Category: science

Oprah Winfrey Helped Create Our American Fantasyland

By Kurt Andersen

Forty-eight hours ago, after watching Oprah Winfrey give a terrific, rousing feminist speech on an awards show, millions of Americans instantly, giddily decided that the ideal 2020 Democratic nominee had appeared. An extremely rich and famous and exciting star and impresario—but one who seems intelligent and wise and kind, the non–Bizarro World version of the sitting president.

Some wet-blanketing followed immediately, among the best from the New York Times Magazine writer Thomas Chatterton Williams in an op-ed headlined “Oprah, Don’t Do It.” “It would be a devastating, self-inflicted wound for the Democrats to settle for even benevolent mimicry of Mr. Trump’s hallucinatory circus act,” he wrote. “Indeed, the magical thinking fueling the idea of Oprah in 2020 is a worrisome sign about the state of the Democratic Party.”

Despite the “magical thinking” reference, neither Williams nor other skeptics have seriously addressed the big qualm I have about the prospect of a President Winfrey: Perhaps more than any other single American, she is responsible for giving national platforms and legitimacy to all sorts of magical thinking, from pseudoscientific to purely mystical, fantasies about extraterrestrials, paranormal experience, satanic cults, and more. The various fantasies she has promoted on all her media platforms—her daily TV show with its 12 million devoted viewers, her magazine, her website, her cable channel—aren’t as dangerous as Donald Trump’s mainstreaming of false conspiracy theories, but for three decades she has had a major role in encouraging Americans to abandon reason and science in favor of the wishful and imaginary.

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Is There Radium In Your Tap Water? New Map Can Show You

By Rachael Rettner

Does your tap water contain the radioactive element radium? You might be surprised to hear that tap water for more than 170 million Americans contains the compound, and a new interactive map shows the water systems where this potentially hazardous element was found.

The map was made by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit advocacy organization in Washington D.C. that focuses on environmental issues and public health.

The data for the map comes from an EWG analysis of water quality tests from 2010 to 2015. Of the 50,000 water utilities, 22,000 utilities serving over 170 million people in all 50 states reported detectable levels of radium, EWG said. (The map includes only water systems with detectable levels of radium.)

Radium is found naturally in soil and rock, and can get into groundwater supplies. Exposure to the element in high doses — much higher than the levels seen in drinking water — are known to cause cancer. There is no amount of exposure to radium that’s considered “risk free,” but the risk of cancer decreases at lower doses, EWG says.

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In Africa, Geneticists Are Hunting Poachers

By Gina Kolata

South African authorities long had eyes on Rogers Mukwena. They knew the former schoolteacher was wanted in Zimbabwe for poaching rhinoceroses and selling their horns, which can command hundreds of thousands of dollars.

He’d jumped bail and fled to northern Pretoria, but it was vexingly difficult to catch and prosecute him — until a scientist helped make the case against him with rhino DNA.

His subsequent conviction resulted from a new tactic in wildlife preservation: The genetic fingerprinting methods that have been so successful in the criminal justice system are now being used to solve poaching crimes.

First, researchers in South Africa had to build a large database of genetic samples drawn from African rhinoceroses. The DNA would be used to match a carcass to a particular horn discovered on a suspected poacher or trafficker, or to rhinoceros blood on his clothes, knives or axes.

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Hitchhiking barnacles could reveal migration routes of ancient whales

By Elizabeth Pennisi

Want to know where a migrating whale has been? Just check out the barnacles on its tail. As these hitchhikers grow, they pick up signatures of the surrounding ocean, providing a record of the whale’s travels, even ancient ones, researchers reported here last week at the annual meeting of the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology.

“Not only could [the approach] be used to look for how ancient migration patterns may have changed, it could also potentially be used to tell us something about the oceans that ancient migrators were visiting,” says David Cade, an integrative biology graduate student at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who was not involved with the work.

Worldwide travelers, whales swim thousands of kilometers between feeding and breeding grounds. Understanding where they go, both now and in the past, is critical to conserving these leviathans. Extensive monitoring and tagging have revealed much about whale migration, but “we have little direct evidence as to their prehistoric migration habits,” says Larry Taylor, a graduate student at the University of California (UC), Berkeley.

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Alligators ‘Snorkel’ to Survive Ice-Covered Swamp

By Laura Geggel

A video showing alligator snouts poking out though an ice-covered swamp in North Carolina during last week’s cold snap may look like the preview of an avant-garde art installation, but it actually depicts an adaptive trick that helps these reptiles survive in winter weather, a wildlife ecologist said.

Unlike mammals, alligators rely on ambient temperature to keep their bodies warm, which is why they can often be found basking in the sun or hanging out in air-pocketed burrows they’ve dug into the banks of rivers and lakes.

