Jupiter is much stranger than scientists thought

The Atlantic reports: About every eight weeks, hundreds of millions of miles away, a basketball court-sized spacecraft named Juno swoops toward Jupiter. For a few hours, Juno loops around the planet’s poles at high speed, sometimes getting within 2,100 miles of its atmosphere. It surveys Jupiter’s swirling, opaque cloud tops, and then gets flung out to the other edge of its orbit, beyond Callisto, the planet’s cratered moon.

Jupiter is surrounded by a massive magnetic field that produces belts of radiation capable of frying Juno if it wasn’t wearing 400 pounds of protective titanium. The poles are a haven from the strongest radiation, and it’s there that Juno can aim its various scientific instruments at Jupiter’s cloud cover and collect data.

These flybys, which began when Juno entered Jupiter’s orbit last summer, have produced some stunning photographs of the gas giant’s polar regions, unlike the typical views published in textbooks over the years. They have also provided plenty of useful observations for scientists around the world, the first of which were published Thursday, in multiple studies in the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters.

At Jupiter’s poles, Juno has observed oval-shaped features, powerful cyclones which measure up to nearly 900 miles wide, according to one of the studies in Science. The finding isn’t surprising, given how good Jupiter is at producing storms. The planet is home to winds blowing at several hundred miles per hour, and storms the size of Earth. But scientists hadn’t observed storms like this at Jupiter’s poles until Juno showed up. They were surprised by the number of cyclonic storms they observed, as well as the differences in the weather patterns on the south and north poles. [Continue reading…]

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The Vatican sees no conflict between faith and science

The Daily Beast reports: If you think faith and science can’t share common ground, think again. Experts in both realms met last week at the Vatican Observatory to prove their theory that you can’t have one without the other. “If you have no faith in your faith, that is when you will fear science,” said Brother Guy Consolmagno the Vatican’s chief astronomer, whose works include such titles as “Would you Baptize an Extraterrestrial?

Brother Consolmagno led the three-day conference called Black Holes, Gravitational Waves and Spacetime Singularities at the Vatican Observatory’s Castel Gandolfo labs outside of Rome, the former papal summer residence that is remote enough to allow for clear stargazing with minimal light pollution.

He challenged astronomers, cosmologists. and other experts in the field who also believe in God to “come out” and talk about the intersection of faith and fact. What he ended up with are talks like, “The Internal Structure of Spinning Black Holes” and “The Big Bang and its Dark-Matter Content: Whence, Whither, and Wherefore.” Not once in the whole program does the word “God” or “religion” even appear, which is rare for a conference sponsored by the Vatican.

The Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences is also absent from the scene, although it has sponsored similar events in the past to try to sort out the murky waters between hard facts and blind faith. The academy’s chancellor, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, told The Daily Beast in 2013 that the two are not mutually exclusive. “If we don’t accept science, we don’t accept reason,” said Sánchez, “and reason was created by God.”

On the question of climate science and climate change, Pope Francis is not only convinced, he’s vehement. After the election of Donald Trump’s climate-change-skeptic administration last year, the pope noted that politicians had “reacted weakly” to the needs of humanity on this score and deplored “the ease with which well-founded scientific opinion about the state of our planet is disregarded.” [Continue reading…]

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Technology doesn’t make us better people

Nicholas Carr writes: Welcome to the global village. It’s a nasty place.

On Easter Sunday, a man in Cleveland filmed himself murdering a random 74-year-old and posted the video on Facebook. The social network took the grisly clip down within two or three hours, but not before users shared it on other websites — where people around the world can still view it.

Surely incidents like this aren’t what Mark Zuckerberg had in mind. In 2012, as his company was preparing to go public, the Facebook founder wrote an earnest letter to would-be shareholders explaining that his company was more than just a business. It was pursuing a “social mission” to make the world a better place by encouraging self-expression and conversation. “People sharing more,” the young entrepreneur wrote, “creates a more open culture and leads to a better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others.”

