Stephen Hawking, Who Examined the Universe and Explained Black Holes, Dies at 76 ( 305

Stephen W. Hawking, the Cambridge University physicist and best-selling author who roamed the cosmos from a wheelchair, pondering the nature of gravity and the origin of the universe and becoming an emblem of human determination and curiosity, has died at his home in Cambridge, England. He was 76. From a report: A family spokesman announced the death in a statement to several news media outlets. "Not since Albert Einstein has a scientist so captured the public imagination and endeared himself to tens of millions of people around the world," Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York, said in an interview. Dr. Hawking did that largely through his book "A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes," published in 1988. It has sold more than 10 million copies and inspired a documentary film by Errol Morris.

The 2014 film about his life, "The Theory of Everything," was nominated for several Academy Awards and Eddie Redmayne, who played Dr. Hawking, won the best-actor Oscar. Scientifically, Dr. Hawking will be best remembered for a discovery so strange that it might be expressed in the form of a Zen koan: When is a black hole not black? When it explodes.
A brief history of Stephen Hawking: A legacy of paradox.

China's Anti-Pollution Initiative Produces Stellar Results ( 84

hackingbear writes: China has declared war on its pollution -- one of the worst on the planet -- and now appears to be winning. Popular Mechanics reports: "Over the past four years, pollution in China's major cities has decreased by an average of 32 percent, with some cities seeing an even bigger drop, according to professor Michael Greenstone of the Energy Policy Institute. This decline comes after several aggressive policies implemented by the Chinese government, including prohibiting the building of new coal plants, forcing existing plants to reduce their emissions, lowering the amount of automobile traffic, and closing down some steel mills and coal mines. Some cities, like Beijing, have achieved even greater reductions in air pollution. Beijing has seen a 35 percent drop in particulates, while the city of Shijiazhuang saw a 39 percent drop. China has prioritized pollution reduction in these cities, with the government spending over $120 billion in Beijing alone."

Media Reports About a Massive Geomagnetic Storm Hitting Earth on March 18 Are Inaccurate, NOAA Says ( 50

Several news outlets this week are reporting that Earth is expecting a "massive magnetic storm" on March 18. Yeah, so that's not happening, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) told Newsweek and other outlets. From a report: And they would know: Not only does NOAA help people build forecasts for weather here on Earth, they also predict space weather events like geomagnetic storms. "This story is not plausible in any way, shape or form," Bob Rutledge, who leads NOAA's Space Weather Forecast Center, told Newsweek via e-mail. "Things are all quiet for space weather, and the sun is essentially spotless." The magnetic storm's "imminent" arrival was one of Monday morning's top science news stories, according to Google News. But most coverage appeared to be based on a misinterpretation of a chart posted on Russia's Lebedev Institute's website showing a minor uptick in geomagnetic activity on the 18th. That elevated activity is expected to be a minor storm at most.

Sleeping In Rooms With Even a Little Light Can Increase Risk of Depression, Study Finds ( 176

Japanese researchers have found that even the slightest slither of light when trying to sleep could be linked to a heightened risk of depression, according to a new study published in The American Journal of Epidemiology. IFLScience reports: The reason behind this link is unclear, but the researchers believe it might be to do with the human circadian rhythm, the 24-hour cycle that tells us when to sleep and wake up, among other things, that is "programmed" by environmental factors. In the case of humans and many other creatures, light influences how much of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin is pumped into our bodies, meaning we feel awake when the Sun rises and get sleepy when the Sun sets. This system works like a charm when there's only sunlight, moonlight, and a campfire to think about. However, the modern world is beaming with almost constant exposure to artificial light. Light at night (LAN) in a bedroom -- even a flash of a digital clock or streetlight creeping in from a crack in the curtains -- could screw with our natural sleep/wake cycle. The team behind the recent study assessed the sleep of almost 900 elderly people with no signs of depression. They found that people who slept in a room with 5 lux of light or more at night showed a "significantly higher depression risk" than those who slept in a completely dark room. For perspective, a household room with its lights on is around 80 lux and 10 lux is a single candle from 0.3 meters (1 foot) away.

