Over the last several decades, researchers have shown that many dolphin and whale species are extraordinarily intelligent and social creatures, with complex cultures and rich inner lives. They are, in a word, persons.
Now animal advocates are challenging society to follow science to its logical conclusion and give legal rights to cetaceans. In the next several years, they intend to make their case in a court of law. If they’re successful, a dolphin could conceivably become the first non-human ever considered a legal person.
“The problem so far is that all nonhuman animals are seen as being legal things,” said Steven Wise, an animal law scholar and attorney. “If you’re a legal person, you have the capacity to have rights. That’s the fundamental problem we intend to attack.”
Wise founded the Nonhuman Rights Project in 2007, two years after finishing a series of books on animals, rights and law. The first two, Rattling the Cage and Drawing the Line, made a case for giving legal rights to chimpanzees and bonobos, and considering other animals on a species-by-species basis. He followed those works with Though the Heavens May Fall, an account of the 1772 trial of James Somerset, the first black human recognized as a person under British law.
At the trial’s beginning, Somerset was legally considered a thing, not even permitted to speak on his behalf. At its end, he was a person. The case used by Somerset’s lawyers was an inspiration to Wise, and by the end of 2013 the Nonhuman Rights Project plans to file two lawsuits on behalf of individual animals held in captivity in the United States.
To be sure, it will be an underdog’s battle, and might even be called quixotic. “There would be tremendous resistance. People would worry — ‘What are the limits? Is every animal in a zoo going to have a lawyer?’” said Richard Posner, a judge on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “In the foreseeable future it wouldn’t have traction.”
But Wise is undaunted by the challenge. In the 30 years since he started working in animal law, Wise said, society has changed in ways that once seemed radical: Ethical vegetarianism is mainstream, cute animal videos rule our collective subconscious, and people like himself are invited to lecture at Harvard. “What’s never been done doesn’t seem like it’s doable,” he said.
Whether the Nonhuman Rights Project’s first case will involve a cetacean is yet to be determined. If personhood is defined by character rather than chromosomes, many creatures would be eligible: Great apes are intelligent, empathic and emotional, as are elephants. But perhaps the most vocal support exists for cetaceans.
“We have all the evidence to show that there is an egregious mismatch between who cetaceans are and how they are perceived and still treated by our species,” said evolutionary neurobiologist Lori Marino of Emory University during a February meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “These characteristics make it ethically inconsistent to deny the basic rights of cetaceans.”
Just a few decades ago, cetacean rights would have been considered a purely sentimental rather than scientifically supportable idea. But scientifically if not yet legally, evidence is overwhelming that cetaceans are special.
At a purely neuroanatomical level, their brains are as complex as our own. Their brains are also big — and not simply because cetaceans are large. Dolphins and whales have brains that are exceptional for their size, second only to modern humans in being larger than one would expect. They also possess neurological structures that, in humans, are linked to high-level social and intellectual function.
If all we knew of cetaceans was their brains, we’d probably expect them to be persons, but of course scientists know much more. Tests in captivity have returned evidence of symbolic understanding and abstract reasoning. They seem to be just as aware of themselves as selves as we are, and observations in the wild are even more compelling.
Orcas, dolphins, humpback whales and sperm whales — and almost certainly other as-yet-unstudied species — have rich social lives, vocal dialects comparable to language, and genuine cultures. They don’t live by instinct alone, but in cultures passed between generations, with group-specific differences in habit and lifestyle, in rituals of greeting and death.
Researchers compare differences between cetacean populations to differences between traditional human tribes. It’s even possible to imagine that cetaceans, some of whom live as long as humans and spend their entire lives with a single family, have social sensitivities as pronounced as our own.
Two years ago, advocates led by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society drafted what they called the Declaration of Cetacean Rights, formally articulating that “cetaceans as persons have the right to life, liberty and wellbeing.” But it’s one thing to say that creatures should have rights and another for those rights to be legally recognized. As of now, they’re not.
