Russian Scientists Tested Their Asteroid-Nuking Plan with Powerful Lasers

By Rafi Letzter

Russian scientists have a plan to deal with a hypothetical asteroid threat that’s straight out of the movie “Armageddon.”

A team of government scientists has proposed that nuclear weapons well within the power of those already developed could be used to break up incoming asteroids, protecting the planet from a major asteroid strike. They then demonstrated, in a paper published online March 8 in the Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Physics, the effect of a nuclear strike on an asteroid using scale model “asteroids” and powerful lasers.

Striking a tiny model asteroid with a powerful laser on Earth is obviously not the exact same thing as striking a full-size asteroid with a laser out in space. But there’s a reasonable degree of comparison between the two situations.

The researchers took careful steps to make sure the scale models were created from the same materials and had similar structures to chondrites (common, stony asteroids). And the immense energy deposited by a pulsed laser onto a single point on the model was reasonably similar to the effect of a nuclear blast on a single point on the asteroid’s surface. They wrote that their experiment showed they could use a a 3-megaton bomb to blast a 656-foot-wide (200 meters) asteroid — 10 times wider than the asteroid that detonated over Russia in  2013 — to harmless bits that would spread out and miss Earth.

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Candida and Fake Illnesses

By Steven Novella

Savvy consumers have learned over the years that the primary goal of marketing is to create demand for a product or service. This has risen to the point of inventing problems that do not really exist just to sell a product that addresses the fake problem. Who knew that my social status could be destroyed by spotty glassware?

Better yet, if you can make people worry about a nonexistent problem, something that they were not previously aware of and don’t understand, they might buy your solution just to relieve their worry.

This type of “artificial demand” marketing can be very insidious when it occurs with medical products and services. The pharmaceutical industry has been accused of generating artificial demand for some of their drugs. For example, osteopenia is a relative decrease in bone density, but not enough to qualify for osteoporosis. Osteopenia is not really a disease, or even necessarily a mild version of osteoporosis, although it is a risk factor. Merck, however, was happy to broaden the market for its drug for osteoporosis and argue that patients with osteopenia should be treated also, even though the evidence really did not support this.

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Bill Would Create “Day of Prayer” For Kentucky Students

By Tom Kenny

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ) – An annual day of prayer for Kentucky’s students would become part of state law under a bill passed Thursday in the House.

House Bill 40 sponsor Rep. Regina Huff, R-Williamsburg, said the annual prayer event has been proclaimed by Kentucky’s governor the past two years. HB 40 would designate the last Wednesday of September each year as “A Day of Prayer for Kentucky’s Students” by law, and require the governor to issue an annual proclamation for the event.

Huff said that HB 40 is respectful of all faiths by asking that Kentuckians spend the day praying, meditating or reflecting “in accordance with their own faith and consciences.” Students would be allowed to participate in the event at school before the start of the instructional day.

“Their event at school will be student-initiated and conducted, and always before the start of the school day,” Huff said.

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The number of ex-Muslims in America is rising

By The Economist

AS SOON as he stepped off the plane on a family holiday to Kenya, Mahad Olad knew something was wrong. His mother, a “very devout, very conservative, very Wahhabi” woman, was acting strangely—furtively taking phone calls when she thought he was out of earshot. His suspicions would soon be proved correct. Mr Olad’s family, Somali immigrants to America and devout Muslims, had discovered that he had not only renounced Islam but was also gay. The holiday was a ruse, an intervention to save his soul.

Mr Olad was told he would leave college and be turned over the next day to the care of Muslim clerics who would restore his faith. “I was aware of the horrors of these camps,” Mr Olad says. “They operate them in the middle of nowhere, where you cannot escape. They subject you to beatings, starvation and trampling.” He tried to contact the American embassy, but it could not send help because of recent terrorist attacks nearby. Luckily, he also managed to reach a Kenyan atheist group. In the dead of night he sneaked into his mother’s room, stole his passport and was whisked away by taxi to the embassy, which eventually returned him safely to America. He has not spoken to his family since.

Though few have such harrowing stories, hundreds of thousands of American Muslims might recognise something like their own experience in Mr Olad’s tale. As the number of American Muslims has increased by almost 50% in the past decade, so too has the number of ex-Muslims. According to the Pew Research Centre, 23% of Americans raised as Muslims no longer identify with the faith. Most of them are young second-generation immigrants who have come to reject the religion of their parents. Some, however, are older when their crisis of faith arrives, already married to devout Muslim spouses and driving children to the mosque to study the Koran at weekends.

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Neanderthals Weren’t Humans’ Only Mating Partners. Meet the Denisovans.

By Charles Q. Choi

The mysterious extinct human lineage known as the Denisovans may have interbred with modern humans in at least two separate waves, a new study finds.

The discovery suggests a more diverse evolutionary history than previously thought between Denisovans and modern humans.

Although modern humans are now the only human lineage left alive, others not only lived alongside modern humans, but even interbred with them, leaving behind DNA in the modern human genome. Such lineages not only included the Neanderthals, the closest extinct relatives of modern humans, but also the mysterious Denisovans, known only from molars and a finger bone unearthed in the Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia.

Previous research found that while Denisovans shared a common origin with Neanderthals, they were nearly as genetically distinct from Neanderthals as Neanderthals were from modern humans. Prior work also found Denisovans contributed DNA to several modern human groups — about 5 percent of their DNA to the genomes of people in Oceania, and about 0.2 percent to the genomes of mainland Asians and Native Americans.