Earlier this year, Zuckerberg penned another public letter, expressing even grander ambitions. Facebook, he announced, is expanding its mission from “connecting friends and family” to building “a global community that works for everyone.” The ultimate goal is to turn the already vast social network into a sort of supranational state “spanning cultures, nations and regions.”

But the murder in Cleveland, and any similar incidents that inevitably follow, reveal the hollowness of Silicon Valley’s promise that digital networks would bring us together in a more harmonious world.

Whether he knows it or not, Zuckerberg is part of a long tradition in Western thought. Ever since the building of the telegraph system in the 19th century, people have believed that advances in communication technology would promote social harmony. The more we learned about each other, the more we would recognize that we’re all one. In an 1899 article celebrating the laying of transatlantic Western Union cables, a New York Times columnist expressed the popular assumption well: “Nothing so fosters and promotes a mutual understanding and a community of sentiment and interests as cheap, speedy, and convenient communication.”

The great networks of the 20th century — radio, telephone, TV — reinforced this sunny notion. Spanning borders and erasing distances, they shrank the planet. Guglielmo Marconi declared in 1912 that his invention of radio would “make war impossible, because it will make war ridiculous.” AT&T’s top engineer, J.J. Carty, predicted in a 1923 interview that the telephone system would “join all the peoples of the earth in one brotherhood.” In his 1962 book “The Gutenberg Galaxy,” the media theorist Marshall McLuhan gave us the memorable term “global village” to describe the world’s “new electronic interdependence.” Most people took the phrase optimistically, as a prophecy of inevitable social progress. What, after all, could be nicer than a village?

If our assumption that communication brings people together were true, we should today be seeing a planetary outbreak of peace, love, and understanding. Thanks to the Internet and cellular networks, humanity is more connected than ever. Of the world’s 7 billion people, 6 billion have access to a mobile phone — a billion and a half more, the United Nations reports, than have access to a working toilet. Nearly 2 billion are on Facebook, more than a billion upload and download YouTube videos, and billions more converse through messaging apps like WhatsApp and WeChat. With smartphone in hand, everyone becomes a media hub, transmitting and receiving ceaselessly.

Yet we live in a fractious time, defined not by concord but by conflict. Xenophobia is on the rise. Political and social fissures are widening. From the White House down, public discourse is characterized by vitriol and insult. We probably shouldn’t be surprised. [Continue reading…]

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Morning glory seeds are tough enough for an interplanetary trip

Katherine Kornei writes: Natural sunscreens help morning glory seeds survive doses of ultraviolet (UV) radiation that would burn most humans to a crisp, according to a new study. The hardy seeds of the common flowering plant would probably even survive a voyage between planets, say the researchers. This might help researchers decide which species to send on future missions to Mars, a place that is bombarded with UV light because of its thin atmosphere. It also validates the concept of panspermia, the idea that life might have hopscotched through our solar system—or others—by hitching a ride on asteroids or comets.

“These results add to the fast-growing body of evidence showing that panspermia is not only possible, but absolutely inevitable,” says Chandra Wickramasinghe, director of the Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology at the University of Buckingham in the United Kingdom, who was not involved in the study.

The research began a decade ago, when astronauts placed about 2000 seeds from tobacco plants and a flowering plant known as Arabidopsis thaliana on the outside of the International Space Station. For 558 days, the seeds were exposed to high levels of UV light, cosmic radiation, and extreme temperature fluctuations—conditions that are lethal to most forms of life. [Continue reading…]

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How the March for Science finally found its voice

Ed Yong writes: They marched for science, and at first, they did so quietly. On Saturday, as thousands of people started streaming eastward from the Washington Monument, in a river of ponchos and umbrellas, the usual raucous chats that accompany such protests were rarely heard and even more rarely continued. “Knowledge is power; it’s our final hour,” said six enthusiastic people—to little response. “What do we want? Science! When do we want it? After peer review!” shouted another pocket of marchers—for about five rounds.

