April 8, 2019

  • Would bringing back extinct animals turn out as badly as it did in ‘Jurassic Park’?

    X6WD2PSURAI6TDXT7PKBULHE2U(Illustration by Hisham Akira Bharoocha for The Washington Post Magazine)

    By Jason Nark of the Washington Post

    April 1

    On a frigid January night, a Harvard genetics professor with a billowing white beard stood stage left in a theater on Manhattan's Upper East Side, an icon of the environmentalist movement in a fleece vest beside him. Both men were staring down a toothy problem: How could they convince their counterparts on the stage, along with the 300 people who'd filed into Hunter College's Kaye Playhouse for a debate, that the world should bring back velociraptors or, at the very least, an extinct pigeon?

    Click here for the complete story:

April 7, 2019

  • A Japanese spacecraft just bombed an asteroid

    Screen Shot 2019-04-07 at 7.52.14 AMThe Asteroid Ryugu seen by Hayabusa2 in September 2018. Photo: JAXA

    by Miriam Kramer of New Scientist

    Japan's Hayabusa2 spacecraft successfully sent a bomb down to the surface of Asteroid Ryugu on Thursday, paving the way for scientific studies of the space rock's interior.

    Why it matters: If the bomb did explode as expected, creating an artificial crater on the asteroid, scientists will be able to get a sense of what the rock is comprised of beyond just its irradiated surface. If the area is deemed safe, Hayabusa2 will move in to possibly land at or near the site of the artificial crater to collect a sample of the blasted material for eventual return to Earth next year.

    Details: In order to protect the mothership from the blast, Hayabusa2 flew behind the asteroid after dropping the copper bomb, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), but a secondary camera was deployed in order to check out the moment the experiment — called the Small Carry-on Impactor (SCI) — went off.

    Background: Hayabusa2 has been studying asteroid Ryugu since last year, after launching to the space rock in 2014. The hardworking space probe already collected one sample of the asteroid in February and made history in 2018 when it sent robotic probes to the surface. The spacecraft is designed to help scientists learn more about the origins of the solar system as asteroids are thought to be bits of debris left behind after the formation of the planets.

April 5, 2019

  • A dead planet is orbiting a dead sun in a distant dead solar system

    Screen Shot 2019-04-05 at 7.31.16 AM

    The whoosh of a dying worldUniversity of Warwick/Mark Garlick

    By Yvaine Ye of New Scientist

    A piece of a planet that survived the cataclysmic explosion of its star has been spotted orbiting the stellar corpse. This gives us a glimpse of what our solar system may look like when the sun dies.

    Christopher Manser at the University of Warwick in Coventry, UK, and his colleagues noticed something unusual when they were observing a white dwarf — the remnant of a star that has consumed all of its fuel — 400 light years away.

    The team were looking at a dusty ring around the star thought to be formed from planets destroyed when the dying star exploded in a supernova. They detected a fluctuation in the wavelength of the light emitted by the dust. The signal repeated every two hours, suggesting there was a moving stream of gas in the ring, orbiting the white dwarf rapidly.

    Although the team is unable to see the source of the gas because it is small and faint, Manser says it is probably a solid object like an asteroid or a piece of a planet. It may have a radius of 400 kilometres, almost as big as that of Ceres, the largest asteroid in our solar system. It is probably producing gas as it sublimes or collides with dust particles as it whirls around the white dwarf.

    Moreover, the object is very close to the white dwarf because it completes a full orbit every two hours – if it was in the same orbit in our solar system, it would be inside the sun, Manser says.

    That means it must be very dense and perhaps made of iron or other heavy metals to prevent it from being torn apart by the white dwarf’s gravity, he says.

    “Most rocky planets in our galaxy are also composed of the same elements,” says Ben Zuckerman at the University of California, Los Angeles. So he suggests that planets in our solar system could share the same fate.

    It is thought that our sun will die in about five billion years, and Mercury, Venus and Earth will almost certainly be engulfed in the explosion, but Mars, which is further from the sun, may survive and continue to orbit the remains.

April 4, 2019

  • Humans must learn to tackle what robots can't


    As powerful as artificial intelligence can be, its abilities are extremely narrow: An AI that beats a chess grandmaster can't recognize a face or drive a car. And a robot that carries out flawless eye surgery can't do so unless positioned precisely first.

    Why it matters: It turns out that humans have a similar failingput them in front of a problem they've never solved, and they often come up short. But in the future of work, when automation assumes responsibility for up to half or more of current jobs, such ability will be a huge human advantage — and possibly necessary.

