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Mon, 11 Dec 2017
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Geminid meteor shower: how to watch as Phaethon asteroid debris lights up Earth's skies

A view of the Geminid meteor shower Asim Patel/Wikimedia
© Asim Patel/Wikimedia
A view of the Geminid meteor shower
Photographers and sky-watchers will be treated to an awe-inspiring celestial display in December as the Geminid meteor shower lights up Earth's atmosphere.

As our planet moves through the debris field left by the Phaethon asteroid next month, flashes and trails of light will be visible overhead - as long as the weather is clear.

Phaethon, named for the son of Greek god Helios, is a rocky asteroid that orbits the Sun unusually closely.


Nuclear reactor meltdown wouldn't end the world, say scientists

© Daily Star
'Keep calm and carry on' if you happen to get caught up in a nuclear disaster. That's the advice scientists are giving after a study simulating the effects of radioactive fallout in West Sussex found it wouldn't be that bad. Apparently.

A group of British scientists found the damage caused by a nuclear accident wouldn't quite live up to long-held 'hysterical' assumptions on its toxicity. Researchers at the University of Bristol simulated a disaster at a fictional reactor in West Sussex using Public Health England's contingency plans.

Although a radioactive leak may lower life expectancy among the British public and heighten the chance of developing cancers, the study found that the health impacts for people in contaminated areas were no worse than those in polluted cities such as London. Well, that's reassuring.

Of the 44,000 people who would have to evacuate the contaminated region, just 650 would benefit from leaving area, as the stress of finding a new job and starting life anew somewhere else would likely outweigh the mild health effects for the majority.

It raises questions over the effectiveness of Soviet and Japanese authorities when they ordered the evacuation of almost half a million people following the nuclear disasters of Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011.

Comment: As of April 2017, 30 countries worldwide are operating 449 nuclear reactors for electricity generation and 60 new nuclear plants are under construction in 15 countries. Some of these are the same design as Fukushima and many are over 30 years old. More studies, please.


Warning: Too much artificial light on Earth is 'lighting our way to darkness'

artificial light
© Mario Anzuoni / Reuters
A new study conducted using satellite data shows that artificial lighting is growing brighter. The data suggest this is disrupting the order of ecological and human life, which previously depended on natural light sources such as the moon.

The international study led by Christopher Kyba of the GFZ German Research Centre for Geoscience tracks what researchers are calling a negative trend that has implications for the health of human beings and the environment. The light pollution that humans are creating can affect living things, because they have evolved in accordance with the normal day-night cycle, according to the study. This is due to the fact that major sources of light during the night would have come only from the moon, or other sources like auroras, volcanoes and wildfires.

An international team of scientists used the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), a satellite sensor, to find out whether the human demand for light is still on the rise or leveling off. VIIRS is cited as a collaboration between NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Researchers studied data for the report in the month of October every year from 2012 to 2016, and ultimately discovered that the artificially-lit portion of the Earth's surface continued to grow by 2.2 percent per year. During this same period, Earth's radiance also climbed by 1.8 percent per year.


An update: Sunspots a la Cyclic Catastrophism

Sunspot Cycles
© NAOJ/Nagoya University/JAXA
Fig. 1 Fifty years of constant Sun observation.
This post is a response to "Variation of the Solar Microwave Spectrum in the Last Half Century", Masumi Shimojo et al. Astrophysical Journal, Volume 848, Number 1.

The abstract states:
"... we found that the microwave spectra at the solar minima of Cycles 20-24 agree with each other. These results show that the average atmospheric structure above the upper chromosphere in the quiet-Sun has not varied for half a century, and suggest that the energy input for atmospheric heating from the sub-photosphere to the corona have not changed in the quiet-Sun despite significantly differing strengths of magnetic activity in the last five solar cycles."
See Figure 1 above.


Eric Schmidt: Google search algorithm can't recognize 'truth' when opinion is polarized

eric schmidt
© Adam Jeffery / CNBC
In the United States' current polarized political environment, the constant publishing of articles with vehemently opposing arguments has made it almost impossible for Google to rank information properly.

So says billionaire Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google's parent company, Alphabet, speaking at the Halifax International Security Forum on Saturday.

"Let's say that this group believes Fact A and this group believes Fact B and you passionately disagree with each other and you are all publishing and writing about it and so forth and so on. It is very difficult for us to understand truth," says Schmidt, referring to the search engine's algorithmic capabilities.

"So when it gets to a contest of Group A versus Group B - you can imagine what I am talking about - it is difficult for us to sort out which rank, A or B, is higher," Schmidt says.

Ranking is the holy grail for Google. And when topics have more consensus, Schmidt is confident in the algorithm's ability to lower the rank of information that is repetitive, exploitative or false. In cases of greater consensus, when the search turns up a piece of incorrect or unreliable information, it is a problem that Google should be able to address by tweaking the algorithm, he says.

Comment: Schmidt's comments are quite revealing. What do they reveal? He's an idiot. Truth, by its very definition, is not determined by consensus. What he's essentially saying is this: When people agree on something, Google can recognize that and rank any competing views lower than the consensus view. When there is no clear consensus, Google can't tell what the consensus is. Truth has nothing to do with it.

