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  • 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


    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.

    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.

    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 .


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  • 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

    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.

    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 .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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  • 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.

    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.

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

    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.

    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.

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

    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.


    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.

    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 .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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  • 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.

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

    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?”

    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?”

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.”

    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.”

    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.

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

    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.

    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

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  • 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

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

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


    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.

    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.”

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  • 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

    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.


    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.”

    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

    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.”

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  • 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

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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 .

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  • richardmitnick 12:49 pm on January 2, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: A.C. motors, , D.C. electrical systems, Nikola Tesla, NYT, Tesla the Car Is a Household Name. Long Ago- So Was Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison   

    From NYT: “Tesla the Car Is a Household Name. Long Ago, So Was Nikola Tesla.” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    DEC. 30, 2017

    The inventor Nikola Tesla around 1896. Tesla died a poor man in 1943 at age 86, but thanks to Elon Musk and his electric car company, “now he’s getting his due,” a biographer said. Credit Roger-Viollet/Getty Images

    A Tesla is an electric car. Just about everybody knows that.

    But it is less widely known that the car was named for Nikola Tesla, an electrical engineer who was once renowned as the prototype of a genius inventor.

    While Tesla’s star began to fade long ago, Elon Musk, who named both his car and his company after him, has contributed to something of a Nikola Tesla revival.

    In the age of Edison, Westinghouse, Marconi and J. P. Morgan, Tesla was a giant of innovation because of his contributions in the fields of electricity, radio and robotics.

    “It’s a sociological fact that Elon Musk took the Tesla name and launched Nikola Tesla into the stratosphere,” says Marc Seifer, the author of Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla. “Tesla’s risen to the surface again, and now he’s getting his due.”

    Tesla was on the cover of Time magazine in 1931 but died a poor man in 1943 after years devoted to projects that did not receive adequate financing.

    Time Magazine

    Yet his most significant inventions resonate today.

    The A.C. Motor

    In 1884, Tesla came to New York to work for Thomas Edison with the hope that Edison would help finance and develop a Tesla invention, an alternating-current motor and electrical system.

    But Edison was instead investing in highly inefficient direct-current (D.C.) systems, and he had Tesla re-engineer a D.C. power plant on Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan. The men soon parted company over a financial dispute.

    A discharge of several million volts at Tesla’s Colorado Springs laboratory, around 1900. Credit Yugoslav Press and Cultural Center

    But George Westinghouse provided funding for Tesla’s A.C. induction motors and devices, which soon came to dominate manufacturing and urban life. Unlike the D.C. motors of the time, Tesla’s motors didn’t create sparks or require expensive permanent magnets to operate. Instead, they used a rotating magnetic field that used power more efficiently in a basic design that is still the core of most electric motors.

    In 1896, Tesla designed the power generating system at Niagara Falls, a big advance for his A.C. system. Entire cities eventually ran on A.C. power, after Westinghouse won a battle against Edison, the leading D.C. proponent. Their conflict is the subject of The Current War, a coming movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Edison.

    Wireless Transmissions

    Tesla developed radio technology and tested it from 1892 through 1894. He called radio an “oscillator” through which electricity is converted into high-frequency radio waves, enabling energy, sound and other transmissions over great distances.

    He envisioned a system that could transmit not only radio but also electricity across the globe. After successful experiments in Colorado Springs in 1899, Tesla began building what he called a global “World System” near Shoreham on Long Island, hoping to power vehicles, boats and aircraft wirelessly. Ultimately, he expected that anything that needed electricity would get it from the air much as we receive transmitted data, sound and images on smartphones. But he ran out of money, and J. P. Morgan Jr., who had provided financing, turned off the spigot.

    Although the main Tesla lab building on Long Island is being restored by a nonprofit foundation — the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe — the World System broadcast tower he built there was torn down for scrap to pay his hotel bill at the Waldorf Astoria in 1917.

