The world’s largest radio telescope begins operations in China


Liu Xu/Xinhua

❝ The world’s largest radio telescope began searching for signals from stars and galaxies and, perhaps, extraterrestrial life Sunday in a project demonstrating China’s rising ambitions in space and its pursuit of international scientific prestige…

Measuring 500 meters in diameter, the radio telescope is nestled in a natural basin within a stunning landscape of lush green karst formations in southern Guizhou province. It took five years and $180 million to complete and surpasses that of the 300-meter Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, a dish used in research on stars that led to a Nobel Prize.

❝ The official Xinhua News Agency said hundreds of astronomers and enthusiasts watched the launch of the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, in the county of Pingtang.

Researchers quoted by state media said FAST would search for gravitational waves, detect radio emissions from stars and galaxies and listen for signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life…

Installation of the 4,450-panel structure, nicknamed Tianyan, or the Eye of Heaven, started in 2011 and was completed in July…

❝ The radio telescope has double the sensitivity of the Arecibo Observatory, and five to 10 times the surveying speed…

China has also completed the construction of tourist facilities such as an observation deck on a nearby mountain…Such facilities can be a draw for visitors — the one in Puerto Rico draws about 90,000 visitors and some 200 scientists each year.

There is something I’d love to visit. Wish I could drive there in my old pickup truck. I will not countenance the TSA crappola.

Help someone understand how they’re wrong, first tell them how they’re right

The 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal…set out the most effective way to get someone to change their mind, centuries before experimental psychologists began to formally study persuasion:

When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true.

People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.

Put simply, Pascal suggests that before disagreeing with someone, first point out the ways in which they’re right. And to effectively persuade someone to change their mind, lead them to discover a counter-point of their own accord. Arthur Markman, psychology professor at The University of Texas at Austin, says both these points hold true.

“One of the first things you have to do to give someone permission to change their mind is to lower their defenses and prevent them from digging their heels in to the position they already staked out,” he says. “If I immediately start to tell you all the ways in which you’re wrong, there’s no incentive for you to co-operate. But if I start by saying, ‘Ah yeah, you made a couple of really good points here, I think these are important issues,’ now you’re giving the other party a reason to want to co-operate as part of the exchange. And that gives you a chance to give voice your own concerns about their position in a way that allows co-operation.”

Markman also supports Pascal’s second persuasive suggestion. “If I have an idea myself, I feel I can claim ownership over that idea, as opposed to having to take your idea, which means I have to explicitly say, ‘I’m going to defer to you as the authority on this.’ Not everybody wants to do that,”

Lots of early thinkers got it right before the modern era.

Of course, stuck in between the two, we still have an enormous heap of True Believers who still believe that imagining something to be true is as valid as evidence-based fact.

The sugar industry paid for distorted health science for more than 50 years

❝ The sugar industry has a long history of shaping nutrition policy in the United States, working to mask the potential risks of consuming too much of the sweet stuff.

It wasn’t until this year, for instance, that the US Dietary Guidelines finally recommended people keep their consumption of added sugars below 10 percent of their total calorie intake — decades after health advocates began pressing for the measure. The sugar lobby had fended off this recommendation all the while.

❝ New research, published…in JAMA Internal Medicine, shows that Big Sugar may have done more than just advocate for favorable policies. Going back more than 50 years, the industry has been distorting scientific research by dictating what questions get asked about sugar, particularly questions around sugar’s role in promoting heart disease.

❝ The paper focuses on a debate that first popped up in the 1950s, when the rate of heart disease started to shoot up in the United States. Scientists began searching for answers, and zeroed in on dietary saturated fat as the leading contributor. The energy we get from food comes in three kinds of nutrients: fats, carbohydrates, and protein…

Today, scientific consensus related to the role specific macronutrients play in the diet has shifted. Researchers have come around to the view that a person’s overall eating habits probably matter more for health than the particular percentages of carbs, fats, and proteins taken in. But they also generally agree that some kinds of fats are less damaging to health than others. (In particular, unsaturated fats appear to be better for one’s cardiovascular disease risk than saturated and trans fats.) And that too much sugar can be just as bad as too much fat for the heart.

❝ The new JAMA paper reveals why the public may know less about the sugar-heart link than it ought to…

Beginning in the 1950s, notes the JAMA paper, led by Cristin Kearns of UC San Francisco, a trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation was concerned about evidence showing that a low-fat diet high in sugar might raise cholesterol levels in the blood.