Cetaceans are, like every other non-human animal species, seen by the eyes of the law as objects. And while there are some legal protections for animals, such as animal cruelty laws, they reflect property rights and community proprieties rather than genuine rights.
“If you’re a human being, and the only thing protecting you is a statute saying you can’t be unnecessarily cruel to humans, you wouldn’t feel very protected,” said Wise. “To have the kind of protections that even approach the protections a normal human has, you need to be a legal person.”
By Duncan Geere, Wired UKprospect for areas that might be suitable for a permanent lunar outpost.
The aim is to create a robot that can be released onto the surface of the Moon and would periodically stop and drill into its upper surface to scan for water, minerals and other resources. Over the course of nine days, the rover would scan a wide area to see if there’s enough accessible water to allow for a prolonged manned mission there.
Resolve has also been designed to be easily hackable. With a few light tweaks, it can be repurposed to pootle around the surface of any astronomical body, be it an asteroid, or a moon or a planet.
The rover is currently being tested in Hawaii, and if those tests prove successful, then it might not be long before it’s dowsing for water on the surface of the Moon.
A century after the great Antarctic explorers crossed that icy continent, many of their destinations remain inaccessible — at least on foot.
“It’s the next best thing to being there,” said Alex Starns, technical manager of Google’s Street View program.
Using a tripod-mounted version of the Street View cameras, researchers from the University of Minnesota’s Polar Geospatial Center and New Zealand’s Antarctic Heritage Trust captured 360-degree panoramic views of the sites, which were released July 17 as part of Google’s World Wonders project.
Many of the explorers’ camps and base stations have been almost untouched in the decades since, with Antarctica’s few tourists and even its research community unable to reach them.
That the sites remain so remote in an age of technologically augmented travel makes the explorers’ accomplishments all the more extraordinary.
“We wanted to show the legacy of these early explorers,” said Brad Herried, cartography director at the Polar Geospatial Center. “The logistics were so different for these guys 100 years ago. It’s remarkable to see how they did it. Where they set up base camps, the journey they made, is still well preserved.”
Herried said it’s nearly impossible to reach the sites. Of course, it’s not easy to reach modern scientific installations, either. The South Pole telescope and Cape Royds Adelie Penguin Rookery are among the contemporary sites included in the new World Wonders Project release.
“It’s not just the thrill of going there,” said Herried of his colleagues’ motivations for working in such an extreme, isolated environment. “We’re trying to answer scientific questions. That’s why we go.”
By Duncan Geere, Wired UK
Laser physicists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have broken the record for the highest-power laser shot with a collection of beams delivering more than 500 trillion watts of peak power.National Ignition Facility fired 192 beams at the same time, delivering 1.85 megajoules of ultraviolet laser light to a target a mere two millimeters in diameter.
To put those numbers into perspective, the 500 terawatt figure is 12,500 times greater than the demand for electricity in 2006 in Britain, which averaged out at 40 gigawatts.
“For scientists across the nation and the world who, like ourselves, are actively pursuing fundamental science under extreme conditions and the goal of laboratory fusion ignition, this is a remarkable and exciting achievement,” said Richard Petrasso, senior research scientist and division head of high energy density physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a press release. “The 500 TW shot is an extraordinary accomplishment by the NIF Team, creating unprecedented conditions in the laboratory that hitherto only existed deep in stellar interiors,”
The National Ignition Facility is the world’s foremost laser research establishment, producing lasers than can regularly carry more than 100 times the energy of any other laser. The 500 terawatt firing hits a milestone set in the late 90s when the facility was being planned, and takes researchers a step closer to the goal of igniting hydrogen fusion.
“NIF is becoming everything scientists planned when it was conceived over two decades ago,” NIF director Edward Moses said in the release. “It is fully operational, and scientists are taking important steps toward achieving ignition and providing experimental access to user communities for national security, basic science and the quest for clean fusion energy.”
