Archive for the ‘science’ Category

Earth is (always has been) round, so why have the flat-out wrong become so lively?

March 22nd, 2019

For posterity's sake, here's Are' recent look at reality vs. belief about the shape of the Earth. Click for a full transcript.


Until the 17th century, the Fens—a broad, flat swath of marshland in eastern England—were home only to game-hunters and fishermen. Eventually, though, their value as potential agricultural land became too enticing to ignore, and the Earl of Bedford, along with a number of “gentlemen adventurers,” signed contracts with Charles I to drain the area, beginning in the 1630s. A series of drainage channels were cut, criss-crossing the wetlands of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. The plan was a qualified success; a vast area was now farmable, though wind-powered pumps were needed to keep the water at bay.

The most notable feature of the Fens is their pancake-like topography. It’s said that if you climb the tower of Ely Cathedral on a clear day, you can make out the silhouette of Peterborough Cathedral, some 30 miles to the northwest. Indeed, one could see even further if it wasn’t for the curvature of the Earth.

Enter one Samuel Birley Rowbotham, a 19th-century inventor and quack doctor who went by the name “Parallax.” Rowbotham believed that the Earth was flat, and that the Fens were the perfect place to prove it. In particular, he set his sights on the Old Bedford River, one of the 17th-century drainage cuts built under the tenure of the Earl of Bedford. The river—it’s really a canal—runs straight as an arrow for some 22 miles, from Earith, Cambridgeshire, to Downham Market, Norfolk, where it meets the River Great Ouse.

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Rocket Report: SpaceX scraps costly tooling, Vandenberg lull, Starliner slip

March 22nd, 2019
The Rocket Report is published weekly.

Enlarge / The Rocket Report is published weekly. (credit: Arianespace)

Welcome to Edition 1.41 of the Rocket Report! This week we definitely have an international flavor, with news about spaceflight efforts from Brazil, Italy, Japan, the UAE, and the United States. There also is a fun story about hypersonic launch completing some initial tests with evidently promising returns.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don't want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Brazilian spaceport wins key US agreement. Brazil's decades-long effort to launch satellites from its underused Alcântara Launch Center could finally be bearing fruit, Parabolic Arc reports. On Monday, Brazil and the United States signed a Technology Safeguards Agreement that will allow American companies to launch orbital rockets from Alcântara.

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Costa Rica’s Zero-Carbon Plan Could Be a Model for the World

March 22nd, 2019
President Carlos Alvarado Quesada explains Costa Rica's plan to ditch fossil fuels and how it could inspire others to do the same.

Posted in science, Science / Environment | Comments (0)

Vice President may tell NASA to accelerate lunar landings

March 21st, 2019
Vice President Mike Pence, center in Mission Control Houston, will oversee all space decisions made by the Trump administration.

Enlarge / Vice President Mike Pence, center in Mission Control Houston, will oversee all space decisions made by the Trump administration. (credit: NASA)

One of the panelists who will appear at a National Space Council meeting next Tuesday said to expect "a few fireworks" during the discussion, which will focus on NASA's efforts to return humans to the Moon. The meeting of this council that oversees US spaceflight policy will be held in Hunstville, Ala., and led by Vice President Mike Pence.

University of Colorado Boulder astrophysicist Jack Burns, one of six speakers scheduled for the meeting, said the current timeline for NASA to send humans to the Moon lacks urgency. NASA has talked about landing its astronauts on the Moon before the end of the 2020s, and the president's budget proposal for the coming fiscal year allows for this to happen as early as 2028.

"The timeline is too slow, and that's one of the things that I'm going to be talking about next Tuesday," Burns said. If pushed, how soon could NASA put humans back on the Moon? The year 2025, Burns replied. "And I know some in the administration would like to do it even faster than that," he added. "We're going to see a few fireworks."

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Finally! A DNA Computer That Can Actually Be Reprogrammed

March 21st, 2019
DNA computers have to date only been able to run one algorithm, but a new design shows how these machines can be made more flexible—and useful.

Posted in science, Science / Biotech | Comments (0)

Why “chickenpox parties” are a terrible idea—in case it’s not obvious

March 21st, 2019
 A child with chicken pox.

Enlarge / A child with chicken pox. (credit: Getty Images | Dave Thompson)

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin made headlines Tuesday after revealing in a radio interview that he had purposefully exposed his nine unvaccinated children to chickenpox, drawing swift condemnation from health experts.

In case anyone needs a refresher on why you shouldn’t deprive children of safe, potentially lifesaving vaccines or purposefully expose them to serious, potentially life-threatening infections, here’s a quick rundown.

Chickenpox is nothing to mess with

Though most children who get the itchy, highly contagious viral disease go on to recover after a week or so of misery, chickenpox can cause severe complications and even death in some. Complications include nasty skin infections, pneumonia, brain inflammation, hemorrhaging, blood stream infections, and dehydration.