Cell Phone

Even when location services are disabled, Google can still track you

man texting cell phone
© Patrizia Cortellessa / Global Look Press
Many people realize that smartphones track their locations. But what if you actively turn off location services, haven't used any apps, and haven't even inserted a carrier SIM card?

Even if you take all of those precautions, phones running Android software gather data about your location and send it back to Google when they're connected to the internet, a Quartz investigation has revealed.

Since the beginning of 2017, Android phones have been collecting the addresses of nearby cellular towers-even when location services are disabled-and sending that data back to Google. The result is that Google, the unit of Alphabet behind Android, has access to data about individuals' locations and their movements that go far beyond a reasonable consumer expectation of privacy.

Quartz observed the data collection occur and contacted Google, which confirmed the practice.

Comment: Big Brother: Google's Location History is still recording your every move


Scientists clone a clone just to see what happens

Snuppy the Afghan Hound
© Jo Yong-Hak / Reuters
Snuppy the Afghan Hound, the world's first cloned dog.
An international team of researchers have re-cloned the first dog to ever be cloned, to basically find out if genetically identical animals will suffer the same fate.

The scientists from Seoul National University, Michigan State University and the University of Illinois had their paper on the monumental re-cloning published in the journal Scientific Reports. The group said they duplicated the original dog clone to learn more about the viability of cloning animals, and to find out if cloning animals speeds up the aging process or causes unknown birth defects.

In 2005, the original dog Tai, a male Afghan hound, become the first dog to ever be cloned. Researchers at Seoul National University inserted Tai's cells into the eggs of a female donor and then implanted the them into the female's uterus.

The result of that ground-breaking implantation, Snuppy, lived a seemingly normal and healthy life on Seoul National University campus until he died from cancer at age 10, as did the original, Tai, at age 12. Their ages of death was close to the 11.9 years a normal Afghan hound is expected to reach, and neither cancer was rare or unique, according to the team.

Cloud Lightning

Gamma rays from lightning creates anti-matter, crowd-funded discovery shows

Perth lightning
© ABC News: Andrew O'Connor
Lightning appears to reach the sea surface as an electrical storm crosses the coast south of Perth.
From the "this is likely to push out chemtrails as the next big conspiracy theory" department. I posited back in 2009, when I first covered this story, that the huge vertical electric charge differentials in Earth's atmosphere acted like a particle accelerator. It seems the researchers here agree with me.

Lightning, with a chance of antimatter

From KYOTO UNIVERSITY Japan - A storm system approaches: the sky darkens, and the low rumble of thunder echoes from the horizon. Then without warning... Flash! Crash! - lightning has struck.

This scene, while familiar to anyone and repeated constantly across the planet, is not without a feeling of mystery. But now that mystery has deepened, with the discovery that lightning can result in matter-antimatter annihilation.

In a collaborative study appearing in Nature, researchers from Japan describe how gamma rays from lightning react with the air to produce radioisotopes and even positrons - the antimatter equivalent of electrons.


China's Tencent surpasses Facebook to become world's largest social network

Chinese tech giant Tencent's mega-rally has turned it into the world's fifth-largest company and the first Asian firm to enter the half trillion dollar club.

Mascots of Tencent
© Tyrone Siu / Reuters
China’s Tencent overtakes Facebook to become world's biggest social network
Mascots of Tencent are displayed at a registration counter
The Hong Kong-listed internet giant, known for its WeChat messaging app and online games, has seen its stock price soar nearly 120 percent this year. It has reported better-than-expected third-quarter net income up 69 percent on the year.

With a market cap of $523 billion, Tencent surpassed Facebook ($522 billion) on Tuesday, joining the ranks of the world's five largest corporations that include Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, and Amazon. It is also bigger than its Chinese rivals: e-commerce giant Alibaba ($474.15 billion), and web services company Baidu ($82.97 billion).


CRISPR gene drives are too powerful to be used in the wild

brushtail possum
© Pleio/Istock photo
SO CUTE, SO WRONG No one has a genetic way of getting rid of invasive brushtail possums in New Zealand, but now is the time to debate whether CRISPR gene drives are too strong to be considered, two researchers argue.
Gene-editing tools heralded as hope for fighting invader rats, malarial mosquitoes and other scourges may be too powerful to use in their current form, two new papers warn.

Standard forms of CRISPR gene drives, as the tools are called, can make tweaked DNA race through a population so easily that a small number of stray animals or plants could spread it to new territory, predicts a computer simulation released November 16 at bioRxiv.org. Such an event would have unknown, potentially damaging, ramifications, says a PLOS Biology paper released the same day.

"We need to get out of the ivory tower and have this discussion in the open, because ecological engineering will affect everyone living in the area," says Kevin Esvelt of MIT, a coauthor of both papers who studies genetic solutions to ecological problems. What's a pest in one place may be valued in another, so getting consent to use a gene drive could mean consulting people across a species's whole range, be it several nations or continents.