Elon Musk: SpaceX's Mars Rocket Could Fly Short Flights By Next Year 144

On stage at SXSW, Elon Musk issued yet another incredibly ambitious timeline. During a Q&A session on Sunday, Musk said SpaceX will be ready to fly its Mars rocket in 2019. He said: We are building the first ship, or interplanetary ship, right now, and we'll probably be able to do short flights, short up and down flights, during the first half of next year. Further reading: Fortune.

Elon Musk: The Danger of AI is Much Greater Than Nuclear Warheads. We Need Regulatory Oversight Of AI Development. ( 322

Elon Musk has been vocal about the need for regulation for AI in the past. At SXSW on Sunday, Musk, 46, elaborated his thoughts. We're very close to seeing cutting edge technologies in AI, Musk said. "It scares the hell out of me," the Tesla and SpaceX showrunner said. He cited the example of AlphaGo and AlphaZero, and the rate of advancements they have shown to illustrate his point. He said: Alpha Zero can read the rules of any game and beat the human. For any game. Nobody expected that rate of improvement. If you ask those same experts who think AI is not progressing at the rate that I'm saying, I think you will find their betting average for things like Go and other AI advancements, is very weak. It's not good.

We will also see this with self driving. Probably by next year, self driving will encompass all forms of driving. By the end of next year, it will be at least 100 percent safer than humans. [...] The rate of improvements is really dramatic and we have to figure out some way to ensure that the advent of digital super intelligence is symbiotic with humanity. I think that's the single biggest existential crisis we face, and the most pressing one. I'm not generally an advocate of regulation -- I'm actually usually on the side of minimizing those things. But this is a case, where you have a very serious danger to the public. There needs to be a public body that has insight and oversight to ensure that everyone is developing AI safely. This is extremely important. The danger of AI is much greater than danger of nuclear warheads. By a lot.


EPA's Science Advisory Board Has Not Met in 6 Months ( 212

The U.S. EPA Science Advisory Board has not met in at least six months, and some of its members say it's being sidelined to avoid getting in the way of agency Administrator Scott Pruitt's anti-regulatory agenda, Scientific American reported this week. From the report: Agency officials say the lapse isn't intentional and that it's just the result of delayed paperwork. That has prevented the group from meeting because there weren't enough members to make a quorum. The board, which typically has about 45 members, is tasked by Congress to evaluate the science used by EPA to craft policy. The full board has not met since August, nor has it had any conference calls or votes. In the past, members would have had multiple interactions during that time period, said William Schlesinger, a board member who is an emeritus professor of biogeochemistry at Duke University. "I guess the Science Advisory Board still exists; I guess I'm still on it," he said. "I think the answer is maybe they're giving it what we used to call the 'pocket veto': If you don't meet, then the scientists are not a pain, because they don't have a forum."

Could This Bold New Technique Boost Gravitational-Wave Detection? ( 32

Slashdot reader astroengine writes: One of the most expensive, complex and problematic components in gravitational wave detectors like the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) — which made the first, historic detection of these ripples in space-time in September 2015 — is the 4-kilometer-long vacuum chambers that house all the interferometer optics. But what if this requirement for ground-based gravitational wave detectors isn't required? This suggestion has been made by a pair of physicists at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) who are developing a method that could allow extremely sensitive interferometers to operate in the "open air."

Their work, published in the journal Physical Review Letters, uses the weird quantum properties of light to counteract interference from turbulence in the air to allow interferometer measurements to be made. Their method, which is a variation on the classic Young's double-slit experiment, has been demonstrated in a tabletop experiment — but gravitational wave scientists are skeptical that it could be scaled up to remove sophisticated vacuums from their detectors.


