Tagged: NYT Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • richardmitnick 9:28 am on November 11, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Becoming a Force While Trying to Avoid Disaster", Joan Tower, National Sawdust, NYT   

    From National Sawdust and the New York Times: “Becoming a Force While Trying to Avoid Disaster” 

    From National Sawdust

    National Sawdust

    1
    A force in contemporary music, the composer Joan Tower turned 80 in September. Credit Lauren Lancaster for The New York Times

    At 80, Joan Tower Says Great Music Comes ‘in the Risks’

    Nov. 9, 2018
    William Robin

    When the composer Joan Tower went to Bennington College to study music, her teachers told her she needed to compose something.

    “So I wrote a piece,” she recalled recently, laughing, “and it was a disaster from beginning to end. I said, ‘I know I can do better than that.’ So I did that for the next 40 years, trying to create a piece that wasn’t a disaster.”

    Over the decades-long process of trying to avoid disaster — composition was, she said, “a very, very slow-moving juggernaut” — she became a force in contemporary music. She turned 80 in September, a birthday which will be celebrated on Sunday at National Sawdust in Brooklyn.

    In the tradition of Philip Glass @80 and John Corigliano @80 concerts, National Sawdust will celebrate Joan Tower in honor of her 80th Birthday. “One of the most successful women composers of all time” (The New Yorker) and one of the most important American composers alive today, Joan Tower has made lasting contributions to musical life for the past half century. With her iconic Silver Ladders, she was the first woman to win the prestigious Grawemeyer Award, and the recording of her Made In America won three different Grammy awards. In honor of her 80th birthday, National Sawdust is hosting an exclusive celebration, featuring an afternoon of music curated by Tower herself and featuring music written by Tower and friends Jennifer Higdon, Tania León, and Julia Wolfe.

    Program:
    Joan Tower – Wild Summer for string quartet (The Jasper Quartet)
    Jennifer Higdon – Piano Trio (The Lysander Trio)
    Tania Leon – Ethos for piano quintet (The Cassatt Quartet with Ursula Oppens, piano)
    Julia Wolfe – Cha for saxophone quartet (PRISM quartet)

    Performers:
    PRISM Quartet
    Jasper Quartet
    Lysander Trio
    Cassatt Quartet
    Ursula Oppens, piano

    When she was young, Ms. Tower composed austere, pointillist music in the then-dominant 12-tone style, but soon turned toward a propulsive and visceral language. A gifted pianist, she founded the Da Capo Chamber Players, a pioneering ensemble dedicated to new music. She served as the St. Louis Symphony’s composer in residence in the 1980s, cultivating a taut, crackling orchestral sound, and has taught at Bard College for decades.

    Her widest-reaching project, the 2004 symphonic poem Made in America, has been performed by more than 65 orchestras in all 50 states. And Ms. Tower has recently been commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for a new work to debut in a future season. She is, in short, of comparable stature to the major octogenarians of her generation, such as Steve Reich, Charles Wuorinen and John Corigliano.

    Unlike some of those major octogenarians, however, Ms. Tower is remarkably self-deprecating. In a recent phone conversation from her home in Red Hook, N.Y., she talked about why. Here are edited excerpts.

    How does it feel to reach the milestone of 80?

    Composing is not an easy activity. For others, it’s easier, but for me it’s a very challenging activity. But as life goes on, the rewards come in. The credentials, like winning certain prizes, are very nice, but the important rewards are that your music gets picked up and played a lot. That’s what makes your life in music, not necessarily where you went to school, who you studied with, or what awards you got.

    Could you talk about some of your influences?

    [Growing up in South America,] I developed a love for percussion. My babysitter used to take me to these festivals. She would drop me off at the bandstand, so she could go and have fun. The band people would throw me a maraca or some kind of castanet or drum. That was where I started to develop a love of percussion and also dance. My music is basically about rhythm. It’s all about timing for me.

    But I also was studying piano at the time. I got very involved with Chopin, Beethoven, all the dead white European composers, who I loved. Beethoven was a huge influence on me, in terms of rhythm, pacing, juggling architectural narrative. Then I married a jazz musician, and I heard all the jazz greats. We went to all the clubs. Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans — all of them I got to hear live. That influence was more harmonic: I learned juicier chord progressions.

    You did graduate studies at Columbia University during the heyday of 12-tone music, but shifted toward a more tonal idiom. What prompted the change?

    What changed all that was Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. I had never heard anything like this. It was colorful, it was direct, it was very slow at points. Oh my God, there was so much in that music that I was just blown away by. It came out of the sky. And then George Crumb’s Voice of the Whale. I was like, “Whoa, this is so consonant, and so beautiful, and so colorful.” So I started to pull away from the 12-tone group, and I started to develop my own voice.

    2
    Ms. Tower in 1982, next to a poster announcing a performance of Sequoia by the New York Philharmonic. Credit G. Schirmer archives

    As you developed this new language, you also starting writing orchestral music, with Sequoia in 1981.

    The American Composers Orchestra was commissioning new works, and they asked me, and I said no, because I wasn’t ready. Francis Thorne, the lead energy behind that group, said, “You are ready, and I’m going to ask you again.” I wrote the piece kicking and screaming, and close to being tortured. [The conductor Leonard] Slatkin heard this piece and he loved it, and said, “I want you to be composer in residence with St. Louis.” I said, “No, I’m not ready for this. I only have one piece.”

    What was it that made you feel that you weren’t ready?

    I’ve always had a low opinion of myself. I think it’s a female thing, in a way. For women, in a field like composition, which has been male dominated for years and years and years, it’s a hard thing to walk into and feel that you are as empowered as your male colleagues are. That’s a very superficial answer to the question.

    But that’s how you felt?

    I did, and that continued for a long time. Until the last few years, actually.

    What changed?

    I got older [laughs]. And I got more confident, and more accepting of who I am, and what I can do.

    And you became more conscious of how women have been underrepresented in composition.

    The knowledge of this history started to build my confidence more and more, because I started to see what was going on. I started to see the rarity of women. All of the sudden, my eyes started opening to: “Are there any women on this recording? Are there any women on this panel?” I started to become more and more aware of the paucity of women in the infrastructure. I started taking stands and becoming an advocate.

    How has your style has changed in recent years?

    I’m not sure one has much control over that. My goal is to keep learning. There’s so much still to learn — the bass, the piccolo, I’m still working on, and the horn. Those are weak areas for me. I’m going to get there with those instruments at some point.

    What you try to do is write the best piece you can at whatever level of experience and voice that you are at. I know that if I take more risks, I’ll get there. It’s in the risks.

    See the full article here .


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

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    National Sawdust is an unparalleled, artist-led, nonprofit venue, is a place for exploration and discovery. A place where emerging and established artists can share their music with serious music fans and casual listeners alike.

    In a city teeming with venues, National Sawdust is a singular space founded with an expansive vision: to provide composers and musicians across genres a home in which they can flourish, a setting where they are given unprecedented support and critical resources essential to create, and then share, their work.

    As a composer, I believe the role of an artist in the 21st century should be that of creator, educator, activist, and entrepreneur. I believe that 21st-century composers/artists need to be thinking about what impact they can have on their existing community, both locally and globally. At NS we believe in remaining flexible and true to the needs of artists. Our core mission is centered on the support of emerging artists, and on commissioning and supporting the seeds of ideas. Each year, we explore one large theme and construct programming and questions around that theme. This year, that theme is Origins. With this season, we are channeling the National Sawdust mission—empowering high-level artistry, regardless of training, genre, or fame—through multicultural artists who tell their stories through their music. Ultimately, Origins is a radical sharing of culture. We hope this cultural storytelling of the highest caliber will help bring our divided country closer together.

    We also believe the future of new art lives in education. To us, education is about giving young people and community members opportunities and tools to explore their potential for artistic and creative expression. But it is also about ensuring that artists themselves never stop learning – about their craft, about the work of their peers, about the business of the arts, about their own capacities to be educators and advocates. NS facilitates this kind of learning by bringing together artists from around the world in exciting composition- based projects, teaching opportunities, cultural exchanges, and hands-on management experience. Through this cultural synthesis artists leave lasting impressions on one another, become more versatile and resilient professionals, and create works that reflect a plural understanding of American society.

    –Paola Prestini, co-founder & Artist Director

    Space waiting

    John Schaefer


    For new music by living composers

    newsounds.org from New York Public Radio


    https://www.wnyc.org/
    93.9FM
    https://www.wqxr.org/
    105.9FM
    http://www.thegreenespace.org/

    For great Jazz

    88.3FM http://wbgo.org/

    WPRB 103.3FM


    Please visit The Jazz Loft Project based on the work of Sam Stephenson
    Please visit The Jazz Loft Radio project from New York Public Radio

    Advertisements
     
  • richardmitnick 3:46 pm on October 30, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell and pulsars, , , , , NYT, Reinhard Genzel of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, S0-2, , , Vera Rubin and Dark Matter   

    From The New York Times: “Trolling the Monster in the Heart of the Milky Way” 

    New York Times

    From The New York Times

    Oct. 30, 2018
    Dennis Overbye

    In a dark, dusty patch of sky in the constellation Sagittarius, a small star, known as S2 or, sometimes, S0-2, cruises on the edge of eternity. Every 16 years, it passes within a cosmic whisker of a mysterious dark object that weighs some 4 million suns, and that occupies the exact center of the Milky Way galaxy.

    Star S0-2 Keck/UCLA Galactic Center Group

    For the last two decades, two rival teams of astronomers, looking to test some of Albert Einstein’s weirdest predictions about the universe, have aimed their telescopes at the star, which lies 26,000 light-years away. In the process, they hope to confirm the existence of what astronomers strongly suspect lies just beyond: a monstrous black hole, an eater of stars and shaper of galaxies.

    For several months this year, the star streaked through its closest approach to the galactic center, producing new insights into the behavior of gravity in extreme environments, and offering clues to the nature of the invisible beast in the Milky Way’s basement.

    One of those teams, an international collaboration based in Germany and Chile, and led by Reinhard Genzel, of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, say they have found the strongest evidence yet that the dark entity is a supermassive black hole, the bottomless grave of 4.14 million suns.

    ESO VLT at Cerro Paranal in the Atacama Desert, •ANTU (UT1; The Sun ),
    •KUEYEN (UT2; The Moon ),
    •MELIPAL (UT3; The Southern Cross ), and
    •YEPUN (UT4; Venus – as evening star).
    elevation 2,635 m (8,645 ft) from above Credit J.L. Dauvergne & G. Hüdepohl atacama photo

    ESO VLT 4 lasers on Yepun

    The evidence comes in the form of knots of gas that appear to orbit the galactic center. Dr. Genzel’s team found that the gas clouds circle every 45 minutes or so, completing a circuit of 150 million miles at roughly 30 percent of the speed of light. They are so close to the alleged black hole that if they were any closer they would fall in, according to classical Einsteinian physics.

    Astrophysicists can’t imagine anything but a black hole that could be so massive, yet fit within such a tiny orbit.

    The results provide “strong support” that the dark thing in Sagittarius “is indeed a massive black hole,” Dr. Genzel’s group writes in a paper that will be published on Wednesday under the name of Gravity Collaboration, in the European journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

    “This is the closest yet we have come to see the immediate zone around a supermassive black hole with direct, spatially resolved techniques,” Dr. Genzel said in an email.

    1
    Reinhard Genzel runs the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Munich. He has been watching S2, in the constellation Sagittarius, hoping it will help confirm the existence of a supermassive black hole.Credit Ksenia Kuleshova for The New York Times.

    The work goes a long way toward demonstrating what astronomers have long believed, but are still at pains to prove rigorously: that a supermassive black hole lurks in the heart not only of the Milky Way, but of many observable galaxies. The hub of the stellar carousel is a place where space and time end, and into which stars can disappear forever.

    The new data also help to explain how such black holes can wreak havoc of a kind that is visible from across the universe. Astronomers have long observed spectacular quasars and violent jets of energy, thousands of light-years long, erupting from the centers of galaxies.

    Roger Blandford, the director of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University, said that there is now overwhelming evidence that supermassive black holes are powering such phenomena.

    “There is now a large burden of proof on claims to the contrary,” he wrote in an email. “The big questions involve figuring out how they work, including disk and jets. It’s a bit like knowing that the sun is a hot, gaseous sphere and trying to understand how the nuclear reactions work.”

    2
    Images of different galaxies — some of which have evocative names like the Black Eye Galaxy, bottom left, or the Sombrero Galaxy, second left — adorn a wall at the Max Planck Institute.Credit Ksenia Kuleshova for The New York Times.

