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- Prince Charles says climate change 'greatest threat ever' as he meets Greta Thunberg
- Wuhan, China, is about to be quarantined as the coronavirus outbreak grows. The city has 3 million more residents than New York City.
- As New Virus Spreads From China, Scientists See Grim Reminders
Less than a month after the first few cases of a new respiratory illness were reported in Wuhan, China, travelers have carried the virus to at least four other countries, including the United States. More than 400 people have been infected, at least 17 have died -- and the world is bracing itself for what might come next.On Wednesday, experts at the World Health Organization will meet to decide whether to declare the outbreak a "public health emergency of international concern," a label given to "serious public health events that endanger international public health" and "potentially require a coordinated international response."Public health officials around the world are on alert because the new infection is caused by a coronavirus, from the same family that caused outbreaks of SARS and MERS, killing hundreds of people in dozens of countries.The WHO has already advised governments to be prepared for the disease, to be vigilant and ready to test anyone with symptoms like cough and fever who has traveled to affected regions. Air travel is expected to surge as the Lunar New Year approaches this weekend.Several countries have already begun screening travelers from China for fever and cough. Airports in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco last week started to screen arriving flights from Wuhan, and airports in Atlanta and Chicago will begin doing so this week.But important questions about the outbreak are still unanswered, and WHO's expert committee now must grapple with significant unknowns."We don't know how many people are infected," said Tarik Jasarevic, a spokesman for the WHO. "The more you test, the more you will find people who are infected. We don't know if there are asymptomatic cases. If they are asymptomatic, are they contagious?"Broad studies to test for evidence of infection, past and present, would give a true picture of how many people have been exposed to the virus."Testing is possible because China immediately shared the genetic sequence of the virus, and we have to give them credit for that," Jasarevic said.The virus causes a pneumonialike illness, with coughing and fever in some people but not all. The severity matters: If there are cases with mild illness or no symptoms at all, they may go undetected, and those people will keep working, shopping and traveling, possibly infecting others.A milder illness has the potential to spread farther and cause longer-lasting outbreaks than one with more obvious symptoms, according to Dr. Mark R. Denison, an infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine who studies coronaviruses.Compared to SARS and MERS, the Wuhan illness so far does seem less severe, he said.SARS, which began in live-animal markets in China in 2002, quickly spread to dozens of countries, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing nearly 800. The virus is thought to have originated in bats and spread to civet cats that were being sold for consumption.The civets spread the virus to humans, who infected one another through respiratory secretions and also exposure to feces.SARS often caused severe illness, so cases were detectable; aggressive public health measures, including quarantines and travel restrictions, helped stamp out the epidemic.But the travel bans, not to mention widespread fear and distrust, took a heavy economic toll on China, and since then international authorities have become hesitant about taking drastic steps to quell outbreaks.MERS cases have been occurring in the Middle East since 2012, mainly in people who have been exposed to camels, which were most likely infected by bats. Human-to-human transmission does occur, and some spread has happened in hospitals.As of November, there had been 2,494 cases of MERS in the past seven years, mostly in Saudi Arabia. The death rate is 34% but may actually be lower if there are mild cases of the disease that have not been detected or counted.Denison described the new Wuhan coronavirus as "sort of a first cousin of SARS," more closely related to it than to MERS, based on its genetic sequence.Researchers do not know just how contagious the Wuhan coronavirus is. The first people to be infected are thought to have contracted it at a market in Wuhan that sold meat, fish and live animals.That market has been shut down and disinfected. Which animal might have been carrying the virus is not yet known.Initially, the illness appeared to spread only from animals to people. Then, experts said there was evidence of "limited" human-to-human transmission. Now, more cases are emerging among people with no known exposure to the animal markets, and in medical staff members caring for infected patients."Now that you have a cluster of 14 health care workers infected, it suggests that the potential for spread is much greater," said Dr. Ian W. Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health in New York, who has researched SARS and MERS."I saw film footage of a hospital lobby in Wuhan, and they are wearing full personal protective equipment from head to toe," he said. "They are taking it very seriously. I still don't think this is as bad as SARS, but it's worse than they originally portrayed it."Denison said that with both SARS and MERS, there were episodes in which individual patients became "super-spreaders" who infected many other people, for unknown reasons."That's a wild card we don't know, the capacity to have multiple transmissions from one person," Denison said. "There was no evidence they had dramatically different virus."It is possible, he said, that super-spreaders had received a high dose of the virus and had more of it to transmit. Alternatively, their immune systems might have not been able to control the virus, allowing it to multiply and spread extensively in their bodies, making them more contagious.Although no drugs have been approved specifically to treat coronavirus diseases, Denison said that in animal studies, an antiviral called remdesivir appeared effective. He has been working with other researchers to develop treatments.Jasarevic said that antivirals were being tested against MERS, but that none had been approved yet.How and why viruses that have peacefully coexisted with their animal hosts for a long time strike out for new territory -- us -- is not well understood.Coronaviruses often inhabit bats without harming them, and sometimes move into other animal species and from them to humans.In places that bring multiple animal species together with lots of people -- like the food markets in Wuhan and in other parts of China that sell live mammals and birds, along with meat and fish -- viruses can pass back and forth between species, mutating as they go. Along the way, they may become able to infect humans."Coronaviruses have repeatedly shown an ability to probe across species and cause new animal and human diseases," Denison said.To go successfully from animal hosts to people, the viruses need to adapt in several ways: They must gain the ability to invade human cells, evade the immune system, replicate inside the human body and spread to others.The move is often described as "jumping" into humans, but that is an oversimplification, Denison said."The process it has to go through is more like high hurdles with a thousand hurdles along the way," he said.Still, the new outbreak does not greatly surprise him: "This was a matter of not if, but when."This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2020 The New York Times Company
- Scientists pinpointed the oldest meteor crater ever found. When the space rock struck Australia 2.2 billion years ago, it ended a global ice age.
- This map shows where China's mysterious, deadly Wuhan coronavirus has spread as death toll rises to 17
- 17 people are now dead from the mysterious Wuhan coronavirus. Here's everything we know about the disease spreading across China and beyond.
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- The US is ramping up efforts to catch the Wuhan coronavirus and stop it from spreading. But there are still gaps in the net.
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- NASA lists nine potential names suggested by kids for its next Mars rover: Vote for your favorite
NASA and an army of nearly 4,700 volunteer judges have selected nine potential names for a rover that's due to be launched to Mars in July, and you have just six days to cast an online vote for your favorite name. NASA kicked off the "Name the Rover" essay contest last August, and more than 28,000 name suggestions and accompanying essays were received from students in kindergarten through 12th grade. It took weeks for the judges to narrow down the field, first to 155 semifinalists, and then to the nine finalists — three for grades K-4, three for grades 5-8,… Read More
- Lego is releasing an International Space Station set. The company sent it into the stratosphere in a brilliant marketing stunt.
