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  • richardmitnick 4:01 pm on February 17, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "UNTIL THE END OF TIME" Mind, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe By Brian Greene, , , , , , , Matter, NYT, ,   

    From The New York Times: “Just a Few Billion Years Left to Go” 

    From The New York Times

    Feb. 17, 2020
    Dennis Overbye

    1
    UNTIL THE END OF TIME
    Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe
    By Brian Greene

    2
    Brian Greene’s main idea, his own grand, unified theory of human endeavor, is that we want to transcend death by attaching ourselves to something permanent that will outlast us. Credit Elena Seibert

    “In the fullness of time all that lives will die.” With this bleak truth Brian Greene, a physicist and mathematician at Columbia University, the author of best-selling books like The Elegant Universe and co-founder of the yearly New York celebration of science and art known as the World Science Festival, sets off in Until the End of Time on the ultimate journey, a meditation on how we go on doing what we do, why and how it will end badly, and why it matters anyway.

    For going on is what we do, building bridges, spaceships and families, composing great symphonies and other works of art, directing movies, and waging wars and presidential campaigns, even though not only are we going to die, but so is all life everywhere in the fullness of eternity, according to what science now thinks it knows about us and the universe.

    Until the End of Time is encyclopedic in its ambition and its erudition, often heartbreaking, stuffed with too many profundities that I wanted to quote, as well as potted descriptions of the theories of a galaxy of contemporary thinkers, from Chomsky to Hawking, and anecdotes from Greene’s own life — of which we should wish for more — that had me laughing.

    It is also occasionally afflicted with stretches of prose that seem as if eternity will come before you ever get through them, especially when Greene is discussing challenging topics like entropy. If I really understood entropy, I suspect I would be writing this review in an office at M.I.T., not an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

    Greene’s main idea, his own grand unified theory of human endeavor, expanding on the thoughts of people like Otto Rank, Jean-Paul Sartre and Oswald Spengler, is that we want to transcend death by attaching ourselves to something permanent that will outlast us: art, science, our families and so forth.

    For Greene this impulse has taken the form of a lifetime devotion to mathematics and physics, of the search for laws and truths that transcend time and place. “The enchantment of a mathematical proof might be that it stands forever,” he writes.

    If he dies, the work lives on as part of the body of science and knowledge. But as a cosmologist, he knows this is an illusion: “As our trek across time will make clear, life is likely transient, and all understanding that arose with its emergence will almost certainly dissolve with its conclusion. Nothing is permanent. Nothing is absolute.”

    Depressing. But in a Starbucks one day, he says, he had a realization, a sort of conversion to gratitude. Life and thought might occupy only a minute oasis in cosmic time, but, he writes, “If you take that in fully, envisioning a future bereft of stars and planets and things that think, your regard for our era can appreciate toward reverence.” Or maybe, he jokes, he was just losing his mind.

    This book, then, is a love letter to the ephemeral cosmic moment when everything is possible. Reading it is like riding an escalator up through a giant department store. On the lower floors you find things like time, energy, gravity and the Big Bang, and biology.

    The universe is expanding — why? So far the best explanation is that a virulent antigravitational force dubbed “inflation” — and strangely allowed by Einstein’s equations — briefly switched on during the first split trillionth of a second of time and sent everything flying, but astronomers still lack the smoking-gun proof.

    All living creatures that we know about on Earth share the same genetic tool kit, based on DNA. And we are all battery-operated, deriving energy from a molecule called adenosine triphosphate, ATP for short. In order to keep going, Greene tells us, each cell in your body consumes some 10 million of these molecules every second.

    Upward we go through the emporium of ideas to floors dedicated to consciousness, free will, language and religion. We don’t linger long on any floor. Greene is like one of those custom shopping consultants. He knows the wares, the ideas being pitched in every department. He drags in all the experts — from Proust to Hawking — and tries to be an honest broker about the answers to questions we can’t really answer.

    Why do humans tell stories? Was there an evolutionary advantage to be gained from taking time out from the hunt to sit around the campfire and gab — a bonding experience? Is the shared imagination a way to practice navigating unknown territory, or a guide for living your life?

    Can physics explain not just how the mind — neurons and electrochemical impulses — works but also explain the feeling of having a mind, that is to say consciousness? Greene is cautiously hopeful it can. “That the mind can do all it does is extraordinary. That the mind may accomplish all it does with nothing more than the kinds of ingredients and types of forces holding together my coffee cup, makes it more extraordinary still. Consciousness would be demystified without being diminished.”

    But he’s not always sure. Admitting that the neurophysical facts shed only “a monochrome light” on human experience, he extols art as another dimension. “We gain access to worlds otherwise uncharted,” he says. “As Proust emphasized, this is to be celebrated. Only through art, he noted, can we enter the secret universe of another, the only journey in which we truly ‘fly from star to star,’ a journey that cannot be navigated by ‘direct and conscious methods.’”

    Two main themes run through this story. The first is natural selection, the endless inventive process of evolution that keeps molding organisms into more and more complex arrangements and codependencies. The second is what Greene calls the “entropic-two step.” This refers to the physical property known as entropy. In thermodynamics it denotes the amount of heat — wasted energy — inevitably produced by a steam engine, for example as it goes through its cycle of expansion and contraction. It’s the reason you can’t build a perpetual motion machine. In modern physics it’s a measure of disorder and information. Entropy is a big concept in information theory and black holes, as well as in biology.

    We are all little steam engines, apparently, and everything we accomplish has a cost. That is why your exhaust pipe gets too hot to touch, or why your desk tends to get more cluttered by the end of the day.

    In the end, Greene says, entropy will get us all, and everything else in the universe, tearing down what evolution has built. “The entropic two-step and the evolutionary forces of selection enrich the pathway from order to disorder with prodigious structure, but whether stars or black holes, planets or people, molecules or atoms, things ultimately fall apart,” he writes.

    In a virtuosic final section Greene describes how this will work by inviting us to climb an allegorical Empire State Building; on each floor the universe is 10 times older. If the first floor is Year 10, we now are just above the 10th (10 billion years). By the time we get to the 11th floor the sun will be gone and with it probably any life on Earth. As we climb higher we are exposed to expanses of time that make the current age of the universe look like less than the blink of an eye.

    Eventually the Milky Way galaxy will fall into a black hole. On about the 38th floor of the future, when the universe is 100 trillion trillion trillion years old, protons, the building blocks of atoms, will dissolve out from under us, leaving space populated by a thin haze of lightweight electrons and a spittle of radiation.

    In the far, far, far, far future, even holding a thought will require more energy than will be available in the vastly dissipated universe. It will be an empty and cold place that doesn’t remember us. “Nabokov’s description of a human life as a ‘brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness’ may apply to the phenomenon of life itself,” Greene writes.

    In the end it is up to us to make of this what we will. We can contemplate eternity, Greene concludes, “and even though we can reach for eternity, apparently we cannot touch eternity.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 2:38 pm on February 16, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "The End of Australia as We Know It", 57 percent of Australians have been directly affected by the bush fires or their smoke., , “We have seen the unfolding wings of climate change.”, “What was feared and what was warned is no longer in our future- a topic for debate — it is here.”, Climate change threatens heavy pillars of Australian identity., , NYT, Since the fires started tens of millions of acres have been incinerated in areas that are deeply connected to the national psyche., Summer is feared., The conservative government is still playing down the role of climate change despite polls showing public anger hitting feverish levels., The economy needs to change- not just moving away from fossil fuels which are a major export but also from thirsty crops like rice and cotton., With climate change forcing a relaxed country to stumble toward new ways of work; leisure; and life will politics follow?   

    From The New York Times: “The End of Australia as We Know It” 

    From The New York Times

    Feb. 15, 2020
    Damien Cave
    Photographs by Matthew Abbott

    1
    Firefighters on the outskirts of Bredbo, New South Wales, Australia, on Feb. 1.

    What many of us have witnessed this fire season feels alive and monstrous. With climate change forcing a relaxed country to stumble toward new ways of work, leisure and life, will politics follow?

    In a country where there has always been more space than people, where the land and wildlife are cherished like a Picasso, nature is closing in. Fueled by climate change and the world’s refusal to address it, the fires that have burned across Australia are not just destroying lives, or turning forests as large as nations into ashen moonscapes.