    Sheperd Doeleman, a radio astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, called the work “a tour de force.” Dr. Doeleman studies the galactic center and hopes to produce an actual image of the black hole, using a planet-size instrument called the Event Horizon Telescope.

    Event Horizon Telescope Array

    Arizona Radio Observatory
    Arizona Radio Observatory/Submillimeter-wave Astronomy (ARO/SMT)

    ESO/APEX
    Atacama Pathfinder EXperiment

    CARMA Array no longer in service
    Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy (CARMA)

    Atacama Submillimeter Telescope Experiment (ASTE)
    Atacama Submillimeter Telescope Experiment (ASTE)

    Caltech Submillimeter Observatory
    Caltech Submillimeter Observatory (CSO)

    IRAM NOEMA interferometer
    Institut de Radioastronomie Millimetrique (IRAM) 30m

    James Clerk Maxwell Telescope interior, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA
    James Clerk Maxwell Telescope interior, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA

    Large Millimeter Telescope Alfonso Serrano
    Large Millimeter Telescope Alfonso Serrano

    CfA Submillimeter Array Hawaii SAO
    Submillimeter Array Hawaii SAO

    ESO/NRAO/NAOJ ALMA Array
    ESO/NRAO/NAOJ ALMA Array, Chile

    South Pole Telescope SPTPOL
    South Pole Telescope SPTPOL

    NSF CfA Greenland telescope

    Greenland Telescope

    Future Array/Telescopes

    Plateau de Bure interferometer
    Plateau de Bure interferometer

    The study is also a major triumph for the European Southern Observatory, a multinational consortium with headquarters in Munich and observatories in Chile, which had made the study of S2 and the galactic black hole a major priority. The organization’s facilities include the Very Large Telescope [shown above], an array of four giant telescopes in Chile’s Atacama Desert (a futuristic setting featured in the James Bond film “Quantum of Solace”), and the world’s largest telescope, the Extremely Large Telescope, now under construction on a mountain nearby.

    ESO/E-ELT,to be on top of Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. located at the summit of the mountain at an altitude of 3,060 metres (10,040 ft).

    Einstein’s bad dream

    Black holes — objects so dense that not even light can escape them — are a surprise consequence of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which ascribes the phenomenon we call gravity to a warping of the geometry of space and time. When too much matter or energy are concentrated in one place, according to the theory, space-time can jiggle, time can slow and matter can shrink and vanish into those cosmic sinkholes.

    Einstein didn’t like the idea of black holes, but the consensus today is that the universe is speckled with them. Many are the remains of dead stars; others are gigantic, with the masses of millions to billions of suns. Such massive objects seem to anchor the centers of virtually every galaxy, including our own. Presumably they are black holes, but astronomers are eager to know whether these entities fit the prescription given by Einstein’s theory.

    Andrea Ghez, astrophysicist and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who leads a team of scientists observing S2 for evidence of a supermassive black hole UCLA Galactic Center Group

    Although general relativity has been the law of the cosmos ever since Einstein devised it, most theorists think it eventually will have to be modified to explain various mysteries, such as what happens at the center of a black hole or at the beginning of time; why galaxies clump together, thanks to unidentified stuff called dark matter; and how, simultaneously, a force called dark energy is pushing these clumps of galaxies apart.

    Women in STEM – Vera Rubin

    Fritz Zwicky discovered Dark Matter when observing the movement of the Coma Cluster

    Coma cluster via NASA/ESA Hubble

    But most of the real work was done by Vera Rubin

    Fritz Zwicky from http:// palomarskies.blogspot.com


    Astronomer Vera Rubin at the Lowell Observatory in 1965, worked on Dark Matter (The Carnegie Institution for 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. https://home.dtm.ciw.edu

    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

    The existence of smaller black holes was affirmed two years ago, when the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, detected ripples in space-time caused by the collision of a pair of black holes located a billion light-years away.


    VIRGO Gravitational Wave interferometer, near Pisa, Italy

    Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo Hanford, WA, USA installation


    Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo detector installation Livingston, LA, USA

    Cornell SXS, the Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes (SXS) project

    Gravitational waves. Credit: MPI for Gravitational Physics/W.Benger

    ESA/eLISA the future of gravitational wave research

    1
    Skymap showing how adding Virgo to LIGO helps in reducing the size of the source-likely region in the sky. (Credit: Giuseppe Greco (Virgo Urbino group)

    But those black holes were only 20 and 30 times the mass of the sun; how supermassive black holes behave is the subject of much curiosity among astronomers.

    “We already know Einstein’s theory of gravity is fraying around the edges,” said Andrea Ghez, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “What better places to look for discrepancies in it than a supermassive black hole?” Dr. Ghez is the leader of a separate team that, like Dr. Genzel’s, is probing the galactic center. “What I like about the galactic center is that you get to see extreme astrophysics,” she said.

    Despite their name, supermassive black holes are among the most luminous objects in the universe. As matter crashes down into them, stupendous amounts of energy should be released, enough to produce quasars, the faint radio beacons from distant space that have dazzled and baffled astronomers since the early 1960s.

    Women in STEM – Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell

    Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell, discovered pulsars with radio astronomy. Jocelyn Bell at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory, Cambridge University, taken for the Daily Herald newspaper in 1968. Denied the Nobel.

    Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell 2009

    Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943 – ), still working from http://www. famousirishscientists.weebly.com

    Astronomers have long suspected that something similar could be happening at the center of the Milky Way, which is marked by a dim source of radio noise called Sagittarius A* (pronounced Sagittarius A-star).

    Sgr A* from ESO VLT


    SgrA* NASA/Chandra


    SGR A* , the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory

    But the galactic center is veiled by dust, making it all but invisible to traditional astronomical ways of seeing.

    Seeing in the dark

    Reinhard Genzel grew up in Freiburg, Germany, a small city in the Black Forest. As a young man, he was one of the best javelin throwers in Germany, even training with the national team for the 1972 Munich Olympics. Now he is throwing deeper.

    He became interested in the dark doings of the galactic center back in the 1980s, as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, under physicist Charles Townes, a Nobel laureate and an inventor of lasers. “I think of myself as a younger son of his,” Dr. Genzel said in a recent phone conversation.

    In a series of pioneering observations in the early 1980s, using detectors that can see infrared radiation, or heat, through galactic dust, Dr. Townes, Dr. Genzel and their colleagues found that gas clouds were zipping around the center of the Milky Way so fast that the gravitational pull of about 4 million suns would be needed to keep it in orbit. But whatever was there, it emitted no starlight. Even the best telescopes, from 26,000 light years away, could make out no more than a blur.

    3
    An image of the central Milky Way, which contains Sagittarius A*, taken by the VISTA telescope at the E.S.O.’s Paranal Observatory, mounted on a peak just next to the Very Large Telescope.CreditEuropean Southern Observatory/VVV Survey/D. Minniti/Ignacio Toledo, Martin Kornmesser


    Part of ESO’s Paranal Observatory, the VLT Survey Telescope (VISTA) observes the brilliantly clear skies above the Atacama Desert of Chile. It is the largest survey telescope in the world in visible light.
    Credit: ESO/Y. Beletsky, with an elevation of 2,635 metres (8,645 ft) above sea level

    Two advances since then have helped shed some figurative light on whatever is going on in our galaxy’s core. One was the growing availability in the 1990s of infrared detectors, originally developed for military use. Another was the development of optical techniques that could drastically increase the ability of telescopes to see small details by compensating for atmospheric turbulence. (It’s this turbulence that blurs stars and makes them twinkle.)

    Glistening against the awesome backdrop of the night sky above ESO_s Paranal Observatory, four laser beams project out into the darkness from Unit Telescope 4 UT4 of the VLT.

    These keen eyes revealed hundreds of stars in the galaxy’s blurry core, all buzzing around in a circle about a tenth of a light year across. One of the stars, which Dr. Genzel calls S2 and Dr. Ghez calls S-02, is a young blue star that follows a very elongated orbit and passes within just 11 billion miles of the mouth of the putative black hole every 16 years.

    During these fraught passages, the star, yanked around an egg-shaped orbit at speeds of up to 5,000 miles per second, should experience the full strangeness of the universe according to Einstein. Intense gravity on the star’s surface should slow the vibration of light waves, stretching them and making the star appear redder than normal from Earth.

    This gravitational redshift, as it is known, was one of the first predictions of Einstein’s theory. The discovery of S2 offered astronomers a chance to observe the phenomenon in the wild — within the grip of gravity gone mad, near a supermassive black hole.

    4
    Left, calculations left out at the Max Planck Institute, viewed from above, right.Credit Ksenia Kuleshova for The New York Times

    In the wheelhouse of the galaxy

    To conduct that experiment, astronomers needed to know the star’s orbit to a high precision, which in turn required two decades of observations with the most powerful telescopes on Earth. “You need twenty years of data just to get a seat at this table,” said Dr. Ghez, who joined the fray in 1995.

    And so, the race into the dark was joined on two different continents. Dr. Ghez worked with the 10-meter Keck telescopes, located on Mauna Kea, on Hawaii’s Big Island.


    Keck Observatory, Maunakea, Hawaii, USA.4,207 m (13,802 ft), above sea level, showing also NASA’s IRTF and NAOJ Subaru


    UCO Keck Laser Guide Star Adaptive Optics

    Dr. Genzel’s group benefited from the completion of the European Southern Observatory’s brand new Very Large Telescope [above] array in Chile.

    The European team was aided further by a new device, an interferometer named Gravity, that combined the light from the array’s four telescopes.

    ESO GRAVITY insrument on The VLTI, interferometric instrument operating in the K band, between 2.0 and 2.4 μm. It combines 4 telescope beams and is designed to peform both interferometric imaging and astrometry by phase referencing. Credit: MPE/GRAVITY team

    Designed by a large consortium led by Frank Eisenhauer of the Max Planck Institute, the instrument enabled the telescope array to achieve the resolution of a single mirror 130 meters in diameter. (The name originally was an acronym for a long phrase that included words such as “general,” “relativity,” and “interferometry,” Dr. Eisenhauer explained in an email.)

    “All of the sudden, we can see 1,000 times fainter than before,” said Dr. Genzel in 2016, when the instrument went into operation. In addition, they could track the movements of the star S2 from day to day.

    Meanwhile, Dr. Ghez was analyzing the changing spectra of light from the star, to determine changes in the star’s velocity. The two teams leapfrogged each other, enlisting bigger and more sophisticated telescopes, and nailing down the characteristics of S2. In 2012 Dr. Genzel and Dr. Ghez shared the Crafoord Prize in astronomy, an award nearly as prestigious as the Nobel. Events came to head this spring and summer, during a six-month period when S2 made its closest approach to the black hole.

    “It was exciting in the middle of April when a signal emerged and we started getting information,” Dr. Ghez said.

    On July 26, Dr. Genzel and Dr. Eisenhauer held a news conference in Munich to announce that they had measured the long-sought gravitational redshift. As Dr. Eisenhauer marked off their measurements, which matched a curve of expected results, the room burst into applause.

    “The road is wide open to black hole physics,” Dr. Eisenhauer proclaimed.

    In an email a month later, Dr. Genzel explained that detecting the gravitational redshift was only the first step: “I am usually a fairly sober, and sometimes pessimistic person. But you may sense my excitement as I write these sentences, because of these wonderful results. As a scientist (and I am 66 years old) one rarely if ever has phases this productive. Carpe Diem!”

    In early October, Dr. Ghez, who had waited to observe one more phase of the star’s trip, said her team soon would publish their own results.

    A monster in the basement

    In the meantime, Dr. Genzel was continuing to harvest what he called “this gift from nature.”

    The big break came when his team detected evidence of hot spots, or “flares,” in the tiny blur of heat marking the location of the suspected black hole. A black hole with the mass of 4 million suns should have a mouth, or event horizon, about 16 million miles across — too small for even the Gravity instrument to resolve from Earth.

    The hot spots were also too small to make out. But they rendered the central blur lopsided, with more heat on one side of the blur than the other. As a result, Dr. Genzel’s team saw the center of that blur of energy shift, or wobble, relative to the position of S2, as the hot spot went around it.

    As a result, said Dr. Genzel, “We see a little loop on the sky.” Later he added, “This is the first time we can study these important magnetic structures in a spatially resolved manner just like in a physics laboratory.”

    He speculated that the hot spots might be produced by shock waves in magnetic fields, much as solar flares erupt from the sun. But this might be an overly simplistic model, the authors cautioned in their paper. The effects of relativity turn the neighborhood around the black hole into a hall of mirrors, Dr. Genzel said: “Our statements currently are still fuzzy. We will have to learn better to reconstruct reality once we better understand exactly these mirages.”