- Why These Australia Fires Are Like Nothing We've Seen Before
SYDNEY -- In late October, lightning struck brittle earth on Gospers Mountain in New South Wales. The remains of trees bone dry from consecutive winters with little to no rain were ignited, and the fire quickly spread.Three months later, it is still burning.The Gospers Mountain fire, which became Australia's largest "megablaze" as it grew to link several separate fires, offers a sense of the scale of the country's most disastrous fire season ever. The blaze has burned 2 million acres, enveloping hinterland and wine country, and prompted a special mission to save prehistoric trees so rare their exact location is kept secret.That fire is now largely contained. But dozens of others are still burning in the southeastern states of New South Wales and Victoria, some out of control, despite heavy rain in some areas in recent days. And fire season is far from over -- hot and windy conditions are expected to return this week, and a month of summer remains. Here is a look at the devastation.The amount of land burned is immense.The modern world has never seen anything quite like these Australia fires.About 16 million acres have burned in New South Wales and Victoria, where the crisis is centered. That's an area about the size of West Virginia. Millions more acres have burned in other parts of the country.What sets these blazes apart, in terms of their size, is that they are happening in populated areas. Until now, fires this large happened mostly in places like northern Canada or Siberia, where few people live and blazes burn largely uncontrolled."What we're seeing in Australia, in a completely different environment, are fires that are approaching or even exceeding the magnitude of things that we only saw in the most remote forested regions in the world," said Ross Bradstock, director of the Center for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales."We're looking at a globally significant fire season in Australia," he added.The numbers from Australia dwarf those from some of the most high-profile fires in recent years.The bush fires in southeastern Australia this season have burned about eight times as much land as the 2018 fires in California, which covered nearly 2 million acres and were the worst in that state's recorded history. They are also far larger than the estimates of 2.2 million acres burned by September last year in the Amazon basin, where farmers, some emboldened by the policies of President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, ignited tens of thousands of fires to clear land."It's quite phenomenal and far exceeds anything you would see in the western USA, which is a very fire-prone area, the southwest of Canada, the Mediterranean and parts of South America," Bradstock said. "It's so much bigger than anything else."It goes well beyond a ravaged landscape.Australia has had deadlier fire seasons: The Black Saturday bush fires, which began in February 2009 when downed power lines ignited blazes that were spread by 60 mph winds, killed 173 people in Victoria. The 2018 California fires killed 103 people.But the losses Australia is experiencing in lives and property are still staggering, and not yet over. At least 29 people have been killed. Hundreds of millions of animals, by some estimates, have perished or are facing starvation or dehydration in devastated habitats. And more than 2,500 homes have been destroyed.Smoke generated by the fires has blanketed Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, at times giving them some of the worst air in the world. The prolonged exposure of bush fire smoke to millions of people has raised fears of health effects that could last for years.Early this month, NASA began tracking a plume of smoke from the fires that was the size of the continental United States. By Jan. 14, smoke had circumnavigated the globe, returning to eastern Australia. Along the way, it caused hazardous breathing conditions in New Zealand and discolored skies in South America.The fires have also produced huge amounts of heat-trapping carbon emissions. A top expert on greenhouse gas emissions at Australia's national research agency told NPR that the fires in southeastern Australia had produced as much carbon as the entire country emits from man-made sources in more than eight months of the year.Climate change helped set the table.Why have these fires been so vast? While Australia is normally hot and dry in the summer, climate change is bringing longer and more frequent periods of extreme heat. That makes vegetation drier and more likely to burn.Last year was the hottest and driest year on record in Australia, and some regions have been gripped by drought for years. This season, the fires started earlier than usual -- some as soon as July -- and they are expected to last well into February and even March.High temperatures, strong winds and dry forests have combined to create the conditions for powerful fires. There have even been blazes in wetlands and rainforests that have not contended with this threat before. To combat the flames, tens of thousands of firefighters, most of them volunteers, have been called on to work long days over extended periods.Most of the fires have been caused by lightning strikes, though some people have misleadingly pointed to arson in an effort to minimize the links to climate change and the Australian government's inaction on the issue. Others have argued that the drought is unrelated to climate change, though there is evidence that warming temperatures have been a major contributor to it, in part by pushing rain out of areas where it once fell."The wildfires decimating Australia, killing people, ravaging wild