“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” — Isaac Asimov
The space agency is trying to balance the planet’s carbon budget using satellite monitoring
Carbon dioxide, or CO2 for short. It’s simple gas that makes up a small part of our planet’s atmosphere. And yet it’s at the root of one of the biggest problems of the 21st century (that would be climate change, for the record).
NASA scientists have been keeping an eye on the movement of CO2 across land, air and sea in an effort to zero in on the changes in store for our planet.
CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere are the highest they’ve been in 400,000 years. Despite the commitments to try and rein in carbon pollution, there’s still little sign human emissions will slow anytime in the near future, let alone drop to zero.
That has the world on track to cross the symbolic atmospheric CO2 threshold of 400 parts per million (ppm) permanently this year or early next year. And it also means that the climate will continue to change leading to warmer temperatures, higher and more acidic oceans, and shifts in extreme weather.
Yet CO2 and corresponding impacts would be a lot higher if it weren’t for plants, like giant sequoias to microscopic plankton, that absorb about half of all human CO2emissions in a given year. That’s why NASA is interested in monitoring the world’s greenery or what they’ve termed the “other half” of the carbon equation.
Factors such as El Niño, drought and warm weather in the Arctic all affect how much CO2 is taken up by the natural world. Scientists are beginning to understand those, but what they’re even more curious about is how human-influenced warming could further change plants’ ability to absorb CO2.
Why the rise of death rates among Caucasians is way more complex than the pundits would have you believe.
Some critics have taken a deeper dive into a recent study looking at the rising rate of death among white, middle-aged Americans.
By now even casual observers of the news know that the rate of death among white, middle-aged Americans is rising – a trend that isn’t seen in similar countries. The news followed a widely circulated paper published online Nov. 2, and members of the media were quick to attribute the trend to several factors, from despair to a lack of social services to economic opportunity.
Pundits on both sides of the political aisle used the study to further their own narratives. From the left came the cry that this was a result of pro-business policies that have engendered a new era of income inequality. The right used the study to repeat the mantra that the decline of the prototypical, husband-wife, two-child family was to blame.
But it’s hardly that simple or singular. A closer look at the study and other surrounding data on mortality show that initial reports may have missed the mark on identifying which people are most affected by rising death rates, and that extenuating factors such as gender, educational attainment or geography may offer additional context to the headline-grabbing report.
Written by Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, the report found mortality rates for whites began rising in 1999 and continued to do so through 2013. The rise was driven by drug and alcohol overdoses, suicide, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis.
“A serious concern is that those currently in midlife will age into Medicare in worse health than the current elderly,” Case and Deaton wrote in the paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
For a whole month this year, the world’s atmosphere contained more than 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide, on average. That’s more CO2 than the atmosphere has seen for hundreds of thousands of years, and those levels just keep going up.
All that carbon in the atmosphere means hotter global temperatures and more severe weather, of course. But scientists have less of an idea of what climate change will do to the ocean—a complex, difficult-to-study realm that’s due for huge chemical and ecological shifts. And that’s worrying, because the oceans are also a big carbon sink and the source of sustenance for most life on Earth.
Some changes are pretty certain, says Charlie Stock, a climate modeler at NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab. The ocean of the future will be warmer than it is today. And its structure will also be different—less-dense warm water will stack on top of a layer of cold water, with less mixing between the two. “Ocean productivity is basically bringing together nutrients and light,” Stock says. Deeper water has more nutrients; the surface gets more light. If less often the twain shall meet, overall productivity could go down.
And a warming ocean jumbles up where animals can survive. Fish tend to follow the water that’s just the right temperature for them, so eventually, Stock says, tropical fish could end up in normally temperate waters. Some species’ habitats will get squeezed—especially animals adapted to very specific conditions at the poles. And critters at the equator have to deal with ocean temperatures that are warmer than they’re used to.
Human stem cells, in this case made from adult skin cells, can give rise to any sort of human cell. Some scientists would like to insert such cells into nonhuman, animal embryos, in hopes of one day growing human organs for transplantation. Science Source
Human stem cells, in this case made from adult skin cells, can give rise to any sort of human cell. Some scientists would like to insert such cells into nonhuman, animal embryos, in hopes of one day growing human organs for transplantation.