Image: Damien Jemison/LLNL [high-res]
MSL, which is scheduled to touch down on the Red Planet the night of Aug. 5, is a car-sized nuclear-powered rover designed to search for signs of life on Mars, past or present. It is the largest robot that engineers can currently land on the Martian surface and its descent from space includes a complex list of events that have to happen perfectly to ensure success.
After entering the top of the Martian atmosphere, MSL will use its heat shield to slow down to slightly above Mach 2. It will then deploy the largest supersonic parachute ever used on an interplanetary mission to get to landing speed. Once the parachute is jettisoned, the spacecraft will fire up rockets and slow down even further. A UFO-like platform will gingerly lower the rover down on wires until, about 25 feet above the surface of Mars, MSL will be placed on the ground, hopefully ready to roll. Once it has brought its quarry to the ground, the platform will fly off and crash far from the rover to prevent any damage.
“This is the hardest NASA robotic mission ever attempted,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s science mission directorate, during a JPL press conference on July 16.
In the game, now available at the Xbox Live Marketplace, players use the Kinect to take control of the spacecraft, moving their body to drive the rover as it descends to the Martian surface. People can attempt to pilot the rover’s shell through the top of the atmosphere, deploy the parachutes at the right time, and carefully lower the rover down on the sky crane.
Though players can crash the rover as often as they want, NASA officials will have to go through the events in real life fairly soon. The hair-raising seven-minute sequence has got engineers and scientists at JPL nervous. Any one of the events in the landing sequence has the potential to cause a fatal problem, said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars exploration program.
But they are confident that they have checked and rechecked every system and the only thing left to do is wait and see if it all works as planned. Even after the seven minutes of terror, it could take five to 10 minutes before officials back on Earth know if the sequence worked because communications satellites around Mars might not be in the right configuration to beam back the news right away.
If you don’t have access to an Xbox or want to drive the rover around on the ground after your picture-perfect landing, NASA currently has a game in beta testing called Explore Mars: Curiosity that lets you take the helm of the robot once on the surface.
By Joel Winston, Wired UK
Deploying giant space mirrors and spraying particles from stadium-sized balloons may sound like an engineer’s wild fantasy, but climate models suggest that the potential of geoengineering to offset rising atmospheric carbon dioxide may be significantly overstated.
Across all four models tested, the team showed that geoengineering could lead to adverse effects on the Earth’s climate, including a reduction in global rainfall. They therefore concluded that geoengineering could not be a substitute for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
However, in a field with divided opinion on geoengineering’s potential role in addressing climate change, some doubt the significance of this conclusion. “From a policy standpoint, this doesn’t provide very helpful guidance to decision-makers,” said Steve Rayner of the Oxford Geoengineering Program. “No serious player in this field suggests that [geoengineering] could ever be a substitute for mitigation and adaptation.”
The leader of the research, Hauke Schmidt of the Max Planck Institute, Germany, believes their experiment still contributes important details on how the Earth’s systems might respond to geoengineering. “The first thing we realized was that we had to ‘dim’ the sun 25 percent more than expected, in order for the Earth’s systems to show a response, which translates to needing more geoengineering than previously thought,” says Schmidt.
A reduction in global rainfall is not necessarily an equal one. “It becomes interesting when you look into the regional responses,” continues Schmidt. “If you have just a carbon dioxide increase, most models predict a global rainfall increase, but a strong decrease in the Mediterranean and subtropics. But if you try to balance this with geoengineering, these zones shift to Northern Europe, Northern Asia and North America.”
There’s also the question of how effective these simulations are in recreating real-world deployment of geoengineering. One particular concern is the study’s assumption of a quadrupling of carbon dioxide levels. “If it ever gets to that stage, then we have probably passed the point where geoengineering can be useful anyway,” says Rayner.
The researchers recognize this level is at the upper end. “But one of the simulations we’re running for the next IPCC has more than a quadrupling of CO2,” explains Schmidt. “That’s called the ‘business as usual’ scenario, and it’s not completely outside what’s conceivable.”
