Medicine

Noninvasive Radiation Therapy Halts Deadly Heart Rhythm (nytimes.com) 14

schwit1 shares a report from The New York Times (Warning: source may be paywalled; alternative source): The patients were gravely ill, their hearts scarred by infections or heart attacks. In each, the electrical system that maintains a regular heartbeat had been short-circuited. They suffered frequent bursts of rapid heartbeats, which can end in sudden death. The condition kills an estimated 325,000 Americans each year, the most common cause of death in this country. And these people had exhausted all conventional treatments. So researchers at Washington University in St. Louis offered the patients something experimental: short bursts of radiation aimed at their hearts in an effort to obliterate the cells that were causing the electrical malfunctions. Results in the first five patients were published on Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, and the experiment seems to have worked -- offering hope to similar patients everywhere who have had no alternatives except a heart transplant. The treatment requires weeks to take full effect, so it cannot be used for cardiac patients who need immediate help. And the method must be studied in larger groups of patients over longer times, an effort that has already begun.
Google

NASA, Google Spot Eighth Planet in Solar System Rivaling Ours (cnet.com) 53

An anonymous reader shares a report: Google isn't just good for finding cat videos on the internet. The search giant's machine learning technology is also helping search the universe for planets outside our solar system. NASA on Thursday revealed the discovery of blazing-hot exoplanet Kepler-90i thanks to the use of a Google neural network trained to identify planets from the NASA Kepler space telescope's data. It's the eighth planet discovered in the Kepler-90 system, which ties it with our own solar system for the most known planets around a single star. Kepler-90 is a sun-like star located around 2,545 light-years from us.
Space

Space Is Not a Void (slate.com) 208

An anonymous reader shares an article: When President Kennedy announced the Apollo Program, he famously argued that we should go to the moon because it is hard. Solving the technical challenges of space travel is a kind of civilizational achievement on its own, like resolving an interplanetary Rubik's Cube. The argument worked, perhaps all too well. As soon as we landed on the moon, humanity's expansion into the cosmos slowed and then stopped (not counting robots). If you were to draw a graph charting the farthest distance a human being has ever been from the surface of Earth, the peak was in 1970 with Apollo 13. With the successful moon landings, we solved all of the fundamental challenges involved in launching humans into orbit and bringing them back safely. The people watching those early feats of exploration imagined we would soon be sending astronauts to Mars and beyond, but something has held us back. Not know-how, or even money, but a certain lack of imagination. Getting to space isn't the hard part -- the hard part is figuring out why we're there. Sure, we can celebrate the human spirit and the first person to do this or that, but that kind of achievement never moves beyond the symbolic. It doesn't build industries, establish settlements and scientific research stations, or scale up solutions from expensive one-offs to mass production. Furthermore, as five decades of failing to go farther than our own moon have demonstrated, that kind of symbolism can't even sustain itself, much less energize new activity.
Power

Solar Power and Batteries Are Encroaching On Natural Gas In Energy Production (electrek.co) 155

Socguy writes: The relentless downward march in cost of both solar and battery storage is poised to displace 10GW worth of natural gas peaker plant electricity production in the U.S. by 2027. Already we are seeing the net cost of combined solar and batteries cheaper than the equivalent natural gas peaker plant. Some particularly aggressive estimates from major energy companies predict that we may not see another natural gas peaker plant built in the U.S. after 2020. GE has already responded to the weakness in the gas turbine market by laying off 12,000 workers. Further reading available via Greentech Media.
Science

