There’s a new insecticide on the block, and it’s also bad news for bees

Enlarge / A foraging bee. (credit: Nunzio_Zotti / Flickr)

We need bees to pollinate the plants that feed us. And bees need us to stop inadvertently poisoning them with the insecticides we use to keep those plants healthy. Unfortunately, just as we start to make progress on reducing the worldwide use of neonicotinoids (a class of insecticides that are toxic to bees), it seems like we might be at risk of rolling out an alternative insecticide that causes similar problems.

“Sulfoximine-based insecticides are the most likely successor [to neonicotinoids]” write the University of London’s Harry Siviter and his colleagues in a paper published in Nature this week. And that’s not great, as they found that bumblebee colonies exposed to a sulfoximine-based insecticide called sulfoxaflor suffered severe effects compared to a control colony. The insecticide didn’t kill the bees, but it damaged their ability to run a successful colony—a similar

Continue reading “There’s a new insecticide on the block, and it’s also bad news for bees”

London museum is livestreaming a key 21st-century artifact—festering sewage

Enlarge / The last remaining piece of a monster fatberg that was discovered in Whitechapel sewers last September. (credit: David Parry/PA Wire)

You can now feast your eyes on a festering chunk of solidified sewage as it ages, not-so-gracefully, inside a specially-designed isolation case that is being livestreamed from a museum in London.

Is there anything more 21st century than that?

The rancid refuse was chipped off an infamous sewer clog discovered in London late last year called the Whitechapel “Fatberg”—the preferred term for such muck monsters. The complete clog clocked in as an epic 250-meter-long, 130-metric ton mass of congealed excrement and waste, thought to be one of the largest—if not the largest—fatbergs ever identified. Authorities found it blocking a Victorian-era sewer line in the eastern Whitechapel area of the city. They spent nine long weeks in a subterranean war, hacking and blasting away the hardened blob

Continue reading “London museum is livestreaming a key 21st-century artifact—festering sewage”

Russia is down to a single female cosmonaut, and she may never fly

Enlarge / Russia’s newest class of cosmonauts is all male. (credit: Roscosmos)

The Russian space program gets a lot of credit for flying the first woman in space. In fact, the Soviet Union flew the first two women: Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. NASA waited until the space shuttle era before selecting female astronauts, and Sally Ride did not become the first American woman in space until 1983.

However, since Ride broke the US space gender barrier 35 years ago, 50 other American women have flown into space. By contrast, just two other women from Russia have flown into space since then, Yelena Kondakova (1994 and 1997) and Yelena Serova (2014). Two women from China, Japan, and Canada have also flown into space, as well as one woman each from the countries France, India, Italy, South Korea, and the United Kingdom.

Widening gap

This disparity seems

Continue reading “Russia is down to a single female cosmonaut, and she may never fly”

African palm oil expansion is bad news for the continent’s primates

Enlarge / The palm nuts satiating the world’s hunger for vegetable oil and fueling habitat loss. (credit: flickr user: Carsten ten Brink)

Palm oil is ubiquitous and is set to become more so over the next few decades. The oil is used in food, cleaning, and beauty products and as biofuel, so demand is set to grow rapidly. With this skyrocketing demand comes a need for the land on which to grow more oil palms—and a threat to the ecosystems currently using that land.

Currently, Southeast Asia is the oil palm hotspot, and the deforestation and ensuing damage in the region have been well publicized. But much of the future expansion may happen in Africa, introducing the likelihood of new conservation problems. A paper published in this week’s PNAS argues that there’s a huge overlap between the land where oil palms could be grown and the land that houses

Continue reading “African palm oil expansion is bad news for the continent’s primates”

Reveal metal objects with Wi-Fi; overexcited engineers think security

Enlarge / Even in 2018, there’s still a wooden sign proudly advertising “Free Wi-Fi.” (credit: Cyrus Farivar)

One of the least fun jobs when writing a scientific paper is coming up with a motivation. It should be easy and fun: look at this awesomely cool thing we did—aren’t the results interesting? Instead, we typically have to claim to reveal the secrets of the Universe, cure cancer, or protect the public. Preferably all three at the same time.

A recent paper (PDF) on using Wi-Fi as an environmental sensor has some really exciting results. But my heart shrunk three sizes after reading the following: “Traditional baggage check involves either high manpower for manual examinations or expensive and specialized instruments, such as X-ray and CT. As such, many public places (i.e., museums and schools) that lack of strict security check are exposed to high risk.”

