change - because it is the oceans that play a critical role in moving heat around the planet. And if you want to understand precisely how sea-levels will rise in different parts of the world, good ocean-floor maps are a must.

Much of the data that's been imported into the GEBCO grid recently has been in existence for some time but was "sitting on a shelf" out of the public domain. The companies, institutions and governments that were holding this information have now handed it over - and there is probably a lot more of this hidden resource still to be released.

But new acquisitions will also be required. Some of these will come from a great crowdsourcing effort - from ships, big and small, routinely operating their echo-sounding equipment as they transit the globe.

Read the rest

"My dad launched the quest to find alien intelligence. It changed astronomy."

In 1960, Frank Drake, an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, launched Project Ozma, the first scientific effort to listen for radio communications from extraterrestrials. Frank, now 90, is still serious about SETI, writing research papers and advising scientists who are listening to the stars for signs of intelligent life. (I came to know Frank and his lovely and inspiring family while I was working on the vinyl reissue of the Voyager Golden Record; Frank was the technical director of the original Voyager Record in 1977!) In celebration of Father's Day, talented science journalist Nadia Drake (aka Frank's daughter), wrote in National Geographic about the history of her dad's Project Ozma and the current state of SETI. From National Geographic:

[Drake] designed an experiment to search for signals coming from worlds that could be orbiting the nearby stars Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti. He named the experiment Project Ozma, after the princess in L. Frank Baum’s Oz series—an homage to an adventure tale populated by exotic and unearthly beings.

Before sunrise on April 8, 1960, Drake climbed an 85-foot radio telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia, jammed himself inside a trash-can-size piece of equipment, and launched humanity’s first scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence—now known as SETI. For three months the telescope scanned its targets and found nothing more than cosmic static. The stars were stubbornly quiet.

“That was a disappointment,” Dad told me a few years ago. “We’d hoped that, in fact, there were radio-transmitting civilizations around almost every star.”

Read the rest

Swiss scientists grew mini Neanderthal brains in petri dishes

Researchers at the Institute of Molecular and Clinical Ophthalmology in Basel, Switzerland have attempted to isolate the Neanderthal DNA from certain human stem cells. A leader on the project, Grayson Camp, had already performed a similar experiment using chimpanzee stem cells, to get a better understanding of the differences between chimp and human brains.

Their research, titled "Human Stem Cell Resources Are an Inroad to Neandertal DNA Functions," was published on June 18, 2020, and began with analyzing genome data to identify the stem cells most likely to still carry Neanderthal DNA (which, as I've just now learned, mostly persists among Northern Europeans). From there, according to CNN:

The team then grew brain organoids — 3D blobs of brain tissue just a few millimeters wide and only just visible to the naked eye — from these cells by nurturing them in a petri dish with a growth factor.

Organoids, which can mimic in a rudimentary way many human organs, can be used to test the specific effects of drugs safely outside the body, something that has revolutionized and personalized areas such as cancer treatment.

"Researchers have of course generated and analyzed organoids from human cells before, just no one had ever bothered to look at what the Neanderthal DNA might be doing," Camp said.

Camp made certain to clarify that these were not fully functional Neanderthal brains — they were still, technically, human cells, just ones that contained Neanderthal DNA. Which is definitely different from Jurassic Park, he insists, although I'm pretty sure that pseudoscience also relied on isolating the leftover DNA that remained in the modern descendents of certain extinct lifeforms. Read the rest

We are all part of the biggest psychological experiment in history

During the COVID-19 pandemic, 2.6 billion people were under a mandate to stay at home. According to psychologist Elke Van Hoof of Free University of Brussels-VUB, [the lockdown] "is arguably the largest psychological experiment ever conducted." What impact will COVID-19 have on the planet's mental health? The scientific study of psychological resilience is not a new field. But COVID-19 is fairly unique in the range of stressors it triggers, from the death of loved ones to isolation, devastating financial loss, and uncertainty about what comes next. Meanwhile, we actually aren't all "in the same boat." In Scientific American, Lydia Denworth surveys the real-time research on what we can learn from all this about resilience and how to increase it for the next time. From Scientific American:

Individual resilience is further complicated by the fact that this pandemic has not affected each person in the same way. For all that is shared--the coronavirus has struck every level of society and left few lives unchanged--there has been tremendous variation in the disruption and devastation experienced. Consider Brooklyn, just one borough in hard-hit New York City. Residents who started the year living or working within a few miles of one another have very different stories of illness, loss and navigating the challenges of social distancing. How quickly and how well individuals, businesses and organizations recover will depend on the jobs, insurance and health they had when this started, on whether they have endured hassle or heartbreak, and on whether they can tap financial resources and social support.

Read the rest

'Astonishing' giant circle of pits found at Stonehenge

• A 1.2 mile (2km) wide circle of large shafts was found, measuring over 10 meters wide and 5 meters deep.

• The holes surround the ancient settlement of Durrington Walls, 2 miles (3km) from Stonehenge.

• Tests suggest the earthworks are Neolithic, excavated over 4,500 years ago. Read the rest

Fauci: US government announced funding of three vaccine trials, on track for scale by end of the year/early 2021

The US government announced funding clinical trials on three COVID-19 vaccine candidates. According to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, we're still on track for a vaccine at scale by the end of this year or early 2021. From CNN:

Phase 3 trials, which typically involve tens of thousands of people and measure whether a vaccine is safe and effective, will begin with one by Moderna in July, then an Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in August and one by Johnson & Johnson in September...

