Author: Trav Mamone

In a cosmic first, scientists detect ‘ghost particles’ from a distant galaxy

By Sarah Kaplan

When the sun was young and faint and the Earth was barely formed, a gigantic black hole in a distant, brilliant galaxy spat out a powerful jet of radiation. That jet contained neutrinos — subatomic particles so tiny and difficult to detect they are nicknamed “ghost particles.”

Four billion years later, at Earth’s South Pole, 5,160 sensors buried more than a mile beneath the ice detected a single ghostly neutrino as it interacted with an atom. Scientists then traced the particle back to the galaxy that created it.

The cosmic achievement, reported Thursday by a team of more than 1,000 researchers in the journal Science, is the first time scientists have detected a high-energy neutrino and been able to pinpoint where it came from. It heralds the arrival of a new era of astronomy in which researchers can learn about the universe using neutrinos as well as ordinary light.

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Science under siege: behind the scenes at Trump’s troubled environment agency

By Jeff Tollefson

The day Donald Trump took office as US president, the mood was sombre at the main research campus of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Durham, North Carolina. As scientists arrived for work, they saw pictures of former president Barack Obama and the previous EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy, coming down off the walls. Researchers had reason to be anxious: Trump had threatened many times during his campaign to shutter the EPA, and he had already taken steps along that path. Weeks before he moved into the White House, Trump had nominated Scott Pruitt to head the agency — a man who had spent his career filing lawsuits to block a variety of EPA regulations.

When Trump put his hand on the Bible to take the oath of office on 20 January 2017, many EPA scientists kept their heads down. They wondered who might be fired first, and they warned each other to censor their e-mails, for fear that the new administration would monitor communications for any comments criticizing it.

Dan Costa wasn’t so worried. After nearly 32 years working at the EPA, he had seen the agency weather many political storms, and he had not lost sleep over the prospect of working for Pruitt and Trump. When inauguration day came, Costa streamed Trump’s speech on his computer and went straight back to work.

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Atheists in Indonesia, Afraid For Their Lives, Fake Being Muslims

By David G. McAfee

Indonesia has the world’s largest population of Muslims, but that number may be lower than we once thought because some locals are hiding their atheism out of fear of reprisal.

Living a double life isn’t all that uncommon in Indonesia, where atheists live in fear of being sent to jail (or worse) thanks to fundamentalist religious groups. AFP profiled one of these atheists, identified only as “Luna Atmowijoyo,” about her de-conversion from Islam years ago.

Atmowijoyo, who lives with her parents, still wears an Islamic headscarf to escape the wrath of an abusive father who knows nothing of his daughter’s change of heart, which started when she was told to avoid friendships with non-Muslims.

“A lot of simple things started to bother me,” said the 30-year-old, who asked AFP not to use her real name.

“Like I couldn’t say Merry Christmas or Happy Waisak to people of other religions,” she added, referring to a Buddhist holiday also known as Vesak or Buddha’s Birthday in other parts of Asia.

Treating gay people as abnormal was another problem and it soon became impossible for Atmowijoyo — once a conservative Islamic party member — to square the Koran’s teachings with science.

Then the unthinkable crept into her mind: God does not exist.

Most of us had this same realization at some point in our lives. Many of us have thought about how the LGBTQ community has been marginalized by followers of the Abrahamic religions. And nearly all of us (at least readers of this site) have thought to ourselves, Wow, God doesn’t exist.

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SCOTUS Pick Brett Kavanaugh: Church/State Separation is “Based on Bad History”

By Hemant Mehta

In a speech he gave at the American Enterprise Institute last September, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh not only praised the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist for dissenting in Roe v. Wade, he rejected the idea of a “wall of separation between church and state.”

Unlike legal opinions in which he would be bound by precedent, this speech indicated his own views on the topic — if confirmed to the Supreme Court, he would have the ability to strike down laws or change them altogether in accordance with his views.

The speech focuses on Rehnquist’s history, which Kavanaugh admired, and that included the former Chief Justice’s views on religion and politics. The LA Times reports:

Turning to religion, Kavanaugh said Rehnquist had maintained that the “wall of separation between church and state” was a misleading metaphor “based on bad history.”

“Throughout his tenure and to this day,” he added, the court has “sought to cordon off public schools from state-sponsored religious prayers. But Rehnquist had much more success in ensuring that religious schools and religious institutions could participate as equals in society and in state benefit programs.”

In 2002, he noted, Rehnquist wrote the court’s opinion upholding a state law that gave parents tax money to pay for sending their children to religious schools. And just last year, the court upheld a Missouri church’s claim that it had a right to receive state funds to pay for a new school playground. “There again, the Rehnquist legacy was at work,” Kavanaugh said.

The criticism of those cases is not that religious schools and institutions can’t participate as “equals,” but that groups not paying taxes still wanted taxpayer funding to promote their private religious beliefs. By not having to spend its own money on a “new school playground” in the Trinity Lutheran case, the church could conceivably use that funding to promote religion in other ways. (Even building a new playground could arguably be considered a tool for proselytizing since the intention is to draw people into the church.)

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Here’s What Ötzi the Iceman Ate Before He Was Murdered

By Laura Geggel

A mere 2 hours before his grisly murder about 5,300 years ago, Ötzi the iceman chowed down on some mouthwatering morsels: wild meat from ibex and red deer, cereals from einkorn wheat and — oddly enough — poisonous fern, a new study finds.