    They are also forcing Australians to imagine an entirely new way of life. When summer is feared. When air filters hum in homes that are bunkers, with kids kept indoors. When birdsong and the rustle of marsupials in the bush give way to an eerie, smoky silence.

    “I am standing here a traveler from a new reality, a burning Australia,” Lynette Wallworth, an Australian filmmaker, told a crowd of international executives and politicians in Davos, Switzerland, last month. “What was feared and what was warned is no longer in our future, a topic for debate — it is here.”

    “We have seen,” she added, “the unfolding wings of climate change.”

    Like the fires, it’s a metaphor that lingers. What many of us have witnessed this fire season does feel alive, like a monstrous gathering force threatening to devour what we hold most dear on a continent that will grow only hotter, drier and more flammable as global temperatures rise.

    It’s also a hint of what may be coming to a town, city or country near you.

    And in a land usually associated with relaxed optimism, anxiety and trauma have taken hold. A recent Australia Institute survey found that 57 percent of Australians have been directly affected by the bush fires or their smoke. With officials in New South Wales announcing Thursday that heavy rain had helped them finally extinguish or control all the state’s fires that have raged this Australian summer, the country seems to be reflecting and wondering what comes next.

    2
    Burned bush land on the outskirts of Bredbo, Australia, this month.

    Politics have been a focal point — one of frustration for most Australians. The conservative government is still playing down the role of climate change, despite polls showing public anger hitting feverish levels. And yet what’s emerging alongside public protest may prove more potent.

    In interviews all over the fire zone since September, it’s been clear that Australians are reconsidering far more than energy and emissions. They are stumbling toward new ways of living: Housing, holiday travel, work, leisure, food and water are all being reconsidered.

    “If there’s not a major shift that comes out of this, we’re doomed,” said Robyn Eckersley, a political scientist at the University of Melbourne who has written extensively about environmental policy around the world. “It does change everything — or it should.”

    Professor Eckersley is one of many for whom climate change has shifted from the distant and theoretical to the personal and emotional.

    Before the fires peaked last month, she and I had often spoken in dry terms about Australia and climate change policy. This last time, as she sat in a vacation home southwest of Melbourne, where smoky haze closed a nearby beach, she told me about a friend driving south from Brisbane, “by all these towns and farms he couldn’t imagine bouncing back.”

    Australia, she argued, must accept that the most inhabited parts of the country can no longer be trusted to stay temperate — and, she added, “that means massive changes in what we do and the rhythm of our work and play.”

    More specifically, she said, the economy needs to change, not just moving away from fossil fuels, a major export, but also from thirsty crops like rice and cotton.

    Building regulations will probably stiffen too, she said. Already, there are signs of growing interest in designs that offer protections from bush fires, and regulators are looking at whether commercial properties need to be made more fireproof as well.

    The biggest shifts, however, may not be structural so much as cultural.

    Climate change threatens heavy pillars of Australian identity: a life lived outdoors, an international role where the country “punches above its weight,” and an emphasis on egalitarianism that, according to some historians, is rooted in Australia’s settlement by convicts.

    Since the fires started, tens of millions of acres have been incinerated in areas that are deeply connected to the national psyche. If you’re American, imagine Cape Cod, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the Sierra Nevadas and California’s Pacific Coast, all rolled into one — and burned.

    It’s “a place of childhood vacations and dreams,” as one of Australia’s great novelists, Thomas Keneally, recently wrote [The Guardian].

    For months on end, driving through these areas, where tourism, agriculture, retirement and bohemian living all meet for flat whites at the local cafe, has meant checking reports for closed roads and wondering if the thick clouds of smoke in the distance mean immediate danger.

    There’s an absurdity even to the signs. The ones that aren’t melted warn of wet roads. Just beyond them are trees black as coal and koalas and kangaroos robbed of life.

    The fear of ferocious nature can be tough to shake. Fires are still burning south and west of New South Wales, and to many, the recent rain near Sydney felt as biblical as the infernos the storms put out — some areas got more than two feet, flooding rivers and parched earth hardened by years of drought.

    Last month in Cobargo, a dairy and horse town six hours’ drive from Sydney, I stood silently waiting for the start of an outdoor funeral for a father and son who had died in the fires a few weeks earlier. When the wind kicked up, everyone near me snapped their heads toward where a fire burned less than a mile away.

    “It just hasn’t stopped,” said an older man in a cowboy hat.

    No other sentiment has better captured Australia’s mood.

    That same day, in the coastal town of Eden, government officials welcomed a cruise ship, declaring the area safe for tourists. A week later, another burst of fire turned the sky over Eden blood red, forcing residents nearby to evacuate.

    It’s no wonder that all across the area, known as the South Coast, the streets in summer have looked closer to the quiet found in winter. Perhaps, some now say, that’s how it should be.

    “We should no longer schedule our summer holidays over the Christmas season,” Professor Eckersley said. “Maybe they should be in March or April.”

    “Certainly, we should rethink when and whether we go to all the places in the summer where we might be trapped,” she added.

    David Bowman, a climate scientist in Tasmania who wrote an article [ABC.AU News] calling for the end of the summer school holiday, which went viral, said Australia’s experience could help the world understand just how much climate change can reorder the way we live.

    “You can’t pretend that this is sustainable,” he said. “If that’s true, you’re going to have to do something different.”

    Smoke may be more of a catalyst than flame. For much of the summer, a fog of soot has smothered Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. In Sydney alone, there were 81 days of hazardous, very poor or poor air quality last year, more than the previous 10 years combined. And until the recent rains, the smell of smoke often returned.

    Mike Cannon-Brookes, Australia’s most famous tech billionaire, called it part of a broader awakening.

    “It’s bringing home the viscerality of what science and scientists have been telling us is going to happen,” he said.

    There’s unity in that, as so many have seen climate change up close and personal. But there’s also inequality. The air filters selling out at hardware stores last month cost close to $1,000 each. In December, I heard surfers in the waves at Bondi Beach deciding to get out early to avoid breathing in too much smoke and ash — but farther west, where working-class immigrants cluster, I met a bicycle delivery driver who said he could work only a couple of hours before feeling sick.

    Mr. Cannon-Brookes said Australia could seize the moment and become a leader in climate innovation. Ms. Wallworth, the filmmaker, echoed that sentiment: What if the country’s leaders did not run from the problem of climate change, but instead harnessed the country’s desire to act?

    “If only our leaders would call on us and say, ‘Look, this is a turning point moment for us; the natural world in Australia, that’s our cathedral, and it’s burning — our land and the animals we love are being killed,’” she said.

    “If they called on us to make radical change, the nation would do it.”

    In The Lucky Country, the 1964 book of essays by Donald Horne that is often described as a wake-up call to an unimaginative nation, Australians are deemed tolerant of mediocrity, but “adaptable when a way is shown.”

    One afternoon, I traveled to the Sutherland Shire, near where Prime Minister Scott Morrison lives, with Horne’s comments on my mind.

    Near a bus stop, I met Bob Gallagher, 71, a retired state employee with thick white hair. He felt strongly that the criticism of Mr. Morrison for not doing enough about climate change was unfair.

    “The first thing the government needs to do is run the economy,” Mr. Gallagher said. “I just don’t understand what these climate change people want.”

    I asked him to imagine a version of Ms. Wallworth’s dream — an Australia with a prime minister who shouted to the world: “What we all love, this unique country, is being destroyed by inaction. We’ll punch above our weight, but we can’t do it alone. We need your help.”

    Mr. Gallagher listened without interrupting. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he said. “I could support that.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 12:15 pm on February 9, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Antarctica Sets Record High Temperature: 64.9 Degrees", Antarctica's ice sheet which is nearly three miles thick contains 90 percent of the world’s fresh water., “This is the foreshadowing of what is to come” a researcher said., Last month was the fifth-warmest January in the United States in 126 years of record-keeping according to the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration., NYT, The temperature at Esperanza where it is summer was comparable to the weather in Los Angeles and Huntsville Ala. where the high temperatures were 64 on Thursday.   

    From The New York Times: “Antarctica Sets Record High Temperature: 64.9 Degrees” 

    From The New York Times

    Feb. 8, 2020
    Derrick Bryson Taylor

    “This is the foreshadowing of what is to come,” a researcher said. “It’s exactly in line of what we’ve been seeing for decades.”