The team have also run simulations with smaller (and perhaps more realistic) CO2 increases and will publish results in the upcoming months. But they say the extreme CO2 increase in this first scenario helps to identify signals and understand how the system responds. “From the point of view of a climate researcher it is the most interesting scenario,” continues Schmidt. “While those who are interested in geoengineering applications may find it unrealistic.”
One scientist particularly interested in geoengineering applications is Matthew Watson, leader of the volcano-inspired Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (Spice) project. The government-funded project was investigating the potential effects of spraying solar-reflective sulphates into the stratosphere from a 20 kilometer-high, stadium-sized balloon. However, a scaled-down field test of a smaller balloon spraying water droplets was cancelled due to governance and patent issues.
Now Watson is concerned by the report’s conclusions, which he says could be used to suggest that geoengineering research is a waste of time. “Only through combined modelling and field research can we generate the evidence-base for a salient answer on whether climate engineering is a good or bad idea,” says Watson. “It’s vitally important that scientists are given the space within which to ask and try to answer difficult questions.”
To understand different components of the Earth’s systems, Schmidt agrees that a few experiments are necessary. “I’m not generally against small-scale field experiments if they help us understand processes in nature,” says Schmidt. “But they should obviously be benign, and we should be very careful.” However, small-scale field tests are also limited, Schmidt believes, with climate simulations possibly being the only way to fully grasp the long-term and large-scale climate effects of geoengineering.
Both options may have their individual limitations, according to Watson. “That small-scale experiments are, by their nature, incomplete is often used as an argument against climate engineering, but that can also be said of models, which are, by definition, imperfect.” In addition to large-scale simulations, Watson accepts the need for small, benign and well-governed field experiments in the interim.
Despite the controversy on the best course of action to take, there is agreement between all parties on the need to determine the effects of geoengineering with confidence. But this confidence may perhaps only be found by both peering through simulations to see long-term global effects, and engaging in detailed examination of field tests to assess the practical potential of specific interventions.
Watson says time is short: “Unfortunately, we don’t have hundreds of years before climate change really takes hold. So researching climate engineering now is much better than undertaking that effort only when it becomes clear it is necessary.”
I know there aren’t many people who spend as much time looking at images of Earth from space as I do. But there some out there, and NASA wants your help.
Adam Voiland of NASA’s Earth Observatory found the photo above that looks like a huge, cloudy “V.” He’s even speculated about which font it may be. I think this looks like a “Z,” but Voiland clearly spends more time looking at satellite imagery than I do, so we’ll defer to him for now.
But what about the rest of the alphabet? Voiland would like to assemble the entire alphabet from space, so if you’ve seen a letter, let us know and perhaps your contribution will be featured by NASA or Wired. He suggests looking for letter-shaped clouds, smoke, dust, ice or phytoplankton blooms. I imagine there may be literary glaciers, rivers, islands, forests, faults and mountain ranges as well. Just make sure the letter stands out clearly against the background.
This quest is not limited to the English alphabet either: Any alphabet is welcome (just indicate which alphabet and which character you have found). And why not numbers and punctuation as well? Voiland recommends some places to start hunting.
We’ll put together a gallery of the best letters and characters for Wired Science, so send your entries to us at wiredsciencepics at gmail, and we’ll pass them on to Voiland as well.
Image: Courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE MODIS Rapid Response. This image was acquired on July 11, 2012, by the Aqua satellite.
When a solar flare erupted yesterday, scattering a billion atomic bombs’ worth of energy into space, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory was staring at the sun. They recorded this video, which NASA released Friday morning.
The footage shows the flare in three different wavelengths of light. Teal and gold correspond to ultraviolet light, while the blue channel shows only that wavelength.
