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Tue, 27 Sep 2016
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Some of the biggest problems facing science

"Science, I had come to learn, is as political, competitive, and fierce a career as you can find, full of the temptation to find easy paths." — Paul Kalanithi, neurosurgeon and writer (1977 - 2015)

Science is in big trouble. Or so we're told.

Comment: There is another problem that's facing science today which isn't mentioned in the article: harrassment, marginalization and demonization of scientists either by their peers or their employers. Some are attacked for merely investigating fields that are against scientific dogma, while others are for acts of conscience. Some examples:

Rupert Sheldrake, 'The Science Delusion': Banned TED Talk
GMO Researchers Attacked, Evidence Denied, and a Population at Risk
Silencing the Scientist: Tyrone Hayes on being targeted by herbicide firm Syngenta

Another area not touched on which bears expanding:

The Corruption of Science in America


Monsanto licenses CRISPR technology to modify crops

© Brent Stirton/GETTY IMAGES
Monsanto greenhouses on top of a research building in St Louis.
Agriculture giant Monsanto has licensed CRISPR-Cas9 genome-editing technology from the Broad Institute for use in seed development, the company announced on Thursday, a step that will likely accelerate and simplify the creation of crops that are resistant to drought or have consumer-pleasing properties such as soybean oil with fats as healthy as those in olive oil.

But the deal comes with restrictions that speak to the startling power of CRISPR, as well as widespread public anxiety about genetically modified crops: Monsanto cannot use it for gene drive, the controversial technique that can spread a trait through an entire population, with unknown consequences.

Since 2013 the Broad has issued more than a dozen licenses for commercial research using CRISPR-Cas9, including to Editas Medicine, GE Healthcare, and Evotec. This is the first for agricultural use. Genome-editing of crops offers the potential of increasing yields, reducing the use of chemical pesticides (a plant can be genetically modified to thwart insects), and making strains tolerant of the droughts that are becoming more frequent with global climate change.

But "just as in biomedicine, the use of genome editing in agriculture raises important ethical and safety concerns," Issi Rozen, the Broad's chief business officer, wrote in a blog post.


FBI finally releases long held Tesla documents on death ray, ball lightning and other information

At long last, the FBI has released its document cache of files containing information on Nikola Tesla, including his inventions like death ray and ball lightning, as well as how the government obtained his notes and memos following his death.

Tesla, an inventor and innovator considered at least decades ahead of his time, predicted and helped develop an early prototype of a smartphone, among many other things.

In the Volume 100 of Popular Science Monthly in 1922, for example, Tesla predicted video calling:

"It will soon be possible to see as well as hear by means of electricity. 'Television' will be employed as generally as telephoning. As one listens to a voice at the other end of the line, he will also see every expression of the speaker's face," explained Tesla in his article.

Comment: Don't count on too many individuals being able to replicate or advance Tesla's research - unless they were working for DARPA of course.


NASA researchers propose exotic ice cloud in Titan's stratosphere formed by 'solid-state' chemical reactions

© NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute.
This Cassini image shows a giant cloud system in Titan’s atmosphere.
Cassini mission scientists think the appearance of a cloud of dicyanoacetylene ice in Titan's stratosphere is explained by 'solid-state' chemistry taking place inside ice particles.

The cloud is located in Titan's stratosphere and is made of a compound known as dicyanoacetylene (C4N2), an ingredient in the chemical cocktail that colors the moon's brownish-orange atmosphere.

Decades ago, NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft spotted an ice cloud just like this one. What has puzzled scientists ever since is this: they detected less than 1% of the dicyanoacetylene gas needed for the cloud to condense.

Recent observations from NASA's Cassini mission yielded a similar result. Using the Cassini Composite Infrared Spectrometer (CIRS), the scientists found a large high-altitude cloud made of the same frozen chemical.

Yet, just as Voyager found, when it comes to the vapor form of this chemical, CIRS reported that Titan's stratosphere is as dry as a desert.

"The appearance of this ice cloud goes against everything we know about the way clouds form on Titan," said CIRS co-investigator Dr. Carrie Anderson, from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Better Earth

Wastewater injections in gas and oil drilling responsible for earthquakes, says satellite data

© Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters
An oil rig is silhouetted against the sunset in St. Lawrence, Texas
Five earthquakes which shook Texas in 2012 and 2013 were caused by wastewater injections during drilling for oil and gas, scientists said after analyzing satellite radar data.

A series of earthquakes struck near the town of Timpson in eastern Texas over the course of a year and a half, with the team of American and British researchers looking into the most powerful of them, which took place in 2012 and reached a magnitude of 4.8.

The researchers used Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar, or InSAR, to track the ground movements in the quakes and establish that their causes weren't natural.

"Our study reports on the first observations of surface uplift associated with wastewater injection. The detection of uplift when combined with well-injection records provides a new way to study wastewater injection," study co-author William Ellsworth, a geophysics professor at Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, told the university's website.

Comment: Fracking is an assault on the Earth. No wonder she reacts so violently.


Tech group wants a 150 mile stretch of highway devoted to driverless cars

© Kim Kyung Hoon / Reuters
The American passion for cars is turning a new corner. Now a ban is being considered on all human drivers for a 150-mile stretch of highway. Meanwhile, solutions for pedestrians crossing in front of driverless vehicles are being developed as well.

The car of tomorrow could make drivers yesterday's news - but only once the tech companies working on self-driving cars figure out how to digitize nuanced interactions. Autonomous car makers are striving to make their product safe for both passengers and pedestrians, but testing is still in various stages.