    1
    The previous record high temperature for Esperanza, the Argentinian research station, was 63 degrees, which was set in March 2015.Credit…Vanderlei Almeida/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

    Antarctica, the coldest, windiest and driest continent on Earth, set a record high temperature on Thursday, underscoring the global warming trend, researchers said.

    Esperanza, Argentina’s research station on the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, reached 64.9 degrees Fahrenheit, or 18.2 degrees Celsius, breaking the previous record of 63.5 degrees set on March 24, 2015, according to Argentina’s National Meteorological Service. The station has been recording temperatures since 1961.

    The temperature at Esperanza, where it is summer, was comparable to the weather in Los Angeles and Huntsville, Ala., where the high temperatures were 64 on Thursday, according to the National Weather Service.

    The Weather and Climate Extremes Archive, a committee of the World Meteorological Organization, will verify the temperature, the organization said in a news release.

    “Everything we have seen thus far indicates a likely legitimate record,” Randall Cerveny, an organization official, said.

    The record high appears to be associated with a regional “foehn,” described as a rapid warming of air coming down a slope or mountain, Mr. Cerveny said.

    Temperatures on the continent range on average from 14 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 10 degrees Celsius) on the Antarctic coast, to minus 76 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 60 degrees Celsius) at higher elevations of the interior, the meteorological organization said.

    Its ice sheet, which is nearly three miles thick, contains 90 percent of the world’s fresh water.

    The Antarctic Peninsula, the northwest tip near South America, is among the fastest warming regions of the planet, the meteorological organization said. Antarctica is about the size of the United States and Mexico combined, according to NASA.

    The high temperature is in keeping with the earth’s overall warming trend, which is in large part caused by emissions of greenhouse gases.

    Experts say that warming trend is affecting other parts of Antarctica, including the large West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

    “I think of the warming of the atmosphere as like preheating an oven and the polar ice sheets are like a frozen lasagna that you put into the oven and now even the frozen lasagna is starting to defrost at high polar latitude,” Maureen Raymo, a research professor in the department of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University, said on Saturday.

    When the ice sheets melt, the water has nowhere to go but into the ocean and will affect shorelines around the world, Professor Raymo said.

    “I think this is the tip of the iceberg, so to speak,” she said. “This is the foreshadowing of what is to come. It’s exactly in line of what we’ve been seeing for decades” — that air temperature records are increasingly broken.

    Last month was the fifth-warmest January in the United States in 126 years of record-keeping, according to the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration. The lower 48 states had an average temperature of 35.5 degrees and they all saw above- to much-above-average temperatures last month, it said.

    The last decade was the hottest on record and 2019 was the second-warmest year, according to researchers.

    Global average surface temperatures last year were nearly 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) higher than the average from the middle of the last century, caused by emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases from the burning of fossil fuels.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 3:10 pm on January 21, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , Impact craters, NYT   

    From The New York Times: “Earth’s Oldest Asteroid Impact Found in Australia” 

    From The New York Times

    Jan. 21, 2020
    Katherine Kornei

    The cataclysm, which occurred roughly 2.2 billion years ago, might have catapulted the planet out of an ice age.

    1
    An outcrop of impact melt rock on Barlangi Hill in the Yarrabubba crater in Western Australia, the site of an asteroid collision more than 2 billion years old.Credit.Timmons Erickson

    Earth is constantly being pummeled by space rocks. Several tons rain down on the planet each day in the form of dust. And larger strikes have created more visible features, including giant craters.

    2
    Artist’s reconstruction of Chicxulub crater soon after impact, 66 million years ago.
    DETLEV VAN RAVENSWAAY/SCIENCE SOURCE
    This strike was the one responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs.

    But which of our planet’s extraterrestrial scars is the oldest?

    Researchers reported on Tuesday in Nature Communications that they have pinpointed it, in Western Australia. It was caused by an impact more than 2.2 billion years ago.

    Intriguingly, that timing roughly coincides with the end of one of our planet’s ice ages. An impact in the ice would have liberated an enormous amount of water vapor, the researchers suggest, perhaps enough to alter Earth’s climate and catapult the planet out of widespread glaciation.

    The Yarrabubba impact structure, about a day’s drive northeast of Perth, isn’t much to look at today. The original crater, believed to have been roughly 40 miles in diameter, is long gone.

    “There’s no topography that rises up,” said Aaron Cavosie, a planetary scientist at Curtin University in Perth and a member of the research team.

    That’s because the combined effects of wind, rain, glaciation and plate tectonics have scoured several miles off the surface of the planet, effectively erasing the crater. The extent of erosion suggests that the impact structure is very, very old.

    Existing clues yield “a pretty giant” age range of about a billion and a half years, said Timmons Erickson, a geochronologist at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston and the study’s lead author. But Dr. Erickson knew that it was possible to do far better, by reading the tiny geological clocks that hide within rocks.

    In 2014, Dr. Erickson collected roughly 200 pounds of granitic rocks from Yarrabubba. Back in the laboratory, he and his colleagues placed the rocks in water and added 120,000 volts of electricity. That jolt broke the rocks into sand-size grains. The scientists were looking for grains of zircon and monazite, tough minerals that survive for billions of years and, crucially, incorporate uranium and thorium atoms into their crystalline structure.

    Uranium and thorium decay, in a steady dribble over billions of years, into lead. But the searing temperatures of an impact — thousands of degrees Fahrenheit — cause zircon and monazite to recrystallize, a process that drives out lead.

    “It’s kind of like cleaning house,” Dr. Cavosie said. “Recrystallization is a bond-breaking process that kicks out the pre-existing lead and thus resets the clock.”

    As a result, the relative amounts of uranium, thorium and lead in recrystallized zircon or monazite can be used to calculate how long ago an impact occurred.

    Based on measurements of 39 zircon and monazite crystals, Dr. Erickson and his team calculated that the Yarrabubba impact occurred 2.229 billion years ago, with an uncertainty of 5 million years. The next-oldest impact structure, Vredefort Dome in South Africa, is over 200 million years younger.

    3
    A grain of zircon analyzed by Dr. Erickson and his colleagues, showing recrystallization textures from the impact.Credit…Erickson et al., Nature Communications 2020

    The age of the Yarrabubba impact structure happens to line up with the end of an ice age, which makes for a compelling coincidence, Dr. Erickson said: “Would an impact event like Yarrabubba be enough to terminate a glacial time in Earth’s history?”

    To help answer that question, the scientists modeled the effects of a roughly four-mile-wide impact object striking ice sheets of different thicknesses. They found that more than 100 billion tons of water vapor would have been jetted into the upper atmosphere.

    Water vapor is a potent greenhouse gas; suddenly having much more of it aloft could have triggered a warming that ended an ice age, the team suggested. That idea still needs to be tested with climate models, the researchers noted.

    Christian Koeberl, a geochemist at the University of Vienna and not involved in the research, agreed. Inferring what might have happened to Earth’s ancient climate is “where things get a lot more speculative,” he said. “We just don’t know the answer to that yet.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 5:48 pm on January 17, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "At the Bottom of the Sea, , , Eight days after being deposited another alligator’s carcass was completely missing., NYT, , They Wait to Feast on Alligators"   

    From The New York Times: “At the Bottom of the Sea, They Wait to Feast on Alligators” 

    From The New York Times

    Jan. 17, 2020
    Asher Elbein

    Early last year, a team of researchers dropped three alligator carcasses over a mile deep into the Gulf of Mexico. The goal was to see what would turn up to eat them.

    5
    Stephen Jessop/Alamy

    When dead whales and big logs fall to the bottom of the gulf, “there’s a whole host of species found on them that aren’t found anywhere else in the ocean,” said Craig McClain, a deep-sea biologist in Louisiana.

    The crocodile lineage dates to the Mesozoic Era, when the seas teemed with enormous marine reptiles. When those reptiles died, fossils show that marine scavengers happily devoured them [Biology Letters].

    So Dr. McClain and his team hypothesized that unique ocean creatures might be waiting for crocodyliform meals.

    “We wondered if we did alligator falls, if we’d recover species that haven’t been previously known to science — relics and refugees from a time when marine reptiles dominated the ocean,” he said. “Are we going to be able to uncover an ancient fauna?”

    The research, published last month in PLOS ONE, didn’t just turn up a new species that thrives on alligator bones, but also revealed surprises about the food web deep beneath the Gulf of Mexico, including how carbon from Earth’s surface gets recycled in the oceans.