    The star has finished its show for this year. Dr. Genzel hopes to gather more data from the star next year, as it orbits more distantly from the black hole. Additional observations in the coming years may clarify the star’s orbit, and perhaps answer other questions, such as whether the black hole was spinning, dragging space-time with it like dough in a mixer.

    But it may be hard for Dr. Genzel to beat what he has already accomplished, he said by email. For now, shrink-wrapping 4 million suns worth of mass into a volume just 45 minutes around was a pretty good feat “for a small boy from the countryside.”

    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 10:10 am on October 29, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: A.I. Is Helping Scientists Predict When and Where the Next Big Earthquake Will Be, , , , NYT   

    From The New York Times: “A.I. Is Helping Scientists Predict When and Where the Next Big Earthquake Will Be” 

    New York Times

    From The New York Times

    Oct. 26, 2018

    Thomas Fuller
    Cade Metz

    1
    Jean-Francois Podevin

    Countless dollars and entire scientific careers have been dedicated to predicting where and when the next big earthquake will strike. But unlike weather forecasting, which has significantly improved with the use of better satellites and more powerful mathematical models, earthquake prediction has been marred by repeated failure.

    Some of the world’s most destructive earthquakes — China in 2008, Haiti in 2010 and Japan in 2011, among them — occurred in areas that seismic hazard maps had deemed relatively safe. The last large earthquake to strike Los Angeles, Northridge in 1994, occurred on a fault that did not appear on seismic maps.

    Now, with the help of artificial intelligence, a growing number of scientists say changes in the way they can analyze massive amounts of seismic data can help them better understand earthquakes, anticipate how they will behave, and provide quicker and more accurate early warnings.

    “I am actually hopeful for the first time in my career that we will make progress on this problem,” said Paul Johnson, a fellow at the Los Alamos National Laboratory who is among those at the forefront of this research.

    Well aware of past earthquake prediction failures, scientists are cautious when asked how much progress they have made using A.I. Some in the field refer to prediction as “the P word,” because they do not even want to imply it is possible. But one important goal, they say, is to be able to provide reliable forecasts.

    The earthquake probabilities that are provided on seismic hazard maps, for example, have crucial consequences, most notably in instructing engineers how they should construct buildings. Critics say these maps are remarkably inexact.

    A map of Los Angeles lists the probability of an earthquake producing strong shaking within a given period of time — usually 50 years. That is based on a complex formula that takes into account, among other things, the distance from a fault, how fast one side of a fault is moving past the other, and the recurrence of earthquakes in the area.

    2
    3

    A study led by Katherine M. Scharer, a geologist with the United States Geological Survey, estimated dates for nine previous earthquakes along the Southern California portion of the San Andreas fault dating back to the eighth century. The last big earthquake on the San Andreas was in 1857.

    Since the average interval between these big earthquakes was 135 years, a common interpretation is that Southern California is due for a big earthquake. Yet the intervals between earthquakes are so varied — ranging from 44 years to 305 years — that taking the average is not a very useful prediction tool. A big earthquake could come tomorrow, or it could come in a century and a half or more.

    This is one of the criticisms of Philip Stark, an associate dean at the University of California, Berkeley, at the Division of Mathematical and Physical Sciences. Dr. Stark describes the overall system of earthquake probabilities as “somewhere between meaningless and misleading” and has called for it to be scrapped.

    The new A.I.-related earthquake research is leaning on neural networks, the same technology that has accelerated the progress of everything from talking digital assistants to driverless cars. Loosely modeled on the web of neurons in the human brain, a neural network is a complex mathematical system that can learn tasks on its own.

    Scientists say seismic data is remarkably similar to the audio data that companies like Google and Amazon use in training neural networks to recognize spoken commands on coffee-table digital assistants like Alexa. When studying earthquakes, it is the computer looking for patterns in mountains of data rather than relying on the weary eyes of a scientist.

    “Rather than a sequence of words, we have a sequence of ground-motion measurements,” said Zachary Ross, a researcher in the California Institute of Technology’s Seismological Laboratory who is exploring these A.I. techniques. “We are looking for the same kinds of patterns in this data.”

    Brendan Meade, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Harvard, began exploring these techniques after spending a sabbatical at Google, a company at the forefront of A.I. research.

    His first project showed that, at the very least, these machine-learning methods could significantly accelerate his experiments. He and his graduate students used a neural network to run an earthquake analysis 500 times faster than they could in the past. What once took days now took minutes.

    Dr. Meade also found that these A.I. techniques could lead to new insights. In the fall, with other researchers from Google and Harvard, he published a paper showing how neural networks can forecast earthquake aftershocks. This kind of project, he believes, represents an enormous shift in the way earthquake science is done. Similar work is underway at places like Caltech and Stanford University.

    “We are at a point where the technology can do as well as — or better than — human experts,” Dr. Ross said.

    Driving that guarded optimism is the belief that as sensors get smaller and cheaper, scientists will be able to gather larger amounts of seismic data. With help from neural networks and similar A.I. techniques, they hope to glean new insights from all this data.

    Dr. Ross and other Caltech researchers are using these techniques to build systems that can more accurately recognize earthquakes as they are happening and anticipate where the epicenter is and where the shaking will spread.

    Japan and Mexico have early warning systems, and California just rolled out its own. But scientists say artificial intelligence could greatly improve their accuracy, helping predict the direction and intensity of a rupture in the earth’s crust and providing earlier warnings to hospitals and other institutions that could benefit from a few extra seconds of preparation.

    “The more detail you have, the better your forecasts will be,” Dr. Ross said.

    Scientists working on these projects said neural networks have their limits. Though they are good at finding familiar signals in data, they are not necessarily suited to finding new kinds of signals — like the sounds tectonic plates make as they grind together.

    But at Los Alamos, Dr. Johnson and his colleagues have shown that a machine-learning technique called “random forests” can identify previously unknown signals in a simulated fault created inside a lab. In one case, their system showed that a particular sound made by the fault, which scientists previously thought was meaningless, was actually an indication of when an earthquake would arrive.

    Some scientists, like Robert Geller, a seismologist at the University of Tokyo, are unconvinced that A.I. will improve earthquake forecasts. He questions the very premise that past earthquakes can predict future ones. And ultimately, he said, we would only know the effectiveness of A.I. forecasting when earthquakes can be predicted beyond random chance.

    “There are no shortcuts,” Dr. Geller said. “If you cannot predict the future, then your hypothesis is wrong.”

    See the full article here .

    Earthquake Alert

    1

    Earthquake Alert

    Earthquake Network projectEarthquake Network is a research project which aims at developing and maintaining a crowdsourced smartphone-based earthquake warning system at a global level. Smartphones made available by the population are used to detect the earthquake waves using the on-board accelerometers. When an earthquake is detected, an earthquake warning is issued in order to alert the population not yet reached by the damaging waves of the earthquake.

    The project started on January 1, 2013 with the release of the homonymous Android application Earthquake Network. The author of the research project and developer of the smartphone application is Francesco Finazzi of the University of Bergamo, Italy.

    Get the app in the Google Play store.

    3
    Smartphone network spatial distribution (green and red dots) on December 4, 2015

    Meet The Quake-Catcher Network

    QCN bloc

    Quake-Catcher Network

    The Quake-Catcher Network is a collaborative initiative for developing the world’s largest, low-cost strong-motion seismic network by utilizing sensors in and attached to internet-connected computers. With your help, the Quake-Catcher Network can provide better understanding of earthquakes, give early warning to schools, emergency response systems, and others. The Quake-Catcher Network also provides educational software designed to help teach about earthquakes and earthquake hazards.

    After almost eight years at Stanford, and a year at CalTech, the QCN project is moving to the University of Southern California Dept. of Earth Sciences. QCN will be sponsored by the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) and the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC).

    The Quake-Catcher Network is a distributed computing network that links volunteer hosted computers into a real-time motion sensing network. QCN is one of many scientific computing projects that runs on the world-renowned distributed computing platform Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC).

    The volunteer computers monitor vibrational sensors called MEMS accelerometers, and digitally transmit “triggers” to QCN’s servers whenever strong new motions are observed. QCN’s servers sift through these signals, and determine which ones represent earthquakes, and which ones represent cultural noise (like doors slamming, or trucks driving by).

    There are two categories of sensors used by QCN: 1) internal mobile device sensors, and 2) external USB sensors.

    Mobile Devices: MEMS sensors are often included in laptops, games, cell phones, and other electronic devices for hardware protection, navigation, and game control. When these devices are still and connected to QCN, QCN software monitors the internal accelerometer for strong new shaking. Unfortunately, these devices are rarely secured to the floor, so they may bounce around when a large earthquake occurs. While this is less than ideal for characterizing the regional ground shaking, many such sensors can still provide useful information about earthquake locations and magnitudes.

    USB Sensors: MEMS sensors can be mounted to the floor and connected to a desktop computer via a USB cable. These sensors have several advantages over mobile device sensors. 1) By mounting them to the floor, they measure more reliable shaking than mobile devices. 2) These sensors typically have lower noise and better resolution of 3D motion. 3) Desktops are often left on and do not move. 4) The USB sensor is physically removed from the game, phone, or laptop, so human interaction with the device doesn’t reduce the sensors’ performance. 5) USB sensors can be aligned to North, so we know what direction the horizontal “X” and “Y” axes correspond to.

    If you are a science teacher at a K-12 school, please apply for a free USB sensor and accompanying QCN software. QCN has been able to purchase sensors to donate to schools in need. If you are interested in donating to the program or requesting a sensor, click here.

    BOINC is a leader in the field(s) of Distributed Computing, Grid Computing and Citizen Cyberscience.BOINC is more properly the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, developed at UC Berkeley.

    Earthquake safety is a responsibility shared by billions worldwide. The Quake-Catcher Network (QCN) provides software so that individuals can join together to improve earthquake monitoring, earthquake awareness, and the science of earthquakes. The Quake-Catcher Network (QCN) links existing networked laptops and desktops in hopes to form the worlds largest strong-motion seismic network.

    Below, the QCN Quake Catcher Network map
    QCN Quake Catcher Network map

    ShakeAlert: An Earthquake Early Warning System for the West Coast of the United States

    The U. S. Geological Survey (USGS) along with a coalition of State and university partners is developing and testing an earthquake early warning (EEW) system called ShakeAlert for the west coast of the United States. Long term funding must be secured before the system can begin sending general public notifications, however, some limited pilot projects are active and more are being developed. The USGS has set the goal of beginning limited public notifications in 2018.

    Watch a video describing how ShakeAlert works in English or Spanish.

    The primary project partners include:

    United States Geological Survey
    California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES)
    California Geological Survey
    California Institute of Technology
    University of California Berkeley
    University of Washington
    University of Oregon
    Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

    The Earthquake Threat

    Earthquakes pose a national challenge because more than 143 million Americans live in areas of significant seismic risk across 39 states. Most of our Nation’s earthquake risk is concentrated on the West Coast of the United States. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has estimated the average annualized loss from earthquakes, nationwide, to be $5.3 billion, with 77 percent of that figure ($4.1 billion) coming from California, Washington, and Oregon, and 66 percent ($3.5 billion) from California alone. In the next 30 years, California has a 99.7 percent chance of a magnitude 6.7 or larger earthquake and the Pacific Northwest has a 10 percent chance of a magnitude 8 to 9 megathrust earthquake on the Cascadia subduction zone.

    Part of the Solution

    Today, the technology exists to detect earthquakes, so quickly, that an alert can reach some areas before strong shaking arrives. The purpose of the ShakeAlert system is to identify and characterize an earthquake a few seconds after it begins, calculate the likely intensity of ground shaking that will result, and deliver warnings to people and infrastructure in harm’s way. This can be done by detecting the first energy to radiate from an earthquake, the P-wave energy, which rarely causes damage. Using P-wave information, we first estimate the location and the magnitude of the earthquake. Then, the anticipated ground shaking across the region to be affected is estimated and a warning is provided to local populations. The method can provide warning before the S-wave arrives, bringing the strong shaking that usually causes most of the damage.

    Studies of earthquake early warning methods in California have shown that the warning time would range from a few seconds to a few tens of seconds. ShakeAlert can give enough time to slow trains and taxiing planes, to prevent cars from entering bridges and tunnels, to move away from dangerous machines or chemicals in work environments and to take cover under a desk, or to automatically shut down and isolate industrial systems. Taking such actions before shaking starts can reduce damage and casualties during an earthquake. It can also prevent cascading failures in the aftermath of an event. For example, isolating utilities before shaking starts can reduce the number of fire initiations.