Can Electricity Travel Through Space on Astrophysical Jets? ( 313

Slashdot reader Chris Reeve writes: An October 2017 paper titled Electric Currents along Astrophysical Jets reports that "Several researchers have reported direct evidence for large scale electric currents along astrophysical jets." A review of the citations at the end of that paper and others (here and here, for instance) would seem to suggest that one of the great Internet science debates has finally been settled: Electricity does indeed travel through space over vast cosmic distances.

What has been interesting to watch about this unexpected development is that science journalists have so far not explicitly reported this as a shift in theory, and commenters on sites like appear to deny that any change has even occurred: "The jets have been shown not to be electric currents, the energy and the physics involved are certainly not electromagnetic." This comment completely rejecting these new findings was highly rated by other readers, suggesting that the failure to explicitly report this as a change in theory has left this controversial topic in a highly confused state.

The paper summarizes what it calls "observational evidence for the existence of large scale electric currents and their associated grand design helical magnetic fields in kpc-scale astrophysical jets." And the original submitter details the history of the question in a follow-up comment arguing that at our current moment in time, "a mistaken bias against electricity in space continues to dominate conversations."

Scientists Unsure Where Chinese Space Station Will Crash To Earth 78

In 2016, the Chinese space agency lost control of its Tiangong-1, or Heavenly Palace, spacecraft, five years after it blasted into orbit. Scientists have determined that it will come crashing down to Earth in the coming weeks, be they do not know exactly where on Earth it will hit. The Guardian reports: The defunct module is now at an altitude of 150 miles and being tracked by space agencies around the world, with the European Space Agency's center in Darmstadt predicting a fiery descent for it between March 27 and April 8. Hurtling around the Earth at about 18,000mph, the module ranks as one of the larger objects to re-enter the atmosphere without being steered towards the ocean, as is standard for big and broken spacecraft, and cargo vessels that are jettisoned from the International Space Station (ISS), to reduce the risk to life below. The spacecraft's orbit ranges from 43 degrees north to 43 degrees south, which rules out a descent over the UK but includes vast stretches of North and South America, China, the Middle East, Africa, Australia, parts of Europe -- and great swaths of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Western analysts cannot be sure how much of the spacecraft will survive re-entry, because China has not released details of the design and materials used to make Tiangong-1. But the spacecraft may have well-protected titanium fuel tanks containing toxic hydrazine that could pose a danger if they land in populated areas.

FCC Accuses Stealthy Startup of Launching Rogue Satellites 128

Back in January, the FCC pulled permission from Silicon Valley startup Swarm Technologies to launch four satellites into space after what it says was an "apparent unauthorized launch." IEEE Spectrum reports that the unauthorized launch consisted of four experimental satellites that the FCC had decided were too small to be noticed in space -- and hence pose an unacceptable risk of collision -- but which the company may have launched anyway, using a rocket based in India. The federal regulator has since issued a letter to Swarm revoking its authorization for a follow-up mission to launch four new, larger versions of its "SpaceBee" satellites. From the report: Swarm was founded in 2016 by one engineer who developed a spacecraft concept for Google and another who sold his previous company to Apple. The SpaceBees were built as technology demonstrators for a new space-based Internet of Things communications network. Swarm believes its network could enable satellite communications for orders of magnitude less cost than existing options. It envisages the worldwide tracking of ships and cars, new agricultural technologies, and low cost connectivity for humanitarian efforts anywhere in the world. The four SpaceBees would be the first practical demonstration of Swarm's prototype hardware and cutting-edge algorithms, swapping data with ground stations for up to eight years.
The FCC told the startup that the agency would assess "the impact of the applicant's apparent unauthorized launch and operation of four satellites... on its qualifications to be a Commission licensee." If Swarm cannot convince the FCC otherwise, the startup could lose permission to build its revolutionary network before the wider world even knows the company exists. An unauthorized launch would also call into question the ability of secondary satellite "ride-share" companies and foreign launch providers to comply with U.S. space regulations.