    Usually, Dr. McClain’s lab studies how deep-sea creatures feed on trees swept into the Mississippi Delta. But they began wondering what happened to alligators.

    “There were three swimming behind my house in the harbor,” Dr. McClain said. “That got my lab thinking about alligators in general as potential food falls.”

    Alligators are found in coastal habitats from Texas to South Carolina, and occasionally venture into saltwater. When they die, some must sink into the deep ocean.

    Because alligators are protected in Louisiana, Dr. McClain’s team worked with state officials to acquire three euthanized alligators. They selected three sites around the undersea Mississippi Canyon, and lowered each carcass from the ship on a basket, or “benthic elevator.”

    The team left the alligators weighted down in the abyssal mud. When they sent a remotely operated vehicle back a day later to check one of the carcasses, they got a shock.

    Dr. McClain and his colleagues had guessed that the alligators’ tough hides would make it difficult — perhaps impossible — for undersea scavengers to devour them. But the carcass was swarming with giant isopods, a football-sized species of scavenging crustacean, which had gotten around the alligator’s armor by chewing through softer spots under the armpit.

    That wasn’t the only surprise. Eight days after being deposited, another alligator’s carcass was completely missing. Dr. McClain’s team initially thought they’d returned to the wrong site, until they found drag marks. The carcass’s 45-pound weight was 30 feet away, the rope severed.

    “It was completely dumbfounding to us,” Dr. McClain said, adding that the alligator must have been carried off by a sixgill or Greenland shark.

    “Those are the only two sharks that reach substantial enough lengths and live deep enough in the Gulf of Mexico,” he said.

    The last alligator was swarming with scavengers as well. Fifty-one days after its placement, it had been picked completely clean. The bones were covered in a species of Osedax “zombie worms.”

    Other Osedax bore into the bones of fallen whales, but these worms are the first of their kind known in the Gulf of Mexico, Dr. McClain said, and represent a species new to science.

    Additional research could prove whether these zombie worms are a Mesozoic-era holdover that specializes in eating reptiles that die in the ocean. For now, the study potentially reveals something about alligators’ role in feeding other marine life.

    The ocean bottom gets no sunlight, preventing the photosynthesis that sustains most ecosystems. So animals living in undersea deserts depend on carbon from decaying organisms from above.

    “What we find really interesting is that alligators can be a food source,” Dr. McClain said, “and a food source that’s quickly accessed and can enter into the deep-sea food web a number of different ways. Isopods. Worms. Sharks.”

    If an alligator falls in the deep ocean, in other words, it does make a sound. A dinner bell.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 2:19 pm on January 14, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Have Dark Forces Been Messing With the Cosmos?", Alan Guth MIT "Inflation", , , , , CMB per Planck, , , , Discrepancy in how fast the niverse is expanding., Edwin Hubble in 1929 discovers the Universe is Expanding, , NYT, Saul Perlmutter [The Supernova Cosmology Project] shared the 2006 Shaw Prize in Astronom; the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics; and the 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics with Brian P. Schmidt ,   

    From The New York Times: “Have Dark Forces Been Messing With the Cosmos?” 


    From The New York Times

    Feb. 25, 2019 [Sorry, missed the first time around. Picked up from another article found today by Dennis Overbye]
    Dennis Overbye

    1
    Brian Stauffer

    There was, you might say, a disturbance in the Force.

    Long, long ago, when the universe was only about 100,000 years old — a buzzing, expanding mass of particles and radiation — a strange new energy field switched on. That energy suffused space with a kind of cosmic antigravity, delivering a not-so-gentle boost to the expansion of the universe.

    Then, after another 100,000 years or so, the new field simply winked off, leaving no trace other than a speeded-up universe.

    So goes the strange-sounding story being promulgated by a handful of astronomers from Johns Hopkins University. In a bold and speculative leap into the past, the team has posited the existence of this field to explain an astronomical puzzle: the universe seems to be expanding faster than it should be.

    The cosmos is expanding only about 9 percent more quickly than theory prescribes. But this slight-sounding discrepancy has intrigued astronomers, who think it might be revealing something new about the universe.

    And so, for the last couple of years, they have been gathering in workshops and conferences to search for a mistake or loophole in their previous measurements and calculations, so far to no avail.

    “If we’re going to be serious about cosmology, this is the kind of thing we have to be able to take seriously,” said Lisa Randall, a Harvard theorist who has been pondering the problem.

    At a recent meeting in Chicago, Josh Frieman, a theorist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory [FNAL] in Batavia, Ill., asked: “At what point do we claim the discovery of new physics?”

    Now ideas are popping up. Some researchers say the problem could be solved by inferring the existence of previously unknown subatomic particles. Others, such as the Johns Hopkins group, are invoking new kinds of energy fields.

    Adding to the confusion, there already is a force field — called dark energy — making the universe expand faster.

    Dark Energy Survey


    Dark Energy Camera [DECam], built at FNAL


    NOAO/CTIO Victor M Blanco 4m Telescope which houses the DECam at Cerro Tololo, Chile, housing DECam at an altitude of 7200 feet

    Timeline of the Inflationary Universe WMAP

    The Dark Energy Survey (DES) is an international, collaborative effort to map hundreds of millions of galaxies, detect thousands of supernovae, and find patterns of cosmic structure that will reveal the nature of the mysterious dark energy that is accelerating the expansion of our Universe. DES began searching the Southern skies on August 31, 2013.

    According to Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, gravity should lead to a slowing of the cosmic expansion. Yet, in 1998, two teams of astronomers studying distant supernovae made the remarkable discovery that the expansion of the universe is speeding up. To explain cosmic acceleration, cosmologists are faced with two possibilities: either 70% of the universe exists in an exotic form, now called dark energy, that exhibits a gravitational force opposite to the attractive gravity of ordinary matter, or General Relativity must be replaced by a new theory of gravity on cosmic scales.

    DES is designed to probe the origin of the accelerating universe and help uncover the nature of dark energy by measuring the 14-billion-year history of cosmic expansion with high precision. More than 400 scientists from over 25 institutions in the United States, Spain, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Germany, Switzerland, and Australia are working on the project. The collaboration built and is using an extremely sensitive 570-Megapixel digital camera, DECam, mounted on the Blanco 4-meter telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, high in the Chilean Andes, to carry out the project.

    Over six years (2013-2019), the DES collaboration used 758 nights of observation to carry out a deep, wide-area survey to record information from 300 million galaxies that are billions of light-years from Earth. The survey imaged 5000 square degrees of the southern sky in five optical filters to obtain detailed information about each galaxy. A fraction of the survey time is used to observe smaller patches of sky roughly once a week to discover and study thousands of supernovae and other astrophysical transients.

    And a new, controversial report suggests that this dark energy might be getting stronger and denser, leading to a future in which atoms are ripped apart and time ends.

    Thus far, there is no evidence for most of these ideas. If any turn out to be right, scientists may have to rewrite the story of the origin, history and, perhaps, fate of the universe.

    Or it could all be a mistake. Astronomers have rigorous methods to estimate the effects of statistical noise and other random errors on their results; not so for the unexamined biases called systematic errors.

    As Wendy L. Freedman, of the University of Chicago, said at the Chicago meeting, “The unknown systematic is what gets you in the end.”

    Edwin Hubble looking through a 100-inch Hooker telescope at Mount Wilson in Southern California, 1929 discovers the Universe is Expanding

    Edwin Hubble in 1949, two decades after he discovered that the universe is expanding.Credit…Boyer/Roger Viollet, via Getty Images (credit: Emilio Segre Visual Archives/AIP/SPL)

    Hubble trouble

    Generations of great astronomers have come to grief trying to measure the universe. At issue is a number called the Hubble constant, named after Edwin Hubble, the Mount Wilson astronomer who in 1929 discovered that the universe is expanding.

    As space expands, it carries galaxies away from each other like the raisins in a rising cake. The farther apart two galaxies are, the faster they will fly away from each other. The Hubble constant simply says by how much.

    But to calibrate the Hubble constant, astronomers depend on so-called standard candles: objects, such as supernova explosions and certain variable stars, whose distances can be estimated by luminosity or some other feature. This is where the arguing begins.

    Standard Candles to measure age and distance of the universe from supernovae. NASA

    Until a few decades ago, astronomers could not agree on the value of the Hubble constant within a factor of two: either 50 or 100 kilometers per second per megaparsec. (A megaparsec is 3.26 million light years.)