The flare itself affected Earth directly for about an hour, causing problems on some radio frequencies, but the larger impacts will come from a subsequent wave of charged solar particles called a coronal mass ejection, or CME. Researchers think the CME will pummel Earth’s natural magnetic field Saturday through Sunday, exposing power grids and satellites to possible disruptions.
The bright side, however, will be bright: Solar storms trigger dazzling northern lights. For this weekend’s CME, heliophysicist Alex Young of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center hopes the auroras will reach as far south as Washington, D.C., though it’s impossible to know for certain until moments before the CME reaches Earth.
If the auroras indeed reach south and you plan on photographing them, then send your favorite shots to Wired Science with “aurora photos” in the subject line. If we receive enough, we’ll post them.
Satellites use solar energy to power their electronics, but they rely on gas to maintain orbit or change position. Once tapped out, dead satellites become space junk, which threatens new orbital ventures. To prevent this, NASA is testing the feasibility of using robots to fuel and repair satellites on the fly or tow them to a new job site.
The agency’s Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office has identified 242 end-of-lifers destined to run out of gas in the next five to six years. The challenge is that, for now, before a satellite leaves the ground, technicians fill its fuel tank and seal it—for good. “No satellite in orbit was designed to be serviced, because no servicer exists,” says Ben Reed, an engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
In August, NASA will be asking Dextre, a two-armed robot torso built by the Canadian Space Agency and housed on the International Space Station, to use a variety of tools to reach a simulated sealed fuel tank and fill ‘er up. Engineers on the ground in Houston will control the maneuvers, which are the most intricate ever done by a robot in space. After NASA completes these proof-of-concept tests, Reed says, the agency will encourage private companies to take up the technique. Hopefully a few will step up and offer roadside assistance in space.
Video: Alexa Inkeles
To gather information on violent storms, the National Hurricane Center relies on tools like sensors and satellites. And some badass Air Force Reserve pilots. The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron flies directly into the world’s worst storms to collect meteorological data. And like any dangerous job involving weather and vehicles, they now have a reality show: Hurricane Hunters recently premiered on the Weather Channel.
“What I do is sort of crazy to the rest of the aviation world. Pilots are trained to avoid weather—we’re actually flying into the most extreme storms,” says Sean Cross, a pilot featured on the show who has flown for more than 11 years with the 53rd.
Each crew includes two pilots, a navigator, a flight meteorologist, and a loadmaster. Inside the hurricane, they release cardboard tubes from the belly of the plane. These tubes, called dropsondes, are 3 inches in diameter, 16 inches long, and fall at 2,500 feet per minute while taking snapshots of temperature, wind, humidity, and pressure. That info is relayed to the NHC, which then disseminates up-to-the-minute storm data. “You can fly along for hours and never feel a bump, then all of sudden you hit severe turbulence and you think to yourself the plane might actually come apart,” Cross says. On the upside, ocean bailouts make for great television.
Photo: Hollis Bennett Video: Alexa Inkeles
By Kai Kupferschmidt, ScienceNOW
Vaccines aren’t supposed to cause disease. But that appears to be what’s happening on Australian farms. Scientists have found that two virus strains used to vaccinate chickens there may have recombined to form a virus that is sickening and killing the animals. “This shows that recombination of such strains can happen and people need to think about it,” says Glenn Browning, a veterinary microbiologist at the University of Melbourne, Parkville, in Australia and one of the co-authors on the paper.
Chickens worldwide are susceptible to a group of herpesviruses called ILTV, which target their upper respiratory tract. The resulting disease, known as infectious laryngotracheitis (ILTV), reduces egg production and can kill up to one-fifth of those infected. “The birds effectively choke to death on blood and mucus,” says Browning. The disease is not known to infect any other animals other than chicken and chicken-like birds.
To combat ILTV, farmers vaccinate their chickens with attenuated herpesviruses that can still infect and replicate but do not lead to disease. Australia has used two vaccines, which are produced by Pfizer and called SA2 and A20. In 2006, however, the country purchased a new vaccine from European company Intervet called Serva. Two years later, new strains of ILTV, called class 8 and 9, appeared. They are just as deadly as other strains. “But they seem to be dominating over the strains that were reported prior to 2007,” says Browning.