Researchers Discover Colistin-Heteroresistant Germs In the US ( 74

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: For the first time, researchers have discovered strains of a deadly, multidrug-resistant bacterium that uses a cryptic method to also evade colistin, an antibiotic used as a last-resort treatment. That's according to a study of U.S. patients published this week by Emory University researchers in the open-access microbiology journal mBio. The wily and dangerous bacteria involved are carbapenem-resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae or CRKP, which are already known to resist almost all antibiotics available, including other last-line antibiotics called carbapenems. The germs tend to lurk in clinical settings and can invade the urinary tract, bloodstream, and soft tissues. They're members of a notorious family of multidrug-resistant pathogens, called carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), which collectively have mortality rates as high as 50 percent and have spread rapidly around the globe in recent years. A 2013 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that there were more than 9,300 CRE infections in the U.S. each year, leading to 600 deaths. Both the CDC and the World Health Organization have listed CRE as one of the critical drug-resistant threats to public health, in need of "urgent and aggressive action."

In the new study, the Emory researchers discovered two strains of CRKP -- isolated from the urine of patients in Atlanta, Georgia -- that can also resist colistin. But they do so in a poorly understood, surreptitious way. At first, they appear vulnerable to the potent antibiotic in standard clinical tests, but with more advanced testing and exposure to the drug, they reveal that they can indeed survive it. In mice, the strains caused infections that couldn't be cured by colistin and the mice died of the infections. Mice infected with typical CRKP were all saved with colistin. So far, there's no evidence of CRKP infections surprisingly turning up resistant to colistin during treatment in patients. But the authors, led by microbiologist David Weiss, say that may be because the evidence is difficult to gather, and the data so far is cause for concern. The researchers concluded that the findings "serve to sound the alarm about a worrisome and under-appreciated phenomenon in CRKP infections and highlight the need for more sensitive and accurate diagnostics."


MIT Plans To Build Nuclear Fusion Plant By 2033 169

Mallory Locklear reports via Engadget: MIT announced yesterday that it and Commonwealth Fusion Systems -- an MIT spinoff -- are working on a project that aims to make harvesting energy from nuclear fusion a reality within the next 15 years. The ultimate goal is to develop a 200-megawatt power plant. MIT also announced that Italian energy firm ENI has invested $50 million towards the project, $30 million of which will be applied to research and development at MIT over the next three years. MIT and CFS plan to use newly available superconducting materials to develop large electromagnets that can produce fields four-times stronger than any being used now. The stronger magnetic fields will allow for more power to be generated resulting in, importantly, positive net energy. The method will hopefully allow for cheaper and smaller reactors. The research team aims to develop a prototype reactor within the next 10 years, followed by a 200-megawatt pilot power plant.

Pockets of Water May Lay Deep Below Earth's Surface ( 68

sciencehabit writes: Small pockets of water exist deep beneath Earth's surface, according to an analysis of diamonds belched from hundreds of kilometers within our planet. The work, which also identifies a weird form of crystallized water known as ice VII, suggests that material may circulate more freely at some depths within Earth than previously thought. Geophysical models of that flow, which ultimately influences the frequency of earthquakes driven by the scraping of tectonic plates at Earth's surface, may need to be substantially tweaked, scientists say. Such models also help scientists estimate the long-term rates of heat flow through Earth's surface and into space.

Sea Level Rise in the SF Bay Area Just Got a Lot More Dire ( 291

An anonymous reader writes: San Francisco Bay Area residents have long been aware of the threat that sea level rise poses to their coastal existence -- but things suddenly look a lot more serious. A new study examines the simultaneous phenomena of rising sea levels and subsiding coastal land, and as Wired reports, the situation is pretty dire. Models that factor in just sea level rise predict that at least 20 square miles could be underwater by 2100. Once you add in subsiding land, that jumps to nearly 50 square miles, and could get as bad as 165 square miles. Or, put another way, by the end of the century, half of the runways and taxiways at San Francisco Airport could be submerged.