    But in 2001, a team using the Hubble Space Telescope, and led by Dr. Freedman, reported a value of 72. For every megaparsec farther away from us that a galaxy is, it is moving 72 kilometers per second faster.

    More recent efforts by Adam G. Riess [The Astrophysical Journal], of Johns Hopkins and the Space Telescope Science Institute, and others have obtained similar numbers, and astronomers now say they have narrowed the uncertainty in the Hubble constant to just 2.4 percent.

    But new precision has brought new trouble. These results are so good that they now disagree with results from the European Planck spacecraft, which predict a Hubble constant of 67.

    The discrepancy — 9 percent — sounds fatal but may not be, astronomers contend, because Planck and human astronomers do very different kinds of observations.

    Planck is considered the gold standard of cosmology. It spent four years studying the cosmic bath of microwaves [CMB] left over from the end of the Big Bang, when the universe was just 380,000 years old.

    CMB per ESA/Planck


    ESA/Planck 2009 to 2013

    But it did not measure the Hubble constant directly. Rather, the Planck group derived the value of the constant, and other cosmic parameters, from a mathematical model largely based on those microwaves.

    In short, Planck’s Hubble constant is based on a cosmic baby picture. In contrast, the classical astronomical value is derived from what cosmologists modestly call “local measurements,” a few billion light-years deep into a middle-aged universe.

    What if that baby picture left out or obscured some important feature of the universe?

    ‘Cosmological Whac-a-Mole’

    And so cosmologists are off to the game that Lloyd Knox, an astrophysicist from the University of California, Davis, called “cosmological Whac-a-Mole” at the recent Chicago meeting: attempting to fix the model of the early universe, to make it expand a little faster without breaking what the model already does well.

    One approach, some astrophysicists suggest, is to add more species of lightweight subatomic particles, such as the ghostlike neutrinos, to the early universe. (Physicists already recognize three kinds of neutrinos, and argue whether there is evidence for a fourth variety.) These would give the universe more room to stash energy, in the same way that more drawers in your dresser allow you to own more pairs of socks. Thus invigorated, the universe would expand faster, according to the Big Bang math, and hopefully not mess up the microwave baby picture.

    A more drastic approach, from the Johns Hopkins group, invokes fields of exotic anti-gravitational energy. The idea exploits an aspect of string theory, the putative but unproven “theory of everything” that posits that the elementary constituents of reality are very tiny, wriggling strings.

    String theory suggests that space could be laced with exotic energy fields associated with lightweight particles or forces yet undiscovered. Those fields, collectively called quintessence, could act in opposition to gravity, and could change over time — popping up, decaying or altering their effect, switching from repulsive to attractive.

    The team focused in particular on the effects of fields associated with hypothetical particles called axions. Had one such field arisen when the universe was about 100,000 years old, it could have produced just the right amount of energy to fix the Hubble discrepancy, the team reported in a paper late last year. They refer to this theoretical force as “early dark energy.”

    “I was surprised how it came out,” said Marc Kamionkowski, a Johns Hopkins cosmologist who was part of the study. “This works.”

    The jury is still out. Dr. Riess said that the idea seems to work, which is not to say that he agrees with it, or that it is right. Nature, manifest in future observations, will have the final say.

    Dr. Knox called the Johns Hopkins paper “an existence proof” that the Hubble problem could be solved. “I think that’s new,” he said.

    Dr. Randall, however, has taken issue with aspects of the Johns Hopkins calculations. She and a trio of Harvard postdocs are working on a similar idea that she says works as well and is mathematically consistent. “It’s novel and very cool,” Dr. Randall said.

    So far, the smart money is still on cosmic confusion. Michael Turner, a veteran cosmologist at the University of Chicago and the organizer of a recent airing of the Hubble tensions, said, “Indeed, all of this is going over all of our heads. We are confused and hoping that the confusion will lead to something good!”

    Doomsday? Nah, nevermind

    Early dark energy appeals to some cosmologists because it hints at a link to, or between, two mysterious episodes in the history of the universe. As Dr. Riess said, “This is not the first time the universe has been expanding too fast.”

    The first episode occurred when the universe was less than a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old. At that moment, cosmologists surmise, a violent ballooning propelled the Big Bang; in a fraction of a trillionth of a second, this event — named “inflation” by the cosmologist Alan Guth, of M.I.T. — smoothed and flattened the initial chaos into the more orderly universe observed today.

    Inflation

    4
    Alan Guth, from Highland Park High School and M.I.T., who first proposed cosmic inflation

    HPHS Owls

    Lamda Cold Dark Matter Accerated Expansion of The universe http scinotions.com the-cosmic-inflation-suggests-the-existence-of-parallel-universes
    Alex Mittelmann, Coldcreation

    Alan Guth’s notes:

    Alan Guth’s original notes on inflation

    Nobody knows what drove inflation.

    The second episode is unfolding today: cosmic expansion is speeding up. But why? The issue came to light in 1998, when two competing teams of astronomers asked whether the collective gravity of the galaxies might be slowing the expansion enough to one day drag everything together into a Big Crunch.

    To great surprise, they discovered the opposite: the expansion was accelerating under the influence of an anti-gravitational force later called dark energy. The two teams won a Nobel Prize.

    Saul Perlmutter [The Supernova Cosmology Project] shared the 2006 Shaw Prize in Astronomy, the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, and the 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics with Brian P. Schmidt and Adam Riess [The High-z Supernova Search Team] for providing evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.

    Dark energy comprises 70 percent of the mass-energy of the universe. And, spookily, it behaves very much like a fudge factor known as the cosmological constant, a cosmic repulsive force that Einstein inserted in his equations a century ago thinking it would keep the universe from collapsing under its own weight. He later abandoned the idea, perhaps too soon.

    Under the influence of dark energy, the cosmos is now doubling in size every 10 billion years — to what end, nobody knows.

    Early dark energy, the force invoked by the Johns Hopkins group, might represent a third episode of antigravity taking over the universe and speeding it up. Perhaps all three episodes are different manifestations of the same underlying tendency of the universe to go rogue and speed up occasionally. In an email, Dr. Riess said, “Maybe the universe does this from time-to-time?”

    If so, it would mean that the current manifestation of dark energy is not Einstein’s constant after all. It might wink off one day. That would relieve astronomers, and everybody else, of an existential nightmare regarding the future of the universe. If dark energy remains constant, everything outside our galaxy eventually will be moving away from us faster than the speed of light, and will no longer be visible. The universe will become lifeless and utterly dark.

    But if dark energy is temporary — if one day it switches off — cosmologists and metaphysicians can all go back to contemplating a sensible tomorrow.

    “An appealing feature of this is that there might be a future for humanity,” said Scott Dodelson, a theorist at Carnegie Mellon who has explored similar scenarios.

    The phantom cosmos

    But the future is still up for grabs.

    Far from switching off, the dark energy currently in the universe actually has increased over cosmic time, according to a recent report in Nature Astronomy. If this keeps up, the universe could end one day in what astronomers call the Big Rip, with atoms and elementary particles torn asunder — perhaps the ultimate cosmic catastrophe.

    This dire scenario emerges from the work of Guido Risaliti, of the University of Florence in Italy, and Elisabeta Lusso, of Durham University in England. For the last four years, they have plumbed the deep history of the universe, using violent, faraway cataclysms called quasars as distance markers.

    Quasars arise from supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies; they are the brightest objects in nature, and can be seen clear across the universe. As standard candles, quasars aren’t ideal because their masses vary widely. Nevertheless, the researchers identified some regularities in the emissions from quasars, allowing the history of the cosmos to be traced back nearly 12 billion years. The team found that the rate of cosmic expansion deviated from expectations over that time span.

    One interpretation of the results is that dark energy is not constant after all, but is changing, growing denser and thus stronger over cosmic time. It so happens that this increase in dark energy also would be just enough to resolve the discrepancy in measurements of the Hubble constant.

    The bad news is that, if this model is right, dark energy may be in a particularly virulent and — most physicists say — implausible form called phantom energy. Its existence would imply that things can lose energy by speeding up, for instance. Robert Caldwell, a Dartmouth physicist, has referred to it as “bad news stuff.”

    As the universe expands, the push from phantom energy would grow without bounds, eventually overcoming gravity and tearing apart first Earth, then atoms.