As I said,

Continue reading “Reveal metal objects with Wi-Fi; overexcited engineers think security”

Years after Mylan’s epic EpiPen price hikes, it finally gets a generic rival

Enlarge / EpiPen two-pack. (credit: Getty | Joe Raedle)

Mylan’s life-saving epinephrine auto-injector EpiPen now has a generic rival, the Food and Drug Administration triumphantly announced.

Teva Pharmaceuticals USA now has FDA approval to market a direct generic competitor of the device, as well as a version for pediatric patients, a generic EpiPen Jr. Both products are used in emergency situations to auto-inject a dose of epinephrine into a person’s thigh to thwart deadly allergic reactions, namely anaphylactic shock.

The approval comes years after Mylan outraged patients and lawmakers by ruthlessly hiking the price of its product by more than 400 percent. Mylan purchased the rights to EpiPen in 2007 and gradually raised the list price from about $50 per auto-injector to slightly over $600 for a two-pack. The move boosted EpiPen profits to $1.1 billion a year. In step, Mylan CEO Heather Bresch saw her salary soar

Continue reading “Years after Mylan’s epic EpiPen price hikes, it finally gets a generic rival”

Rocket Report: China aims for the Moon, SpaceX gets approval for load-and-go

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson/SpaceX)

Welcome to Edition 1.13 of the Rocket Report! This week’s issue covers a lot of ground, from more commercial space activity in China, to new Russian launch pads, and finally a not-so-brief history of SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket. We’re also looking forward to the next flight of the Vega rocket, carrying an important weather satellite.

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

Chinese startup raises $44 million. The Chinese rocket company OneSpace, which aims to attempt its first orbital launch late this year, has raised $43.6 million in Series B financing, SpaceNews

Continue reading “Rocket Report: China aims for the Moon, SpaceX gets approval for load-and-go”

The nightmarishly complex wheat genome finally yields to scientists

Enlarge (credit: State Historical Society of North Dakota)

Bread, like wine, is pivotal in Judeo-Christian rituals. Both products exemplify the use of human ingenuity to re-create what nature provides, and the fermentation they both require must have seemed nothing less than magical to ancient minds. When toasted, rubbed with garlic and tomato, doused with olive oil and sprinkled with salt like the Catalans do, there are few things more delicious than bread.

Wheat is the most widely cultivated crop on the planet, accounting for about a fifth of all calories consumed by humans and more protein than any other food source. Although we have relied on bread wheat so heavily and for so long (14,000 years-ish), an understanding of its genetics has been a challenge. Its genome has been hard to solve because it is ridiculously complex. The genome is huge, about five times larger than ours.

Continue reading “The nightmarishly complex wheat genome finally yields to scientists”

After coffee brewhaha, CA fears cancer warnings have “gone seriously wrong”

Enlarge / Delicious, non-cancerous, coffee. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

After a judge ruled in March that coffee should be served with jolting labels that alert drinkers to a cancer risk, the state of California seems to have woken up to the concern that its pervasive health warnings may have gone too far.

There’s a danger to overwarning—it’s important to warn about real health risks,” Sam Delson told The New York Times.

Delson is the deputy director for external and legislative affairs for California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. The office proposed a regulation shortly after a March ruling that would unequivocally declare that any cancer-linked components of roasted and brewed coffee “pose no significant risk of cancer.” Today, August 16, the proposed regulation is getting a public hearing in Sacramento.

Read 8 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Ancient Egyptians had been making mummies longer than anyone thought

Enlarge (credit: Dr. Stephen Buckley, University of York)

Ancient Egyptians started embalming their dead about 1,500 years earlier than archaeologists previously realized, according to chemical analysis of the funerary wrappings of a young man who died in Upper Egypt around 3600 BCE. University of York archaeologist Stephen Buckley and his colleagues identified embalming compounds in organic residues from the mummy’s linen wrappings. They also examined the microscopic structure of the wrappings’ fibers and radiocarbon dated the mummy to between 3700 and 3500 BCE.

That’s about 500 years before Egypt was even a unified country. It took until 3100 BCE for an Upper (southern) Egyptian ruler named Narmer to conquer Lower (northern) Egypt, merging the two into a single kingdom.