Because the new strains appeared shortly after the European vaccine was introduced, scientists thought that the new vaccine strain might have reverted back to a disease-causing form. But when the researchers sequenced the genomes of the two new strains and the three vaccine strains, they found that the new viruses were actually stitched together from the European and Australian vaccines. Although it is not clear what mutations keep the vaccine strains from causing disease in the first place, they were probably lost when the viruses recombined, says Browning, whose team reports its findings online today in Science.
“This is quite possible but a bit surprising since it would imply that both vaccines have gone into the same animal, which would be required for recombination to occur,” Paul Farrell, a virologist at Imperial College London, wrote in a statement released by the Science Media Centre. Farmers do not deliberately vaccinate with both vaccines, Browning agrees. But the SA2 strain might have spread into an unvaccinated population that was later vaccinated with the Serva strain, he suggests.
The data for the recombination is “convincing,” says Walter Fuchs, who heads the National Reference Laboratory for Infectious Laryngotracheitis of Poultry on the island of Riems in Germany. The combination of vaccine strains to form a new virus is “a problem that needs to be taken seriously,” adds Thomas Mettenleiter, head of the Federal Research Institute for Animal Health also on Riems. Only well-characterized live vaccines, rendered harmless by mutations in the same or overlapping regions, should be used in order to minimize the risk of recombination to a new virulent strain, he argues.
Live-attenuated vaccines are also used in humans, but a lot less than in poultry, and their sequence is usually known. “This is not a panic-button on vaccines,” says Browning. And Farrell stresses vaccines have been one of the great success stories of medicine. “The type of important technicality raised in this article should not be allowed to detract from the enormous health benefit generally provided by vaccines,” he wrote.
This story provided by ScienceNOW, the daily online news service of the journal Science.
By Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai
The next time you browse cute little ivory objects in a jewelry shop, remember that they could be made from the tusks of elephants illegally killed by poachers and smuggled into the United States. Their death could have far-reaching consequences, perhaps even affecting the climate.
At a July 12 press conference in New York City, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance announced the seizure of more than $2 million worth of illicit ivory items, one of the largest such seizures in state history. The ivory was mostly used to make small jewelry, animal statues and carved tusks, which were being sold at two shops in Manhattan.
On a table at the press conference, a few objects were on display. Though they represented only a small fraction of almost one ton of ivory obtained in the case, 25 elephants were killed to produce them, estimated John Robinson, executive Vice President of the Wildlife Conservation Society, who was present at the event
According to Samuel Wasser, director for the Center of Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, ivory poaching is a problem that keeps getting worse. It’s estimated that 2011 was the worst year in elephant poaching since 1989, and Wasser warned that the death of elephants can have large and unpredictable consequences.
Wasser said elephants play an extremely important role in African ecologies. “By taking them out of the habitat, the habitat can be changed in a manner that can never be remedied,” he said.
For example, explained Wasser, elephants disperse tree seeds throughout Central Africa’s Congo rain forest, Earth’s second-largest forest. Like the Amazon, the Congo forest can be considered a vast, planetary lung, and elephants help keep it healthy.
The ongoing demise of elephants is “changing the forest structure throughout central Africa. In 50 years, it’s quite possible that it will change so dramatically that the climate throughout Africa, and perhaps the world, will be changed.”
The objects were being sold by two Midtown Manhattan shops, the New York Jewelry Mart and Raja Jewels. The owners, Johnson Jung-Chien Lu and Mukesh Gupta, both plead guilty to environmental crimes. They will forfeit all the ivory as well and pay fines of, respectively, $10,000 and $45,000 to the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Wasser, who works with national and international law enforcement agencies like Interpol to assess the origin of seized ivory, said the type of objects found in this case was particularly surprising. “I haven’t seen a seizure of this size coming to the U.S. that involves such tiny pieces,” he said.