If sugar turned out to be a major driver of heart issues, the group surmised, that could be devastating for sugar producers…So the Sugar Research Foundation aligned itself with leading Harvard nutrition professors, and paid them the equivalent of $48,900 (in 2016 dollars) for a two-part research review, later published in the New England Journal of Medicine, that would discredit the link between sugar and heart disease.

It ain’t just ancient history. A couple generations of nutritionist were taught to believe the skewed analysis was holy writ, a premise so well established it must serve as the starting point for all following work.

RTFA for details. Yes, there’s nothing new about money buying results. Sometimes in science, though more rarely, say, than in American politics.

Here’s what a diligent, professional copper gets done “with a bit of free time”


Larry Don Patterson and William Lloyd Harbour

❝ An investigator “with a bit of free time” decided to send for testing DNA samples from a long-dormant cold case, which led authorities to arrest a pair of men linked to the 1973 shotgun slayings of two young girls, authorities said.

Police in Oklahoma and California arrested the two 65-year-old suspects Tuesday morning for the murders of Valerie Janice Lane, 12, and Doris Karen Derryberry, 13.

❝ The seventh grade classmates told their mothers they were going to a mall shopping near their homes about 40 miles north of Sacramento on Nov. 12, 1973. Witnesses saw them in their neighborhood that night, but neither girl returned home. Both suspects were living in Olivehurst at that time, investigators said.

Two boys were target shooting and found the girl’s bodies about 20 hours later, according to news accounts at the time. Investigators say the girls were driven to a wooded area and shot at close range.

Authorities then and now said a large-scale investigation was immediately launched and some 60 people interviewed over a three-year period before the case went cold for a lack of solid leads and was shelved in 1976.

❝ In March 2014, an investigator doing a routine look through cold cases decided to send semen samples found on Derryberry’s body and preserved for 43 years to the state Department of Justice forensics lab for analysis. Seven months later, state DOJ technicians reported that the DNA in the semen matched the genetic profiles of cousins Larry Don Patterson and William Lloyd Harbour, who each committed serious enough crimes since 1973 to have their DNA samples collected and placed in law enforcement computer systems.

“Over time, anyone that’s been assigned to our investigations unit for any length of time looks into some of the unsolved cases that we have,” Yuba County Sheriff Steve Durfor said. “And this was one in particular that one of our investigators had a bit of free time and really looked very closely at this case and identified that we should send some things off and see what it might yield for us.”

❝ Patterson was arrested Tuesday morning in Oklahoma. Harbour was arrested after a traffic stop two hours later near his home in Olivehurst, where the two victims also lived.

Both are now charged with murder. Overdue, for sure. But, the cases move towards completion because folks in the Yuba County Sheriff’s Department lived up to standards that should define all police departments. Coppers who really deserve medals.

In the not-too-distant future, we won’t need sex to reproduce — Get ready!

I’ll give you the beginning of this article – and the end. You really need to read the whole critter to justify pondering the concept.

❝ For 100 million years, all our ancestors reproduced basically the same way. A male reproductive organ deposited sperm into a female reproduction organ, where it could fertilize eggs — leading to baby ancestral tetrapods, mammals, primates, and eventually humans. The past 60 years have seen this begin to change, first with clinically available artificial insemination and then with in vitro fertilization (IVF)…

❝ In the United States today, these two techniques lead to about 100,000 births each year, roughly 2.5 percent of the 4 million children born annually. Within the next few decades, that percentage will skyrocket. Developments in bioscience, galloping forward in most cases for reasons having nothing to with reproduction, will combine to make IVF cheaper and much easier.

These new techniques will allow safe and easy embryo selection – but they will also open doors to genetically edited babies, “their own” genetic babies for same-sex couples, babies with a single genetic parent, and maybe babies from artificial wombs.

❝ Starting in the next few decades, these new methods of reproduction will give people new choices. They will also raise a host of vexing legal and ethical questions, questions we need to start discussing.

Deal with genetic selection of embryos, designer babies, create 100 embryos to choose the best and scrap or recycle the rest, unibabies from a uniparent [not a clone]…you get the idea.

Henry Greely is a professor of law and of genetics. He concludes…

We need to start thinking about these questions. The future is coming. It may not be exactly the future I foresee, but, like it or not, it will certainly feature far more choices, for families and for societies, about making babies.