    The Hubble-constant community responded to the new report with caution. “If it holds up, this is a very interesting result,” said Dr. Freedman.

    Astronomers have been trying to take the measure of this dark energy for two decades. Two space missions — the European Space Agency’s Euclid and NASA’s Wfirst — have been designed to study dark energy and hopefully deliver definitive answers in the coming decade. The fate of the universe is at stake.

    ESA/Euclid spacecraft depiction

    NASA/WFIRST

    In the meantime, everything, including phantom energy, is up for consideration, according to Dr. Riess.

    “In a list of possible solutions to the tension via new physics, mentioning weird dark energy like this would seem appropriate,” he wrote in an email. “Heck, at least their dark energy goes in the right direction to solve the tension. It could have gone the other way and made it worse!”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 1:07 pm on January 14, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: A pursuit that stretches from underground particle colliders to orbiting telescopes with all manner of ground-based observatories in between., , , , , , , , NYT, , The astronomer missed her Nobel Prize [in my view a crime of old white men], ,   

    From The New York Times: Women in STEM-“Vera Rubin Gets a Telescope of Her Own” 

    From The New York Times

    Jan. 11, 2020
    Dennis Overbye

    The astronomer missed her Nobel Prize [in my view a crime of old white men]. But she now has a whole new observatory to her name.

    1
    The astronomer Vera Rubin at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., in 1965.Credit: via Carnegie Institution of Science

    Vera Rubin measuring spectra, worked on Dark Matter (Emilio Segre Visual Archives AIP SPL)

    Vera Rubin, with Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (DTM) image tube spectrograph attached to the Kitt Peak 84-inch telescope, 1970.

    Vera Rubin, a young astronomer at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, was on the run in the 1970s when she overturned the universe.

    Seeking refuge from the controversies and ego-bashing of cosmology, she decided to immerse herself in the pearly swirlings of spiral galaxies, only to find that there was more to them than she and almost everybody else had thought.

    For millenniums, humans had presumed that when we gaze out at the universe, what we see is a fair representation of reality. Dr. Rubin, with her colleague Kent Ford, discovered that was not true. The universe — all those galaxies and the vast spaces between — was awash with dark matter, an invisible something with sufficient gravity to mold the large scale structures of the universe.

    Fritz Zwicky discovered Dark Matter when observing the movement of the Coma Cluster., Vera Rubin a Woman in STEM denied the Nobel, did most of the work on Dark Matter.

    Coma cluster via NASA/ESA Hubble, the original example of Dark Matter discovered during observations by Fritz Zwicky and confirmed by Vera Rubin

    Esteemed astronomers dismissed her findings at first. But half a century later, the still futile quest to identify this “dark matter” is a burning question for both particle physics and astronomy. It’s a pursuit that stretches from underground particle colliders to orbiting telescopes, with all manner of ground-based observatories in between.

    Last week the National Science Foundation announced that the newest observatory joining this cause will be named the Vera C. Rubin Observatory. The name replaces the mouthful by which the project was previously known: the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, or L.S.S.T.

    2
    The Vera C. Rubin Observatory, formerly the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, under construction in Cerro Pachon, Chile. Credit: LSST Project/NSF/AURA

    The Rubin Observatory joins a handful of smaller astronomical facilities that have been named for women. The Maria Mitchell Observatories in Nantucket, Mass., is named after the first American woman to discover a comet. The Swope telescope, at Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, is named after Henrietta Swope, who worked at the Harvard College Observatory in the early 20th century. She used a relationship between the luminosities and periodicities of variable stars to measure distances to galaxies.

    And finally there is the new Annie Maunder Astrographic Telescope at the venerable Royal Greenwich Observatory, just outside London. It is named after Annie Maunder, who with her husband Walter made pioneering observations of the sun and solar cycle of sunspots in the late 1800s.

    Heros of science, all of them.

    In a field known for grandiloquent statements and frightening intellectual ambitions, Dr. Rubin was known for simple statements about how stupid we are. In an interview in 2000 posted on the American Museum of Natural History website, Dr. Rubin said:

    “In a spiral galaxy, the ratio of dark-to-light matter is about a factor of 10. That’s probably a good number for the ratio of our ignorance to knowledge. We’re out of kindergarten, but only in about third grade.”

    Once upon a time cosmologists thought there might be enough dark matter in the universe for its gravity to stop the expansion of the cosmos and pull everything back together in a Big Crunch. Then astronomers discovered an even more exotic feature of the universe, now called dark energy, which is pushing the galaxies apart and speeding up the cosmic expansion.

    Dark Energy Survey


    Dark Energy Camera [DECam], built at FNAL


    NOAO/CTIO Victor M Blanco 4m Telescope which houses the DECam at Cerro Tololo, Chile, housing DECam at an altitude of 7200 feet

    Timeline of the Inflationary Universe WMAP

    The Dark Energy Survey (DES) is an international, collaborative effort to map hundreds of millions of galaxies, detect thousands of supernovae, and find patterns of cosmic structure that will reveal the nature of the mysterious dark energy that is accelerating the expansion of our Universe. DES began searching the Southern skies on August 31, 2013.

    According to Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, gravity should lead to a slowing of the cosmic expansion. Yet, in 1998, two teams of astronomers studying distant supernovae made the remarkable discovery that the expansion of the universe is speeding up. To explain cosmic acceleration, cosmologists are faced with two possibilities: either 70% of the universe exists in an exotic form, now called dark energy, that exhibits a gravitational force opposite to the attractive gravity of ordinary matter, or General Relativity must be replaced by a new theory of gravity on cosmic scales.

    DES is designed to probe the origin of the accelerating universe and help uncover the nature of dark energy by measuring the 14-billion-year history of cosmic expansion with high precision. More than 400 scientists from over 25 institutions in the United States, Spain, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Germany, Switzerland, and Australia are working on the project. The collaboration built and is using an extremely sensitive 570-Megapixel digital camera, DECam, mounted on the Blanco 4-meter telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, high in the Chilean Andes, to carry out the project.

    Over six years (2013-2019), the DES collaboration used 758 nights of observation to carry out a deep, wide-area survey to record information from 300 million galaxies that are billions of light-years from Earth. The survey imaged 5000 square degrees of the southern sky in five optical filters to obtain detailed information about each galaxy. A fraction of the survey time is used to observe smaller patches of sky roughly once a week to discover and study thousands of supernovae and other astrophysical transients.

    These discoveries have transformed cosmology still further, into a kind of Marvel Comics super-struggle between invisible, titanic forces. One, dark matter, pulls everything together toward its final doom; the other, dark energy, pushes everything apart toward the ultimate dispersal, some times termed the Big Rip. The rest of us, the terrified populace looking up at this cosmic war, are bystanders, made of atoms, which are definitely a minority population of the universe. Which force will ultimately prevail? Which side should we root for?

    Until recently the money was on dark energy and eventual dissolution of the cosmos. But lately cracks have appeared in the data, suggesting that additional forces may be at work beneath the surface of our present knowledge.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 9:35 am on December 25, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , NYT   

    From The New York Times: “Crisis Looms in Antibiotics as Drug Makers Go Bankrupt” 

    New York Times

    From The New York Times

    Dec. 25, 2019
    Andrew Jacobs

    At a time when germs are growing more resistant to common antibiotics, many companies that are developing new versions of the drugs are hemorrhaging money and going out of business, gravely undermining efforts to contain the spread of deadly, drug-resistant bacteria.

    Antibiotic start-ups like Achaogen and Aradigm have gone belly up in recent months, pharmaceutical behemoths like Novartis and Allergan have abandoned the sector and many of the remaining American antibiotic companies are teetering toward insolvency. One of the biggest developers of antibiotics, Melinta Therapeutics, recently warned regulators it was running out of cash.

    Experts say the grim financial outlook for the few companies still committed to antibiotic research is driving away investors and threatening to strangle the development of new lifesaving drugs at a time when they are urgently needed.

    “This is a crisis that should alarm everyone,” said Dr. Helen Boucher, an infectious disease specialist at Tufts Medical Center and a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria.

    The problem is straightforward: The companies that have invested billions to develop the drugs have not found a way to make money selling them. Most antibiotics are prescribed for just days or weeks — unlike medicines for chronic conditions like diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis that have been blockbusters — and many hospitals have been unwilling to pay high prices for the new therapies. Political gridlock in Congress has thwarted legislative efforts to address the problem.