    The Wardenclyffe foundation is raising money for the restoration of the complex — named a world historical site by the American Physical Society — and has been aided by a crowdfunding campaign and $1 million from Mr. Musk.

    Tesla’s ambitions outstripped his financing. He didn’t focus on radio as a stand-alone technology. Instead, he conceived of entire systems, even if they were decades ahead of the time and not financially feasible.

    “He proved that you could send power a short distance,” said Jane Alcorn, president of the Tesla Center. “But sending power a long distance is still proving to be a hurdle. It would be monumental if it could be done.”

    Tesla’s laboratory building on the Wardenclyffe site in Shoreham, Long Island, as it appeared in 2009. Credit Maxine Hicks for The New York Times

    In 1943, several months after Tesla’s death, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor in a long-running dispute over radio patents. But the victory was largely symbolic and was, in any case, too late to help Tesla.

    Robotic Drones

    Another Tesla invention combined radio with a remote-control device. We’d now call it a robotic drone.

    Shortly after filing a patent application in 1897 for radio circuitry, Tesla built and demonstrated a wireless, robotic boat at the old Madison Square Garden in 1898 and, again, in Chicago at the Auditorium Theater the next year. These were the first public demonstrations of a remote-controlled drone.

    An innovation in the boat’s circuitry — his “logic gate” — became an essential steppingstone to semiconductors.

    Tesla’s tub-shaped, radio-controlled craft heralded the birth of what he called a “teleautomaton”; later, the world would settle on the word robot. We can see his influence in devices ranging from “smart” speakers like Amazon’s Echo to missile-firing drone aircraft.

    Tesla proposed the development of torpedoes well before World War I. These weapons eventually emerged in another form — launched from submarines.

    Tesla failed to fully collaborate with well-capitalized industrial entities after World War I. His supreme abilities to conceptualize and create entire systems weren’t enough for business success. He didn’t manage to build successful alliances with those who could finance, build and scale up his creations.

    Tesla’s achievements were awesome but incomplete. He created the A.C. energy system and the basics of radio communication and robotics but wasn’t able to bring them all to fruition. His life shows that even for a brilliant inventor, innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It requires a broad spectrum of talents and skills. And lots of capital.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 1:37 pm on December 29, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Breakthrough Star Shot, , , For astronomers the biggest problem with E.T. is not the occasional claim of a mysterious light in the sky but the fact that we are not constantly overwhelmed with them, How dare we think that the physics we have today is all that there is, NYT, Scientists are also trained to look at nature with ruthless rigor and skepticism, Scientists are not the killjoys in all this., , U.F.O.'s   

    From NYT: “U.F.O.s: Is This All There Is?” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    DEC. 29, 2017
    Dennis Overbye

    A U.F.O. in New Mexico in 1957. For astronomers, the biggest problem with alien visitation is not the occasional claim of mysterious light in the sky, but the fact that we’re not constantly overwhelmed with them. Credit Bettmann, via Getty Images

    Hey, Mr. Spaceman,

    Won’t you please take me along?

    I won’t do anything wrong.

    Hey, Mr. Spaceman,

    Won’t you please take me along for a ride?

    So sang the Byrds in 1966, after strange radio bursts from distant galaxies called quasars had excited people about the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence.

    I recalled those words recently when reading the account of a pair of Navy pilots who were outmaneuvered and outrun by a U.F.O. off the coast of San Diego back in 2004. Cmdr. David Fravor said later that he had no idea what he had seen.

    “But,” he added, “I want to fly one.”

    His story was part of a bundle of material released recently about a supersecret $22 million Pentagon project called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, aimed at investigating U.F.O.s. The project was officially killed in 2012, but now it’s being resurrected as a nonprofit organization.

    Disgruntled that the government wasn’t taking the possibility of alien visitors seriously, a group of former defense officials, aerospace engineers and other space fans have set up their own group, To the Stars Academy of Arts & Science. One of its founders is Tom DeLonge, a former punk musician, record producer and entrepreneur, who is also the head of the group’s entertainment division.