An intense debate has flared over whether the federal government should fund research that creates partly human creatures using human stem cells.
The National Institutes of Health declared a moratorium in late September on funding this kind of research. NIH officials said they needed to assess the science and to evaluate the ethical and moral questions it raises. As part of that assessment, the NIH is holding a daylong workshop Friday.
Meanwhile, some prominent scientists worry the NIH moratorium is hindering a highly promising field of research at a crucial moment. Such concerns prompted several researchers this week, writing in the journal Science, to call on the NIH to lift the moratorium.
“The shadow of negativity cast around this research is going to have a major negative impact on any progress going forward,” says Sean Wu, a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at Stanford University, who helped write the article.
The moratorium was prompted by an increasing number of requests to fund these experiments, says Carrie Wolinetz, the NIH’s associate director for science policy. In the experiments, scientists propose to insert human stem cells into very early embryos from other animals, creating dual-species chimeras.
Dr. Ian Crozier survived Ebola, only to have his normally blue left eye turn green because of inflammation. Though the rest of his body was Ebola-free, his eye was teeming with the virus.
Emory Eye Center
“If there’s anything that this outbreak has taught me, it’s that I’m often wrong,” says Dr. Daniel Bausch.
He’s talking about Ebola. He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the virus — an infectious disease specialist at Tulane University and a senior consultant to the World Health Organization.
And as he makes clear, he’s still got a lot to learn.
The virus came roaring back into headlines this past week. A Scottish nurse who survived Ebola is back in isolation in London, being “treated for Ebola,” according tothe Royal Free Hospital. The hospital says the patient’s “condition has deteriorated and she is now critically ill.”
And two new research papers found that the virus can live in a male survivor’s semen for up to nine months, and that one man passed it to his sexual partner months after he was released from the Ebola ward.
“If you look back at the classic teaching about Ebola and survivors, it was that once you get better from this disease, even though it may take a while to recover, you made a full recovery and that kind of was the end of it,” says Bausch.
And now, with an estimated 17,000 survivors, researchers are discovering all kinds of twists and turns. The semen study is particularly puzzling to Ilhem Messaoudi.
“It’s an explosive virus. It replicates like crazy … and it destroys everything in its path,” says Messaoudi, a viral immunologist and professor of biomedical sciences at the University of California, Riverside, who is studying how the virus works in the human body. “So, how is it just hanging out in the testes for like nine months?”
There hasn’t been much research — in animals or humans — about what happens after survival. What we do know is mostly from past outbreaks of the virus, in particular, two studies looking at past survivors of the disease and comparing their health to Ebola-free friends and family.
Research on 19 survivors of a 1995 outbreak in Kikwit in the Democratic Republic of the Congo found that most had joint pain and vision problems after the virus. One lost sight. Studies from the 1970s and 1980s had, like recent research, found the virus persisting in the semen and eyes of survivors.
Researchers following 49 survivors of a 2007 Ebola outbreak in Uganda found that— even two years after the illness — they had eye problems like inflammation and blurred vision as well as joint pain, difficulty sleeping, difficulty swallowing and even hearing loss, memory loss and confusion.
A third study examining 105 survivors of the 2014-15 outbreak in Guinea found that about 90 percent had chronic joint pain and 98 percent had poor appetites or an aversion to food. They also reported difficulty with short-term memory, headaches, sleeplessness, insomnia, dizziness, abdominal pain, constipation, sexual dysfunction, and decreased libido and exercise tolerance.
Bausch says, aside from arthritis and eye inflammation, it’s still unclear which issues are directly related to the Ebola virus and which could be caused by the physical and emotional toll on the body. But something is going on.
“It’s clear that there is a post-Ebola syndrome,” he says.
Can we, as adults, grow new neurons? Neuroscientist Sandrine Thuret says that we can, and she offers research and practical advice on how we can help our brains better perform neurogenesis—improving mood, increasing memory formation and preventing the decline associated with aging along the way.
If the announcement itself was cool enough, the messenger turned out to be pretty funky, too.
Lujendra Ojha, a postgraduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology who made the discovery, is a Nepalese-born former heavy metal guitarist who is helping to change the public perception of a space agency geek.