    System Goal

    The USGS will issue public warnings of potentially damaging earthquakes and provide warning parameter data to government agencies and private users on a region-by-region basis, as soon as the ShakeAlert system, its products, and its parametric data meet minimum quality and reliability standards in those geographic regions. The USGS has set the goal of beginning limited public notifications in 2018. Product availability will expand geographically via ANSS regional seismic networks, such that ShakeAlert products and warnings become available for all regions with dense seismic instrumentation.

    Current Status

    The West Coast ShakeAlert system is being developed by expanding and upgrading the infrastructure of regional seismic networks that are part of the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS); the California Integrated Seismic Network (CISN) is made up of the Southern California Seismic Network, SCSN) and the Northern California Seismic System, NCSS and the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN). This enables the USGS and ANSS to leverage their substantial investment in sensor networks, data telemetry systems, data processing centers, and software for earthquake monitoring activities residing in these network centers. The ShakeAlert system has been sending live alerts to “beta” users in California since January of 2012 and in the Pacific Northwest since February of 2015.

    In February of 2016 the USGS, along with its partners, rolled-out the next-generation ShakeAlert early warning test system in California joined by Oregon and Washington in April 2017. This West Coast-wide “production prototype” has been designed for redundant, reliable operations. The system includes geographically distributed servers, and allows for automatic fail-over if connection is lost.

    This next-generation system will not yet support public warnings but does allow selected early adopters to develop and deploy pilot implementations that take protective actions triggered by the ShakeAlert notifications in areas with sufficient sensor coverage.

    Authorities

    The USGS will develop and operate the ShakeAlert system, and issue public notifications under collaborative authorities with FEMA, as part of the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program, as enacted by the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977, 42 U.S.C. §§ 7704 SEC. 2.

    For More Information

    Robert de Groot, ShakeAlert National Coordinator for Communication, Education, and Outreach
    rdegroot@usgs.gov
    626-583-7225

    Learn more about EEW Research

    ShakeAlert Fact Sheet

    ShakeAlert Implementation Plan

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

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

     
  • richardmitnick 9:16 pm on August 30, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: “as a child you’d ask her a question a classic childhood question like ‘Why does the sun come up in the morning’ and my mum would always have a very complicated answer.”, Her boss J.L. Pawsey valued her judgment and experience so highly that when she was absent from a meeting he would often not make a final decision until she had been consulted, Her colleagues at the government research center considered her so integral to their work that they helped keep her marriage a secret she wore her wedding band on a necklace, Her final contribution “predicted the whole future of radio astronomy", In the end she was forced to resign and give up her pension, NYT, Obituaries of the overlooked, Payne-Scott would later discover two more types of solar bursts and help create a device called the swept-lobe interferometer, , Ruby Payne-Scott Who Explored Space With Radio Waves, She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from the University of Sydney — only the third woman to do so, She maintained her secret for several years during which she helped Pawsey discover what would become known as Type I solar bursts, She was told that as a married woman she could not work full time   

    From The New York Times: Overlooked No More: “Ruby Payne-Scott, Who Explored Space With Radio Waves” 

    New York Times

    From The New York Times

    Obituaries

    Payne-Scott helped establish the field of radio astronomy by using radio waves to detect solar bursts, but she was forced to resign after she got married.

    1
    Ruby Payne-Scott in an undated photograph. In the 1940s, she helped lay the foundation for a new field of science called radio astronomy.

    Aug. 29, 2018
    Rebecca Halleck

    Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men. With Overlooked, we’re adding the stories of remarkable people whose deaths went unreported in The Times.

    Every so often our sun emits an invisible burst of energy.

    This energy ripples through space as electromagnetic waves and then crashes into planets and meteors and space debris and one another, causing a great cacophony above and around us.

    A cacophony that was inaudible, until Ruby Payne-Scott entered a laboratory.

    In the 1940s, Payne-Scott helped lay the foundation for a new field of science called radio astronomy. Her work led to the discovery of deep-space phenomena like black holes and pulsars and later helped astronauts understand how solar storms disrupt weather in space and electrical grids on Earth.

    Yet as a married woman she was denied equal employment status and compensation. She challenged the scientific establishment in her native Australia and fought for the rights of women in the workplace, but ultimately left science to raise her children full time.

    _______________________

    World War II opened the door to Payne-Scott’s scientific career. The Australian armed forces needed physicists, and men were joining the military to fight instead.

    Bored with her job at Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia), where she cataloged and calibrated equipment for radio technicians, Payne-Scott applied for a government posting seeking a physicist. Her experience piqued the interest of the government’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. There she became one of two women working as research scientists in the division of radio physics, a laboratory with a top-secret mission: to enable radar systems to track incoming Japanese fighter planes.

    Radar was already in use on the European front, but the same systems were not working properly in the Southern Hemisphere, leaving Allied forces and Australian citizens vulnerable.

    Payne-Scott determined that tropical weather in the Pacific was to blame. She created a device called an S-band noise tube to check the sensitivity of receivers and measure the intensity of incoming signals.

    “She understood the hardware, but she also understood the physics, which is incredible,” said Miller Goss, astronomer emeritus at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and the author of Making Waves, a biography of Payne-Scott. “No radio astronomer in the 21st century could do something like that.”

    Payne-Scott became an expert at distinguishing Japanese aircraft from other sources of radio static, like ships, lighthouses, buildings and cliffs. This enabled scientists to track planes from farther away, even at night and during storms — a vast improvement over relying on the naked eye to spot the enemy.

    By 1944, with the war turning in the Allies’ favor, Payne-Scott and other scientists began searching for postwar applications for their research. A British physicist, James Stanley Hey, wrote a classified report that was circulated among just a few Allied scientists, including Payne-Scott. It hypothesized that a mysterious radio noise was coming not from aircraft or signal jamming, but rather from the sun.

    Hey’s report inspired Payne-Scott to join the race to legitimize a new branch of science: radio astronomy.

    Ruby Violet Payne-Scott was born in South Grafton, New South Wales, on May 28, 1912, to Cyril and Amy (Neale) Payne-Scott. Home-schooled until age 11, she ultimately landed a spot at the prestigious Sydney Girls High School, graduating at 16. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from the University of Sydney — only the third woman to do so, Goss said in an interview.

    But there were few opportunities for physicists or women when Payne-Scott earned her graduate degree in 1936, so she became a schoolteacher and then took the job at Amalgamated Wireless.

    She married William Hall in 1944. They shared political views that were fairly radical; they were feminists, environmental conservationists, atheists and communists. Some of Payne-Scott’s colleagues called her “Red Ruby.”

    But her marriage would present a problem: Women in public service were expected to resign when they wed. Her colleagues at the government research center considered her so integral to their work that they helped keep her marriage a secret; she wore her wedding band on a necklace.

    3
    Ms. Payne-Scott visiting with colleagues at a conference in 1952, a year after she left her job at an Australian government laboratory. She was told that as a married woman she could not work full time.Credit ATNF Historical Photographic Archive

    Her boss, J.L. Pawsey, “valued her judgment and experience so highly that when she was absent from a meeting, he would often not make a final decision until she had been consulted,” Goss wrote in Making Waves.

    She maintained her secret for several years, during which she helped Pawsey discover what would become known as Type I solar bursts. Their work, published in the journal Nature in February 1946 [related ;Springer Link, demonstrated that electromagnetic waves were spewing from the sun. Unlike solar flares, which were visible during eclipses using traditional telescopes, these spontaneous emissions were now detectable using radios.

    Payne-Scott would later discover two more types of solar bursts and help create a device called the swept-lobe interferometer, which panned the sky dozens of times per second, allowing radio astronomers to identify and zoom in on single wave formations.

    Her final contribution “predicted the whole future of radio astronomy,” Goss said. Like watching an instant replay from multiple camera angles at the same time, her method gave radio astronomers a more complete picture of the frequency and shape of waves emanating from space. Martin Ryle shared the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics using this method.

    Then, in 1950, the department was restructured, and in the process Payne-Scott’s marriage was uncovered by regulators.

    “There were many men who were very unsympathetic to the notion that women would continue to work after they were married,” said Claire Hooker, senior lecturer in health and medical humanities at the University of Sydney.

    “You didn’t have two breadwinners in the family,” she continued. “And it was just assumed that it was the man’s job to win the bread.”

    Payne-Scott challenged the rule, taking her fight to the head of the department in a series of contentious letters. But she was forced to resign and give up her pension.

    Pawsey hired her back on “temporary” status and gave her a raise, but she decided to leave the lab a year later, five months pregnant and excited to become a mother.

    Her son, Peter Gavin Hall, became an influential statistician. Her daughter, Fiona Margaret Hall, born in 1953, is a prominent Australian artist currently working on a war memorial.

    Payne-Scott died of complications of dementia on May 25, 1981. She was 68.

    Hall said in an interview that while her mother was known publicly for being outspoken, she lived a relatively quiet family life in the suburbs of Sydney — except for the occasional trip to protest the Vietnam War.

    But sometimes, she said, “as a child you’d ask her a question, a classic childhood question like ‘Why does the sun come up in the morning,’ and my mum would always have a very complicated answer.”

    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 1:50 pm on August 6, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , NYT, Space comes to Senegal from NASA   

    From The New York Times : “Aiming for the Stars, and a Chunk of Rock, in Senegal” 

    New York Times

    From The New York Times

    Aug. 5, 2018
    Jaime Yaya Barry
    Dionne Searcey

    1
    Outside Dakar, people got a look at the heavens last week through one of the New Horizons space program’s telescopes.Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times.

    When Salma Sylla was a little girl, she tried to find relief from Senegal’s steamy hot season by retreating to the roof of her home to sleep. Restless and overheated, she would lie awake staring at the stars.

    The area where she lived outside Dakar, the capital, had no electricity, and the heavens sparkled. She tried to count the stars, realizing more shone on some nights than on others.

    Ms. Sylla, now 37, was intrigued. But studying the stars in Senegal was not easy: High school courses were limited; libraries rarely had books on space; telescopes were few and expensive.

    Not much has improved since Ms. Sylla was a girl; astronomy offerings are extremely limited in Senegal’s universities. But officials here hope to change that, as part of a mission to improve science, technology, engineering and math skills by bolstering the country’s university programs and building a science and research center.

    The undertaking is part of “Emerging Senegal,” a broad development strategy by President Macky Sall that also includes plans for a planetarium.

    The effort got a lift last week, when Senegal welcomed a team of more than three dozen scientists from the United States and France, part of NASA’s New Horizons program. The scientists fanned out across the countryside in hopes of observing the silhouette cast by an ancient chunk of rock orbiting beyond Pluto as it passed in front of a bright star.

    The viewing was intended to help the team prepare for when the plutonium-powered New Horizons spacecraft passes by the object — nicknamed Ultima Thule (Beyond the Known World) — on New Year’s Eve.

    2
    Brigitte Anderson, an American scientist, set a telescope with the help of Modou Mbaye, a Senegalese scientist. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times.

    “This is the farthest exploration of anything in space that has ever taken place, by quite a lot,” said Alan Stern, project leader for NASA’s New Horizons mission. “We are way, way out there.”

    For the scientists, coming to Senegal was a process of elimination. Most of the areas that offered the best viewing were in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The other options — in neighboring Mali, for example — were in areas patrolled by violent extremists.

    The countryside of Senegal is peaceful, parts of it do not have electricity, and many rural areas are sparsely populated. That was a bonus for the scientists, who wanted a clear sky, free of light. Still, Senegal was a risky proposition. The area is on the cusp of the rainy season, and cloudy skies threatened to block the event, which occurred early Saturday and lasted less than a second.

    Scientists are still evaluating data from the viewing, but the skies turned out to be clear and they are hopeful.

    Senegal was an enthusiastic host. About two dozen Senegalese astronomers and scientists, including Ms. Sylla, accompanied the New Horizons team in the field and contributed to the viewing.

    African countries have racked up their own space achievements. Moroccan astronomers have discovered comets, asteroids and planets outside our solar system. Ghana’s first satellite is now orbiting the earth. Students in Tunisia have organized public events to observe the sky, even though they do not have an observatory.

    “Astronomy is virtually as popular in Africa as it is everywhere in the world,” said David Baratoux, the president of the African Initiative for Planetary Sciences and Space, who is based in France.