Last week, Fauci said the US should have 100 million doses of one candidate coronavirus vaccine by the beginning of 2021, but many doctors caution that is an ambitious goal. He has also said there will be "more than one winner" in the Covid-19 vaccine field on Tuesday.

Who will get first dibs? (And who wants first dibs?)

image: "Respiratory droplets produced when a man sneezes, visualised using Tyndall scattering" by James Gathany/CDC (public domain) Read the rest

How do you count more than 60,000 sea turtles?

More than 64,000 endangered sea turtles are gathered in the world's largest nesting area near Raine Island, Australia, but who's counting? The Great Barrier Reef Foundation, that's who. Their researchers used harmless white paint to mark around 2,000 turtles and then flew a drone overhead. By determining the ratio of marked to unmarked turtles, they could then accurately estimate the total population. From BarrierReef.org:

“We’re taking action to improve and rebuild the island’s nesting beaches and building fences to prevent turtle deaths, all working to strengthen the island’s resilience and ensure the survival of our northern green turtles and many other species," [said Great Barrier Reef Foundation Managing Director Anna Marsden...]

The research paper’s lead author Dr Andrew Dunstan from the Queensland Department of Environment and Science is excited to share his work.

“Trying to accurately count thousands of painted and unpainted turtles from a small boat in rough weather was difficult,” Dr Dunstan said.

“Using a drone is easier, safer, much more accurate, and the data can be immediately and permanently stored[...]”

“In the future, we will be able to automate these counts from video footage using artificial intelligence so the computer does the counting for us.”

"Use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for mark-resight nesting population estimation of adult female green sea turtles at Raine Island" (PLOS ONE) Read the rest

Fauci expects COVID-19 vaccine by end of the year, 100 million doses to be ready in the US

In a new interview with the Journal of the American Medical Association above, Anthony Fauci, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NAID), said he expects the US will have 100 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine before the end of the year. “Then, by the beginning of 2021, we hope to have a couple hundred million doses,” he said.

The vaccine in development by Moderna in partnership with the NAID will enter final clinical trials this summer and the company will start cranking out doses at scale before the testing is complete. Meanwhile, several other promising candidates have also been fast-tracked around the world.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that with the multiple candidates we have with different platforms, that we are going to have a vaccine that will make it deployable,” Fauci said.

From CNN:

Fauci said he is a little more concerned about what the durability of the response will be. People develop antibodies to fight common colds caused by other strains of coronavirus, but that protection generally only lasts about a year. That might mean people would need a fresh vaccine every year, as is the case with influenza.

Read the rest

Citizen scientist records 500+ animal species in his small city garden

Just for kicks, Paul Rule, 66, participated in a study launched by the Cambridge Natural History Society that enlisted citizen scientists and nature-lovers to help deepen knowledge of the flora and fauna in Cambridge, England. Rule recorded nearly 600 different animal species in his "ordinary" city garden, including an elephant moth like the one seen above, an ivy bee, and the locally endangered hedgehog. From BBC News:

The retired BT engineer has always been interested in wildlife, particularly "anything with six or eight legs", and was able to record 412 insects, including 272 species of moths.

"When it came to the insects, I used the internet and local experts - and I have a shelf full of wildlife reference books," he said.[...] Mammal visitors include a fox, hedgehogs and bats, while all the common garden bird species such as blackbirds, wrens, robins and goldfinches have been counted.

Top image: Jean Pierre Hamon (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Read the rest

Astronaut shows what happens when you drop a hammer and feather at the same time on the moon

Astronaut David Scott re-created, in 1971 during the Apollo 15 mission, Galileo's "falling bodies" experiment by dropping a hammer and feather on the moon at the same time. Simply, both fell at the same rate because there was no air resistance.

screengrab via Wonders of Physics/YouTube

(Digg) Read the rest

At least 12 states inflated coronavirus testing count or deflated deaths

“Test counts inflated, death tolls deflated, metrics shifted.”

Topography of U.S. states in ridgeline (Joy Division 'Unknown Pleasures') style

IMGURian @KRANKARTA6 did an awesome topography visualization project in the "Ridgeline Style" that reminds us of the album cover for Joy Division's classic LP 'Unknown Pleasures.' Read the rest

SCRUBBED: How to watch the historic SpaceX/NASA launch today!

UPDATE: Launch scrubbed due to weather just a few minutes before launch. See you Saturday for another try!

Today, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule is scheduled to shuttle two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. This will be the first time humans will launch to space from the United States since 2011 and the first time a private company will take humans offworld. Intrepid science journalist Nadia Drake is at the launchpad reporting on the mission for National Geographic and ABC News. Tune in above for Nadia's live reporting. Liftoff is set for 4:33pm ET, weather and technology permitting. From Nadia's coverage at National Geographic:

The Demo-2 mission is slated to lift off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A—the same pad in Florida that hosted Apollo 11 and STS-135, the last flight of a space shuttle. However, next week's mission represents a new way of getting humans to orbit, in which agencies including NASA purchase rides to space from private companies. For astronauts [Doug] Hurley, 53, and [Bob] Behnken, 49, the Demo-2 flight also presents a rare opportunity: to be the first people to fly in a new type of spacecraft. Behnken and Hurley were specially selected for NASA’s commercial crew program back in 2015. Both men are former military test pilots—Hurley in the Marines and Behnken in the Air Force. Both are married to fellow astronauts, and the two have been colleagues since joining NASA in 2000 as part of Astronaut Group 18.

Read the rest

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