    For a minimum of $200, you can join and help finance their research into how U.F.O.s do whatever it is they do, as well as telepathy and “a point-to-point transportation craft that will erase the current travel limits of distance and time” by using a drive that “alters the space-time metric” — that is, a warp drive going faster than the speed of light, Einstein’s old cosmic speed limit.

    “We believe there are transformative discoveries within our reach that will revolutionize the human experience, but they can only be accomplished through the unrestricted support of breakthrough research, discovery and innovation,” says the group’s website.

    A U.F.O. spotted by Navy pilots near San Diego in 2004. Credit Department of Defense

    I’m not holding my breath waiting for progress on telepathy or warp drive, but I agree with at least one thing that one official with the group said. That was Steve Justice, a former engineer at Lockheed Martin’s famous Skunk Works, where advanced aircraft like the SR-71 high-altitude super-fast spy plane were designed.

    “How dare we think that the physics we have today is all that there is,” he said in an interview published recently in HuffPost.

    I could hardly agree more, having spent my professional life in the company of physicists and astronomers trying to poke out of the cocoon of present knowledge into the unknown, to overturn Einstein and what passes for contemporary science. Lately, they haven’t gotten anywhere.

    The last time physicists had to deal with faster-than-light travel was six years ago, when a group of Italy-based physicists announced that they had seen the subatomic particles known as neutrinos going faster than light. It turned out they had wired up their equipment wrong.

    So far Einstein is still the champ. But surely there is so much more to learn. A lot of surprises lie ahead, but many of the most popular ideas on how to transcend Einstein and his peers are on the verge of being ruled out. Transforming science is harder than it looks.

    While there is a lot we don’t know, there is also a lot we do know. We know how to turn on our computers and let gadgets in our pocket navigate the world. We know that when physical objects zig and zag through a medium like air, as U.F.O.s are said to do, they produce turbulence and shock waves. NASA engineers predicted to the minute when the Cassini spacecraft would dwindle to a wisp of smoke in Saturn’s atmosphere last fall.

    In moments like this, I take comfort in what the great Russian physicist and cosmologist Yakov Zeldovich, one of the fathers of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, once told me. “What science has already taken, it will not give back,” he said.

    Scientists are not the killjoys in all this.

    In the astronomical world, the border between science fact and science fiction can be very permeable, perhaps because many scientists grew up reading science fiction. And astronomers forever have their noses pressed up against the window of the unknown. They want to believe more than anybody, and I count myself among them.

    Since the asteroid named Oumuamua was first noticed flying through our solar system in October, researchers have been monitoring for alien signals, so far to no avail. Credit M. Kornmesser/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

    But they are also trained to look at nature with ruthless rigor and skepticism. For astronomers, the biggest problem with E.T. is not the occasional claim of a mysterious light in the sky, but the fact that we are not constantly overwhelmed with them.

    Half a century ago, the legendary physicist Enrico Fermi concluded from a simple back-of-the-envelope calculation that even without warp drive, a single civilization could visit and colonize all the planets in the galaxy in a fraction of the 10-billion-year age of the Milky Way.

    “Where are they?” he asked.

    Proponents of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, have been debating ever since. One answer I like is the “zoo hypothesis,” according to which we have been placed off-limits, a cosmic wildlife refuge.

    Another answer came from Jill Tarter, formerly the director of research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. “We haven’t looked hard enough,” she said when I asked her recently.

    If there was an iPhone sitting under a rock on the Moon or Mars, for example, we would not have found it yet. Our own latest ideas for interstellar exploration involve launching probes the size of postage stamps to Alpha Centauri.

    In the next generation, they might be the size of mosquitoes. By contrast, the dreams of some U.F.O. enthusiasts are stuck in 1950s technology.

    Still, we keep trying.