The study found that most of the Bay's coastline is sinking at a rate of less than 2 millimeters a year -- and while that may not sound like a lot, the millimeters can add up fast. "You talk to someone about, 'Oh the land is going down a millimeter a year,' and that can be kind of unimpressive," says William Hammond, a researcher at the University of Nevada Reno who studies subsidence (but was not involved in this particular project). "But we know as scientists that these motions, especially if they come from plate tectonics, that they are relentless and they will never stop, at least as long as we're alive on this planet."

United States

Researchers Provide Likely Explanation For the 'Sonic Weapon' Used At the US Embassy In Cuba ( 112

An anonymous reader quotes a report from IEEE Spectrum: Last August, reports emerged that U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Cuba had suffered a host of mysterious ailments. Speculation soon arose that a high-frequency sonic weapon was to blame. Acoustics experts, however, were quick to point out the unlikeliness of such an attack. Among other things, ultrasonic frequencies -- from 20 to 200 kilohertz -- don't propagate well in air and don't cause the ear pain, headache, dizziness, and other symptoms reported in Cuba. Also, some victims recalled hearing high-pitched sounds, whereas ultrasound is inaudible to humans. The mystery deepened in October, when the Associated Press (AP) released a 6-second audio clip, reportedly a recording of what U.S. embassy staff heard. The chirping tones, centered around 7 kHz, were indeed audible, but they didn't suggest any kind of weapon. Looking at a spectral plot of the clip on YouTube, Kevin Fu, a computer scientist at the University of Michigan, noted some unusual ripples. He thought he might know what they meant.

Fu's lab specializes in analyzing the cybersecurity of devices connected to the Internet of Things, such as sensors, pacemakers, RFIDs, and autonomous vehicles. To Fu, the ripples in the spectral readout suggested some kind of interference. He discussed the AP clip with his frequent collaborator, Wenyuan Xu, a professor at Zhejiang University, in Hangzhou, China, and her Ph.D. student Chen Yan. Yan and Xu started with a fast Fourier transform of the AP audio, which revealed the signal's exact frequencies and amplitudes. Then, through a series of simulations, Yan showed that an effect known as intermodulation distortion could have produced the AP sound. Intermodulation distortion occurs when two signals having different frequencies combine to produce synthetic signals at the difference, sum, or multiples of the original frequencies. Having reverse engineered the AP audio, Fu, Xu, and Yan then considered what combination of things might have caused the sound at the U.S. embassy in Cuba. "If ultrasound is to blame, then a likely cause was two ultrasonic signals that accidentally interfered with each other, creating an audible side effect," Fu says. "Maybe there was also an ultrasonic jammer in the room and an ultrasonic transmitter," he suggests. "Each device might have been placed there by a different party, completely unaware of the other."


132-Year-Old Science Experiment Washes Ashore In Australia ( 55

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The New York Times (Warning: source may be paywalled; alternative source): A message in a bottle was tossed off the side of a German ship on June 12, 1886, as it sailed through the Indian Ocean, the date and location penned carefully in script on the scroll inside. In January, more than 131 years after the bottle was set adrift, an Australian woman walking on the beach noticed the thick, discolored glass of an old bottle poking through the sand. The bottle -- and the message -- had been found. It is believed to be the oldest known message in a bottle ever recovered. The woman, Tonya Illman, discovered the tokens from another era while walking on a beach near Wedge Island, in Western Australia.