    The challenges facing antibiotic makers come at time when many of the drugs designed to vanquish infections are becoming ineffective against bacteria and fungi, as overuse of the decades-old drugs has spurred them to develop defenses against the medicines.

    Drug-resistant infections now kill 35,000 people in the United States each year and sicken 2.8 million, according a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released last month. Without new therapies, the United Nations says the global death toll could soar to 10 million by 2050.

    The newest antibiotics have proved effective at tackling some of the most stubborn and deadly germs, including anthrax, bacterial pneumonia, E. coli and multidrug-resistant skin infections.

    The experience of the biotech company Achaogen, is a case in point. It spent 15 years and a billion dollars to win Food and Drug Administration approval for Zemdri, a drug for hard-to-treat urinary tract infections. In July, the World Health Organization added Zemdri to its list of essential new medicines.

    By then, however, there was no one left at Achaogen to celebrate.

    This past spring, with its stock price hovering near zero and executives unable to raise the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to market the drug and do additional clinical studies, the company sold off lab equipment and fired its remaining scientists. In April, the company declared bankruptcy.

    Public health experts say the crisis calls for government intervention. Among the ideas that have wide backing are increased reimbursements for new antibiotics, federal funding to stockpile drugs effective against resistant germs and financial incentives that would offer much needed aid to start-ups and lure back the pharmaceutical giants. Despite bipartisan support, legislation aimed at addressing the problem has languished in Congress.

    “If this doesn’t get fixed in the next six to 12 months, the last of the Mohicans will go broke and investors won’t return to the market for another decade or two,” said Chen Yu, a health care venture capitalist who has invested in the field.

    2
    The former offices of Achaogen in South San Francisco. The company sold off the last of its lab equipment and fired its remaining scientists this past spring. Credit Brian L. Frank for The New York Times

    First Big Pharma fled the field, and now start-ups are going belly up, threatening to stifle the development of new drugs.

    1
    Dr. Ryan Cirz, a microbiologist and a co-founder of Achaogen, a company whose drug, Zemdri, showed promise in treating U.T.I.s.Credit Brian L. Frank for The New York Times

    The industry faces another challenge: After years of being bombarded with warnings against profligate use of antibiotics, doctors have become reluctant to prescribe the newest medications, limiting the ability of companies to recoup the investment spent to discover the compounds and win regulatory approval. And in their drive to save money, many hospital pharmacies will dispense cheaper generics even when a newer drug is far superior.

    “You’d never tell a cancer patient ‘Why don’t you try a 1950s drug first and if doesn’t work, we’ll move on to one from the 1980s,” said Kevin Outterson, the executive director of CARB-X, a government-funded nonprofit that provides grants to companies working on antimicrobial resistance. “We do this with antibiotics and it’s really having an adverse effect on patients and the marketplace.”

    Many of the new drugs are not cheap, at least when compared to older generics that can cost a few dollars a pill. A typical course of Xerava, a newly approved antibiotic that targets multi-drug resistant infections, can cost as much as $2,000.

    “Unlike expensive new cancer drugs that extend survival by three-to-six months, antibiotics like ours truly save a patient’s life,” said Larry Edwards, chief executive of the company that makes Xerva, Tetraphase Pharmaceuticals. “It’s frustrating.”

    Tetraphase, based in Watertown, Mass., has struggled to get hospitals to embrace Xerava, which took more than a decade to discover and bring to market, even though the drug can vanquish resistant germs like MRSA and CRE, a resistant bacteria that kills 13,000 people a year.

    Tetraphase’s stock price has been hovering around $2, down from nearly $40 a year ago. To trim costs, Mr. Edwards recently shuttered the company’s labs, laid off some 40 scientists and scuttled plans to move forward on three other promising antibiotics.

    For Melinta Therapeutics based in Morristown, N.J., the future is even grimmer. Last month, the company’s stock price dropped 45 percent after executives issued a warning about the company’s long-term prospects. Melinta makes four antibiotics, including Baxdela, which recently received F.D.A. approval to treat the kind of drug-resistant pneumonia that often kills hospitalized patients. Jennifer Sanfilippo, Melinta’s interim chief executive, said she was hoping a sale or merger would buy the company more time to raise awareness about the antibiotics’ value among hospital pharmacists and increase sales.

    “These drugs are my babies, and they are so urgently needed,” she said.

    Coming up with new compounds is no easy feat. Only two new classes of antibiotics have been introduced in the last 20 years — most new drugs are variations on existing ones — and the diminishing financial returns have driven most companies from the market. In the 1980s, there were 18 major pharmaceutical companies developing new antibiotics; today there are three.

    “The science is hard, really hard,” said Dr. David Shlaes, a former vice president at Wyeth Pharmaceuticals and a board member of the Global Antibiotic Research and Development Partnership, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “And reducing the number of people who work on it by abandoning antibiotic R & D is not going to get us anywhere.”

    A new antibiotic can cost $2.6 billion to develop, he said, and the biggest part of that cost are the failures along the way.

    Some of the sector’s biggest players have coalesced around a raft of interventions and incentives that would treat antibiotics as a global good. They include extending the exclusivity for new antibiotics to give companies more time to earn back their investments and creating a program to buy and store critical antibiotics much the way the federal government stockpiles emergency medication for possible pandemics or bioterror threats like anthrax and smallpox.

    The DISARM Act, a bill introduced in Congress earlier this year, would direct Medicare to reimburse hospitals for new and critically important antibiotics. The bill has bipartisan support but has yet to advance.

    One of its sponsors, Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, said some of the reluctance to push it forward stemmed from the political sensitivity over soaring prescription drug prices. “There is some institutional resistance to any legislation that provides financial incentives to drug companies,” he said.

    Washington has not entirely been sitting on its hands. Over the past decade, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, a federal effort to counter chemical, nuclear and other public health threats, has invested a billion dollars in companies developing promising antimicrobial drugs and diagnostics that can help address antibiotic resistance.

    “If we don’t have drugs to combat these multi-drug resistant organisms, then we’re not doing our job to keep Americans safe,” Rick A. Bright, the director of the agency, said.

    Dr. Bright has had a firsthand experience with the problem. Two years ago, his thumb became infected after he nicked it while gardening in his backyard. The antibiotic he was prescribed had no effect, nor did six others he was given at the hospital. It turned out he had MRSA.

    The infection spread, and doctors scheduled surgery to amputate the thumb. His doctor prescribed one last antibiotic but only after complaining about its cost and warning that Dr. Bright’s insurance might not cover it. Within hours, the infection began to improve and the amputation was canceled.

    “If I had gotten the right drug on Day 1, I would have never had to go to the emergency room,” he said.

    Achaogen and its 300 employees had held out hope for government intervention, especially given that the company had received $124 million from BARDA to develop Zemdri.

    As recently as two years ago, the company had a market capitalization of more than $1 billion and Zemdri was so promising that it became the first antibiotic the F.D.A. designated as a breakthrough therapy, expediting the approval process.

    Dr. Ryan Cirz, one of Achaogen’s founders and the vice president of research, recalled the days when venture capitalists took a shine to the company and investors snapped up its stock. “It wasn’t hype,” Dr. Cirz, a microbiologist, said. “This was about saving lives.”

    In June, investors at the bankruptcy sale bought out the company’s lab equipment and the rights to Zemdri for a pittance: $16 million. (The buyer, generics drug maker Cipla USA, has continued to manufacture the drug.) Many of Achaogen’s scientists have since found research jobs in more lucrative fields like oncology.

    Dr. Cirz lost his life savings, but he said he had bigger concerns. Without effective antibiotics, many common medical procedures could one day become life-threatening.

    “This is a problem that can be solved, it’s not that complicated,” he said. “We can deal with the problem now, or we can just sit here and wait until greater numbers of people start dying. That would be a tragedy.”

    See the full article here .

    five-ways-keep-your-child-safe-school-shootings

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

     
  • richardmitnick 9:05 am on December 25, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "There’s No Winter Break From ‘Publish or Perish’", NYT   

    From The New York Times: “There’s No Winter Break From ‘Publish or Perish’” 

    New York Times

    From The New York Times

    Dec. 18, 2019
    Dalmeet Singh Chawla

    1

    Jay Van Bavel, a social neuroscientist at New York University, is vowing not to work during the Christmas holidays.