It’s unclear why Ötzi ate the toxic fern, known as bracken (Pteridium aquilinum). But it’s possible that he used the fern to wrap his food, almost like a piece of plastic wrap, and then unintentionally ingested some of the toxic spores the fern left behind, said study co-senior researcher Albert Zink, head of the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies in Bolzano, Italy.

Or perhaps Ötzi ate the fern as a type of medicine to treat his intestinal parasites, Zink said.

“It looked like he consumed it [the bracken] quite regularly, which would make it more like a kind of drug he took against the parasites,” Zink told Live Science.

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Tools from China are oldest hint of human lineage outside Africa

By Colin Barras

Hominins reached Asia at least 2.1 million years ago, researchers assert in an 11 July Nature paper1. Stone tools they found in central China represent the earliest known evidence of humans or their ancient relatives living outside Africa.

Other scientists are convinced that the tools were made by hominins and are confident that they are as old as claimed. And although the tools’ makers are unknown, the discovery could force researchers to reconsider which hominin species first left Africa — and when. “This is a whole new palaeo ball game,” says William Jungers, a palaeoanthropologist at Stony Brook University, New York.

Most researchers say that hominins — the evolutionary line that includes humans — first left their African homeland around 1.85 million years ago. This is the age of the oldest hominin fossils discovered beyond Africa — from Dmanisi, Georgia, in the Caucasus region of Eurasia. The oldest hominin remains from East Asia, two incisors from southwest China, are around 1.7 million years old (see ‘Travelling Hominins’).

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After Public Outcry, Freeport (IL) Library Board Rejects Religious Motto Display

By Hemant Mehta

Earlier this week, I posted about a library in Freeport, Illinois that was considering putting the phrase “In God We Trust” in the building in some prominent way.

Even Mayor Jodi Miller weighed in, urging them to do it because “The original purpose of this phrase was to express unity. Let’s not allow division to take place any longer.” Somehow, a phrase meant to promote the Christian god would unify atheists and Muslims and Hindus. No wonder Freeport’s nickname is “Pretzel City.” They’re twisting reality over there.

When the board met last month, they voted 4-4 in favor of the idea. So they decided to take some time, rethink the proposal, and vote again at the next meeting. That happened last night. One more board member was present (so there wouldn’t be a tie) And the way everything went down was unbelievable.

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House panel moves to protect ‘religious conviction’ of adoption agencies

By Juliegrace Brufke

The House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday adopted a GOP funding bill amendment that would ensure adoption agencies aren’t denied federal funding if they choose not to place children with LGBTQ couples.

The measure, introduced by Rep. Robert Aderholt, drew swift condemnation from Democrats, but the Alabama Republican defended it as necessary for allowing social-services agencies to exercise their religious freedom.

“Several states and localities across the country are not allowing religious organizations, such as Catholic Charities and Bethany Christian Services, to operate child welfare agencies. The reason for this is simply because these organizations, based on religious conviction, choose not to place children with same-sex couples,” he said in a statement.

Under the “minibus” funding bill amendment, the Department of Health and Human Services would be required to withhold 15 percent of federal funding for child welfare services from states that themselves withhold funding for organizations that require children be placed with heterosexual married couples. 

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Coming soon to a lab near you? Genetically modified cannabis

By Amy Maxmen

Legal hurdles to exploring marijuana’s medicinal properties might soon fall in the wake of the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) first approval of a cannabis-derived drug.

On 25 June, the FDA announced its approval of Epidiolex — a treatment for epileptic seizures that is based on a cannabis compound called cannabidiol (CBD). The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has until 24 September to re-classify Epidiolex so that it’s legal for doctors across the country to prescribe it. Many researchers hope that the agency will re-classify CBD itself, instead of just Epidiolex, so that they can more easily study this non-psychedelic component of marijuana.

Now that the FDA has approved Epidiolex, “we have a clear recognition that this plant has more potential than people credited it for, and that has reverberations that are scientific as well as legal”, says Daniele Piomelli, director of a new centre for cannabis research at the University of California, Irvine. At the very least, he says, the DEA ought to grant researchers an exemption permitting them to study CBD — especially now that people consume it and other cannabis compounds, known as cannabinoids, in states where marijuana is legal. At this point, the limits on research seem irrational, he adds.

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NASA Just Released the Song of the Summer

By Marina Koren

In Gustav Holst’s “The Planets,” a sweeping, seven-part composition inspired by Earth’s neighbors in the solar system, the song of Saturn begins softly, with the gentle hum of flutes. The melody, solemn and nostalgic, marches slowly forward. Then the woodwinds subside, and there’s an explosion of sound, a frenzy of horns and clanging bells. Melancholy seems to morph into menace. The roar is brief, and the movement returns to its opening softness, closing on the dreamy whisper of violins.

The movement, first performed in late 1918, is enchanting and unsettling at the same time—just like the real music around Saturn.

And by music, I mean these noises from the space between Saturn and its icy moon Enceladus.

The source of this ethereal chorus is the movement of plasma waves between Saturn and Enceladus, recorded by the Cassini spacecraft and then converted into sound the human ear can register.

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