Visitors to his personal website are greeted with an old photograph of a long-haired Ojha on stage and at the microphone with his death metal band Gorkha. Yet having chosen several years ago to pursue his studies in planetary science over a career in music, Ojha, 25, is still a rock star… as one of a generation of new “outsourced” young scientists helping to change the way the space agency presents its work in the social media era.
“You don’t have to have thick glasses and a skinny tie to be a Nasa scientist like back in the 1960s,” said Casey Dreier, director of advocacy at the Planetary Society. “You can be a guitarist; you can have all kinds of backgrounds to be included in space these days.”
For Nasa, which has increasingly embraced new media forms including Facebook and Twitter in recent years as it has sought to widen its appeal, colourful characters such as Ojha are a gift. Rocket engineer Bobak Ferdowski became an overnight sensation in 2012 as Nasa’s “Mohawk Guy”, his unorthodox haircut and bright clothes in mission control bringing extra welcome attention to the televised landing of the Mars Curiosity Rover.
Ojha’s position as one of a team of nine researchers funded, but not directly employed, by Nasa, also shines a spotlight on how the publicly funded federal agency pays for and conducts most of its science research through external contracts and arrangements.
While analysts, including Dreier, say there is nothing new in third-party partnerships – like the Georgia Tech-led study that brought the Mars water flow to prominence this week, and the work of astrophysicists at Johns Hopkins University that resulted in stunning close-up images of Pluto this summer from the New Horizons spacecraft – their importance to Nasa has never been greater.
“Nasa’s responsibility has increased as funding has diminished,” he said. “It’s a recurring joke around Nasa that they’re always having to pack 20lbs of ignition into a ten-pound bag.”
Budgetary wrangles have been a constant issue for Nasa since the years following the Apollo moon landings of the 1960s, when the space race accounted for almost 4.5% of the US federal budget. Funding has shrunk annually in real terms, and for 2016, President Obama has asked Congress to approve a budget of $18.5bn, half a percentage point of national spending and $4bn less than Americans spent on pet food last year.
Some space experts see Nasa’s recent public relations offensive as directly related to its need to secure future funding for the Mars programme, which includes the goal of manned exploration during the 2030s. Describing this week’s water-on-Mars announcement as the solving of a mystery, as Nasa did before its press conference, was “over-hyping”, according to John Logsden, a retired director of the Space Policy Institute and former member of Nasa’s advisory council.
“Preparing for humans-to-Mars is the rationale for Nasa’s human spaceflight programme, so in order to have the public support needed to sustain the programme, they fall into the long-established pattern of overselling,” he told the Washington Post. “The issue is whether the next president provides the startup funding for the next pieces of hardware that are required to do this. And at what point do we stop spending $3bn a year on the space station?”
Dreier, who coauthors his society’s monthly Planetary Report, agrees that finding the money for Mars, and the heavy-lift Space Launch System rockets and Orion capsules that will be needed to get there one day, will be an ongoing headache as Nasa’s administrator, former astronaut Charles Bolden, and senior leadership try to plot the course forward.
“Bolden has done a good job in turbulent political times,” he said. “It’s amazing what they do for the money they spend. Everything we’ve learned about Mars comes from 10% of the budget.
“In Congress, the biggest battles have been over earth science and commercial crew, endless back-and-forth over that. Then there’s SLS and Orion. It tells me that Nasa is being asked to do too much by the nation and isn’t given enough resources to be successful.
“It’s not like the 60s when the president shows up and says what he wants Nasa to do and doubles the budget two years in a row. We have to realise there’s no Kennedy moment coming up,” he added, referring to John F Kennedy’s game-changing 1962 speech at Rice University in Texas, during which he revealed the country’s commitment to a moon landing.
Essentially, according to Dr Mason Peck, Nasa’s former chief technologist and now a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University, the eventual success of Nasa’s Mars endeavour relies on the pulling together of several key components. He said there needed to be the political will in Washington to see the job done combined with Nasa continuing to expand its scientific knowledge and develop new technologies with partners such as Ojha and his university team.
“You need experts to make science work, and that cannot reside within a few big Nasa centres around the country,” he said. “To be successful requires the will of the nation. There were some good people who put together Apollo, the same age then as today’s scientists are now. If Nasa was to stop doing the things that amaze us, then what’s the point?”