    The biggest hindrance is money. The United States spends more on its space program than the value of Senegal’s entire economy. The 21 high-powered telescopes brought by the New Horizons team were nearly double the number of telescopes available in all of Senegal.

    The New Horizons team hopes that the telescopes in Senegal and a handful in Colombia, with some assistance from the Hubble Space Telescope, will answer some questions about Ultima Thule, part of the Kuiper belt, before its spacecraft arrives. Is it shaped like a potato, for instance, or is it actually two objects orbiting each other?

    Last week, at a late-night dress rehearsal for Saturday’s viewing, Diarra Dieng, an applied physics student in Dakar, tweaked the settings on a $3,500 telescope, guided by a NASA scientist.

    “This is amazing,” she said, as she tried to train the telescope on the correct star.

    Instructors at Ms. Dieng’s high school in Dakar had encouraged her to pursue studies in science, but she was skeptical at first. “I never knew girls could do this kind of work,” she said.

    The New Horizons team had spread across the lawn of a conference center to work out equipment kinks ahead of the viewing. The biggest problem came when someone accidentally turned on the sprinkler system.

    The scientists let anyone milling about the nearby parking lot get a view of Saturn and Mars. Students who had studied astronomy through online courses joined a long line. Fathers hoisted small children to the eyepiece. The minister of higher education took a peek.

    “Mmmmm,” was all one woman could say, shaking her head as if in disbelief.

    The higher education minister, Mary Teuw Niane, said he hoped the team’s visit would foster future student collaborations with NASA.

    Anne Verbiscer, an astronomy professor at the University of Virginia and part of the New Horizons team, said she valued working with Senegalese students and could relate to overcoming hurdles in pursuing a career in astronomy.

    Dr. Verbiscer was 5 when a human first walked on the moon in 1969. Transfixed by the Apollo mission, she wanted to be an astronaut for Halloween. So she shopped for a costume with her mother and finally found one: It was in the boys’ section.

    In Senegal, Ms. Sylla remembers her grandmother telling her the stars were obscured some nights to help hyena hunters go undetected. Her quest to find out what was really happening in the skies led her to persist. She cobbled together studies at Senegalese institutions and abroad.

    Today, Ms. Sylla is the first Ph.D. student in astronomy at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar.

    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 9:29 am on July 17, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "The Neutrino Trappers", Baksan Neutrino Observatory in southern Russia, , NYT, ,   

    From The New York Times: “The Neutrino Trappers” 

    New York Times

    From The New York Times

    July 16, 2018
    Dennis Overbye

    Photographs by Maxim Babenko

    Deep in a mountain in southern Russia, scientists are tracking one of the universe’s most elusive particles.

    1
    Employees of the Baksan Neutrino Observatory in southern Russia gather at its entrance to take an electric trolley thousands of feet underground to the facility’s laboratories.

    Just over the border from Georgia, in the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia, lies a small town called Neytrino. For the last half-century, its main business has been the study of the tiniest insubstantial bit of matter in the universe, an ephemeral fly-by-night subatomic particle called the neutrino.

    This is the home of the Baksan Neutrino Observatory, a warren of tunnels and laboratories burrowed two miles into a mountain, sheltered from the outside universe and cosmic rays underneath 12,000 feet of rock. There vats of liquid wait to record the flight of neutrinos from the center of the sun, from exploding stars, atomic reactors and the Big Bang itself, carrying messages through time.

    2
    A laboratory in an underground gallery at the Baksan Neutrino Observatory.

    3
    In the gallium-germanium telescope laboratory, a worker crunches number. Fish swimming in an aquarium serve both as companions and as an early warning system in case something goes awry with the laboratory’s radioactive materials.

    Neutrinos are the ghost riders of the cosmos, mostly impervious to the forces, like electromagnetism, with which other denizens of nature interact. Neutrinos cruise unmolested through rocks, the earth and even our bodies. In the words of a famous poem by John Updike, they “insult the stallion in his stall.”

    The most delicate measurements so far indicate that an individual neutrino weighs less than a millionth what an electron weighs. Baksan is not the only place dedicated to their surreal pursuit.

    The men and women in these photographs, taken by Maxim Babenko last year, share an underground union with scientists scattered around the world in equally deep places: the Sanford Underground Research Facility in the former Homestake gold mine in Lead, S.D.; the Gran Sasso National Laboratory, beneath the mountain of that name in Italy; the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory in Ontario, Canada; the Super-Kamiokande, deep within Mount Ikeno, Japan; and IceCube, an array of detectors buried in ice at the South Pole.


    Surf-Dune/LBNF Caverns at Sanford

    INFN/Borexino Solar Neutrino detector, Gran Sasso, Italy


    Gran Sasso LABORATORI NAZIONALI del GRAN SASSO, located in the Abruzzo region of central Italy

    SNOLAB, a Canadian underground physics laboratory at a depth of 2 km in Vale’s Creighton nickel mine in Sudbury, Ontario

    Super-Kamiokande experiment. located under Mount Ikeno near the city of Hida, Gifu Prefecture, Japan

    IceCube neutrino detector interior

    U Wisconsin ICECUBE neutrino detector at the South Pole

    All of them are trying to listen to quantum whispers about the nature of reality.

    4
    Nail Khairnasov, lead engineering technologist of the gallium-germanium telescope, has been running these devices for nearly 30 years. The telescope, built in the late 1980s, contains 60 tons of gallium.

    4
    Valery Gorbachev, a senior researcher, setting up counters with radioactive isotopes of germanium. Each counter contains just a few dozen germanium atoms.

    5
    Vintage computers keep track of events observed in the observatory.

    One of Baksan’s biggest claims to fame to date was to catch neutrinos emitted by thermonuclear reactions in the center of the sun in nearly 60 tons of liquid gallium. The experiment, called S.A.G.E., for Soviet-American Gallium Experiment, proved that scientists actually do know what powers our favorite star, source of our life and light.

    6
    S.A.G.E.

    Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the scientists in Baksan have had to fend off both thieves and the Russian government to keep their gallium, an element that goes for some $500 a kilogram.

    7
    Trolleys convey workers to and from the surface and to spaces within the underground observatory. More than 250 people work at Baksan, 30 of them scientists.

    Physicists know that neutrinos come in at least three flavors, known as electron, muon and tau neutrinos, depending on their subatomic origin. To add to the confusion, neutrinos have a kind of quantum superpower: They can molt from one type to another, sort of like a jail escapee changing clothes as he flees. An electron neutrino, say, can emerge from a nuclear reactor in one place and appear in a detector somewhere else as a muon neutrino. This complicates the cosmic accounting of these creatures.

    Physicists are arguing intensely these days over whether there is evidence for a fourth type, called sterile neutrinos. That is the object of a new experiment called B.E.S.T., for Baksan Experiment on Sterile Transitions, now underway in the rusty Baksan tunnels.

    Although neutrinos are the lightest and flimsiest and perhaps most fickle particles of the universe, they are also among the most numerous, outnumbering the protons and electrons that make up us and ordinary matter by a billion to one. And so neutrinos contribute about as much mass to the universe as the visible stars.

    An extra population of neutrinos discovered by scientists in a cave in the Caucasus would affect basic calculations of the expansion of the universe.

    The discovery this month of a high-energy neutrino from a far distant galaxy passing through the IceCube detector at the South Pole elicited headlines around the world.

    Meanwhile, unaware that they are being harassed by extraterrestrial visitors, horses graze outside Baksan, and life goes on, whether we understand it or not.

    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 11:21 am on April 25, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , FOXG1, , NYT, Soo-Kyung a specialist in genetics, Yuna Lee   

    From The New York Times: “Infinitesimal Odds: A Scientist Finds Her Child’s Rare Illness Stems From the Gene She Studies” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    April 23, 2018
    Pam Belluck

    By the time her mother received the doctor’s email, Yuna Lee was already 2 years old, a child with a frightening medical mystery. Plagued with body-rattling seizures and inconsolable crying, she could not speak, walk or stand.

    “Why is she suffering so much?” her mother, Soo-Kyung Lee, anguished. Brain scans, genetic tests and neurological exams yielded no answers. But when an email popped up suggesting that Yuna might have a mutation on a gene called FOXG1, Soo-Kyung froze.

    “I knew,” she said, “what that gene was.”

    Almost no one else in the world would have had any idea. But Soo-Kyung is a specialist in the genetics of the brain—“a star,” said Robert Riddle, a program director in neurogenetics at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. For years, Soo-Kyung, a developmental biologist at Oregon Health and Science University, had worked with the FOX family of genes.

    “I knew how critical FOXG1 is for brain development,” she said.

    She also knew harmful FOXG1 mutations are exceedingly rare and usually not inherited — the gene mutates spontaneously during pregnancy. Only about 300 people worldwide are known to have FOXG1 syndrome, a condition designated a separate disorder relatively recently. The odds her own daughter would have it were infinitesimal.

    “It is an astounding story,” Dr. Riddle said. “A basic researcher working on something that might help humanity, and it turns out it directly affects her child.”

    Suddenly, Soo-Kyung, 42, and her husband Jae Lee, 57, another genetics specialist at O.H.S.U., had to transform from dispassionate scientists into parents of a patient, desperate for answers.

    1
    Soo-Kyung and Yuna on a FaceTime call with Soo-Kyung’s parents in Korea.CreditRuth Fremson/The New York Times.

    2
    Yuna during free playtime in the schoolyard at Bridlemile Elementary School in Portland, Ore. Yuna cannot walk, but she spends time daily in a gait trainer to help her learn to propel herself with her feet.CreditRuth Fremson/The New York Times.

    They were plunged into a fast-moving ocean of newly identified gene mutations, newly named diagnoses, and answers that raise new questions.The newfound capacity to sequence genomes is spurring a genetic gold rush, linking mystifying diseases to specific mutations — often random mutations not passed down from parents.

    New research shows that each year, about 400,000 babies born worldwide have neurological disorders caused by random mutations, said Matthew Hurles, head of human genetics at Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. As sequencing becomes cheaper, more children will receive specific diagnoses like FOXG1 syndrome, doctors say.

    This burst of discovery might eventually help doctors treat or prevent some brain damage. “We used to lump them all together under autism or another category,” said Dr. Joseph Gleeson, a neurogeneticist at University of California San Diego. “It’s really changing the way doctors are thinking about disease.”

    Balancing the missions of science and motherhood, Soo-Kyung has begun doing what she is uniquely positioned to do: aiming her research squarely at her daughter’s disorder. With Jae’s help, she is studying how the FOXG1 gene works and why mutations like Yuna’s are so devastating.

    “Our ultimate goal is to find a better treatment for FOXG1 syndrome patients,” she said. Her day-to-day goal is helping Yuna make slivers of developmental progress.

    Yuna is now a sweet-natured 8-year-old still wearing a toddler’s onesie over a diaper. “Cognitively she’s about 18 months,” Jae, her father, said.

    A major achievement would be getting Yuna to indicate when her diaper is wet. Or to stand when they prop her against a kitchen corner and remove their hands for a split second. “If Yuna doesn’t fall down right away,” Soo-Kyung said, “we consider that a success.”

    “My daughter’s brain is so damaged,” Soo-Kyung said, eyes brimming with tears. “Can we rescue any of her skills?”

    3
    Soo-Kyung, left, and Jae, right, work next door to each other; together they are researching FOXG1 syndrome, the rare disorder Yuna has.CreditRuth Fremson/The New York Times

    When their daughter was born in Houston in January 2010, southeast Texas experienced a rare snowfall. It inspired the Lees, then professors at Baylor College of Medicine, to name her “Yuna,” meaning “snow girl” in a Korean dialect, with the middle name “Heidi” for its allusion to snowy peaks.

    “She was perfectly normal,” Jae said. “We were joking, ‘What will come later?’ Yuna’s mom is a very smart person, so we thought, ‘Well, she will make the world better.’”

    But soon, things seemed off. Yuna often failed to respond to sounds. She struggled to swallow milk from breast or bottle. What she did swallow she vomited. “She looked like someone with malnutrition,” Soo-Kyung said.

    A doctor said her head circumference was not growing enough. Then Yuna began having seizures , often sending the Lees to the emergency room. She cried so persistently that Soo-Kyung had to assure neighbors Yuna was not being abused.

    “What did I do wrong?” Soo-Kyung grilled herself. Had she eaten something while pregnant that infected Yuna? “I was traveling a lot during the pregnancy to attend seminars — was I too stressed?”

    4
    Yuna and her mother in a family photo. Born in Texas during a rare snowfall, her name, Yuna, means “snow girl” in a Korean dialect. No image credit.