You now know more about that future than 99.9 percent of humanity. Learn more, pay attention to the relevant news, and talk with your family and friends. The more we consider, debate, and plan for plausible futures, the more likely we are not to create any kind of perfect future, but, at least, to avoid some catastrophes. And that is not a bad goal.

Video: Evolution of E.coli into an antibiotic resistant bacteria

❝ …At the start of the video, bacteria are dropped into the edges of the dish and soon colonise the outer safe zones. Then they hit their first antibiotic wall, which halts their progress. After a few moments, bright spots appear at this frontier and start spreading outwards. These are resistant bacteria that have picked up mutations that allow them to shrug off the drug. They advance until they hit the next antibiotic zone. Another pause, until even more resistant strains evolve and invade further into the dish. By the end of the movie, even the centre-most stripe—the zone with the highest levels of killer chemicals—is colonised.

❝ What you’re seeing in the movie is a vivid depiction of a very real problem. Disease-causing bacteria and other microbes are increasingly evolving to resist our drugs; by 2050, these impervious infections could potentially kill ten million people a year. The problem of drug-resistant infections is terrifying but also abstract; by their nature, microbes are invisible to the naked eye, and the process by which they defy our drugs is even harder to visualise.

But now you can: just watch that video again. You’re seeing evolution in action. You’re watching living things facing down new challenges, dying, competing, thriving, invading, and adapting—all in a two-minute movie…

❝ when Baym showed the videos at an evolutionary biology conference in Washington DC last month, many attendees were awed and slack-jawed. “It’s exciting, creative and, game-changing,” says Shelly Copley from the University of Colorado, one of the organisers. Baym himself, who has seen the movies hundreds of times, is still blown away by them. “You can actually see mutations happening,” he says, before shaking his head and smiling.

Seeing is believing except – I imagine – for the truly science-challenged. There may be True Believers who think some unreal force causes the same sort of result any and every time the experiment is repeated. We are looking, after all, at a demonstration of evolution.

The scarier part for me is that we’re looking at a consistent direction for bacteria. Antibiotic resistance. We have a finite amount of time remaining before pretty much all our antibiotic wonder drugs are useless.

Click the link up near the beginning to access the whole article. Fascinating chronology.

Worried about fracking chemicals in your water — wait till you get Frackibacter bacteria!

❝ Study finds a new genus of bacteria found living inside hydraulic fracturing wells – Frackibacter, one of dozens of microbes are forming sustainable ecosystems there…

The new genus is one of the 31 microbial members found living inside two separate fracturing wells, Ohio State University researchers and their colleagues report in…the journal Nature Microbiology.

❝ Even though the wells were hundreds of miles apart and drilled in different kinds of shale formations, the microbial communities inside them were nearly identical, researchers discovered.

Almost all the microbes they found had been seen elsewhere before, and many likely came from the surface ponds that energy companies draw on to fill the wells. But that’s not the case with the newly identified Candidatus Frackibacter, which may be unique to hydraulic fracturing sites, said Kelly Wrighton…

❝ Candidatus Frackibacter prospered alongside the microbes that came from the surface, forming communities in both wells which so far have lasted for nearly a year…

By sampling fluids taken from the two wells over 328 days, the researchers reconstructed the genomes of bacteria and archaea living in the shale. To the researchers’ surprise, both wells — one drilled in Utica shale and the other drilled in Marcellus shale — developed nearly identical microbial communities…

“We thought we might get some of the same types of bacteria, but the level of similarity was so high it was striking. That suggests that whatever’s happening in these ecosystems is more influenced by the fracturing than the inherent differences in the shale,” Wrighton said.

❝ Wrighton and her team are still not 100 percent sure of the microbes’ origins. Some almost undoubtedly came from the ponds that provide water to the wells, she said. But other bacteria and archaea could have been living in the rock before drilling began, Candidatus Frackibacter among them.

Soon to be a series of movies on the SYFY Channel, taking over from Sharknado. Like, um – Fracknado!

I made that up.

Oklahoma finally orders wastewater wells shut down after earthquake


Click to enlargeDavid Bitton/AP

Steve Gibson, of Pawnee, takes photos of damage

❝ Oklahoma officials have ordered 37 wastewater disposal wells shut down after a 5.6-magnitude earthquake struck the state on Saturday, equal to the strongest in the state’s history.

Governor Mary Fallin declared a state of emergency after the earthquake, which caused damage to buildings around north-central Oklahoma and could be felt as far away as Dallas and Chicago…

❝ The Oklahoma Corporation Commission ordered the shutdown of wastewater wells in a radius of about 500 square miles around the epicenter of the earthquake. “We estimate that at any one time, there are about 3,200 active disposal wells,” commission spokesman Matt Skinner said.

