Category: Newsletter

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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FDA warns of fraudulent and unapproved flu products


As part of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s ongoing efforts to protect consumers from health fraud, the agency is reminding consumers to be wary of unapproved products claiming to prevent, treat or cure influenza, or flu. This year’s severe flu season raises new concerns about the potential for consumers to be lured into buying unproven flu treatments, and even worse, buying counterfeit antivirals online from websites that appear to be legitimate online pharmacies.

“This year the flu has been widespread, impacting millions of patients across the country, and leading to a new record number of flu-related hospitalizations,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. “We understand the toll this year’s flu season has taken on peoples’ lives. As the flu continues to make people sick — and even cause deaths — unscrupulous actors may also be taking advantage of unsuspecting consumers by promoting their fraudulent products that have not been reviewed by the FDA to be safe and effective. The FDA is warning consumers to be alert, and try and steer clear of fraudulent flu products, which may be found online or in retail stores. We’re advising consumers on some of the telltale signs to look for when trying to spot flu products that may be fraudulent. All of us must also continue to be diligent in doing our part to prevent the spread of flu however possible. People who are sick with flu-like symptoms and those who are at high risk of serious flu complications should see a health care professional as soon as possible to see if they should be treated with antiviral drugs.”

Consumers should be aware that there are no legally marketed over-the-counter (OTC) drugs to prevent or cure the flu. However, there are legal OTC products to reduce fever and to relieve muscle aches, congestion and other symptoms typically associated with the flu. Products sold online are fraudulent if they claim to prevent, treat or cure the flu, and have not been evaluated by the FDA for that intended use.

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Pruitt tapes revealed: Evolution’s a ‘theory,’ ‘majority’ religions under attack

By Emily Holden and Alex Guillén

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt dismissed evolution as an unproven theory, lamented that “minority religions” were pushing Christianity out of “the public square” and advocated amending the Constitution to ban abortion, prohibit same-sex marriage and protect the Pledge of Allegiance and the Ten Commandments, according to a newly unearthed series of Oklahoma talk radio shows from 2005.

Pruitt, who at the time was a state senator, also described the Second Amendment as divinely granted and condemned federal judges as a “judicial monarchy” that is “the most grievous threat that we have today.” And he did not object when the program’s host described Islam as “not so much a religion as it is a terrorist organization in many instances.”

The six hours of civics class-style conversations on Tulsa-based KFAQ-AM were recently rediscovered by a firm researching Pruitt’s past remarks, which provided them to POLITICO on condition of anonymity so as not to identify its client. They reveal Pruitt’s unfiltered views on a variety of political and social issues, more than a decade before the ambitious Oklahoman would lead President Donald Trump’s EPA.

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I’m a scholar of the “prosperity gospel.” It took cancer to show me I was in its grip.

By Kate Bowler

There’s a branch of Christianity that promises a direct path to the good life. It is called by many names, but most often it is nicknamed the “prosperity gospel” for its bold central claim that God will give you your heart’s desires: money in the bank, a healthy body, a thriving family, and boundless happiness.

This was not the faith I grew up with on the prairies of Manitoba, Canada, surrounded by communities of Mennonites. I learned at my Anabaptist Bible camp about a poor carpenter from Galilee who taught that a good life was a simple one.

But when I was 18 or so, I started hearing stories about a different kind of faith with a formula for success. At first, I followed my interest in the prosperity gospel like a storm chaser, finding any megachurch within driving distance of a family vacation. I started at Yale Divinity School for my master’s ready to devote myself to analyzing this unusual theology.

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Physicists plan antimatter’s first outing — in a van

By Elizabeth Gibney

Antimatter is notoriously volatile, but physicists have learned to control it so well that they are now starting to harness it as a tool for the first time. In a project that began last month, researchers will transport antimatter by truck and then use it to study the strange behaviour of rare radioactive nuclei. The work aims to provide a better understanding of fundamental processes inside atomic nuclei and to help astrophysicists learn about the interiors of neutron stars, which contain the densest form of matter in the Universe.

“Antimatter has long been studied for itself, but now it is mastered well enough that people can start to use it as a probe for matter,” says Alexandre Obertelli, a physicist at the Technical University of Darmstadt in Germany, who leads the project, known as PUMA (antiProton Unstable Matter Annihilation), which will take place at CERN, Europe’s particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland.

CERN’s antimatter factory makes antiprotons — the rare mirror image of protons — by slamming a proton beam into a metal target, then dramatically slowing the emerging antiparticles so they can be used in experiments. Obertelli and his colleagues plan to use magnetic and electric fields to trap a cloud of antiprotons in a vacuum (see ‘Antimatter to go’). Then they will load the trap into a van and drive it a few hundred metres to the site of a neighbouring experiment, known as ISOLDE, that produces rare, radioactive atomic nuclei that decay too quickly to be transported anywhere themselves. “It’s almost science fiction to be driving around antimatter in a truck,” says Charles Horowitz, a theoretical nuclear physicist at Indiana University Bloomington. “It’s a wonderful idea.”