Illicit ivory sold in the U.S. is typically used to make handles for guns or knives, said Wasser. He sees the seizure as a warning that a market for small objects exists in the U.S., and not just its usual destinations of Japan and China.
According to TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring organization, more than 24 tons of ivory was seized across the world in 2011.
Today’s case “really is incredibly significant” in terms of U.S. trade, said Crawford Allan, regional director of TRAFFIC North America. Allan sees the seizure as a sign that the U.S. is becoming a bigger player in the illegal ivory markets.
Both Allan and Wasser, as well as International Elephant Society executive directory Deb Olson, praised today’s seizure. They all warned, however, that it’s just a small step towards solving a big problem.
If elephants keep dying, “the impacts on the ecology are something that is going to be very, very difficult – if not impossible – to remedy,” Wasser said.
Images: Jewelry and trinkets made from poached elephant ivory and displayed at the press conference announcing the seizure of $2 million of illegal ivory. (Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai/Wired.com)
A giant solar flare shot out of a sunspot Thursday, hitting Earth with a powerful burst of X-ray and ultraviolet radiation. Solar researchers expect a moderate geomagnetic storm to follow and strike Earth this weekend, causing satellite glitches, power disruptions and colorful auroras possibly as far south as Washington D.C.
At 12:11 p.m. EDT, the flare began unleashing about a billion hydrogen bombs’ worth of energy. Radiation temporarily jammed some radio frequencies for about an hour.
Right behind the flare is a belch of solar atmosphere called a coronal mass ejection, or CME, which is now traveling toward Earth at about 3 million mph. The resulting solar storm at Earth, which NASA predicts will be a G2 to G4 (on a scale of one to five), should start Saturday morning and conclude by Sunday’s end.
“It’s the biggest of the summer so far,” said heliophysicist Alex Young of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “This could produce auroras as far south as northern California and Alabama [and] into central UK and Europe or southern New Zealand.”
“At its worst it could lead to some intermittent satellite/radio navigation problems, surface charging on satellites and power grid fluctuations,” Young wrote in an email to Wired. “But the larger storm is less likely, these are just rough estimates.”
Every solar cycle, which is an 11-year period that ramps up activity toward the end, produces between 150 and 180 large flares and related CMEs. This year has been one of the most active in the current cycle, which peaks a year or two from now, with a flare almost four times larger striking a glancing blow to Earth in March.
If and when a solar megastorm hits Earth — and there’s a 1-in-8 chance by 2020 — the outcome would be much different. A powerful CME could temporarily peel away a significant portion of Earth’s protective magnetic shield, exposing satellites, power grids and other electronics to disruptive magnetic fields and radiation.
“We have more to expect from the sun through late 2013, perhaps through the beginning of 2014,” Young said. “That’s when we’ll reach solar maximum and see we’ll continue to see more solar eruptions.”
Updated: NASA increased the severity of its space weather predictions, and this story was updated to reflect them on July 12, 2012 at 7:15 p.m. EDT.
Image: An orbiting spacecraft called the Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this view of the sun about an hour before it launched an X-class solar flare. The purple coloring shows the strength of magnetic fields of the sun. (NASA/SDO/AIA) [high-res]
Video: A computer model shows how the coronal mass ejection might move through the solar system. The Earth (yellow dot) could see a geomagnetic storm over the weekend. (NASA)
A federal ban on synthetic drugs, signed into law by President Obama on July 9, was obsolete before the ink of his signature dried.
Drug formulations not covered by the law’s language, and almost certainly synthesized in direct response to legal pressure, are already on sale. If synthetics are supposed to be part of the War on Drugs, then this battle may already be lost.
“There are several compounds out there now, in mixtures that I’ve tested myself, that would not fall under this ban,” said Kevin Shanks, a forensic toxicologist at AIT Laboratories, an Indiana-based chemical testing company. “The law just can’t seem to keep up.”