❝ Five months ago, US officials warned Oklahoma that the wastewater wells used for natural gas drilling were linked to an increase in earthquakes in the state, parts of which are now as likely to suffer tremors as northern California. There are about 4,200 total wells across the state and about 700 in a 15,000-square-mile “area of interest” in the area that includes the epicenter of Saturday’s temblor, near Pawnee…

❝ An increase in magnitude 3.0 or greater earthquakes in Oklahoma has been linked to underground disposal of wastewater from oil and natural gas production, and since 2013, the commission has asked wastewater-well owners to reduce disposal volumes in parts of the state where the temblors have been most frequent.

Disaster is about the only way to get the attention of the latest flavor of conservative politicians. Now that seawater is often knee-deep in coastal cities, Republican mayors begin to “recognize” that climate science really does apply to the United States. The same is beginning to happen to Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats in states dependent upon fossil fuel barons for a significant chunk of their budget.

19th Century minds are occasionally dragged into reality. Especially when it hurts.

Another magic bullet is going away — “antibacterial soaps” will disappear

If you’ve been spending your hard-earned money on fancy antibacterial soaps in the hopes that they’ll keep you clean and healthy, you may want to stop.

The US Food and Drug Administration just released a new, exhaustive report and ruling that there’s actually no good evidence they perform any better than plain old soap and water when it comes to preventing illness or the spread of bacteria and viruses.

What’s more, the agency is banning companies from using 19 common “antibacterial” chemicals — such as triclosan and triclocarban — in products going forward…Manufacturers have a year to reformulate products or remove ones with these chemicals from the market.

“Consumers may think antibacterial washes are more effective at preventing the spread of germs, but we have no scientific evidence that they are any better than plain soap and water,” said Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “In fact, some data suggests that antibacterial ingredients may do more harm than good over the long-term…”

The FDA noted that the ban won’t apply to consumer hand “sanitizers” or wipes, as well as antibacterial products used in health care settings.

Another cash cow created by the “healthiness” industry bites the big one. But, cheer up. Some other health fad will come along. The same old profiteers and maybe a couple new entrepreneurs will “clean up” from consumers who continue to believe there’s always another magic cure ready to be discovered. For just pennies a day.

A strange thing happened in the stratosphere — and no one knows (yet) what’s going on


Republican meteorology

“The quasi-biennial oscillation is the stratosphere’s Old Faithful,” said Paul Newman, Chief Scientist for Earth Sciences at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center…“If Old Faithful stopped for a day, you’d begin to wonder about what was happening under the ground.”

❝ Winds in the tropical stratosphere, an atmospheric layer that extends from about 10 to 30 miles above Earth’s surface, circulate the planet in alternating easterly and westerly directions over roughly a two-year period. Westerly winds develop at the top of the stratosphere, and gradually descend to the bottom, about 10 miles above the surface while at the same time being replaced by a layer of easterly winds above them. In turn, the easterlies descend and are replaced by westerlies.

This pattern repeats every 28 months. In the 1960s scientists coined it the “quasi-biennial oscillation.” The record of these measurements, made by weather balloons released in the tropics at various points around the globe, dates to 1953.

The pattern never changed — until late 2015. As the year came to a close, winds from the west neared the end of their typical descent. The regular pattern held that weaker easterly winds would soon replace them. But then the westerlies appeared to move upwards and block the downward movement of the easterlies. This new pattern held for nearly half a year, and by July 2016 the old regime seemed to resume.

❝ The quasi-biennial oscillation has a wide influence on stratospheric conditions. The amount of ozone at the equator changes by 10 percent between the peaks of the easterly and westerly phases, while the oscillation also has an impact on levels of polar ozone depletion.

❝ With this disruption now documented, Newman and colleagues are currently focused on studying both its causes and potential implications. They have two hypotheses for what could have triggered it — the particularly strong El Niño in 2015-16 or the long-term trend of rising global temperatures. Newman said the scientists are conducting further research now to figure out if the event was a “black swan,” a once-in-a-generation event, or a “canary in the coal mine,” a shift with unforeseen circumstances, caused by climate change.

Of course, if it’s the latter, you can be certain the usual pimps for the fossil fuel industry will line up to deny [a] that anything really happened and [b] if it happened it’s not important.