Category: science

NASA’s Got a Plan for a ‘Galactic Positioning System’ to Save Astronauts Lost in Space

By Rafi Letzter

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Outer space glows with a bright fog of X-ray light, coming from everywhere at once. But peer carefully into that fog, and faint, regular blips become visible. These are millisecond pulsars, city-sized neutron stars rotating incredibly quickly, and firing X-rays into the universe with more regularity than even the most precise atomic clocks. And NASA wants to use them to navigate probes and crewed ships through deep space.

A telescope mounted on the International Space Station (ISS), the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER), has been used to develop a brand new technology with near-term, practical applications: a galactic positioning system, NASA scientist Zaven Arzoumanian told physicists Sunday (April 15) at the April meeting of the American Physical Society.

With this technology, “You could thread a needle to get into orbit around the moon of a disant planet instead of doing a flyby,” Arzoumian told Live Science. A galactic positioning system could also provide “a fallback, so that if a crewed mission loses contact with the Earth, they’d still have navigation systems on board that are autonomous.”

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The March for Evidence

By Rush D. Holt

The March for Science in April 2017 was a unique demonstration of concern about the role of science and engineering in society and government. More than a million people in cities and towns around the world gathered in streets, made placards and banners, and heard speakers extoling the relevance and beauty of science—and also warning of diminished influence of science in policymaking. Some have dismissed the marchers as just another interest group advocating for more government funding for their work.

But the March, as I saw it and took part in it, represented something more: a significant change in how scientists see themselves and their work. This change had been slowly developing over recent decades and is now reaching a crescendo. Plans for another March for Science tomorrow indicate that the change among scientists is real, and that last year’s march was not simply a flash in the pan.

Scientists and friends of science are excited about recent progress in almost every scientific discipline. Whether it be observations of neutron star collisions, new findings on intergenerational epigenetic changes, macroscopic quantum entanglements, or human behavior, unprecedented scientific advances abound that will improve our future. Science marchers point to science as central to improving the human condition. At the same time, they are concerned about weakening public understanding and support of scientific research and the widespread neglect of scientific evidence. These concerns brought marchers to the streets in 2017 as much as pride in scientific accomplishments.

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The Myth of ‘Learning Styles’

By Olga Khazan

In the early ‘90s, a New Zealand man named Neil Fleming decided to sort through something that had puzzled him during his time monitoring classrooms as a school inspector. In the course of watching 9,000 different classes, he noticed that only some teachers were able to reach each and every one of their students. What were they doing differently?

Fleming zeroed in on how it is that people like to be presented information. For example, when asking for directions, do you prefer to be told where to go or to have a map sketched for you?

Today, 16 questions like this comprise the vark questionnaire that Fleming developed to determine someone’s “learning style.” Vark, which stands for “Visual, Auditory, Reading, and Kinesthetic,” sorts students into those who learn best visually, through aural or heard information, through reading, or through “kinesthetic” experiences.  (“I learned much later that vark is Dutch for “pig,” Fleming wrote later, “and I could not get a website called vark.com because a pet shop in Pennsylvania used it for selling aardvarks—earth pigs!”)

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Solar Wind Lights Up Night Skies, After Bursting Through a ‘Hole’ in the Sun

By Rafi Letzter

A powerful gust of solar wind is crackling its way through Earth’s upper atmosphere yesterday (April 11), after it escaped through a large gap in the sun’s atmosphere.

The first signs of the stream of energized particles turned up Tuesday night (April 10), in the form of dramatic auroras appearing at latitudes as low as Williston, North Dakota, as seen on spaceweathergalley.com.

They followed a geomagnetic storm warning from the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center, which indicated that auroras might be visible in Alaska, much of central Canada, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, and northern fractions of Wisconsin, Michigan and Maine. Much of Scandinavia, the Shetland Islands and northern Russia could also plausibly witness geomagnetic lights in the sky.

This storm is the result of what’s called a coronal hole, which, as Live Science sister site Space.com has reported before, is a patch where the sun’s atmosphere — its corona and outermost layer — has thinned substantially. Coronal holes are actually pretty common. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory reported that three coronal holes covered wide swaths of our local star from April 3 to April 6. Such holes make it easier for solar wind to escape earthward.

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Dive-bombing hummingbirds add a twist to impress mates

By Jason Bittel

In most North American hummingbirds, males court females by diving at them head on — but Costa’s hummingbirds (Calypte costae) perform their courtship dives off to the side. Researchers now find that this strategy allows the males to aim sounds at potential mates as if they were using a megaphone.

During high-speed courtship dives, males fan their tails at the last second to create a high-pitched chirp. The faster the dive, the more those tail feathers vibrate and the higher the pitch created by the would-be Romeos. Researchers suspect that females prefer higher-pitched dives, which results in various strategies to boost the frequency of the noise a male makes.