    Last fall when a strange object — an interstellar asteroid now named Oumuamua — was found cruising through the solar system, astronomers’ thoughts raced to the Arthur C. Clarke novel Rendezvous With Rama, in which the object was an alien spaceship. Two groups have been monitoring Oumuamua for alien radio signals, so far to no avail.

    Meanwhile, some astronomers have speculated that the erratic dimming of a star known as “Boyajian’s star” or “Tabby’s star,” after the astronomer Tabetha Boyajian, could be caused by some gigantic construction project orbiting the star. So far that has not worked out, but none of the other explanations — dust or a fleet of comets — have, either.

    A pair of Harvard astronomers suggested last spring that mysterious sporadic flashes of energy known as fast radio bursts coming from far far away are alien transmitters powering interstellar spacecraft carrying light sails. “Science isn’t a matter of belief, it’s a matter of evidence,” the astronomer Avi Loeb said in a news release from Harvard. “Deciding what’s likely ahead of time limits the possibilities. It’s worth putting ideas out there and letting the data be the judge.”

    U.F.O. investigations are nothing new. The most famous was the Air Force’s Project Blue Book, which ran from 1952 to 1970 and examined more than 12,000 sightings.

    Most U.F.O. sightings turn out to be swamp gas and other atmospheric anomalies, Venus, weird reflections or just plain hoaxes. But there is a stubborn residue, a few percent that resist easy explication, including now Commander Fravor’s story. But that’s a far cry from proving they are alien or interstellar.

    I don’t know what to think about these stories, often told by sober, respected and professional observers — police officers, pilots, military officials — in indelible detail. I always wish I could have been there to see it for myself.

    Then I wonder how much good it would do to see it anyway.

    Recently I ran into my friend Mark Mitton, a professional magician, in a restaurant. He came over to the table and started doing tricks. At one point he fanned the card deck, asked my daughter to pick one, and then asked her to shuffle the deck, which she did expertly.

    Mr. Mitton grabbed the deck and sprayed the cards in the air. There was my daughter’s card stuck to a mirror about five feet away. How did it get there? Not by any new physics. Seeing didn’t really help.

    As modern psychology and neuroscience have established, the senses are an unreliable portal to reality, whatever that is.

    Something might be happening, but we don’t know what it is. E.T., if you’re reading this, I’m still waiting to take my ride.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 10:37 am on December 17, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , CDC, NYT, Uproar Over Purported Ban at C.D.C. of Words Like ‘Fetus’   

    From NYT: “Uproar Over Purported Ban at C.D.C. of Words Like ‘Fetus’” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    DEC. 16, 2017

    Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reportedly were barred from using several words or phrases, causing upset among some staff and outside groups. Credit John Amis/European Pressphoto Agency.

    The Department of Health and Human Services tried to play down on Saturday a report that officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had been barred from using seven words or phrases, including “science-based,” “fetus,” “transgender” and “vulnerable,” in agency budget documents.

    “The assertion that H.H.S. has ‘banned words’ is a complete mischaracterization of discussions regarding the budget formulation process,” an agency spokesman, Matt Lloyd, said in an email. “H.H.S. will continue to use the best scientific evidence available to improve the health of all Americans. H.H.S. also strongly encourages the use of outcome and evidence data in program evaluations and budget decisions.”

    Mr. Lloyd did not respond to other questions about the news report, which was published late Friday by The Washington Post. The article said that C.D.C. policy analysts were told of the forbidden words and phrases at a meeting on Thursday with senior officials who oversee the agency’s budget. Other words included “entitlement,” “diversity” and “evidence-based.”

    In some cases, The Post reported, alternative phrases were suggested. Instead of “science-based,” or “evidence-based,” The Post reported, “the suggested phrase is ‘C.D.C. bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.’’’

    The news set off an uproar among advocacy groups and some Democratic officials, who denounced any efforts to muzzle federal agencies or censor their language.