habitats and pushing communities and firefighters to their absolute limits are growing and coalescing into the country's worst peacetime catastrophe precisely because of climate change," said Paul Read, co-director of the National Center for Research in Bushfire and Arson at Monash University in Melbourne.Here is what the future looks like.In Australia's history, most bad fire seasons have coincided with the warming of an El Niño pattern. But that is not the case this time, showing how much this season stands out and the danger the country faces with more unpredictable weather patterns in the future.While scientists have long predicted that climate change would bring longer and more intense fire seasons, the blazes were not expected to be this bad this soon, Bradstock said. Under his projections, Australia would not have seen this kind of devastation for another 40 to 50 years, he said."I guess I'm as shocked as anyone about what's unfolding and, probably, like everyone else who's involved and affected, we'll very quickly recalibrate thinking about what we're doing," he said.Recalibrating means expecting these phenomenal fires to continue to occur, particularly as Australia's drought shows few signs of ending, and temperatures are expected to continue to climb after the warmest decade on record."We would be extremely foolish given all the evidence and the magnitude of this event to just laugh it off as a one-off phenomenon," Bradstock said. "I think we have to get ready to deal with a season like this again in the not-too-distant future."This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2020 The New York Times Company
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- SpaceX aces fiery rehearsal of worst-case scenario for Crew Dragon spaceflights
With a fiery flash and volleys of cheers, SpaceX and NASA today rehearsed something they hope will never happen: a catastrophic rocket failure at the worst time in the launch of a crewed mission to the International Space Station. Fortunately, the closest things to crew members on today's in-flight abort test of the Crew Dragon spaceship were two test dummies, sitting on sensors in the seats that will tell engineers how flesh-and-blood fliers would have weathered the aborted trip. If the results of the test look good, that should take care of the final major hurdle before two actual NASA… Read More
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The newly minted U.S. Space Force unveiled its uniform on Friday — and defended its fashion statement against Twitter criticism that the camouflage color scheme should have been more spacey. Less than a month after the sixth branch of the U.S. armed forces came into existence, the Space Force showed off the utility uniform in a tweet, saying that the service's nametape and U.S. Space Command patch have "touched down at the Pentagon." The uniform will presumably be worn by thousands of Space Force personnel as they go about their duties, monitoring America's space assets from ground-based installations around the… Read More
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- Panicking About Your Kids and Their Phones? The New Research Says Don't.
SAN FRANCISCO -- It has become common wisdom that too much time spent on smartphones and social media is responsible for a recent spike in anxiety, depression and other mental health problems, especially among teenagers.But a growing number of academic researchers have produced studies that suggest the common wisdom is wrong.The latest research, published Friday by two psychology professors, combs through about 40 studies that have examined the link between social media use and both depression and anxiety among adolescents. That link, according to the professors, is small and inconsistent."There doesn't seem to be an evidence base that would explain the level of panic and consternation around these issues," said Candice L. Odgers, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the lead author of the paper, which was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.The debate over the harm we -- and especially our children -- are doing to ourselves by staring into phones is generally predicated on the assumption that the machines we carry in our pockets pose a significant risk to our mental health.Worries about smartphones have led Congress to pass legislation to examine the impact of heavy smartphone use and pushed investors to pressure big tech companies to change the way they approach young customers.The World Health Organization said last year that infants under a year old should not be exposed to electronic screens and that children between the ages of 2 and 4 should not have more than an hour of "sedentary screen time" each day.Even in Silicon Valley, technology executives have made a point of keeping the devices and the software they develop away from their own children.But some researchers question whether those fears are justified. They are not arguing that intensive use of phones does not matter. Children who are on their phones too much can miss out on other valuable activities, like exercise. And research has shown that excessive phone use can exacerbate the problems of certain vulnerable groups, like children with mental health issues.They are, however, challenging the widespread belief that screens are responsible for broad societal problems like the rising rates of anxiety and sleep deprivation among teenagers. In most cases, they say, the phone is just a mirror that reveals the problems a child would have even without the phone.The researchers worry that the focus on keeping children away from screens is making it hard to have more productive conversations about topics