    Shortly after Yuna’s second birthday, Soo-Kyung traveled to Washington, D.C. to serve on a National Institutes of Health panel reviewing grant proposals from brain development researchers. At dinner, she found herself next to Dr. David Rowitch, a respected neonatologist and neuroscientist she knew only by reputation.

    “She started to tell me what’s going on with her daughter,” recalled Dr. Rowitch, professor and head of pediatrics at the University of Cambridge who was then at the University of California San Francisco. He was stumped but offered to send Yuna’s brain scans to “the world’s expert” in neuroradiology: Dr. Jim Barkovich at U.C.S.F.

    Dr. Barkovich said Yuna’s scans revealed “a very unusual pattern,” one he had not seen in decades of evaluating brain images sent to him from around the world. Yuna’s cerebral cortex had abnormal white matter, meaning “there were probably cells dying,” he said, and the corpus callosum, the corridor across which cells in the left and right hemispheres communicate, was “way too thin.”

    Searching scientific literature, he said, “I found a gene that seemed to be expressed in that area and found that when it was mutated it caused a very similar pattern.” That gene was FOXG1.

    5
    Left, Soo-Kyung watching a postdoctoral student with mouse brains in her lab at OHSU. Right, examining mouse brain cells. She has begun aiming her research at understanding Yuna’s brain disorder.CreditRuth Fremson/The New York Times.

    6
    Yuna exploring her mother’s closet after her bath. Her mother, Soo-Kyung, began sleeping on the mattress after she collapsed from the stress of caring for Yuna; sleeping in the closet helps Soo-Kyung rest without noise or distraction.CreditRuth Fremson/The New York Times.

    FOXG1 is so crucial that its original name was “Brain Factor 1,” said Dr. William Dobyns, a professor of pediatrics and neurology at University of Washington, who published a 2011 study recommending a separate diagnosis: FOXG1 syndrome. “It’s one of the most important genes in brain development.”

    FOXG1 provides blueprints for a protein that helps other genes switch on or off. It helps with three vital fetal brain stages: delineating the top and bottom regions, adjusting the number of nerve cells produced and “setting up the organization of the entire cortex,” Dr. Dobyns said.

    So, when Dr. Barkovich’s email said he “would not be surprised if this is a FOXG1 mutation,” Soo-Kyung’s heart shuddered. “That’s unthinkable,” she despaired.

    Yuna’s neurologist declined to authorize FOXG1 gene analysis, considering the possibility improbable — and irrelevant because it would not change Yuna’s treatment, Soo-Kyung said. So she decided to sequence the gene herself, preparing to seek university permission since her lab only worked with animals. Then, she became pregnant again. That provided justification for professional analysis of Yuna’s gene to determine if there was a heritable mutation the Lees could have also transmitted to their second child.

    When results showed a FOXG1 mutation, Soo-Kyung requested the raw data, hoping the lab had messed up. But scanning the data, Soo-Kyung spotted the problem instantly: Yuna was missing one nucleotide, Number 256 in the 86th amino acid of one copy of FOXG1, which has 489 amino acids.

    It was a random mutation, so she felt relief her second child was at little risk. But its location in the DNA sequence had given Yuna a smaller, incompletely functioning brain. A single mutation had disabled the entire gene.

    7
    Music seems to calm Yuna, so her father Jae often plays guitar in the evenings. Yuna’s brother, Joon, 5, helps as he can.CreditRuth Fremson/The New York Times.

    Bridlemile Elementary School’s long hallway is both minefield and laboratory for Yuna. In a wheelchair or special walker, she is guided by a paraprofessional, Audrey Lungershausen, who tries to keep her from grabbing student artwork and coats, while encouraging her to identify balls and faces on a mural.

    Soo-Kyung must also navigate a daunting hallway. In June 2016, overcome by stress, she collapsed. Diagnosed with vestibular neuritis, an infection involving nerves linking the ear and brain, she was bedridden for weeks and struggled to stand. She still experiences vertigo and nausea walking the hall to her lab, “like I’m on a ship that’s constantly moving.”

    Her disability, glancingly parallel to her daughter’s, helps her understand that “the world that Yuna has to face with her limited ability to control her body — that must be really scary to her,” she said.

    While Yuna’s condition gives Soo-Kyung’s work personal importance, her own condition makes it harder. She cannot look at her computer more than 25 minutes straight, reads with a yellow filter often used by children with autism, and does visual exercises using paper images taped to her office wall..

    Like Yuna, Soo-Kyung needed physical, occupational and speech therapy. A psychiatrist prescribed an antidepressant. Instead of sleeping in Yuna’s room, Soo-Kyung began blocking out light and sound by sleeping on a mattress on the floor of the master bedroom closet. “They say I may not recover to a normal level.”

    8
    Soo-Kyung’s peripheral vision being tested at an occupational therapy session. She suffered a collapse in 2016 from the stress of juggling her scientific career while caring for Yuna, and dealt with the after-effects of vertigo.CreditRuth Fremson/The New York Times.

    Long before Yuna was born, Soo-Kyung stumbled upon research she found fascinating, showing that mice missing both FOXG1 genes did not form brains. That would apply to humans, too. “There’s nobody who is missing two copies of the gene,” said Dr. Riddle of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “They don’t survive.”

    Soo-Kyung told Jae she wanted to someday study how FOXG1 drives brain development. “Then Yuna arrived,” Jae said.

    Now, studying mouse brains, the Lees have identified genes that interact with FOXG1, helping explain why one crippled copy of FOXG1 damages the corpus callosum’s ability to transmit signals between hemispheres.

    “We now understand how this gene works and why,” Soo-Kyung said.

    Many mysteries remain. Individual FOXG1 mutations affect gene function differently, so one FOXG1 patient’s symptoms can vary from another’s. For example, Charles A. Nelson III, an expert in child development and neurodevelopmental disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, evaluated two 10-year-old patients with mutations in different locations and markedly distinct levels of impairment.

    Since patients like Yuna, with one dysfunctional and one functional FOXG1 gene, produce half the necessary FOXG1 protein, Soo-Kyung wonders if gene therapy could restore some protein or boost protein activity in the good gene.

    But because FOXG1 is crucial so early in development, Dr. Rowitch said, “I don’t think you can just go back when the baby’s born and build the brain back up.”

    Still, Dr. Dobyns said, “are there parts of FOXG1 syndrome that we might be able to fix once we understand it better? Sure, parts of it.”

    9
    Yuna Lee with her speech therapist, Diana Deaibes at Shriners Hospital for Children in Portland, Ore. nearly a year ago. A computer program was used to teach her to communicate with her eyes by staring at something she likes onscreen. The hope is for her to eventually direct her gaze to show that she wants food or a toy.CreditRuth Fremson/The New York Times

    When Yuna was 6, Soo-Kyung, half-asleep in bed with her, noticed something extraordinary: Yuna was sitting up. “Am I dreaming?” Soo-Kyung wondered. For years, Yuna failed to learn this skill, usually mastered by six-month-old babies.

    Physical therapists had stopped Yuna’s sessions, saying “ ‘What’s the point of doing it when she’s not making any progress?’” Soo-Kyung recalled. She began painstakingly urging Yuna to push up using her elbow, never sure Yuna understood. Then, “suddenly Yuna was sitting up and I didn’t know how it happened.” Probably a fluke, Soo-Kyung thought—but soon Yuna began sitting up regularly.

    Experts say too little is understood about newly recognized neurological disorders to know children’s developmental limits. But the Lees believe the sitting-up success shows that if they persevere, Yuna can make incremental progress. Their next goal is for Yuna to communicate when she is hungry, uncomfortable or wants something.

    Speech therapists could not get Yuna to intentionally press a button activating a recorded voice saying things like “more.” “I don’t know if she understands what I am telling her,” said Diana Deaibes, a speech-language pathologist at Shriners Hospital for Children.

    But the Lees refused to let Shriners pause speech therapy, urging therapists to try teaching Yuna to stare at something she wants. “We insisted,” said Jae, optimistic even though they attempted visual communication before “and it was a complete mess — she wasn’t able to do it at all.”

    Ms. Deaibes tried pictures and then computer eye-gaze programs that track Yuna’s eye movements. After months of Ms. Deaibes darkening the room to minimize distractions, buckling Yuna to control her jerky movements, Yuna can now stare for about three seconds, causing barn doors to open in computerized farmyards and other onscreen responses. The Lees hope to train Yuna to choose toys or books with her eyes.

    At school, Yuna spends time in a regular second-grade classroom where social exposure helps her and enlightens other students, said Bridlemile’s principal, Brad Pearson. These days, she increasingly responds to her name with eye contact or sound and rarely puts school materials in her mouth anymore, said Jim Steranko, who teaches Yuna in Bridlemile’s learning resource center.

    10
    Listening to a teacher read.CreditRuth Fremson/The New York Times.

    11
    Therapists working with Yuna are uncertain whether she is cognitively able to understand that the label contains her name.CreditRuth Fremson/The New York Times.

    Ms. Lungershausen assists Yuna with everything, including feeding her and, with another aide’s help, changing her diapers. She recently made colorful shapes for Yuna to grab while the second-graders studied fractions. “We have our bad days,” Ms. Lungershausen said. But she said Yuna increasingly recognizes phrases like “Let’s find the library door,” recently “brought a Kleenex to her nose after being prompted” and “brought my hand to her mouth and ‘kissed’ it, deliberately, first time since I’ve known her.”

    At 41 pounds, Yuna weighs 10 pounds less than her little brother, Joon, 5, who has begun helping care for his older sister. One day, after Yuna’s state-funded caregiver, Anne Marie Nguyen, bathed her and propped her in a baby play center to dry her, Joon, announcing he had finished “going potty,” brushed Yuna’s hair. Seeing her rip the bathroom thermostat’s cover off, Joon pulled Yuna’s hands from the wall, saying, “Don’t touch that.”

    When Soo-Kyung returned home after lab work involving gene manipulation in mouse and chicken brains, she crouched on the playroom carpet, watching Yuna commando crawl and elbow herself to a sitting position. She lifted Yuna into the special walker, called a gait trainer and, waving toys, coaxed her to propel the contraption with her feet.

    Then came Yuna’s nightly FaceTime visit with her grandparents in South Korea, who sing and show pictures as Yuna intermittently eyes the screen. Later, Jae played guitar, while Soo-Kyung held Yuna, keeping her rangy arms from tearing into the instrument. Yuna smiled and bobbed.

    Soo-Kyung rarely used to mention her daughter to fellow scientists, but recently began thanking Yuna during presentations. “I was afraid every day that she might not be with me the next day,” Soo-Kyung said, voice breaking. “But she’s done amazing things that we wouldn’t dare to dream. So, how can anyone say she will never be able to do this, she will never be able to do that?”

    They carried Yuna upstairs to her giant crib, her body arching elastically. Carting her up and down is getting harder, so the Lees expect to move from the three-level, cliff-side house they bought to be closer, for Yuna’s sake, to the hospital and their labs. With breathtaking views of Mount St. Helens, it is an optimist’s house, where it is possible to see beyond the horizon.

    12
    As Yuna, in the arms of her caregiver, Anne Marie Nguyen, grows, it gets harder to carry her up and down the house’s several flights of stairs.CreditRuth Fremson/The New York Times

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

     
  • richardmitnick 5:05 am on March 20, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Lake Toba volcano history, NYT   

    From NYT: “After a Volcano’s Ancient Supereruption, Humanity May Have Thrived” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    MARCH 12, 2018
    SHANNON HALL

    4
    Mount Sinabung erupts — Lake Toba Supervolcano now steaming +emitting foul odors of gas. June 8, 2015 Michael Janitch.

    1
    Major volcanoes of Indonesia, with eruptions since 1900 C.E. Lyn Topinka, USGS; base map from CIA, 1997; volcanoes from Simkin and Siebert, 1994

    2

    3
    Lake Toba in Indonesia is serene today, but 74,000 years ago it was the site of the most powerful volcanic eruption to take place on Earth in the past two million years. Credit Lana Priatna/SOPA Images/LightRocket, via Getty Images.

    Supervolcanoes have the power to cough up enough ash to coat entire continents. They emit waves of hot gas, rocks and ash that flow down their slopes at speeds so great they strip away vegetation and kill anyone in their path. And they carve vast depressions in the planet, leaving permanent scars.

    And yet, they might not be as apocalyptic as previously thought. About 74,000 years ago, a supervolcano at the site of present-day Lake Toba on the Indonesian island of Sumatra rocked our world. But while it was the largest volcanic eruption of the last two million years, a new study published Monday in Nature suggests that humans not only survived the event — they thrived.