    What's happening: U.S. colleges, preparing students for future jobs that might not yet even exist — and to beat the robots — are starting to nudge them out of the familiar rhythm of class and teach them how to tackle unfamiliar problems. "That is the skill of the future," says David Hollander, a professor at NYU.

    The big picture: One of the greatest anxieties experienced by today's college and high school students is how to game a very different future whose shape is still all-but imperceptible, but that will involve lots of automation across blue- and white-collar jobs.

    • The good news is that, according to the preliminary consensus, robots will have an extremely difficult time mimicking the very human ability to pivot both physically and mentally when confronted with something surprising.
    • So early preparation for the future revolves around developing, polishing and expanding on this adaptability.
    • Soft skills "are the hardest skills to get," says Marina Gorbis, executive director of the Institute for the Future. "It takes a lot of human contact; it takes a lot of reasoning."

    Hollander designed and oversees a seminar at NYU that is meant to make this pivoting skill much more advanced. In the "Real World," as he calls the class, Hollander invites companies and government agencies into the classroom to confront students with problems they definitely will never have seen.

    • "You may be from the real estate world and working on a marketing problem. You may be from marketing and solving a human resources challenge. To me it's all the same thing," Hollander told me.
    • "You are developing the skills of taking on something you have never seen before, and you must do it collaboratively with other human beings."
    • "College prepares students for the first five minutes after graduation. But what about the next 50 years?"

    I visited the class on Monday. Fifteen students gathered along with their professor — Jonathan Yi, a film director and cinematographer whom Hollander recruited to teach this semester — at the headquarters of FCB International, a fancy advertising agency in Manhattan.

    Their challenge: To design an anti-vaping ad campaign for the Food & Drug Administration, targeted at teens. The FDA is one of the firm's clients.

    • "We want crazy ideas," Jared Shell, an FCB director who was co-teaching with Yi, told the students.

    For his first pitch, Leon Zhang, a graduate marketing student, suggested an ad showing how much money teens spend on Juul and Juul pods. But Shell and another FCB director said it wouldn't work because the FDA wants to avoid publicizing that teens are buying these products illegally.

    • "You learn the politics of it," said Maria Rychkova, one of Zhang's teammates.

    Zhang and his teammates then honed in on ewaste, the electronic trash generated by vaping. Tossing used Juul pods is not the same as littering cigarette butts, they told me. The former has metal bits that could seriously harm a dog that eats it while on a walk. But the team is not yet sure if they'll settle on that.

    • Still, Shell was impressed. “If you guys don’t want to use that environment thing, I'll take that to our creative team right now," he told them.
    • Shell said he "absolutely" expects to hire some of the students once they graduate.

    Go deeper: Rebooting high school

April 3, 2019

  • Fossils show worldwide catastrophe on the day the dinosaurs died

    7G77332RCVBEHDPW7DLH2JMC2MA tangled mass of fish from the deposit in North Dakota's Hell Creek formation. (Robert DePalma)

    Sixty-six million years ago, a massive asteroid crashed into a shallow sea near Mexico. The impact carved out a 90-mile-wide crater and flung mountains of earth into space. Earthbound debris fell to the planet in droplets of molten rock and glass.

    Ancient fish caught glass blobs in their gills as they swam, gape-mouthed, beneath the strange rain. Large, sloshing waves threw animals onto dry land, then more waves buried them in silt. Scientists working in North Dakota recently dug up fossils of these fish: They died within the first minutes or hours after the asteroid hit, according to a paper published Friday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a discovery that has sparked tremendous excitement among paleontologists.

    “You’re going back to the day that the dinosaurs died,” said Timothy Bralower, a Pennsylvania State University paleoceanographer who is studying the impact crater and was not involved with this work. “That’s what this is. This is the day the dinosaurs died.”

    About 3 in 4 species perished in what is called the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction, also known as the K-Pg event or K-T extinction. The killer asteroid most famously claimed the dinosaurs. But the T. rex and the triceratops were joined by hordes of other living things. Freshwater and marine creatures were victims, as were plants and microorganisms, including 93 percent of plankton. (A lone branch of dinosaurs, the birds, lives on.)

    Four decades of research buttresses the asteroid extinction theory, widely embraced as the most plausible explanation for the disappearance of dinosaurs. In the late 1970s, Luis and Walter Alvarez, a father-son scientist duo at the University of California at Berkeley, examined an unusual geologic layer between the Cretaceous and Paleogene periods. The boundary was full of the element iridium, which is rare in Earth’s crust but not in asteroids. Walter Alvarez is one of the authors of the new study.