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South Carolina Republicans want ‘parody marriages’ to circumvent marriage equality

By Zack Ford

A group of South Carolina state lawmakers have proposed a new bill to try to circumvent marriage equality and allow discrimination against gay, lesbian, and bi people. It would dub same-sex couples’ marriages “parody marriages,” and its reasoning is incomprehensibly bizarre.

According to H. 4949, a “parody marriage” is “any form of marriage that does not involve one man and one woman.” It proposes that “the State of South Carolina shall no longer respect, endorse, or recognize any form of parody marriage policy because parody marriage policies are nonsecular.”

It likewise seeks to justify discrimination by proposing that “the State of South Carolina shall no longer enforce, recognize, or respect any policy that treats sexual orientation as a suspect class because all such statutes lack a secular purpose.”

Only marriages between a man and a woman would continue to be recognized “because such marriage policies are secular, accomplishing nonreligious objectives.”

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Billy Graham Was a Giant in American Political Life

By Charles P. Pierce

When I was growing up, Rev. Billy Graham was one of those names that floated around the news stream like lily pads in a pond. Estes Kefauver. Willy Brandt. Anastas Mikoyan. And Billy Graham. Johnny Carson used to make jokes about him that the adults thought were a riot. Occasionally, he’d drop by one of the talk shows and make small talk with Merv or Mike. He was a giant figure in the political life of this country. And now he’s dead, at 99. That’s a good long run.

I guess I’m supposed to have something to say about him. After all, as The New York Times says:

“A central achievement was his encouraging evangelical Protestants to regain the social influence they had once wielded, reversing a retreat from public life that had begun when their efforts to challenge evolution theory were defeated in the Scopes trial in 1925.

“But in his later years, Mr. Graham kept his distance from the evangelical political movement he had helped engender, refusing to endorse candidates and avoiding the volatile issues dear to religious conservatives.”

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Question of the Week- 2/28/2018

The Winter Olympics have come to a close, and one can’t help but wonder: What if there were an Olympics for science? Could there be a gold medal in experiment replication? Record times achieved in exoplanet discovery? What kind of events could there be in a Scientific Olympics?

Our favorite answer will win a copy of Brief Candle in the Dark by Richard Dawkins.

Want to suggest a Question of the Week? E-mail submissions to us at (Questions only, please. All answers to bimonthly questions are made only in the comments section of the Question of the Week.)

Trump’s budget for NASA defunds the space station and includes vague plans for the Moon

By Loren Grush

The Trump administration wants NASA to move away from doing business in low orbit around the Earth and instead focus on sending astronauts back to the Moon. That’s according to President Donald Trump’s new budget request, out today, which details how the White House wants to fund NASA in fiscal year 2019.

The request instructs NASA to end direct funding for the International Space Station by 2025, while pursuing a coordinated campaign to put humans on the Moon by the mid-2020s, according to a copy of the detailed budget request reviewed by The Verge. However, there aren’t a lot of details for how the Moon plans will play out, and very little funding is allocated for developing all the hardware needed for putting people on the lunar surface again.

The budget confirms previous reporting from The Verge regarding the future of the space station. However, a new internal document from NASA, reported yesterday by The Washington Post, reveals that the space agency does not intend to get rid of the ISS once government funding ends, but instead turn it into something of a commercial real estate venture. The goal is for other countries and private space companies to pick up the slack and “operate certain elements or capabilities” of the ISS, so that NASA still has a platform to conduct science experiments, according to the document. “NASA will expand international and commercial partnerships over the next seven years in order to ensure continued human access to and presence in low Earth orbit,” the memo states.

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Trump vowed to destroy the Johnson Amendment. Thankfully, he has failed.

By David Saperstein and Amanda Tyler

David Saperstein, director emeritus of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, is an ordained rabbi who served as U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom from 2015 to 2017. Amanda Tyler is the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

At the National Prayer Breakfast a little more than a year ago, President Trump vowed to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, a federal law prohibiting houses of worship, charitable nonprofits and private foundations from endorsing, opposing or financially supporting political candidates and parties. Fortunately for religious congregations — and the entire charitable sector — he has not yet fulfilled his promise.

Trump’s failure to eliminate the Johnson Amendment is not for lack of will. Members of Congress pursued similar goals to the president, attempting to include language that would weaken the law as part of the tax reform bill, but that effort ultimately failed. And at one point, Trump described his goal of eliminating the prohibition on election activity as potentially his “greatest contribution to Christianity — and other religions.”

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