Egyptian embalming is thought to have gotten its start in that predynastic period, or even earlier, when people noticed that the arid heat of the sand tended to dry and preserve

Continue reading “Ancient Egyptians had been making mummies longer than anyone thought”

High-energy protons emitted after hooking up with neutrons

Enlarge / Abstract image of electrons and protons. (credit: Kevin Dooley)

If you hit an atom’s nucleus hard enough, it will fall apart. But exactly how it falls apart tells us something about the internal structure of the nucleus and perhaps about the interior of neutron stars. One of the unexpected things we seem to be learning is that the way particles in the nucleus pair up allows them to reach higher energies than expected, and having excess neutrons only encourages this behavior.

To someone like me—I never took any courses on nuclear physics—the nucleus is a bit like visiting a familiar beach and discovering a colony of dragons. The nucleus consists of protons, which are positively charged. These should repel each other, but the nucleus doesn’t explode because of neutrons. Neutrons are, as the name suggests, neutral. However, they are the glue that binds the protons together.

This

Continue reading “High-energy protons emitted after hooking up with neutrons”

Please join us in welcoming Ars’ newest contributor, Jennifer Ouellette

Readers who pay careful attention may have noticed a new byline attached to an article yesterday. And, if any of you follow physics—which seems to be a lot of you—they will be excited to have learned about our newest writer that way. For the rest of you, we’re pleased to announce that Jennifer Ouellette is joining the Ars staff.

Jennifer will be familiar to many of you because of her deep background in science coverage. She has contributed as a freelancer to more places than is convenient to list. She has blogged on the field at Cocktail Party Physics and shares a huge range of science stories on social media. Her most recent staff position was as a Senior Science Editor at Gizmodo. In short, she’s been immersed in science for years, and brings a wealth of experience to a field we don’t cover as thoroughly as we’d often like

Continue reading “Please join us in welcoming Ars’ newest contributor, Jennifer Ouellette”

New sponge for cleaning harbor oil leaks has a successful real world test

Enlarge / “Seth Darling, Jeff Elam, Ed Barry conduct research experiments with the Oleo Sponge in Santa Barbara, California.” (credit: Argonne National Laboratory)

In March 2017, Ars wrote about a new material that could soak up oil like a sponge. The so-called Oleo Sponge could be wrung out, the oil could be collected, and the sponge could be used again. The material had just been developed at Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) outside of Chicago, so it was still being tested in controlled environments.

Now, Argonne has announced a successful real-world test of the Oleo Sponge at an oil seep in a channel near Goleta, California.

The test, conducted in April, involved immersing the Oleo Sponge in the Coal Oil Point Seep Field in the Santa Barbara Channel. The oil seep field is natural and one of the largest in the known world (PDF). Not only does it release lots

Continue reading “New sponge for cleaning harbor oil leaks has a successful real world test”

DNA reveals ancient parrot breeder supplied US Southwest peoples

Enlarge / Chaco Canyon ruins in New Mexico. (credit: Erik Terdal / Flickr)

Lots of macaw parrot skeletons and feathers have turned up at human settlements in the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico dating back to at least 900 CE. Given that these sites are at least 1,000 kilometers north of the bird’s natural range, it has long been clear that there was an interesting story here. How were macaws traded between cultures and over such long distances, long before the arrival of the Spanish and their horses?

Between 1250 and 1450, a settlement discovered at Paquimé in Mexico seems to have hosted a macaw-breeding program that must have met the demand for this culturally significant bird in the region. But what about before Paquimé? Archaeologists have debated the possibilities: that traders frequently traveled the long route to bring back macaws, that birds were haphazardly traded between settlements, or

Continue reading “DNA reveals ancient parrot breeder supplied US Southwest peoples”

MIT scientists crack the case of breaking spaghetti in two

The trick to breaking spaghetti in half is to bend and twist, new MIT study says. (credit: Tom Smith / EyeEm: Getty Images)

Pasta purists insist on plonking dry spaghetti into the boiling pot whole, but should you rebel against convention and try to break the strands in half, you’ll probably end up with a mess of scattered pieces.

Now, two MIT mathematicians have figured out the trick to breaking spaghetti strands neatly in two: add a little twist as you bend. They outlined their findings in a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This isn’t the first time scientists have been fascinated by the physics of breaking spaghetti. The ever-curious Richard Feynman famously spent hours in his kitchen one night in a failed attempt to successfully break spaghetti strands neatly in half. It should have worked, he reasoned, because the strand snaps when

Continue reading “MIT scientists crack the case of breaking spaghetti in two”

The road to bipedalism wasn’t straight and narrow

Enlarge / The 3.32 million-year-old foot from an Australopithecus afarensis toddler from different angles on the left, next to the fossil remains of an adult Australopithecus foot on the right.