    The Hell Creek fossils represent “the first mass death assemblage of large organisms anyone has found” that sits at the K-Pg boundary, study author Robert DePalma said in a statement.

    DePalma, a doctoral student at the University of Kansas, began excavating the site at North Dakota’s Hell Creek formation in 2013. Since then, DePalma and other paleontologists have found heaps of fossilized sturgeon and paddlefish with glass spheres still in their gills.

    They found squidlike animals called ammonites, shark teeth and the remains of predatory aquatic lizards called mosasaurs. They found dead mammals, insects, trees and a triceratops. They found foot-long fossil feathers, dinosaur tracks and prehistoric mammal burrows. They found fossilized tree gunk called amber that had captured the glass spheres, too.

    The site has “all the trademark signals from the Chicxulub impact,” Bralower said, including the glass beads and lots of iridium. In the geologic layer just above the fossil deposit, ferns dominate, the signs of a recovering ecosystem. “It’s spellbinding,” he said.

    In the early 1990s, researchers found the scar left by the asteroid — a crater in the Yucatan Peninsula. The impact was named after the nearby Mexican town of Chicxulub. Suggested “kill mechanisms” for the Chicxulub impact abound: It may have poisoned the planet with heavy metals, turned the ocean to acid, shrouded Earth in darkness or ignited global firestorms. Its punch may have triggered volcanoes that spewed like shaken soda cans.

    Hell Creek is more than 2,000 miles from the Chicxulub crater. But a hail of glass beads, called tektites, rained there within 15 minutes of the impact, said study author Jan Smit, a paleontologist at Vrije University in Amsterdam who also was an early discoverer of iridium at the K-Pg boundary.

    The fish, pressed in the mud like flowers in a diary, are remarkably well-preserved. “It’s the equivalent of finding people in life positions buried by ash after Pompeii,” Bralower said.

    At the time of the dinosaurs, the Hell Creek site was a river valley. The river fed into an inland sea that connected the Arctic Ocean to a prehistoric Gulf of Mexico. After the asteroid struck, seismic waves from a magnitude 10 to 11 earthquake rippled through this sea, according to the study authors.

    This caused not a tsunami but what’s known as seiche waves, the back-and-forth sloshes sometimes seen in miniature in a bathtub. These can be symptoms of very distant tremors — such as the seiche waves that churned in Norwegian fjords in 2011 after the giant Tohoku earthquake near Japan.

    Seiche waves from the inland sea reached 30 feet, drowning the river valley in a pulse of water, gravel and sand. The rain of rocks and glass followed. The tektites dug “small funnels in the sediment laid down by the seiche,” Smit said, “so you know for sure they are coming down when the waves are still running upriver.” This is preservation, in other words, of a fresh hell.

  • Star Clusters

    Screen Shot 2019-04-03 at 7.52.32 AM                               Open Cluster...in the plane of a galaxy    Closed Cluster...in the halo of a galaxy

  • The largest of its kind(A Globular Cluster)

    The largest of its kind

    Star clusters are commonly featured in cosmic photoshoots, and are also well-loved by the keen eye of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. These large gatherings of celestial gems are striking sights — and the subject of this Picture of the WeekMessier 2, is certainly no exception.

    Messier 2 is located in the constellation of Aquarius (The Water-Bearer), about 55 000 light-years away. It is a globular cluster, a spherical group of stars all tightly bound together by gravity. With a diameter of roughly 175 light-years, a population of 150 000 stars, and an age of 13 billion years, Messier 2 is one of the largest clusters of its kind and one of the oldest associated with the Milky Way.

    Most of the cluster’s mass is concentrated at its centre, with shimmering streams of stars extending outwards into space. It is bright enough that it can even be seen with the naked eye when observing conditions are extremely good.


    ESA/Hubble & NASA, G. Piotto et al.

April 1, 2019

  • The 5 biggest physics questions that LIGO's reboot could soon answer


    LIGO gets back to work

    LIGO, the US observatory that announced the first detection of gravitational waves in 2016 , will be switched on again today after upgrades that will increase its sensitivity by 40 per cent. It will now be able to survey an even larger volume of space for wave-making events such as collisions between black holes. Astrophysicists hope the resulting torrent of data will give us answers to some big questions, such as how do black holes pair up; what is inside a neutron star; and can we see inside a supernova?

March 29, 2019