But when it gets so cold that their ponds freeze over, some alligators are known to swim to the surface and poke their snouts above the icy water so they can breathe properly, James Perran Ross, a retired associate scientist of wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Florida, told Live Science.

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Rare Hybrid Bird Discovered in the Amazon in a First

By Samantha Mathewson

A rare, vivid green bird with radiant yellow head feathers is actually a unique hybrid species that lives in the Amazon rainforest, researchers have found.

The small, golden-crowned manakin was first discovered in Brazil in 1957, but then it was not seen again until its rediscovery 45 years later in 2002. A new study of the bird’s origins shows that the golden-crowned manakin is a cross between the snow-capped manakin and the opal-crowned manakin, representing the first hybrid-bird species found to date, according to a statement from the University of Toronto.

“While hybrid plant species are very common, hybrid species among vertebrates are exceedingly rare,” Jason Weir, senior author of the study, said in the statement.

Hybridization occurs when two species interbreed to produce a third. While the three related species of manakins all have radiant yellow-green upper bodies with golden undersides, each has distinctively colored feathers on their head.

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Climate scientists unlock secrets of ‘blue carbon’

By Jeff Tollefson

Tidal wetlands come in many forms, but they could be more alike below the surface than anyone realized. Whether it’s a mangrove forest in Florida, a freshwater swamp in Virginia or a saltwater marsh in Oregon, the amount of carbon locked in a soil sample from each of these coastal ecosystems is roughly the same.

That’s the surprising message from a new analysis of some 1,900 soil cores collected around the United States during the past few decades. “In terms of carbon stocks, all tidal wetlands are very, very similar,” says Lisamarie Windham-Myers, an ecologist with the US Geological Survey (USGS) in Menlo Park, California, who is leading a 3-year, US$1.5-million assessment of coastal carbon funded by NASA. “The variability that everybody expected just doesn’t exist.”

Her team presented its findings last month in New Orleans, Louisiana, at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union; the researchers plan to publish data from 1,500 soil cores online as early as this month, and hope to release information on the remaining 400 later this year. 

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Stephen Hawking Is Worried About Humanity’s Future

By Stephanie Pappas

Stephen Hawking turns space explorer in his second-ever episode of “Favorite Places,” an Emmy-winning series that sees the famed physicist explore Venus, the sun and deep space.

Hawking narrates the CGI-heavy episode, which airs on on Monday (Jan. 8). In the episode, Hawking is piloting a spacecraft past his childhood vacation spot in Dorset, England, expounding on his search for the “theory of everything” — an understanding of humanity’s place in the universe and why the laws of physics seem so precisely tuned to support life in the solar system.

“It’s these fundamental mysteries that drive me on my quest for a theory of everything,” Hawking says.

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As an EPA intern, I was barred from mentioning climate change

By Katie Miller

In many ways, the Environmental Protection Agency was exactly what I expected when I arrived as a summer intern in June: cubicles decorated with pictures of polar bears, employees who made actual small talk about the environment, acronyms for everything. But there were clues that this was an agency under siege in the Trump administration, and before my time there had ended, I saw them firsthand.

Just under the surface, fear and loathing had taken hold. My colleagues lowered their voices to discuss political matters, but they talked openly about “before” and “after,” referring to the inauguration. Some seemed to put on a mask at work, clenching their teeth and smiling every time the new administration came up in conversation. One man told me he’d worked at the EPA during many administrations and had never felt so discouraged. No wonder more than 700 people, including more than 200 scientists, have left since President Trump took office.

After an orientation with the other summer interns, I focused on my work on the communications team for the Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery, part of the Office of Land and Emergency Management. My first job was to update the titles and summaries of Federal Register notices using plain language and an active voice. I spent time entering numbers into an Excel spreadsheet. I responded to citizen inquiries, edited documents, made calls, attended meetings. Intern stuff.

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Bonobos Might Not Be So Laid-Back after All

By Jason G. Goldman

Given a choice, most humans would rather spend their time with nice people and avoid befriending jerks. Developmental psychologists have even found that by three months of age, human infants can tell the difference between the two—and seem to prefer those who help to those who hinder. According to a study published Thursday in Current Biologythe opposite seems to be true for bonobos.

“Of our two closest relatives, chimps and bonobos, [bonobos] are the ones known to show less extreme aggression. They’re socially tolerant in food settings, and they share food and cooperate in ways chimpanzees might not,” says Duke University evolutionary anthropologist Christopher Krupenye (now at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland), who led the study. “So we thought if either of them are likely to share with humans this motivation to prefer helpers, it may be bonobos.”

Together with Duke University anthropologist Brian Hare, Krupenye tested a group of 43 bonobos living in a sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The researchers used a range of experiments designed to see whether bonobos, like human infants, can distinguish individuals according to their social behaviors—and whether they prefer the helpers, like we do.

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