    A few years ago, Dr. Van Bavel had agreed to conduct peer review on a couple of manuscripts before the end of the semester. But he got really busy and ended up having to do one on Christmas Day and another on New Year’s Eve, while his family was visiting.

    “I felt like I let down myself and my family,” said Dr. Van Bavel, who gets asked to conduct peer-review 100 to 200 times a year. But he says he has now learned his lesson, and is not planning to do any work in the Christmas holidays this year, except perhaps the odd email.

    If Dr. Van Bavel holds to his vow, he’ll beat the trend of many of his colleagues. While you might be setting an out-of-office message and backing away from your keyboard as the winter holidays set in, many researchers in academia can be found working straight through the season. Scientists based in the United States are, in fact, the third most likely to work during holidays, behind only their counterparts in Belgium and Japan, according to a study published Thursday in BMJ.

    The study — aiming to quantify some of the overwork and burnout experienced by researchers in the sciences — examined nearly 50,000 manuscript submissions and more than 75,000 peer-review submissions to BMJ and its sister journal, BMJ Open. More than a tenth of U.S.-based researchers who submitted manuscripts and peer review reports to journals did so during the holidays.

    At the same time, researchers in China lead the world in working on weekends, where more than a fifth of academics submitted papers and peer-review reports, followed by those based in Japan, Italy and Spain. More than a tenth of researchers in the United States turned in studies on weekends, and more than 15 percent conducted peer review.

    Scandinavian nations had the best work-life balance. Scientists in Sweden were least likely to work during holidays, and those in Norway generally kept their weekends free.

    Adrian Barnett, a statistician and metascience researcher at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, who co-wrote the analysis, thought of conducting the analysis while submitting a paper on the weekend.

    “This is a real marker of how hard I’m working,” he said.

    The study has shortcomings. Among them, it only accounts for manuscript submissions and peer review, just two of many tasks on an academic’s plate, for instance.

    “While this study provides a starting point to demonstrate that academics are indeed spending time working on weekends and holidays, it does not delve deeper into the types or amounts of work that academics may be doing on weekends or holidays,” says Valerie Miller, assistant director of postdoctoral affairs at the University of Chicago.

    Dr. Barnett acknowledges these shortcomings, although he noted that these markers were most easily traceable because academic publishers time-stamp electronic study and peer-review submissions.

    Dr. Miller is currently conducting a survey [U Chicago] on the work of postdoctoral researchers, who are usually considered to be early in their careers. A study conducted by the Young Academy of Europe [Nature] earlier this year found that around half of early-career researchers there work more than 50 hours a week. Other studies [Nature] have also reported a mental health crisis among graduate students, with large numbers saying their Ph.D. is the cause of their mental condition.

    Another limitation of the BMJ study is that it can’t distinguish between researchers’ career stages, and only includes scientists working predominantly in health and medicine.

    While submitting a study can lead to a publication that is valuable for an academic’s career, peer-review can be a more thankless task.

    Some countries, like Italy, Spain, France and New Zealand report higher percentages of peer-review activity on weekends than manuscript submissions. Dr. Barnett suggests that academics find themselves lacking the time to perform this labor during their workweek because it’s often not considered “actual work.”

    As a measure of how peer review is regarded, a survey published earlier [Physics Today] this year found that around half of just under 500 researchers had during their careers ghostwritten peer review reports on behalf of senior faculty.

    “Peer review is central to the scientific mission and ought to be re-centered in our evaluation systems, not something to be done in an academic’s ‘free time,’” said Rebeccah Lijek, a biologist at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts who led the ghostwriting study.

    It’s also getting more difficult to recruit academics to conduct peer review, a report released last year [Undark] showed, and a small batch of reviewers seem to be doing a disproportionate amount of peer review.

    Dr. Lijek thinks Dr. Barnett’s findings are only the tip of the iceberg: “What’s still under water are the many hours of labor performed by teams of junior researchers that precede submission.”

    Dr. Barnett feels that academics are forced to do too much.

    “We’re pushed to produce more so that universities can rise up the league tables,” he said.

    With that in mind, Dr. Van Bavel is trying to take a new approach in his lab.

    “A few weeks ago, I had a lab meeting where we created a work life balance policy to minimize the pressure to work on the weekend,” he said.

    See the full article here .

    five-ways-keep-your-child-safe-school-shootings

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

     
  • richardmitnick 8:24 am on December 24, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , NYT,   

    From The New York Times: “A 3D Encounter With a Violent Volcano’s Underbelly” 

    New York Times

    From The New York Times

    Dec. 18, 2019
    Robin George Andrews

    1
    Lava flows on Réunion Island from Piton de la Fournaise, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, during a 2015 eruption.Credit RICHARD BOUHET/AFP via Getty Images

    Réunion, a French island in the western Indian Ocean, is a jigsaw of two massive shield volcanoes. The younger, Piton de la Fournaise or “peak of the furnace,” is a furious factory of lava, erupting every eight months on average over the last four decades.

    2
    The Piton de la Fournaise volcano on Réunion Island. http://www.brianiannone.com/

    That hellish environment makes it an ideal real-world laboratory for studying the internal viscera of volcanoes, about which scientists know surprisingly little. The more they map out, the better they grow to understand why, how and when volcanoes all over the world will next erupt.

    In a study published this month in Scientific Reports, volcanologists reported using a novel technique to map out 58 square miles of Piton de la Fournaise’s shadowy underworld. Their survey revealed a 3D view of its insides, from the plumbing network of superheated hydrothermal fluids to scores of faults that allow magma to sneak up to the surface during eruptions.

    The success of this technique on Réunion means that it could be deployed elsewhere, said Marc Dumont, a geophysicist at the Sorbonne University in Paris and the lead author of the study, from lava effusing mountains like Hawaii’s Kilauea to the more explosive peaks in the volcanic spine running up America’s Pacific Northwest.

    3
    Lava erupts from a fissure in the Leilani Estates neighbourhood near Pahoa on the island of Hawaii, on May 24. (Grace Simoneau/FEMA via Associated Press)

    Piton de la Fournaise is a byzantine volcano, comprehensively monitored by scientists as it is regularly modified by eruptions. Spidery tendrils of magma escape through lines of weakness. When molten material meets the groundwater cycling through the volcano’s uppermost segments, powerful explosions can happen without warning, much like the lethal detonations that recently rocked New Zealand’s White Island. Old faults can suddenly slip and cause parts of the volcano to catastrophically collapse.

    These features control how future eruptions manifest, so finding out where they are is of paramount importance.

    4
    An example of the 3D models produced by the research.Credit via Marc Dumont

    One way to locate these subterranean features is to use instruments to see how well the rocks below conduct electricity. Scorching, circulating water is highly conductive. Old volcanic rock that has been degraded by it has water inside its Swiss cheese-like holes, making it relatively conductive. Newly cooled, structurally sound lava flows are much more electrically resistant.

    Deploying electrical resistivity-detecting instruments on an active volcano can be both dangerous and time consuming. Often, expeditions must choose between a high-resolution underground map of a small area or a low-resolution map of a larger space.

    Scientists had previously traipsed across the Piton de la Fournaise by foot, deploying equipment to reveal parts of its internal structure. To speed things up, they took to a helicopter.

    Hewing disquietingly close to the volcano over four days in 2014, the helicopter’s winch held a sizable hoop that could electrically excite the rocks below. In response, electromagnetic threads snaked back up from the volcano, which were detected by the helicopter. These invisible strings differed, depending on the properties of the rocks, which allowed scientists to identify individual ingredients and layers of Réunion’s youthful volcanic cake down to a depth of 3,300 feet.

    Scientists were previously aware of the existence of some of the volcano’s rift zones, faults and fluid networks. But they now have a 3D schematic providing an unparalleled peek into the volcano’s active subsurface, showing with precision where its magmatic appendages and pathways, rocky scars and hydrothermal pipes are in relation to each other.

    “Our continuing ability to image the internal structure of volcanoes in 3D is revolutionizing how we understand volcanism,” said Sam Mitchell, a submarine volcanologist not involved with the work, and who recently joined an aquatic voyage to peer into the heart of a massive underwater volcano near Oregon. No matter which volcano is being mapped, he said, the goal of these projects is the same: to identify hazards and save lives.

    See the full article here .

    five-ways-keep-your-child-safe-school-shootings

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

     
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