From knowing how to anticipate other cars on the road to understanding gestures from pedestrians, there's a lot more to driving than just turning a wheel and hitting the gas.

This is a concept that Drive.ai understands and hopes to revolutionize with their unique take on driverless cars. The Silicon Valley startup believes that the experiences between driverless cars and pedestrians could be improved by focusing on human-robot interactions and developing technology that will allow cars to "learn" like an actual driver - just without high school driver's education.



White House report indicates forensics used to convict 1,000s of people may not be scientifically valid

© Mark Kauzlarich / Reuters
A fingerprint led to the arrest of New York and New Jersey bomber Ahmad Rahami, but a new report from a White House scientific advisory committee says much of what bitemark, hair, firearm and toolmark analyses provide does not meet scientific standards.

The White House's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology concluded in a report released Tuesday that widely used forensic techniques used in criminal trials in the nation's legal system might not be scientifically valid.

The report said validity "requires that a method has been subjected to empirical testing by multiple groups, under conditions appropriate to its intended use."


Variation in the ionosphere's electron density is natural, not man-made

© Wikimedia Commons
Earth's atmosphere and ionosphere.
Earth's ionosphere is a "conducting layer" that can transmit radio signals. To ensure the reliability of these transmissions, scientists must first understand how ionospheric variations influence radio signals and the drivers behind these variations.

One hypothesis holds that long-term trends in the ionosphere are related to the increase of carbon dioxide in lower layers of Earth's atmosphere. Perrone and Mikhailov take a different approach and consider the origin of long-term variations in the ionosphere as they relate to solar and geomagnetic activity—the so-called "geomagnetic control concept."

The authors scrutinized reliable observations of critical frequencies on European ionosondes for five solar cycles (around 55 years). Through their analysis, they've become the first to retrieve a consistent set of parameters—temperature and neutral composition—for the F layer, the region of the ionosphere transmitting the signals.

They found that their data reflect trends seen in long-term variations in solar and geomagnetic activity for the whole period, including the last deep solar minimum in 2008 - 2009.

The analysis confirms that the long-term variations have a natural origin: They existed in the past and presumably will continue in future, reflecting the long-term variations in solar activity.


Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics
, doi:10.1002/2016JA022715, 2016

2 + 2 = 4

Researchers discover gene behind 'sixth sense' in humans

© fizkes/iStockphoto
Researchers have discovered a gene in humans that appears to be responsible for the body's coordination and awareness in space.
A soft brush that feels like prickly thorns. A vibrating tuning fork that produces no vibration. Not being able to tell which direction body joints are moving without looking at them. Those are some of the bizarre sensations reported by a 9-year-old girl and 19-year-old woman in a new study. The duo, researchers say, shares an extremely rare genetic mutation that may shed light on a so-called "sixth sense" in humans: proprioception, or the body's awareness of where it is in space. The new work may even explain why some of us are klutzier than others.

The patients' affliction doesn't have a name. It was discovered by one of the study's lead authors, pediatric neurologist Carsten Bönnemann at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, who specializes in diagnosing unknown genetic illnesses in young people. He noticed that the girl and the woman shared a suite of physical symptoms, including hips, fingers, and feet that bent at unusual angles. They also had scoliosis, an unusual curvature of the spine. And, significantly, they had difficulty walking, showed an extreme lack of coordination, and couldn't physically feel objects against their skin.

Bizarro Earth

Earth's oxygen levels continue decline

© Michael Bender
Researchers analyzed samples from ice core drilling stations in Antarctica and Greenland to evaluate the planet's atmospheric oxygen levels throughout history.
Atmospheric oxygen levels have declined over the past 1 million years, although not nearly enough to trigger any major problems for life on Earth, a new study finds.

The research behind this new finding could help shed light on what controls atmospheric oxygen levels over long spans of time, the researchers said.

Atmospheric oxygen levels are fundamentally linked to the evolution of life on Earth, as well as changes in geochemical cycles related to climate variations. As such, scientists have long sought to reconstruct how atmospheric oxygen levels fluctuated in the past, and what might control these shifts.

However, models of past atmospheric oxygen levels often markedly disagree, differing by as much as about 20 percent of Earth's atmosphere, which is oxygen's present-day concentration, the researchers said. 1 It is not even known if atmospheric oxygen levels varied or remained steady over the past 1 million years.

"There was no consensus on whether the oxygen cycle before humankind began burning fossil fuels was in or out of balance and, if so, whether it was increasing or decreasing," said study lead author Daniel Stolper, a geochemistat Princeton University in New Jersey.

In the new study, researchers calculated past atmospheric oxygen levels by looking at air trapped inside ancient polar ice samples. Specifically, they looked at samples from Greenland and Antarctica.

The new estimates suggest that atmospheric oxygen levels have fallen by 0.7 percent over the past 800,000 years. The scientists concluded that oxygen sinks — processes that removed oxygen from the air — were about 1.7 percent larger than oxygen sources during this time.

Although a drop in atmospheric oxygen levels might sound alarming, the decrease the researchers found "is trivial in regard to ecosystems," Stolper told Live Science. "To put it in perspective, the pressure in the atmosphere declines with elevation. A 0.7 percent decline in the atmospheric pressure of oxygen occurs at about 100 meters (330 feet) above sea level — that is, about the 30th floor of a tall building."

There are two hypotheses that may help explain this oxygen decline over the past million years, Stolper said.