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Posted in CDC, chickenpox, Infectious disease, public health, science, shingles, vaccine | Comments (0)

Half the species in a new Cambrian fossil site are completely new to us

March 21st, 2019
Very highly detailed impression of a segmented, many legged organism.

Enlarge / The level of detail in some of the fossils is astonishing. (credit: Dongjing Fu et. al.)

The first signs of complex animal life begin in the Ediacaran Period, which started more than 600 million years ago. But it's difficult to understand how those organisms relate to the life we see around us today. Part of this issue is that those fossils are rare, as many rocks of that period appear to have been wiped off the Earth by a globe-spanning glaciation. But another problem is that the organisms we do see from this period aren't clearly related to anything that came after them.

With the arrival of the Cambrian Period about 550 million years ago, all of that changed. In fossil beds like the famed Burgess Shale, we can see organisms that clearly have features of the major groups of life that have persisted to this day. As more collections of fossils become available, we can even watch groups diversify as the Cambrian progressed. But there's still considerable debate over whether these changes represent a true, multi-million-year "explosion" and what environmental changes might have driven this diversification.

We may be on the verge of some big help in answering these questions, as scientists are announcing the discovery of a spectacular deposit of Cambrian fossils from South China. The fossils include dozens of species, half of which we've never seen before, and appear to represent a previously upsampled ecological zone. The preservation is such that soft-bodied creatures like jellyfish, and the softer body parts of creatures with shells, can easily be made out in the rocks. Best yet, the researchers who uncovered the samples suggest that rocks from the same formation are widespread in China.

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Posted in Biology, Cambrian, evolution, fossils, paleontology, science | Comments (0)

US nuclear is dying, but it produced more electricity in 2018 than ever before

March 21st, 2019
US nuclear is dying, but it produced more electricity in 2018 than ever before

(credit: Photograph by tva.com)

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), the US nuclear fleet produced more electrical energy than ever before in 2018. Last year, it produced 807.1 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity, barely beating its 2010 peak of 807TWh. But the US nuclear industry has been in a well-documented decline. So what gives?

(credit: Energy Information Administration)

The EIA says the explanation comes from a combination of scheduling serendipity and what's called "uprating," where older nuclear plants are permitted to output more power. In a post this morning, the administration wrote that we shouldn't expect this much nuclear power output from the industry again—at least not in the near future.

Since the last peak in 2010, more than 5 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear capacity has been retired. Some of that was offset by a new reactor addition: another 1.2GW of capacity came online in 2016 at TVA's Watts-Barr nuclear plant when reactor 2 was completed.

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Posted in carbon, Energy, Nuclear, science, uprating | Comments (0)

Scientists think they’ve solved one mystery of Easter Island’s statues

March 21st, 2019
Moai statues in a row, Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island, Chile.

Enlarge / Moai statues in a row, Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island, Chile. (credit: De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images)

Chile's Easter Island (Rapa Nui) is famous for its giant monumental statues, called moai, built by early inhabitants some 800 years ago. The islanders likely chose the statues' locations based on the availability of fresh water sources, according to a recent paper in PLOS One.

Scholars have puzzled over the moai on Easter Island for decades, pondering their cultural significance, as well as how a Stone Age culture managed to carve and transport statues weighing as much as 92 tons. They were typically mounted on platforms called ahu. According to co-author Carl Lipo, an anthropologist at Binghamton University, you can have ahu (platforms) without moai (statues) and moai without ahu, usually along the roads leading to ahu; they were likely being transported and never got to their destination.

Back in 2012, Lipo and his colleague, Terry Hunt of the University of Arizona, showed that you could transport a ten-foot, five-ton moai a few hundred yards with just 18 people and three strong ropes by employing a rocking motion. Last year Lipo proposed an intriguing hypothesis for how the islanders placed red hats on top of some moai; those can weigh up to 13 tons. He suggested the inhabitants used ropes to roll the hats up a ramp.

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Posted in anthropology, Archaeology, easter island, rapa nui, science, statistics | Comments (0)

Starship tests in South Texas will be broadcast, but temper your expectations

March 21st, 2019
Artist's conception of 21st-century rocket ship.

Enlarge / The Starship test vehicle, currently under assembly in South Texas, may look similar to this illustration when finished. (credit: Elon Musk/Twitter)

What a world we live in. As SpaceX gears up to begin preliminary testing of its Starship vehicle along the South Texas coast, nearby South Padre Island has set up a camera to broadcast the proceedings. More than 2,700 people were watching as of 11:30am ET Thursday.

It's a clever tourism marketing ploy for the island but also great for spaceflight fans to get unprecedented views of real-time testing.

With that said, it's worth tempering expectations at least for the next few weeks. For now, SpaceX has attached a single Raptor engine to the test vehicle—which is nicknamed Starhopper because it was designed to make "hop" tests to varying altitudes to test Starship's landing capabilities. Eventually Starhopper will have three engines on the vehicle.

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