Scientists are not a group to whom activism comes easily or familiarly. Most have traditionally stayed out of the political sphere, preferring to stick to their research. But for many, this historical detachment ended with the election of Donald Trump.

His administration has denied the reality of climate change, courted anti-vaccine campaigners, repeatedly stated easily disproven falsehoods, attempted to gag government scientists, proposed enormous budget cuts that would “set off a lost generation of American science,” and pushed for legislation that would roll back environmental and public health protections, pave the way for genetic discrimination, and displace scientific evidence from the policy-making process. Sensing an assault on many fronts—to their jobs, funds, and to the value of empiricism itself—scientists are grappling with politics to an unprecedented extent. “You know something is wrong when people around the world must protest for science,” said Erich Jarvis, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University, to the assembled crowds. [Continue reading…]

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Global ‘March for Science’ protests call for action on climate change

The Guardian reports: Hundreds of global protest marches in the name of science kicked off in Australia and New Zealand on Saturday, ahead of large crowds expected across the US.

Tens of thousands of scientists are this weekend rallying around the world in a rebuke of Donald Trump’s dismissal of climate science and attempts to cut large areas of scientific research.

More than 600 marches, largely concentrated in the US, Europe, South America and Australia, began amid warnings from organisers that science is “under attack” from the Trump administration.

Placards demanded “science not silence”, declared “there is no plan b”, and offered support from “florists for research-based legislation”, showing the crowd was not restricted to those in scientific community.

Chants asked what people wanted? “Science”, the marches bellowed. When? “Following peer review.” [Continue reading…]

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Cosmic speck: Earth as seen from Saturn

 

Space.com reports: The Cassini spacecraft spotted Earth as a bright speck (and the moon as a smaller speck) between Saturn’s broad rings as the craft prepares for its final dive into the ringed planet’s atmosphere.

Cassini was 870 million miles (1.4 billion kilometers) from Earth the night of April 12-13 when it snapped this photo, which shows Earth — and the even tinier moon, a faint dot to its left — framed between the icy rings of Saturn. At the time the photo was taken, the southern Atlantic Ocean was facing the spacecraft’s lens, NASA officials said in a statement. [Continue reading…]

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Neil deGrasse Tyson: Science in America

 

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March for science or march for reality?

Lawrence M. Krauss writes: The very essence of science, indeed that which is motivating the March for Science, involves skeptical inquiry and a reliance on empirical evidence and constant testing to weed out false hypotheses and unproductive or harmful technologies as we move toward a better understanding of reality: A willingness, in short, to force beliefs and policies to conform to the evidence of reality, rather than vice versa.

Unlike its perception among much of the public and its presentation in many schools today, science is not simply a body of facts, but rather a process for deriving what the facts are. This process has helped us uncover hidden secrets of the Universe that never would have been dreamed of and producing technologies that have not only been largely responsible for the standard of living enjoyed by the first world today, but have also increased lifespans around the world. With this process the very possibility of “alternative facts” disappears.

By providing such a constant and sharp explicit and observable contrast between policy and empirical reality, the Trump administration can encourage a new public skepticism about political assertions vs. reality, and a demand for evidence before endorsing policies and the politicians who espouse them—the very things that most marchers on April 22nd will be demanding. This skepticism is beginning to manifest itself in data. A Gallup poll result on April 17 indicated that only 45 percent of the public believe President Trump’s promises, a drop of 17 percent since February.

In this regard, it is worth remembering the words of the Nobel Prizewinning physicist, Richard Feynman, who said: For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled. Or, as the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick more colorfully put it: Reality is that which continues to exist even when you stop believing in it.