The Illmans took their discovery to the Western Australian Museum, which verified that the bottle and the note date back to the 19th century. The museum contacted experts in the Netherlands and Germany for more information, and confirmed that the bottle had been dropped from a German vessel called the Paula. A search of German archives uncovered the Paula's original Meteorological Journal, and in a captain's entry from June 12, 1886, researchers discovered a reference to the bottle, thrown overboard as the ship was sailing from Cardiff, Wales, to Makassar, Indonesia. The date and the coordinates matched. The bottle had been tossed into the Indian Ocean from the ship as part of a decades-long experiment by the German Naval Observatory to understand ocean currents. Thousands of bottles were thrown into the ocean around the world from German ships between the 1860s and the 1930s, each with a form bearing the date and location where it had been tossed into the sea, the name of the ship, its home port and the travel route, the Western Australian Museum said.


Amazon Launches a Low-Cost Version of Prime For Medicaid Recipients ( 88

An anonymous reader quotes a report from TechCrunch: Amazon announced this morning it will offer a low-cost version of its Prime membership program to qualifying recipients of Medicaid. The program will bring the cost of Prime down from the usual $12.99 per month to about half that, at $5.99 per month, while still offering the full range of Prime perks, including free, two-day shipping on millions of products, Prime Video, Prime Music, Prime Photos, Prime Reading, Prime Now, Audible Channels, and more. The new program is an expansion on Amazon's discounted Prime service for customers on government assistance, launched in June 2017. For the same price of $5.99 per month, Amazon offers Prime memberships to any U.S. customer with a valid EBT card -- the card that's used to disburse funds for assistance programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition Program (WIC). Now that same benefit is arriving for recipients of Medicaid, the public assistance program providing medical coverage to low-income Americans. To qualify for the discount, customers must have a valid EBT or Medicaid card, the retailer says.

Adult Human Brains Do Not Produce New Neurons, Study Suggests ( 76

Rich Haridy reports via New Atlas: New research from scientists at UC San Francisco is challenging half a century of conventional wisdom by suggesting the human brain may cease producing new neurons beyond childhood. While the divisive study may prove a blow to some research aimed at birthing new neurons to battle neurodegenerative disorders, it offers a new perspective on how the human brain can adapt in later life without such a capability. The team generated its data by studying brain specimens of 59 subjects, from babies to the elderly. The strategy was to look for the presence of young neurons or dividing cells by using certain antibodies that bind to those cells of interest. The focus was on the hippocampus region of the brain, known to be crucial for memory, and a comprehensively studied area previously suggested to be a key location for neurogenesis. The results were fairly comprehensive. Young or immature neurons were identified in plentiful volumes in prenatal and newborn samples but the rate consistently declined over childhood. The oldest sample that immature neurons were found in was 13 years of age, and adult samples displayed no evidence of new neurons. The study has been published in the journal Nature.

NASA Spacecraft Reveals Jupiter's Interior In Unprecedented Detail ( 52

NASA's Juno spacecraft has revealed that Jupiter's iconic striped bands, caused by immensely powerful winds, extend to a depth of about 3,000km below the surface. The findings also provide a partial answer to the question of whether the planet has a core, "showing that the inner 96% of the planet rotates 'as a solid body,' even though technically it is composed of an extraordinarily dense mixture of hydrogen and helium gas," reports The Guardian. From the report: The findings are published in four separate papers in the journal Nature, describing the planet's gravitational field (surprisingly asymmetrical), atmospheric flows, interior composition and polar cyclones. A crucial question was whether the bands on Jupiter, caused by air currents that are five times as strong as the most powerful hurricanes on Earth, were a "weather" phenomenon comparable to the Earth's jet streams or part of a deep-seated convection system. Juno's latest observations point to the latter, showing the jets continued to around 3,000km beneath the surface -- deep enough to cause ripples and asymmetries in the planet's gravitational field that were perceptible to detectors on the spacecraft. On Earth, the atmosphere represents about a millionth of the mass of the whole planet. The latest work suggests that on Jupiter the figure is closer to 1%. The new findings, based on extremely sensitive gravitational measurements, also begin to paint a picture of the internal structure of the planet.

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