like how to make phones more useful for low-income people, who tend to use them more, or how to protect the privacy of teenagers who share their lives online."Many of the people who are terrifying kids about screens, they have hit a vein of attention from society and they are going to ride that. But that is super bad for society," said Andrew Przybylski, director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute, who has published several studies on the topic.The new article by Odgers and Michaeline R. Jensen, of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, comes just a few weeks after the publication of an analysis by Amy Orben, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, and shortly before the planned publication of similar work from Jeff Hancock, the founder of the Stanford Social Media Lab. Both reached similar conclusions."The current dominant discourse around phones and well-being is a lot of hype and a lot of fear," Hancock said. "But if you compare the effects of your phone to eating properly or sleeping or smoking, it's not even close."Hancock's analysis of about 226 studies on the well-being of phone users concluded that "when you look at all these different kinds of well-being, the net effect size is essentially zero."The debate about screen time and mental health goes back to the early days of the iPhone. In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a widely cited paper that warned doctors about "Facebook depression."But by 2016, as more research came out, the academy revised that statement, deleting any mention of Facebook depression and emphasizing the conflicting evidence and the potential positive benefits of using social media.Megan Moreno, one of the lead authors of the revised statement, said the original statement had been a problem "because it created panic without a strong basis of evidence."Moreno, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin, said that in her own medical practice, she tends to be struck by the number of children with mental health problems who are helped by social media because of the resources and connections it provides.Concern about the connection between smartphones and mental health has also been fed by high-profile works like a 2017 article in The Atlantic -- and a related book -- by psychologist Jean Twenge, who argued that a recent rise in suicide and depression among teenagers was linked to the arrival of smartphones.In her article, "Have Smartphones Ruined a Generation?," Twenge attributed the sudden rise in reports of anxiety, depression and suicide from teens after 2012 to the spread of smartphones and social media.Twenge's critics argue that her work found a correlation between the appearance of smartphones and a real rise in reports of mental health issues, but that it did not establish that phones were the cause.It could, researchers argue, just as easily be that the rise in depression led teenagers to excessive phone use at a time when there were many other potential explanations for depression and anxiety. What's more, anxiety and suicide rates appear not to have risen in large parts of Europe, where phones have also become more prevalent."Why else might American kids be anxious other than telephones?" Hancock said. "How about climate change? How about income inequality? How about more student debt? There are so many big giant structural issues that have a huge impact on us but are invisible and that we aren't looking at."Twenge remains committed to her position, and she points to several more recent studies by other academics who have found a specific link between social media use and poor mental health. One paper found that when a group of college students gave up social media for three weeks, their sense of loneliness and depression declined.Odgers, Hancock and Przybylski said they had not taken any funding from the tech industry, and all have been outspoken critics of the industry on issues other than mental health, such as privacy and the companies' lack of transparency.Odgers added that she was not surprised that people had a hard time accepting her findings. Her own mother questioned her research after one of her grandsons stopped talking to her during the long drives she used to enjoy. But children tuning out their elders when they become teenagers is hardly a new trend, she said.She also reminded her mother that their conversation was taking place during a video chat with Odgers' son -- the kind of intergenerational connection that was impossible before smartphones.Odgers acknowledged that she was reluctant to give her two children more time on their iPads. But she recently tried playing the video game Fortnite with her son and found it an unexpectedly positive experience."It's hard work because it's not the environment we were raised in," she said. "It can be a little scary at times. I have those moments, too."This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2020 The New York Times Company
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- Amazon Web Services enlists AI to help NASA get ahead of solar superstorms
If the sun throws out a radiation blast of satellite-killing proportions someday, Amazon Web Services may well play a role in heading off a technological doomsday. That's the upshot of a project that has NASA working with AWS Professional Services and the Amazon Machine Learning Solutions Lab to learn more about the early warning signs of a solar superstorm, with the aid of artificial intelligence. Solar storms occur when disturbances on the sun's surface throw off a blasts of radiation and eruptions of electrically charged particles at speeds of millions of miles per hour. A sufficiently strong radiation blast can… Read More