The Environmental Cost of Internet Porn (theatlantic.com) 289

An anonymous reader shares a report (condensed for space): Online streaming is a win for the environment. Streaming music eliminates all that physical material -- CDs, jewel cases, cellophane, shipping boxes, fuel -- and can reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 40 percent or more. Scientists who analyze the environmental impact of the internet tout the benefits of this "dematerialization," observing that energy use and carbon-dioxide emissions will drop as media increasingly can be delivered over the internet. But this theory might have a major exception: porn. Since the turn of the century, the pornography industry has experienced two intense hikes in popularity. In the early 2000s, broadband enabled higher download speeds. Then, in 2008, the advent of so-called tube sites allowed users to watch clips for free, like people watch videos on YouTube. Adam Grayson, the chief financial officer of the adult company Evil Angel, calls the latter hike "the great mushroom-cloud porn explosion of 2008." Precise numbers don't exist to quantify specifics, but the impression across the industry is that viewership is way, way up. Pornhub, the world's most popular porn site, provides some of the only accessible data on its yearly web-traffic report. The first Year In Review post in 2013 tabulated that 14.7 billion people visited the site. By 2016, the number of visitors had almost doubled, to 23 billion, and those visitors watched more than 4.59 billion hours of porn. And Pornhub is just one site. Using a formula that Netflix published on its blog in 2015, Nathan Ensmenger, a professor at Indiana University who is writing a book about the environmental history of the computer, calculates that if Pornhub streams video as efficiently as Netflix (0.0013 kWh per streaming hour), it used 5.967 million kWh in 2016. For comparison, that's about the same amount of energy 11,000 light bulbs would use if left on for a year. And operating with Netflix's efficiency would be a best-case scenario for the porn site, Ensmenger believes.
Education

Universities Spend Millions on Accessing Results of Publicly Funded Research (theconversation.com) 75

Mark C. Wilson, a senior lecturer at Department of Computer Science, University of Auckland, writing for The Conversation: University research is generally funded from the public purse. The results, however, are published in peer-reviewed academic journals, many of which charge subscription fees. I had to use freedom of information laws to determine how much universities in New Zealand spend on journal subscriptions to give researchers and students access to the latest research -- and I found they paid almost US$15 million last year to just four publishers. There are additional costs, too. Paywalls on research hold up scientific progress and limit the publicâ(TM)s access to the latest information.
Space

Why Meteoroids Explode Before Hitting the Earth (qz.com) 57

According to a new study from Purdue University, scientists have figured out why meteoroids explode before hitting the Earth. "The research, published in the December issue of the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science, shows that as meteoroids plunge, the high-pressure air they push against find its way into the objects' pores and cracks, forcing their bodies apart from the inside," reports Quartz. "The result is a kind of detonation that looks like an explosion." From the report: To explain the astrophysics, researchers focused their work on a widely viewed February 2013 meteoroid explosion place over Chelyabinsk, Russia, a city of 1.1 million north of the Kazakhstan border. Researchers ran a computer program that allowed for them to simulate what happened to the meteoroid in the atmosphere. "Our simulations reveal a previously unrecognized process in which the penetration of high-pressure air into the body of the meteoroid greatly enhances the deformation and facilitates the breakup of meteoroids similar to the size of Chelyabinsk," the study states. The researchers added that while the air pressure is effective at breaking apart small meteoroids, larger ones would likely withstand the force as they come to Earth.
Politics

Paris Summit Finds New Money, Tech To Fight Climate Change (apnews.com) 203

An anonymous reader shares an Associated Press report: World leaders, investment funds and energy magnates promised Tuesday to devote new money and technology to slow global warming at a summit in Paris that President Emmanuel Macron hopes will rev up the Paris climate accord that U.S. President Donald Trump has rejected. Trump wasn't invited to the event but his name was everywhere. One by one, top world diplomats, former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, business leaders like Michael Bloomberg and even former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry insisted that the world will shift to cleaner fuels and reduce emissions regardless of whether the Trump administration pitches in or not. Central to Tuesday's summit was countering Trump's main argument that the 2015 Paris accord on reducing global emissions would hurt U.S. business. Macron, a 39-year-old former investment banker, argues that the big businesses and successful economies of the future will be making and using renewable energy instead of pumping oil. Macron's office announced a dozen international projects emerging from the summit that will inject hundreds of millions of dollars in efforts to curb climate change. "The United States did not drop out of the Paris agreement. Donald Trump got Donald Trump out of the Paris agreement," Schwarzenegger said. The projects also aim to speed up the end of the combustion engine to reduce the emissions that contribute to global warming. With that aim, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim announced that his agency would stop financing oil and gas projects in two years, except in special circumstances for very poor nations.
Sci-Fi