The new law, officially known as the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012, comes in response to the growing popularity of compounds designed by chemists to mimic the effects of various illegal substances, particularly marijuana and amphetamines.
Sold legally for nominally non-consumptive purposes — brand names include Spice incense, Ivory Wave bath salts and Crystal Clean pipe cleaner — the synthetics are often more potent than the originals, and have been anecdotally linked to violent and psychotic episodes.
Regulating the synthetics has, however, proved exceedingly difficult. The range of possible chemistries is so vast that prohibitions on particular chemical structures can easily be evaded by molecular recombinations.
The law focuses on synthetic cannabinoids, outlawing 15 chemical structures. According to Shanks, this covers most of the compounds popular in the last few years, but law-evading chemistries have already appeared.
Somewhat perplexingly, said Shanks, the law cracks down on 2C, a relatively obscure class of psychedelic synthetics, but goes light on synthetic stimulants, known collectively and infamously as bath salts.
“The only two covered are MDPV and mephedrone,” he said, referencing the two stimulant chemicals named in the law. “In our casework here, we haven’t seen MDPV for quite a while. I’m seeing other compounds.”
In announcing the law’s passage, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) called it “the final nail in the coffin for the legal sale of bath salts.”
“In this area of Indiana, we’re not seeing any of the classical compounds we’ve seen in the last year,” Shanks said. “We’re seeing the uncontrolled ones. I have no doubt they were designed specifically for that reason.”
Dexter makes deciphering blood spatter look so easy. But the fact is, while crime scene investigators have always been able to determine the direction spatter comes from, they’ve never been as good with the height—often key for figuring out how a victim was positioned during the attack. The problem is, blood arcs in a parabola, and different parabolic paths from varied heights can end at the same angle. Math to the rescue! A new equation uses simple high school trigonometry and introductory physics to reverse-calculate height by finding an elevation consistent with two blood drops. If enough of the pairs of drops approximately agree (indicating that they flew off the victim at a similar angle), then the investigator can say definitively how high the blood was when it exited the body—which could prove a person’s position when struck. Cue music over a montage of sexy forensic investigators … solving this math problem.
1// Height of the blood at the beginning of its parabolic arc, that is, when it left the body.
2// Tangent of the angle at which the first blood drop hit the ground.
3// Tangent of the angle at which the second drop hit the ground.
4// Horizontal distance the first drop traveled.
5// Horizontal distance the second drop traveled.
By Liat Clark, Wired UK
A team of geneticists has announced that they have successfully bred fruit flies with the capacity to count.
The findings, announced at the First Joint Congress on Evolutionary Biology in Canada, could lead to a better understanding of how we process numbers and the genetics behind dyscalculia — a learning disability that affects a person’s ability to count and do basic arithmetic.
“The obvious next step is to see how [the flies'] neuro-architecture has changed,” said geneticist Tristan Long, of Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University, who admits far more research is needed to delve into what the results actually mean. Primarily, this will involve comparing the genetic make-up of an evolved fruit fly with that of a standard test fly to pinpoint the mutation.
The research team, made up of geneticists from Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada and the University of California, repeatedly subjected test flies to a 20-minute mathematics training session. The flies were exposed to two, three or four flashes of light, with two or four flashes coinciding with a shake of the container the flies were kept in.
Following a pause, the flies were again subjected to the flashing light. None prepared themselves for a repeat of the shake since they could not discern a difference between two, three or four flashes — until, that is, the 40th generation of descendants were put to the test.
The findings back-up the theory that numerical skills such as mental arithmetic are ancient constructs. Some of the more unusual natural fans of numeracy include salamanders, newborn chicks and mongoose lemurs, all of which have demonstrated basic skills in the lab.
The humble fruit fly — which has been a popular experimental tool for geneticists since the early 1900s, its brief life span making it evolve faster — is the first example of a test subject gaining the skills through directed evolution, however.
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