- Microsoft and Univ. of Washington join Georgia Tech team in $25M DNA data storage project
The University of Washington and Microsoft will take part in a federally funded effort to develop data storage techniques using synthetic DNA. The Molecular Information Storage program (also known as MIST) was launched this week by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (also known as IARPA), which is within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It's a multiyear research effort aimed at creating DNA-based storage systems that can archive exabytes of data — that is, billions of gigabytes of data — for millennia. IARPA has awarded MIST contracts to teams led by the Georgia Tech Research Institute, the Broad… Read More
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- How Insects Cope With the Effects of Gravity
You wouldn't think gravity would be a big worry for insects. They're so small. So light. An ant that fell from a second-floor balcony and landed on its head wouldn't even get a bruise.Consequently, scientists have not concerned themselves greatly with what gravity does to insects. But a group of scientists who routinely put grasshoppers into the linear accelerator at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois decided to take a closer look.That's not as strange as it sounds. With synchrotron X-rays, you can get highly detailed images and video, so the Argonne lab is used for medicine and art and archaeology studies, as well as looking inside grasshoppers to see how their bodies work.Jon F. Harrison of Arizona State University and Jake Socha of Virginia Tech have studied insects at Argonne for years, but their work on gravity came about by accident. Some X-rays showed different results when grasshoppers were right side up or upside down.When new tests refined their observations, the researchers learned that gravity has a significant effect on the grasshopper equivalents of blood pressure and breathing. And furthermore, grasshoppers have adaptations that help minimize the disturbance caused by gravity.Insects and gravity have not gotten much, or indeed any attention, Socha said, and the findings could change broader understandings of insect physiology. "People are not studying this," he said. "This is a new discovery." The researchers published their results Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.David Hu at Georgia Tech, whose research addresses the intersection of physics and biology in animals, said, "This study shows that grasshoppers have amazing control of their body pressure at different orientations. The authors' previous work showed that beetles seem to be able to do the same thing." He was not involved in the study."We see insects and assume that just because they're smaller, they're less complicated than us. That's just not true," he said.Harrison and Socha first noticed a problem while they were doing synchrotron X-rays of grasshoppers to study their air sacs, which are a bit like lungs. The results didn't seem to make sense. "We thought we had made a mistake," Socha said.Then they realized that they hadn't been paying attention to whether the grasshopper was head up or head down in the container that held it.Grasshoppers, like other insects, get oxygen through tubes, or trachea that are open to the outside air and branch into smaller and smaller tubes in the insect's body. All insects have these, and some have air sacs, to store and pump air, as grasshoppers do.It turned out that the tubes were more compressed at the bottom of the animal, because gravity was causing the grasshopper equivalent of blood to sink to the bottom half of the animal.This is similar to what happens when humans stand up quickly and become lightheaded, or the way blood goes to the head during a headstand. Humans have valves in the circulatory system to combat this problem, and your heart rate can increase, to pump blood faster.But insects don't have the same system. A grasshopper has a heart, but most of its body had been thought to be like one big bag of blood. Nonetheless, the researchers found that the grasshoppers could substantially counter the effect of gravity when they were conscious. When they were anesthetized with nitrogen, they could not.The researchers found that the grasshoppers could change the pressure in different parts of their body. And the animals were able to keep different pressure in different parts of the body. How they do it is the next question. But they must have some way of blocking off the abdomen from the thorax, say, to create different pressures.The discovery reveals something brand-new about the intersection of physics and biology. For now, it seems to be true in grasshoppers, at the least, and probably beetles, based on another study of Socha's. But all insects are going to be subject to the same physical forces, which few scientists have ever paid attention to before. And it seems unlikely, said Socha, that grasshoppers are the only ones to evolve coping mechanisms.Still, it may be that smaller insects, like fruit flies, don't need to regulate their bodies in the same way. Hu said that ants maintain the same metabolism whether they are walking horizontally or straight up a wall. Future studies will show at what size insects have these adaptations, and what exactly they are.As to the potential practical impact of the findings, Socha said some research on insects is related to human biology, and should take into account these gravitational effects. And Hu said that the discovery could influence the design of so-called lab-on-a-chip devices that use tiny amounts of fluid.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2020 The New York Times Company