    The Times confirmed some details of the report with several officials, although a few suggested that the proposal was not so much a ban on words but recommendations to avoid some language to ease the path toward budget approval by Republicans.

    A former federal official, who asked not to be named, called the move unprecedented.

    “It’s absurd and Orwellian, it’s stupid and Orwellian, but they are not saying to not use the words in reports or articles or scientific publications or anything else the C.D.C. does,” the former official said. “They’re saying not to use it in your request for money because it will hurt you. It’s not about censoring what C.D.C. can say to the American public. It’s about a budget strategy to get funded.”

    A former C.D.C. official, who asked not to be identified, said that some staff members were upset because the purported ban suggested that their work was being politicized.

    “I don’t know exactly who said what in the meeting, but I have to assume this came from H.H.S. people, because they’re the ones who have to make the budget,” the former official said. “I’ve also heard that some of the words might have been a little misconstrued. “‘Science-based’ and ‘evidence-based’ might not have been considered as unusable as the others.”

    Some people also said that some effort to tone down language might make sense when appealing for funding from Republican conservatives in Congress.

    The C.D.C. budget documents are circulated to other agencies and Congress and submitted to the Office of Management and Budget in the Trump administration. The budget office did not respond to a request for comment.

    There seemed to be confusion around the public health agencies about whether the ban originated at the agency’s parent department, Health and Human Services, or inside the C.D.C. itself; and whether such a ban would apply beyond budget documents. The Food and Drug Administration was quick to note that it had gotten no such instruction. An agency spokeswoman, Jennifer Rodriguez, said, “We haven’t received, nor implemented, any directives with respect to the language used at F.D.A. to describe our policy or budget issues.” The National Institutes of Health referred inquiries to Health and Human Services.

    Since the Trump administration has taken office, officials at the country’s premier disease-fighting agency have privately complained that it has come under various pressures, most involving Mr. Trump’s “America First” stance and his dislike of foreign aid rather than basic science itself.

    Although Mr. Trump’s first “skinny budget” proposed deep cuts in medical work done overseas, it is not clear that he is going to get his way. Many legislators have recognized the value of detecting and fighting outbreaks abroad before they reach American shores, and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which was created by President George W. Bush, is a favorite with Christian conservatives in Congress. Many of the hospitals helped in Africa were founded by Christian missionaries. As a former Indiana representative, Vice President Pence was among the agency’s strongest backers.

    Even during the Obama administration, C.D.C. officials were required to clear most statements through Health and Human Services.

    Under Thomas E. Price, Mr. Trump’s first secretary of Health and Human Services, the department seemed preoccupied with killing the Affordable Care Act. Mr. Price resigned in September after he was criticized for his expensive air travel. During his early tenure, the C.D.C. was run by an acting director, Dr. Anne Shuchat, who had been deputy to the former director, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden.

    Since Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald was appointed director in July, the agency has kept a relatively low profile. In previous years, for example, Dr. Frieden would typically have held by now a news conference about the coming flu season and might have, for instance, publicly addressed other issues like the dangers of water contamination in post-hurricane Puerto Rico, human infections caused by drug-resistant bacteria on pet-store puppies and Mexican papayas, or even the risk of Madagascar’s plague outbreak spreading.

    Critics were quick to denounce the C.D.C. for its action. Dr. Vivek Murthy, a former Surgeon General, expressed concern.

    “Whether this is a directive from above is not clear,’’ he said. “But for C.D.C. or any agency to be censored or passively made to feel they have to self-censor to avoid retribution — that’s dangerous and not acceptable. The purpose of science is to search for truth, and when science is censored the truth is censored.”

    Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy, based at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he believed scientists at C.D.C. will need assurance that they can continue their work without political interference.

    “I don’t know if it will ever be clear who said what in this particular case,” Mr. Halpern said. “The fact that the agency began controlling what scientists can say to reporters a few months ago doesn’t suggest they want to be open and honest with the public.”

    See the full article here .

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