The Trump Administration is discovering that obfuscation, denial, and hype may work when selling real estate, but in public arena eventually reality has a way of biting you in the butt. And the public is watching. [Continue reading…]

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David Suzuki: Why we must march for science

David Suzuki writes: Science isn’t everything. But it is crucial to governing, decision-making, protecting human health and the environment and resolving questions and challenges around our existence.

Those determined to advance industrial interests over all else often attack science. We’ve seen it in Canada, with a decade of cuts to research funding and scientific programs, muzzling of government scientists and rejection of evidence regarding issues such as climate change.

We’re seeing worse in the U.S. The new administration is proposing drastic cuts to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Institutes of Health, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and others. Information about climate change and environmental protection is being scrubbed from government websites, and scientists are being muzzled. Meanwhile, the government is increasing spending on military and nuclear weapons programs.

There’s nothing wrong with challenging research, developing competing hypotheses and looking for flaws in studies. That’s how science works. But rejecting, eliminating, covering up or attacking evidence that might call into question government or industry priorities—evidence that might show how those priorities could lead to widespread harm—is unconscionable. It’s galling to me because I traded a scientific career for full-time communication work because good scientific information helps people make the best decisions to take us into the future. [Continue reading…]

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The March for Science is a march against greed and ignorance

The organizers of tomorrow’s March for Science declare: “We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest.”

I understand the desire to present this in nonpartisan, inclusive terms, and yet the urgent need to defend science comes from the fact that it now faces a concerted attack from the leaders of multiple government agencies including the occupant of the White House.

Moreover, this attack does not represent a counter-scientific body of opinion. On the contrary, what it represents is a body of interests that see in science a threat to their investments.

The strategy being pursued by those who see science as a threat to their wealth is to promote ignorance and erect barricades that are designed to obscure inconvenient truths.

This isn’t a debate in which a lack of appreciation for the value of science can be countered by the promotion of its virtues.

It is not a struggle of ideas through which a new paradigm replaces an outmoded system of belief.

It is a struggle of values standing up against those who prize their possessions more than truth or life itself.

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Small Saturn moon has most of conditions needed to sustain life, NASA says

The Guardian reports: A tiny moon of Saturn has most of the conditions necessary for life, Nasa announced on Thursday, unveiling a discovery from an underground ocean that makes the world a leading candidate for organisms as humans know them.

Scientists stressed that the discovery on a moon named Enceladus is not evidence that life has in fact developed on another world, but they have managed to establish the existence of the water, chemistry and energy sources that are necessary for it.

“We now know that Enceladus has almost all of the ingredients that you need to support life as we know it on Earth,” said Linda Spilker, a project scientist who said the finding essentially confirmed vents on the moon’s seafloor.

Chris Glein, another scientist involved in the project, said the discovery showed that the moon’s ocean contained a potential chemical feast for microbes. “We have made the first calorie count on an alien ocean,” he said.

Beneath its frozen surface, Enceladus has a saltwater ocean, and the hydrogen – produced in a reaction between heated water and rocks – indicates that the moon has active energy sources, possibly akin to the undersea vents that teem with life on planet Earth.

“We don’t know whether there’s life out there yet but right now we’re making a lot of progress,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Nasa’s associate administrator.

The spacecraft Cassini detected the hydrogen in the fall of 2015, when it flew through a plume of vapor that had been spewed out through cracks in the moon’s icy surface. The flyby discovered water, ice, traces of methane, salts and other carbon compounds, the researchers said.

Their findings were revealed at a Nasa briefing on Thursday and in a paper published in the journal Science.

Cassini also found silicates and hydrogen, meaning there are energy sources beneath the moon’s surface, and the chemicals microbes are known to consume on Earth.

“This finding does not mean that life exists there, but it makes life more plausible and potentially quite abundant if a fraction of the hydrogen is used to drive biology,” said Jeffrey Kargel, a professor at the University of Arizona.