    The study counters previous hypotheses, which suggested that the behemoth was so disastrous it caused the human species to teeter on the brink of extinction.

    4
    Archaeological excavations at a site on South Africa’s southern coast, where evidence of the Toba event was uncovered alongside ancient bones, stone tools and evidence of human fires. Credit Curtis W. Marean/Arizona State University.

    It’s easy to see how that idea came about. The Toba supereruption expelled roughly 10,000 times more rock and ash than the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption. So much ejecta would have darkened skies worldwide, causing scientists to speculate that it might have plunged the Earth into a volcanic winter whose chill could be felt far from Indonesia. Climate models suggest that temperatures may have plummeted by as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit. And in such a cold world, plants may have ceased growing, glaciers may have advanced, sea-levels may have dropped and rainfall may have slowed.

    Then in 1998, Stanley Ambrose, an anthropologist, linked the proposed disaster to genetic evidence that suggested a population bottleneck had occurred around the same time. He was certain that the Toba supereruption had caused the human population to decline to some 10,000 people — a close call for our ancestors.

    “These were dramatic theories,” said Michael Petraglia, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History who was not involved in the study. “They were very popular — both in the scientific world, but also in the public imagination.”

    The latest study, however, suggests that those theories are incorrect, Dr. Petraglia said. “We’re not seeing all the drama.”

    More than 5,500 miles from the site of the Toba supereruption in Southeast Asia, Curtis Marean, an anthropologist at Arizona State University, and his colleagues discovered signs of its debris at two archaeological sites on South Africa’s southern coast. The appearance of microscopic glass shards once ejected by the Toba event amid layers of ancient bones, complex stone tools and evidence of human fires allowed the team to directly observe the volcano’s impact on the human population for the first time.

    The results surprised Dr. Marean. Should Dr. Ambrose’s theory be correct, there would be fewer signs of human occupation in the layer of soil above the one with the signs of the Toba supereruption. Dr. Marean’s team saw the opposite: After the catastrophic event, there were more signs of human occupation. Not only did humans appear to adapt to the trauma caused by the event, they thrived, said Eugene Smith, an author of the study and a retired geologist.

    That doesn’t mean Toba’s volcanic winter never occurred. Dr. Marean speculates that an ensuing global chill may have driven these prehistoric humans to the coast where they were able to survive.

    But not all experts agree with that interpretation.

    Although Dr. Petraglia praised Dr. Marean’s work, he said it did not buttress the case for a global climate catastrophe following the Toba eruption. He pointed to a study published this year [Journal of Human Evolution] of a similar ash layer within Lake Malawi in East Africa. There, scientists found no signs that the lake’s temperature dropped significantly after the event — suggesting that there was no volcanic winter, and further challenging the idea of a human population decline resulting from the Toba eruption.

    And he’s not alone.

    “I personally lean toward the idea that Toba just didn’t have sufficient impact to have a significant impact on Homo sapiens in East Africa, period,” says Thomas Johnson, a retired paleoclimatologist at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, who was not involved in the study. “The large majority of the information that keeps coming out keeps putting nails in the Toba coffin.”

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

     
  • richardmitnick 10:26 am on February 21, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Astronomers’ Dark Energy Hopes Fade to Gray, , , , , , NYT   

    From NYT: “Astronomers’ Dark Energy Hopes Fade to Gray” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    FEB. 19, 2018
    Dennis Overbye

    1
    A remnant from a Type 1A supernova observed in the Milky Way, one of the cosmic markers of how fast the universe is expanding. Observing exploding stars helped astronomers first discover the existence of dark energy nearly 20 years ago. Credit Chandra X-ray Observatory/NASA

    NASA/Chandra Telescope

    A star-crossed mission nearly 20 years in the making that was intended to seek an answer to the most burning, baffling question in astronomy — and perhaps elucidate the fate of the universe — is in danger of being canceled.

    The Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, was being designed to investigate the mysterious force dubbed dark energy that is speeding up the expansion of the universe and search out planets around other stars.

    NASA/WFIRST

    In 2010, a blue-ribbon panel from the National Academy of Sciences charged with charting the future of space-based astronomy gave the mission the highest priority for the next decade. Under the plan, it could have launched in mid-2020s with a price tag of $3.2 billion.american

    But it was zeroed out in the NASA budget proposed by President Trump last week.

    In a statement accompanying the budget, Robert M. Lightfoot Jr., the agency’s acting administrator, called the deletion “one hard decision,” citing the need to divert resources to “other agency priorities.” NASA is shifting its focus back to the moon.

    Nobody is under any illusion that a president’s budget proposal is the last word on anything. Congress, which usually listens to the academy’s recommendations, will have the last word in a dance that many NASA missions, including the Hubble Space Telescope, have participated in. As the old saying among space scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, home of many missions, goes: “It’s not a real mission until it is canceled.”

    2
    Robert Lightfoot Jr., the acting administrator of NASA, giving a state of the agency speech on Feb. 12 at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Credit Bill Ingalls/(NASA, via Associated Press

    The proposed cancellation drew an outcry from astronomers, who warned that stepping back from the mission would be stepping back from the kind of science that made America great and would endanger future projects that, like this one, require international help. It drew comparisons to the cancellation of the Superconducting Supercollider that ended American supremacy in particle physics.

    Superconducting Super Collider map, in the vicinity of Waxahachie, Texas.

    __________________________________________________________________________
    American astronomical Society

    Contacts:
    Rick Fienberg
    AAS Press Officer
    +1 202-328-2010 x116

    Joel Parriott
    AAS Deputy Executive Officer & Director of Public Policy
    +1 202-328-2010 x120

    Sharing alarm voiced by other scientists, leaders of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) are expressing grave concern over the administration’s proposed cuts to NASA’s astrophysics budget and the abrupt cancellation of the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). “We cannot accept termination of WFIRST, which was the highest-priority space-astronomy mission in the most recent decadal survey,” says AAS President-Elect Megan Donahue (Michigan State University). “And the proposed 10% reduction in NASA’s astrophysics budget, amounting to nearly $1 billion over the next five years, will cripple US astronomy.”

    WFIRST, the successor to the 28-year-old Hubble Space Telescope and the forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope, is the top-ranked large space-astronomy mission of New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics, the National Academies’ Astro2010 decadal survey, and is an essential component of a balanced space astrophysics portfolio. Cutting NASA’s astrophysics budget and canceling WFIRST would leave our nation without a large space telescope to succeed Hubble and Webb. Yet just last year another National Academies report, Powering Science: NASA’s Large Strategic Missions, found that “large strategic missions are critical for balance and form the backbone of the disciplines” of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD), which includes astrophysics. The same report further recommended that “NASA should continue to plan for large strategic missions as a primary component for all science disciplines as part of a balanced program that also includes smaller missions.”

    “The AAS has long supported community-based priority setting as a fundamental component in the effective funding, management, and oversight of the federal research enterprise,” says AAS Executive Officer Kevin B. Marvel. “This process has been tremendously successful and has led to US preeminence in space science through missions that are now household names, like Hubble.” Marvel continues, “Not only is WFIRST a top decadal-survey priority in astronomy and astrophysics, but the mission has also undergone rigorous community, agency, and Congressional assessment and oversight and meets the high expectations of an astrophysics flagship.”

    Indeed, after Astro2010, scientific and technological advancements enabled an enhanced WFIRST that would be 100 times more powerful than Hubble. Follow-on National Academies’ reports in 2013 and 2016 reaffirmed the significant scientific merit of the enhanced WFIRST mission, and their recommendations for careful monitoring of potential cost and schedule drivers led to NASA’s commissioning of the WFIRST Independent External Technical / Management / Budget Review (WIETR) last fall.

    Neither the commissioning of the WIETR nor the content of its findings are an indication that WFIRST is experiencing or will experience the cost overruns that the Webb telescope experienced. In fact, the opposite is true. As Thomas Young, former director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and former president and chief operating officer of Martin Marietta Corp., testified to the House Science Subcommittee on Space in December 2017, that WFIRST has undergone extensive scrutiny is “no cause for panic. What is transpiring is a perfectly healthy process to assure that the scope, cost, and risk are appropriately defined.”

    NASA’s SMD Associate Administrator, Thomas Zurbuchen, fully agreed with the WIETR recommendations to match mission cost with appropriate resources as part of a balanced astrophysics portfolio. After undergoing a redesign over the last several months, WFIRST would once again fit both within the February 2016 budget approved by NASA at the onset of its mission formulation phase and within the notional five-year budget profile the administration requested for NASA astrophysics in its FY 2018 budget less than one year ago. Put another way, the lifecycle cost for WFIRST is the same now as it was two years ago and has been described as both reasonable and credible by numerous review panels.

    Marvel worries that the administration’s proposal to scale back federal investment in the nation’s exploration of the universe and terminate WFIRST risks undermining future decadal surveys and other community-based priority-setting processes. “These efforts to achieve community consensus on research priorities are vital to ensuring the maximum return on public and private investments in the astronomical sciences,” Marvel says. “The cancellation of WFIRST would set a dangerous precedent and severely weaken a decadal-survey process that has established collective scientific priorities for a world-leading program for a half century. Such a move would also sacrifice US leadership in space-based dark energy, exoplanet, and survey astrophysics. We cannot allow such drastic damage to the field of astronomy, the impacts of which would be felt for more than a generation.”

    The AAS will defend the important role of the decadal surveys in helping set federal spending priorities, to explain the scientific promise of the top-ranked WFIRST mission, and to share our excitement for the field of astrophysics, which has never been more ripe for discovery from the search for life elsewhere in the universe to understanding where we came from and where we’re going. “We look forward to working with Congress to restore funding for WFIRST and for NASA astrophysics overall,” Donahue concludes.
    __________________________________________________________________________

    David Spergel, former chairman of the academy’s Space Study Board, noted that in planning their own programs, other countries depended on the United States to follow the advice of the National Academy.

    “A handful of people within the bureaucracy” and outside of NASA, he went on, “have overturned decades of community-driven processes and tried to set the direction for space astronomy.”

    Astronomers have hungered for a space mission to investigate dark energy ever since 1998, when observations of the exploding stars known as supernovae indicated that the expansion of the universe was speeding up, the distant galaxies were shooting away faster and faster from us as cosmic time went on. It is as if, when you dropped your car keys, they shot up to the ceiling.

    The discovery won three American astronomers the Nobel Prize. The fate of the universe, as well as the nature of physics, scientists say, depends on the nature of this dark energy.

    Physicists have one ready-made explanation for this behavior, but it is a cure that many of them think is worse than the disease: a fudge factor invented by Einstein in 1917 called the cosmological constant. He suggested, and quantum theory has subsequently confirmed, that empty space could exert a repulsive force, an anti-gravity, blowing things apart.

    If so, as the universe grows, it will expand faster and faster and run away from itself. Eventually other galaxies would be flying away so fast that we couldn’t see them. The universe would become dark and cold. The cosmologist Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State once described this as “the worst possible universe.”

    If on the other hand, some previously unsuspected force field is tinkering with the galaxies and space-time, the effect could shut off or even reverse over the eons.

    Or maybe we just don’t understand gravity.

    Dark energy, said Frank Wilczek, a Nobel laureate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “is the most mysterious fact in all of physical science, the fact with the greatest potential to rock the foundations.”

    The astronomers who made this discovery were using the exploding stars known as Type 1a supernovae as cosmic distance markers to track the expansion rate of the universe.

    Since then, other tools have emerged by which astronomers can also gauge dark energy by how it retards the growth of galaxies and other structures in the universe.

    Way back in 1999, Saul Perlmutter of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, one of dark energy’s discoverers, proposed a space mission known as SNAP (Supernova Acceleration Probe) to do just that.

    In 2008, NASA and the Energy Department budgeted $600 million, not including launching costs, for a mission and the call went out for proposals. But NASA and the Energy Department found it hard to collaborate and a working group of dark-energy scientists could not come up with a design that would fit in the budget.

    In 2010, a committee of the National Academy of Sciences cobbled together several competing proposals that would do the trick. Paul Schechter, an M.I.T. astronomer involved in the work called it Wfirst, for Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope. The acronym had a double meaning: “W” is the name for a crucial parameter that measures the virulence of dark energy. But the telescope would also search for exoplanets — planets beyond our solar system.

    In its report, “New Worlds, New Horizons,” the committee gave this mission the highest priority in space science for the next decade.