Ask Slashdot: What Is Your View On UFO Sightings? 383

dryriver writes: UFOs sightings have been reported in the tens of thousands over the last decades. In the past, some have seen flying cigar-shaped craft (blimps?), some flying triangles, some more rounded-looking flying saucers. Often the apparent spacecraft does something improbable like standing completely still in the sky and then shooting off to somewhere at an incredible speed. Some sightings are just lights or light formations flying around or dancing around in the night sky -- which could be military aircraft like helicopters and F16s training at night. There seem to be people who genuinely see stuff that is hard to explain, people who fake UFO sightings, photos and videos for profit to keep the "UFO industry" of websites, radio shows and magazines afloat, and yet others that think a regular airplane flying at night with its lights on is a UFO. What is your view on all this? Are we being visited from outer space? Is it prototype aircraft that look like UFOs to the untrained eye? Was some 190 IQ inventor-prankster having fun with quadcopter drones with colored lights four decades before quadcopters became a thing (hey, tons of people have created fake crop-circles in the past)? Where do all these supposed UFO sightings and reports come from? Did events like the famous "Battle Of Los Angeles" actually happen? And do you find any UFO reports credible at all?
Medicine

Synthetic DNA-Based Drug Is First To Slow Progress of Huntington's Disease (theguardian.com) 35

John.Banister writes: The Guardian reports of early success in the trial of a synthetic DNA based drug, Ionis-HTTRx, at University College London's Huntington's Disease Center. Bionews explains that this gene silencing drug binds to the RNA transcript of the faulty huntingtin gene, triggering its destruction before it can go on to make the huntingtin protein. There's much excited speculation that the same technique could be used for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, once people know which genes to target. "The trial involved 46 men and women with early stage Huntington's disease in the UK, Germany and Canada," reports The Guardian. "The patients were given four spinal injections one month apart and the drug dose was increased at each session; roughly a quarter of participants had a placebo injection. After being given the drug, the concentration of harmful protein in the spinal cord fluid dropped significantly and in proportion with the strength of the dose. This kind of closely matched relationship normally indicates a drug is having a powerful effect."
NASA

President Trump Is Sending NASA Back To The Moon (npr.org) 306

President Trump has formally told NASA to send U.S. astronauts back to the moon. From a report: "The directive I'm signing today will refocus America's space program on human exploration and discovery," he said. Standing at the president's side as he signed "Space Policy Directive 1" on Monday was Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, one of the last two humans to ever walk on the moon, in a mission that took place 45 years ago this week. Since that time, no human has ventured out beyond low-Earth orbit. NASA doesn't even have its own space vehicle, having retired the space shuttles in 2011. Americans currently ride up to the international space station in Russian capsules, though private space taxis are expected to start ferrying them up as soon as next year.
NASA

Google's Machine Learning Is Analyzing Data From NASA's Kepler Space Telescope (nasa.gov) 27

NASA writes: NASA will host a media teleconference at 1 p.m. EST Thursday, Dec. 14, to announce the latest discovery made by its planet-hunting Kepler space telescope. The discovery was made by researchers using machine learning from Google. Machine learning is an approach to artificial intelligence, and demonstrates new ways of analyzing Kepler data... When Kepler launched in March 2009, scientists didn't know how common planets were beyond our solar system. Thanks to Kepler's treasure trove of discoveries, astronomers now believe there may be at least one planet orbiting every star in the sky.
Space.com adds: Kepler spots alien worlds by noticing the tiny brightness dips they cause when they cross the face of their host star from the spacecraft's perspective. Kepler is the most accomplished planet hunter in history. It has found more than 2,500 confirmed alien worlds -- about 70 percent of all known exoplanets -- along with a roughly equal number of "candidates" that await confirmation by follow-up observations or analyses. The vast majority of these discoveries have come via observations that Kepler made during its original mission, which ran from 2009 to 2013. Study of these data sets is ongoing; over the past few years, researchers have used improved analysis techniques to spot many exoplanets in data that Kepler gathered a half-decade ago or more.
Space.com describes Thursday's announcement as an exoplanet discovery. (Earlier they reported on the discovery of "a possibly habitable alien world" about 2.2 times the size of earth orbiting a dwarf star "within the range of distances where liquid water could exist on a world's surface".)