Andrew Coates, a professor of physics at University College London, added: “This distant moon now joins Mars and Europa as the best potential locations for life beyond Earth in our solar system.” [Continue reading…]

 

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Trump leaves science jobs vacant, troubling critics

The New York Times reports: On the fourth floor of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the staff of the White House chief technology officer has been virtually deleted, down from 24 members before the election to, by Friday, only one.

Scores of departures by scientists and Silicon Valley technology experts who advised President Trump’s predecessor have all but wiped out the larger White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Mr. Trump has not yet named his top advisers on technology or science, and so far, has made just one hire: Michael Kratsios, the former chief of staff for Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley investor and one of the president’s wealthiest supporters, as the deputy chief technology officer.

Neither Mr. Kratsios, who has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Princeton, nor anyone else still working in the science and technology office regularly participates in Mr. Trump’s daily briefings, as they did for President Barack Obama.

“The impression this leaves is that Trump isn’t interested in science and that scientific matters are a low priority at the White House,” said Vinton G. Cerf, a computer scientist, vice president of Google and one of the chief architects of the internet. The dwindling of the White House science and technology staff for scientific research could have long-term consequences, Mr. Cerf said. [Continue reading…]

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An uprising among scientists

Climate Central reports: The current political climate has spurred a growing cadre of scientists to emerge from their labs, offices and fieldwork sites to contest an administration that’s openly hostile to scientific inquiry — particularly when it comes to climate change — and coined the term “alternative facts.”

“We’ve tried to let our data do the talking for us and that has failed miserably,” Kim Cobb, a coral researcher at Georgia Tech, said.

Scientists staged a thousand-strong rally in Boston during the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in late February. Much bigger protests are afoot with the March for Science and its 190 satellite marches planned for April 22. Scientists are also organizing support groups and many have said they are considering running for public office.

The current wave of scientific discontent has the makings of a budding movement. But whether it moves the political dial like the Tea Party or fizzles out like Occupy Wall Street remains to be seen.

Scientists in the streets is not a new thing. They rallied around nuclear disarmament during the Cold War, but they also weren’t the main component of that movement. That makes the current groundswell of scientists leading their own charge a different proposition.

The March for Science is the most visible piece of the new movement, with hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, a private planning Facebook group with more than 837,000 members and more than 50,000 volunteers. The march has the potential to go down as one of the largest mass mobilizations by scientists in history. [Continue reading…]

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When Earth became a ‘mote of dust’

Shannon Stirone writes: We glimpsed Earth’s curvature in 1946, via a repurposed German V-2 rocket that flew 65 miles above the surface. Year-by-year, we climbed a little higher, engineering a means to comprehend the magnitude of our home.

In 1968, Apollo 8 lunar module pilot William Anders captured the iconic Earthrise photo. We contemplated the beauty of our home.

But on Valentine’s Day 27 years ago, Voyager 1, from 4 billion miles away, took one final picture before switching off its camera forever. In the image, Earth, Carl Sagan said, was merely “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” So we pondered the insignificance of our home. The image inspired Sagan to write his book “The Pale Blue Dot,” and it continues to cripple human grandiosity. [Continue reading…]

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Thrilling discovery of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting nearby star

 

The Guardian reports: A huddle of seven worlds, all close in size to Earth, and perhaps warm enough for water and the life it can sustain, has been spotted around a small, faint star in the constellation of Aquarius.

The discovery, which has thrilled astronomers, has raised hopes that the hunt for alien life beyond the solar system could start much sooner than previously thought, with the next generation of telescopes that are due to switch on in the next decade.

It is the first time that so many Earth-sized planets have been found in orbit around the same star, an unexpected haul that suggests the Milky Way may be teeming with worlds that, in size and firmness underfoot at least, resemble our own rocky home.

The planets closely circle a dwarf star named Trappist-1, which at 39 light years away makes the system a prime candidate to search for signs of life. Only marginally larger than Jupiter, the star shines with a feeble light about 2,000 times fainter than our sun. [Continue reading…]

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