A study1 published on 12 April in Current Biology finds that male Costa’s hummingbirds can twist half of their tail feathers in the direction of the female, manipulating the volume and pitch of their chirps (see video). The researchers suspect that the targeted noise also masks audio cues that the females can use to judge how fast the males are diving.

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Can a Pill That Boosts “Resilience” Treat Depression?

By Gary Stix

Self-help books often extoll the value of resilience. Last year one such primer—Bounce: Overcoming Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy—proclaimed: “By strengthening your inner power, your ability to handle stressful situations and your skill in persevering after setbacks threaten to fell you, you’ll develop real resilience—you’ll develop grit.”

This implies weathering adverse life events is a character trait to be cultivated. Exercising, eating right and giving yourself mental pep talks certainly may help. But neuroscientists are learning the story is not quite so simple, and that some people are likely better equipped from birth to deal with adversity. During the last 15 years discoveries about why some brains excel at resisting stress have initiated a search for new drugs to treat depression and post-traumatic stress disorder by enhancing psychological resilience. One of these compounds has now entered early-stage clinical trials.

If the drug is safe and works, it will undoubtedly encounter strong demand; depression—the world’s leading cause of mental disability—never enters full remission in more than half the patients treated with psychotherapies and existing antidepressants.

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Cutting-edge cancer drug hobbled by diagnostic test confusion

By Heidi Ledford

A landmark cancer drug approved last year seemed to herald a long-anticipated change in the treatment of some tumours: with medicines selected on the basis of molecular markers, rather than the tissue in which the cancer first took root.

But clinicians and researchers are struggling to put that theory into practice. Although the drug itself works well in a variety of tumour types, some of the tests used to identify the molecular markers, it turns out, do not.

On 15 April at the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting in Chicago, Illinois, researchers and representatives from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will discuss how best to tackle the situation. “If you get a false negative result, you’re not going to give that patient the therapy, which is terrible,” says Zsofia Stadler, an oncologist at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. “That’s why there’s such a debate.”

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Hubble space telescope captures image of most distant star ever seen

By Nicola Davis

It might look like a tiny speck amid a bejewelled vista of the universe, but scientists say a pinprick of light in an image captured by the Hubble space telescope is the most distant individual star ever seen that is not a supernova.

The team behind the find say the light was emitted from the star – dubbed Icarus but officially named MACS J1149+2223 Lensed Star 1 – when it was more than 9bn light years from Earth. Icarus is now much further away but will have died, forming either a black hole or a neutron star.

“We are looking back three-quarters of the way almost to the big bang,” said Dr Patrick Kelly, first author of the research from the University of Minnesota.

Stars at such distance are normally too faint to be identified individually, unless they explode in a supernova. But it seems a chance alignment of the heavens made Icarus visible.

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In His Haste to Roll Back Rules, Scott Pruitt, E.P.A. Chief, Risks His Agenda

By Coral Davenport and Lisa Friedman

WASHINGTON — As ethical questions threaten the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, President Trump has defended him with a persuasive conservative argument: Mr. Pruitt is doing a great job at what he was hired to do, roll back regulations.

But legal experts and White House officials say that in Mr. Pruitt’s haste to undo government rules and in his eagerness to hold high-profile political events promoting his agenda, he has often been less than rigorous in following important procedures, leading to poorly crafted legal efforts that risk being struck down in court.

The result, they say, is that the rollbacks, intended to fulfill one of the president’s central campaign pledges, may ultimately be undercut or reversed.

“In their rush to get things done, they’re failing to dot their i’s and cross their t’s. And they’re starting to stumble over a lot of trip wires,” said Richard Lazarus, a professor of environmental law at Harvard. “They’re producing a lot of short, poorly crafted rulemakings that are not likely to hold up in court.”

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Ken Ham Hits Back at Christian Geologist Who Lists 21 Reasons Why Noah’s Flood Never Happened

By Stoyan Zaimov

Young Earth Creationist and Answers in Genesis President Ken Ham has slammed an article by a Christian geologist who has listed 21 reasons why he thinks Noah’s worldwide flood account in the Bible never happened.

Ham said Monday on Facebook that the article, “Twenty-One Reasons Noah’s Worldwide Flood Never Happened,” is “sad,” because it’s not only wrong, but also because the author, Lorence G. Collins, is a professing Christian.

Ham, who’s also the president of the Ark Encounter attraction in Kentucky, takes aim at the claims made in the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry article, published in the March/April issue, which suggests that Creationists are “less imbued with scientific thinking.”

“Many Creationists love science, of course, and are quite knowledgeable,” Ham insisted, before listing the credentials of several scientists working at AiG.

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