Slashdot reader schwit1 points out that other less-credible sites speculate NASA's announcement will be "a major discovery about life beyond earth."
Medicine

Researchers Say Human Lifespans Have Already Hit Their Peak (newsweek.com) 246

An anonymous reader quotes Newsweek: We have reached our peak in terms of lifespan, athletic performance and height, according to a new survey of research and historical records... "These traits no longer increase, despite further continuous nutritional, medical, and scientific progress," said Jean-FranÃois Toussaint, a physiologist at Paris Descartes University, France, in a press release... For the study, published in the journal Frontiers in Physiology, a team of French scientists, including Toussaint, from a range of fields analyzed 120 years' worth of historical records and previous research to gauge the varying pace of changes seen in human athletic performance, human lifespan and human height. While, as they observe, the 20th century saw a surge in improvements in all three areas that mirrored industrial, medical and scientific advances, the pace of those advances has slowed significantly in recent years.

The team looked at world records in a variety of sports, including running, swimming, skating, cycling and weight-lifting. Olympic athletes in those sports continually toppled records by impressive margins from the early 1900s to the end of the 20th century, according the study. But since then, Olympic records have shown just incremental improvements. We have stopped not only getting faster and stronger, according to the study, but also growing taller... [D]ata from the last three decades suggest that heights have plateaued among high-income countries in North America and Europe... As for our human lifespan, life expectancy in high-income countries rose by about 30 years from 1900 to 2000, according to a National Institutes of Health study cited by the authors, thanks to better nutrition, hygiene, vaccines and other medical improvements. But we may have maxed out our biological limit for longevity. The researchers found that in many human populations, says Toussaint, "it's more and more difficult to show progress in lifespan despite the advances of science."

Space

New Satellite Experiment Helps Confirm Einstein's Equivalence Principle (presse.cnes.fr) 71

Part of Einstein's theory of general relativity posits that gravity equals inertial mass -- and for the first time in 10 years, there's new evidence that he's right. Slashdot reader orsayman reports: Most stories around space today seem to revolve around SpaceX, but let's not forget that space is also a place for cool physics experiments. One such experiment currently running into low orbit is the MICROSCOPE satellite launched in 2016 to test the (weak) Equivalence Principle (also knows as the universality of free fall) a central hypothesis in General Relativity.

The first results confirm the principle with a precision ten times better than previous experiments. And it's just the beginning since they hope to increase the precision by another factor of 10. If the Equivalence Principle is still verified at this precision, this could constrain or invalidate some quantum gravity theories. For those of you who are more satellite-science oriented, the satellite also features an innovative "self destruct" mechanism (meant to limit orbit pollution) based on inflatable structures described in this paper.

"The science phase of the mission began in December 2016," reports France's space agency, "and has already collected data from 1,900 orbits, the equivalent of a free fall of 85 million kilometres or half the Earth-Sun distance."
Books

Reading Information Aloud To Yourself Improves Memory (qz.com) 54

According to a study in the journal Memory, reading aloud works by creating a "production effect" which cements information in your memory. Meanwhile, hearing words said in your own voice personalizes the references and enhances recollection, according to psychology professor Colin MacLeod and researchers from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. Quartz reports: The findings are based on a study of 95 students (75 of whom returned for a second session) at the University of Waterloo. The students were tested on their ability to recall written information inputted in four different ways -- reading silently, hearing someone else read, listening to a recording of oneself reading, and reading aloud in real time. They were tested on recollection of short, four-to-six letter words on a list of 160 terms. The results show that reading information aloud to oneself led to the best recall. Oral production is effective because it has two distinctive components, a motor or speech act and a personal auditory input, the researchers explain. "[The] results suggest that production is memorable in part because it includes a distinctive, self-referential component. This may well underlie why rehearsal is so valuable in learning and remembering," the study concludes. "We do it ourselves, and we do it in our own voice. When it comes time to recover the information, we can use this distinctive component to help us to remember."

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