Credit: Jeremy DeSilva & Cody Prang (credit: Jeremy DeSilva and Cody Prang)

Early hominins’ four smaller toes had adapted to bipedal walking by around 4.4 million years ago, but the big toe remained better-suited to grasping and climbing for a few million more years, until some time early in the evolution of our genus, Homo. That’s the conclusion of a new study by Stony Brook University anthropologist Peter Fernandez and his colleagues, who studied the size and shape of the metatarsals (the bones of the mid-foot) in modern humans, fossil hominins, and an assortment of monkeys and apes.

Spring in our step

Primate feet evolved mostly to grasp while climbing, which is why chimpanzees have more flexible feet

Continue reading “The road to bipedalism wasn’t straight and narrow”

Oscillating brain goes regular before migraine pain hits

Enlarge (credit: Lisa Brewster)

Migraines suck—understatement of the year right there. Migraines are also poorly understood, and it’s kind of hard to come up with effective remedies if you don’t understand what you are treating.

One way to understand migraines is through physics. The brain is a network of neurons that are constantly talking to each other. This, in physics-speak, is a dynamical system. Dynamical systems can have more than one stable operating point. A horrible consequence of this particular system might be that migraines represent a stable operating point of the brain.

No going back

A recent paper—one that isn’t especially exciting—has forced me to write about oscillating brains. I’ve talked about chaotic systems, nonlinear dynamics, and dynamical systems before. I won’t repeat everything written previously, but I do want to emphasize the concept of transitions that don’t easily reverse. 

Read 15 remaining paragraphs | Comments

“Natural” birth-control app dogged by unwanted pregnancies gets FDA approval

Enlarge (credit: Natural Cycles)

An app to prevent unwanted pregnancies by tracking a woman’s body temperature has scored a first-of-its-kind marketing approval from the Food and Drug Administration, the agency announced.

The US stamp of approval—which clears the way for similar apps to get the green light—lands as the app’s Swedish maker faces investigations by European authorities into its advertising claims, plus criticism from health experts and reports of dozens of unwanted pregnancies.

The sleek mobile app, called Natural Cycles, boasts 900,000 users worldwide as well as approval from the EU to act as a form of contraceptive. Yet it’s essentially riff on an old-school “natural family planning” method dressed up for the digital age. An $80 annual subscription for the app comes with an oral thermometer and relies on a user’s basal body temperature (BBT) to estimate the time of ovulation (when an egg is released from

Continue reading ““Natural” birth-control app dogged by unwanted pregnancies gets FDA approval”

Small nudges add up to big electric savings

Enlarge (credit: jill, jellidonut… whatever / Flickr)

Not all electricity is created equal. Utilities prioritize getting power from the cheapest sources available. That means that, as use rises to what’s typically a mid-afternoon peak, utilities end up sourcing ever more expensive supplies of electricity. By the time we reach the use typical of a late afternoon during a heat wave, the utilities have to call in the most expensive forms of power around—typically, the oldest, least-efficient, and most-polluting plants.

So cutting down on energy use during these peak demand events is in a utility’s interests. And, since it’s an economic problem, a lot of the solutions have also been economic, like setting higher electricity rates during these times to encourage customers to cut back on use. But a new study suggests that something as simple as a gentle reminder to customers can have a noticeable affect, and stacking reminders

Continue reading “Small nudges add up to big electric savings”

SpaceX reveals the controls of its Dragon spacecraft for the first time

Enlarge / NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins meets with employees at SpaceX on Monday. (credit: SpaceX)

HAWTHORNE, Calif.—Across the cavernous rocket factory, the buzz, whirr, and whine of various machinery never ebbed. Even when the president of SpaceX and four blue-suited astronauts strode confidently onto the factory floor Monday afternoon, and took up microphones to address several dozen reporters, the incessant work inside the SpaceX Falcon 9 hatchery continued.

On one side of the factory, technicians produced rolls of carbon fiber and built myriad payload fairings, which cannot yet be reused during a launch. To meet its cadence of a launch every other week, SpaceX must build at least two of these each month. Another section of the factory fabricated the Merlin 1-D rocket engines that power the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage. And in another large, white room behind glass, several Dragon spacecraft were in various states of completion.

Continue reading “SpaceX reveals the controls of its Dragon spacecraft for the first time”