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Advances in human behaviour came surprisingly early in Stone Age

By Jeff Tollefson

Early humans in eastern Africa crafted advanced tools and displayed other complex behaviours tens of thousands of years earlier than previously thought, according to a trio of papers published on 15 March in Science1,2,3. Those advances coincided with — and may have been driven by — major climate and landscape changes.

The latest evidence comes from the Olorgesailie Basin in Southern Kenya, where researchers have previously found traces of ancient relatives of modern human as far back as 1.2 million years ago. Evidence collected at sites in the basin suggests that early humans underwent a series of profound changes at some point before roughly 320,000 years ago. They abandoned simple hand axes in favour of smaller and more advanced blades made from obsidian and other materials obtained from distant sources. That shift suggests the early people living there had developed a trade network — evidence of growing sophistication in behaviour. The researchers also found gouges on black and red rocks and minerals, which indicate that early Olorgesailie residents used those materials to create pigments and possibly communicate ideas.

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Setting the record straight on charities and political speech

By Tim Delaney

There’s a core American belief that just about everyone agrees with regardless of political stripes: People employed to serve the public good should not, in their official capacity, endorse or oppose candidates for public office. That core belief, long codified in federal and state laws, holds true for all public servants, whether they are government employees or representatives of charitable nonprofits, houses of worship, or foundations. Yet, some in Congress are seeking to repeal or weaken this important taxpayer protection in the omnibus spending bill.

We all received a reminder of this core value when news broke that presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway allegedly violated the Hatch Act by taking sides in the Alabama Senate race. How the White House responded has undeniable implications for the generations-old Johnson Amendment that similarly curbs partisan endorsements by charitable, religious and philanthropic organizations.

Last week, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel announced its determination that Conway violated the Hatch Act when she engaged in partisan, election-related speech on two television interviews last year. The White House responded that Conway “did not advocate for or against the election of any particular candidate,” which is the legal standard under the Hatch Act. The response stressed, “In fact, Kellyanne’s statements actually show her intention and desire to comply with the Hatch Act, as she twice declined to respond to the host’s specific invitation to encourage Alabamians to vote for the Republican.”

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Tony Perkins: Liberals Are Using Trump’s Affair to “Shame” Evangelical Voters

By Hemant Mehta

Why do so many people point out the hypocrisy of conservative Christians who support Donald Trump? Why do liberals keep mentioning that the people who have long claimed the moral high ground due to their “family values” are currently frolicking in the bottom of the barrel? Why are even fellow Christians quick to shake their heads at white evangelicals who cling to Trump for short term judicial victories?

Religious Right leader Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, knows why: It’s because liberals are trying to “shame evangelicals for their political participation.”

“The intensity of this is growing and this is an effort to shame evangelicals for their political participation. And since I’ve spent the last 25 years, since I left the law enforcement realm and entered into the political realm both in activism and in public office, is to bring Christians to an understanding of what our role is, and our role is to be salt in the light,” Perkins said. “Now, first and foremost, that is to take the gospel to people — living it out.”

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Stephen Hawking, Famed Physicist Who Defied ALS Odds, Dies at 76

By Tia Ghose

Stephen Hawking, one of the brightest minds of modern physics, has died at the age of 76 at his home in Cambridge, England, The Guardian reported today (March 14). He was perhaps the best-known physicist in the world, despite having to communicate via a computerized voice that recorded the minute motion of his cheek muscle.

“We are deeply saddened that our beloved father passed away today,” Lucy, Robert and Tim Hawking, the children of the physicist, said in a statement announcing his death. “He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years.”

Hawking was a brilliant student of physics at the University of Cambridge when he was diagnosed with the degenerative nerve disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, at the age of 21. ALS affects the neurons that help us move our muscles, so Hawking used a wheelchair for decades and communicated via a computerized “voice.” He nevertheless continued working and soon developed a series of groundbreaking theories that would remake the world of physics. In 1966, the cosmologist published his doctoral thesis, which argued that the entire universe began as a singularity.

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Supervolcano Goes Boom. Humans Go Meh?

By Ed Yong

Around 74,000 years ago, the Toba supervolcano erupted on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It was the biggest volcanic eruption of the last 2 million years, unleashing 2,800 cubic kilometers of magma. That’s enough to bury the entire United States in a foot-thick layer of ash and rock.

In the 1990s, several scientists argued that Toba’s unprecedented outburst radically changed the world’s climate, blocking out sunlight and lowering global temperatures by several degrees for many decades. This “volcanic winter,” it is said, almost drove humans to extinction, leaving behind a measly group of a few thousand survivors, from whom we today are descended. The “Toba catastrophe theory” is highly controversial, and other researchers have argued that it greatly overestimates both the degree of climate change that the volcano inflicted, and its effect on our ancestors.

Now, into the fray comes a new study from an unlikely location. In a cliff near Mossel Bay, a town on South Africa’s south coast, scientists have discovered a layer of microscopic glass shards. Known as cryptotephra, these shards are the products of Toba’s wrath, created when the volcano superheated the silica within its expunged rock. They drifted in the air over 5,500 miles and fell on southern Africa as the sparsest of drizzles. And they settled among bones, tools, and other signs of human occupation.

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