    But NASA would have no money to start on this project until it finished building the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the vaunted Hubble Space Telescope. Shortly after the academy’s deliberations, the space agency admitted that the Webb project had been mismanaged. The telescope, which had been set for a 2014 launching, would require at least another $1.6 billion and several more years to finish. The Webb will search out the first stars and galaxies to have formed in the universe, but is not designed for dark energy. It is now on course to be launched next year.

    WFIRST would have to wait.

    To take up the slack until 2025 — or whenever the American mission can finally fly — the space agency bought a share in a European dark-energy mission known as Euclid, now scheduled to launch in 2021. But Euclid is not as comprehensive as Wfirst would be; it will not use supernovas, for example.

    ESA/NASA Euclid spacecraft

    The story took another dramatic twist in June 2012, capturing headlines when the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates spy satellites, offered NASA a leftover telescope, essentially a close relative of the Hubble, that had been designed to look down instead of up.

    It had a wide field of view, which could enable inspecting large areas of the heavens for supernovae.

    Its primary mirror — like the Hubble 94 inches in diameter — is twice as big as the one that was being contemplated for Wfirst, giving it four times the light-gathering power and a deep reach into the cosmos.

    The gift would save them the cost of fashioning a whole new telescope, but it was not without strings. As several astronomers pointed out, using a bigger telescope would mean a bigger, more expensive camera and more complicated back-end optics would have to be built. Nevertheless, the Academy bought into the idea.

    Lately another controversial element has been added to the mission, a coronagraph, which could be used to block the light from a star so that faint planets near them can be discerned.

    Last summer an independent review panel appointed by NASA and led by Fiona Harrison, a professor at the California Institute of Technology, endorsed the mission’s basic science goals and methodology while cautioning against mission creep that could cause its costs to balloon.

    The ball is now in Congress’s court.

    Michael Turner, a cosmologist at the University of Chicago, said, “While one never wants to hear that someone important has recommended cancellation of your favorite project, I believe that like last year, Congress will be doing the budget writing. I hope and believe that Congress will be wiser.”

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

     
  • richardmitnick 5:20 pm on January 2, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , NYT, , , Scientists Are Designing Artisanal Proteins for Your Body,   

    From NYT: “Scientists Are Designing Artisanal Proteins for Your Body” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    DEC. 26, 2017
    CARL ZIMMER

    1
    John Hersey

    The human body makes tens of thousands of cellular proteins, each for a particular
    task. Now researchers have learned to create custom versions not found in nature.

    Our bodies make roughly 20,000 different kinds of proteins, from the collagen in our skin to the hemoglobin in our blood. Some take the shape of molecular sheets. Others are sculpted into fibers, boxes, tunnels, even scissors.

    A protein’s particular shape enables it to do a particular job, whether ferrying oxygen through the body or helping to digest food.

    Scientists have studied proteins for nearly two centuries, and over that time they’ve worked out how cells create them from simple building blocks. They have long dreamed of assembling those elements into new proteins not found in nature.

    But they’ve been stumped by one great mystery: how the building blocks in a protein take their final shape. David Baker, 55, the director of the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington, has been investigating that enigma for a quarter-century.

    Now, it looks as if he and his colleagues have cracked it. Thanks in part to crowdsourced computers and smartphones belonging to over a million volunteers, the scientists have figured out how to choose the building blocks required to create a protein that will take on the shape they want.

    In a series of papers published this year, Dr. Baker and his colleagues unveiled the results of this work. They have produced thousands of different kinds of proteins, which assume the shape the scientists had predicted. Often those proteins are profoundly different from any found in nature.

    This expertise has led to a profound scientific advance: cellular proteins designed by man, not by nature. “We can now build proteins from scratch from first principles to do what we want,” said Dr. Baker.

    2
    Dr. David Baker in his lab at the University of Washington, where scientists are learning how to create cellular proteins to perform a variety of tasks. Credit Evan McGlinn for The New York Times.

    Scientists soon will be able to construct precise molecular tools for a vast range of tasks, he predicts. Already, his team has built proteins for purposes ranging from fighting flu viruses to breaking down gluten in food to detecting trace amounts of opioid drugs.

    William DeGrado, a molecular biologist at the University of California, San Francisco, said the recent studies by Dr. Baker and his colleagues represent a milestone in this line of scientific inquiry. “In the 1980s, we dreamed about having such impressive outcomes,” he said.

    Every protein in nature is encoded by a gene. With that stretch of DNA as its guide, a cell assembles a corresponding protein from building blocks known as amino acids.

    Selecting from twenty or so different types, the cell builds a chain of amino acids. That chain may stretch dozens, hundreds or even thousands of units long. Once the cell finishes, the chain folds on itself, typically in just a few hundredths of a second.

    Proteins fold because each amino acid has an electric charge. Parts of the protein chain are attracted to one another while other parts are repelled. Some bonds between the amino acids will yield easily under these forces; rigid bonds will resist.

    The combination of all these atomic forces makes each protein a staggering molecular puzzle. When Dr. Baker attended graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, no one knew how to look at a chain of amino acids and predict the shape into which it would fold. Protein scientists referred to the enigma simply as “the folding problem.”

    The folding problem left scientists in the Stone Age when it came to manipulating these important biological elements. They could only use proteins that they happened to find in nature, like early humans finding sharp rocks to cut meat from bones.

    We’ve used proteins for thousands of years. Early cheese makers, for example, made milk curdle by adding a piece of calf stomach to it. The protein chymosin, produced in the stomach, turned liquid milk into a semisolid form.

    Today scientists are still looking for ways to harness proteins. Some researchers are studying proteins in abalone shells in hopes of creating stronger body armor, for instance. Others are investigating spider silk for making parachute cords. Researchers also are experimenting with modest changes to natural proteins to see if tweaks let them do new things.

    To Dr. Baker and many other protein scientists, however, this sort tinkering has been deeply unsatisfying. The proteins found in nature represent only a minuscule fraction of the “protein universe” — all the proteins that could possibly be made with varying combinations of amino acids.

    “When people want a new protein, they look around in nature for things that already exist,” Dr. Baker said. “There’s no design involved.”

    Crowdsourced Discovery

    Dr. Baker has an elfin face, a cheerful demeanor, hair that can verge on chaotic, and a penchant for wearing T-shirts to scientific presentations. But his appearance belies a relentless drive.

    After graduating from Berkeley and joining the University of Washington, Dr. Baker joined the effort to solve the folding problem. He and his colleagues took advantage of the fact that natural proteins are somewhat similar to one another.

    New proteins do not just pop into existence; they all evolve from ancestral proteins. Whenever scientists figured out the shape of a particular protein, they were able to make informed guesses about the shapes of related ones.

    Scientists also relied on the fact that many proteins are made of similar parts. One common feature is a spiral stretch of amino acids called an alpha helix. Researchers learned how to recognize the series of amino acids that fold into these spirals.

    3
    John Hersey

    In the late 1990s, the team at the University of Washington turned to software for individual studies of complex proteins. The lab decided to create a common language for all this code, so that researchers could access the collective knowledge about proteins.

    In 1998, they launched a platform called Rosetta, which scientists use to build virtual chains of amino acids and then compute the most likely form they will fold into.

    A community of protein scientists, known as the Rosetta Commons, grew around the platform. For the past twenty years, they’ve been improving the software on a daily basis and using it to better understand the shape of proteins — and how those shapes enable them to work.

    In 2005, Dr. Baker launched a program called Rosetta@home, which recruited volunteers to donate processing time on their home computers and, eventually, Android phones. Over the past 12 years, 1,266,542 people have joined the Rosetta@home community.

    My BOINC

    I have 1,005,660 BOINC credits for Rosetta from my days as a BOINC cruncher.

    Rosetta@home project, a project running on BOINC software from UC Berkeley


    Step by step, Rosetta grew more powerful and more sophisticated, and the scientists were able to use the crowdsourced processing power to simulate folding proteins in greater detail. Their predictions grew startlingly more accurate.

    The researchers went beyond proteins that already exist to proteins with unnatural sequences. To see what these unnatural proteins looked like in real life, the scientists synthesized genes for them and plugged them into yeast cells, which then manufactured the lab’s creations.

    “There are subtleties going on in naturally occurring proteins that we still don’t understand,” Dr. Baker said. “But we’ve mostly solved the folding problem.”

    Proteins and Pandemics

    These advances gave Dr. Baker’s team the confidence to take on an even bigger challenge: They began to design proteins from scratch for particular jobs. The researchers would start with a task they wanted a protein to do, and then figure out the string of amino acids that would fold the right way to get the job done.

    In one of their experiments, they teamed up with Ian Wilson, a virologist at Scripps Research Institute, to devise a protein to fight the flu.

    Dr. Wilson has been searching ways to neutralize the infection, and his lab had identified one particularly promising target: a pocket on the surface of the virus. If scientists could make a protein that fit snugly in that pocket, it might prevent the virus from slipping into cells.

    Dr. Baker’s team used Rosetta to design such a protein, narrowing their search to several thousand of chains of amino acids that might do the job. They simulated the folding of each one, looking for the combinations that might fit into the viral niche.

    The researchers then used engineered yeast to turn the semifinalists into real proteins. They turned the proteins loose on the flu viruses. Some grabbed onto the viruses better than others, and the researchers refined their molecular creations until they ended up with one they named HB1.6928.2.3.

    To see how effective HB1.6928.2.3 was at stopping flu infections, they ran experiments on mice. They sprayed the protein into the noses of mice and then injected them with a heavy doses of influenza, which normally would be fatal.

    But the protein provided 100 percent protection from death. It remains to be seen if HB1.6928.2.3 can prove its worth in human trials.

    “It would be nice to have a front-line drug if a new pandemic was about to happen,” Dr. Wilson said.

    5
    In Dr. Baker’s office are models of complex proteins. The human body makes roughly 20,000, each suited to a different task. Credit Evan McGlinn for The New York Times

    HB1.6928.2.3 is just one of a number of proteins that Dr. Baker and his colleagues have designed and tested. They’ve also made a molecule that blocks the toxin that causes botulism, and one that can detect tiny amounts of the opioid fentanyl. Yet another protein may help people who can’t tolerate gluten by cutting apart gluten molecules in food.

    Last week, Dr. Baker’s team presented one of its most ambitious projects: a protein shell that can carry genes.

    The researchers designed proteins that assemble themselves like Legos, snapping together into a hollow sphere. In the process, they can also enclose genes and can carry that cargo safely for hours in the bloodstream of mice.

    These shells bear some striking resemblances to viruses, although they lack the molecular wherewithal to invade cells. “We sometimes call them not-a-viruses,” Dr. Baker said.

    A number of researchers are experimenting with viruses as a means for delivering genes through the body. These genes can reverse hereditary disorders; in other experiments, they show promise as a way to reprogram immune cells to fight cancer.

    But as the product of billions of years of evolution, viruses often don’t perform well as gene mules. “If we build a delivery system from the ground up, it should work better,” Dr. Baker said.

    Gary Nabel, chief scientific officer at Sanofi, said that the new research may lead to the invention of molecules we can’t yet imagine. “It’s a new territory, because you’re not modeling existing proteins,” he said.

    For now, Dr. Baker and his colleagues can only make short-chained proteins. That’s due in part to the cost involved in making pieces of DNA to encode proteins.

    But that technology is improving so quickly that the team is now testing longer, bigger proteins that might do more complex jobs — among them fighting cancer.

    In cancer immunotherapy, the immune system recognizes cancer cells by the distinctive proteins on their surface. The immune system relies on antibodies that can recognize only a single protein.

    Dr. Baker wants to design proteins that trigger a response only after they lock onto several kinds of proteins on the surface of cancer cells at once. He suspects these molecules will be better able to recognize cancer cells while leaving healthy ones alone.

    Essentially, he said, “we’re designing molecules that can do simple logic calculations.” Indeed, he hopes eventually to make molecular machines.

    Our cells generate fuel with one such engine, a gigantic protein called ATP synthase, which acts like a kind of molecular waterwheel. As positively charged protons pour through a ring of amino acids, it spins a hundred times a second. ATP synthase harnesses that energy to build a fuel molecule called ATP.

    It should be possible to build other such complex molecular machines as scientists learn more about how big proteins take shape, Dr. Baker said.

    “There’s a lot of things that nature has come up with just by randomly bumbling around,” he said. “As we understand more and more of the basic principles, we ought to be able to do far better.”

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

     
c
Compose new post
j
Next post/Next comment
k
Previous post/Previous comment
r
Reply
e
Edit
o
Show/Hide comments
t
Go to top
l
Go to login
h
Show/Hide help
shift + esc
Cancel
%d bloggers like this: